This past week, a picture of my father’s resurfaced. In it he appears with a wide open, charming smile, sitting on a couch in our living room in Buenos Aires, circa late 1960’s, engaged in conversation with Itzhak Rabin, who later became the first (and last) Israeli prime minister who dared to shake hands with Arafat, and was subsequently brutally murdered by an Israeli extremist. My father’s right hand is held up high with his index finger stretched out as he is expressing an idea, while Mr. Rabin’s hand is touching his lips cranking a smile while listening.
My father is commanding the room in this photo. He is full of life with a touch of arrogance as someone who knows his self worth, as someone who has had some success in life, both socially and economically, made evident by inviting leaders into his home, to feed and enchant them with his broken English stories. These gatherings are also a mitzvah, a good cause: forging economic friendship between the Argentine Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state. It is also an emotional partnership for Jews who escaped just in time as the gates were closing, back in 1933-39, leaving many of their family members to the final solution. Or for those like my father, who by sheer luck were the only ones left from their families, after the devastation of the Holocaust. Either way is a relationship filled with guilt as saying: “Enjoy Argentina but remember, it’s an illusion, Israel is your insurance, we are safeguarding your place when the inevitable will recur. Anti-Semitism or another Shoah, it’s not if, it’s when”.
Today, when I look at this picture all I can see is a man I didn’t know. When this photo was taken, I must have been a young child. I know this fact because of the painting behind the couch depicting three young children, just like us siblings. By the time I was born, we had moved into a larger apartment in a wealthier neighborhood of Buenos Aires. This upper class neighborhood was old argentine aristocratic money, traditionally Catholic, with original Spaniard last names that went back to the early Argentine days of independence from Spain, and now honored as Buenos Aires’ main avenues such as, Alvear, Rodriguez Peña, and so forth. Just around the corner is the famous cemetery, La Recoleta, where true argentine blood is buried, including Evita Peron. This was not the neighborhood for the Katz’, Levy’s or even the less Jewish sounding, Bohm’s and we must have stuck out like a sore thumb. But somehow, in this foreign land, I found a source of stability.
Every afternoon, after returning home from school, I would take my English setter, Peter, to a park about two blocks away from our apartment. At the entrance to this park, there was a gigantic Ombu tree. These are large evergreens common to South America and they grow an extensive umbrella-like canopy with much of the root system above ground. They are magnificent and this particular one was my tree. With Peter, my dog, we would visit with fellow dog owners’ everyday. These times were my respite from all else going on in my life at that time. These moments of ease and lightness were a great equalizer in a land that was for the most part in dissonance. These relationships, to the tree and the dog, helped me overcome the constant source of confusion in my life, my father.
This picture must have been taken before he began what I learned to know as my father’s, “manic-depressive rollercoaster”. Here, in his prime, he seemed like a respectable Jewish leader who saw promise in his world, who created an environment of security, who believed in his power to conquer. I look and try to decipher in his gesture, when did the slipping slide began? By the time I was six, he must have already been diagnosed because as we were about to leave for our summer home in Punta del Este, Uruguay, he told us that he was not going to join us and instead was going into a special hospital to “get better”.