Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

All in the Family?

The Alaev Family. Photocredit: Aliza Ashkenazi Hayon

I used to think that — conceptually — the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were closer to the beginning than the end of the Torah’s journey from the universalism of the creation of the world to the particularism of the Land of Israel. That is, the family dynamics of the patriarchal narratives seemed a bit more time, place and culture specific than the archetypal relationships that characterize the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or Noah and his family. But they seemed a lot less anchored in a specific time, place and culture than Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. Nations, I used to think, with their complex histories, legal and social infrastructures, and ways of constituting identity, are more particularist than families, which, with their parent-child and sibling rivalries, are similar the world over and throughout time.

Esau selling Jacob his birthright, Matthias Stomer, Dutch, 17th century

I can’t remember why I changed my mind. It could have been because first-hand experience opened my eyes to the immense variety within the apparently simple structures of grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren and so forth. I also learned a lot second-hand from my son Jonah’s anthropological fieldwork in Sierra Leone, where family structures bear little resemblance to any I’d previously known. For example, from the moment I arrived to visit him in the maze-like Freetown neighborhood where he lived for a year or so, I understood that I was no longer Jonah’s only mother. The first woman we met when we entered his ‘shtetl’ told me that she was his mum. She wasn’t the last. I soon found out that Jonah had many new aunties and uncles, sisters and brothers …

Jonah and Alimamy
Jonah and Alimamy

And that by extension I too had new ‘relations’.

Diana and SL JonahAt any rate, the particularity of families was strongly reinforced last week by an evening I spent at Israel’s National Library (NLI). An aside: a few days ago, a former CIA director suggested that Vladimir Putin had recruited Donald Trump as an unwitting agent for the Russian Federation. L’havdil, I think my friend Naomi, who recently became the NLI’s Director of Partnerships and External Relations, has recruited me as an unwitting PR agent. This is the second time in a month that I’ve felt compelled to write about a great event at the National library.

This time, the occasion was a five-day documentary film festival. The evening shows were outside, creating a festive atmosphere even when the films were serious. More than five hundred people came to Thursday’s closing event, a documentary about a multi-generation family of musicians originally from Tajhikstan — followed by a live performance.

The Alaev Family. Photocredit: Aliza Ashkenazi Hayon

I’d seen the Alaev Family perform in Jerusalem a few years ago. Without knowing a thing about them, it was impossible to ignore the imposing presence of their founder, mentor, father and grandfather, ‘Papa’ Alaev. But The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev revealed a range of complex family dynamics that I could not have intuited from a musical performance.

הממלכה המופלאה של פאפא אלאייב. צילום: זוהר רון
The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev: official trailer

Without question, Papa Alaev was the driving force behind his family. When the Soviet Union collapsed and war broke out in Tajhikstan — no problem! — he brought them all to Israel. They settled in a single house in Rishon L’Zion, a floor for each nuclear family; Papa was convinced that survival depended on proximity.

Even in the communal kitchen, the home’s beating heart, Papa ran the show. Mama was head chef, various daughters-in-law shared the work, and Papa oversaw the whole operation, issuing strict instruction about the production — in vast pots — of various Bukharan delicacies. He even monitored the purchase of fresh ingredients in the local shuk; not a carrot or a tomato entered the Alaev house without his approval.

But Papa’s burning drive was most in evidence when it came to music. A star percussionist in Tajhikstan, he’d passed on his talent, determination and enthusiasm to his children and grandchildren, every one of whom appeared to be at least as gifted as him. He attributed all this to his mother, who’d played the doyra (between a drum and a tambourine).

There seemed to be no hour of the day when an Alaev wasn’t playing music, composing music, or planning the family’s busy schedule of concerts and tours. Before they could walk, Alaev babies were drumming their fingers on plastic plates held aloft like tambourines. The youngest performer in the post-film concert was 5 year-old Avraham. Along with the Williamses of tennis fame and, of course, the Jacksons, the Alaevs belong to that category of families that comprise at least one extremely ambitious parent and at least two extremely talented children.

As with the Williamses and the Jacksons, all was not plain sailing for the Alaevs. A point of tension that surfaced immediately in the movie was gender. Papa’s oldest daughter, Ada, though a gifted qanun (think zither) player, had stopped performing by the time she had her own child. But she resented it. When the family moved to Israel she — by then a single mother — was the first to go out to work while the others got back on their feet. Her young son meanwhile was growing up under Papa’s wing and developing as a musician himself — a recipe for conflict that no amount of the blintzes doled out in Mama’s (that is, Savta’s not Eema’s) kitchen could fix.

At present, two of Papa’s granddaughters play violin in the band. Amanda, a mere 11 1/2 years old, also sang a couple of numbers — with incredible confidence and charisma — at the post-film concert. But Papa’s disappointed daughter had predicted in the film that this wouldn’t last; the granddaughters too would have to stay at home once they got married. I hope she’s wrong, and that Aviva, the older of the two violinists, finds her way to the kind of music she loves, which is not, as she noted apologetically in the film, Bukharan Groove.

Another source of tension was religion. Amir, one of Papa’s grandsons, had become observant and no longer wanted to play on Shabbat. A performance that had been scheduled for 4pm on Friday afternoon had to be moved to 2pm so Amir could get home before candle-lighting, and even then he had to slip out early. Amir’s father tried to convince him that the family’s traditional approach to Shabbat — synagogue in the morning if necessary and music in the afternoon — worked well enough. Amir was not persuaded, but since he was on stage for the post-film concert, the tension must have been managed if not resolved.

A tension that was not resolved was between Papa, his embittered daughter Ada and her protective son, Zvike. One of the film’s most painful moments was Papa’s 81st birthday party. Mother and son had been rehearsing with a new band; not only were the musicians unrelated to them, they weren’t even Bukharan. What was intended as a birthday surprise for Papa turned into a battle call. Papa got up from the table and walked out, unmoved by seeing his daughter reunited with her qanun and playing alongside her only son.

The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev: official trailer

It felt right that the gifted and articulate Zvike should go his own way, taking his mother with him. But that didn’t lessen the discomfort that at least some audience members experienced when it became clear that mother and son would not be joining the family on stage at the closing concert. It felt almost voyeuristic to watch a performance by a family who’d just bared their souls for the camera. I found it especially hard to look at Papa, still tall and proud, especially during his remarkable solo, but visibly wounded. Before long, though, the Alaevs’ talent, exuberance and sheer professionalism won out; the audience was on its feet clapping, dancing and singing along.

Yes, the family dynamics we’d witnessed in the film exist in many other families. But what emerged far more strongly than universal pattern of behavior was a sense of historical and cultural particularity.The Alaevs are a product of one version of twentieth century Jewish experience that combined with their off-the-charts abilities and strong personalities to make them what they are. On the spectrum of universalism to particularism — from the Garden of Eden to the Land of Israel — there’s little doubt where this family lies.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.