The Great American Novelist
Tzvi FishmanBefore making Aliyah to Israel, Tzvi Fishman was a Hollywood screenwriter....
Even though the International Blog Commission may revoke my blogging license for posting this lengthy short story, I am doing so because of its profound significance and creative genius.
If you don’t have the time to read it now, print it out and savor it on Shabbat.
In his classic, "Orot," Rabbi Kook emphasizes the vital role of literature in bringing redemption to the world. "Literature will be sanctified, and writers will also sanctify themselves, and the world will rise up and recognize the great and gentle power of literature that will raise up the spiritual foundation of the world in all of its exaltation" (Orot, Orot HaTechiyah, 37).
In other words, before picking up their pens to write, the new wave of Israeli writers will have to immerse in a mikvah in order to purify their thoughts and creative imaginations.
For Israel to return to its true Torah culture, all writers, not only writers from Hollywood, must become baale t’shuva. It is interesting that Rabbi Kook does not say that the Torah will lift the world to the exalted spiritual level characteristic of the time of Redemption, but rather literature. The masses find the pure intellectual reaches of Torah difficult to grasp. Most people are motivated by their feelings, which influence their thinking and beliefs. It is here, in the deep workings of the psyche that literature can illuminate and uplift the spiritual foundation of mankind. As Rabbi Kook writes:
"Out of the worldly, too, will emerge the holy, and out of the brazen liberalism will also emerge the beloved yoke of the Torah. Golden chains will be woven and will arise out of the poetry of free thinkers, and a luminous penitence will also arise from the secular literature. This will be the great wonder of the vision of redemption...which will culminate in a penitence that will bring healing and redemption to the world" (Orot HaT’shuva, 17:3).
This then is a story about the Great American Novelist, Ephraim Lane. For readers who like their work made easy, the whole story is a metaphor for the Jewish People's wanderings in the embraces of foreign lovers until we return to our Original Love. If you don’t have the time to read it now, print it out and savor it on Shabbat.
THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST
Ephraim Lane was born with the name Ephraim Lansky. In his youth, he was a voracious reader. By the time he was six, he could quote long passages from Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. When he was thirteen, he shocked his parents by refusing to have a bar-mitzvah. Judaism, he claimed, was lousy fiction. All human beings were chosen, he said. In the spirit of rebellion which was to characterize his future, he vowed to use his talents to erase all differences between gentiles and Jews.
Ephraim attended an elite boarding school in New England. He partied through four years at Harvard, and fought valiantly in the Marines. His first novel about the Second World War, written in his young twenties, and published under the more American-sounding E. Lane, was an explosive bestseller. The passionate account of manhood trial and fear was not just another copy of Hemingway, like so many books of the time, but the dawning of a brilliant new light.
His next piece of fiction was shorter and far more complex. The allegory about a society gone corrupt received good reviews but failed to attract an audience. Like the strong-hearted boxer that he fancied himself, he pulled himself up from the canvas and published his third work, a literary satire of Jewish life in New York which put his impish grin on magazine covers all over the country. A try at a Hollywood screenplay, a loud bout of drinking, a publicized marriage with a sexy actress, followed by a speedy divorce, sent the young author back down to the mat.
The film of his screenplay flopped. A collection of short stories was practically ignored. Ironically, many years later, when Lansky became required reading in courses in American Literature, the collection was considered a classic. He wrote a fine, miniature novel about baseball, and an uninspired tale of a writer with a pot belly and middle-age crisis. For years he seemed to be forgotten. At literary parties, he was invariably the center of some ugly, drunken brawl. Critics said what a shame. But Lansky surprised them all. With some great secret strength, he sat himself down at his typewriter and pounded out the best selling book of the decade – a savage satire of a Jewish mother who destroys the life of her artistic son with Jewish guilt.
Throughout the summer, on beaches and subways, everyone was reading Lansky's book. More readers rushed out to buy it when the Jewish community called the writer a self-hating Jew. The paperback edition broke all records for sales. Lansky's second marriage to a curvy Swedish masseuse, four inches taller than he was, made all the society pages. All of his works were reprinted, and any article he wrote, whether on politics, women, space travel, or fishing, netted him gold. In the very same year, he won the Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize, had a child with his Swede, divorced her, moved in with a black soul singer, went through spring training with the Dodgers, starred for three weeks in an Off-Broadway play which he directed and wrote, had a small heart attack, and walked out of the hospital engaged to his Puerto Rican nurse.
