Our Sages teach that if a person understood the great value of abuse, he would wake up each morning and beg G-d to send someone to abuse him that day. A person who is abused and doesn’t answer in return is forgiven of his sins. He is loved by G-d and elevated beyond all others, becoming a shining light in the universe, “like the sun that bursts forth over the mountains in all of its might.”
I’m not referring to the abuse I regularly receive from talkbackers who get angry at me for pointing out the disgrace of living in gentile lands when they could be living in Israel. That abuse is part of being a blog writer. It comes with the job. I am talking about an abuse much more painful – the fact that very few of my readers, even the most faithful amongst them, have purchased my books, so easily available at Amazon Books. As I have mentioned before, I am a novelist at heart. Blogs are blogs, but a good novel is something entirely different. And here, after I spent literally thousands of hours writing blogs, free of charge, in order to enlighten my beloved brothers and sisters in the exile of the darkness which surrounds them, and the very real dangers they face, when I present them with an opportunity to experience true Jewish literature that has the power to revolutionize their lives, they turn their backs as if it had no value.
Yes, I understand that books cost a few bucks, and that most Internet readers can’t get past a homepage, let alone tackle a 500 page saga like “Tevye in the Promised Land”, but, even if they don’t want to read my novels, they could give them away as gifts. Young people love my stories. Old people too. And yes, I realize that my writing is confrontational, dealing with uncomfortable things like G-d, emunah, tshuva, and aliyah, subjects that the majority of people would rather avoid. And I am perfectly aware that until the goyim declare that Fishman is a great novelist, the Jews won’t consider my writing as being of any worth. Yes, I know all of these things, but still, after all of the years that I have invested in my writing, with all of my heart, the apathy which I encounter is painful indeed. So I thank you for your abuse, knowing that it is all for my good.
And lest you think my motivation is money, on some books my royalties are 20 cents. On others 30 cents. On one or two titles, I earn a buck. That’s the reality of digital ebooks. So I am not in it for the money.
There is a Talmudic saying that more than the calf wants to suck, the mother cow wants to feed its youth. So I have decided to take a hiatus from blog writing, and to use this column to serialize my novels, chapter by chapter, day after day, to let people read, free of charge, in short, non-overwhelming installments, my fictional works, which I have written for the Sake of Heaven, for the enlightenment of Am Yisrael.
So here we go, for all of my hundreds of thousands of readers who have plastered my face with dry digital saliva by ignoring my books, I thank you for all of your abuse with this gesture of kindness in return. You can read the serializations or not. That is up to you. As for me, Hashem gave me a gift which I am sharing with you. Here is my milk. Enjoy.
One Man’s Spiritual Quest for Health, Love, and the Golden Path
A Novel by Tzvi Fishman
Chapter One – Everything Is For The Best
The first omen of my trip wasn’t very encouraging. The rental car that was supposed to be waiting for me at the airport when I arrived in Israel wasn’t there. I was traveling light with only a shoulder bag for my short, four-day visit, so I didn’t have to battle the mob of American, European, and Korean tourists at the baggage claim, nor with the lively, Hebrew-speaking Israelis who pushed carts piled high with suitcases, DVD players, and other electric appliances purchased on their jaunts overseas.
It was spring break in schools throughout America, and the plane had been loaded with Christians coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter, and all kinds of Orthodox Jews arriving for the Passover holiday. But I was in the Holy Land for another type of pilgrimage. Believe it or not, I had come to Israel to meet the oldest man in the world.
“What do you mean, the car isn’t ready?” I asked the young Israeli clerk at the rental counter. “I reserved it two-months ago!”
“Yes, I see that you did, Mr. Peters,” he answered, looking at his computer. “I’m sorry. This is our busiest season. Sometimes people don’t return their cars on time.”
“That’s your problem, not mine,” I answered, raising my voice. “I want a car now! I only have four days here, and I don’t want this uncalled for negligence to screw up my trip!”
Another arriving passenger in the line next to me looked over to see who was making all the commotion. A bunch of his little, yarmulke-sporting kids ran around in circles, as if eager to get out of the terminal after the long, trans-Atlantic plane ride. I felt a little embarrassed, making a scene in a strange country, but I was ticked off, and deservingly so. Business was business. The company should have had cars in reserve to avoid screw-ups like this.
