The prince had wits, a warm smile and the Book on his side. The Book was filled with holy men who never settled for just one bedmate, and it permitted the males of their tribe to do the same. That didn't calm the women. They still wanted to throw the Book upside your daddy's turbaned skull.
Idah gave birth to a daughter. Dinah delivered a son. From Yemima's womb came you, Zabdiel. A child born into an Old Testament life in a 20th-century ghetto. A boy who'd travel anywhere and strike anyone to find his way to his father's arms. A black Jew.
There was no way to sort it out, Zab. You'd just have to live it. SUNDOWNS ON Saturdays, Zab. Remember them? The darkest of the week's seven dusks. Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, was ending: the service done, the Israelites' kosher meal eaten and the cleanup finished at the two-story brick temple and community center in Crown Heights that they called "camp." It was time for heads to turn as members of the sect spilled onto Buffalo Avenue.
Those first half-dozen years of your life, Zab, your mother still took you to camp, carrying the scar in her heart and you in her arms. Your pantaloons flashing and long braids slapping your back, you'd throw on your coat and race to the door to wait when you sensed that your father was ready to leave, or you'd scramble into Abba's car in hopes of going with him. Abba, that's what Prince Yo'el's children called him. It's Hebrew for father.
Yemima, your mother, would pull you sobbing from the backseat. By now Abba and Dinah had three sons, your half-brothers. They'd take your place in the car, and Abba would pull away.
Why them? You were more Abba than any of them. You had Abba's handsome face, his heart-melting smile, his volcanic temper and restlessness and rat-tat-tat speech, spitting words faster than an ear could take them in or your tongue could serve them up, leaving listeners lost.
You craved something else he had. Abba had an aura. It wasn't the dark shadow that the gangbangers dragged past the tenement in Brownsville where you lived with your mother. They had two weapons, their left and right hands, maybe a third stashed away beneath a belt or in a pocket. Abba? He had hands registered at Brooklyn's 77th Precinct, he had feet, knees, elbows and forearms, thunderbolts he could launch from angles those cats never dreamed of. And he had something else in his arsenal: heart. His shoulders rolling like a wave in a fish tank, he'd yo-yo toward and away from people as he talked, making eye contact, making them grin. Who'd be the first to dash to a wrecked automobile, glass and blood sprayed everywhere, crawl in and pull out the screaming passengers? Your dad. Who'd stand up to companies working on the big construction sites in Brooklyn and insist that they hire minorities? With Abba at your side, each breath of Brooklyn you took lost its acid taste of fear.
Nearly every little boy, when he's four or five, wants to be his dad, Zab. Then that urge slowly dies away. With you, somehow, it never did. But who was Abba? The answer must've seemed as mysterious as the Hebrew verses etched on his wooden staff, as the pythons of hair coiled inside his turban, as the darts and jagged stars he kept hidden in pouches on his belt to hurl at anyone who might attack when he ran alone at midnight. Abba was a man of contradiction, a disciple who held open palms to the East to pray for peace by day, and cracked heads at night; a devoted dad who could strike you, or leave you, in a flash; a man who drew women to him, drove them away, then turned them into friends. Go ahead, Zab, try to make him add up: a seventh-degree black-belt, black-Jew ninja, a future champion kickboxer and something more dangerous than that—a pilgrim in pursuit of one thing pure.
Before he was Prince Yo'el Judah, before he was Abba, he was Robert Harvey—but his family called him Boobie. Did he ever tell you that, Zab? One night when he was nine, Boobie didn't come home for dinner, and his mother grew panicky.