Interview with Novelist Tzvi Fishman
Tzvi FishmanBefore making Aliyah to Israel, Tzvi Fishman was a Hollywood screenwriter....
INN: You have described yourself as the world’s greatest novelist. Don’t you think that shows arrogance and hubris on your part?
FISHMAN: Not at all. If Bibi Netanyahu says that he’s the Prime Minister of Israel, is that arrogance? No. He is simply stating a fact.
INN: Do you really believe you are a better writer than the likes of Melville, Tolstoy, Proust, Dickens, Hemingway, Hugo, or James Joyce, to cite just a few?
FISHMAN: Absolutely. There may be writers who know how to string words together more pleasantly, or who build bigger characters, or more dramatic stories, but the message I convey in my novels far surpasses all of their themes of darkness and despair, whether it be themes promoting atheism, Christianity, unbridled passion, or the meaninglessness of life.
INN: What are some of your themes?
FISHMAN: I write about serving the One and Only G-d, about T’shuva, about Torah, and about Aliyah, the most important things in life.
INN: Then maybe you should categorize yourself as a Jewish author, and leave it at that.
FISHMAN: The goal of the Jewish People is to lead mankind to the service of the One and Only true G-d, to be “a light to the nations.” Serving Hashem is the purpose of all existence. Being a Jewish writer isn’t some minor category amongst the writers of the world. A Jewish writer is the top of the pyramid. So if I am the greatest Jewish novelist in the world, than, by definition, I am the greatest overall writer as well.
INN: Why do you insist on being the greatest?
FISHMAN: I don’t. You want to give the title to somebody else? Be my guest. I couldn’t care less. I don’t write to win prizes.
INN: Why do you write?
FISHMAN: To bring people closer to G-d. That’s what every writer should strive for. That’s why we were created. That’s why we are here on this planet – to get closer to G-d. Any book that doesn’t bring the reader closer to G-d, the One and Only true G-d of the Jews, is a big waste of time.
INN: Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is a waste of time?
INN: What about the famous Jewish novelists of our times? When it comes to literary fiction, they top the list.
FISHMAN: I don’t want to name names, but by and large, they are either assimilationists chasing after the forbidden shiksa, anti-Torah, anti-Israel, anti-G-d, who turn their backs on Judaism and make fun of everything holy.
INN: You have to admit they can be very funny.
FISHMAN: Gehinom is filled with funny writers.
INN: You yourself use lots of humor in your writing.
FISHMAN: Not to make fun of the Torah, G-d forbid.
INN: If you are such a great writer, as you claim, how come you’re not a New York Times bestseller?
FISHMAN: I write about things people would rather avoid.
INN: Like what?
FISHMAN: Like G-d, like Torah, like t’shuva, and coming on aliyah. It’s a message most people don’t want to hear about. I put all of those themes into my novels in a fun and creative way. But reading about the truth makes people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, most people read fiction to escape from their lives. They like romances, murder stories, and political thrillers. My stuff is too confrontational for their tastes. The people who read it, end up loving it, but at this point in world history, in the very superficial and secular artistic milieu we live in, no one wants to be reminded about the truth. The books of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the Rambam, and the Ramchal, were banned and burned in their lifetimes. Few of their contemporaries recognized their genius. Rabbi Kook also. What are you going to do? But, Rabbi Kook writes that the day will come when the world will feel the emptiness of secular life and the shallowness of Diaspora Jewish existence, and a great longing will arise for a literature of repentance and t’shuva and Eretz Yisrael. Then I’ll sell lots of books, or give them away for nothing, like I’m doing right now by serializing them on Arutz 7 for free.
INN: Rabbi Kook writes, “There will certainly arise for us a poet of t’shuva, who will be a poet of life, a poet of Israel’s rebirth, a poet of the nation’s soul as it advances toward Redemption.” Is that you?
FISHMAN: (he smiles.) I'm trying my best.
Tzvi Fishman’s novels and books are available at Amazon Books
Returning to the car, I found my way back to the main drag, and followed road signs that pointed the way up a gently winding mountain slope toward the hills of the Galilee. Further up the ascent, and along a sweeping curve, the Sea of Galilee shone like a mirror back in the distance. In another fifteen minutes, I reached the mystical town of Safed.