In interviews, he talked about repentance and giving up marijuana and booze. He split up with his singer, bought a house up in Maine, and took the summer off to rest from his heart attack and relax with Juanita, his much younger caretaker. In September, he mailed three-hundred manuscript pages and a note to his publisher, saying that he was thinking of scrapping the rest of the book. It was a powerful Kafkaesque intrigue, set in a Soviet prison, the story of a loyal party worker exiled for being a Jew. Even conservative critics had to take off their hats. "A metaphor of the soul imprisoned by a fantasy of hope and poetic despair," the New York Times critic called it. The Jewish community turned to embrace him. Prophetically, the plight of Soviet Jews became an international struggle. On the eve of his nomination for the Nobel Prize, E. Lane, born Lansky, stood in the doorway of his snowbound Maine cottage and announced his marriage to his housekeeping nurse. On the pinnacle of his great success, a Newsweek reporter braved his way through the snow to ask Lansky what he hoped to do now.
"Drink beer, watch TV, and have as many children as I can," the writer said with a laugh.
In short, in his forty-eighth year, the novelist became an American legend. Pictures, posters, and stories about him appeared everywhere. He was either loved or hated wherever he went. When his wife ran off with a rock star, Lansky bought an island off Tahiti and lived there without electricity or plumbing for months. Then suddenly, he abandoned the role of the hermit and came home to run as an independent candidate for the governorship of New York.
Perhaps his defeat, or his chain of busted romances, or the prospect of turning fifty was responsible for his change. Or perhaps all of the whiskey and nightlife were simply wearing him down. Whatever the reason, the seemingly indefatigable novelist sunk into a lasting depression. The occasional pieces he published, while still graced with genius, were flat. Instead of writing about the world, he wrote about himself. Even his most faithful readers grew tired with the subject. His publisher tried to release his old sellers in fancy new jackets, but the public wasn't fooled. Ephraim became forgotten like a racehorse laid out to stud. His fourth marriage to a Japanese poet passed without fanfare. The petite Oriental barely came up to his shoulders. "Ephraim Lane has finally found a woman with whom he can feel like a man," his first, or was it second, wife said. Their betrothal lasted a little under a year. In the meantime, two stinkers were published bearing his name, a fat novel about a South American revolution which substituted detail for depth, and another collection of essays, short stories, and solipsistic pieces which almost no one bought.
Lansky's career seemed to be over. But people had forgotten about the old prizefighter inside, the crafty veteran lying on the ropes, blocking punches, waiting to catch his breath until he could score the big knockout. They forgot that to get to the diamond you had to bore through the coal. Ephraim hadn't thrown in the towel. True, he knew he was falling. He recognized that his talent wasn't the same. He lacked the quickness, the energy, and the stamina of his prime. Yet he kept on punching, unwilling to give up the electrifying roar of the ring.
That's when he decided to make a great comeback. First, he gave up the booze. And the drugs. And the women. He returned to his cottage in Maine. He hired a black man for a housekeeper, disconnected the telephone, and wrote. He wrote every morning until one. In the afternoon, he would nap then take a five-mile jog. Evenings, he spent with his kids. A half a year later, he had given birth to a book. It was a fable of King Solomon. A Solomon who the world misunderstood. An irreverent, autobiographical portrait of the king as a man and a writer with a thousand wives and a passion for every experience under the sun. It was, as one critic commented, "A portrait of the artist as a young man." Almost everyone loved it. Only feminists and rabbis complained. The "Secret Diaries of Solomon" became the only book ever banned by the American Congress of Rabbis. His life, they claimed, was a public campaign to annihilate the Jew in himself. Some questioned if his parents were Jewish at all.
Lansky took up the fight. "There is no G-d," he claimed. "The Jewish people are racists! I am ashamed of my Jewishness," he pronounced. "If I could grow back my foreskin, I would."
Another writer explained Lansky's new battle cry by noting, "The man has a genius for keeping himself in the press."
Thus, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, Lansky embarked on his historic world mission: CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE – TO TAKE ISRAEL AWAY FROM THE JEWS.
