A little boys fear of that big knife

I was 7 years old, well almost 8, and I sat next to Papa in the big shul.

Huddled between my father and an old man with a black jacket, I felt so grown up.

Mama was up in the balcony with the women, with Tanta Pesha and Fat Rosie. But I was with the men. And even though the old man kept telling me that I should read louder and faster and I was having so much difficulty as I was trying to decipher the exotic letters in the High Holy Day prayer book, still it felt so wonderful, so important that I didn’t even object to being patted on the head and having my cheek pinched.

And then the rabbi spoke and told everyone about father Abraham and how he was tested by God. And I think that then it was that I began to squirm in my seat because I started to feel very uncomfortable. And this was not because of the wooden benches. I listened to the story of Abraham being told to take his son, his younger son, the one whom he loved so much, to take this little boy and sacrifice him. My heart beat faster.

Sacrifice! With a knife! How could he do that? Why didn’t he tell God that this was not right? I slipped my hand into Papa’s and I felt that my hand was moist.

And the rabbi continued the story of how the two of them, father and son, walked together up the mountain all alone and how little Isaac knew that something was wrong because there was no animal and how his father must have been grasping that terrible knife in his hand. And then came the awful moment when Papa put me … I mean when Abraham put Isaac on the wood and raised his hand with the sharp knife. I wanted so desperately to close my ears so that I couldn’t hear the boy scream, but all I could do was close my eyes and even then I saw the look of horror on the child’s face. And that face looked so familiar. It looked like …

Now, we all know how the story turns out. Even the old man next to me must have seen how I was trembling and so he reassured me. “See boychik, it will all be hunky-dory. The story has a happy ending. The ram gets sacrificed and the boy is saved and he goes down the hill with his papa.”

But I couldn’t stop trembling. All I thought was, what if his father had not seen the ram caught in the thicket? What would he have done? And what happened to that terrible knife afterwards? Did he throw it away? And when they went down the hill what did he say to his son and what awful question did the little boy put to his father? Or perhaps even worse than anything else, maybe there were no questions as well as no answers and maybe no one spoke all the way down the mountain, all the way home.

And after the services were over, Papa walked next to me, not next to Mama.

And Papa held my hand and he said, “Are you cold? You’re shivering.” And when I shook my head no, he seemed to understand and told me, “It’s only a story.” He didn’t add, “And it did have a happy ending.” I was glad he didn’t say that.

But then it was I who broke the next silence because the words were stuck someplace and I couldn’t swallow, I started the sentence, “Papa,” I asked, “Papa, what … what if …”

I couldn’t finish the question. It was too difficult for a 7-year-old, even a 7-year-old who was practically 8. But I looked up at my father and he looked down at me and said. “You know I am not such a religious man. So I don’t always do … you know … what the Good Book says I should … so I don’t always listen. Maybe you don’t understand. But you don’t have to worry with me.”

And suddenly the lump was gone from my throat and it was easy to breathe and to smile. And I did both. And Papa just repeated, “I am not such a religious guy.”

But somehow I didn’t agree with that at all.

Leo Lieberman is associate professor of Holocaust studies at the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. This story is excerpted from his book, “Memories of Laughter and Garlic: Jewish Wit, Wisdom, and Humor To Warm Your Heart.”