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.Tzvi Fishman