In Promised Land, My Father Composes ‘Hallelujah’

My father, he’s an enthusiast. When he likes something, he really likes it. A little over a year ago, while watching Shrek with his youngest grandson, he discovered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (sung in that instance by Rufus Wainwright). Shortly after, he bought himself the soundtrack, and then he sought out every imaginable Leonard Cohen version of the song, of which there are several. He compared, he contrasted. He made comments on the composition of each version. (And what does he know from composition?) He dubbed the different versions onto a blank tape, back to back, and played them wherever he went. In my parents’ home, there was a moratorium on Peggy Lee and Johnny Cash and everyone else they used to listen to. It was the time of “Hallelujah.”

The song echoed through their apartment, on constant repeat. My mother would urge him: “Paul, enough! Turn it down a little.” More recently, he’s discovered Tom Waits. When I visit them now, I hear him in the next room, conjuring up that husky voice, clapping his hands at intervals. In the mornings, while he’s getting ready for work, he perfects a deep and guttural impersonation. “I’ll admit,” I say to my mother, “he does a good Tom Waits.” She just rolls her eyes.

But my father is enthusiastic-obsessive, some might say-about many things, not just music. He runs, does yoga, knows a coma-inducing amount of information on the stock market, loves to fish. And, in the past few years, he has become an Israel enthusiast. A month after 9/11, he took his first trip to Israel. This also happened to be his first trip abroad. I couldn’t understand why he’d decided to travel so soon after the attacks, and especially to Israel. “Why,” I asked, “have you decided to become a world-class traveler at this point in time? If you want to go somewhere, why not to the Poconos or Lake George?” “Uff,” he sighed, “this is not about travel. This is about Israel -coming out in support of Israel. I’ve always wanted to do this,” he said. “And I feel now that I must. That I can’t wait for the right time, I should do it now.”

Although I admired my father’s seize-the-day attitude, I felt it was selfish. So this was what he wanted. He didn’t mind that it could be dangerous. But did it occur to him that his family might care if he never made it back? That we might want him to stick around a while? In the weeks leading up to his trip, my older sister (even more outraged at the idea than I was) and I tried to change his mind. At one point, my sister told him that she was worried her children would grow up without their grandfather. This touched my father, but it didn’t change his mind about the trip.

My mother? Her coping mechanism is to act indifferent. She shrugged: “What can you do? He wants to go? Let him go.” In response to her nonchalance, I became more outspoken in my opposition. I tried to provoke her with ridiculous and morbid questions. “Ma,” I’d say, “how long after his death will you wait before you begin to date?” Her response? A few weeks.

My father went to Israel, and when he returned he said it was more, it was greater than he’d expected. My sister and I were shocked he’d made it back. And we were glad it was over-surely he’d satisfied his curiosity and been cured of his obsession. But we were wrong, and he’s already gone back.

Last October, the Shul arranged another group visit. In the weeks leading up to his trip, my father was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to go back. He told my mother and me that he would break off from the group and go to Haifa to visit a cousin. The idea of my father traveling by himself in Israel made me nervous. But my mother was cavalier as ever. “Who am I,” she said, “to interfere with a grown man’s decision?”

Once there, my father did not break off from the group to go to Haifa; there was too much to do in Jerusalem. He gave blood, he took his first mikvah, he bought prunes and jelly donuts at the market. He left exuberant messages on my machine about the beauty and the people and how he wished I would go soon. He called my mother and told her he’d barely slept, and that he’d looked into buying an apartment in Jerusalem. My mother told me this over the phone. I hung up with her and called my sister, who made it clear she’d never visit them if they moved to Israel. Giving money is one thing, but going there- moving there? It seemed crazy to me. Why now, when every day I heard of the suicide bombings that took so many lives? What next? Would he enlist in the Israeli army? To me, it was clear: My parents would never see me again if they decided to move to Jerusalem. It would come down to choosing between me and the State of Israel. Didn’t this bother them?

Since the appearance of my father’s latest fascination, I’ve realized that I’m embarrassed about Israel. Ambivalent, at best. I feel ashamed of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians-and yet I’m intensely offended by anti-Israel sentiment.

Now again, my father plans another visit. Around him, a negative word cannot be uttered about Israel. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Recently, my father and I went for a jog together in Central Park. Twelve minutes into the run he pulled a muscle, so we turned around. I walked, he hobbled back. As we walked, he told me he would like to pay for me to go to Israel-for two weeks. I have always had a fear of flying and told him that I wouldn’t board a plane to Rhode Island, let alone Israel. He said, “Who cares about Rhode Island? I’m talking Israel. I would just love for you to see it.” I shook my head and mumbled something about how I wasn’t sure how I felt about Israel in a political sense. He was exasperated, but he let it slide.

A few nights after our discussion, while waiting for the Q train to Brooklyn, I heard a musician singing “Hallelujah.” He was this reedy man with a curved spine and a multicolored Mohawk. He wore army shorts, sweat socks and beat-up Nikes. It was late and everyone on the platform was quiet, slumped on benches or leaning against columns. I listened to him sing. It was a particularly wonderful rendition of the song. I smiled to myself as I was reminded of my father’s “Hallelujah” phase. And it occurred to me then how different his affection for Israel was. It had become deeply a part of him now and wasn’t going to go away. At that moment, I felt badly that this wasn’t something I could share with him or even fully understand. My father and I would have to stick to other areas of common interest. I walked over to the musician and tossed a dollar into his open guitar case. He looked up at me and, in between the words (almost between breaths), he said, “Thanks.” I nodded to him and wondered, only partly in jest, what my father might think of the composition of this version of his song.