by Tamar Hausman

They were 25-ish and graduates of top universities. They'd swiftly found themselves in high-flying, high-paying jobs, in sky's-the-limit trajectories. All eyes were fixed on them; their success seemed assured.

Then they wondered: "Where do we go from here?"

Give or take a nuance, those were basically the stories and thoughts of eight new immigrants to Israel from the United States, Britain and Brazil: Four couples who recently left their secular lifestyles, became religious, married and moved to Israel after confronting this question.

Most of the eight had minimal Jewish education, and all had turned to ultra-Orthodoxy during their 20s or early 30s. The men studied in yeshivot, their wives either worked or started families, after having rocketed to success in their rewarding, if short, careers.

Ha'aretz's "Anglo File" talked to the four couples about why they seemingly "gave it all up," renouncing the fast lane to fame and definitely fortune in their home countries, for a life of religious rite and ritual in Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods.

-- Chasing Down Monica --

American-born Aliza Bloom (her married name) grew up with a Zionist education in her home and was active in all Reform-Jewish activities from a young age. But she was also very focused on a career in journalism. Soon after graduating from Columbia University Journalism School, she began working for MSNBC.

The news network sent Aliza to London when Princess Diana was killed. She was responsible for booking interviewees in the aftermath. Her work won her the notice of CNN's "Larry King Live" show, which quickly hired her away.

First in Washington, D.C., and later in New York, she tracked down and booked many of the King show's guests over a period of several years. There was an endless stream of cocktail parties and schmoozing - essential for meeting America's most celebrated celebrities and convincing them to appear on King's show. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Aliza burned up the capital's phone lines trying to track down the presidentially-popular White House intern.

"How many parties can you go to looking for Monica Lewinsky?" asks Aliza. "I became so disgusted at the lack of integrity of our country, and saw that my life had been consumed with trying to book her - with trying to bump into her in a ladies room - that I eventually thought: 'There has to be another purpose in my life than booking Monica.'"

Aliza began reading books on Judaism and gradually became ultra-Orthodox, incorporating one after another ritual or practice in her life as she learned about each. "I had a notebook filled with questions about Judaism, and I would sit with different rabbis and religious people I knew and just run down the list," she recalls. "I was interviewing people, like any reporter would do. It's voluminous what there is to learn."

But her religiosity soon became a problem at work. She began to notice how often she had to lie to do her job - because she had to book several guests for every show, promising they'd be on, but knowing some were merely back-ups. She didn't want to lie anymore. So she took a sabbatical to study at Neve Yerushalayim, the wome''s yeshiva in Jerusalem. After a while there, she decided not to go back to the U.S., and quit her "dream" job.

"I had a very exciting career," Aliza recalls. "But I felt like: 'I can't imagine that this is all there is.' You get to the top of the mountain, or close to it - I wasn't at the top but I could see it - and it felt meaningless. I realized that the top isn't what it's cracked up to be."

Aliza later married Jeff Bloom. He was a non-observant Jew when they met in Washington. But they followed the shidduch system, which she preferred to the more disorderly and confusing secular way of dating . Jeff had come to Israel from the United States several years before Aliza, and has been studying at various yeshivot ever since. Now, Aliza is applying her media skills to improve ultra-Orthodox Judaism's media savvy.

Jeff Bloom's own religious transformation, similar to his wife's, was the product of his innate intellectual curiosity. Despite Chicago's large Jewish community, he grew up there with almost no Jewish education. So, echoing the Hellenized Jews of old, he majored in Greek Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He only turned to ultra-Orthodoxy when he found Judaism and the study of Jewish texts an equally challenging intellectual pursuit - and, unlike the ancient Greeks, one that still lived.

"There's no tribe of ancient Greeks that still reads Homer," he say, "but Judaism is a living tradition."

-- For the love of law --

Michael Rosenberg was a comedian. From age 16, he had performed in Boston's top comedy clubs. By his mid-20s, he was performing in Los Angeles' hottest clubs, including the Improv and the Comedy Store. He was a frequent guest on the now-defunct Arsenio Hall Show.

But Rosenberg's career also meant he spent most of his time alone at home, planning for his next show. Ironically, this gave him time for introspection, and in his early 30s, he opted out. He was sick of the spotlight.

