When their arguments grew fierce, he packed a few items in a bag and moved, at 17, into the B'Nai Zaken camp, sleeping on a cot surrounded by Hebrew verses and symbols of the 12 original tribes sketched on the walls. He studied the passages about Jacob's 12 sons, from whose loins those tribes had sprung, and searched for the one whose characteristics best matched his own: That was how a modern Israelite identified the tribe he was descended from and the name he should take. In Genesis 49:8 he found these words, spoken by Jacob on his deathbed to his fourth son, Judah:
Judah, your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies.
Your father's sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion's whelp....
Who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah
Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet
Until he comes to whom it belongs.
Oh, yes. In a flash he was Boobie no more. He was a Judah, Yo'el Judah, from the tribe of lions and warriors. He was the perfect recruit, a disciplined foot soldier willing to stand sentry in the cold for hours and ward off threats from gangs, to scrub the camp spotless and to fast without complaint in preparation for feast days. So skilled was he in the martial arts, which the Israelites prized, that soon Yo'el was teaching the camp's karate class. By age 18 the foot soldier had demonstrated so much discipline and gained so much respect that Yaakov Nasi Benyehudah, the spiritual leader of B'nai Zaken and several other camps in New York and Chicago, declared him an Israelite prince, the equivalent of a minister.
Now he wore a turban along with his braids and robe and wooden staff. Now he was at the fore of a thousand robed males—chests thrust out, ornate staffs clicking the asphalt, gold chains and Star of David earrings flashing—when the Israelite congregations converged on feast days and marched through Brooklyn's streets. "Power, glory, unity," he'd say. "That's what I felt. It was something worth living for. Yo, it was the beginning of a nation."
One fringe camp of Israelites, based in Harlem, ranted on street corners and called the white man a devil, but Yo'el and most of the other camps did not believe that. In his dashiki and headdress he'd stroll into a kosher takeout deli at the corner of Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway, the heart of a heavily Hasidic Jewish community, and eavesdrop on bearded Hasidim in black frocks as they babbled in astonishment about him, never dreaming he understood Hebrew. Then he'd undo their lower mandibles by exiting with a cheery, "Shalom aleichem, haverim!" ("Peace unto you, friends!")
On the streets, he'd inhale what he missed most inside camp walls: the adrenaline rush of risk, the urge that once sent him leaping onto moving ice cream trucks to pirate popsicles for himself and his friends. He tried to resist it. Honest, he did. But your dad was barely 20, Zab, and inside him still lived the fatherless boy aching to belong and full of contradiction. He began to hang out with a gang called the Tomahawks, young men he'd known for years, and sometimes at night he fought alongside them against rival gangs in Brownsville, Brooklyn's most hellish 'hood. He became a sort of big brother to a thick, powerful kid who was too young to be a Tomahawk but was a promising trainee. Kid's name was Tyson. Kid loved living on the edge, and the chaos it brought, even more than your dad did. After a few months Yo'el and the Tomahawks parted ways.
One night, a Jewish feast day, the Israelites were banging down shots of Slivovitz and dancing to Motown on their jukebox in the rec room at camp. It was O.K.—plenty of examples of patriarchs catching a buzz could be cited in the Torah. Yo'el's 21-year-old head began to spin: A young woman who had taken Idah as her Israelite name was looking better every minute, and Dinah, who was pregnant with Yo'el's first child, was nowhere to be seen.
Having two women was common among the 60 men in his camp, but only the bravest dared three. Yo'el took Idah's hand and slipped away from the party late that night: Thus your half-sister Elishebah was begotten. He returned to Dinah's arms, and after the birth of their son Ariel they conceived their second child, Daniel. Then Yo'el found himself in the embrace of your mom, a feisty young beauty, a green belt he'd met at the dojo who'd taken Yemima as her Israelite name.
Zabdiel, she called you—Yoel's fourth child, by three women, in 16 months. Your name means Gift from God.