The Ice Man, Melting

Doron Sheffer, the most promising Israeli basketball player of the 1990s, has become religious. With a large skullcap on his head and a growing family in Moshav Amirim, he feels he has achieved balance in his life.

Doron Sheffer, 37, was gardening in the front yard of his home in Moshav Amirim in the Galilee when the telephone suddenly interrupted the serenity: A journalist wanted his reaction to the suicide of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team manager Moni Fanan. "I was in shock," recalls Sheffer, who led the team for five seasons up to 2000, "and the first thing that went through my mind was that I had to wake up to my life and our life. Al Gore told a parable about a frog who is placed in the water and the water is gradually heated to the boiling point, and the frog simply doesn't jump out. We're in such a process, both globally and individually. And suddenly what happened to Fanan is an explosion. It's a cry. Most of the nation today is preoccupied with who did or didn't give Fanan money, who did or didn't give loans, instead of being involved with the important thing. Today everyone has to ask himself: 'How do I live and what do I do? How do I behave in order not to drown in this place?'"

Were you surprised?

"On the one hand yes, on the other hand no. I'm personally familiar with that world. I was familiar with the lust for money, the lust for honor and other lusts as well. That's why I'm not surprised. We're at a time when we pray for the soul of a person to rise high up; unfortunately, most of us are busy with what is low down. He was the mother and the father of the players and he was very dedicated. May his soul rest in peace."

Sheffer lectures on becoming religious and on basketball. He likes to begin his lectures from the end, from that bittersweet moment in April 2004 when he raised the Eurocup, as a player for Hapoel Jerusalem which became the European champion after beating Real Madrid. On the white undershirt he exposed beneath his team uniform was the sentence: 'There is nobody but Him.' "My entire personal story had led me to this point," he sums up.

Like every climax in his life, this time a deep abyss awaited on the other side of the mountaintop as well. An abyss whose bottom he was very familiar with. In the year he raised the cup, he started to become more religiously observant. In 2003 he came to the capital in order to play for Hapoel Jerusalem, after one resignation from professional basketball that left shocked the sports world, a two-year spiritual journey all over the world, a fight against cancer, and a not particularly successful comeback in Maccabi Tel Aviv. The transition to the Holy City filled him with inexplicable joy: "The game, basketball, brought me to Jerusalem. But I felt it was more than that. I felt my soul. 'And the sons will return to their borders.' I came to Ein Karem with my wife, we became friendly with a Chabadnik in the neighborhood, we went to the Western Wall, a friend bought me phylacteries and something began to become stronger. The Torah had not yet actually entered, but something began to become stronger.

"Two weeks before the game I lost my voice. Wonder of wonders. I didn't know how I would play without a voice, I'm a play-maker. And I slowly begin to withdraw into myself, not to talk, and suddenly I see the story from another direction. Things around me begin to fall into place even without my talking. We played against Real Madrid, the Goliath of Europe. And the game was perfect. Everything was great. And at the moment of victory I take off my shirt and beneath it is the undershirt on which I had asked the Chabadnik in the neighborhood to print: 'There is nobody but Him.' That's how I raise the cup. In hindsight, I should have left professional basketball at that moment, with that statement. It's as though the end was determined from the beginning."

But Sheffer didn't leave. He continued for another year in the Jerusalem uniform, but something went wrong along the way. The man who had brought the first European victory to the capital missed balls, lost passes, arrived barefoot to practice and couldn't find the basket. The sports commentators were already predicting his next retirement.

In 2005 he signed on with Hapoel Tel Aviv. That was a very short episode. While the players on his new team were practicing, he was abroad. A week before the first game, he sent a fax saying that he had decided to resign. Sheffer says he could no longer identify with the way in which winning the cup was sanctified. "I was trying to live a reality and a story that no longer belonged to me."

And did you understand what was happening to you?

