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Fables to Live By

Rachel Ginsberg

Thirty-five years ago, Tzvi Fishman was chasing that elusive Hollywood dream of fame and fortune, but something was wrong with the equation: more money, a nicer car, and trendier friends were supposed to bring happiness and serenity, yet his soul was crying out in pain. Three decades later, his newly released film, Stories of Rebbe Nachman, reaffirms that real treasures are found close to home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Thirty-five years ago, Tzvi Fishman was chasing that elusive Hollywood dream of fame and fortune, but something was wrong with the equation: more money, a nicer car, and trendier friends were supposed to bring happiness and serenity, yet his soul was crying out in pain. Three decades later, his newly released film, Stories of Rebbe Nachman, reaffirms that real treasures are found close to home are Israel’s big-time box office draw Yehuda Barkan, Breslov teacher Daniel Dayan, inspirational chassidic singer Yisrael Dagan, and former Hollywood screenwriter Tzvi Fishman doing on a movie set locking arms in a rousing Klezmer-like rendition of “I’m happy with my liiiiife, hap hap happy with my liiiiife… I look up to G-d, He looks after me… I’m hap hap happy with my liiiife…”?
That’s the stand-up-and-dance theme song of a groundbreaking cinematic genre — an all-male cast Torah film in English called Stories of Rebbe Nachman. And the selected fables (from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s many famous stories) that make up the film not only come to life in charming, fantasy-like settings replete with kings and castles, dungeons and demons, wise men and simpletons, they are in a way real-life parables for the people on the set who made the movie happen. Yehuda Barkan, last year’s recipient of the prestigious Ofir Prize for lifetime achievement in the arts who came out of retirement at age 70 to star in the film, was one of Israel’s most popular “falafel and bourekas” comedy entertainers in the ’70s and ’80s. About 15 years ago, he became a baal teshuvah. Rabbi Daniel Dayan, a one-time aspiring Hollywood actor, now studies Torah all night in the kollel of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. Yet perhaps these parables of the elusive search for happiness and ultimately finding G-dly truth are most reflected in the spiritual journey of the creator of the film, Tzvi Fishman himself.

