When I was a boy, before girls got interesting and video games got good and the Internet became my main source of information, I collected stamps.
There was much about collecting that I loved. The equipment, for example: Serious collectors, I’d learned from a slim handbook published by the Israeli Postal Service, had tongs and blotters and powerful magnifying glasses. They were also, I thought, more deeply connected to the rest of the world, spending their leisure time carefully arranging sheetlets from Holland, say, next to commemoratives from Helvetia, and learning in the process that the latter was just a fancy name for Switzerland. But above all, I loved collecting stamps because of the great men and women whose portraits they so often featured.
Sitting on the shaggy rug in our living room, my leather-bound album on my knees, I felt as if I was gazing at a pantheon of history’s greatest leaders, all in fantastic outfits and each with a story to tell. There was Bavaria’s Mad King Ludwig, his magnificent blue morning coat heavy with medals and all around him the fairytale castles he devoted his life to building. Or Marie Curie, with a look that seemed deeply aware of the irony in finally achieving a major scientific breakthrough by discovering radium and dying shortly thereafter due to radiation. Or Sir Edmund Hillary, as towering and splendid as the mountain he subdued.
After I stopped collecting stamps, I often found myself comforted by thinking about them, and about how they represented a corner of our civic society that was incorruptible. They may put just about anyone on television or on the radio, I told myself, but they won’t put just anyone on a stamp. I firmly believed that, and it gave me some measure of hope.
Until a few weeks ago, when my father called.
Twenty years ago, when he was thirty-five and I was eleven, my father—a scion of one of Israel’s wealthiest and most powerful families—decided to go into business for himself. On several mornings over a period of two years, he would wake up, drink his coffee, say his goodbyes to me and my mother, grab his briefcase, and hop on his motorcycle. Then he’d ride to towns all over Israel and rob banks. He robbed twenty-one of them, keeping his identity a secret even as his acts made him Israel’s biggest celebrity, earning him the nickname Ofnobank—which, loosely translated, means the motorcycle bandit. (He wore his motorcycle helmet during each robbery.)
As we learned after he was finally apprehended, in 1990, there were a lot of funny aspects to my father’s story. He would always deposit his loot, a day or two later, in the same bank he had just robbed, making the bills—marked by each bank to ensure easy detection if stolen—indistinguishable from the bank’s other currency and therefore virtually untraceable. Guided by the same logic, he would calmly leave the bank when he was done robbing it, turn the corner, hide his helmet, tuck away his gun, and walk right back into the bank, watching with amazement as, time and time again, a frantic police officer demanded that he leave the premises immediately as the bank was now a crime scene. No one would recognize him, as at his peak, he needed no more than forty seconds to enter a bank, shoot at the ceiling, grab the money, and run. And the last place anyone would ever look for a bank robber, my father realized, was right back at the bank.
Not everything about his story was funny. Though I tried many times, I found little humor in my weekly visits to prison over the nine years of my father’s incarceration, the financial ruin that followed his arrest, or the instant celebrity into which my family was thrust.
But nothing I had ever gone through prepared me for what my father had to say when he called. Celebrating Israel’s sixtieth year of independence, the Israeli Postal Service issued a special series of stamps commemorating the nation’s most luminous sons and daughters. Celebrating sixty years of music, for example, were stamps for popular singers like Rita and Arik Einstein. There were stamps for sixty years of the army, one for each of the major brigades of the Israel Defense Forces. There were stamps commemorating David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. And one commemorating my dad.
This had to be a hoax. After all, why would any nation—even one prone to egregious lapses of judgment such as my native land—choose to issue a postage stamp featuring a criminal? Why glorify crime, even if the criminal was famous?
An email from my father arrived a few minutes later. A picture was attached. There it was, the stamp: a cheerful little thing, with a cartoonish drawing of a man on a motorcycle leaving a bank in haste and a legend that read “The Motorcycle Bandit: 60 Years of Crime.” It was priced at three shekels and twenty agorot (about a dollar).
The phone rang again, and my father asked if I finally believed him. I told him I did, but didn’t know what else to say. What does etiquette dictate on an occasion like this? “My heartfelt congratulations on your grossly undeserved philatelic immortality”?
I blurted out a few words and hung up the phone. For what must have been an hour I stared at the image of the stamp on the computer screen. A strong sensation came over me, a cross between dolefulness and nausea.
I’d felt this way before, when a policeman knocked on our door and plucked me from a life dedicated to G.I. Joes and soccer practice and luxury. I had to learn that everything in life was subject to immediate and radical change, even something as elementary as a father’s reassuring presence. But the stamp was somehow worse. Now my father was being lionized along with the country’s greats. The same lesson was repeating itself on a cosmic scale: Nothing is safe. Nothing is sacred. Not even the postal service.
Not knowing what else to do, I ordered a few dozen sheets of my father’s stamp. Next time anyone asks me why I left Israel, all I’ll have to do is pull one out.