"I didn't understand what was happening. I couldn't figure it out. Nor was I strong enough to make a change. The Torah started to grow and become stronger, but I didn't observe it consistently. After Jerusalem I signed on for a year with Hapoel Tel Aviv. I went on vacation to the United States and Brazil before the opening of the season. And I was simply incapable of beginning the season."

Was there a lot of confusion?

"A lot of confusion. And a lot of restlessness and a lot of crises. I went back to Hapoel Tel Aviv and tried to make a kind of comeback, but I wasn't able to do it. Again I was without tools for dealing with the pressure and the tension and the manipulations. Someone said to me: 'Put your head in the sand until the year is over' and I couldn't. I made my way to Sinai. I and the Creator. And I walked and shouted that I wanted an answer. And thank God I descended deep enough so that I could climb back up."

Two years after canceling the connection with Hapoel Tel Aviv, he signed with Hapoel Galil Elyon, and after a year, announced that he would play in Safed, but then retired once and for all in 2007.

Mountain people

Now he is at the end of the climb, as far as he is concerned. He's very thin, has a beard and wears a large skullcap on his head. He found the life preserver after those difficult days in the Lithuanian Ashrei Ha'ish yeshiva in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood, which takes in newly religious men. And from there he only continued to become more religious. "I returned to an orderly Torah regimen," he says, "I began to pray and to gather things, slowly but surely. It was an anchor, a tree of life, something to hold onto."

About a year ago he moved with his second wife, Talia, to a house in Amirim with a view of the mountains. "There are valley people and there are mountain people," he says with a smile. "My wife and I are turning out to be mountain people." In the living room and the entrance there are bookshelves full of Jewish texts: the Shulchan Aruch, the Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), commentaries on Eshet Hayil. Above the dining area there is a small picture of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, and on the living room floor a mattress that Sheffer uses for yoga exercises. At the entrance to the house there is a wooden basket full of children's shoes: those of Ori, aged 7, his daughter from his first marriage to Roni Kay (who lives with her mother) and daughters Gavriel, 4, and Ariel, 3. Little Yedidya, who inherited his father's hypnotic blue eyes, is already 6 months old.

Sheffer tries to begin his day at 4:30 A.M., although it's hard for him to wake up. If he manages to do so, he meets with his study partner. Afterward he travels to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron ("10 minutes from here") and continues with prayer and Talmud study there. By 7 A.M. he returns home to help his wife wake up the girls. In the past, he used to go to the study hall in the morning. Now he continues studying at home.

Three times a week, in the afternoon, he travels to Kfar Vradim to coach the sixth grade basketball team. Once every two weeks he gets to Jerusalem, to a forum that deals with teaching values in sports, and two or three times a month he is invited to lecture, mainly before a religious and newly religious audience, where he tells about his life and the answer he found. He found a way of earning a living in 2007, after he had committed himself to another season with Hapoel Galil Elyon and was negotiating with a team in Safed, where he didn't play in the end. "At the time our lease was over, and we started looking for a new place. And of that it is said: 'We have nobody to rely on except the Holy One blessed be He.' Thank God I have a wife and we got through the period in one piece. A friend put me in contact with a nice Jewish man named Larry Rubin, who works in high-tech and invests in sports projects. There was an immediate click, and we began a project of imparting values to basketball coaches and players. When something closes, something else will always open up."

In his new life as a family man and a man who studies Torah, there is no room for the world of professional basketball. In the evening, he says, it's important to him to be with the family: "The order of priorities has changed." At night, when all the children are already sleeping, he picks up the guitar and plays.

"I'm searching for balance in my way of life," he says. "It's a very thin and very individual line. Only the Torah helped me to find the balance; to make me realize that I've come home. To the place that is right for me on a personal, spiritual level, in my language. And believe me, I've tried everything, from Buddhism to Christianity.

