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Higher Learning

A father tells his young son a tantalizing lie

Hasdai Westbrook
September 10, 2008

It was shortly after my father returned from reserve duty in the Israeli army that he told me professors eat children. I remember him appearing in the doorway of our Jerusalem apartment in olive fatigues and big, black boots—a fearsome, smiling soldier, complete with spectacles. My mother held the door open and laughed. Over time, I would become used to his warrior pose. Years later, far from Israel, as he lay propped up on hospital pillows with a diagnosis of incurable cancer, he told me he was going into battle. “I hope the bullet will hit the next man,” he said. “But I must assume it will hit me.”

As a five-year-old in Jerusalem, that first vision of my father in combat wear had come as a shock. I’d never seen him in anything but a professor’s suit before—neat jacket, trousers and tie, looking like a well-folded envelope. My father had fought hard to get into those professor’s shoes. His position at Hebrew University was cobbled together from research grants and adjunct posts, and he was still a quarter of a job short of a full professorship. The final quarter lay in the hands of institutional giants like the senior Bible professor, who, a few days after my father’s return from reserve duty, invited him to bring his wife and two little sons to dinner.

My brother and I were feral beasts, given to gang fights in the playground and roughhousing as homework. In the month that my father had been off firing rifles and slinging hand grenades, we’d spent most of the time ambushing schoolyard rivals and terrorizing our mother. Arriving home from the university soon after, my father caught us tearing around the little room we shared. He told us to sit quietly. He had something important to tell us. We learned we were going to dinner at the end of the week at a big professor’s house, that we would have to be clean and wear nice clothes. “Oh, and if you’re bad, the professor will eat you,” my father said. “But if you’re good, professors give you cake.”

My father imparted this to us in English, as he usually did when he wanted to make sure something got through. My mother refused to speak anything else. My father, the son of a cockney teddy bear maker, had grown up in a tiny seaside town in England. My mother had been raised in Vienna, where everyone was either an ex-Nazi or, like her abusive father, a Holocaust survivor. At eighteen, my father had gone up to Oxford, pulling off a transformation from “cor blimey” to clipped BBC English that would put Eliza Doolittle to shame. My mother had spent her miserable childhood binging on German Romanticism, loving and abhorring the culture that had produced both Heine and Hitler. In May of 1967, when Arab armies seemed poised to annihilate the Jewish state, my father had attended a hastily arranged fundraiser at which the towering Jewish intellectual Isaiah Berlin rallied the audience with a thundering speech. My father didn’t have a penny to his name, but by the time he shook the great man’s hand, his investment was total. Soon after Israel crushed the Arab armies, he got a scholarship to study biblical law at Hebrew University.

Berlin famously said that he could be a Jew in England as long as he behaved. My father was never interested in behaving. My mother was never interested in being a Jew. Her escapist fantasy had always been to attend a genteel English boarding school, to get away from Jews and their killers and never have to see my grandfather again. But when she turned eighteen, the only place he let her escape to was Jerusalem, where everyone and everything reminded her of home. My father and mother had met in an Akkadian class. He wanted to be an Israeli. She wanted to be English. He was delighted that his children spoke to each other in Hebrew. She was not.

I asked her if it was true, that professors ate children. She seemed caught off guard. “Do you really want to find out?” she asked me finally. Presumably she didn’t want to see me devoured. But my mother’s antipathy toward our life in Israel should have made her less than anxious to see things go smoothly. Instead, the dinner invitation seemed to animate her. On most days she would be in bed when my brother and I left for school and still there in the afternoon when we burst through the door demanding food, but that week—the week of that all-important dinner—she was up and about like my father.

One night, I watched as she plucked off her delicate false eyelashes and had him apply a fresh set, leaning over her in the lamplight as she lay on the divan like an enchanted queen. My mother considered my father’s career communal property. More than a decade before, when Israel’s enemies had attacked on Yom Kippur, the war and the resulting oil crisis had made the prospect of getting hired upon finishing his dissertation look bleak. She had pushed him to fight on. Then when his advisor had dropped dead, all alone in his library, she had bolstered my dejected father’s sagging spirits again. But even after he’d soldiered on to the end, through a thicket of ancient Babylonian marriage covenants, his thesis had been deemed insufficient. With his scholarship money gone and his dream in tatters, he had gone back to England, put on a wig and become a barrister. My mother had been delighted to move to London. But after several frustrating years of his pleading for petty criminals, she had convinced my father to finish his dissertation. He’d convinced her to start a family. They had both delivered.

