And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world. – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a
Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme. – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
On Friday, July 25, two young Arabs were severely beaten in Jerusalem by a group of Jewish Israelis. We read – and see on youtube – mobs of Israeli Jews rioting, shouting “death to the Arabs.” In our wounded Holy Land, hate and violence are on the rise.
What we need now are more people like Chai Moussaioff.
It’s August 25, 1929, the day after Arabs pulled 67 Jewish men, women and children in Hebron from their beds and murdered them. Just like today, gangs of Jews roamed the streets of Jerusalem, looking for revenge.
Rumors of an Arab tile worker in my father’s home in Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter brought a gang of Jews to his doorstep.
My father never told me this story – he was 65 when I was born, had lost his memory by the time I was 10 and died when I was 15 – but my mother told it to me many times in her immigrant English as I was growing up.
Dozens of young boys, their blood is boiling, you know? They knocking the door and he doesn’t want to let anybody in.
My father blocked the door with his body and stopped the gang from entering his home.
My mother continued: The next day, Ribakov, our neighbor, he come, he say, Adon Moussaioff, im ata lo telech, yahargu otcha. Hadam shelahem bo’er. (Mr. Moussaioff, if you don’t leave, they’ll kill you. Their blood is boiling.) My mother peppered her English with Hebrew, French, Bukharian and other languages she picked up in her exiles, migrations and travels.
My father, Chai Moussaioff (known in the U.S., where he eventually settled, as Henry Mason,) was not a political man. Born in Bukhara in 1883, he was brought to Palestine as a child by his father, Shlomo Moussaioff, a businessman, community leader and Judaica collector who helped found Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter. He received a religious education but his main interests were business, astronomy, and chess. He was a registered Democrat and voted for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, the last election he voted in. But he was no leftist.
I don’t know what motivated my father on that fateful day. Maybe it was his religious education. After all, one of the Ten Commandments is Thou shalt not kill. Or maybe he was just doing the right thing.
Was Mr. Ribakov right? Did the gang come after my father?
I’ll never know. My father took the threat seriously and booked passage the next day for China, where he knew he could continue trading in gems. Later, he sent for his wife and her small son, my oldest brother, Sol. My father’s 14-year-old son from his first marriage, Jacques, not much younger than my mother, acted as chaperon. They spent a year in China and India before returning to Jerusalem.
Growing up, I loved this story. My father was old my entire life. He never played catch with me in the backyard, never carried me piggy back. But in the long ago past, he had been a defender of minorities, a fighter for human rights, a hero.
Would he have joined Tag Meir in their visit to the wounded Arab youths at Hadassah Hospital? Would he have signed petitions against university sanctions against students who posted online comments the university didn’t like? I doubt it. He was no activist. But when racism and violence came to his doorstep – as it is today on ours — he knew what to do.