His idea was unquestionably outrageous. Lansky's essay, published in Esquire, called for the transfer of the Jews of Israel to Alaska. There was, first of all, plenty of room, he maintained. Additionally, it would be a boom to the state of Alaska’s slumping economy, for if anyone could turn tundra to gold, it was the people who had caused the desert to bloom. "The Israelis are all heading for America anyway," he wrote. "We might as well stick them all up in Alaska where there is plenty of room for their taxis."
Most people took the magazine piece as a satire. A few nervous Eskimos protested. "Keep The Jews Out," their signs in Anchorage read. But what started as a joke seemed to snowball. A few respected Jewish intellectuals wrote articles of praise and support. Lansky's proposal, they claimed, deserved serious thought. Why only talk about giving up the West Bank? Perhaps the solution to the conflict lay in giving up all of the land. Why talk about transferring the Arabs? Transfer the Jews instead.
The White House issued a categorical no. But the Parliaments of both England and France discussed the issue in heated debates. Arabs in the U.N. demanded that the Security Council vote on the matter. Almost magically, Lansky's newest tome appeared in the windows of bookstores all over the world. His nonfiction fact-finder on Israel, "Obstacle To Peace," became an overnight bestseller. Suddenly, the author was a Middle East analyst without ever having set foot in Tel Aviv.
"Why should I?" he said. "I can be just as good a Jew in New York without oppressing other people."
Invitations arrived from the Vatican, the PLO, and the Peace Now Movement in Israel. Harvard awarded him with an honorary doctorate. And he would go on to win the Nobel Prize – not for Literature – but for Peace.
Lansky had risen to heights of which he himself hadn't dreamed - from a modest boyhood in Brooklyn to the whirlwinds of world news. And for some unknown reason, his destiny kept calling.
Once again, his photograph was printed in all of the papers. Ephraim Lansky on his knees, kissing the ring of the Pope. For a week, he had been a guest of the Vatican. He had sat with the celebrated Church father for hours, arguing over politics and religion, world history, and sex. When the Pontiff stepped out on his balcony to greet the cheering thousands, the Jewish writer was at his side.
"I love you," the novelist yelled out to the world. "I love all people! All of you are my brothers!"
The roar from the crowd was tremendous. The Pope leaned over and whispered, "Tell them you love Yoshke."
"I love Yoshke!" Lansky yelled.
The crowd's reaction was deafening. Their roar shook the foundations of Rome. On television screens all over America, the Jewish writer could be seen yelling, "I love Yoshke," again and again. A week later, he was baptized. In the Jordan River, on the Jordanian side of the border. The Pope and the King of Jordan were present, along with hundreds of cardinals and bishops and journalists from all over the world. Jordanian soldiers surrounded the area, and Soviet anti-aircraft missiles were poised in alert. Westward, across the scorched valley, atop a Judean mountain, an Israeli sharpshooter had the novelist centered in his sights. The silver-haired Lansky was dunked, and a new savior was born. Draped in a white robe, with water dripping from his head, he came up from the Jordan like a pot-bellied prizefighter emerging from the ring.
"Will you be continuing to Israel on your mission of peace?" a journalist asked him.
"Not in this direction," he said, pointing across the valley. "Not over illegally occupied land. If the Israelis are ready to meet me, it will be in New York."
The Pope hung a crucifix over Lansky's neck and kissed him on both of his cheeks. The Jordanian King shook his hand. The new Christian peacemaker flew back to Rome with the Pope. "I just want to be a simple monk," he told reporters. Thus began a surprisingly long seclusion. For the writer, the monastery was truly a godsend. Like his winter in Maine, it was a chance to get away from the whiskey and women. In five short months of seclusion, Lansky finished his seventeenth book.
He had enjoyed writing by candlelight in the small, spartan room. He had truly worked hard, writing day after day, with only a break now and then to drive into Rome to spend a night on the town. His last chapter was nearing completion when there came a knock on his door. Brother John had arrived with a message. The writer's agent had phoned from America. Ephraim's mother was dying, and she wanted her only child to come.
Lansky took off his brown monk's frock and sash, and changed into a suit. Carrying a briefcase with his manuscript inside, he boarded the first plane to New York. He phoned the Miami hospital when he landed and learned that his mother was still fighting for her life. Another jet took him south. At the airport, a limousine was waiting. When he finally got to the hospital, the shriveled, old woman was still breathing on her own. He set his briefcase on the floor and leaned over the bed.