More than once since leaving Kennedy Airport in New York, I myself thought that I was crazy for journeying across the world in search of a 120-year-old man who may already have died. But here I was in the small, isolated mountainside community famous for the Jewish mystics who had lived there, and who were buried there as well in the cemetery that was one of the “must see” sites in my tour book. After making some wrong turns, I managed to find the Old City of Safed, where I figured it logical that the old man could be found. The main thoroughfare was a cobblestone mall of artist shops and souvenir stores selling mystical paintings, Biblical wardrobes, colorful, sweet-smelling candles, and all kinds of religious paraphernalia. The stone two-story buildings had either been preserved or restored from a period some five-hundred years before, when the city had been a haven for scholars and sages of the Kabbalah, the secrets of the Torah. Obviously, it was an attraction spot for tourists, though I spotted several Hasidic types who looked to be residents of the place, wearing long black robes and sporting equally long side-locks, which dangled in curls down the sides of their heads.
At random, I walked into a bookstore, intending to ask the salesman if he knew where I could find the 120-year-old man who was known for doing miracles. Inside the small shop, a dark-skinned, jovial looking salesman was selling a book to a customer. He was dressed in modern garb and looked about my age. While I waited, I gazed at the Hebrew texts on the shelves and the portraits of no-doubt famous rabbis which were on sale. A cell phone rang and the shop owner answered it. Staring my way, he nodded his head, said a few words in Hebrew and slipped the phone into his shirt pocket.
“You’re from America?” he asked me.
“That’s right,” I said.
“That was my great grandfather on the phone. You’ve come here to speak with him, yes?”
“He knows that I’m here?” I asked astounded.
“Yes,” he said, concluding his sale with the customer.
I was amazed. It turned out to be so easy! “Thank God he’s still alive,” I said to myself, feeling my heart begin to race.
“My great grandfather says he is sorry, but he can’t meet with you,” the bookseller related.
If my heart had jumped into the sky just a second ago, it now plummeted back down to earth. I started to feel dizzy, as if I were going to faint.
“Your great grandfather is 120 years old?” I muttered.
“More or less,” he replied.
“And he’s known for doing miracles?”
“I suppose that he is.”
“He refuses to meet me?”
I held onto a counter to brace myself. Could it be that I had traveled all the way to Israel for nothing?
“Would you like a cold drink? You must be tired from your trip,” the bookseller said.
Saying goodbye to the customer, he removed a cold bottle of spring water from a small refrigerator and poured me a glass.
“I came all of the way from America just to meet him,” I pleaded. “He has to see me. I spent a few thousand dollars, and left my wife at home, and if I can’t get to meet him, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
To say that I was bewildered is an understatement. The Israeli set the glass of water on the counter, but I felt that my hands were trembling too violently to lift it.
“Please,” I begged. “Please explain that I came all the way here from America just to see him. It’s terribly important to me.”
“I will try,” he said. “My great grandfather doesn’t have a telephone, but maybe my son is still with him at the house.”
I nervously waited as he spoke in Hebrew to his son. I felt certain that he, and anyone in sight of the bookstore, could hear my heart beating. An interval passed, as if my request was being relayed to the old man. Listening to the answer, his great grandson nodded his head.
“The Rabbi says there is no point in meeting with you because you won’t accept his advice. He says that you met someone who put a doubt in your head. A man wearing a black hat at the Kotel.”
I was stunned. Shattered.
“I didn’t take him seriously,” I insisted.
“My great grandfather says that you did.”
I must have looked pretty shaky, because he grabbed a chair and hurried it over to me, helping me to sit down. It was true, I thought. After talking with the American at the Kotel, the notion hadn’t left my mind that the whole miracle-man business was a hoax.
“Drink,” he said. “It’s hotter outside than you think.”
Embarrassed as hell, I lifted the glass of water with both of my hands and guided it to my mouth. “Shit,” I thought, feeling a-hundred-years old myself.