I suppose I was more uptight than usual. After all, I had travelled ten-thousand miles with the crazy hope that some old wise man in Israel could tell me why my life was such a mess, and, right off the bat, the rental-car company had bundled my reservation. It made me think that maybe I was off on a wild goose chase after all.
“Where will you be staying this evening?” the clerk asked.
“In Jerusalem,” I answered. “Then I’ll be traveling to Safed in the morning, so I’ll need a car.”
“We can have a car for you in Jerusalem first thing tomorrow morning,” he promised.
“I want a car now!” I stubbornly replied.
“There is an expression in Hebrew,” my fellow passenger said to me. “Hakol l’tova. It means that everything is for the best. This is the Holy Land. There is a special Divine Providence here. Not getting a car right away may seem like a pain in the neck, but it’s all for the best, believe me.”
Like a Valium tab, his words had a soothing affect on my silently screaming nerves. After all, I had journeyed across the ocean to the Holy Land to track down the world’s oldest man, in hope of finding a miracle cure for all of my maladies, so maybe it was time to lay back a little and start seeing things in a different light.
To tell the truth, I am not one-hundred percent sure that he was the oldest man, but he certainly was among the top ten. A few years back, I had read about him fleetingly on the Internet, and then continued on with my daily routine without giving the matter anymore thought. But when things started going sour in my life, and my sixtieth birthday came into sight, I remembered reading about an old, miracle man in Israel, and began to wonder what was the secret of his longevity and his miraculous cures?
The first thing that went out of whack was my prostate. More and more frequently, I had to get up in the middle of the night to urinate. Usually, it was accompanied by a burning sensation. When it didn’t go away, I went to a urologist, and my blood test revealed a PSA level rocketing up the scale. To be on the safe side, the urologist sent me for a biopsy that was such an unpleasant ordeal, I vowed in my mind to agree to the procedure again. During the two weeks that it took for the results to come back, I read up about PSA on the web and convinced myself that I had cancer. I can’t describe my overwhelming relief when the doctor said that the biopsy was clean, but the fact that my anatomy wasn’t working the way it should made a permanent chink in the armor of my youth. The urologist wanted to see me in another six months, so even though the hangman’s noose was loosened, it was still around my neck.
Then my hands started to shake. At first it was a tiny tremor in the right hand. One day, the principal of the Maimonides High School, where I taught mathematics, asked me why my hand was shaking so much. It was ironic that he was the one to notice, having only one arm of his own, the result of a boating accident in his youth. A short time afterward, my wife noticed it too. The neurologist called it a familial tremor, nothing to worry about, but I was concerned all the same, since my father had died of Parkinson’s Disease at the age of sixty-five. The neurologist said that it wasn’t necessarily hereditary, but I remembered my father’s shaking hands before the ensuing stages of the disease gradually turned him into a statue of petrified wood.
Anyway, I began to worry about it. I started thinking about death, and I couldn’t get the subject out of my mind. My wife, Miriam, said I was foolish – after all, I wasn’t even 60 years old. But the fear of getting Parkinson’s became a fixation. Surfing once again through some medical sites, I came upon anxiety disorders and compulsions, where a person can’t keep something out of his mind. That was me, I decided. There were an assortment of mood-swing medicines to ease the symptoms, but I didn’t want to get started on drugs, and the dependence they cause. That’s when I remembered reading about the 120-year-old man in Israel. But when I did an Internet search, I couldn’t find a thing. There were articles about super-octogenarians in the United States, in China, Japan, and an old wine-drinker in France, but nothing came up about Israel. Why he in particular stuck in my mind, I don’t know. So when I couldn’t find anything about him, and when the notion of meeting him wouldn’t leave my mind, I decided to journey to Israel to track him down myself.
My wife said I was crazy. She accused me of acting like a baby. First of all, she noted, the “old cocker” was probably dead already. Plus, she said it was a big waste of money – to go all the way to Israel, for only four days, and maybe I wouldn’t even find him, and if I did, maybe he didn’t have anything more intelligent to say than the old grandfather down the block, where we lived in an ever-growing town in New England. Besides, I didn’t have the money to take her along, and she wasn’t happy about that, not that she had ever spoken about wanting to go to Israel, but we hadn’t taken a vacation abroad together in years, and I could tell she felt kind of jealous.
