Friday, December 7, 2012


Generally I try to stay out of my students' personal lives, but sometimes, no matter what I do, I get dragged in anyway. Take Ophir. Ophir is one of the brighter students in my class on gender and political thought, but he is especially striking as one of the few Ethiopian students here at Ramat Aviv U. He talks, and thinks, like a Tzfonik, like an upper-middle-class kid from North Tel Aviv. This was explained, though, when I found out that he had been adopted at age four by the famous Professors Zeilengold (he is a law professor, she teaches French literature, both at Ramat Aviv U.), after both his parents died on the trek to Addis Ababa. Ophir was a serious student, a committed political activist (for the Left, of course), and had served in Lebanon as a paratrooper before coming to study with us in the political science department.

I had just given my lecture for the week, on Montesquieu's Persian Letters. Ophir followed me up to my office with a group of students after class. When I had finished with the others, and they had left, Ophir asked me if he could speak to me privately. "Sure," I said, and we walked into my office. I wasn't in any hurry to get home, since my wife had gone back to the States for her grandfather's funeral.

Ophir closed the door behind him, and sat down "You've heard a little bit, I suppose, about my story; that I came here, a four-year-old orphan from Ethiopia, and was brought up by the Zeilengolds," Ophir began.

"Yes, I'd heard that," I said.

"I don't have many Ethiopian relatives left at all; the only one I knew of was my biological mother's old Aunt, who lives in Kiryat 'Arba. But the Zeilengolds have always treated me like their own son, and even my adoptive brother Erez, who was sixteen when I came along-- he and I are really brothers. But now..."

"What's the problem," I said.

"Everybody's mad at me, my father won't speak to me; my mother just cries when I come home, and Erez hangs up when I try to call him in Finland."

"In Finland," I said.

"Yes, Erez married a Finnish woman, they have two kids, and he runs a grocery store in a little town north of Helsinki.

" "Oh. But what happened?" I asked.

"Well, see, I've been going with this Ethiopian girl, Hagit, for a year, since about a year-and-a-half after I got out of the Army. And we want to get married."

"And your family doesn't like her."

"No, they think she's really great, or at least they did. It's just that she is my sister."

"What?" I couldn't believe I'd understood him correctly.

"Yeah, she's my sister, my half-sister, on my father's side. I never met her in Ethiopia, I don't think, and I certainly didn't remember meeting her under THAT description. We were introduced at a party a year ago. You see, my father was the only Jew in Gondar, my aunt says, who knew how to fix radios. So he walked from village to village, fixing a radio or two at each stop; he must have walked thousands of kilometers a year."

"I see."

"So you know, what with traveling all the time on the one hand, and making a nice living on the other hand, he had a number of wives, though each of them lived in a different village. My aunt says he was very handsome, which couldn't have hurt. When she wants to tease me she says I look just like he did."

"Go on."

"Well, he'd married my mother, and then about two or three years later, he married Hagit's mother. She must have been pretty small when he died: she doesn't remember him, certainly. Hagit was their only child who survived, just like I was his only child with my mother."

"Yes," I said.

"But I didn't know anything about this, nor did my Aunt. I mean, she knew that my father had several wives beside my mother, but that's all she knew. Hagit and her mother came to Israel about the same time I did, and settled in Dimona. But Hagit was too smart for Dimona; she got a high-school matriculation certificate, was drafted into Intelligence, in fact she's an officer, which is better than I did. She was working at Defense Headquarters when I met her, and she's still there. Don't ask what she does though. Well, we met, and we're in love, and we want to get married. But everyone says we can't." "You understand why, though."

"I do and I don't. But let me tell you how this all came out. Hagit and I, we used to go out in Tel Aviv, after she got off work and I was done with class. Sometimes she'd stay with me at my parents' house; sometimes she'd go home on the last bus. We always had a great time. My parents adored her; they thought she was wonderful, just like me. And I guess she was... Well, anyway, about a month ago we decided it was time for me to go to Dimona, to meet her mother, her stepfather, and her brothers and sisters. We were a little concerned because her next oldest brother has become quite religious, a Chabad chassid, even, and you know, I'm as secular as can be. But we decided that if we were going to get married we'd just have to give it a shot. So I went with her after she got off work, we drove down to Dimona. Her siblings were home, and her stepfather, we were talking, seriously but not too seriously. Her Chabadnik brother, he wasn't too bad, he just asked me questions about the Army, and about Lebanon. Then her mother came in. She came in, she took one look at me, screamed, 'But you're dead!' And fainted."

"Oh," I said.

"Yeah, my Aunt always said I looked just like my father. When Hagit's mother recovered, she started screaming in Amharic. I didn't understand any of it. Then she said, very calmly, in Hebrew, 'Your father was Musa,' wasn't he, 'Musa the Radio Man?' "'Yes, my Aunt tells me so, but I don't remember him,' I replied.

"'Hagit is Musa's daughter,' Hagit's mother sobbed. Then she almost fainted again. "Huh," I said.

"'Hagit is your sister, on your father's side' Hagit's brother said. 'That means, the two of you together, it's incest, the worst sin of all 'You shall be killed and not transgress.'' By the time I figured it out, everybody was screaming at me and Hagit. 'Whore,' they called her. Her stepfather said that if I didn't leave right now he'd kill me or Hagit."

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"I left. What else could I do. I needed to think. On the drive home, I realized, we weren't hardly brother and sister at all; I mean, we were only half-siblings, and we had never met until our twenties. If there's some law that says we can't be together, it's just a silly, old-fashioned religious law, like the one about the Cohen and the divorcee, or the one that doesn't allow a woman to give a divorce even if her husband beats her. The kind of laws we're always protesting about. And I love Hagit. How can some old law keep us apart?

