For the second time in as many years, one of my chassidishe friends brought back regards from Yisroel in Los Angeles. Yisroel is a Breslover Chossid. He was my best friend from the ages of 6 through 18 or so. I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years.
He had a profound impact on my life. Many of the facets that make up my personality are directly attributable to his influence. My taste in music, for example, comes from the many cassette tapes that he lent me. He had an older brother who was mean to me, but whom I secretly looked up to, and who played electric guitar. We played Legos, Star Wars, and rode bikes together. We drew our own comic books. But there was one thing he did for me that has made the most difference in my life: He made me frum.
He didn’t go by Yisroel when I first met him. That was the name the Hebrew teachers called him. I knew him as Ian. I met him my first day of school. My father, who didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, had the foresight to know that the best way for him to end up with Jewish grandchildren was to give his kids a Jewish education. So he sent us to Yeshiva Dov Revel, a Modern Orthodox, fiercely Zionist school in Forest Hills. At the age of six, I didn’t know about ideology. All I knew was that I was getting on a bus to a strange school, to study a culture I knew next to nothing about, with a bunch of kids I had never met. And so, walking onto that bus for the first time was very daunting. As I slowly made my way down the aisle, I looked from side to side for a friendly, welcoming face. Getting closer to the back, I would have settled for a non-hostile face.
Finally making it to the last seat, I sat down next to a kid who didn’t seem intimidated at all. With a big smile, he introduced himself to me as Ian. We would end up being in the same class for the next eight years. I would refuse transfer to higher level classes in the future because I didn’t want to be split up from him. Ian’s personality was very different from mine, but in a complementary way. He was the Starbuck to my Apollo. The Starsky to my Hutch. The Sundance to my Butch. He was popular, and not afraid to make a clown out of himself. I was uptight and insecure. It worked out pretty well.
Ian was not chassidish. He was from a Modern Orthodox family, the stress being on Modern. They went to movies, concerts, mixed swimming, etc. But compared to me, with a father who worked on Saturday and Hostess Twinkies in the pantry, they were incredibly Orthodox. They went to Shul every Shabbos. They kept kosher, even kept the custom of waiting a few hours between meat and milk.
One day, when I was eight, my Father told me that I needed to start going to Shul. I needed to become familiar with the service to get ready for the day when I would have to lead it. The thought terrified me. But I could see his point, and he delivered me one Saturday morning to the shul. That experience will be dealt with in a later post, but suffice it to say that after that day I never wanted to step foot in a synagogue again. The only friendly face in that shul, once again, was Ian’s. I sat with him, and I’d go over to his house on Saturday afternoons, and we’d play spaceships, or board games, or read comic books, instead of staying at my house and watching TV. His family was very welcoming, even his brother, whom I could tell was annoyed with me for hanging around. I felt comfortable there. He would eventually talk me into coming to the Mincha services and Shalos Seudos as well. At 14, we both went to Israel and had the summer of our lives.
I never considered Ian to be a terribly religious person. Quite the contrary, he seemed way out on the fringe of Orthodoxy. The more I learned about it, the more I discovered that the brand of religion that he practiced would be considered quite unorthodox. He was a bit too much of a rebel for the conformist doctrine of Orthodoxy. He was into Rock Music and girls. He wasn’t the guy raising his hand with the answers in Hebrew class. He was the guy who took me to see the Rocky Horror Picture show. And yet, his family practiced a kind of Judaism that I could get into. A kind that said, “Go to Shul, eat Kosher, be a mentch, and you can still listen to the Kinks and watch Star Trek.” I think it took someone like Ian to affect me. A person who hated the outside world, who said that Rock and Roll was devil music, that TV was idolatry, would not have been able to reach me. But Ian and his family could. Not that they were necessarily trying. But I could look at them and think, “they keep Shabbos…what’s my excuse?”
Over time we drifted apart. It started when we went to different High Schools. I went to a heavy-duty academic Yeshiva HS in Manhattan, and he went to a less intense co-ed school in Queens. I eventually went to Yeshiva College. He went to Queens College. He seemed to be getting less and less interested in frumkeit. He joined ROTC. He dropped out and grew his hair long. He started hanging out with a different group of kids. Ironically, I think it was the music that finally drove us apart. For all his love of music, he never learned an instrument, while I went on to emulate his brother, and joined a band. Soon it would take up all of my spare time, and he seemed to show no interest in it. When I got married a few years later in Milwaukee, he did not attend.
About ten years ago I ran into his mother on one of my trips back to New York. She told me he was living somewhere in California, and had a ponytail, and was studying to be a chef. I didn’t hold out much hope for him. A few years later I received an email from him. He was working for Kedem winery at the time. He had found my website on AOL. I sent him some pictures of my kids. I told him that he had made a profound difference in my life. I truly believed that were it not for him, I would not have returned to the synagogue after that first day, and that was something I had never told him before. He seemed flabbergasted by this.
A few more years passed. I got an email with a picture of him at his wedding. Wearing a black hat and calling himself Yisroel. A little time after this I tried to email him again. My mail came back undeliverable. He was off the net.
Last year, my Rebbe’s son came back from a convention in San Francisco. They had the most amazing gourmet food there. He went to speak with the chef, who turned out to be a bright, friendly chossid named Yisroel. “Milwaukee?” he asked. “I think I know a fella in Milwaukee…”
Yisroel, thanks again.