Maybe the bookseller took pity on me. Once again, he made a phone call and spoke in Hebrew. This time, there was hope in his words.
“Saba Yosef says that he’ll make an exception and see you, but he wants you to first immerse in the mikvah of the holy Ari.”
I figured that Saba Yosef was the name of his great grandfather, whom he also called “the Rabbi.” But I had no idea what a mikvah was. Yosef, they told me later, was the Hebrew for Joseph, the Biblical figure who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, only to become the most powerful viceroy in Egypt.
“A mikvah is a ritual immersion pool,” Baruch explained in excellent English, as if reading my mind. “It cleanses a person from spiritual impurity. The mikvah of the Ari is a natural, underground pool, located in a cave. The water comes down from the mountains. I’ll show you. It’s only a short walk away.”
“I don’t want to take you away from your work,” I said politely.
“It’s lunchtime anyway,” he replied. “I always take a little siesta about now. On the way, you’ll see that a lot of shops are closed. It’s a custom here.”
He said that his name was Baruch, and I said my name was Craig.
“Your great grandfather has mental telepathy?” I asked him.
“Something like that. We call it Ruach HaKodesh. Divine Inspiration. He is shown things.”
“Shown things? By who?”
“It’s hard to explain, but you should know that when a seeker like you makes the effort to come to a holy rabbi like my great grandfather, in order to learn from him a better way of life, the forces of evil in the world rise up against the seeker and put all sorts of obstacles in his path to prevent him from succeeding in his mission. Doubt is one of the most difficult obstacles. Especially for a person who comes from the West. You live in a very rational world. The emphasis is placed on the material side of life. People believe in what they can hold in their hands and see. But it’s all a mirage. It’s very hard for people with backgrounds like yours to accept that there is a whole spiritual world beyond the physical here and now.”
I remembered the mirage that I had seen on the highway in the heat of the day. Everything he said sounded correct, but even as he said it, I heard a cynical voice inside me saying that it was all a lot of nonsense. My heart was beating even faster now. I wasn’t sure I wanted my life to be an open book before some other person, even if it were some old man in Israel that nobody I knew would ever meet. But the ball was already rolling, and I couldn’t stop it now.
Carrying a towel, Saba Yosef’s great grandson locked the door of the bookstore and led the way down the quaint, cobblestone pedestrian mall. I followed his steps along narrow, twisted alleyways until we left most of the tourists behind. Soon, the people we encountered were mostly religious Jews, in what appeared to be an older, more derelict part of the city, whose ruins were being restored.
“Safed was hit hard by several earthquakes over the years,” my host informed me. “Only in the last twenty years has serious reconstruction been going on.”
He led me to the top of a long, steep flight of steps that led down to the sprawling, ancient hillside cemetery of Safed. Many of the tombstones lay shattered. Others were highlighted with a pale blue color that looked like the sky.
“The Ari, or the Arizal, as he is sometimes called, was the most famous of the Kabbalists. He is buried along the slope,” the bookseller explained, pointing to an area where a group of Hasidim were clustered around one of the blue-painted sites.
“He was born about 500 years ago in Jerusalem with the name of Yitzhak Luria. At a very young age, he became a master of all the Talmudic texts. He would isolate himself for years at a time in deep meditation, not speaking a word, until Elijah the Prophet appeared to him and taught him the secret wisdom of the Torah. It is reported that his soul would ascend every night to Heaven, where he would also learn the ancient wisdom from the great Sages of the past. His foremost student, Rabbi Chaim Vital, writes that the Arizal knew the language of birds, the conversation of trees, and the speech of the angels. He could read the faces of people and know everything that a person had done. He knew people’s thoughts, and was aware of everything that happened on earth, and what was decreed in Heaven. He knew the secrets of reincarnation and was able to see the souls of everyone who died. Just from a person’s smell, he could tell what sins he had made. Even though true prophecy no longer exists, Divine Inspiration is still with us. In every generation, Elijah the Prophet reveals the secrets to a few exceptionally devout individuals. Any individual, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, can have Divine Inspiration bestowed upon him. It all depends on his righteousness and his deeds.’”
“Is your great grandfather like that?” I asked him.