She wasn’t the only one who thought I was nuts. After hearing the cynical reactions of two of my colleagues at school, I stopped talking about it. “Craig, it sounds like you’re going through a pre-golden-years crisis,” the principal said. “It happens to some people when they approach sixty. I’ve heard it called male menopause.”
Generally, I was in pretty good health. I jogged twice a week, and I still coached a little-league team every summer. True, I had put on a few pounds around the belly, I needed reading glasses, and my lovemaking with my wife wasn’t what it used to be, but I didn’t need Viagra, and the old tiger returned whenever an exciting, clandestine affair chanced my way.
“How come his reservation’s OK?” I asked the clerk, when the religious Jew next to me was handed a paper and told where to pick up his car.
“He ordered a family van,” was the answer. “I can give you a family van, but it will cost you five times as much.”
I may have screwed up one or two things in my life, but I wasn’t a complete jerk to agree to a deal like that. In an apologetic tone, the rental-car worker told me where I could find a group taxi, called a “sherut,” that would take me to Jerusalem for only fifteen dollars. Grumbling to let him know that I was a very dissatisfied customer, I walked away toward the terminal exit, where my fellow passenger was herding his family and luggage toward the door.
“Don’t worry. It will all work out,” he told me, taking a few steps in my direction. “There is a story about the wise sage, Rabbi Akiva, who had to journey to Rome on official business for the Jewish community at the time of the Second Temple, some 2000 years ago. While he was walking to the seaport, a thorn pierced his sandal and entered his foot. ‘Hakol l’tova,’ he said with great faith. ‘Everything that God does is for the best.’ Removing the thorn from his sole, he had to limp slowly the rest of the way to the dock. By the time he arrived, his ship had already sailed. ‘Hakol l’tova,’ he said, once again. ‘Everything that God does is for the best.’ In those days, a ship sailed for Rome only once a month, so Rabbi Akiva had to wait patiently, even though his business was pressing. A week later, news came that the ship had sunk in a storm at sea and all of the passengers had perished. So, at least for Rabbi Akiva, the thorn in his foot turned out to be a good thing after all. Otherwise, he would have perished with all the others.”
It was a nice story, and I thanked him for calming me down, but I was still a little peeved to have to wait on another line until the taxi van was filled with passengers headed for Jerusalem. Plus, I was beginning to have suspicions that maybe my wife and colleagues were right about my freaking out in setting off on such an impulsive and quixotic adventure.
I was never religious, but I felt something out of the ordinary when the sign at the airport exit pointed the way to Jerusalem. I suppose it is something that everyone feels deep inside. After all, world history had its beginning in this part of the woods, and while my parents hadn’t believe in any religion that I can remember, who doesn’t have sentimental childhood memories about the manger in Bethlehem in those beautiful TV dramas come Christmas time?
The only things that I remembered of the Internet story about the old Israeli sage was that he lived in the mystical city of Safed, and that he was known for his miracle cures. Maybe my wife and colleagues were right - maybe I was being crazy, I thought, as the highway ascended toward the mountain-top city of Jerusalem. Other men celebrated their sixty-year-old crisis with a trail of extra-marital flings to prove to themselves that they were still manly, and here I was off on a wild goose chase to talk with a 120-year-old man.
All of the road signs were in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, so I could keep track of where we were headed. The hotel I had booked was moderately priced, and since I was only spending the night, I didn’t need anything more than a bed. In answer to my question, the clerk at the reception desk said that I could walk to the Old City. Before leaving on my odyssey, I had purchased a guidebook to Israel, and on the taxi ride from the airport, I had glanced over the section on Jerusalem. The Old City looked like the best place to spend the next few hours, before jet lag sank in.
It was already evening, and without wanting to sound mystical, there was a special light in the sky, a golden twilight, renowned to be unique to Jerusalem. A chorus of church bells sounded overhead. In the distance, the ramparts of the Old City looked like some Middle Age fortress. High-pitched wailings, coming from a loudspeaker atop a Muslim mosque, lent an eerie, romantic, Arabian backdrop to the city. My guide book said that the impressive walls of the Old City had been built five-hundred-years earlier by the Ottomans. An old look-out called King David’s Tower rose over the stately Jaffe Gate. According to my guidebook map, the Old City of Jerusalem was divided into the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian Quarters. Most of the shops in the Arab market or “casbah,” as it was called, were closed at the hour, but there were still some Arab merchants hawking their colorful wares in the doorways of their small crannies. It was as if I had suddenly left civilization behind and entered the mysterious world of “A Thousand and One Nights.” Radios blared out Arab music, and barrels of spices saturated the air with their exotic scents.