Now or Never Tzvi Fishman (or Kenny, for those who knew him from his secular acting days) says that making a Torah film at this point in his career was a now-or-never proposition, and although he’s not a Breslover and admits that he’s never even been to Uman, Rebbe Nachman’s Advice was one of the first and most impactful books he read on his journey from the beaches of California to the shtenders of Jerusalem. Since becoming religious and moving to Israel a little over 30 years ago, he’s produced numerous videos and documentaries and penned 15 self-published books — some fiction, some humor, some philosophy — but most with a running theme about the spiritual emptiness of secular Jewish life and the centrality of Eretz Yisrael for the Jewish People.
“I’m 65 years old,” Tzvi says. “And I knew if I didn’t do a film now, I never would.” It’s not as if he’s been sitting around for the last three decades since turning to a life of Torah. The living room in the Fishman’s Jerusalem apartment is lined with shelves of seforim — and of course, a dozen of his own published titles, one of which is a rollicking retelling of the life of Tevye (of Fiddler on the Roof fame) and his new life in Eretz Yisrael after he’s forced out of the shtetl Anatevka. “In the original version, they had him heading off to America. Oy, I couldn’t bear to think what would happen to him there —remember, one daughter already married a Communist and another married a goy. So I had him change directions.”
Fishman just couldn’t see the hartzige Tevye’s progeny winding up as assimilated Americans — and who better than he knew what that was all about?
Fishman says if anything symbolized the schizophrenic Jewish-American life he lived growing up, it was his bar mitzvah. “It was in a Unitarian Church (the temple was renovating) — I guess that set the tone for the next few decades.” Before that, he went to Hebrew school three afternoons a week, but it cut into basketball practice, so he hated it — especially because Judaism seemed to be stripped of any inner meaning.
“I remember how the rabbi there told us about the splitting of the Red Sea — he said it didn’t have anything to do with G-d, but rather some silliness that there was a rainless spell in the area, the sea dried up, and when the Jews crossed the sandbar, there was a flash flood that luckily drowned the Egyptians who were behind them. To me it just sounded like nonsense, and after my bar mitzvah I forgot the little that I’d been taught. I didn’t want any connection with this silly religion that cut into the basketball season for no good reason.”
The Fishmans lived in Massachusetts until Kenny was a teenager, when his parents moved to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands where they ran a tourist shop. Meanwhile, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, an Ivy League feeder boarding school. “Basically, I was miserable,” Fishman remembers. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was because my soul was in exile there, in such a goyish environment. So to quell the pain, I became a photography addict, spending hours in the darkroom. It turns out that the Ribbono shel Olam was already preparing my film career.”
After graduation, as his classmates split their enrollment between Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Kenny went to the more “plebian” NYU, which although for Andover was a huge step-down from Harvard, actually had the best film school in the country.
“So I sat in the dark for another four years watching movies and got a degree.”
And as much as Judaism meant nothing to him at that time, its shadow somehow seemed to chase him.
Too Jewish In his senior year, Fishman wrote a screenplay based on his own grandmother who lived in Brooklyn and played bingo every night. It was a story about her life as a lonely widow, and about her grandson (Kenny) who would visit her every Sunday. One of the instructors forwarded the screenplay to a well-known director who thought it was superb — but he couldn’t get funding for it: the motif was just too Jewish. Still, fortune began to shine on the college senior. The director liked the script so much that he asked Kenny to write a script for his next film — which turned out to be a blockbuster hit.
Fishman was now a point on the entertainment map. Following the film’s success, he was offered a position as an instructor in NYU’s film school where he taught for five years, and also set about writing a novel — about the intrigue, manipulation, and power struggles of a rich, assimilated Jewish family in the Virgin Islands who build up a tourist paradise. The manuscript was eventually picked up by a top New York publishing house, and Fishman was sure he was well on the way to becoming another of the “great American novelists” in the company of Faulkner and Hemingway.
The publishing house took the book, but to Fishman’s surprise, they weren’t giving it any publicity. “We publish 25 acquisitions a month, but we only invest in advertising the top five,” they told him. The publishers did agree to his suggestion that they send his picture to some TV stations in Florida (where the Virgin Islands motif would be intriguing) and get him booked on the morning talk shows. He flew down to Florida and was slotted in for a week of programs, but when he looked around, he saw that his novel wasn’t on the shelves of any of the local bookstores. What was his publisher thinking? Fishman was furious, and he let the viewers know just what he thought of his editors, making sure to rake up as much mud as he could about the publishing house over the airwaves — an unexpected boon for the TV shows who revel in scandal.
Back in New York, he was summoned to a meeting with one of the company’s very upset vice presidents. “Look,” the VP told him somewhat uncomfortably. “The editor loved the book, but in this company the people who make the decisions don’t want to push it…. The problem is your name.”
“I was in shock,” Tzvi remembers. “At that point I was disconnected from everything Jewish. I was totally secular. ‘Fishman? What’s the big deal? Who cares?’ I told him.
“And then he says to me conspiratorially, ‘Listen, I want to tell you something about this business. My name isn’t really Higgins. It’s Shapiro.’ ”

