Sample Story "A Father's Gift" from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning

by Noa Baum from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel [Eds] with Peninnah Schram, Cherie Karo-Schwartz and Arthur Strimling

     Bilal grew up in Lahore, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. When he was a young boy there was a war between India and Pakistan, and Bilal asked his father:
     “Baba, why do the Muslims and Hindus hate each other? Why is there all this war?”
     His father said, “When you’re older, we’ll talk about it.”

     A few years later, Bilal turned thirteen, and his family traveled to visit his uncle up north. Bilal loved those visits! His uncle’s house had a courtyard with a large fountain in the center. Along the walls surrounding the courtyard were all the rooms, with the kitchen on one side and an open stairway leading to the second floor on the other. He loved the house. He loved eating outside, sitting on low stools near the fountain, but most of all he loved playing with all his cousins around the great banyan tree in the back of the house.He and his cousins were about to go climb the great banyan tree when his father called him.
     “Come, Bilal, it’s time to answer your question.”
     “What question?”
     But instead of answering, his father took him by the hand and led him up the stairs to the second floor, walking along the balcony corridor above the courtyard below until he stopped in front of the last door. Bilal could not believe it: his father was taking him to the attic room! The only room in the house that was ever locked—The Jinn Room—the ghost room that his cousins told spooky stories about!
     “Baba, I...I don’t want to go in there. I want to go play!”
     “You’ll play later,” his father replied. “Come, there’s something I need to show you.”
     His father unlocked the door, and Bilal followed him into the dim room. A few rays of sunlight filtered through the slits of the closed wooden shutters. It looked like a storage room. Everything was covered with dust: old cots and chairs, his grandfather’s helmet and old musket from the British army, boxes and a large wooden trunk. Outside the window he could hear his cousins playing under the big banyan tree. He really did not want to be in this dusty place that smelled of old things. But his father opened the trunk and brought out a large leather-bound book.

“Come closer, Bilal,” he said. “Look, this is our Bahi—the book of our family's history. It passes down from the oldest to the oldest sons—that is why it is here, in your uncle’s house, my oldest brother. You need to know what’s in it. Open it, but be very gentle.”
     Bilal had never seen anything so old. It had about 200 pages. Carefully and slowly he opened it. On the first page, written in ink, were 10 names, and there he saw his own name, Bilal Ahmed Sahi, right above his brother Jamal and sister Sarah! And there was his father’s name,Ghulam Sahi, and his mother, Naeema Cheema Sahi. There were the names of his uncles and aunts and cousins. He turned the pages, and on each page were 10 names, the names of more uncles, aunts and cousins, his grandparents, and their parents. Everyone that he knew or ever heard about was written in there.
     “Hey, that’s us!” he said. “All our family is here!”
     His father smiled. “Yes, all our family is here. Turn the page.” 

     Bilal turned the page. Once again there were 10 names, but the names were different. He read: Singh Gurmeet Singh Sahi. That was not a Muslim name! He looked at his father.
     “These are not Muslims. They are Sikh names—they can’t be our family!”
     His father said: “Yes, they are your family, too. Keep looking. Turn the pages.”
     Once again Bilal turned the pages, and soon the paper was very brittle. And the names…Anil Sahi.
     “Anil!? What kind of a name is this?”
     “That’s a Hindu name,” said his father.
     “Hindus?” he cried.
     “Yes,” replied his father. “They are your family, too. Keep going.”
     The paper was almost disintegrating now as he kept turning the pages and reading the names. Then the paper became parchment, and after several pages the names were not even Hindu. He had no idea what kind of names these were, and after a few more pages, the script was so strange he could no longer read it.
     He looked up at his father. “I don’t understand. What does this mean?”
     Bilal’s father always encouraged his children to come to their own conclusions.
     Whenever they would ask, “What does that mean?” His father would say, “Well, that’s for you to think about.”
     But this time his father said, “You asked about the hate, remember? Now you can see yourself that we’re all the same. God lives in everything. Don’t you let anyone ever tell you to hate another because you know now that they are all here, in this book: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews. They are all your family.”
     Bilal was only 13 and couldn’t wait to get away from his father's serious musings and that stuffy attic room, so he said, “Can I go now?”
     Off he ran to play with his cousins and soon forgot all about that conversation.Many years passed. Bilal became a doctor, moved to the US and now lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. 

     One day after his father passed away, Bilal heard about The National Geographic’s Genome Project through which, according to your DNA, they can map your family’s travels throughout the world and you can also find out your genetic ancestral origin. According to the DNA, there are specific markers for specific population groups; if your markers match the markers of someone else, you’re genetically most closely related to that person, and they give that person your e-mail.Like his father, Bilal was interested in history and genealogy and decided to find out his genetic heritage. He ordered the kit from The National Geographic’s Genome Project, and sent in a cheek swab in a little vial with preservative solution. A little vial with a number. No name. No name at all.
     After a few weeks, the results came back. There was a map of the world tracing where his ancestors had been: like all of us, they, too, came from Africa, moved to central Asia and spent around 5000 years in Ukraine, then in Poland and Denmark. Then about 5000 years ago, they started moving to India and ended up in northern India 1000 years ago. Soon the e-mails from his genetic relations began to arrive.
     He received an e-mail from L. Frieberg. Another arrived from David Barry Baum, and others from Maurice Krasnow, Clayton Schultz, Ed Leviten, Jack Salzstein. It seemed that according to the DNA results, the most recent genetic relatives of Dr. Bilal Ahmed, the Pakistani Muslim, were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland…
     It was then that Bilal remembered. He looked at his thirteen year-old daughter and said, “You know, when I was about your age, my father gave me a very special gift. He took me up to the attic of my uncle’s house and showed me our Bahi, the family book…”
     And he told her the story. Bilal has been telling that story to his children ever since. He tells it at every opportunity so that they will never forget his father’s words: “Don’t you let anyone ever tell you to hate another, because you can see —they are all your family.”

BUY NOW: Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Evolution and Learning
(free downloadable discussion guide, too!)

Provenance:I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel. I grew up in a perpetual state of fear, conflict, and wars. I grew up longing for peace, but not knowing what it feels like. Here in the openness of America I tasted it. Today I use storytelling to help heal divides of identity and build bridges of dialogue and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, within the Jewish community and between people ofall faiths. I often lead interfaith workshops between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Atsuch an interfaith workshop, in Rochester, NY, one of the participants was a PakistaniMuslim, Dr. Bilal Ahmed, who shared a story about a special gift he received in his life. He offered his story to me to shape and tell, and wanted me to pass on his father’s gift. I offer it here to you.

Noa Baum was born and raised in Jerusalem; she is trained in theater and education. Noa is an award-winning storyteller who focuses on her craft’s power to heal across the divides of identity. Her show, A Land Twice Promised, relives her heartfelt dialogue with a Palestinian woman, illuminating the complex and contradictory history and emotions surrounding Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Since 1982, Noa’s performances and interactive workshops have captivated and inspired audiences internationally. Noa studied with Uta Hagen in New York and received an MA in Educational theater from NYU.

BUY NOW: Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Evolution and Learning
(free downloadable discussion guide, too!)