Tourist that I was, I took a photo or two, but I didn’t linger to bargain and haggle over prices with the merchants like other vacationers. Something was pulling me onward down the steps of the narrow casbah, until I found myself in the midst of a crowd of Hasidic Jews heading in the same direction. In their fur “Streimmel” hats, cream-colored robes, black shoes, and white socks, they looked strangely out of place in this Mediterranean setting. Not only was it Easter time, but the Jewish festival of Passover as well, and these holiday-garbed celebrants were on their way to the Western Wall to pray.
Like I said, I do not consider myself a religious person in any shape or form. As a youth, I was drawn to the sciences, and I suppose that’s why I ended up teaching math at the Maimonides Science High School, not far from Boston. Religion hadn’t been a part of my upbringing, and when we raised our only daughter, Daisy, we didn’t think it important to drag her off to church on Sundays just to keep up with the Joneses. But when I got my first glimpse of the Western Wall, it was something I wasn’t prepared for - what you might call an actual “religious experience.”
First, you had to get past Israeli security and wait on line to pass through a metal detector – one for men and a separate line for women.
I’m sure that there were floodlights shining on the Wall, but it looked like the radiant light illuminating its boulders was coming out of the huge stones themselves. I don’t know how to describe it. The Hasidim rushed on ahead, almost running, while I stood to take in the sight.
I had read about the Western Wall in the taxi, and the amazingly rich history of the Temple Mount is probably what made me make it my first stop after checking into the hotel. It was also called the “Wailing Wall,” or simply the Wall, or the “Kotel” in Hebrew. It was over two-thousand-years old, the last vestiges of the outer wall which had surrounded the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. After conquering the city of Jerusalem, King David had purchased the site of the Temple Mount from a local Jebusite farmer. Here, tradition maintained, Adam had built the first altar to God. Here, Cain and Abel fought over who would be the heir to their father, and rule over the land of Israel. Here, Noah came to praise the Lord after being saved from the Flood. Here, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son until an angel stopped the raised knife from falling. And here, Jacob saw a ladder ascending up to Heaven.
For me, a New Englander who often attended the summer concerts in a picturesque town called Jacob’s Ladder, it was an interesting sidelight that connected me more personally to the place. King David had gathered all the vast and costly materials for the First Temple’s building, but it was his son, Solomon, who actually constructed the once magnificent edifice, which had been the center of Jewish life and prayer for eight-hundred years until it was destroyed by the conquering Babylonians. After the exiled Jews returned to rebuild the Temple, it became the target of the attacking Greeks, and the site of the Hanukah story, where the valiant Maccabee tribe of Jewish warriors vanquished the far mightier Greek army and rekindled the lights of the Temple menorah. Later, before the Romans burned the Second Temple and razed the city of Jerusalem, it was here where Jesus was reported to have overthrown the tables of the money changers to protest the corruption of the priests in his time. Then, almost a thousand years later, the Muslims had built the golden-domed shrine which rose up on the Temple Mount behind the remains of the Western Wall and its massive, indestructible boulders.
It was the stuff that history was made of. No wonder that the Arabs and Jews were always arguing over the site, and the eyes of the world were constantly turned toward Jerusalem. For my part, in maybe the same way that I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t much of a political creature either. I had never been a news buff, and even Presidential elections didn’t excite me. While I was aware there was an ongoing conflict in the Middle East, I never had researched into its roots. Frankly, except for the month following September 11, when all of America was in shock from the al-Quaeda attack on the Twin Towers, I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in the Middle East. When American soldiers were sent off to the War in Iraq, I didn’t have a son going off to fight, so I didn’t have to worry about a somber army chaplain one day knocking on my door. My sheltered New England life revolved around my job as a high-school teacher, my little-league coaching, bowling, golf with the guys, and a few lovers here and there, to break the boredom with my faithful yet mundane wife, Miriam. Though she was some years younger than me, and still an attractive woman, the passion had gone out of our increasingly infrequent encounters. For years we had been getting angry at each other, over the most inconsequential things, as a way of venting the frustrations each of us felt with ourselves and our marriage. Our only daughter had flown the coop early to escape our bitter quarrels, and dropped out of college to seek a more exciting life as an actress in Los Angeles, where, from the little we heard from her, she was lucky to land jobs as a waitress.