"Momma," he said.
She opened her cataract eyes. "Come closer," she whispered.
Ephraim bent down over the once strong woman, now a mere wisp in her hospital gown. With her last remaining strength, she raised herself up on her elbows. Her throat rattled and she spit straight into his face – all of the saliva which she had been saving for days.
"Shagetz," she said.
Then her strength gave out and she collapsed dead on the bed.
Lansky's autobiographical, "Born Again" was his biggest bestseller ever. The rabbis put him in herem, excommunicating him from the Jewish community. Lansky said he didn't care. Not about the condemnation, and not about his success. He felt exhausted and horribly depressed. He felt soiled, as if, no matter how hard he scrubbed, the spit of his mother wouldn't come off.
The author felt empty inside. What more was there to accomplish in life? Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What did it all come to? Interviews, photographs, money, and fame. And the truth was that Solomon had written it with far more style and grace than Lansky ever could.
He began to suffer from blackouts. His sleep was disrupted with nightmares like newsreels from his past. He went to a neurologist, an astrologist, and a shrink. He went to clear out his mother's apartment and found himself moving in. He hid from the world in the penthouse condominium overlooking Miami Beach. Day after day, he searched through the closets and drawers, hoping to find the piece of his life that was missing. For weeks he didn't pick up a pen. He had nothing to write. Nothing to say. He felt impotent. Finished.
The gun shop didn't open until eleven. He paid the taxi driver and walked around the block. Cubans hung out on doorsteps. There was a smell of sweet rice in the air. Like Hemingway, he had decided to blow out his brains.
He took the shotgun back to the apartment. Even his death would be a poor copy of a writer far greater than he. "I lived, and I died, and my whole life I lied," he started to scribble. He took the shotgun to bed with him, but he couldn't pull the trigger. For the first time in his life, he was scared. He rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out to the beach. The night was black. Waves rumbled and roared onto shore. Even Virginia Woolf, a woman, was braver than he was, he thought, as he gazed out at the mocking sea. His belly screamed for a drink. Hours later, the telephone kept ringing and ringing. He awoke in a stupor.
"You've won the Nobel Prize," his agent said from New York.
"For literature?" the writer asked.
"No," came the reply. "For peace."
The news was like a shot of adrenaline, helping him cast off his depression. Lansky accepted the award dressed in black tails. The King of Sweden placed the medal in his hand. The auditorium was packed to the rafters. Electronic flashes twinkled like stars. The prizewinner stood at the podium and waited for the murmur to end. A hush fell over the hall.
"Your majesty," he began. "Distinguished panelists, guests, friends, brothers the world over. I am truly sorry, but I cannot accept this award."
A sound of surprise filled the hall.
"I cannot accept a prize for peace when there is none. Today, as I speak, the fighting continues between Arab and Jew, between Irish Catholic and Protestant, between white people and black. I cannot accept a prize for peace when my own heart is filled with a lust for war. A war against hatred. A war versus oppression. A war combating racism, military occupation and the exploitation of the downtrodden and poor. To earn this prize for peace, one must first have ended war. Ladies and gentlemen, the battle lays waiting before us. The battle has not yet begun. Let us wage war together so that one day we can all live in love."
The applause was unending. Lansky returned the medal to the Swedish monarch, winked at his queen, and walked off the stage. He pushed his way past reporters, claiming, "I have nothing more to say." By the following morning, the whole world had heard how the writer had rejected the prize.
Overnight, the Jew who had turned his back on his people became the world's symbol of peace. Interviews wearied his days. What did he think about the conflict in Equador, Belfast, and Afghanistan? In truth, he didn't think about them at all. But he made up long- winded answers. Politics was all a big sham – what did it matter what he said?
All of the speeches soon bored him. The honorary doctorates held no appeal. The partying wasted his strength. His eyesight was waning, sleep came in spurts, he often passed gas at inopportune moments, and he was unable to write a full page without tiring.
So when Nasrallah phoned, he was ready.
"I understand we have things in common," the terrorist said.
"What's that?" the writer asked.
"We're both not schoolboys anymore."
"And I'm writing a book," the Arab confided.
"Get a good agent," Lanksy advised.
"Perhaps you could help me?"
"Perhaps," the boxer in Lansky answered as if the two men were sparring.
"We have something else in common," Nasrallah said.
