In the hope of inspiring others to take advantage of the special closeness to G-d during the month of Elul, I will try to describe how I, a totally assimilated screenwriter in Hollywood, made the long, exhilarating, challenging, humbling, and, joy-filled journey back to G-d, to Torah, and to Eretz Yisrael.
It is a voyage from depression to happiness, from emptiness to fulfillment, from darkness to light.
You can make it too.
While old-time readers may be familiar with my magical mystery tour, new readers are sure to find some benefit in hopping onboard my yellow submarine for the journey. I will try to include some new insights and illustrations along the way to make the adventure interesting to veteran travelers as well.
35 years ago, there was a popular TV mini-series called ROOTS, about the Blacks in America. Likewise, my mini-tale may be called, “SHORASHIM,” which means roots in Hebrew, for, all in all, it was a journey back to my roots, to where we all came from, and who we all are.
In many ways, it was like a voyage back through history in a Jules Verne time-tunnel ship, smashing through barriers of time and place, shedding generations of foreign identities, and peeling off layers and layers of foreign cultures, foreign values, foreign aspirations, and foreign ideas, to break on through the Matrix of the Truman Show bubble we live in, to get to the other side, to the roots of my soul, back, back, back through 2000 years of exile, in order to discover my true self and forge a steadfast attachment to G-d, to Torah, to the saga of the Jewish Nation, and to Eretz Yisrael, where my, and your, great great great great great grandfather was born.
To discover all these new (old) treasures, I had to give up many things. I had to give up my inflated ego, my arrogance, and my preoccupation with myself. I had to give up my false identity as an American with all of its impure and fleeting aspirations of achieving fame, money, and success. I had to give up the need to be in constant intellectual control, in order to let change happen and make room for G-d in my life.
Before discovering the truth of the Torah, I was the center of my existence. Afterward, G-d became the center. Before my enlightenment, I always did what I wanted to do. Afterward, I realized that we were put here on Earth to do what G-d wants us to do. Before I boarded the tshuva ship, I lived for myself and used my talents to further my own selfish interests. Afterwards, I realized that G-d had given me talents for the sake of the Torah and the Jewish People, to share with others the insights that He so graciously sent my way.
I remember sitting on a beach in Santa Monica and saying to myself, “You have to take off your screwed-up, neurotic American head, and put on the head of King David instead.”
I grew up in the “Fifties” in a typical assimilated Jewish family of the time. In those days, the reform movement wasn’t quite as watered down as it is today. We lit Hanukah candles, and Xmas lights (so I wouldn’t feel different from the other boys on our block.) We ate matzah on Passover, and hid Easter eggs like the gentiles. Hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah was a part of our yearly cycle, along with a respectful visit to the temple on Yom Kippur. But while my parents always fostered a pride in being Jewish, being an America came first.
To me, going to Hebrew school meant having to miss basketball practice and being different from my friends. When bar mitzvah time came around, our temple was under construction, so I led my bar mitzvah service in the local Unitarian church. That’s right – a church. To me, that’s a perfect metaphor for Jewish life in America – it’s like being bar mitzvahed in a church!
nice place for a bar mitzvah
After that, I had nothing more to do with Judaism for almost two decades. It wasn’t a part of my consciousness at all. During my high school years at the prestigious Philips Andover Academy prep school, I tried my hardest to be a WASP like everyone else. On Sundays, while the “chosen” were praying upstairs in the beautiful New England church on the campus, we handful of Jews were allowed to hold an alternate service in a small room in the basement of the building.
Apparently, I was born with a sensitive soul, and even then I felt estranged from the constant patriotic American message of you-have-to-wear-tassled-penny-loafers-and-get-into-Harvard-at-any-price which Holden Caulfield expressed so wonderfully as “Andover bullshit” in the “Catcher in the Rye.”