"I try not to be part of one sector or another," he says, concerning his Judaism. "I connect to the point of unity, of one people. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that there are no secular Jews and religious Jews, there are only Jews. And I, if I may, say that there are no Jews, there are human beings. And still, in my story, Rabbi Nachman [the founder of Bratslav Hasidism] is receiving more and more space. Hasidism brought simplicity. Not studying day and night, but simple prayer. On the face of it, the most banal thing, but Rabbi Nachman lived it. There's a difference between a mantra or a sticker and a person who lives and experiences it. Today I have the privilege of learning from giants and sages who light the way for us.

"In Jerusalem," he adds, "when I started to become more religious, somebody grabbed me in the synagogue and gave me Mesilat Yesharim, a book of ethics written by the Ramhal. The book takes you from one level to another on the scale of ethics. And I suddenly understood where I was. I was ashamed."

'My heart told me'

The Israeli media likes to describe Sheffer, one of the best basketball players in Israel and Europe, as a riddle. Even someone who doesn't like basketball had difficulty ignoring the tortured face of the young player, who dared to give up a promising career and hundreds of thousands of dollars when he left the sport and went in search of inner peace. He began his basketball career as a boy on a Ramat Efal team. In the summer of 1990 he moved to Hapoel Galil Elyon and after three years, at the age of 21, he carried the northern club to a historic championship, interrupting 23 consecutive years of domination by Maccabi Tel Aviv. During those years he was still dubbed "the Ice Man," because of his self control as a player.

Afterward he began to play for the University of Connecticut. He was chosen as the best first-year player in the Big East league in which the team played, and together with Ray Allen - who later became a superstar in the best basketball league in the world, the NBA - led his team to the top of the college rankings. In the summer of 1996 Sheffer was the first Israeli to be chosen in the draft: The Los Angeles Clippers chose him in the second round, which does not entitle the player to a contract with the team. But he decided not to fulfill the dream, and not to attend the training camp that was supposed to make him eligible for a contract. He returned to Israel to the demanding and embracing arms of Maccabi Tel Aviv. With Maccabi he came in second in the European Championship and he and Oded Katash became the pair of guards who drove Europe crazy. In Israel they were dubbed the "Katasheffer."

At the height of his career, in the summer of 2000, he shocked the Israel sports world at a press conference where he announced his retirement from the game. "My heart told me to retire," he explained, "and you don't argue with your heart." He left the country and embarked on a spiritual journey all over the world: India, Brazil, Thailand, Costa Rica. Later he separated from his wife, television director Roni Kay, when she was in her fifth month of pregnancy, and continued on his journey.

In 2002, during a visit to Israel, he discovered that he had testicular cancer and went to Costa Rica on another spiritual journey for healing and medicine. In the end he returned to Israel, underwent surgery, recovered and announced that he wanted to play again. He returned to Maccabi Tel Aviv, with whom he won the championship and the cup in the 2002/3 season, spending most of his time on the bench, however.

Do you remember the breaking points?

"There were many, already from the start. When I played for Hapoel Galil Elyon I lived on Kibbutz Amir. After defeats I didn't leave my room; I couldn't take the reactions to the defeat on the way to the dining room. After victories I would go and serve in the dining room. In Connecticut I had the hardest periods in my career. There were lots of fears, envy, spiritual issues that awakened and came to the surface. And because this world of sports is so pressured and fraught, it gave me no rest."

You spoke about the child within you, who still wants to conquer the court.

"This child is no longer running the business. He isn't alone. I'm a father, there are children, there's Shabbat, there's a family I have to be with in the evening. Suddenly the order of priorities has changed and basketball isn't the entire world. Occasionally thoughts arise. Playing basketball is something very momentary that I can carry out with a ball and a basket. I play with the children at the yeshiva."

I'm referring to missing the professional game, being in the spotlight.

"This game now comes with a package deal that is no longer relevant for me. It's tension and pressure. It's not easy for a young boy or an adult to deal with this sport. People emerge from it with their souls battered and scratched. I'm talking about emotional disability. Today in hindsight, it was actually the difficulty that brought the great blessing. Basketball broke me, took me down, caused me to cry out, and from there I only grew. But I understood that only in hindsight."