"What could that be?"
"We both hate the Jews," the Hizbullah chief responded.
"I don't hate Jews," Lansky answered. "All people are creations of God."
"That's right," Nasrallah replied. "But nevertheless, the land of Palestine must be freed."
The terrorist invited Lansky to Beirut. With his incomparable showmanship, Lansky called a press conference and announced that he was flying to the Middle East to join the Hizbullah in their struggle to liberate Palestine. The Mossad agent who was posing as a photographer could have assassinated him with no trouble, but the order never came. So Ephraim flew off to Lebanon. A long black limousine was waiting out on the runway when he stepped off the plane. Four razor-thin Arabs toting machine guns escorted him into the car. Immediately, he was frisked and blindfolded. His protests were greeted with silence. Finally, one of them said, "We are not going to hurt you, so you can shut up. But remember, to us, this isn't a game."
Lansky felt frightened. It was true. His own life had become one big charade. He had forgotten that other people still took their lives seriously. Seriously enough to kill or be killed. So he sat quietly for the rest of the ride. The blindfold wasn't removed until he was sitting in somebody's living room. It was a westernized home with a big color TV. Bodyguards still surrounded him. They stood tensely waiting, as if Israeli agents might burst in at any moment. Finally, Hassan Nasrallah came into the room.
The Hizbullah chief had been right when he said that they had some things in common. Both men were plump, aging fighters with a demonic gleam in the eyes that loved a good brawl. They were both superb actors, survivors in a world which transformed news into show biz.
"You must be very hungry," the terrorist said. "Allow me to introduce you to an Arab tradition – Middle Eastern hospitality."
Lansky smiled. "A tradition that Ishmael learned from Abraham the Jew," he said.
Nasrallah nodded. The spicy meal had been prepared in advance. Nasrallah sipped tea. The writer drank wine. The old grandmother who brought in the food was the only woman Lansky had seen since he had descended from the plane.
"How do you like Lebanon?" Nasrallah politely asked.
"I wouldn't know. I haven't seen it yet."
"I apologize for the blindfold. Security concerns warrant our caution."
"Security against what?"
"Against you. I really don't know you, do I? Perhaps this is just another one of your games. Perhaps you are working for Israel."
"Or perhaps I'm serious," the writer said.
"Perhaps. We shall find out. Why did you come? Tell me."
"Why did you invite me?"
"That's true. I did. I thought that maybe you truly believed in our struggle."
"I am prepared to kill Jews for our struggle. Are you?"
Lansky paused. He smiled. "Is this lemon chicken?" he asked. Nasrallah nodded. Lansky left the question unanswered. Calmly, he sipped on his wine.
"While killing is an inescapable component of history," Lansky said, "I have come, in my later years, to appreciate the value of peace."
"Have you come here to persuade me to make peace with the Zionists?"
"Then why did you come? For the publicity? To write another book?"
"I don't need publicity, and I'm weary of writing books."
"Why then?" the Arab asked.
Lansky stared back at the beady eyes, the beard, the kaftan head covering which had become a symbol of terror and hatred.
"To prove to the world that there is a Jew who is ready to say that his people are wrong," Lansky answered.
Nasrallah smiled. He leaned closer to Lansky as if he wanted to whisper something which he didn't want his attendants to hear. Lansky bent closer. With a smile, the Arab spit in his face.
The spit was thick with the juice of the chicken which Nasrallah had been eating. The Jew felt like choking. The image of his dying mother flashed through his brain. He picked up a napkin and wiped the saliva off his face. The stink sickened him. He was trembling.
"You didn't invite me all of the way here just to spit in my face," he said, summoning all of his self-control.
"Yes I did," the Arab replied. "And to tell you that you are a lying, whoring pig."
Lansky stood up from his chair. "Then there's nothing further to say," he said.
Laughing, Nasrallah rose. The bodyguards laughed with him. That was the moment. Lansky lunged forward and punched the Hizbullah chief square in the chin. It was a crunching right hand that sent Nasrallah spinning. The speed of the blow caught the terrorist leader completely off guard. He toppled back over his chair and thudded to the floor. The bodyguards were stunned. Seconds passed before they pounced on the Jew. Arms pinned him to the wall. Fists crunched into his belly. Only when Nasrallah yelled out in Arabic did they reluctantly let go. The dizzy Arab wobbled to his feet. He held onto his chair for balance. Then he smiled and laughed.