My sense of not belonging at the prestigious gentile boarding school led me into becoming a prankster, hated by the Dean, who made sure that I was turned down at all of my top college choices. So I enrolled in the NYU Film School to spend the next four years watching movies. By the time I graduated, I had sold my first screenplay to Hollywood and was about to publish a novel with a big NY publishing house.
To make a long story short, I lived a hippie, bohemian life in Greenwich Village, going to off-Broadway plays, and reading all the Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe novels, in pursuit of the American Dream of becoming the next GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST. As the song says, I was Lenny Bruced, Great Gasbyed, Jim Morissoned, and Playboy Magazined out of my mind.
Jewish American novelist, Norman Mailer, married 8 times to you know whos
I lived with another lost and sensitive Jewish soul who was trying like me to be an “artist.” He used to see a shrink once a week and lay on the couch of his office without saying a word, for months on end, at $500 a pop, to please his father, who didn’t understand why his son was so depressed. Tragically, he ended up marrying a very nice gentile Jennie before ever having discovered that his problem was simply trying to be someone he wasn’t, turning his back on his exquisite Jewish soul to be just as American as everyone else.
Like my American ancestors before me, I heeded the call, “Go West, young man,” ready to take my place amongst the stars. My first pad was not far from the famous HOLLYWOOD sign.
Using a pen name, I sold two more original screenplays that were made into films. I had money, a new and cool apartment by the beach, a sexy sports car, a membership at a health club filled with beautiful California girls – in short the American Dream. In the morning, I used to work out in the weight room with Arnold Schwartzenegger, who was just starting his movie career. After slimnastics class with Susie, Wendy, Cindy, Sally, and Jane, I’d spend the afternoon at the beach, working on my tan. Nights were spent prowling the discos, may the Almighty forgive me. When in Rome do as the Romans do. But the truth is that I wasn’t happy. With each new conquest and success, I felt that something was missing. I thought maybe if I sold a script for more money, or bought a fancier car, then I would be happy. But it didn’t help.
Each new acquisition left me feeling empty. Now I know the reason for my darkness – even though I was wallowing in physical pleasures, I wasn’t giving any nourishment to my soul. Then I became physically ill with something called ulcerative colitis.
I would have to race to the bathroom with a diarrhea attack twenty times a day, and only blood would pour out. It blew my mind completely. Here I was, rocketing up the ladder of success in Hollywood, and I had to spend half my day in the bathroom. I had to take large doses of cortisone, which blew up my face like a beach ball. Seeing myself in the mirrors of the health club, I didn’t recognize the monster staring back. Try making a pass at a UCLA cheerleader when you have a face like Quasimodo. After a month of cortisone, the bleeding dried up, but the minute I got off the drug, the bleeding returned, more furious than before. At that time, I hadn’t heard about Rabbi Akiva, and I didn’t realize that my bleeding was all for the best – a Heavenly wake-up call, so to speak, warning me that I was on a glamorous track to hell. For almost another year, even though I was bleeding my guts out, I kept on living my same sordid Hollywood life.
After two years, when the medicine failed to cure me, I started out on a spiritual quest. I tried everything. Health food, macrobiotics, holistic massage, yoga, I Ching, acupuncture, gestalt, Tarot cards, not to mention a variety of mind-expanding drugs. One day, I was sitting on the beach when a friend asked me why I didn’t know anything about Judaism? The question hit me like a sledgehammer. I had studied world history. I had read Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Thoreau. I had studied the sciences, the arts, literature, and had checked out books about Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like. But I knew absolutely nothing about Judaism. During my shrink period, I had read dozens of books about psychology, and I had studied enough Sigmund Freud to know that if you avoid something close to you, that means you have a psychological block, a deep inner fear which paralyzes you from facing what you are trying to avoid.
