April 29, 2023, Italy


The final resting place of my ancestor, Don Itzchak Abrabanel

The older generation in my family, all immigrants from Europe, spoke of the United States of America as the Land of Opportunities. Note that they did not speak of the Land of Gold, or the Land of free handouts. No, all they were looking for was the opportunity to compete equally with others, something denied to them for two millennia in Christian dominated Europe. In America they were free to compete with others, they had opportunities. Many Jews became very successful, and in turn were hated for this. 

In Europe Jews were always restricted, to Jewish quarters, to "Jew Street", they could not enter universities, professional guilds etc, but America! America was the land of opportunity, and that is all they asked for.

No one in my family became rich, but that never dampened their enthusiasm, and gratefulness to America. My late grandfather Moe Katz would joke that in America when you entered a diner or restaurant, they even had money waiting for you on the table, "What a great country!" of course he knew this was a tip left by the previous diner and soon the waitress would clear the table and take her tip. 

Europe had very few opportunities for Jews. In most parts of Germany even marriage was a challenge as only one son per Jewish family was allowed to marry. This was understandable of course, no one wants too many Jews. In America everyone had an equal chance, if you worked hard enough.

Now of course this was not entirely true, as the animated movie "An American Tail" tells, Fievel the Mouse Mousekewitz , and others like him, come to America believing that "there are no cats in America", (i.e. in other words, there is no Jew hatred in America, Fievel is a Jewish Yiddish name, the message is very clear, Fievel the mouse represents the European Jew, the "Cats", are the Christian anti Semites, the Jews believed America had no cats, but the film teaches that the Fievel was in for a rude awakening. America too has its shares of cats, but it is not institutionalized like in Europe.) 

Fievel was the same name of Steven Spielberg's (executive producer of the film) grandfather, whose stories as an immigrant influenced the movie.

For Jews such as the Spielberg family, my own, and thousands of others, America was the Golden Land of Opportunity. Challenges? Yes, Jew Haters? Plenty, but Opportunities!

I am in Italy, the city of Padova. My dear mother, may she rest in peace, was very proud to be a direct descendant of the great scholar, statesman, humanist, Don Itzchak Abrabanel. Abarbanel was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into one of the oldest and most distinguished Iberian Jewish families. the Abravanel or Abarbanel family, had escaped the massacre in Castile in 1391.

He did a great deal to help his fellow Jews. He was not only a great scholar but a financial genius and did much to enhance the wealth pf the kings of Portugal and of Castile, later Spain. During the Moorish War, Abarbanel advanced considerable sums of money to the king. When the Jews were ordered banished by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain with the Alhambra Decree, he did all in his power to induce the king to revoke the edict. He unsuccessfully offered the king 30,000 ducats ($68,400 nominal value). He left Spain with his fellow Jews and went to Naples, where, soon after, he entered the service of the king. For a short time, he lived in peace undisturbed, but when the city was taken by the French, bereft of all his possessions, he followed the young king, Alfonso, in 1495, to Messina, then went to Corfu; in 1496, settled in Monopoli, and lastly in 1503 settled in Venice, where his services were employed in negotiating a commercial treaty between Portugal and the Venetian republic.

He died in Venice in 1508 and was buried in Padova next to its rabbi, Judah Minz. His books and Biblical commentaries are studied to this very day. His influence and his legacy live on. 

It was a fulfilment of a life-long dream to honor this family member by visiting his final resting place. Now, how, you might ask, does this relate to Krav Maga, self defense, and opportunities?

Don Itzchak did everything in his power to save his people, he used his gift of speech, he used his political influence and his used his money. Sadly, this was not enough, and doom fell upon the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, Al Andalus. As I looked upon the final resting place of his physical remains I pondered; the Jews of those years, of Europe, did not have opportunities for self-defense, but we do. 

And the question is; what do we do with those opportunities? In most cases, the answer, sadly, is nothing. We are as helpless as those who never had any opportunities, the only difference is that with most of us, it is our own choice, not our predetermined fate. 

To me, as I gaze upon his final resting place, finally at peace after a very turbulent life, I see the embodiment of a man who use all his resources, physical, spiritual and mental for the betterment of mankind. May he memory be a blessing to us all. 

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”  (Horace Mann, May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859)

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