Before setting off to the Holy Land, I decided to visit my parents for a week, since who knew how long I was going to be in Israel? The first morning at home, my Dad called from work, saying that he bumped into an old friend of mine who wanted to see me. So I drove over to the bookstore where the guy worked. As I am talking to him about my upcoming trip to Israel, a very attractive woman enters the store and starts browsing up and down the aisles. “That’s a coincidence,” he says. “She’s an Israeli.”
After a few minutes, she came to the cash register, holding a book on Kabbalah. When my friend introduced us, her face lit up, ecstatic to meet the writer of the popular novel that everyone in my hometown was talking about. Nationwide, sales had been disappointing, but in my hometown everyone had read it, certain that the novel’s characters and scandalous intrigues were based on an all-star cast of community locals. When my friend told her that I was on my way to Israel, she invited me to her apartment, saying she would give me the names and phone numbers of a lot of influential friends. Her divorced husband, she said, was a TV celebrity who knew everyone in Israel. When we arrived at her pad, she excused herself, saying she wanted to change into something more comfortable.
“Uh oh,” I thought.
At that time, I hadn’t yet reached the story about Yosef and Potifar’s wife, so I had to resist her charms on my own. It was another miracle.
“Oh come off it. Don’t be such a party pooper,” she said when I explained that I was becoming religious. “You’re too good looking to be a rabbi.”
At least God was pleased that I passed the test. I was rewarded with a long list of names of people in Israel, one being an old lady in Jerusalem, an incredibly holy tzaddekis, like a prophetess out of the past, who let me stay at her home, as if I were part of the family. Every morning, she would wake me at five and push me out the door, tefillin in hand, to pray at the Kotel.
Once again, to make a long story short, on that first visit, before I became involved with Volunteers for Israel, like I described in my first two blogs for The Jewish Press, I traveled all over the country looking for God. I prayed at the gravesites of all of the tzaddikim and holy rabbis of the past, dunked myself in the Arizal’s chilly mountain-spring mikvah again and again, and hung out for hours at the Kotel whenever I was in Jerusalem. A lot of times, the famous Rabbi Schuster would approach me and ask if I wanted to learn in yeshiva, but I always said no, I was looking for God. See what a knucklehead I was! From my studies about yoga, I still thought that God was to be found on some high mountaintop, not in room filled with books.
One thing was certain. I knew I had to make Israel my home. Everything here was Jewish. The language, the street signs, the food, the bus drivers, the soldiers, the cities, the deserts and Biblical landscapes of old. Even though God was everywhere, back in those days I hadn’t learned how to see Him, so not knowing how to begin a new life in Israel, I went back to America, returned to New York, and started learning Hebrew at the Jewish Agency Building in Manhattan. That’s when I met Meir Indor and Rabbi Yehuda Hazani, like I wrote, gave up my writing career, and spent the next two years helping them recruit volunteers to Israel.
So when I finally made aliyah, I knew lots of people, and was already half “Israeli”. I lived in Jerusalem with the saintly old lady I had met on my first visit, and spent my days running around with Rabbi Hazani, designing street posters and helping him with the campaign to free the Jewish Underground until he dragged me to the Machon Meir Yeshiva, sat me down with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Begun, and told him to make sure I learned Hebrew and Torah for at least one full year before letting me out of the building.