The punch seemed to have won Nasrallah's trust. From that moment on, there were no more tests. Lansky was adopted into the fold. He sat in on top Hizbullah meetings, trained with their soldiers, and was constantly photographed at Nasrallah's side.
In Lansky's spare time he wrote a short text which he titled, "On Revolution." Revolution, he wrote, was the harbinger of all progress and change. Though there was no direct mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a chapter on the virtues of terrorism, Hassan Nasrallah was listed with Yehuda the Maccabee, Robin Hood, and George Washington.
Most of his time, Lansky devoted to training. He spent two weeks on the sand dunes of the Mediterranean, running and shooting and hurling grenades. After that, he was transported to the mountains, where he hung out with Hizbullah guerrillas. Whatever suspicions the Arabs had about the fat old Jew in their unit disappeared when he jumped off a mountain peak on his first hang-glider flight.
Lansky barely had strength for the rigorous routine of guerilla training, but he was determined to persevere. He stayed away from the Arab women just as he had been warned. Several months passed. When Lansky told Nasrallah that he wanted to take part in an action, the terrorist balked.
"You are more important to us as a writer," the Arab said.
Lansky insisted he wanted to fight. To play a real part in the struggle. To martyr himself if he had to. To show people that he was ready to die in the battle for peace.
"Do you really hate the Zionists so much?" the terrorist asked.
"No," Lansky answered. "How can you? You have to admire them. Throughout history, people have tried to slaughter the Jews and they're still around. And truthfully, to put my life on the line for justice, I can't say that I'm ready. Who really knows what's right and wrong in this world? I've lived a good life. I've done everything one man can do. But now I want to take the fight to the end, to face the only real truth a man ever can – his own truth – to stand face to face with death and not be afraid."
The Arab didn't comprehend a word that Lansky said, but he decided to go ahead and use the stupid Jew in a dangerous suicide mission. It was a strike inside Israel that the Hizbullah had been planning for years. Seven terrorists were to infiltrate Israel. They were to rendezvous and travel south in a truck transporting vegetables to the Beer Sheva market. Once in the city, they would drive to the university campus and open fire with machine guns and grenades. Lansky was chosen to be one of the team.
The letter he wrote on the eve of the mission wasn't one of his best. The style was confusing, wordy, and annoyingly abstract. Israel, the symbol of justice and truth, had failed, he insisted. Good had become evil, and evil had turned into good.
It was a two-kilometer hang-glider flight from the South Lebanese mountains to Israel. On a dark, moonless evening, Ephraim Lansky soared upon eagle's wings to the Holy Land, just like the prophets had promised. His landing was perfect with hardly a scratch. A short scurry through the valley brought him to the truck which would carry him south. Armed with an Uzi and hand grenades, the writer-turned-terrorist set off on the mission.
The rest of the story is history. Lansky's picture made every front page in the world. "WRITER FOILS TERROR ATTACK!" the New York Times headline read. On the outskirts of Beer Sheva, an Israeli anti-terrorist squadron was waiting to ambush the truck. Lansky jumped off seconds before the fireworks started. One RPG missile sent the truck up in flames. All six of the terrorists were killed in the blast. Only the writer escaped. Lansky, the double agent, had outsmarted Nasrallah. He was Israel's secret spy. Overnight, he was a hero to Jews the world over. Even rabbis took off their hats. And every other writer was stunned. Lansky had created a new form to the art. Life writing, he called it. His book, "The Double Cross," appeared in print within two months. Told with his old genius and flare for action, it was the day-to-day diary of his Hizbullah adventure. The dedication read: For My Mother.
The Prime Minister of Israel and the Minister of Defense sat at his side at the press conference.
"Like the history of our people," Lansky said, "I have wandered. Through strange and foreign pastures, I have strayed. But now, like the people of Israel, I have come back to my homeland, to stay."
He refused to say more. He was sneaking up on sixty. His back hurt from the leap off the truck. Hemorrhoids too long ignored were taking their revenge. All he wanted was to see a doctor and rest. Israeli warplanes struck at Hizbullah bases in Lebanon. Nasrallah's headquarters were bombed but the terrorist leader escaped. The next day, wearing a bandage under his kaftan, the angry Nasrallah called the Jewish writer a dead man. The Mayor of Jerusalem gave Lansky the keys to the city, and the Israeli Police gave him around the clock guards.
