Latest update: May 8th, 2012
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.
The Rosh Yeshiva sat me down in the beit midrash, and we started to learn, surrounded by enthusiastic young people wearing colorful, knitted kippot and speaking Hebrew with Israeli, English, French, Ethiopian, and Russian accents – Jews from all over the world. Suddenly, flanked by shelves of Mishna, Talmud, and tomes of Jewish Law, I experienced the same feeling of serenity and wholeness that I had felt in my dream of the room filled with holy books, when I was still back in Los Angeles. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with an incredible feeling that I can only describe as the presence of God. His light filled the yeshiva. It radiated out of the books. It shone from the happy faces of the students. From that moment on, I was hooked.
But after a few months of bliss, catching up on all the learning I had avoided, my parents phoned from America, insisting I come home for a big party celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary. For two weeks, I debated whether or not to go. On one hand, honoring one’s parents is a huge mitzvah. But so is learning Torah in Israel. Finally, after many guilt-laden calls from America, I decided to make my parents happy. Now get this. When the plane landed at JFK, after I picked up my suitcase, I felt I had to go to the bathroom. So I located the nearest lavatory and walked inside. Believe it or not, when I sat down in the stall, my bowels burst open and a raging torrent of blood poured out.
“Oh no!” I shuddered. “Oh no! Why did I come back to America?”
That was my immediate thought. It was a clear sign to me that God wanted me to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that America wasn’t for me. That’s the moment I understood in the depths of my soul that the one and only healthy place for a Jew, physically, mentally, and spiritually, was in Israel. When I saw my parents, I told that I was returning to Jerusalem immediately after their party. The next day, when I came home from doing some errands, I found a note on the kitchen table from my father saying that my mother had felt pains in her chest, and that he had rushed her to the hospital. When I reached the emergency room, a young doctor came out and said, “Do you know what you are doing to your mother?”
I was floored.
“She is miserable that you are moving to Israel,” the doctor declared.
“What can I do?” I responded. “I have my own life to live.”
He looked at me sternly, then grinned. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your mother will be fine. It’s just a case of palpitations, nothing serious. The truth is, I once wanted to move to Israel. But my mother was against it, and I didn’t have the backbone to stand up to her. So if you have the courage to go, then go. Your mother will be fine.”
Some eighteen years later, when it became difficult for them to get by on their own, I went to Florida, where they had retired, packed up their bags, put their house on the market, and took them home with me to Israel. My mother was showing the first distressing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. I told her that they were going to my son’s bar mitzvah, which was true, because one of our six boys was turning thirteen in another two months. Arriving in Israel, a friend picked us up in his van. My mother gazed out at the scenery. “For Florida,” she said, “there sure are a lot of signs in Hebrew.”
That’s the starting point of my new novel, Dad. I don’t know if it’s going to be a bestseller, but it sure beats writing trashy movies in Hollywood.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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