"I didn't want to be looked at anymore!" he recalls. So he came to yeshiva in Israel for what was to have been a three-month "trial" period, and never went back to the "City of the Angels."

Rosenberg met his future bride, Stephanie, in Israel. Brazilian by birth, by age 25 she was a partner in a law firm she helped found. Her odyssey into ultra-Orthodoxy was the result of her love of law and the nagging knowledge that she knew nearly nothing of Jewish law. Like many of "the Orthodox Eight," Stephanie, too, had had minimal Jewish education growing up. "I read all the Jewish laws with my lawyers' mind until it all made sense from a legal point of view," she recalls. It was not long before she felt obligated to follow those laws.

Like Michael Rosenberg and Aliza Bloom, Adam Lynn, a native of Palm Beach, Florida, felt angst over the glitz of America's media and entertainment world. A graduate of Duke University and New York University Film School, Lynn was already an established Hollywood screenwriter by his mid-20s. He'd written scripts for several major movie studios, including Castle Rock Entertainment. He was in the fast lane, but "you see your friends dropping like flies for the lust of fame, and I hated that," he says.

Lynn recalls the moment of his own Paulinesque "Road-to- Damascus" revelation, when he decided to quit Hollywood in order to find a higher meaning to life: He was in his car, on his way to meet his agent. He'd stopped at a traffic light. He looked to his left and to his right, and saw all the other drivers were dressed the same way, sipping the same coffee, driving similar fancy cars. In their race to outdo one another, they'd become nearly identical. The only thing differentiating them was how much money each had in his pocket, or the level of fame they'd achieved.

In Hollywood, "every person is always trying to be better than the guy next to him, and even if he got there, it wasn't enough. After a while, you don't know what you're after," Lynn says. So he shifted his drive for film fame to a new fascination with Judaism in his search for a greater meaning to life. Lynn dropped a screenplay mid-scene that had already been sold and was slated to become a movie with several big-name Hollywood stars. He was not alone; four of his film industry friends all became ultra-Orthodox at the same time. Ultra-Orthodoxy, he says, helped him determine life's greatest good: For him, it's being a good father and husband.

After moving to Israel and entering a yeshiva, Lynn met his wife-to- be, Ruth, an olah from London who had dropped career plans, too. She'd begrudgingly earned a degree at Cambridge University at her mother's insistence before deciding to become a wife and mother exclusively.

-- Unraveling Yentl --

The Orthodox Eight each became religious when they were single. Each was driven by his or her native intellectual curiosity and the need to find greater meaning to their lives. Some admit they were attracted to the orderliness and rules ultra-Orthodoxy offers. Most also say they struggled against - even battled - their religious transformations all the way.

"I fought [religion] kicking and screaming; I didn't want to become religious," says Genna Edwards. "I thought: 'What do I need all that ritual and obligation for?'" says Edwards, a former drama star at UCLA's prestigious theater school. She had an agent starting as a teen, and appeared on various commercials, hoping to perform one day on Broadway.

While in college, she met a Haredi family that took her under its wing, and she became fiercely curious about Judaism. She eventually realized she would have to give up her Broadway dreams if she were going to take Judaism seriously. "You either have to go all the way, or not do it at all," she says, reflecting the views of all the Orthodox Eight. She struggled to find loopholes in Haredi tradition that would let her both be religious and reign on the stage. At one point, she even suggested to a rabbi, whom she'd asked for advice, that she perform for hospital patients.

Despite her ambivalence, Edwards moved to Israel to study at Neve Yerushalayim. Eventually, she decided she'd made the right choice. But, she says, "The true test was whether I could be religious at home." Back in Los Angeles, "I came out of the closet. I was so used to wearing jeans at home, and then slowly, I began to wear skirts. I said goodbye to a lot of things. Becoming religious was the hardest thing I ever did."v Almost all of the Orthodox Eight say their parents were skeptical, disappointed in their own parentage, or hurt as a result of their childrens' religious and career changes. Edwards' father suggested she see a psychiatrist, and her husband Brandon, also newly-religious, says his mother cried that she had failed him.

The parents had stereotypes of Haredim that only really dissolved when their sons and daughters brought their new spouses home with them. Says Edwards: "My parents thought that I'd marry someone out of 'Yentl,' but then they saw Brandon and saw he was a normal human being, and suddenly they were really okay with it all.

(c) copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved


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