So experiencing a “spiritual high” at my first sight of the Western Wall came as a surprise for a cold-blooded mathematician like myself. Please don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t “blown away” with any revelation. But I felt something inside, connecting me to something greater than my own solipsistic existence, and that was a very unusual feeling for me. I could figure out the circumference of a circle, and the angles of a triangle, but spiritual matters weren’t my forte.
As I entered the crowded plaza before the Wall, an Orthodox Jew motioned to my head and pointed to a box filled with cardboard skullcaps for tourists. “When in Jerusalem, do as the Jerusalemites do,” I mused, placing the little beanie on my head. At the Wall, I wedged my fingers into the cracks between the enormous stones and prayed that whatever Divine Presence was hovering there would take away my trembling. I prayed that He keep me from getting Parkinson’s like my father. And I prayed that my prostate wouldn’t become cancerous. Seeing the crumpled notes that petitioners had placed in the crevices between the huge boulders, I decided to write one too. Since I didn’t have a piece of paper to write on, I scrawled my request on a dollar bill, asking God to bring our daughter home so we could work out the differences and smooth over the bouts of anger that had marked our relationship over the years.
After I had folded my note and placed it in the Wall, a neatly shaven man wearing a suit and black hat, approached me and help out an open hand.
“Charity for poor families,” he said in what sounded like a New York accent.
Feeling generous, I reached into my pocket, and gave him all of the coins that had accumulated there.
“Visiting the country?” he inquired.
“That’s right,” I replied.
“I’m from Staten Island,” he said. “But I’ve been here twenty-five years.”
Once again, he held out a begging hand.
“I just gave you,” I said.
“I know,” he acknowledged, “but who knows when you’ll get to Jerusalem again, so maybe you can give a little more. The money goes to families who are really in need, and the Talmud teaches that charity is the foundation of the world.”
This time, I drew my wallet out of my pocket and gave him a few dollars. He seemed like an honest guy.
“Maybe you can help me,” I said.
“My pleasure,” he replied, motioning me to follow him a short distance away to a table covered with prayer books, apparently not to bother the pilgrims at the Wall.
“I’m looking for a 120-year-old wise man who lives in Safed,” I told him. “He famous for doing miracles.”
“There are lots of wise men in Israel,” he answered. “Every city has rabbis and Kabbalists who are supposed to do miracles. For sure, some of them do, and for sure, some of them don’t. Take my advice. Not everyone with a long white beard is a miracle worker.”
I was a little surprised by the cynicism in his answer, but it was good to hear the truth from a fellow American who had lived in the country 25 years. It could very well have been that Miriam and my boss at school were right that I was off on some imaginary magical mystery tour in my quest after the “fountain of youth.” But even if his warning had let some hot air out of my balloon, here I was, halfway across the world, and I was determined to continue my journey.
I was rescued from my ruminations when a man wearing a fur Streimmel grabbed my hand and dragged me toward a group of singing Hasidim, who were holding hands and swirling around in frenzied circles, as if their feet hovered over the ground. Joining the happy merry-go-round for a dozen 360 degree whirls was more than enough of a religious experience for my first night in Israel.
Maybe a year or two before, I would have ventured the steep hike back up through the Arab market to the Old City gate, but after the dance and the ten-hour plane flight, I was beat. I wanted to be fresh in the morning for my drive up north to Safed, so I asked where I could find a taxi. Making my way across the wide Western Wall plaza to a bus stop, I hailed a passing cab. The next day when I met a great grandson of the old man from Safed, he told me that when a person comes to the land of Israel, the first night he sleeps there, he receives a new soul. When I got back to my hotel room, I crashed into bed without undressing. Goodbye old and ailing soul. Say shalom to the new, healthy and rejuvenated Craig Peters.
For readers who can’t wait to see the rest, “Heaven’s Door” is available at Createspace and Amazon Books, along with a selection of my other award-winning writings.