So it was as much due to her ambition as his that my mother found herself lying under the leaky roof of our dingy little apartment in Jerusalem, having her brave face retouched. Jobs in the field of ancient law were hardly plentiful. When cronies at Hebrew University had arranged my father’s professorship, she’d gotten on the plane to Israel literally trembling. There in our living room, her eyelids quivered just slightly as my father attached the dark nylon lashes, one by one. Afterward, my father came to see my brother and me off to sleep. “Remember,” he said, “you must be be good at the professor’s house or he’ll eat you.” He didn’t elaborate except to say it would probably be done in one gulp and that if we were bad there was nothing he could do. It seemed he was willing to risk our lives for his dream, just as he was willing to risk his own. Once, when a bomb exploded in Hebrew University’s cafeteria and sent his glasses flying from his face, he’d sent his parents a jolly telegram that read, “They missed me.” Turning out the light in our room, he told us we’d get cake. But only if we were good.

As the dinner approached, my brother and I were subjected to a kind of civilizing boot camp. We were not to fight. We were not to bite, kick, scratch, or punch. There was to be no teasing, and no provoking. No elbows on the table, no sulking, no being greedy and demanding more food. Most important of all, there was to be no noise: no screaming, no shouting, no whining, no moaning. An hour before the dinner, my father drilled us as we splashed each other with foamy bath water. My mother was stationed on the edge of the tub, her arms crossed. She issued us each a towel and was soon stuffing us into white button-down shirts and velvet trousers as though we were little Hapsburg princes. My father asked me if I remembered what he’d said about the professor.

“Don’t you believe me?” my father asked. I studied his face as my mother fussed over our formal wear. I already knew his trickster tendencies. Every Saturday, he’d roust me from sleep with “magic toast,” which seemed to be sliced one way but would come apart in entirely another, its seam disguised under a layer of peanut butter. Then he’d set to dismantling our bunk beds and rearrange them into spaceships, pirate galleons, adventure playgrounds. And yet he was our authority on the world. For any question, he’d have an answer: Why does the moon go around the earth? Why did those Arab children throw rocks at us? “How do you know?” I’d challenge him. “Because,” he would say, “I am the cleverest daddy in the whole world.”

On the question of getting cake or becoming dessert, I didn’t press the issue. My father peered down at my shiny black shoes. I looked down with him and quickly dropped to my knees to tie the laces. My fingers and forehead grew warmer as I fumbled. He knelt swiftly, grabbed the laces and pulled them tight, then tied them just as fast. The shoes didn’t slip as I followed him to our tiny car, where our mother was crammed into the passenger seat in her most elegant dress. Her strategy that night was bribery: In exchange for our silence before dinner, she presented us with new toys. Once we’d flayed the boxes from our new Playmobil figures, the carrots were all gone. Only the stick of being eaten like one remained. My father’s eyes gleamed. “You’ll see,” he said.

At no other time, before or after, were we ever so well behaved. My brother and I sat motionless in the professor’s study, barely making a noise. The professor’s house was dark. He and his wife were much older than my parents, who huddled together in the gloom as the professor expounded from deep within his armchair. He would lunge forward, elbows on his knees, his hands dancing as he made a point, casting strange shadow-creatures on the walls. My brother and I kept still, eyes forward. At the table, we answered every question with a simple nod as the assembled guests cooed over us, and when the professor’s wife stepped from the room and came back with a honey cake, I ate my slice hungrily but didn’t ask for more. After we said our goodbyes, my father led us in solemn procession back to the car. Then suddenly, just when it seemed the only sound left in the world was the chirp of the crickets, he turned on us with a wild grin. “You see!” he said triumphantly. “I told you! I told you you’d get cake!”

My father never got the final quarter of a professorship in Jerusalem. Soon my mother had had enough of Israel and left with my brother and me for London. The department my father worked for had its funding slashed and the other three-quarters of his job evaporated. He had to scramble to turn a yearlong visiting professorship at an American university into a temporary appointment, and finally into tenure. Eventually he found out that his thesis adviser hadn’t died alone, but in the arms of a young companion.

Eventually I found out that the old professor’s wife always served guests cake, and that my father had known all along. Eventually he’d be so weak from the chemo that I would have to tie his shoes. But before all that, when we still lived in Israel and didn’t know what was to come, my father would ask me if I still believed him. Did I still believe a professor would eat me if I was bad, and give me cake if I was good? I always told him that I did.

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