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Robert Israel Kabakoff
Robert Israel Kabakoff

Sacrifice: the missing Jewish ethic 

Maybe it’s me. Let’s get this out right away. Maybe I’m just a frustrated little man looking to vent his inner savage. It’s possible, but with my background over more than six decades? Not likely. Probably, more likely, is that as a man who has lived a fairly rich and varied set of experiences, and who has focused intently on this topic almost all that time, I have some useful observations to make. So here goes.

First, permit me to begin with a brief but illustrative anecdote. I’ll keep the contextual details to a necessary minimum.

Back in my early thirties, while recovering from a two-year binge of hedonistic, nihilistic abandon and its resultant self-destruction, I found myself driving the night shift for a suburban car service in the town next to the one I spent my teenage years in. Based at the local train station, the lion’s share of clientele were commuters heading towards or returning from work in the city, almost all of whom were complete strangers to me before then. The decade before and leading up to this point were spent rather successfully as a self-employed trucker living in a top floor studio in one of the higher-rent enclaves nearby, the so-called Five Towns, where I enjoyed the benefits of the eighty’s economy, my work ethic and an abundant New York City market. I employed people, mostly moonlighting friends: cops, union tradesmen and college guys, paid them well, rode a perfectly customized motorcycle, drove a beautiful BMW and owned a classy, white, highly functional F350 Econoline box-truck, had a maid, laundry service, traveled the world, all paid for in honestly earned cash and to top it off? A very pretty, sweet, former cheerleader, live-in girlfriend a decade my junior. And I felt great about myself. But that was before the fall.

While driving for the car service, I wore a slightly oversized fisherman’s cap pulled down over my brow as far as possible without interfering with my ability to navigate, trying to shield myself from the shame of my current circumstances by hiding beneath it in the unlikely but possible event I’d be recognized by any former acquaintances, which aside once or twice never happened.

One evening, a returning commuter gets into the back seat, announces his destination, and then sits back to relax for the ten- or fifteen-minute ride. All I’m really thinking about then is how much of a tip he might give me, until after a few minutes’ drive, I hear him say: “Kabbo? Is that you?” By calling me by my teenage nickname, I knew for sure I was busted. Nailed. He knew who I was. Looking into the rear-view mirror to get a closer look and maybe recognize the guy, though I didn’t I still affirmed his suspicion. “Yeah,” I replied. “How you doin’?” To which he responds with another question, “do you remember me?” “No, sorry man, I don’t. It’s been a while.” “That’s cool,” he continues, “but I’ll never forget you.” Uh-oh, now I think to myself. My adolescence and teenage days were a time of relative sociopathic violence, selfishness and cruelty, when I had exactly zero regard for the feelings, property, or safety of others. My philosophy of life, my ethic was based on sharing my pain: if I hurt? You’ll hurt. And I hurt all the time. So, him saying he’d never forget me was dread inducing. What had I done to this strait-laced looking chap? Robbed his house? Stolen his drugs? Insulted him publicly? Broken his nose? Worse?

Mystery quickly solved. “You heard that I had made some type of comment about ‘Hitler being right’ and gave me a shot in the face it took two weeks to heal from. You woke me up to the pain I caused and I never said anything like that again. And I want to thank you.” Wow. Yeah, that was Kabbo. I didn’t remember because that was no big deal at the time, not a stand out event because I was fighting people for all kinds of reasons those days, that surely was one of them. In fact, I was the go-to guy for the Jewish kids in town who wanted their Jewish honor defended, one of them told me about his remark and wanted his honor defended, but by someone else, mind you. Someone willing to take the risk of making the possible but ultimately necessary sacrifice. Things might go bad. A price might have to be paid. I might get hurt, or in trouble, maybe both. Who knows how bad or how much? I was a pretty compact fellow, even today, but because of how I was raised, that hardly ever stopped me from exploding with rage when triggered, and insulting Jewish honor, or threats like that were and remain a sensitive trigger. “No problem,” I laughed, “glad I could help.”

I don’t remember the tip, but I remember the story and the lesson we both learned. Folks talk about “combatting antisemitism” all the time. We, as a klal, will go to great lengths to express our pain, fear, and frustration, demanding an “end to Jew hatred” via sympathy, understanding, support, legislation, education, and, as a last resort? The protection of others. We build innumerable Holocaust memorials; monuments to the cult of eternal Jewish victimhood, write essays, hold symposiums, fund museums, offer graduate degrees, make films, publish books, essays, op-eds, white-papers, reports, statistics, blog-posts, letters to editors, or when really riled up maybe even hold a march, anything and everything except the sine qua non of any fight: taking the risk of sacrifice in order to impose a cost, a real and dissuasive one on our tormentors; teach them a lesson no one could possibly ignore or ever forget, a lesson.

Reliably, every time and for as long as it takes. Open ended. Like their hate is, an eye for an eye in a quaint, old phrase I  musta’ picked up somewhere. Hence? It never ends, while we keep deluding ourselves by asking why and who will be for me? I think I know the why, certainly a very meaningful part of it just laid out, and I think most people reading this do too. Our “fight” is highly conditional, and without accepting risk of loss? No real fight at all. More a pose, less a battle, and that hardly convinces anyone, let alone our foes, so why stop when it’s so rewarding and virtually cost free, our denial, delusion and self-centered fear, i.e., cowardice keeping it that way. So, my question is not why or who or how but when?

About the Author
Robert is a life-long New Yorker, working actor, author and world traveler.
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