Ephraim Lansky had become a Jewish legend. But like all other heroes, Lansky had a flaw. After only a month of retirement and the life of a simple Jew, he grew tired of the daily trips to the neighborhood grocery, cups of Turkish coffee at sidewalk cafes, and reading the razor-thin International Herald Tribune. For the first time since the Beer Sheva ambush, he agreed to a public appearance, the dedication of a new Humanities Building at Hebrew University. Receiving an honorary doctorate, he announced the creation of a scholarship fund in memory of his mother.
During his speech, the girl was sitting in the front row of the audience. At the crowded cocktail party, she appeared at his side. The writer naturally assumed she was Jewish. It never entered his mind that she could be a young Arab co-ed. She said she was a literature major and they spoke briefly about books. Later that evening, when he arrived at his Jerusalem hotel, he lingered some moments in the lobby. Almost instantly, she walked in the door. Gallantly, he invited her up to his room to give her an autographed copy of his latest bestseller. It happened so fast, he was helpless. With a swift, practiced movement, she opened her purse and slid out what looked like a nail file.
"Greetings from Nasrallah," she whispered.
With a powerful thrust, she imbedded the knife in his stomach. In the reflection of the mirror, the writer saw his own murder.
"A film to the end," he thought, watching himself fall to the floor.
His knees went weak, like a fighter caught off guard by an uppercut to the belly. Hitting the canvas, he felt his heart explode.
The girl felt sure he was dead. Leaving the blade in his body, she panicked and fled. On a hunch, the lobby guard detained her downstairs. The hotel security agent found Lansky bleeding to death in the elevator on the seventeenth floor. Bending over the unconscious writer, he pounded furiously on his motionless chest.
Meanwhile, in the Sam Goldman Wing of the Hadassah Hospital, in the Ray and Sandra Shapiro Operating Room, a man critically wounded in a car accident was pronounced brain dead on the table. When word came that an ambulance was on its way, the deceased was kept artificially breathing. In the ambulance, the old fighter seemed to be out for the count. Someone kept pounding him on the chest, and someone kept pumping air in his mouth, but his ticker had stopped, and the prize-winning brain was composing its concluding epitaph. After an hour of surgery patching up his wound, the battery of surgeons in the Betty Freidman Transplant Theater debated if there was any point in trying the difficult transplant. Ephraim's soul had left his moribund body. It was hovering up by the ceiling, screaming at the doctors below.
"Keep working, you jerks!" it yelled. "Keep working! Don't give up now!"
Lansky was damned if a skinny Arab girl would get the credit for doing him in.
"Put in the new heart!" he shouted, but the doctor's paid no attention.
Lansky had to admit, for a guy who had experienced everything in life, this was a novel sensation. On the operating table, with his chest split apart like a melon, his soul had flown out of his body. At first, the reporter in him had watched in fascination. He saw and heard everything which was going on the room, yet he was no longer attached to the world. A lifeless, overweight, white-haired old man lay on the operating table below, while his thoughts floated like bubbles by the ceiling. Then the ceiling disappeared and he felt something grab him, pulling him into the heavens away from the earth. Seeing his mother, he cried out for help. But she didn't answer. In the distance, he saw a great light like a fire, more glowing than millions of stars. In the brilliant hot glow, all the sin of his life filled up his being with a horrible darkness. He tried to put on the brakes and turn back before he plunged into the flaming abyss, but there was nothing to grasp.
"Shema Yisrael," he cried out. "Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One!"
It was too late. A gigantic book hurtled his way from out of the heavens. It was a tome carved in marble, like a tombstone, engraved with all the misdeeds of his life. It would crush him, smash him, obliterate him the moment it struck. The collision seemed inevitable, inescapable, imminently real.
"Oh G-d, I'm so sorry," the doomed novelist moaned.
Suddenly, he felt a searing pain in his heart, an excruciating tug, a torturous shock to his being. An oxygen mask squelched his terrified scream. From out of the heavens, he heard an echoing refrain: "A new heart I will give you... a new heart... a new heart... a new heart." With a tremendous whoosh, his soul flew back to his body.
"Adrenaline!" a surgeon commanded.
