September 21, 2018

My Rock and Redeemer

“Tabby, being here with you reminds me of how your mom and I used to take you and your sister to Farah Park [in Tehran] when you were little. I would sit you both in the grass and wonder what awaited you in Iran, and whether you would know missiles or miracles.”

These were my father’s words during Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebration at a soundstage at Universal Studios on June 10, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. My father has been my date to this annual event, wherever it’s been held, for over a decade.

Year after year, there we are — former protected Jewish refugees from Iran; civilian survivors of the hideous Iran-Iraq War; first-hand witnesses of the brutality of unchallenged theocracy; eternally indebted Americans with expired Iranian passports — at a VIP function officially hosted by Israel.

Year after year, as we mingle with fabulous bigwigs, the same thought crosses my mind: I wish these people knew our story. 

This year, as we waited among attendees aiming to snag a bite of dessert, my father and I had the same thought: Remember when we had to wait in the ration lines at 5 a.m. during the war just to have some milk and eggs? 

I served as director of academic affairs for the consulate from 2005-08. Officially serving for Israel remains the greatest accomplishment I have ever known. Nothing will ever compare with that exquisite experience, in all its charming, chain-smoking Israeli glory. 

“Look what you’ve accomplished,” my father said at the event as his eyes scanned the huge venue, reflecting back his own lack of knowledge about most of the names and faces of glamorous guests. 

“Baba,” I said in Persian, “Everything I am, everything I’ve done, and everything I’ll do … is because of you.” Since I’ve almost never seen the man cry, I repeat these words to him often in the hope of breaking his tough exterior.

My father escaped Iran with two little girls and a wife in tow, while I have found a way to drive from Westwood to the Miracle Mile using only side streets.

I am a Zionist because of my father, who tried to run away from home to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 war, only to be stopped at the Tehran airport by his frantic mother and father.

One traumatic evening in the late 1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, my father desperately scooped up my sister and me — one of us under each arm — during a devastating Iraqi aerial bombardment, while my hysterical mother held tightly to his pajamas and we all escaped our home lest it would crumble on us. My father managed to pick me up seconds before a 6-foot-tall window shattered over where I was sitting cross-legged in our hallway, sobbing in the dark and calling out for my parents in my high-pitched 6-year-old voice. 

The truth is that I haven’t done a damn thing compared to my father. He managed to escape Iran with two little girls and a wife in tow almost 10 years after the revolution, while I have found a way to drive from Westwood to the Miracle Mile using only side streets. 

During the High Holy Days, we often refer to God as “our Father.” The Shemoneh Esrei prayer (also known as the Amidah), the heart of our liturgy, refers to God as “our Rock and our Redeemer.” I realized long ago, somewhere amid the hell and burning sky of that one particular night back in Tehran, that I had a rock above me in the form of a loving God, and a rock physically holding me in the form of my father. And when we finally arrived in America, I understood that my redeemer above had sent me a redeemer on Earth, and he was holding my hand when we landed in Los Angeles in 1989, where we inhaled that first, glorious air of freedom and nachos.

During the June 10 event, sometime between standing together to sing “Hatikvah” and listening to celebrity speaker Mayim Bialik tout Israel’s wonderful water achievements, I turned to my father, and his eyes were welled with tears. Water had broken my rock.

I love you, Baba. Thank you for saving us. Happy Father’s Day.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.