Hooray for Hollywood Meanwhile, Fishman had advertised for a roommate to split the rent on his East 22nd Street apartment. “So one day this good-looking Israeli guy shows up right off the plane. His name was Daniel Dayan and his dream was to come to the US and become an actor,” Fishman recalls. “But after a year he saw New York wasn’t for him so he headed out to California.”
Two years later, Kenny Fishman followed him. He was in hot pursuit of the elusive American dream of fame and fortune, and Hollywood was beckoning. “So here I was in LA, again sharing an apartment with Daniel, who became my guide to the bohemian life of the city. He took me to his health club where we’d exercise every day with Arnold Schwarzenegger — that was before he became an actor and governor of California. I had a nice apartment in Santa Monica where I’d spend every afternoon working on my tan, I had a fancy sports car, and I sold another two original screenplays that were made into films.”
They weren’t Oscar-level productions, but they did boost his stature among a public that thrived on cheap thrills (one was a grade-B “fun” horror film about a psychopathic serial killer on the loose in a shopping mall).
“I was still pretty young and the American dream was getting closer and closer,” Fishman says. “But for some reason I felt empty, something was missing and I had an inner anxiety that I couldn’t extinguish. I thought if I sold a movie for more money it would go away but it didn’t; maybe if I had more famous friends that would do it, but it didn’t; maybe if I had a nicer apartment, that would make me happy, but it didn’t — that anxiety wouldn’t go away. Now I know that it was because I wasn’t giving any nourishment to my Jewish soul, but then I couldn’t understand why. All I knew was that the inner anxiety was eating me up inside and turned into a severe case of ulcerative colitis.”
Fishman was put on a strict regimen of cortisone drugs to control the bleeding, and the doctors were even talking about a debilitating surgery. “At the time I didn’t realize this was G-d’s way of saving me from the pitfalls of Hollywood,” says Kenny/Tzvi, “but after a year or so on the medication which didn’t really heal the problem, I started out on a spiritual quest to look for a solution — macrobiotics, holistic massage, yoga, acupuncture, gestalt, tarot cards, you name it.
“California is like a supermarket of alternative ways of healing and thinking, and Daniel was my partner as we tried all kinds of crazy things. Once we went to this swami from India, who would hit us on the head with a feather and recite incantations. I told him about the colitis, and he told me, ‘You must clean out body! Every morning squeeze bucket of lemons, you drink one liter lemon juice. You have necktie, yes? You make knots, you put the necktie down your throat, you pull out the tie, stand on your head, throw up all the lemon juice! Then you be cleaned out!’ I actually did this for four days until I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Then this yogi took us on a retreat, and I told him the cleansing didn’t work — and all of a sudden, this swami, this picture of serenity, tranquility and self-discipline, felt provoked and started to scream at us, ‘The same way people didn’t believe in Stalin and Hitler they don’t believe in me, and there’s going to be an atomic war that will destroy everyone because none of you believe in my system of world peace and love!’ He was infuriated, and then all of a sudden, everything went dark — the entire electric circuit of the retreat went down! Who knows? Maybe he neutralized all the electricity through the power of his anger on the side of tumah.”
The turning point came one random day, when Daniel — who came from a traditional Moroccan family and had a lot of basic Jewish knowledge — turned to his friend and said, “Kenny, why don’t you know anything about Judaism?”
“It was a really mind-blowing question,” Tzvi admits. “It hit me over the head because I’d studied all the other philosophies and religions, except the one closest to me. What was I afraid of? Was there some psychological block, some deep inner fear of exploring what was really so close to me? So I went to this Chabad bookstore on Fairfax and bought an English Chumash and a guide to Judaism. I went back to the beach and started reading the Chumash: ‘In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and earth.’ It was like a huge thunderbolt from Heaven: Oh, no! I thought. G-d really exists, and I haven’t paid any attention to him since my bar mitzvah!
“Then, as if I’m reading an exciting screenplay, I read about how G-d tells Avraham to go to the Land of Israel. And then G-d tells Moshe that he’s taking the Jews out of Egypt and bringing them to Israel. Everything’s about keeping the Torah in Israel! At the time, I knew nothing about Israel, but with a flash of crystal-clear knowledge, with those first head-spinning sparkling rays of heavenly insight, when G-d enters your life with a thundering roar, I understood that in order to hear the voice of my long-silent soul, to discover who I really was and find healing for my ailing body and spirit, I would have to chase after G-d with the same passion that I’d been chasing after money and fame.
“My enthusiasm made Daniel a little nervous, but I was hooked on the idea of G-d and the Jewish People, that I belong to the Children of Israel. It was Rosh Hashanah time and I read in the book I had bought about Tashlich and the custom of throwing away our sins. So I went to the Pacific Ocean with my cortisone pills and said, ‘G-d, accept this as my sins and forgive me for everything — just You heal me!’ Then I hurled the pills into the ocean.
“Well, Hashem’s salvation didn’t come right away. I got so sick I had to be hospitalized. But when I was released, I didn’t go back on the medicine. I was determined to trust in G-d alone.”
Then, he had The Dream. “In my dream, I walked into this thrift shop and opened a door to an inner room that was full of Hebrew books. My whole body felt so calm, so peaceful, even though I couldn’t even read Hebrew. Seeing an inner room, I walk inside and there is this huge black box on the floor — a giant tefillin. Suddenly I hear this booming voice: ‘This is the answer — you have to attach yourself to G-d!’ I woke up startled, and the next morning I ran to the nearby Chabad shul and asked the rabbi to put tefillin on me. Every morning I went to the shul and put on tefillin. I didn’t know there were other mitzvos. I thought with those black straps I was attached.”

