Latest update: May 2nd, 2012
I was going to start out this blog by saying that I am happy to be back at The Jewish Press. But, in truth, I have mixed feelings. After all, I’ve been living in Israel now for 28 years, yet The Jewish Press is still in Brooklyn, along with its myriads of faithful readers. True, the staff of the Internet Edition has made it to the Holy Land, and that in itself is a sure sign that Israel’s Redemption is under way, but millions of thousands of Diasporians are still stuck in galut, waiting for Mashiach – may he come soon. How wonderful it would be if they came on aliyah too! After all, at the conclusion of every Yom Kippur, and at the end of every Pesach Seder, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem!” And to tell it like it is, Hashem in His great kindness has given most Jews enough money to buy a ticket, and there’s even a Jewish airline that serves kosher food to get you here. And there are modern apartments and villas waiting all over Israel, a stable economy, and more hederim, Talmudei Torah, yeshivot, religious ulpanot high schools for girls, dati colleges, and talmidei chachamim per square meter than any other place in the world. Not to mention the Kotel, our holy Forefathers in Hevron, the sound of Hebrew wherever you go, and just about the only place on the globe where you can spend the whole month of December and never even know that Xmas is coming. But as our Sages have told us, the Redemption comes slowly, “kimah kimah,” unfolding in gradual developing stages, like the dawning sun which gradually rises over the mountains (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:1).
God willing, we will talk more about these matters in upcoming blogs – but now back to The Jewish Press.
Two years before I came on aliyah, some 30 years ago, I was a young novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. One day, I was sitting on a beach in Santa Monica when the Almighty split open the Heavens and hurled down a totally unexpected thunderbolt which set me off on a magical mystery tour and spiritual journey – the subject, blee nader, of another future blog. Traveling to Israel, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and holiness of the Land. If I was truly bent on returning to my roots, this was the place to do it, I intuitively sensed. But I didn’t know where to begin. So I returned to the States, abandoned Hollywood for the far more “Jewish” Manhattan, and began to learn Hebrew in the Jewish Agency building on Park Avenue (is it still there?)
One day, two Israelis strode into the classroom. One of them, Meir Indor, was a clean shaven, lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Army. Today, he is the director of the Almagor Victims of Terror Association in Israel. His bearded partner, Rabbi Yehuda Hazani, of blessed memory, had a large knitted kippah, and wore sandals with socks. One of the founders and main activists for the Gush Emunim settlement movement, he was a teacher at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and founder of the joyous, flag-waving parade to the Kotel on Yom Yerushalayim. That was back in 1982. The first War in Lebanon had broken out, and they had traveled to New York looking for volunteers to help out on the moshavim in the north while the locals were off at war. Actually, Indor and Rabbi Hazani had been brainstorming for a while, trying to think up a project to bring Jews to Israel, and this was their brainchild. Their trip to New York was the birth of the “Volunteers for Israel” program, which later turned into “Sarel.” Dr. Aharon Davidi, z”l, later joined them and worked many years on the project, but it was Indor and Rabbi Hazani who originally started it (and ran it until the “establishment” forced them out).
Anyway, I immediately decided to sign up at their emergency New York headquarters, which was located in The Jewish Press building in Brooklyn. Back in those days, although I had been learning a little about Judaism, I still hadn’t made a firm decision about observing the Torah. I owe a lot to The Jewish Press for giving me the added push to get me out of my life of Hollywood shmutz into the true limelight. Standing on the street, looking up at the formidable, block-long building, I decided to put on a kippah. I had heard that The Jewish Press was an Orthodox newspaper, so to me, a totally assimilated screenwriter from Hollywood, the building was like a mini Beit HaMikdash. From that day forth, I continued wearing a kippah, and it’s been getting bigger and bigger ever since.
In those days, the newspaper was run by the Gaon, Rabbi Shalom Klass, of blessed memory. He was a fiery, passionate lover of Torah, the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel. His son-in-law, the energetic Rabbi Yehuda Schwartz, was the managing editor, and Arnie Fine put everything together and got the papers out on the street from his small kingdom downstairs in the boiler room.