“When you meet him, you can judge for yourself,” he said.
A group of Breslov Hasidim brushed by us on their way toward the grave of the famous Kabbalist. They were followed by a steady stream of people of all shapes and sizes, religious and non-religious alike. Pointing down the hillside, my Israeli guide supplied some other information that I probably would never have found in my tour book.
“Down the way is the tomb of Rabbi Yosef Karo, who compiled the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ the code of Jewish law. Further down the hill, in the tomb with the dome, is the Prophet Hosea, from the time of the Bible. There’s the mikvah of the Ari,” he said, motioning in the other direction. “While you immerse yourself, I’ll say a few prayers, and we will meet back here.”
He handed me the towel.
“Make sure you immerse yourself completely. The water is a little cold, but on a hot day like today it’s refreshing. If you can, dunk yourself seven times. But before you do, try to confess all of your sins.”
If I were to confess all of my sins, he would have had to wait a week before I got back, I thought wryly. I didn’t express my skepticism out loud, because I didn’t want to offend him by making a joke out of what he obviously considered a very serious matter.
“It’s a very cleansing experience,” he said, as if reading my thoughts once again. “There’s a legend that says that anyone who immerses himself in the mikvah of the Ari will become a penitent before he dies.”
I wasn’t sure what a penitent was, nor was I certain that I wanted to be one. I wanted to be healthy math teacher, that’s all, and not drop dead before my time.
Cautiously, I made my way down the stairway of battered stone stairs. Many were broken or chipped and covered with boards. Religious men, with towels draped over their shoulders, trickled in and out of the entrance to the cave which housed the pool of flowing spring water. Inside, the floor had been tiled, and concrete had been plastered onto the walls, but the pool itself was still in its natural setting, as if it had been chiseled into the bedrock of the mountain during the seven days of Creation.
I don’t know why, but the sight of the naked men waiting to take a dip in the pool came as a shock. I was no stranger to health-club locker rooms and showering with the guys, but this was somehow very different. Maybe because the men were religious. A few had shaven heads with long dangling side-locks. Prayer shawls, called “tzitzit,” hung on wooden pegs sticking out from the wall. Like they say, “When in Safed….” Quickly, I stripped liked the others and made my way toward the pool at the back of the cave, thinking, “What am I getting myself into?”
The air was cooler in the mountain cave than outside in the hot sun, but I wasn’t prepared for the first splash of freezing water. After watching how the man before me did the immersion, I grasped onto a rock at the side of the pool and lowered a foot into the spring. My whole body trembled. Without thinking further, I splashed down the three stone steps into the small pool and dunked myself under the water. The freezing cold was like a shock to my being. I can’t describe it. At first my mind went blank, then I remembered that I was supposed to confess all my sins. Where to begin? With the bubble gum I stole from the grocery store as a child? With the test answers I had copied from friends in high school? With the drugs I had taken, and the girls I had slept with in college? With going bowling on Sunday mornings instead of going to church? With my extramarital affairs?
“Please God forgive me for everything,” I said, lumping everything into one shivering request. Fearing I would have a heart attack on the spot, I dunked myself again and again, seven times like he said, making sure to double over so that all of my body was immersed in the water. When I finished, I climbed, out of breath, up the stairs, gasping as if I had just climbed a tall mountain. Without any clothes on, I felt embarrassed as hell, but no one seemed to notice. Some of the men were shivering as they dried themselves, others were laughing now that the experience was over, and it sounded like old-timers were joking with new arrivals, warning them how freezing the water was. All I can say is that when I walked out of the cave, my head felt clear as a bell, my body felt twenty years younger, and I didn’t have a doubt in my mind.
I made the long climb back up the steep stairway. True to his word, the bookseller was there waiting by a Mazda that was driven by his son, a great, great grandson of Saba Yosef, who had, according to their count, 14 children of his own, 84 grandchildren, 504 great-great grandchildren, and 2,523 great, great, great grandchildren. In my eyes, just for that alone it was worth traveling 10,000 miles to meet such a man. It was mind-blowing. If I couldn’t learn about leading a long, healthy life from him, where could I learn it?