After graduating college with a degree in geological engineering, I moved to the bayous of Louisiana in 1981 to work on the oil rigs. No Jews. No holidays. No guilt. Free of all Jewish expectations. Or so I thought. Enter Joey Rogers, an operator on my rig. I made the mistake (or was it?) of taking him in as a roommate only to discover that he was a devout Pentecostal. The next thing I knew his parrot moved in with us – a big, fluffy green bird that was trained to say “Praise the Lord” every time someone walked by his cage. I should have realized at this point where things were heading, but by then the prayer meetings had already started taking place in our apartment. These were spirited gatherings of Joey, his friends (and the parrot) speaking in tongues.
So here’s this perfectly assimilated Jew (with all due humility, I do think I was coming close to perfection in this area) sitting in his bedroom trying to filter out all this noise, while these ecstatic gatherings were taking place ever more frequently. Soon, this evolved into “Ask the Jew” sessions, where I was called on to help elucidate matters of scripture that the group could not understand. I laughed. My family was Jewish but I knew nothing. Well, I soon learned that converting a Jew brings the ultimate reward to these fundamentalists and they weren’t about to give up easily.
I eventually kicked Joey and his bird out of my apartment but, on some level, I envied Joey and his troupe of traveling tongue-speakers. They had an awareness of the Creator, a sense of true brotherhood and a selfless commitment to their cause – ironically, things I had not experienced in my Jewish life. But I had closed the book on this with Joey’s expulsion, and now I could get back to my little assimilationist journey. Or so I thought.
For six months, this evangelical experience continued to gnaw at me. It had shaken me and made me question my spiritual identity. I realized that I didn’t know who I was anymore and I needed to find out. Africa seemed like as good a starting point as any for such a journey of discovery, but knowing this wouldn’t play well with my family back in New Jersey, I decided to make a first stop at a kibbutz in Israel – even as I stocked up on malarial prophylaxis and topographic maps for what would be the second leg of my journey.
In January, 1983, I arrived at Kibbutz Yagur (near Haifa), but bored to tears after a month of picking grapefruits, I decided I’d take a few days off to go see the ‘antiquities’ of Jerusalem. On Friday morning – Febuary 18, 1983, a day I shall always remember — a newfound friend from kibbutz, Shlomo Peaches (the boyfriend, believe it or not, of Honey Goldberg), tells me that that if I’m heading to Jerusalem, I should look up a guy named Meir Schuster at the “Western Wall,” to get set up for a hot meal. As I wrote the name down in my little spiral-bound notebook, I asked Shlomo where I’d find this fellow named Meir Schuster. He said, don’t worry, just wander around the plaza in front of the Wall at sunset and he’ll find you.
So off I went with a pack on my back. Upon my arrival at the Western Wall, I thought “Ok, here I am. Now what”? Well, right around then it started pouring buckets, with lightning and thunder. OK, I thought, just walk across the plaza and this fellow will find you. I realized at this point that Shlomo never even told me what Meir Schuster looks like. There were hundreds of people on this plaza and I’m just standing there in the pouring rain, waiting for this total stranger to discover me, thinking “this is really foolish; I better just get out of the rain and head into the old city where I can have dinner at one of those nice Arab establishments.” Just then, a tall, wet, lanky fellow dressed all in black with a long beard approaches me and asks “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” (Only later would I learn that this particular pick-up line was reserved for only the most assimilated of customers – the ones even Reb Meir wasn’t so sure about). He then asked me if I’d like to have a Shabbos meal. Sure, I said, that would be great. He then tells me to wait in a certain spot with a small group of others while he continues eyeing the crowds. A few minutes later, the small group has swollen to perhaps 10-11 young men and women, and off we go.
There is awkward silence as we trudge through the Arab quarter of the Old City and continue up towards Geula. The rain has picked up during this time and we are all cold and wet. A few of us in this group of strangers glance at each other as we proceed behind this enigmatic figure that is leading the way, as if to say, “Are we nuts?” But we were all young and looking for an adventure, and we had found one. As we zigged and zagged through the back alleys and streets of Sanhedria Merchevet, Geula, Meah Shearim and Malot Dafna, Reb Meir was dropping us off, one by one, at various houses along the way. The Rabbi did not say much, if anything, during this magical mystery tour. And his answer to the question of “how much longer” was always the same…”another five minutes”. But, what were our options really? We had no idea where we were, so we kept trudging along awaiting some dramatic endpoint to this venture.