In Search of G-d And then one day in the summer of 1982, the colitis just disappeared and never came back. “For me it was an open miracle. I said, ‘G-d, give me a sign — what do You want from me? I’ll do anything. If You want me to go to Israel, give me a sign. If You want me to stay in Hollywood and write Jewish movies for Spielberg, I’ll do that. Just show me.’ The next morning I woke up to find a travel brochure in my mailbox with a picture of the Kosel accompanied by the words ‘Jerusalem My Chosen.’ I was stunned. G-d showed me He’s the biggest director of them all.”
Daniel, for his part, thought Kenny was crazy. He didn’t mean for his friend to take Judaism that seriously. But Daniel did give him his family’s contact information, and Kenny spent the next three months traveling around Israel looking for G-d.
“I used to meet Rabbi Schuster z”l at the Kosel and he tried getting me to a yeshivah, but I told him, ‘Sorry, I’m looking for G-d. What does learning have to do with spirituality?’ I didn’t even know alef-beis but I was looking for the direct link. Finally one day I agreed to go with him to Ohr Somayach, but I admit, I wasn’t yet at the level of books. I wanted to go straight to the Source.”
After a few months in Israel, Fishman went back to New York (“It felt a lot more Jewish than LA”), and providentially connected with Rabbi Yehuda Chazani z”l, a Yeshivat Mercaz Harav avreich from Jerusalem who came to New York with Lt. Col. Meir Indor [today of the Almagor terror victims association] to enlist young Jews in voluntary backup service for the Israeli army in the aftermath of the First Lebanon War. Fishman was put in charge of the recruitment drive in America.
A year later, he returned to Israel, this time for the long-term. He got busy doing some PR on the right-wing political front, until Rabbi Chazani took him by the hand and deposited him with Rabbi Dov Begun, who ran the beginners program at Yeshivat Machon Meir. “This man has to start learning Torah,” he told the rosh yeshivah. “Don’t let him out of the beit medrash for at least a year.”
“I was happy in yeshivah, surrounded with all those holy tomes, just like in my dream, but I was getting a little itchy there — I wanted to get out and start writing to spread the news that Judaism is the secret treasure,” Fishman says. “But I met with Rav Shlomo Aviner and he said to me, ‘You’re boser — you’re not yet ripe. You’re not ready yet. One day you will take out your rechush, your wealth of experience, just like Bnei Yisrael went out of Egypt with rechush gadol, with great wealth. But right now you need to fill up with Torah in order to empower that wealth.’ ”
In the summer of 1987, Tzvi married Yaffa, a young Israeli woman who was studying at Machon Meir’s women’s division. He was still planted in the beis medrash when his friend Col. Meir Indor heard that his first film, the screenplay he’d written in 1974, was to be aired on Israeli television. Never one to miss an opportunity for a kiddush Hashem and a good news item, Indor called a buddy at Israel TV and told him that the writer of the film was actually learning in a Jerusalem yeshivah. Fishman was interviewed (in a mix of English and broken Hebrew) on Israel TV’s Motzaei Shabbos Jewish-content talk show; he’d been “discovered” again, which led to the next phase in his career — fundraising videos and docudramas for such organizations as the Chief Rabbinate’s Department of Medicine and Halachah and the Ministry of Education. So after a hiatus of close to a decade, Fishman was again in the limelight. By now, he was ripe.

