Certainly one of Israel’s most prolific writers, the novelist, blogger, humorist, film director, and journalist, Tzvi Fishman, has just published an autobiography, a page-turning spiritual journey, which, true to the man himself, is always filled with surprises and unexpected insights.
What made you write your autobiography?
"To be frank, no one else would take the trouble to write my biography, so, if not now, when? I penned a few sample chapters, and the people who read them were very enthused, Jews with just a marginal connection to Judaism, so I decided to continue. As I mention in the preface, I had to leave out more than I included, but you get to meet a fellow who was far, far, far away from anything Jewish and yet ended up in Jerusalem."
I must say the tale is very well written. The language has a fun, “Age of Aquarius” 1970 American hippie style to it.
"That’s where I came from. I wanted the reader to feel that the writer was really there, “under the table,” so to speak."
“Under the table?”
"In the famous Rebbe Nachman story, The Turkey Prince, the son of the king goes crazy and begins to act like a turkey. He throws off his royal attire and climbs naked down under the table, where he eats the crumbs which fall to the floor. The parable refers to the Jews in Rebbe Nachman’s time who abandoned Judaism (the royal attire of the King of Kings) for the free, everything goes world of the Enlightenment (getting down under the table) to adopt the cultures and lifestyles of the non-Jewish world (eating the crumbs which fell to the floor). The metaphor remains just as relevant today with all of the increasing assimilation and intermarriage which Am Yisrael is suffering. It is my story as well."
The book describes how you climbed back up from under the table to embrace a life of Orthodox Judaism in the Land of Israel, but I won’t give the plot away. Who are you trying to reach through the tale?
"Excellent question. Having been “under the table” in the exile of America, and now able to see the darkness that rules there, from the vantage point of the light-filled palace of true Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael, there are three audiences that I would like to reach, each one further away from true Torah Judaism than the next. First is the Orthodox community throughout the Diaspora, whether Haredi or Modern Orthodox, who are “under the table” in their estrangement from a Jew’s true place in the Jewish Homeland. Just like the son of the king believed he was a turkey, religious Jews in the United State, for example, believe that they are Americans, embracing the America culture and its values, identifying more with George Washington and the “Star-Spangled Banner” than with Avraham Avinu and “Hatikva.” Content with their lives in a foreign, Gentile land, they keep the mitzvot they can, not seriously contemplating a life in Israel at all. Of course there are exceptions, as seen in the yearly trickle of Aliyah, but, by and large, they live in a “Truman Show” bubble, fooled by the illusion that they are living a life of true Judaism, when in fact, Hashem wants His People to live in the Promised Land, and not in Brooklyn, London, or Antwerpen.
"The second group of readers that I would like to reach are the Jews who have a respect for the traditions of Judaism, but who resist embracing the Torah completely, believing that its commandments and lifestyle are inconsistent with modern living. And the third group, by far the largest today in America, some 70 percent, are those Jews who have no connection at all to Jewish Identity or to Israel. That’s the group that I was in. They aren’t even on the radar screen. How do we reach them? Only by climbing down under the table. That’s what the sage does in Rebbe Nachman’s story – he takes off his clothes and joins the son of the king under the table, where he acts like a turkey also. Slowly, relating to the Turkey Prince on his own level in order to win his trust, he leads the youth back to the table in the palace. That’s what I’m saying in the autobiography – look friends, I was just like you, chasing after someone else’s dream, estranged from my real identity, living a lie, wasting my life, blind to my destiny as a Jew and my mission to play a role in the incredible enterprise of restoring the Nation of Israel to its former greatness and glory and moral splendor in the Land which G-d promised to our Forefathers. If you can awaken a Jew to glimpse even a little of that vision, there’s a chance to rescue them from a life of unhappiness and darkness under the table."
Why unhappiness? I am sure a lot of Jews are happy with their lives in American and France.
"Impossible. The Jewish soul demands a connection to Hashem, to Torah, and to Eretz Yisrael. Without these, his or her soul suffers from malnutrition, so to speak. A person might be briefly happy with a new expensive sports car or a large villa with a pool, but they are superficial pleasures without deep lasting value. I had a cool apartment by Venice Beach, and a sexy two-seat convertible, famous friends, and the fast life in Hollywood. Vanity of vanities, says Fishman, all is vanity."
Have you found success in the “under the table” approach?
"Yes and no. Occasionally, people tell me that they returned to a life of Torah and moved to Israel after reading my books. We live near the Machon Meir Yeshiva for baalei tshuva in Jerusalem, and I maintain contact with a lot of young students on their own spiritual quests. But whenever you deal with truth you meet resistance. For example, the Birthright Program used to send kids to us for Shabbat meals. I used the opportunity to tell our guests things the probably never heard about a Jew’s eternal connection to Torah and Eretz Yisrael. After a while, the organization stopped sending us guests. They wrote a letter to the people in our neighborhood who also welcomed young Birthright participants in their homes on Shabbat, requesting families not to speak about the difference between Gentiles and Jews because many of the program participants were not Jewish from mixed marriages. The darkness of assimilation is so thick it even attaches itself and seeps in to well-meaning programs of Jewish education."
Aren’t you afraid that by climbing down under the table, you may find yourself unable to get back up?
"Ha ha – that’s always a possibility, but, thank G-d, I have my wife to grab me by the collar and rescue me if I ever get the bug to go back to Hollywood and rent my old pad by the beach."