Latest update: May 4th, 2012
I didn’t intend to make this blog a history of how I came to Israel, but since it started off in that direction, it’s a good time to explain how a totally assimilated Jew living in Hollywood got turned on to Torah and ended up trashing fame and fortune in America for a simple life in the Holy Land.
When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform Jewish synagogue in New England. We went to temple on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, lit Hanukah candles, had a Christmas tree to be like the neighbors, ate matzah on Seder night and candy eggs on Easter. I remember the reform rabbi telling us in Hebrew School that the splitting of the Red Sea occurred, not through any miracle by G-d, but because a severe drought had dried up the sea, and a freak, sudden rainstorm brought a massive flood that drowned the Egyptians immediately after the Jews had managed to cross on dry land. His explanation sounded so ludicrous to me, I didn’t want to bother having a bar-mitzvah. But my parents insisted. Since, the congregation had outgrown our old temple, and the new one was still under construction, my bar-mitzvah ceremony was held in a Unitarian church. To me, that’s a perfect symbol for being a Jew in America, where you are totally immersed in a foreign, gentile culture. Growing up Jewish in America is like growing up in a great big church. Even if you live in a strictly-kosher ghetto, the World Series, Michael Jackson, Christmas decorations, the Oscars, and the NY Daily News are waiting for you the minute you cross the street.
For high school, I went to a very prestigious and snobby private school in Massachusetts. Out of the 800 students, there were only a handful of Jews. We had to pray on Sundays in the basement of the campus church. Upstairs in this gigantic, impressive cathedral, the rest of the students and the faculty were gathered in prayer, and we were stuck out of sight in the basement, as if we belonged to some third-class religion. That’s how I related to Judaism as well. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But it was impossible to escape the reality that I was Jewish. After afternoon sports, everyone had to shower in the same locker room. In those days, the gentiles didn’t have their foreskins removed at birth in the hospital, so once again we Jews were the odd men out. It was a vivid sign for all to see that we were different from the goyim. But I wasn’t proud of it then. I wanted to be like everyone else.
Most of my graduating class was accepted into universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. I decided to go to NYU Film School where I spent four years in the dark, watching hundreds of movies. The year after I graduated, I wrote a screenplay that became a Hollywood movie, called “Law and Disorder,” starring Caroll O’Conner and Ernest Borgnine. I also sold a novel to a top New York publisher. I was sure that I was on my way to attain my dream of becoming “The Great American Novelist.” Watch out Norman Mailer and Philip Roth! Here comes Fishman!
I tried to play the part by looking as American as Paul Newman. But weird things kept happening, as if God were trying to remind me who I really was. For instance, the summer before my novel hit the bookstores, I decided to make a literary pilgrimage to Europe, in the footsteps of the famous American writers, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway before me. I crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner and disembarked at the French port of Cherbourg. Remember, in those days I was clean shaven, without a big kippah and giant beard. As I was walking along the dock, a Mercedes Benz drove by and the driver yelled out, “Heil Hitler!” They were the first words I heard in Europe. It was freaky.
When I got back to America, my novel had been published. So I went to the publisher’s publicity department and suggested they send my picture to TV talk shows. After all, I was a good-looking guy. They agreed to try a campaign in the State of Florida. Sure enough, five talk-show producers immediately phoned back to book me on their shows. But when I flew down to Florida, I couldn’t find my book in the bookstores. Furious, I appeared on the talk shows and revealed all the smut I knew about the publishing company. The talk-show hosts loved it, but back in New York, my editor was aghast. He phoned me frantically to apologize and beg me to stop, but I was angry about their screw up. What was the point of my appearing on TV if my novel wasn’t in any of the stores? At that time, success was the most important thing to me in the world. When I got back to New York, the vice-president of the publishing company invited me to a meeting in his plush, skyscraper office.
When I demanded to know what had happened, he answered, “The problem is your name.”
At first, I didn’t understand what he was hinting at. My name? Fishman? What was the matter with my name? Then the light dawned on me. “You mean because I am a Jew,” I asked incredulously.
I mean, this was America, not Europe – the land of George Washington and the cherry tree, where all men are equal.
“That’s right,” he admitted. “Look,” he confessed. “My name isn’t Higgins, it is Cohen, but I changed it to get a job here. I personally like your book, but this company hates Jews.”
Not long afterward, the movie that I wrote was released with an all-star cast. The producer called me in and asked what kind of film I wanted to write next? I told him that I had read a great book about the Holocaust, a bestseller at the time, filled with action, courage, and romance. He rejected the idea, saying, “I’m not going to make a movie whose hero is a Jew.” Even though my Jewishness wasn’t a big part of my life, I felt like he had spit in my face. But I was determined to make it as a writer, so I wiped off the spit and moved out to Hollywood, the city of Lost Angels.
