By Tatia Rosenthal
When Issachar was twelve years old, he was the presumptive semifinals winner of Maccabi Jerusalem’s judo championship, ages ten to thirteen.
“Left, Dad, make a left!” he said, with the urgency of a presumptive winner about to miss his chance, as soon as he saw his father’s age-spotted arms turning the steering wheel to the right, on the afternoon of the semifinals at the Jerusalem YMCA.
“Stop it with the left, already,” his father, Yakob, said. “I’ve lived here for five years; I know the way.”
They had moved into the neighborhood only three years before, right after Issachar’s mother had split. But starting an argument over timelines wasn’t going to advance his immediate agenda.
“Dad, there is always a jam going down Mileikowsky Street. I don’t want to be late.”
“We won’t be,” Yakob answered, and entered the narrow street, which was lined with parked cars on both of its banks. There was not enough room for two cars driving in opposite directions to pass each other, and very few gaps for drivers—the more considerate ones—to retreat into.
It was twenty minutes before six and the start of the tournament. The sky was losing its light, draping the houses along Mileikowsky Street with an orange-fringed dark blue shawl. Yakob had yet to switch his headlights on, but the Volvo rolling toward them was bejeweled with blinding lights, and was about to meet Yakob’s Ford Fiesta in the middle of the slight curve ahead.
“Son of a bitch,” Yakob said. “He saw me coming.”
Issachar sat higher in his seat, surveying the rows of parked cars. There were two open spaces in his field of vision. One was to their right, five cars behind his father’s, and the other, to their left, was a similar distance behind the oncoming Volvo.
“Dad, you can just back up twenty meters and get into that spot,” Issachar said, hoping that the chance to see his son win a fight would override his own desire to have one.
“But he saw me coming,” said Yakob. “He didn’t have to keep driving.”
“Dad, you saw him coming too.”
“What’s your point?” His father’s head snapped toward him and his knuckles whitened against the strangled wheel.
“That one of you should back off, and since my match is about to start, maybe it can be us.”
“I had the right-of-way!”
“How did you have the right-of-way?”
“When you get your driver’s license, and your own car, then you can argue. Now, stop being an ass.”
The man in the Volvo honked. Yakob honked longer. There were words thrown back and forth, ugly, guttural words, interspersed with spells of feigned apathy, designed to humiliate the other driver. Then Yakob got out of the car and walked to the Volvo’s window. He motioned to the driver to roll it down. The man didn’t, and Yakob punched the side of the car.
“I must forgive him, he’s a Holocaust survivor, I must forgive him, he’s a Holocaust survivor,” Issachar said to himself as they were sitting in urgent care for his father’s hurt hand, forfeiting both their fights.
Issachar had seen his father punch things before; so had Zeb, Issachar’s twin brother, and their mother, who had left after the first and only time Yakob hit her.
As for the twins, Yakob hit them very rarely, and only at times when he was worried sick about their whereabouts—like the time Zeb finished a borrowed book on his way home from the library, arriving three hours late to find his father on the phone with the police, crying, fists flailing, bruising Zeb until Issachar got between them. Most times, he would just threaten to hit them when they denied his parental authority. “You’re lucky to have a father who loves you,” he would say, and then he’d remind them, “I lost mine, and my mother, when I was four years old.”
After Issachar got his driver’s license, he never drove down Mileikowsky Street, just as he’d promised himself the night his dad punched the Volvo.
“Still have that weird thing against turning right here?” Zeb would tease him whenever he visited Issachar and their father in Jerusalem, making the trip from his home in North Carolina, once every year or two.
“It’s not weird. The street isn’t wide enough,” Issachar would answer. What did his brother know? He had left Israel in the middle of the twins’ military service, faking some mental breakdown, and had gone to find his fortune in the States. He didn’t need to drive their father twice a week to Hadassah Medical Center for his various ailments while fending off his “Turn right, turn right!” as he tried to fulfill his filial duties.
Issachar also picked up Zeb at the airport whenever he visited Jerusalem.
“So how’s the vape business?” he asked Zeb on his most recent trip.
“Amazing, brah!” Zeb answered in English—probably because he liked the sound of the word “brah,” and Issachar wondered what the difference was between “brah” and “bro,” but didn’t ask.
“And, um . . . Megan?”
“Amazing, gorgeous, she says hi, she’s really looking forward to meeting you. When you coming to Ashville?”
“I can’t leave Dad alone, you know that.”
“Sure you can. He can drive himself to his bogus appointments for a bit.”
“They’re not bogus, plus he doesn’t have his driver’s license till his eye doctor clears him from the cataract surgery.”
“That was two months ago. How long do you think it should take?”
“I don’t know,” Issachar said. “He keeps telling me different things about it.”
Zeb rolled his eyes.