Spiritual crisis

Sheffer seasons his personal story with stories of the sages and words of Torah. "They say that if you want to tell God a good joke, you have to tell him your future plans," he says, revealing that in his childhood he actually dreamed of being accepted to a pilots' training course. The suspicion of a heart defect lowered his military profile to 65 and that was the end of the dream. Basketball was his compensation. "Life put me where it's hardest in order to learn, to deal with things, and to understand that whether there are two million people watching you or nobody at all, you have to find your authentic, simple point and live according to it."

While he was playing in Connecticut, he came across the psycho-spiritual book "The Celestine Prophecy" by James Redfield, and it made him think. "It aroused a place of unity and peace in me that is found in every one of us; a place of potential, not to be enslaved by anything. It was a spiritual experience, but not one that changed my life. But this was the source of the desire to connect to that same point and to bring it into my life: on the courts, in a couple relationship."

And at the end of that period you made one of the decisions that will stay with you all your life. You were the first Israeli to get to the draft, but you gave up the training camps that would probably have paved your way to the NBA.

"Simply, at that point the Los Angeles Clippers chose me but didn't want to give me a guaranteed contract. I wasn't good enough for them. There was a possibility of trying to wait for the training camp, to wait for another opportunity. Yes, there were other steps that I could have taken, but I said 'enough.' I invested effort and tried long enough. For me it was a red line. And the Israelis haven't gotten over this story. I've already gotten over it.

"In mystical terms, what I discovered after that was that the return to Israel accelerated my spiritual crisis. Returning to Israel began to arouse the tension and the pressure in the reality of a land that devours its inhabitants. In the United States I was in a kind of hothouse. Even when I played in Hapoel Galil Elyon it was a kind of hothouse. And actually the first time I began to deal with the reality in Israel was when I joined Maccabi Tel Aviv. The expectations were high. The fears began to crop up more than in the past; before games there was a feeling that arose and disturbed me. The process of searching picked up speed."

And when today you see Omri Casspi taking the path that was perhaps meant for you, does it do anything to you?

"Right at this time I feel that I've closed something in myself, in my personal story, which made room for Casspi to be able to join the NBA. I felt that I held the ownership and the rights to the issue and the moment I released that point inside of me, he joined the team."

During that period in Maccabi, wouldn't good psychological therapy have solved the emotional issues?

"I took it. I took a sports psychologist. And that took me to a different level. Each time I drank the entire cup and needed more and more. I remember myself before games, conflicted and anxious. Actually fighting with myself, disturbed by a defeat, disturbed by the fact that I wouldn't play well. I remember not sleeping well, I remember the heartbeats. I scourged myself and didn't know how to deal with it."

And outwardly you were the Ice Man.

"The Ice Man. Everything was inside. I was involved in very deep emotional processes and nobody saw it, and it didn't emerge. There were places of pride and competitiveness in which I got lost. And it's true till today.

During his Maccabi days it was hard for Sheffer to find a reason for getting up in the morning and throwing baskets. He discovered the spark with Moshe Kastiel, a guru called Tyohar, who founded a commune in Costa Rica . He began to attend meetings of believers and the two became close. "Tyohar accompanied and strengthened and helped," says Sheffer, "and again up to the point when I needed more and more. And only today do I understand that I had reached a source without an end. In Torah and Judaism there's no limit to wisdom and there's no end to this journey. It's a way of life."

Spiritual training camp

After announcing his retirement in June 2000 Sheffer embarked on a journey of spiritual wandering all over the world. "I was in a kind of trance, naive," he says. "I lived the moment and acted according the slogan: 'I'm following my heart.' And I went to the edge and didn't receive the answer."

During that period, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth published an interview with your ex-wife Roni Kay, who told about growing apart, about the period of her pregnancy when you preferred to search for yourself in India, that you weren't present at the birth.

"Roni and I didn't broadcast on the same wavelength and we separated. We weren't in a place where we knew how to separate and life pulled us apart from one another. It was important to me to stay and heal the wound, but there was no choice, it happened in a tragic way. There are grudges and anger even now."