My moment finally arrived and I was ushered in to a beautiful old home in Geula, lit warmly by a hanging candle chandelier. There I met the Lasters – Paul and Sharon and their beautiful children. Dinner was an amazing experience – incredibly delicious food, and all this love and brotherhood. (Hadn’t seen warmth and caring like this since the Pentecostals invaded my living room.) Many stories were told at this meal, few of which I understood. I felt like an anthropologist dropped down into an unexplored habitat. But I was intrigued, and I liked these people. They seemed to be the real thing, whatever that meant. When this wonderful dinner ended, I was ready to head back to the Old City to find the Arab youth hostel where I was staying but, lo and behold, one of the fellows at the table (wish I could remember his name) just happened to have an extra bed available at his Yeshiva (a shorter walk) and offered to let me spend the night there. So off I was to Ohr Somayach. The rest, as they say, is history….
Or is it?… Not so fast. I didn’t go down that easy.
I was packed up and ready to leave on Sunday morning, when Reb Meir showed up at the yeshiva to check in on me. I told him I had had a wonderful time, but now needed to go back to the Kibbutz where I was expected. He acted shocked… but you had a good time here, didn’t you? Don’t you want to stay and learn a little more about your heritage? Yes, I replied, but I’ve got other things to do first. Somehow, I escaped his many efforts to send one of the boys with me to retrieve my stuff from the kibbutz, and I headed on my way, on my own.
Back to picking grapefruits, I had lots of time to think. And one thing in particular kept bugging me. That Saturday night, at the Yeshiva, I had heard a song that kept ringing in my ears. It was called My Zaide by Moshe Yess. You see, for all my protestations about not feeling Jewish, I had had a Zaide, a very warm and loving Zaide, my mother’s father, a frum yid from Williamsburg. And he was married to a wonderful Bubbie who I loved very much, although I never understood what made either of them tick. Anachronisms from Europe and the Ukraine I thought. Just three weeks before I had left on my trip to Israel/Africa, my zaide had passed away. And here I was hearing this sad, tear-at-your-heartstrings tune with its refrain: “Who will be the Zaides of your children? Who will be the Zaides if not you?”
A few days later, I went back to Ohr Somayach where I was greeted like a hero, everyone having assumed they had seen the last of me. And a few hours later Reb Meir was there, welcoming me back. Over the next few years, I came and went many, many times to and from Ohr Somayach and other Yeshivas. And yes, I did make it to Africa – three times in fact. I also made it to a monastery in Greece and turned many other stones over along the way – stones that would probably have been better left unturned. Invariably, though, I returned to Yerushalayim, and each time I was greeted most warmly by Reb Meir Schuster.
Throughout my comings and goings, Reb Meir would pop back in to my life, often unceremoniously. Sometimes in Israel, sometimes in Los Angeles or at points in between. His work with me was never done. Once, when visiting me in LA during a ‘rough patch’ in my spiritual journey, I hear a klop on the door at about midnight and there’s Reb Meir. Totally out of context, and at an hour of the night that is totally unacceptable by any reasonable standards. “What’s going on Joe?” he said. I tried to smile, jolly him up a little. He wasn’t humored. Somehow he knew me better than I knew myself and said “Your neshama is not a laughing matter, Reb Joe. I’m worried about you. You’ve got to get serious. Now is the time. Promise me.” The smile quickly fell off my face and I didn’t sleep well that night. I was haunted by the entire encounter. Indeed by the previous 12 years of encounters. Who is this man? Why is he in my life? What have I done to merit his unending concern for me?
There have been many ups and downs in the fifteen years since then, and long stretches where we have been out of touch. But I love this man with all my heart and soul. No one has cared more deeply about my neshama than Reb Meir Schuster, and I am forever indebted to him. In the zechut of all he has done for me and for the many tens of thousands of others, I just pray he will have a refuah shlaima and be given the koach to continue his work for many years to come. Meanwhile, as the talmidim and talmidot of Reb Meir, it’s our job to give voice to his life’s mission, and to support those who carry on his work.