“He forgets things, Zeb.”
“He always remembers what he wants, the way he wants it to be. That’s not an age thing.”
“It’s different now, Zeb. You’ll see.”
But Zeb didn’t see. At the end of his short visit, when Issachar drove him back to Ben Gurion Airport, he said, “Same ol’, same ol’, he’s riding you, and you’re an ass for letting him.”
“He is eighty-five. I don’t think he’s faking his back problems, heart problems, and memory loss . . . He’ll be dead, Zeb, and you still won’t believe he can’t breathe.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Zeb said, and flew back to his vape shops and never-ending line of serious girlfriends.
At least he was making money on his shops. Issachar wasn’t financially secure with his middling career as a judo instructor and his expensive divorce from Tania, a woman who looked a lot like their mother. Yakob, to make things worse, had frittered away his life savings on a series of litigious mistakes. He’d even taken out a mortgage on his apartment to finance the last round of appeals. He didn’t have the good sense to buy his own grave plot, like other parents his age, and was at risk of losing the resting place for his still living body. Either way, Issachar knew that he and Zeb would be on the hook for housing their father—dead or alive—soon enough.
After leaving Zeb at the airport, Issachar drove back to Jerusalem and shopped at his father’s favorite deli for dinner things. They sat in front of the TV and ate sesame bagels with egg salad and pickled herring. Yakob’s TV was loud enough to be heard from the street, which made talking to him hard, yet his father wanted to talk over the news, as always. Issachar waited for it to be late enough for him to retreat to his empty apartment, a short drive away.
“This story is killing me.” Yakob motioned to the television, where the ongoing coverage of the untimely death of Rona Ramon was overshadowing the Palestinian conflict, the latest Trump scandal, and whatever was happening in Syria—not to mention climate change. Ramon was the widow of the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, the country’s prodigal son who was its first, and only, emissary to space. He flew on the fatal twenty-eighth mission of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, killing him along with all six other NASA astronauts onboard.
After the disaster, his widow didn’t allow her personal grief to stop her eldest son from following in his father’s footsteps and joining the Israeli Air Force as a fighter pilot. Rona and Ilan’s son was killed six years after his father during a flight-training accident. Both father and son were awarded posthumous honors; Ilan Ramon became the only foreign recipient of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, whereas his son was promoted to the rank of Captain. Rona Ramon passed away from an aggressive, secretly kept cancer. She was in her mid-fifties, and left her other three children three times bereaved.
“Yes, it’s a Job-sized tragedy,” Issachar said, and thought about his only son, Lihu, who was vacationing with his mother in Burgas, over Issachar’s objections. He had a bad feeling about the reasonably priced Bulgarian spa town, especially after that terror attack a few years back that killed all those vacationing Israelis.
“It’s not just the tragedy,” Yakob said. “Did you hear that she didn’t want to be buried, so her children don’t have to visit another grave?”
“Yeah, I heard. That’s really interesting.”
“Interesting? It’s a travesty. To leave this earth without a trace, without a place of rest.”
I guess he wouldn’t want to be cremated then, Issachar thought, and was both relieved that he didn’t have to ask, and disappointed at the information he’d gleaned. “Okay, Dad, I’m beat. I’m gonna head out.”
“Fine, have a good night. Tomorrow, I need you to drive me to the mechanic.”
“I need to get the car registration renewed.”
“You don’t have your driver’s license back yet.”
“I’m working on it.”
“Fine, I’ll come pick you up at noon.”
“Noon? What are we, on vacation? I want to go at nine.”
Issachar already had plans for the next morning. He was going to have breakfast with his mother, whom he had been getting to know again. His father knew of her resurgence now that she was widowed, but was incensed that either of his sons would ever forgive her for taking so long to return.
“Nine is too early, Dad. I have to do some things in the morning.”
“Things, errands. I’ll see you at eleven.”
But breakfast with his mother lasted longer; he always wanted more time with her. By the time he made it to his father’s, he found him sitting in the car, in the driver’s seat, waiting for Issachar to arrive so he could start the car and drive himself to the garage.
“Dad, stop it, just stop it.” Issachar jumped in before his father could start the Ford Escort, and forced him into the passenger seat.
“Why were you late?”
“Things took longer.”
“You mean your mother couldn’t stop talking?”
Yakob always knew when Issachar had plans with his mother, and Issachar knew that his inability to lie well was the reason why.
“Come on, Dad, we’ll be late to the mechanic.”
“And whose fault would that be?”
“Mine, always mine.”
“That’s right, yours — yours and your mother’s who abandoned you, and yet—”
“Dad, I can’t hear this again.”
“Hear what? How she left me for that asshole?”
“She didn’t leave you for any asshole.”
