I am currently privileged to be working on Shalev Ben Yaakov’s moving account of his conversion to Judaism, his Aliya and Jewish studies in Israel, and his very insightful and affectionate portrayal of the Jewish giants of Torah learning who helped to shape him as an orthodox Israeli Jew – Mordechai Baum, the Saba, Rabbi Israel Odesser, and Rabbi Moshe Levinger.
To begin, here is Shalev’s own synopsis of his book:
SHALEV’S SYNOPSIS OF HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY “HOME AGAIN”
I was born John William Wicks in 1962 to a family of Irish-German-Czech immigrants to America. From an early age I found myself talking to G-d in a rather free manner. Early on, I left the dry rituals of the Catholic Church and began delving in various born-again Christian groups in search of my spiritual home.
When I was 12 years old I attended the Bar Mitzvah of a close Jewish friend, and together with my mother’s exposing me to the horrors of the Holocaust, I first entertained the notion that I might well find my spiritual home in Judaism. After repeated attempts in born-again Christian groups – something was always missing. These groups always seemed to fall apart. I was looking for a stable community based upon an absolute truth revealed to man by G-d – where G-d spoke to man. I was certain that it existed.
At the age of 19 I was again exposed to Judaism, this time in college. I encountered a woman in a Sukkah who invited me to come to talk with her. And before I knew it I began actively learning about the Jewish religion. I quickly enrolled in various courses on Judaism on campus, and naturally gravitated to Hassidism and the book The Star of Redemption by Franz Rosenzweig. I came to an understanding early without a shadow of doubt, through Rosenzweig, that G-d spoke to man only once – He spoke to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai.
Rather quickly and naturally I began to observe Sabbath, attend Jewish prayer services, participate in the campus Hillel-B’nei Brith activities, edit a college Jewish newspaper named the Shining Star, and even learn Hebrew. The process occurred with great ease. One evening my father approached me with a book on Judaism I’d been studying, and he expressed his regret that, although he too wanted to begin the process I’d begun – he hadn’t had the courage to do so. From that day on I somehow knew there were Jews in my father’s family.
In 1984, in a Hillel-sponsored seminar on Long Beach, I encountered Orthodox Judaism for the first time in the person of Rabbi Meir Fund, than a close friend and colleague of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. On my first real Shabbat I met Rav Shlomo on Motzei Shabbat in his synagogue in Manhattan. I understood that this was the direction I needed to go – to observe the Commandments. Rabbi Meir and my Hillel director, Marcia, were always urging me to go to Israel, and almost immediately upon finishing college I embarked on a trip to Europe which would culminate in my attending an Ulpan course (intensive Hebrew course) on a kibbutz. I still hadn’t completely digested that the Jewish nation and religion are one and the same, unlike other religions, so I came to Israel under the notion that I could become an Israeli without becoming a Jew, but I soon understood that the only way to enter the Israeli nation is by taking on the commandments/moral code revealed to Moses.
Feeling like a fish out of water on a secular kibbutz (Yagur), I began making my way to the nearby Kfar Hassidim where I quickly made friends with religious Jewish families who convinced me that the only place for a Jew is in the Holy Land, and recommended I go to Machon Meir, a Torah academy in Jerusalem. I registered in the yeshiva and almost immediately began to dive into an intense learning program of Torah and Talmud. In the Yeshiva I soon became acquainted with Mordechai Baum, an American Jew of European birth, who became my teacher and father figure. Mordechai was a highly intuitive and philosophical personality who taught me the depths of what it means to be a Jew. Mordechai had recently become a Breslav Hassid through the great Rav Israel Ber Odesser, the “Master of the Petek,” who claimed to have miraculously received a letter from Heaven – from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, and I found myself spending much time with the Saba and his students.
But Mordechai had another side to his personality as well- the Zionist side. We traveled all of Israel together and spent much time on settlements in Judea and Samaria. strengthening these settlements. Just then a turning point came in my life when a Jew, Yaakov Parag, was murdered in Har Bracha, and several Rabbis decided to conduct a hunger strike to protest the weakness of the Israeli government in protecting Israelis in Judea and Samaria. Mordechai suggested we go, and there we became acquainted for the first time with Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim movement. Mordechai and I instantly became drawn by his great faith, erudition, and love of the land and people of Israel, and we became his students. Mordechai moved to Kiryat Arba /Hebron where Rabbi Levinger lived, and soon after I met my first wife Miriam, from Leningrad, and I too moved to Hebron. In my early days in Hebron I really became a settler, and I learned nearly daily with Rabbi Levinger the works of Rav Kook, one of the pillars of religious Zionism. In those early days I found myself imitating Rabbi Levinger – trying to find my identity as a Jew, and I participated in a great many rallies /activities to fulfill our obligation to settle the Land of Israel as commanded in the Torah.
