Smashing my Father’s Idols

May 6, 2010
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Ruby Namdar

Long ago, in a land far away called Uhr Kasdim, lived a curious young boy named Avram.

It is evening. The frenzy of dinner-rush-and-wash-and-brush is behind us, and now we bask in the dimly lit intimacy of bedtime and engage in our beloved ritual of retelling Bible stories, midrashim, and legends. The girls are tucked in their beds, surrounded by colorful pillows and stuffed animals, and I am telling them, again, the story of Avram and his father’s idols, careful not to change or miss a single word.

Terah, Avram’s father, owned a little shop of idols and Avram, who was a very clever kid, helped his father in the store.

How did this midrash become our favorite bedtime story? Leah, my older daughter, likes it especially, asking for it again and again. I wonder what makes it so special for her. Is it her identification with me and my own love for the story? Perhaps she connects to the intuitive knowledge of the fact that she too, inevitably, will have to smash her own father’s idols one day in order to start her own epic journey, her own path to choseness?

Every morning, Terah would shape the idols, paint, glaze, and cook them in the oven, put price tags on them and place them on the shelves. Then he would go to the marketplace to buy some more clay and Avram would stay in the store and tend to the customers.

My father never told me this story, I doubt if he’s ever heard of it. He told me other stories, of which I remember hardly a detail, but the memory of his telling them is still alive in me, shining through the many layers of conflict, disappointment, and disillusionment that weave through the fabric of our relationship.

Avram, who was so clever, never understood the whole idol-worshiping business: How can a human worship a statue as if it was a god? It didn’t make any sense! But Terah, who was always busy, had no patience for his son’s questions: “Stop talking nonsense! We have always worshiped idols and we always will. Everybody worships them; that’s just the way it is.”

My father’s idol was the same one worshiped by all immigrants and survivors: security. He grew up in Teheran, the fourth of seven children of a poor-yet-proud family. His childhood memories were formed by the constant anxiety and uncertainty of poverty and those of his early teens were clouded by the horrors of World War II and the fear of the approaching German army. He once told me that the ceiling of their cheaply built apartment would curve under the weight of the winter snow and that he would lie in his bed and watch the ceiling, wondering if it would collapse during the night and bury him in his sleep. On another occasion, he told me that he once arrived home from school only to discover his mother sobbing on top of their furniture, which was piled on the sidewalk in front of the building; the landlord’s emissaries had evicted her while he was in school for failing to pay the rent in a timely fashion.

So Avram decided to teach his father a lesson: One day, when Terah went to the marketplace, Avram took a big hammer and smashed all the idols into tiny pieces. Then, he placed the hammer in the arms of the big idol standing in the middle of the store and waited for his father to return.

What was I to do with this information? What lesson was I expected to learn from my father’s horrible stories? Very simple: I was to be eternally grateful for the fact that our ceilings do not curve above our heads and that our furniture is still in the apartment and not in the street. But gratitude was not sufficient; it had to be translated into action. It was my duty to establish myself as a responsible, productive, stable man. I was to embrace the notion of security and to understand that it is the only thing in life that matters. Nothing else is important. Self-fulfilment, true love, and adventure are nothing but illusions, vanity of vanities, distractions. Become a lawyer, a professional, a bank clerk. Marry a nice girl; buy an apartment in a nice suburb; pay the mortgage. Travel, experience, art, and fiction writing are nice hobbies — not a way of life!

When Terah saw his smashed idols, he almost had a heart attack: “What happened to my idols? Who broke my idols?” Avram told him: “The idols got into a fight, and the big one grabbed the hammer and smashed them all up into a million pieces.”

Was there a choice but to rebel against him? Was living up to my father’s fantasies really an option? All he wanted was for me to be safe and happy. But I could not grant him that as a reward for his absolute devotion, for his endless caring and constant worrying. I was neither able nor willing to give up on self-fulfilment, love, and adventure, on devoting my life to the art of fiction writing, on instability and insecurity.

“What are you talking about?” Terah shouted. “They can’t fight; they can’t talk; they can’t do anything! They are just dumb statues.”

He was wrong to expect that of me, and the endless fights, bitterness, anger were a result of my decision to make my own choices. I constructed my life as the polar opposite of what he wanted for me. We are somewhat reconciled now. He turned 80 years old last winter and I edited a special edition of his memoirs, finding myself identifying with him much more than I ever thought was possible. In my dreams, though, we still fight as in the old days; that is where I pay the price of my rebellion, of smashing his idols. But is it fair to blame him for my nighttime anger? Is it fair of me to condescendingly refer to his desperate need for security, for control, as an idol that he worships? Here I am now, married to a nice woman, living in a nice apartment, raising mostly nice kids and worrying about the mortgage.

“So why, dear father,” said Avram, “do you sell and worship dumb statues that can’t move or talk or do anything?”

Which will be the first of my own idols to be smashed by my daughters? They, too, will have some smashing to do; everybody does. Will I be more gracious than my father about seeing all that is holy to me be ditched and profaned by the children, whose every decision I care so much about? Though I will try, I cannot guarantee my tolerance, my ability to let go of my own dreams for my daughters.

“You know, son,” Terah said, “you have a point. Let’s stop worshiping and selling idols. Let’s move to another town and start a new business. How about a falafel shop?”

“Abba, are they really going to sell falafel?” Talia, the little rationalist, asks as she does every single time she hears this story. No, baby, you know I am just joking. It’s late, time to go to sleep; tomorrow is a school day. Good night love-bugs; sweet dreams, babies.

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Ruby Namdar was born and raised in Jerusalem. He completed his bachelor’s degree in sociology, philosophy, and Iranian studies and his master’s degree in anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His first book, Haviv, (a collection of short stories) was published in 2000 and won the Ministry of Culture’s award for the best first publication of the year. The manuscript also won The Jerusalem Fiction award for 1998. Namdar currently lives in New York, where he is working on a new novel and teaching Jewish and Israeli literature.

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