I owe my wife, our children and the entire course of my life over the past 20 years to having a few hours to spare back in late December 1985. I had a chance (?) encounter with Hashem where and when I least expected it and it changed my life.
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. My family (both immediate and extended) is not even close to Orthodox and is, I suppose, your typical assimilated American Jewish family. I was raised de jure Conservative but de facto nothing. I had a Conservative bar mitzvah but Hashem and frumkeit were not part of my life. I made aliyah in November 1986. That’s when I decided to become frum. My dual decision to make aliyah and become Orthodox was very sudden. I tell people, half-jokingly, that a bolt of (Divinely tossed) lightning fell on my head.
I went to the public schools in Pittsburgh and got a BA in International Affairs from George Washington University in Washington, DC in the spring of 1985. I intended to start right back at GWU in the fall of 1985 for my MA but I decided that if I did so, I’d go bonkers and wouldn’t last a semester. I needed some time off. So I got my admission deferred for a year and worked at my summer bartending job at a seafood restaurant (I call these my “pk”, i.e. “pre-kashrut”, days) in Ocean City, Md. until the restaurant closed for the winter at the end of October. There is nothing more therapeutically head-clearing than being in a bustling seaside resort after Labor Day, when things start winding down. I am convinced that this period helped clear my head and lay the sub-conscious groundwork for my bolt-out-of-the-blue decision. ( What does it say in Shir Hashirim (5:2)? “I was asleep but my heart was awake.” )
For November and half of December, I went back to Pittsburgh and vegetated. In late December 1985, I returned to Washington and stayed with friends until I found a flat (in a group apartment). I then found a job (waiting tables in Falls Church, Virginia) and figured that I would work until it was time to go back to school in the fall of 1986. In the meantime, I passed all the exams (written & oral) for the US Foreign Service, which I had my heart set on ever since I was in high school (thus the BA in International Affairs). I was at the stage when the State Department would have started running a security check on me when I went into DC one day after Christmas 1985. (I still had friends on campus, my bank was there, etc.) The corner of 21st St and Pennsylvania Ave. then housed the Circle Theatre (now a parking lot, grrr), which showed old movies. That day it was showing Fiddler on the Roof. I had seen it once when I was a little kid (parents dragged me). I had a few bucks to spare and nothing else to do, so I bought a ticket and went in.
Near the beginning of the movie, Tevye talks about “tradition.” He says: “Because of our traditions, each one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” I reeled. That hit me for such a loop; I really went flying. It was like getting hit in the head with a puck. I had never thought about it that way before. I had no clue who I was and that God a) knew I existed, b) cared, and c) actually wanted me to DO something was something utterly, utterly new to me. I was in shock. I watched the rest of the film in a semi-trance and then at the end, after the pogrom, when all the Jews have to leave Anatevka, Yente the matchmaker comes up to Golda and tells her that she is going to (the Land of) Israel. WHACK! That was puck-to-the-head #2. I went reeling again. I left the theater in quite a state. I took the Metro back to my apartment and decided then and there that I had to become Orthodox (keep kosher, study Torah, keep Shabbat, daven regularly, the works, etc., etc.,) and come to Israel. I couldn’t do one without the other; it was a package deal.
My parents (whom I didn’t tell until I had occasion to go back to Pittsburgh in April 1986 for Pesach) were absolutely shocked. By then, I had already registered for an ulpan in Arad (where I met my South African-born wife) with a non-refundable deposit, and sent the US Foreign Service Board of Examiners a letter withdrawing my candidacy. I worked in Virginia until mid-September and arrived in Israel on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 1986.
I have never regretted my decision and never looked back. I believe that Hashem Himself decided that if He had to wait on me to come to Him, He’d probably still be waiting, so He decided to come to me, via the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” He called to me and I have been answering Him ever since.
When Yaakov Avinu woke up from his famous dream, he said (Bereshit 28:16), “Surely Hashem is in this place and I knew it not.” A member of our minyan in Maaleh Adumim commented on this once and said how often in our lives do we encounter Hashem, or some aspect thereof, but we do not see or hear or feel or know it because we are too wrapped up in our own affairs and concerns. All we have to do is look around us, Hashem is everywhere.
Even in old movies.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.