Buried Treasure “I had to give up many things,” Tzvi Fishman says today about taking his skills to a different, holier place. “I had to give up my inflated ego and my preoccupation with myself. I had to give up all those fleeting aspirations of achieving fame, money, and success. And I learned to take off my secular American head and put on the head of King David instead.”
Stories of Rebbe Nachman isn’t the end of the line for Tzvi Fishman, but it’s definitely a peak, written with an eye on what it can do for others, and not on how much glory and kavod it gives to him. Because in addition to the film being fun and entertaining, it’s composed of different fables, as a vehicle for triggering discussions about the deep Torah themes following each section. That’s how Fishman intends to use the movie. He’s been busy setting up screenings in schools and community centers around Israel and soon in the US, where the film segments are accompanied by a talk and discussion group — usually led by Fishman himself as he reveals to his audiences the challenges of his own spiritual journey.
Fishman somehow managed — with the help of relatives and fans — to self-publish his books; but a movie, as low-budget as it is, is a huge investment in comparison. Where did he get $170,000, the bare bones of a no-frills film budget? “It’s been me and Hashem,” he says, making sure to mention that he hasn’t yet mortgaged his house. But he has a generous uncle in America, and there was a Charidy Internet campaign that raised the balance.
Another money saver was to use people he was connected with. He contacted his old actor friend Daniel Dayan, who soon followed Tzvi’s teshuvah path and has been learning and teaching Torah for the past three decades (and is responsible for bringing actor Shuli Rand to teshuvah as well); he pulled Yehuda Barkan out of retirement — the prize-winning actor was excited to be involved; and Fishman used two of his own talented children. In the story “The Turkey Prince,” about a prince who starts acting like a turkey, throwing off his royal clothes and getting down under the king’s table to eat the crumbs off the floor, Fishman’s 17-year-old son Amichai — who went through his own phase as a hip-hop dancer — plays the part like a veteran.
But with all the goodwill and dedication of a committed team, the production had its share of glitches. “A week before the shoot, in the middle of a heat wave, Yehuda [Barkan] calls and tells me he’s not feeling well and can’t take the heat so he wants to pull out of the film. I told him, ‘Everything’s set up, we can’t stop now. You know what, we’ll switch the day scenes to night scenes and I’ll bring in fans to cool off the set.’ He agreed, and that’s what we did. I had a medic standing by, and brought in these huge fans that made so much noise I had to replace the sound. And then, the night before the shoot, Yehuda’s son was arrested on a drug charge. Yehuda was so broken he didn’t know if he could go through with the shoot. But it was a scene I’d written especially for him — the scene from the ‘Turkey Prince’ where the father confronts his broken son alone at night. The son is just ‘gobbling’ and making inane turkey gestures, and I said to Yehuda, ‘Yehuda, bring your own pain to the scene to make it work.’ ”
It’s the most dramatic scene in the film, as Yehuda, the king, says to his son with genuine tears in his eyes, “Son, what happened to you? Why are you acting like this? What did I do wrong? Maybe I should have spent more time being your father and less time being a king.”
“I think every parent seeing this film sometimes feels like that,” says Fishman.
Fishman says it’s a big zechus to have been able to develop this genre of “holy movies.”
“This is a new type of movie,” he explains. “Because most people just want to sit in front of a screen for two hours and enjoy; they want to be entertained and not have to think too much. People don’t want to think about G-d when they’re at the movies, but this film makes you think about G-d. So far we’ve had amazing siyata d’Shmaya, so we have high hopes.”
The film is interactive and relevant to people no matter what challenges they face, but Fishman says the fables are especially reflective of his own journey.
“In one story, an unhappy king wants to find the secret of happiness, so he disguises himself as a beggar and meets this happy Jew who has nothing. That’s how I felt in Hollywood. I too was looking for the secret. Another story is about someone who dreams of a buried treasure under a bridge. But it turns out that the treasure is actually buried under the stove in his own house. And that’s the point — that treasures are often right under our noses. That was me. I went all over the world, learned and experienced everything, but I knew nothing about my own Jewish treasure.” —

 

 

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