It has long been pointed out by historians, theologians, and psychiatrists that Isaac, son of Abraham and the second Jewish patriarch, got a raw deal. He is in many ways an accidental figure, a slow-witted shmoe*, a languorous lemechke with a goyishe kop, manipulated by the schnorrers and gonefs who surrounded him in the Cradle of Civilization.
Isaac could never have been as revered as his old man Abe, the Forefather of the Jews, chosen by God for having the chutzpah to smash his own father’s idols, and for showing the gumption to snip off his own foreskin at the ripe old age of 90 and with such dexterity at that.
Isaac could never have achieved the status of his indefatigable son Jacob, who was hostage to his persnickety father-in-law Laban the Aramean for 14 years, but still went on to father the 12 Tribes of Israel and to have the willpower to support four Jewish wives. Jacob even had the time to partake (and emerge triumphant) in a wrestling match with the Almighty himself.
Isaac’s name literally means “to laugh,” but the schlimazel had little to laugh about. He owed his birthright to his father having cast off Isaac’s elder half-brother Ishmael into the desert. He had a near death experience when his father, perhaps masquerading as an Aztec, took Isaac to the woods to sacrifice him upon an altar to God; Isaac was spared the dagger but not from the ensuing PTSD and bedwetting. And in his old age Isaac got bamboozled by his wife and their younger son Jacob, who concocted a plan to screw Jacob’s dimwitted hairy brother Esau out of his legitimate birthright.
What became of Isaac? How does an eminent schlimazel cope with such tsores and affliction? I was able to catch up with him at a sleazy watering hole he owns on the Lower East Side of the Sinai, aptly named the Forsaken Foreskin, where he stands solemnly behind the counter doling out Manischewitz to the dregs of the desert: fat-headed Philistines, antisemitic Amalekites, the whores of Jericho, and the petty-bourgeois Jebusites who peddle pet scorpions and second-rate yarmulkes.
Here follows my exchange with Isaac, Our Father:
Me: “Isaac Our Father, Vos makht a yid? Would you be willing to chat with us for a few moments?”
Isaac: “I don’t do interviews anymore. Go bother some other schmuck who got screwed in Scripture. They all pop by the bar at one point or another.”
Me: “But our readers want to hear your side of the story. What’s it like to be the second Jew in history?”
Isaac: “Well if you insist on knowing, I’ll give you the gantseh megillah.”
Isaac pounds back another swig of 100 proof Manischewitz. His flared nostrils are marked by millennia of misfortune.
And he begins his tale.
Isaac: “And I begin my tale:
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon me; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and we went both of us together.
And I, like a schmuck, spake unto Abraham my father, and said: ‘My father.’
And he, my father, said, ‘Here am I, my son.’
And I said, ‘Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’
And Abraham, my fanatic father, the idiot of Canaan, spake unto me, ‘My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering. Let us go both of us together’
So we went both of us together.
And I said, ‘Father, why swingeth thou that butcher’s knife at me? Father, why do thine eyes gloweth with the fury of 10,000 Charles Mansons?’
[Isaac starts rapidly gesticulating and screeching the music from Psycho]…
And the Lord said, ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him, for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.’
And Abraham said, ‘Oh Lord, why hath thou scared the crap out of my son, mine only son, my now psychologically damaged son?’
And the Lord said, ‘it was worth it to see the look on his face. One in a million.’”
Me: “Fascinating, do go on…”
Isaac: “Yada Yada Yada… benzodiazepines, psychotherapy, Deadhead, Prozac, ashrams, schlivovitz. I’m a wreck and the rest is history.”
Me: “I like your rancorous attitude; it’s very Old Testament. Would you like to come to America and do a talk show circuit? The wail of your soul will lift the spirits of the downtrodden in our post-9/11, post-Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, Occupy Wall Street epoch of cynicism and malaise.”
Isaac: “Gey kakn afn yam”
I paid my bill and hitched a ride on the first Bedouin caravan to pass through town. I returned to America with a heavy heart, but confident that whatever my shortcomings as a historian, a Jew, and a father, I could never farbungl things as badly as had Abraham, forefather of many nations, but dad to the demented Isaac.
*Here are some definitions for the Yiddish words used in this story. For more words and expressions check out a Yiddish Glossary on line.
*goyishe kop, schmoe and schlimazel: variations on the theme of idiot.
*schnorrers : moocher
*Vos makht a yid: Hey Jew, How are you?
*gantseh megillah: The whole, long, drawn-out story.
Jarrod Tanny is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His book, City of Rogues and Schnorrers examines how the city of Odessa was mythologized as a Jewish city of sin, celebrated and vilified for its Jewish gangsters, pimps, bawdy musicians, and comedians. Read other pieces by Tanny in Shtetl such as Jesus, Moses and Mohammed Walk Into a 1-Hour Photo…