His question blew my mind. The same day I bought a Bible and started to read: "In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth." When I read those words, my gaze shot up to the sky. "Oh, no!" I thought. "G-d really exists, and I haven’t paid any attention to Him since my bar mitzvah." I kept turning pages as if I were reading the screenplay of an action adventure. G-d tells Avraham to go to the Land of Israel. Then He tells Moshe to free the Jews and take them to the Land of Israel. Over and over again, G-d tells the Jews that He is given them the commandments of the Torah to do them in the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel, the Land of Israel, over and over. At the time, I knew nothing about Eretz Yisrael. Sure, I had probably had heard about the Six-Day War, but as a super assimilated Jew, Israel was simply not a part of my weltanschauung. Yet according to the simple, straightforward reading of the Bible, it was clear that G-d wanted His People to live in the Land of Israel, and not in Los Angeles or New York.
"What were they doing here?" I thought.
By the grace of G-d, I understood with a flash of crystal clear knowledge, with those first head-spinning, sparkling rays of tshuva when G-d enters your life with a thundering ROAR, and lights up your life like the sun, that in order to hear the voice of my long silent soul, to my discover who I really was and find healing for my ailing body and spirit, I would have to chase after G-d with the same passion that I had been chasing after bimboes and fame.
In a flash of revelation, I understood that all of the world, with all its lusts and enticements, was merely a mask hiding the presence of G-d. The world, in Shakespeare’s words, was a stage. As fake as a studio back lot of Dodge City.
G-d hid Himself behind the curtain of the material world, whether in Hollywood or New York, letting people think they were in charge of show, but when G-d pulled open the curtains for me, I realized that He was behind everything, pulling the strings, like the director up in the control booth in the movie, “The Truman Show.”
Discovering it's all an illusion.
In a split second of piercing awareness, like when the sea was split for the Jews leaving Egypt, and the sky was opened for everyone one to see the Divine Hand behind nature and history, I understood that G-d was behind everything.
If you search, you will find Him.
I bought a book about the foundations of Judaism. Rosh HaShanah was coming, and I read about Tashlich. So on Rosh HaShanah day, I walked down to the beach and threw my cortisone pills into the Pacific Ocean.
"Please G-d," I begged. "Accept these pills as my sins and please heal me without any more medicine."
I had tried everything else, and I was convinced that my separation from G-d was the source of my problems. But without the medicine, I became sicker and sicker. I started bleeding profusely. Within a short time, I lost twenty pounds. Finally, I had to be hospitalized. They gave me the cortisone intravenously, but the minute I got out, I stopped taking the pill once again. I figured that by relying on the cortisone, I would never get down to the source of the problem. Once again, I started to bleed. One evening, I became really scared, thinking that if I kept up this insanity, either I would bleed to death, or I would have to have my colon surgically removed. That night I had a dream. I was in a second-hand clothes shop, looking at old clothes when I spotted a door to another room. Curious, I stepped inside. The inner room was filled with books in Hebrew, four walls of bookshelves stacked with holy Jewish texts, like the study hall of a yeshiva. I couldn’t read Hebrew at that time, but I was filled with a profound sense of peace and inner calm. I just wanted to stand there and soak in the holiness of the books. But the shop owner appeared and said he wanted to close the store. I begged him to let me stay another five minutes, just to stand there and look at the books. Grudgingly, he agreed. That’s when I saw another door to yet another inner room. Venturing forward, I stepped inside. The room was empty except for a huge black box in the center of the floor. It was a giant tefillin, looking like some gigantic oversized tefillin in a Woody Allen movie. Gazing at it, my heart swelled with love. Man how I wanted that tefillin. Suddenly, I heard a tremendous thunderous Voice From Above, like a Voice Out Of Sinai, proclaiming, "THIS IS THE ANSWER! YOU HAVE TO ATTACH YOURSELF TO G-D!" I awoke startled. My heart was pounding. The Voice still rang in my ears. It was the clearest, truest, most real experience I had ever heard in my life.