Why didn't you come to your daughter's birth?

"It's not accurate that I wasn't there. I set out on a trip to India and I didn't know when and if I would return. He who causes all things brought me to a point on the trip, at the foot of a sacred mountain in India, and in that place there was a birth. The return to basketball was born in me. There was an illumination there and I felt that I was returning completely different. I decided to return to Israel for the birth of my daughter and for basketball. I returned, but the whole story between me and Roni was very sensitive. She didn't even want to tell me when the birth would take place. I understand her and I have no complaint. A few days before the birth I traveled with my father to the U.S. to see a game and began to have strong pains. We returned to Israel and in Tel Hashomer hospital, after tests, they informed me that I had a malignant cancer. In the evening I got a phone call from my ex that Ori had been born several hours earlier in Tel Hashomer. That suddenly illuminated my life, the cancer was dwarfed. And look how everything turned out in such a way that during the hours that my daughter was born I was in the same complex, in Tel Hashomer."

After all the searching, after all the wanderings, instead of serenity you got cancer. What went wrong?

"I was looking for healing, and I got cancer. When they informed me about the cancer I was profoundly aware that life doesn't give you anything that you can't deal with. When they informed me about the cancer it wasn't: 'What will happen?' but: 'How do I cure it?' It was as though I wasn't connected to this world. I decided not to have surgery and I wandered around the world with the tumor in my body that could spread and erupt at any moment. For three months I underwent a profound process that illuminated and strengthened things in me that I had to heal. I wasn't interested only in removing the lump from my system and going back to my life, I wanted to get to the root. It was clear to me that if I only had an operation, it would be like a tree that has a branch removed and it would grow back. I traveled to Costa Rica, to Tyohar. I wanted the quiet, the space.

"The hardest thing was to face my parents and my family. They were hysterical. But I stood tall and insisted and went. And there, whether or not by chance, there was a macrobiotic nutritionist, who specialized in curing illnesses by means of diet. And there was also a shaman who works with cancer patients using ancient techniques, which are beyond our understanding. And immediately I attach myself to them and begin to work on my body and my soul and undergo a spiritual training camp, and see the anger and the fears that had caused a cancer in my life. And after three months I understand that the story there is over, and I return to Israel to have the operation and to return to basketball."

To the place that was the source of the angers and the fears that caused cancer in your life?

"But I return a new person. I think that I have the ability to deal with this world, to have an influence through it, and to play differently. I contacted my mother and told her: 'Make an appointment for an operation, I'm coming back.' I was eager to return to basketball. I entered the operating room on Memorial Day and I got out on Independence Day. It was being born again.

Domestic harmony

He met his second wife, Talia, seven years ago, at the restaurant she was managing at the Sea and Sun apartment hotel in Tel Aviv. "Our eyes met and a moment later we found ourselves married with three children." She is now a student of alternative medicine. Together they went up to live in Ein Karem during the period when he played for Hapoel Jerusalem. They both connected immediately to the religious-spiritual atmosphere in the city. "It was like a honeymoon," he says.

How did the return to religion affect your family?

"The return to religion is hard for my father," says Sheffer. "That's natural and I understand. Changes are hard for most of us. He's afraid that I'll get lost in this world."

Yeshayahu, Doron's father, a diamond dealer, set high goals for his son and guided his career in one direction: professional basketball. In 1996 his father said in an interview with the weekly Ha'ir that if his son were to seclude himself in some temple in Tibet, he would be disappointed that such high expectations had crashed.

Is it hard for you to disappoint him?

"It's hard for me to see him unhappy. I want to make him happy. But it's clear to me that if I try to live his dream, that's doomed to failure. And it's clear to me that he doesn't really want that either. So we try to meet along the way. I want to show him that it does only good. I can't solve prejudices for people which are deeply imbedded in their consciousness, including if it's a dear and beloved father. