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Tzvi Fishman's Journey Back Home

Part two of our interview. Tzvi tells about his journey from Hollywood to the Holy Land

| 12.02.17 | 07:28
Tzvi Fishman and Daniel Dayan
Last week we started our interview with Tzvi Fishman. Tzvi was already a rising star producer in Hollywood. But G-d ultimately led him by the hand to a life of Torah and education living in Israel. Le’t pick up from where we left off.

HIDABRUT
Los Angeles is known as the city of Lost Angels.

TZVI FISHMAN
That’s what it was for me. In a short time, I sold two more original screenplays that were made into films. I had money, a cool apartment by the beach, a bright red sports car; a membership at a health club filled with no shortage of temptations – in short the American Dream. In the morning, I used to play racket ball with the great basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain, and workout in the weight room with Arnold Schwartzenegger, who was just starting his movie career. After slimnastics class, 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 was not particularly 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.

HIDABRUT
Your story sounds like an exciting screenplay in itself.

TZVI FISHMAN
When I became ill with ulcerative colitis it wasn’t very exciting. 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. My doctor prescribed 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. After a month, the cortisone dried up the bleeding, 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. But for almost another year, even though I was very sick, I kept on living my unholy Hollywood life.

HIDABRUT
According to according to your calculation, if a thunderbolt of retribution hit everyone who was living an unholy lifestyle, everyone would be walking around on crutches or worse, G-d forbid.

TZVI FISHMAN
Everyone has his own timetable and his own rectification-tikun. The Almighty is patient and keeps a low profile, waiting for a person to wake up and do t’shuva. If he doesn’t, it’s just a matter of time till the wake-up call comes. At first, it may come as a gentle pat on the back. If the person doesn’t get the hint, then the warning becomes stronger. It may take the form of financial problems, or a marriage on the rocks, or a child getting sick, G-d forbid. If someone has abandoned Hashem completely, the worst punishment of all can be that Hashem abandons him in turn and lets him live out his life in ignorant bliss. I know people don’t like to think of these things, but our holy writings are filled with reminders that all of our deeds are recorded.

HIDABRUT
Do you still suffer from ulcerative colitis?

TZVI FISHMAN
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, the works. One day, I was sitting on the beach when a friend, Daniel Dayan, 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. Ever since the reform rabbi’s preposterous explanation of the splitting of the sea, I never thought to open any Jewish text. 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 discovering who you really are.

HIDABRUT
Isn’t Daniel Dayan one of the actors in your movie? If I’m not mistaken, he’s a Rabbi living today in Tzfat.

TZVI FISHMAN
That’s right. Rabbi Daniel was born in Morocco to a religious family. They moved to Israel when he was nine. After seeing his first Charlie Chaplin film, he was hooked. When he finished his Israel Army service, he set off to America to become an actor. Today, he has a beard longer than mine. He studies Torah all through the night in tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in Meron. But way back then, he was just trying to make it big as an actor in Hollywood, except he still had his childhood love and respect for the Torah.
 
HIDABRUT 
Didn’t he also play the role of the Rabbi in the Shuli Rand film, "Ushpizin?"

TZVI FISHMAN
That’s him. After I moved to Israel, he became a baal t’shuva too, and moved back to Israel as well. He was the person who influenced Shuli Rand to start a new life of Torah.

HIDABRUT
Why don’t the three of you do a film together?

TZVI FISHMAN
We are waiting for Hidabrut to go into the film business.

HIDABRUT
Good idea. But let’s get back to the beach.

TZVI FISHMAN
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 again. At the time, I knew nothing about Eretz Yisrael. Sure, I had probably had heard about the Yom Kippur War, but as a super assimilated Jew, Israel was simply not a part of my weltanschauung.

HIDABRUT
What happened then?

TZVI FISHMAN
The same day, I bought a book about the foundations of Judaism for beginners. Rosh HaShanah was coming, and I read about the custom of Tashlich. So on Rosh HaShana 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."

HIDABRUT
Wow! That was quite a drastic step, throwing your cortisone into the ocean.

TZVI FISHMAN
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.

HIDABRUT
Back to the cortisone.

TZVI FISHMAN
That’s right. At least for the ten days that I was in the hospital. The minute I got out, I stopped 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 prop in a Woody Allen movie. Gazing at it, my heart swelled with love. 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 woke up 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.

HIDABRUT
Your dream is amazingly similar to the dream of the King at the beginning of the book, "The Kuzari." In his dream, an angel appears and tells him that his desire to get close to G-d is pleasing, but that his actions are not the right actions. That’s the catalyst that sets the King off on a quest to find the actions pleasing to G-d, which turn out to be the commandments of the Torah.

TZVI FISHMAN
That similarity is one of the reasons I wrote "The Kuzari For Young Readers." But way back then in Hollywood, I had never heard of "The Kuzari," and I was still a long way off from making a commitment to Torah. I was so shaken by the dream that the next morning, 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 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 examinations I always had to suffer whenever I went to the gastroenterologist. When I met him 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. 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! No more! I felt like G-d had reached out a finger, touched my belly, and healed my colitis! I was astounded.

HIDABRUT
Our Sages teach that when you pray for someone else, you are answered first. We learn that from the story of Avraham and Avimelech.

TZVI FISHMAN
I didn’t know that back then. 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 two weeks to turn off the bleeding, and here the bleeding stopped without taking cortisone at all.

HIDABRUT
That certainly isn’t an everyday event.

TZVI FISHMAN
That’s putting it mildly. I was blown away. How could I continue on with my bohemian life of beaches and Hollywood discos? 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 to me 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 will 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."

HIDABRUT
You’ve got me at the edge of my chair.

TZVI FISHMAN
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 find 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. My head started spinning in circles. "There is a director greater than Steven Spielberg," I thought. Not only had Hashem 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 prayer!

HIDABRUT
Are you sure this is something that really happened, and not one of your imaginative short stories? (Tzvi laughs.)

TZVI FISHMAN
That very day, I purchased a ticket to Israel.

jewish torah

HIDABRUT
That’s when you made aliyah?
 
TZVI FISHMAN
No. On that first visit, I traveled all over the country trying to find G-d. I prayed at the gravesites of all of the tsaddikim, dunked myself in the Arizal’s holy mikvah again and again, and hung out for hours at the Kotel whenever I was in Jerusalem. A lot of times, Rabbi Meir Schuster, of blessed memory, would approach me and ask if I wanted to learn in yeshiva, but I always said no. I didn’t want to learn in a yeshiva. I wanted to find G-d. See how far away I was? But somehow, I knew I had to make Israel my home. Everything here was Jewish. The language, the street signs, the food, the bus drivers, the soldiers, the cities, the Biblical mountains of old. As the writer, Shalom Aleichem would say, “To make a long story short,” I finally I agreed to visit a yeshiva. Flanked by shelves of Mishna, Talmud, and tomes of Jewish Law, I experienced the same feeling of serenity and wholeness that I had felt back in Hollywood when I dreamed of the room filled with holy Hebrew texts. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of the presence of G-d. His light filled the yeshiva. It radiated out of the books. It shone from the happy faces of the students. From that moment on, I was hooked.

END OF PART  TWO
Next week, Be'Ezrat Hashem, Hidabrut will continue with Tzvi Fishman’s journey back to the Torah and to a life of creative endeavor in Israel.