When I was nine years old, my dad killed our dog Max. That was something he would regret for the rest of his life; something he had never planned on doing. Especially not when, ten years earlier, he drove a rental from Colchester to Yorkshire and back to get my mom the dog of her dreams.
Max was a small Terrier that we all adored. My parents got him when they were in their last year of law school in England. A few months later I was born and we all moved to Tel Aviv. Even today, years after Max died, my dad still keeps a photo of him in his office. It shows the dog and my pregnant mother, lounging on my parents’ bed in Colchester, posing like two Gap models.
My dad has always been a Notoriously Good Person who sometimes messes up but never means to. In our city, he was somewhat of a local celebrity. He owned a small law firm and was known by his nickname, Dov, which had belonged to his grandpa and meant Bear in Hebrew. Being his son meant getting into concerts and nightclubs for free, but also hearing the rumors people spread about him.
Some said he’d broken somebody’s nose in middle school because the guy called my grandma a hooker. That he’d lent a million shekels to a client, who fled to Bulgaria and disappeared. That he’d cheated on my mom with a Brazilian tourist.
But one thing seemed to be clear to everyone, even the girl he knocked up at seventeen and the principal who kicked him out of high school: My dad was always full of good intentions. Which, if the saying was true, meant that he was on the highway to hell. Which somehow squared with the fact that he had killed a guiltless Terrier right in front of me.
But my dad never believed in hell. Both his parents were Jewish, but only in the technical sense. His mom, who had converted from Catholicism, kept whispering her Ave Maria every night before going to sleep. His dad would spend his Friday evenings playing cards with friends—his private version of a synagogue.
Sometime around his Bar Mitzvah, my dad vowed to be the correction of his parents; he made up his mind to be a good Jewish kid. And good Jews, as he explained to me one Yom Kippur, believe that it’s impossible to know anything about the World to Come. So instead of trying to solve a puzzle with far too many missing pieces, good Jews take upon themselves a challenge they can actually rise up to: They try to perfect our world, here and now, for the living.
“I don’t know,” I said as we were walking back home from the evening prayer. “I guess God is not my thing.” I had just started fourth grade and begun grappling with life’s big, existential themes.
My dad nodded gravely. “Ever heard of Rabbi Akiva?”
It was getting dark. Our street was empty.
“Sure,” I said, not knowing who the guy was but assuming that he was a man of consequence.
“He said you should wake up every morning and remember that you’re the son of a king.”
I remained silent. “A nice thing to have in mind,” my dad said. “Don’t you think?”
I thought it was anything but nice. It was dumb, and weird, and arrogant. But, being the non-confrontational kid that I was, I said nothing.
“What do you think?” He asked.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, you’re not a king.”
My dad laughed. “Well, I don’t really matter.” He pointed up to the sky, smiling. “We’re talking about this guy here.”
A few days later, my dad killed Max.
We were driving to my school bus stop. I remember every turn we made on the way from our house to Kashani Street. The bright yellow of the recycling bins where we stopped to drop some old bottles. The tapping of the rain on the windows of our Jeep Cherokee. The washed-out color of the leather seats and the misogynistic song my dad was playing that, even by my nine-year-old standards, was way too offensive. I remember Max’s warm body, his tremors on my lap, and the massive handbrake my dad had to pull up to park the monstrous vehicle.
I remember the clicking of our seat belts. The metallic gray of the Jeep’s door and the thundering sound it made when my dad slammed it right as Max was jumping out of it.
And then, the longest shrill I’d ever heard.
My dad ran out of the car and opened the trunk. He took out his black lawyer’s gown and jumped into the blood puddle that was spreading over the street.
“Don’t look,” he ordered me as he was wrapping Max’s body with the dark fabric. It was still raining. His suit was covered with stains of blood and water. I stayed in the Jeep, holding my breath and sinking slowly into my seat. I heard the nervous laughter of my friends, who had been waiting at the bus stop. I wanted to get out of the car and disavow any connection with the man in the suit. “Help,” I wanted to shout. “I’m not really his son. I have no clue who this man is or how I got here.”
My dad peeked into the car and offered to take me home, but I closed the window and asked him to leave. When I got out of the Jeep, trembling, I saw my friends staring at my dad as he put the black bundle that used to be our dog in the trunk and drove away with the nonchalance of a serial killer.
The school bus arrived after a few minutes that felt like a year. My cheeks were burning with disgrace. I whispered to myself, “I hate him I hate him I hate him” and swallowed down my tears. When the bus doors opened, I sat as close as possible to the driver, giving my friends silent permission to proceed to the back seat. I took my blue Nokia flip phone out of my backpack and dialed the only number I knew.
“Mom,” I whispered, hoping not to be overheard. “Max is dead. Dad killed him.”
I cried from the moment we left my neighborhood to the moment we arrived at school. Just before the driver parked the bus, I got a text:
i love you. have a blessed day. kisses and talk to me, yours, the king.
He was trying to make me laugh. I didn’t find it funny.