“Two years she was having the affair behind my back. I should have never gone for a young, arrogant woman like that. That’s why she was unfaithful.”
Issachar remembered the fights. There were no other men. She did meet someone and remarry, but that was not until several years after she had left.
“He worked with her, you know, at the travel agency.”
Issachar mother’s husband had been a French carpenter whom she’d met in India. “They met traveling, Dad, not at the travel agency.”
His dad looked at him with hatred, and got out of the car. Issachar hated him back, but got him to return to the car and go to the mechanic. They did not speak the whole way. Only on the way back, when Issachar was about to take his usual detour to his father’s house, Yakob said, “Where are you going? Drive through Mileikowsky Street. It’s shorter,” and Issachar yelled, “Let me fucking drive you, Dad, if you want me to do the driving.”
“Why won’t you listen, you stubborn ass? Mileikowsky Street is a better road. There’s more room.”
“Shut up already, Dad. There is zero room driving down that fucking street.”
Two days later, his father had a heart attack and was rushed to Hadassah Medical Center. The doctors said there was no hope, but that they could keep him on life support until Zeb flew in.
“So his heart problems were real after all,” Zeb mumbled on the phone, but said he wouldn’t be able to fly back to Israel so soon after having left it.
“Anyone else we should be waiting for?” the doctors asked, and Issachar said no.
They took him off life support around noon, and Issachar left the eighth floor and wandered to the hospital’s synagogue, where Chagall’s stained glass windows hung. He paid the fifteen shekels it cost to go into the synagogue during a tour of the windows.
A stern tour guide was snapping, “No photos” at a couple who had entered the room without paying admission. Everyone but Issachar was taking photos of the windows, but the guide didn’t yell at the paying customers.
The guide explained that Chagall had designed the twelve beautiful windows based on Jacob’s blessings to each of his twelve sons. Issachar’s thoughts bobbed in his head, drowning out the guide’s explanations until he heard his brother’s name.
“Zebulon shall dwell by the seashore and become a harbor for ships; his border shall extend to Sidon,” she quoted, and then explained: “Zebulon and Issachar, the twins, were the polar opposite of each other. Zebulon was cosmopolitan and extroverted, and made his fortune overseas. Whereas Issachar . . .” She paused for effect, and quoted the next verse: “Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between the sheepfolds. He saw that his resting place was good and that his land was pleasant, so he bent his shoulder to the burden and submitted to labor as a servant.”
Issachar looked at the stained glass donkey. He looked pleased with his burden, his blue face smiling inside the green window, under the words “Issachar is a strong ass,” written in Hebrew. His father’s biblical namesake, Jacob, had meant it as a compliment. Issachar had always hated his and his brother’s antiquated, pompous names.
“Look at the purple patch between the donkey’s hooves.” The guide pointed high over Issachar’s head. “Do you see the hole in the glass?”
The audience murmured and nodded.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is a bullet hole, from the Six-Day War.”
The murmurs turned into gasps.
“The Jordanian attack on Jerusalem shattered three of Chagall’s windows, and he told the hospital: ‘You focus on the war and I will fix your windows.’ And so he did, leaving only this purple, bullet-punctured piece as a testament to Issachar’s and Israel’s resilience.”
When the time came to decide on his father’s burial spot, Issachar wanted to cremate him; he almost did. But exacting revenge by denying his father a resting place seemed too cruel a punishment for a man who didn’t know where his own parents were buried. So he bought him a grave plot, an expensive one, with a vague promise of reimbursement from his brother.
On the way home, he drove his father’s car, thinking that there would be a lot of organizing and selling and settling of debts in the days after the shiva, and that he would be dealing with it on his own. The thought exhausted him. As did all of his other thoughts: Would his life have turned out differently if his father were a different man? Would Issachar be one of the several Israeli Olympic medalists in judo if his mother had stayed? Would he have married the right woman if it weren’t for missing his mother? Would his ex-wife have agreed to return to Israel for his father’s funeral had his father not scared his son? Would his life have been better if his brother’s life had been worse?
When he got close to his father’s house, he had the choice of driving his usual way up from the hill down to the end of Mileikowsky Street, or the other way, the way he had not driven in decades, where the street overlooked the valley, and the late afternoon light was a glorious dark blue canopy tinged with deep orange and pink. He chose the latter, hoping, for the first time in his life, to get into a fistfight.
He made the turn onto Mileikowsky and pressed on the pedal, rushing into what he remembered of the narrow road. But instead of coming face-to-face with hostile oncoming traffic, he realized that sometime in the last thirty years, the city had changed the street’s parking arrangements. The flow of traffic was no longer restricted like a cholesterol-laden artery. Instead, the cars were now parked on one side of the road, the rest of them strung on top of the opposite sidewalk, making enough room for two cars to pass each other without a fight.