The dream made me understand that rejecting the world and becoming an ascetic wasn’t the path. That might be good for the first stage of tshuva, and for phony monks and swarmis, but G-d doesn’t want us sitting alone in the Himalayas, separated from mankind and leaving people to drop dead from disease and starvation. For a Jew, spirituality is bringing G-d into the world at every moment, to sanctify all of existence and raise it to perfection and tikun.
I realized that to enter the world of the Judaism, to understand its teachings, I would have to put aside all of my previous false and superficial notions of life, put aside, for the moment, all the books I had read and courses I had taken, and follow the Psalms of King David as my reliable guidebook, and accept the words of G-d in the Torah as absolute truth.
I realized that I would have to learn anew how to look with my eyes, how to hear with my ears, how to act.
Do you see the goblet, the Mexicans, or the unhappy people?
For a Jew, the instruction manual is the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and that the way to get close to G-d is by doing the mitzvot, just like He commanded the Jewish People at Sinai.
The next morning after my dream, I went to an Orthodox shul and asked the rabbi to show me how to put on tefillin. He happily agreed and told me to say the Shema Yisrael prayer, which I still remembered from Hebrew School. But even though I would return to the synagogue every morning to put on tefillin, I was still bleeding profusely. Finally, I decided that to stay alive I had to continue taking the cortisone. That very same morning, my uncle phoned, asking if I could drive him to the hospital. He had to have laser surgery on a cataract, so he needed someone to drive him home afterward. Since my aunt was a doctor, I asked him if she could write me out a prescription for the cortisone, because I wanted to avoid the tortuous medieval examinations I always had to suffer whenever I went to the gastroenterologist. When I met my uncle later that morning, he handed me the prescription. At the hospital, all during his treatment, I stood outside the operating room and prayed the same mantra over and over, "G-d, please heal my uncle. G-d, please heal my uncle." For forty-five minutes straight. Thank G-d, the laser treatment was a success. When I returned to my apartment, I headed straight to the bathroom, as was my usual custom. But this time, there was no bleeding! The blood had vanished. Disappeared! For the first time in weeks. Without any medicine! The bleeding never came back. Even then I knew it was over. I felt like G-d had reached out a finger and healed my colitis. I was astounded.
I felt that G-d had reached out and touched me.
I was absolutely dumbstruck by the miracle. "Am I hypnotizing myself with all of this religion business?" I thought. But the bleeding didn’t return. No doctor has ever been able to explain it. The cortisone had always taken ten days to turn off the bleeding, and here the bleeding stopped without taking cortisone at all.
I was blown away. How could I continue on with my bohemian life of beaches and Hollywood discos after that? The next night, after not having bled the whole day, I prayed a heartfelt bedtime prayer. "Dear G-d," I said. "I don’t know why you have come into my life and done this great miracle for me. But I am certainly grateful, and I would like to make You happy some way in return. Tell me what You want me to do, and I will do it. When I read the Bible, it seems clear that You want the Jewish People to live in the Land of Israel. So if You want me to go there, give me some kind of sign and I’ll go. If You want me to stay here in Hollywood, I’ll do that too. Maybe I can write Jewish movies, or get a job at some Jewish newspaper. Just give me a sign from Heaven, and I’ll do it."
The very next morning, when I was leaving my apartment, I noticed that I had mail in my mailbox. It turned out to be a large travel brochure. On the cover was a big picture of the Western Wall. The caption read: "JERUSALEM, MY CHOSEN." I got goose pimples all over my body. The very morning after I asked G-d for a sign whether to go to Israel or not, I found this travel brochure in my mailbox! Never in my life had I ever received any kind of Jewish mail from any kind of Jewish organization. Remember, I was totally assimilated. Once again, my head started spinning in circles. "There is a director greater than Steven Spielberg," I thought. Not only had G-d answered my prayer for a sign, He had obviously known in advance that I would make such a request, because He had to arrange that someone would mail me the brochure, so that it would arrive in my mailbox the very morning after my midnight request!
That very day, I purchased a ticket to Israel.