Another turning point in my life came at the end of Yitzhak Rabin’s government when Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach passed on in 1994. That year saw a resurgence of his songs and stories, and since I had actually begun with him I found myself drawn strongly. I had always considered myself a Carlebach person, but I soon discovered that a Carlebach Chassid was a thousand times deeper than I had thought. I found myself naturally connecting to families such as the Richies and Witts who had been close to Rav Shlomo to fill me in on what I had missed. Just then my good friend Shivi Keller and his wife began to conduct a weekly Melave Malka after the Sabbath. Even though it was always my dream to perform in front of others, I was petrified to play in front of an audience, but in a gentle way he broke my fear, and since that day I found myself performing in front of audiences. Although I had received a great deal from Rav Levinger, I was starting to carve out my own identity, and literally tens or even hundreds of rallies /demonstrations in which I participated made me more and more convinced that my real ability was not in protesting but in lighting up Jewish souls through song. I simply saw that screaming at Israeli soldiers at demonstrations wasn’t what I needed to be doping – and just then occurred another event which changed my life.
In August 2000, two terrorists shot at my car, but after hitting my car with some 10-15 bullets, instead of injuring or killing me as they had planned, I walked away almost without a scratch. My wife Miriam had seen the whole thing two days earlier, but her tears had saved my life. This series of events changed my life because I felt such joy over being saved so miraculously that I decided to devote myself to sharing this joy, but with whom? The same soldiers before whom I demonstrated I noticed the monotony and difficulty of their job – so G-d put it into my head to play music and entertain them at nights during their guard duty. I did this for nearly 10 years, becoming with some of them friends for life. In the beginning I performed mostly Rav Calebach’s material, but after some years I added a repertoire of my own songs and stories.
During one of my three visits to the States to visit my family, I was told by my mother that she had been informed by my father’s mother that, in fact, there were Jews in her family, just as I had suspected – their name as Jacobson. Upon discovering this I changed my family name to Ben Yaakov, the Hebrew equivalent of Jacobson.
In 2006 I divorced, and after my best friend passed on I married his widow and moved to Tekoa and began raising sheep there for a hobby as I had always dreamed of doing. My father, believing deeply in my courage to listen to G-d’s voice, no matter where it seems to direct me, urged me to write a book about my journey to Judaism. Others, upon hearing some of my stories, have urged me to do so as well. What you are reading is this journey as I have perceived it. I hope the readers will enjoy it and grow from it. Shalev.
SEVERAL EXCERPTS ABOUT RAV LEVINGER IN SHALEV’S BOOK .
Rav Levinger would always say to me, “in the exile the center of Jewish life was the “shul”, the synagogue – we had no normal life as did other nations. Here we have a national government, army, treasury etc. Even though it’s just in the beginning – it will eventually be a Sanhedrin, a King, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt, a house of national worship and a house of prayer of ALL NATIONS.”
Rav Levinger would always quote Rabbi Nachman. When Rabbi Nachman returned to the Ukraine after being in Eretz |Israel, many Jews asked him, “what did you see? Tell us about the holy angels and the seraphim that you saw! But instead, Rabbi Nachman said: “I saw houses, buildings, rocks and trees.” That’s the Land of Israel’s holiness!”
Once, on the Sabbath, I sat and learned with Rav Levinger, and his two bodyguards came along and sat with us. (This was after he was issued bodyguards by the IDF because of the many threats on his life.) I began “teaching ” the bodyguards (who were dressed as civilians) as Rav Moshe often did. The Rav corrected me, “Baruch, these boys run from one mission to the other – most of them very dangerous; they’re too exhausted to listen to your teaching Torah at the moment. Let them be.”
About Rav Levinger one can fill volumes, and of course not everything I can tell. His love for the Jewish people knows no bounds. I can’t say he’s a Hassid like Mordechai, or I, but I know almost no other man who is so able to rise above his own personal gains or interests, and act in such a selfless way, and I was with him plenty. … seeing him in countless situations.
If Mordechai Baum was chessed, charity and lovingkindness, Rav Moshe was Gevurah, He even said to me once, “Chessed is only one of the avenues of serving Hashem, and this is the way Mordechai serves Him, but there are others..” and he referred to Gevurah. He was talking about his own way as opposed to Mordechai’s. But Rav Moshe was also well aware of his own limitations, and when to be quiet and let others take the lead. He knew that one could not achieve everything through Gevurah. He’d often say. “עולם חסד יבנה” He meant to say that the world functions primarily on chessed – three pillars the world stands on- and one of them is Gemilut Chassadim – is chessed: the world exists primarily on chessed, is built mainly by charity and lovingkindness. This is the major channel of G-dly service. But my channel, inferred Rav Moshe, is Gevurah, or Midat Hadin, the quality of justice. This was very clear to him.
Sometimes I felt Rav Moshe was mamash the reincarnation of Moshe Rabenu, of Moses, in our generation. I even heard a rabbi from Kiryat Arba say this explicitly, so I wasn’t alone in this feeling! Rav Moshe’s love for Israel was so great!
I identified with the Jewish strength and pride, and the more I learned with Rav Levinger, the more I began to understand the absolute supremacy of the Jewish people in Israel and the obligation to conquer and settle the land.
מלחמת חובה, מלחמת מצווה וכו”
For Rav Moshe it wasn’t only a Jewish law to be recited, or to be given lip-service – it was a way of life. He himself spent periods in jail defending himself and other Jews, and I often attended his court sessions to demonstrate my support. I really loved the man and respected him.
By David Herman, 02-6536764 and email: email@example.com