When I got back home that evening, he was sitting shirtless on his black couch in the living room with Shai, my younger brother. They were watching a basketball match of their favorite team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. My mom came out of the kitchen and laid on the table some beers and bowls of peanuts, pickles, and sunflower seeds.
“Eli’s here,” she told my dad, staring right into his eyes. “Do you have something to tell him?”
My dad looked at her and then at me. “Oh, my treasure,” he sighed. “How are you feeling?”
I put down my backpack and nodded silently. He reached out to me, inviting me to sit on his lap. I closed my eyes and buried my head in his chest, which was warm and hairy. I allowed him to wrap me with his arms, even though all I really wanted was to go to my room and close the door behind me.
“Don’t worry,” he said, stroking my head. “We’ll get you a new dog. I don’t want you to be too sad about this.”
“I’m not,” I said and stood up. “I’m fine. Really. Good night, dad.”
“Good night, my king.”
I wanted him to leave me alone. I didn’t want him to see me cry. His touch was making me sick.
The next day, we drove with Shai and my mom to a beautiful pet cemetery and buried Max between a tombstone with an epitaph in Russian and a willow tree. I helped my dad dig the grave, a small pit in the ground in which Max’s body fitted perfectly. He told us to cover it with dirt and put some stones on top of it. “These will ensure that he’ll never try to run away again,” my dad said, smiling. We’ve never talked about Max since.
The following month, my dad decided to take us all to London on a whim. He had some meetings in town and thought it would be a good opportunity for a family retreat. “The four of us can use a break. Besides, I know how much you love theater,” he told me, “so we’re going to see the best musical in the city.”
On the advice of his only gay colleague, my dad got us tickets to Rent—a show that I would grow to love, but struggled to appreciate as an nine year old who thought AIDS was a food allergy. We left Shai with a babysitter at the hotel and took a taxi to the theater.
That evening made me realize that my dad was one of the worst audience members in the universe. He paid hundreds of pounds for our seats, but seemed to be doing everything he could to get us kicked out. He asked the vendor at the box office if they had a stud discount (the stud being himself). Later, he lit a cigarette in the foyer and got into a fight with the house manager. By the time the piano started playing the first notes of “Seasons of Love,” my dad had already made himself at home, resting his feet between the elegant coiffures of two British ladies. And halfway through “One Song Glory” he was fast asleep, accompanying the heartbreaking ballad of the HIV-positive Roger with his heavy breathing.
My dad retired to the hotel right after the intermission, leaving some cash for me and my mom to take a taxi. But I wished he had stayed. His early departure made him miss the one number he might have actually liked—“Take Me or Leave Me,” a brilliant duet between the lesbian couple Joanne and Maureen.
The turbulent relationship of the two couldn’t have been further from my dad’s own marriage, which, as I would find out later, was already on the verge of disintegrating. But somehow, their song encapsulated something essential about my dad. Like him, it was honest, direct, and unapologetic. That was his way with his legal clients, which ranged from British billionaires to Jewish charities; with his friends, who bonded in the 1970s over a mutual love of surfing and stayed together long after they were too weary to hit the beach; and even more so, with us, his family.
So if you give a damn, Maureen sang to Joanne at the climax of Act II, just like my dad was singing to my mom over twenty years of marriage. Take me, baby, or leave me.
After much deliberation, Joanne decided to stay; my mom, to leave.
I first heard about his Problem when I was fifteen. I had just moved to a new high school and was struggling with having great expectations and not enough friends to help me live up to them.
My dad was never short on problems. His divorce, shrouded in an aura of The-Kids-Are-Alright, eventually tore up our family. His coughing fits, a predictable outcome of his four-decade loyalty to Marlboro, were getting more and more frequent. And money was always an issue.
In the years that followed Max’s death, I saw him less and less. He was slowly withering and, knowing that there was nothing I could do to to save him, I started fading out of his life. I ignored his phone calls, texts, and emails. But he never stopped trying. He quit surfing and started growing a beard. He lived in a small hotel room by the beach until he ran out of money. Then, he moved in with my grandma and eventually became a drifter, relocating almost every year. His belly was growing; his circle of friends was shrinking; he closed his office for a while and even considered bankruptcy.
But that one Problem, capital P, was different—unlike the others, we’d never talked about it.
Until one afternoon, when Shai called me and said that our dad had locked himself in our backyard and started burning our belongings.
“What do you mean,” I asked him, attributing the call to the long hours he had been spending with his Call of Duty clique.
“I mean that he is just about to throw The Velvet Underground into the fire,” he said, “so if you care about your records I think you should be here.”
I was deep into A Midsummer Night’s Dream—an arduous rehearsal process, led by my high school’s drama teacher. This time, I got to be the King, but not quite the one my dad had envisioned. I played Oberon, Lord of the Fairies. Dressed in leotard and tights, covered in glitter, I met my proud Titania by the moonlight on a daily basis. The show was just about to open; leaving the rehearsal room for any reason other than terminal cancer was synonymous with quitting.
