It was early 1983 and I was getting ready to leave for what I figured would be about a 6-month adventure in Europe. The plan was to get to the most remote Greek Island I could find, and stay there long enough to finish my screenplay. I would begin the journey in London, where I had a friend, and then make my way across Europe the cheapest way possible, until I found that island.
I was saying my goodbyes to my buddy Neil – he was the one friend my parents always encouraged me to hang with, because he was the only Jewish kid I knew who had been to Israel and liked to talk it up.
Israel didn’t really figure into my plans, except that my father, z’l, and my sister decided to take a tour there, and since I didn’t want the burden of carrying all my cash with me, I decided I would meet my father in Jerusalem when they came, and pick up the other half and stay with them for a bit before returning to Greece.
Neil says to me “Dave, if you go to Israel you’re going to go to Jerusalem. And if you go to Jerusalem, you’re going to go to the Kotel. And if you go to the Kotel, it might happen that someone will come up to you and ask you if you want to take a class. Do not take a swing at this guy. Take the class, you might like it.”
Fast forward four months. I’m in Israel a second time. The first time, I met my family, picked up my cash, enjoyed a hot shower for the first time in what seemed like forever and decided that if I got bored in Greece I would come back and finish my writing on a kibbutz.
It is Shabbos afternoon. I’m walking the narrow descending steps of the Arab shuk. I have a vague recollection from my previous trip of an entrance to the Kotel plaza somewhere down this path and I’m getting a little frustrated looking for it.
Suddenly, I get this kind of eerie feeling of someone… stalking me? I’m not sure at first. I do that peripheral vision thing, trying to stay casual. A tall man in a black coat, hat and glasses seems to be eyeing me from a distance back. No eye contact. I walk another few hundred feet… I turn around less casually. This time I’m convinced. I front him – “Listen, I don’t know what you’re about, but if you want to be helpful, show me where the entrance to the plaza is”.
Not at all taken aback by my accusatory attitude, he points out the entrance and I move quickly away from the stranger.
Maybe ten minutes later, I’m wearing my cardboard “yamaha” and I’m staring at the wall. It is pretty amazing but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be thinking. And now there it goes again… I’m getting that ooky feeling like someone is watching me.
Sure enough – it’s him. It dawns on me that this guy has some religious agenda but, with Neil’s words in the recesses of my brain, I’m in it for the experience, so I say “ok – what do you want?” He mumbles something about learning about Judaism, and do I want to take a class?
Although I went to an after school Hebrew school, I never actually met someone who always wore a kipah. The kipah-clad guys I occasionally saw in Chicago looked pretty nebby. I couldn’t relate and I knew we had nothing in common. I was, after all, a jock – and they were nerds.
I followed this guy up to what I would later learn was the bais medrash of Aish HaTorah. I don’t remember any real conversation. If I hadn’t already pretty much made up my mind to check out whatever he wanted to show me, he was certainly no salesman. I was pretty underwhelmed by his marginal attempt at chitchat.
After climbing an inordinate amount of stairs and winding down Misgav Ladach until the end, we enter the bais. But wait, its Shabbos afternoon! It’s totally empty. Ok, not totally – there’s one guy way in the back. My mystery date gives a yell: “Hey ___ , (don’t remember his name), this guy has some questions, can you take a few minutes?” “Sure”, came the voice at the far end of the building.
I turn around to say goodbye, but he’s gone. That was it… next victim.
So I start walking toward what I was certain would be another nebby guy with a yarmulka that I had nothing in common with. Except HaShem choreographed it so this guy grew up just 2 blocks from me in Chicago, we went to the same public schools, had a dozen people in common and played the same sports. We didn’t know each other because he was two years older.
I was zoche over the next year to spend a few Shabbos lunches with Reb Meir and his family, and discovered that his own Shabbos table was one place where he was completely leibadig and open to discussion.
In between that tekufa and now I was privileged to spend time at Heritage House and again see him in action.
Reb Meir was the conduit that provided me with a life-changing entrance to the world I’ve come to love beyond expression. If I didn’t know there were maybe 10,000+ others just like me, I might mistake the whole event as random. But I saw again and again the siyata d’shmaya he has in his amazing work. For over 20 years, whenever his name came up in conversation, I would always add “They’re gonna write books about this man”. Let this website be the beginning.
Refuah shelaima, Reb Meir.