Odd Man Out

By Henry Bean

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

He was strong and handsome, and he was the first born; but his mother, indifferent to all that, preferred his brother and viewed him, largely, as a dullard. When she talked with his brother, their conversations were so darting and subtle that his head hurt. He could not follow them and came to think that they were using a kind of code to keep things from him. She spoke to him as she might have to a foreigner or to a child, explaining everything with a laborious simplicity. I’m not that stupid, he wanted to tell her, but didn’t.

His father hardly spoke to him at all, though, it must be admitted, he said precious little to anyone. He was kind and “pious,” whatever that meant, but remote. A servant had hinted that in his youth, the father had suffered some sort of shock, a mysterious incident that had changed him somehow, though no one would talk about it.

Did he start going out into the fields because they did not love him, or did they not love him because he went out into the fields? Whatever the reason, it was there that he found the first makings of himself. He spent endless days hunting and tending the flocks, days in which he might do nothing but track an animal, or sit with the sheep watching clouds form and dissipate — days that, as the poet says, were as long as some men’s entire lives.

In the fields he was part of things, part of the whole, in a way that he never felt part of his family. He did not speak out there and nothing spoke to him — neither human nor divine — and he came to love this silence. In silence, he was fluent; he read the world with his eyes and ears, and his hands spoke for him. This was his birthright: the hot sun, the rough clay, his own appetites and senses. When his brother came out there with him, he jumped at every skittering in the underbrush, but he was master of this realm they knew nothing about. It occurred to him that he might kill his brother out here and attribute it to an animal. The thought so comforted him that the actual killing became unnecessary.

With his gift for silence, he began to feel a kinship with his father, and they spent ever-lengthening intervals together during which hardly a word was exchanged. His own silence, he recognized, lacked the depth and complexity of his father’s, was not born of a mysterious “incident,” yet the surface resemblance pleased him and made him proud. Where his mother or brother might have seen only emptiness in these wordless hours, his father understood their value. Or so he believed — for the old man, taciturn as always, never mentioned it.

Years passed. One day he traded his birthright for food, giving up centuries for a moment of gratification. His father was furious and his mother disgusted (and his brother quietly content), but the loss did not especially trouble him. The birthright seemed to him like piety or the sparkling conversation of his brother and mother: a subtle thing of unfathomable purpose. It seemed to him less a loss than an acknowledgement, a confirmation that he was not part of these people, that their story was not his.

Some time afterward, he took a wife from among the local women, and once again his parents railed at him. He would become a pagan, his mother screamed. He pointed out that his father had married a pagan without becoming one; indeed, the wife herself had grown pious. Why should it be different with his own beloved whom he found as irresistible as red lentils? His mother did not reply, but he knew the answer: He was not like his father. His silence was a mark not of profundity but of its opposite.

It had long since come to seem that when he went out into the fields the world brightened, and when he came home it grew dark. (His brother suggested that perhaps this had something to do with the time of day, and his mother couldn’t stop laughing.) So it was almost unsurprising when he came back that famous afternoon with the venison to find that his father already had eaten (and mere goat at that) and given away the blessing that was due to him. He and his silent father wept at this deceit while his brother and his mother sat quietly in their tent with nothing to say for once.

He hadn’t missed the birthright, but with the blessing they had stolen his father’s love, and their hatred astonished him. Would he have stolen his brother’s blessing, or bartered with him for soup? And was it even hatred, or just their conviction — which had now become his — that he had no place here?

His father died. His brother left. He rarely saw his mother. Gradually the murderous thoughts quieted. He took a new wife from among his own people, hoping to find favor with the mother he had renounced, and she praised him without meaning it. The wife did not please him. He founded a great nation, greater than his brother’s, and rarely had time for the fields.

Henry Bean is a writer and director. His new film, “Noise,” will be shot next spring.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.