"I got home, it was pretty late. I just went in and lay on the bed. I couldn't sleep, not a wink. I though of all the times we'd made love, on that bed. Her brother, her stepfather, they wanted to call it a sin. But I knew, we knew, it was love, the real thing, that couldn't be a sin. When my parents got up, I went out of my room into the kitchen, where they were eating breakfast. They could see that I was upset.

"'Did something happen with Hagit's parents,' my mother asked.

"'I'd say,' I said. 'Did you know I had a sister?' I asked.

"'No,' my mother said. My father just stared blankly, the way he always does when he looks up from Ha'Aretz before he's finished his coffee.

"'Hagit is my sister, my half-sister, on my father's side' I said.

"'What?!' my mother said.

"'Hagit... is... my... sister...' I spoke very slowly. 'We never knew this, till last night. Her mother was another of my father's wives back in Ethiopia. She recognized Musa's, our biological father's, features in my face.'

"My mother screamed. My father, who has seen everything (he was a child in Buchenwald) just stared. Finally, he said, 'I guess you won't be getting married.'

"'Why?' I asked. 'I mean, she's not really my sister: we didn't grow up together, for twenty-two years we didn't know of each other's existence. Why should a little biological fact, from Ethiopia, of all places, make a difference.'

"'Because,' he said, 'it's incest.'

"'And that's ham,' I said, pointing to the meat he was eating, that he'd brought back from a conference in Florence ten days before. 'And last Friday night you two drove to the theater, and I and Hagit drove to a party in Ra'anana'.

"'Don't get smart with me, young man. This is different. It's against Israeli law, not just the religious law, the halacha.'

"'That didn't stop you from bringing in the ham. Or for suing to get that Russian kid whose mother wasn't Jewish a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.'

"'We lost that case,' my father said. 'Besides, that's not against the law, just the Halacha.'"

"Never argue with a law professor," I interrupted.

Ophir went on: "I said, 'It's just a silly old law, whether it's Halacha or state law. What law can't be silly, that keeps two people apart who love each other.'

"'Why couldn't he at least have found a shiktsa, like Erez did' my mother said, sobbing.

"'You can never get married here,' my father said.

"'Maybe, if the story gets out to those Rabbis you are always complaining about, but we can certainly get married in Cyprus. Why, Musa's name isn't even on my ID card. It just says your name, father, Ephraim. And I am Ophir Zeilengold.'

"'You are Ophir Zeilengold the son of Musa, and Hagit is Musa's daughter, and so you can't get married,' my father said.

"'So you say, and your Rabbis say, and your silly laws say. But it's not fair, and it's not democratic.'

"'I know what's democratic and what isn't,' my father shouted, 'I wrote half of those laws, and taught half of those judges! And what about your kids... they'll be mamzerim! The Rabbis would never let them marry!'

"'Yeah, well, your friend Sarit Levitan, left her husband Joe thirty years ago, and took up with your friend Dudu Ben-Tzvi, they have three kids together, all, what did you call them, mamzerim, and you never batted an eyelash about it!' I shouted back. 'In fact, you even sued to get the kids' names taken out of the Rabbis' 'blacklist', you called it.'

"'We lost that case,' my father said. 'But we should have won, after all, Sarit married Joe Levitan in a double-ring Conservative ceremony in Long Island. Is it my fault that the Yemenite on the Bet Din didn't care for whatisname, Moshe Feldenstein? But that's not the point here. The point is that your kids, they'll be mamzerim, and what's worse, they are likely to have all sorts of genetic defects.'

"'Because we're so closely related, Hagit and I?'

"'That's right,' my father said.

"I thought for a minute. 'But if Hagit's mother had been my sister, the child of both my mother and my father, then Hagit and I would be uncle and niece,' I said. 'And if we were uncle and niece, we would legally be able to marry, even though genetically we'd be as closely related as a half-brother and a half-sister are. So scientifically, rationally, it's just like Hagit and I were uncle and niece. Wasn't there a professor of Bible at the University who married her uncle in Europe, back before the war?'

"'But it's not the same,' my father sputtered.

"'And why not?' I asked.

"'It just isn't.'"

"Well, that ended the argument," Ophir said to me, leaning back in the chair in my office. "When my father talks like that, he can't be reasoned with. So I called Hagit at work that morning. She told me that her mother, her stepfather, and her brother had berated her all night, and warned her repeatedly that if they ever saw the two of us together again they would kill both of us. 'You save them from sin at the price of their lives,' her brother quoted. Hagit also tried to argue with them, asking how they could be so cruel to me, Ophir, her brother. This just made them madder, she said. She told me she wasn't sure what to do, that she loved me more than ever, and that I would have to decide for both of us, because I was the one who was the big expert in moral philosophy. Since then we've talked, a minute here, a minute there, but she's worried that her stepfather, who cleans the floors at Bezek, has got somebody to bug our phones."

"The phones in Intelligence in Defense Headquarters," I said.

"I can't say that it makes much sense, but that what she told me."

"And you want my advice," I said.

"No. I know you are religious, and you'll say the same thing Hagit's brother said, more or less. I just wanted to tell you, so that you'd know why I won't be able to get my paper in on time. See, I haven't been sleeping hardly at all, with all the stress, and my doctor says that's why I can't study. I even brought a note from him" Ophir said, handing me the note.

"Oh," I said. I looked at the note: it was from a Dr. Har-Even, a psychologist practicing in North Tel Aviv, who wrote that "Ophir is suffering from extreme psychological stress, that has and will continue to interfere with his studies. If his studies stress him too, his stress levels may increase to a dangerous point."

"Well," I said, "just get it in when you can."

"Thank you, Dr. Kochin," Ophir said, and got up, opened the door, and left.

--Tel Aviv, 1999.

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