The Family Laundry

Henry Ossawa Tanner – Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. Circa 1885

A cousin just told me that the Israeli branch of the family is putting out a book that she has seen in advance of publication.  It’s about the immediate forebears of that branch, who are people of large consequence in Israel: equivalent to the Adams family in the early decades of America’s political life.

Naturally, I am aware of this high-prestige branch of the family tree.  Some years ago, it fell to me to reprove a transgression of which I learned, hidden at one node in that lineage.  In consequence, I lost access to the whole kit and caboodle, with all its illustriousness, and had to manage my life without whatever joys or privileges might have come my way had I passed the buck on this one.

Of course, I would have been more than happy to pass the buck, had there been anyone to pass it to.  However, as it happened, I was standing there alone and didn’t see anyone within buck-passing range.  So it was left to me to pen the note of condemnation, sent just to the ones I thought needed it — which cut me off from further contact with the illustrious branch.

Now the children of that generation have put out a gorgeous volume commemorating their people and it looks as if I’d be welcomed back.  Or would be if I spoke Hebrew and had plans to visit Israel any time soon.

I don’t have such plans, being very busy with three book projects, this column and the manifold summonses of my present, over-full life.

Like most of the combats of my life that cost more than I ever wanted to pay, what I feel about this one is simple:

even had I known the full cost,

I would do it again.

In the Bible, the Family Laundry has often been washed in public and the cost of that has been high.

The first time I saw Israel, I was on an El Al flight, circling in the air.  Looking down from high above it, a thought came unbidden:

There it is AGAIN. 

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time!

So it seems the connection runs pretty deep with me.  To illustrate: it’s only when I’m in Israel that I use the objective case competently.  Grammatical security seems a side-effect of being centered.

I do think the medievals were right about Jerusalem.  It is the navel of the world.  There was an energy I felt there that made my home town of New York seem sleepy by contrast.

On one of my visits, I went with Israeli cousins to a wedding on the Jordan.  Once we were inside the kibbutz, we left our car and switched to a jeep driven by a young kibbutznik.  He spoke an Israeli-accented English.  I sat beside him in the front seat.

“Your kibbutz seems very well located.  You’re on the only fertile stretch in this region,” said I.  “When we were coming to the kibbutz, we saw only desert for miles around.”

“It was desert,” shrugged our driver, gesturing laconically at the soil beneath his wheels.

When we arrived at the outdoor wedding, they were playing rock music on a loud speaker under the stars.  Despite my meager Hebrew, even I could make out the refrain.

Lech lecha!

Those words, sung to a rock beat, were the first God spoke, in Ur of the Chaldees, to Abraham.

Get thee up and

get thee out …

to a Land

 that I will show thee.

Some of the outstanding best and some of the deeply flawed are found on my family tree.  Should any of that cause pride?  Is it a cause for shame?  For both?  Both in what mixture?  I suppose it’s not a question of what I should feel.  I do feel both, though not all the time and not in equal measure.

My misgivings have nothing to do with the selectively-edited narrative being woven into now-fashionable “anti-Zionism.”  Still less have they to do with the default-position anti-Semitism that hangs over mankind like a Jungian thought-form, ready-to-wear by anyone who has given up on the effort to live a personal life truthfully.

In what context should my misgivings be viewed, then?  They don’t seem to undermine my sense of identity.  Our identities are, in varying degrees, flexible.  It’s legitimate, I believe, to feel what one great Christian theologian has called “holy envy”: the awareness that no one faith exhausts the spiritual riches available to humankind.  Empathy, imagination, curiosity – intellectual, personal or spiritual – can take us far from home, without suffering corrupt betrayal of our origins.

The betrayers – who join the abuse of their own people – are another matter. They can take us still farther from home.  And that kind of trip is a great temptation: to get in step, to join the parade, to echo the faint – or not so faint – contempt, often the default position when Jews are the topic.  Jews themselves are hardly immune from it.  That’s why I call it the default position.  To avoid it, you have to focus, and watch your footing.

By contrast, betrayal comes easy.  It arrives decorated with many social and professional advantages.  People readily approve, mistaking opportunism for moral courage.  Hell, I too coulda been a contender.  I coulda written best sellers, read by all the beautiful people.  It would have been so easy.

That said, I do see one problem with betrayal:

you lose the objective case.





About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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