By Sarah Cohen
I recently met a man who has been described as "the Israeli version of Woody
Allen, Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, and Lenny Bruce all rolled into one."
We, the non-famous, are funny about the famous. We gaze at their fabled
faces, raptly follow their surreal adventures and outsized lives. We devour
reams of print devoted to them and dream that one day we might actually meet
one of them.
Well, I did, and I shamelessly admit that I gawked. Uri Zohar was once
celebrated as "the top comedian, television and radio talk-show host, social
satirist, actor, and film producer on the Israeli scene." More
interestingly, though, in a process that began some twenty-five years ago,
he set out to investigate, with the purpose of impeaching, the veracity of
the claim that the Torah is divine in origin and thus relevant to
contemporary Jews' lives rather than a mere cultural artifact.
Today, Uri Zohar is perhaps Israel's foremost ba'al teshuvah, or returnee to
traditional Jewish observance. He has long since exchanged his performer's
hat for the mantle of a latter-day prophet of sorts. He cajoles, he pleads,
he entertains, he instructs; but beneath the tools of his trade, one hears
the thunder of the conviction that animates his life: for a Jew, the Torah
is not only past, but present, and future no less. Cling to it and,
spiritually, live. Abandon it and dissolve the identity that generations of
Jews fought and died for.
I discovered his intellectual travelogue, "Waking Up Jewish," as a teenager.
I have never lost my fascination over the drama of the story, or over the
geometric elegance of his logic. Over and over, despite his thespian
talents, he resists the urge to dramatize, to emote, to pull at the
heartstrings in order to make his case. He is more likely to impale the
temptation on the stake of his own barbed wit.
"If the Torah were not true," he has written, "I couldn't care less that it
provides a marvelous respite from the barrenness of modern existence. Opium
also provides a marvelous respite of sorts, and you don't have to get
dressed up in order to smoke it."
Having been inspired by his spirituality and commitment, I looked forward to
meeting him on a recent trip he took to the United States to raise funds for
a network of Torah schools in Israel. My husband arranged to pick him up at
the airport, and transport him to his next speaking engagement. I had seen a
video of his presentation, in which he relates his life's story with drama
and humor and verve, and so I was prepared for the impact he would
undoubtedly make on the good people of Teaneck. What I was not prepared for
was the impact he would make on me.
As we drove out of Kennedy Airport in the waning daylight, Rabbi Zohar
pulled a slim volume out of his pocket - a travel-sized volume of the
Mishna, the backbone of the Talmud - and began studying it, singing the
words in a melodious chant. His focus and concentration were total. The
sights of the road, such as they were, remained invisible to him. One got
the feeling that, having only begun studying Torah at age forty, he was
reluctant to waste a single precious moment of his life on any pursuit less
cosmic, more mundane.
We brought him to the home of a relative to rest for a short time before his
scheduled appearance. And so, we had an opportunity to observe a few more
small things. Like the way he recited a simple blessing. "Baruch atah-
blessed are You, G-d, King of the world" on a drink - suddenly, we were
eavesdropping on a private conversation in a very personal relationship, a
conversation pursued with such single-minded intensity that my host mistook
its recitation for that of Ma'ariv, the evening prayer service.
We could not help but be struck by the animating power of his religious
observance, by the vitality with which he infused the everyday practices
that are so "downgraded" into rote observance... by people like me, for
example. I was raised in a strong religious home, given a good Jewish
education, live by the book - make that the Book. I even married a rabbi's
son, for crying out loud! And yet the very regularity and firm structure of
my Jewish life tends at timesto obscure the excitement, the vitality, the
"innerness" that undergirds it.
I sensed radiating from Rabbi Zohar a deep satisfaction, the joy of a life
lived with a pervasive sense of purpose and mission. "For all his fabled
billions, Bill Gates is not nearly as wealthy as I," he is fond of
declaring. "If you were to offer me all of his money in exchange for my
agreement not to don tefillin tomorrow morning, I wouldn't hesitate one
second before refusing. Is he capable of such a refusal?"
He responds to a compliment from some one familiar with his cinematic
oeuvre. "I'm handsome?" He grins. "There was a time when I wasn't sure.
But now I know. I am beautiful. Black," - he tugs at the lapels of his
regulation Orthodox dark jacket - "is beautiful."
In a recently discovered cache of writings by Ronald Reagan, a researcher
came upon the following rumination:
"Every once in a while, all of us native-born Americans should make it a
point to have a conversation with one who is an American by choice. They
have a perspective on this country we can never have. They can do a lot to
firm up our resolve to be free for another 200 years."
After meeting Rabbi Zohar, after feeling his challenge to my complacency, I
am tempted to paraphrase the former president's words:
Every once in a while, all of us born to Jewish observance should make it a
point to have a conversation with one who is observant by choice. They have
a perspective on eternity we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up
our resolve to seek and live the truth for the rest of our lives.
They didn't call him the Great Communicator for nothing.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources' writing pool, is a teacher and
writer in New York.