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.

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

[Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources' writing pool, is a teacher and writer in New York.]

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