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The time I studied Talmud with Uri Zohar

As a comedian, he was funny, bawdy, and hilarious. I loved his wild humor, and I couldn't believe he'd chosen the path of piety. I had to see for myself
Rabbi Uri Zohar at his home in Jerusalem, undated. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Rabbi Uri Zohar at his home in Jerusalem, undated. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Four decades ago, Israel learned that Uri Zohar, its best known comedian, was abandoning bohemia for the Haredi world. About that time, I was writing an article for The Jerusalem Post in which Zohar’s name came up. A private postal service was facing closure. Its head — we’ll call him Haim — mentioned in passing during an interview that Zohar was one of his customers and a friend, which I noted in the article. A few weeks later Haim, himself Haredi, called me. He was exultant. The authorities had reconsidered and his service would not be shut down. The article had done it, he said. He couldn’t thank me enough. “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything.”

I was not doing anybody a favor and in truth it was a very dull article. But as Haim talked, it occurred to me that there WAS something he might do for me. He and no other.

“Could you arrange for me to study Talmud with Uri Zohar for half an hour?”

He hesitated. “I m not sure he would agree to that, but I can ask him.”

“I won’t write about it,” I assured him. “I’m just interested personally, not as a journalist.”

“I’ll try,” he said.

The news that Zohar was quitting comedy for religion had stunned me. He was, for me, a national treasure -– funny, bawdy, hilarious. We seculars thirsted for wild humor like his to brighten our lives—a diversion from all the bad actors strutting the political stage. It was as if Bob Hope –- the American comedian who came to mind then –- had abandoned his radio show and taken a vow of silence in a remote monastery, never to be heard from again.

Zohar’s move was a dissonance that baffled me. Was it real? A middle-aged man making a move like that? Why? Or was it a schtick, like Madonna’s hyped-up flirtation with kabbalah, a pathetic lunge for publicity. If I could watch him close-up studying Talmud, I thought, it might tell me something.

Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, I had gone to Yeshiva Shlomo Kluger till 10th grade. Very little of my learning there stuck, but at least I could read a page of Talmud — even if I didn’t get the meaning unless the rabbi explained it.

Two days after my request to Haim, the phone rang at my desk. A deep, vaguely familiar voice said “Mr. Rabinovich? This is Uri Zohar.” I don’t recall him asking any questions, although his tone seemed to carry one -– is this journalist just looking for a scoop? I hastened to assure him that I would not be writing an article about him, but that I would like to share a study session with him if possible.

He agreed that I come the next morning at 10 a.m. to an address in Geula, a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. Ground floor. Short flight of stairs. Door to the right. He himself responded to the doorbell. He had a beard, but the face was his. He led me into the salon where two men were sitting at a table, a Talmud tractate open before each. One was a former entertainer, born-again like Zohar, but his name was unfamiliar to me. The other was the Haredi teacher, an intelligent looking young man. Zohar gestured to a seat next to his. He didn’t immediately offer me a volume, perhaps not to embarrass me if I could not follow. I asked for one and he readily took one down from a shelf, opened it to the page they were studying and placed his finger on the line they were at. That took me straight back to my yeshiva days when, it seemed, we were constantly asking each other what line we were at.

The subject, as best I recall, concerned someone finding a prayer book or another holy book on the Sabbath in a public space: can he pick it up and bring it into a private space, like his home, to save it from further desecration? Or not? Normally, it is forbidden to carry even a handkerchief in a public space on the Sabbath.

The room faced onto an inner courtyard. At one point, the rabbi placed an object on the sill of the open courtyard door to discuss the boundary between private and public spaces.

As the rabbi’s reading proceeded, Zohar and the other penitent offered questions and comments. I asked whether I could participate. I was urged to do so and did. The give-and-take was familiar, even fun. I could have continued, but after a while I begged leave to go. Zohar escorted me to the door. As I started down the short flight, I glanced back. He was still at the half-open door, as if poised for a question from me, so I thought, about continuing my studies. Neither of us said anything and I continued out the front door. I already had the answer to the question that had brought me there; to my dismay, Uri Zohar was not kidding about becoming a Haredi. He had passed from the public space to the private. He would remain there, except for scattered contacts with seculars, until he died this month, at age 86.

Uri Zohar (left) and Arik Einstein in ‘Peeping Toms,’ Zohar’s 1972 film about an aging hippie. (YouTube screengrab)

ADDENDUM:

Despite my assurance to Haim and to Zohar himself that I would not write about the episode, I did write about it. I felt that the article’s conclusion — that Zohar’s conversion was sincere, was not something he could object to. The publicity might even enhance his personal agenda if it aimed at encouraging secular searchers to follow in his path.

In so deciding, I may have inadvertently stumbled on a Talmud-worthy conundrum. Although my pledge to Haim and Uri Zohar not to write about the episode ended up being false, it was not false when I made it. It became a lie only post-facto. Is that less egregious than an intentional, up-front lie? Or not?

About the Author
Abraham Rabinovich is a historian and journalist who has published several books including "The Yom Kippur War," "The Boats of Cherbourg" and "The Battle For Jerusalem." As a reporter, his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and the Christian Science Monitor. Before becoming a writer full-time, he was employed as a staff journalist for Newsday and the Jerusalem Post.
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