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.