In a short time, I sold two more original screenplays that were made into films. I had money, a cool apartment by the beach, a sexy sports car, membership at a health club filled with beautiful California girls – in short the American Dream. In the morning, I used to play racket ball with the great basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain, then work-out in the weight room with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was just starting his movie career. After slimnastics class with Susie, Wendy, Cindy, Sally, and Jane, I’d spend the afternoon at the beach, working on my tan. Nights were spent prowling the discos, may the Almighty forgive me. When in Rome do as the Romans do. But the truth is that I was not particularly happy. With each new conquest and success, I felt that something was missing. I thought maybe if I sold a script for more money, or bought a fancier car, or dated a new up-and-coming starlet, then I would be happy. But it didn’t help. Each new success and acquisition left me feeling empty inside. Now I know the reason for my darkness – even though I was wallowing in physical pleasures, I wasn’t giving any nourishment to my soul. Then I became physically ill.
I developed a severe case of ulcerative colitis. Twenty times a day, I would have to race to the bathroom with a diarrhea attack, and only blood would pour out. It blew my mind completely. Here I was, rocketing up the ladder of success in Hollywood, and I had to spend half my day in the bathroom. I had to take large doses of cortisone, which blew up my face like a beach ball. Seeing myself in the mirrors of the health club, I didn’t recognize the monster staring back. Try making a pass at a UCLA cheerleader when you have a face like Quasimodo. After a month, the cortisone would dry up the bleeding, but the minute I got off the drug, the bleeding returned, more furious than before. After a year of being sick, I started to see a shrink, figuring that my head must be screwed up as well. I didn’t realize that it was America that was screwed up, and that I simply didn’t belong there, a holy Jewish soul trying to keep up with the celebrities and all of their unholy ways. At that time, I hadn’t heard about Rabbi Akiva, and I didn’t realize that my bleeding was all for the best – a Heavenly wake-up call, so to speak, warning me that I was on a glamorous track to hell. Even though I was bleeding my guts out, I kept on living my same sordid Hollywood life.
After two years, when the medicine failed to cure me, I started out on a spiritual quest. I tried everything. Health food, macrobiotics, holistic massage, yoga, I Ching, acupuncture, gestalt, Tarot cards, not to mention a variety of mind-expanding drugs. Remember, this was back in the days of Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock. One day, I was sitting on the beach with a friend who happened to be from Israel. He had left the Holy Land to make it as an actor in Hollywood. Though he had abandoned most Torah observance, he had been raised in an Orthodox family and still always put on tefillin. Today, he has a beard longer than mine. He lives in Safed, studies Torah all through the night in tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and organizes the Breslov community’s Rosh HaShanah extravaganza in Uman. But way back then, he was just another screwed-up Jew like me, trying to make it big in Tinsel Town.
Out of the blue, he asked me why I didn’t know anything about Judaism? The question hit me like a sledgehammer. I had learned about world history. I had read Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Thoreau. I had studied the sciences, the arts, literature, and during my spiritual quest I had checked out books about Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like. But I knew absolutely nothing about Judaism. Ever since the reform rabbi’s phony explanation of the splitting of the sea, I had never thought to open a Jewish text. During my shrink period, I had read dozens of books about psychology, and I had studied enough Sigmund Freud to know that if you avoid something close to you, that’s a sure sign that you have a psychological block, a deep inner fear which paralyzes you from confronting your true self.
His question blew my mind. That very afternoon I bought a Bible and started to read: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” When I read those words, my gaze shot up to the sky.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “God really exists, and I haven’t paid any attention to Him since my bar mitzvah.”
I kept turning pages as if I were reading the screenplay of an action adventure. First, God tells Avraham to go to the Land of Israel. Then He tells Moshe to free the Jews and take them to the Land of Israel. Over and over again, God tells the Jews that He is giving them the commandments of the Torah to do them in the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel, the Land of Israel, the Land of Israel, over and over again. At the time, I knew nothing about Eretz Yisrael. Sure, I had heard about the Yom Kippur War, but as a super-assimilated Jew, Israel was simply not a part of my weltanschauung. Yet according to the simple, straightforward reading of the Bible, it was clear that God wanted His People to live in the Land of Israel, and not in America. But wherever you went in Los Angeles, the place was filled with Jews. Either the Torah wasn’t true, I thought, or the Jews in LA shouldn’t be there.
Man, was I ever confused.
(To be continued)Tzvi Fishman
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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