Entering the fortress-like building, the security guard directed me to an upper floor where the volunteer project was headquartered. The large room was deserted and a dozen telephones were insistently ringing on all the desks. Quickly, I began answering the calls and writing down the names and numbers of the people who were calling to volunteer to help Israel in its time of war. Not knowing what to tell them, I promised that someone would call them back soon. After several hours of frantic activity manning the phones all alone, Rabbi Hazani and Meir Indor appeared in the room and asked who I was. Rabbi Yehuda, on his first trip to America, didn’t talk in English. He absorbed things quietly, like a true talmid chacham, tying to figure out the nature of this strange beast called America. He let Indor do all the talking.
After surviving an interrogation that reminded me of Mossad stories that I had read, they left me with the ringing phones while they hurried off to a side room to watch the news on TV. How Rabbi Hazani cheered when Israeli jets appeared on the screen, dropping their bombs on Beirut. And how his whole body collapsed when the anchorman reported that there had been Israeli casualties in the fighting outside of the city. “Now this was a Rabbi!” I thought to myself, weaned all my life on action movies and heroes with giant Technicolor emotions. Instinctively I sensed that he could be my spiritual mentor and guide.
As Shalom Aleichem would say, “b’kitzor,” to make a long story short, I kept answering the telephones for the first two years of the program. Having saved up some money from my novel and screenplay sales, I had free time to donate to the Israel recruitment drive. Before I knew it, Hazani and Indor made me the U.S. program director. Week after week, I sat with Rabbi Klass in his spacious office as he threw the full influence and weight of The Jewish Press behind the emergency campaign. When the time came for the first charter plane to fly off to Israel filled with volunteers, Rabbi Hazani asked me to cancel my ticket and continuing running things in New York, including arranging for added publicity, dealing with El Al, and convincing all the nervous volunteers that things were completely organized in Israel – which of course they weren’t at all. Rabbi Hazani and Indor returned to Israel to make sure somebody was at least waiting at the Ben Gurion Airport when the first contingent of Americans arrived. It turned out that Indor brought along a few of his kids as a welcoming committee and gave bouquets of flowers to some girl soldiers he found outside the terminal building, hustling them inside to greet the newcomers. He himself played “Hava Nagila” on his small plastic flute. While the first enthusiastic group was sent off to moshavim in the Golan, Indor’s ingenious plan was to send subsequent planeloads to work in army bases around the country, sensing that the quickest way to de-Americanize the Americans and make them feel like Israelis was to get them into green Tzahal uniforms and let them take pictures standing alongside real Israeli soldiers with guns.
So I spent the greater part of that first summer working 20 hours a day at The Jewish Press, often sleeping on a mattress in the office so that I could call Israel in the wee hours of the morning to receive the constant barrage of instructions that Hazani and Indor kept sending on how to create more publicity for the project. It was truly an adventure. For me, it was an accelerated course on how to be an Israeli without passing go. I could write a book about the tumult we created, trying to get the tired and rusty wheels of the Jewish Agency into action. In six months we succeeded in sending more Jews to Israel than the Sachnut had sent in the past several years. The two unpredictable Gush Emunim activists from Jerusalem got the Jewish Agency careerists so fatumult, the slow-motion bureaucrats went so far as to kick Rabbi Hazani and Indor out of the fancy Park Avenue building on their next trip to Manhattan. Not having arranged for a place to stay during their two-week visit, they crashed out in my studio apartment in Gramercy Park. Finally, after two years running the show in New York, I couldn’t stand being in America any longer.
“Please,” I begged Rav Hazani. “Let me come on aliyah!”
It had become obvious to me that Israel, not New York, was the center of Jewish life, like the Prophet says, “For the Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of the L-rd from Yerushalayim.” I realized that Israel was making all the news that mattered. New York was only reading about it.
(To be continued)
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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