Earlier that week, my dad’s new girlfriend, who had just moved in with him, had announced that she was leaving. So he begged and prayed and pleaded like a good lawyer, and when words failed His Highness moved to action. That was when he called Shai, who had spent the previous night at a friend’s house, absorbed in yet another battle with the Nazis.
“Dad called me five times until I picked up,” Shai told me later that evening. “He said, I need you. I said, what for. Don’t ask questions, he said. I need you. He made me take a cab to his house. I’ll pay, he said. Don’t worry. When I got there, I saw smoke coming from our backyard. I heard crackles and explosions. The kitchen’s floor was filled with broken glass and porcelain. He’d broken our entire collection of china. Take a towel, he told me. We’re burning down the house. Stop, dad, you’re crazy, it’s not funny, I shouted at him. Take a towel, he said and started pouring gas on the deck of our yard. And call your mom. Tell her to come. I want her to see this.”
Shai said the neighbors hadn’t been happy about the smell of gas and the screams. They had told him they’d call the cops. Our dad, in a kingly manner, had given them the finger.
I checked my phone and couldn’t find any messages from my dad. I knew exactly why he hadn’t called. Deep inside, he was ashamed and knew I’d be ashamed of him. Besides, if you’re burning down your house and looking for assistance, whom would you call—your son who slaughters Nazis on his Xbox or the heavily made-up King of the Fairies?
“I wanted you to come,” Shai told me, “but you said you had rehearsals, so I called Mom. She arrived with the Fire Department and Dr. what’s-his-face-David. Who knew dad even had a psychiatrist?”
I didn’t see my dad at all that month. Shai told me that he was staying at a friend’s house up north by the Sea of Galilee. One day my dad called and asked me to meet him outside my mom’s house. We drove downtown and had coconut ice cream. We talked about my play, which hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, and about Maccabi, which had just won the national championship. He didn’t tell me anything about the day he had tried to burn down our house and I didn’t feel like asking.
A few hours after we said goodbye, I got an email from him:
i am sitting in my office, the beach right in front of me, and i think how blessed i am and how much i enjoyed spending time with you. i had a great time and thank you for the person you are you amazing treasure
i went through my calendar and saw a reminder about noam, your old bar mitzvah tutor—reach out to him, you can also just say hi and that you hope to see him soon—it’s worth to stay in touch and in general he’s a very nice person and can teach you a lot i think
i am doing ok, love you, kisses and talk to me.
My dad, my mom, my brother, and I spent years talking without really saying anything. But my grandma, who was raised in a convent and suffered through thirty years of unhappy marriage, had enough silences for one lifetime.
“You see, your dad has a problem,” she told me one evening over a pot of pasta in her kitchen.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, fuck it,” she said. “I wanted you to hear this from him, but he’ll never say anything. Sweetie, your dad is sick.”
“Is it cancer?”
She slapped me on the shoulder. “What are you talking about,” she yelled, spitting on the floor. “God forbid. I don’t know what it is.”
“So why are you telling me this?”
“Because I want you to be gentle with him,” she sighed. “And because I know that unlike your brother or your mom, you will listen. It’s not an easy time for him.”
I wasn’t surprised; I just wanted to know all the details.
“Can I talk with him about it?”
“Have you lost your mind?” she raised her voice again. “Don’t you dare say anything. He’s an adult, he’s taking care of it. You know him. He’s been holding this family together for years. And he loves you like crazy. It’ll break his heart to know that you think something’s wrong with him. Now pass me your bowl. I’ll get you a refill.”
Later that week, he drove me home from a party. He’d had a late night at the office and texted me to see if I needed a lift. The summer break was just about to start. I was tired and drunk and carried the unmistakable smell of sex about me.
We were listening to David Bowie’s Heroes when suddenly he asked, “Is there someone in your life?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you have fun? At the party?”
“Yeah. It was nice.”
“Will you tell me if there is?”
“I don’t care who it is.”
“Is everything Ok, dad?”
“Of course. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m just tired.”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
“You can drop me off right here.”
“Good night, dad.”
“Good night, my king.”
My best friend Gaya has recently started to watch this new TV show. “It’s brilliant,” she tells me on the phone one evening. “Sleeping Bears. You have to see it. It’s about this woman who starts to receive anonymous letters. Someone wants to expose summaries of her therapy sessions, including all the shit she said about her husband and kids. I think it’s genius.”
“Well, families are kind of like that, right?” She says. “Like sleeping bears, I mean. There are things you don’t want to wake up. So you keep your voice down. You tiptoe. You let them sleep.”
I tell her that the show sounds cheesy and that I think it’s not for me. But after we hang up the call, I google “how to wake up bears” out of curiosity. On the official website of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, under the promising title “THE TRUTH ABOUT BEARS AND HIBERNATION,” I find out something interesting.
“It is a common misconception that bears hibernate,” the article explains. “While bears tend to slow down during the winter, they are not true hibernators.”
Apparently, bears go into a state of torpor, from which they wake up frequently. They find a den in which they curl into themselves. Then, their hearts slow down. Their breaths become less frequent. Their body temperature decreases. But even when they close their eyes, bears never sleep as deeply as we think.