A team of surgeons stood around him, masked and wearing gloves. He watched as hands raised his heart in the air and flopped it down in a pan. A respiratory machine kept him breathing. On the operating table beside him lay a dead man. A Jew with a beard. He was looking at Lansky and smiling. Hands lifted the man’s still-beating heart out of his chest. Blood splattered on Lansky's face, but he didn't feel the drops.
When the writer opened his eyes after the marathon operation, the first thing he saw was a woman. She was matronly, wearing with a shetel on her head, like photographs of Lansky's great grandmother. Her face was kind and ascetic.
"Oh no," Lansky thought. "She's the guy's wife."
She sat praying by his bedside for hours. Her husband had been a Chabadnik who wanted to do a mitzvah down to the last. After the week of sitting shiva for her husband, she returned to the hospital to sit beside Lansky’s bed. The reborn writer glanced groggily down at the angelic young boy at her side.
"This is David," she said in simple English. "The others are at home."
"How many are there?"
"Eight," she answered.
He had eight too. From five or six different wives. He had lost track of the count. That made them a family of eighteen.
"I know my husband would want you to have this," she said, leaving the dead Hasid’s tallis, tefillin, and prayerbook on Lansky's bedside table.
He thanked her. What more could he say? What was a heart worth? A hundred-thousand bucks? A million? When he recovered, he'd send her a check in the mail.
If he recovered. The doctors said they couldn't be sure. It would take some time to determine if his body accepted the transplant. At first it was frightening, living with another man's heart. Often, the former loud and boisterous showman was afraid to open his mouth to speak, lest the smallest exertion cause an aorta to explode. Maybe his change of heart was due to the new heart he had received from the Hasid. Or maybe it was due to his encounter with death. Whatever the cause, something had changed him. The world famous egotist became quiet, humble, and meek. When they brought him his first real meal of food, he asked, "Is it kosher?" He asked the hospital rabbi to teach him how to put on tefillin. And he sent a message to the Hasid's widow, wondering if someone could bring him a Bible in English.
That very day, a young teenager brought Lansky an Old Testament, translated into English, with a commentary explaining the text. Putting a kippah on his head, the writer picked up the world's all-time bestseller. He spent hours engrossed in the Biblical drama which he had never bothered to read. But somehow, he felt disappointed, and he didn't know why. Then he realized what it was. He had hoped that the wife of the Hasid would bring the book herself. Strange, but he missed her. He remembered her soft smile and warmth. She was nothing like all the other women he had known, but he found himself dreaming about her all the same.
When he was allowed out of bed, he sought out the hospital synagogue and sat reading Psalms. He felt an inner need to make peace with G-d. To thank Him for the life he had received. And to make amends for all of his past.
He knew he was recovering when his urge to write returned. At first, he wrote letters to the woman. She visited when she could, but with so many children at home, it was hard to get away. When he asked her to marry him, she blushed like a girl. He told her that he wanted to study the Torah. To sit in a yeshiva and learn. She was glad, she told him, but she also wanted him to continue to write. G-d wanted him to use his talent, she said.
His first book, "Back To Life," outsold them all. Interviews interfered with his Torah studies, but his new wife encouraged him to talk. Everyone had a mission, she said. And his mission was to bring people closer to G-d.
His second book, "The Transplanted Jew," was a history of the Jewish people, told with the author's inimitable flair. For a work of nonfiction, it had a respectable sale, though it was by no means a runaway hit. His next book, "The Jewish Heart," a serious scholarly text, didn't even make the bestseller charts.
Lansky didn't care. He was happy. He was content to learn a page of Talmud in the morning, nap in the early afternoon, write for a spell before dinner, and spend the evening with his wife and eight kids. Seeing the bearded, skull-capped Lansky, no one would have recognized him from the past. Visitors to Jerusalem who saw the devout figure hurrying through the Old City on his way to the Kotel and nightly midnight prayer would never had guessed that he was none other than the flamboyant, hell-raising writer.
Ephraim Lansky died seven years later. After his funeral on the Mount of Olives, his wife revealed that he had written another book, a frank, tell-it-all, autobiography. Published posthumously, "Life in the World To Come" became the best selling book of the decade. The old fighter had done it again. In his last will and testament, Lansky left instructions for his last remaining book, "The Resurrection." It was to be hidden until the coming of Mashiach. "I want it ready for publication," he wrote, "the moment I get up from the grave."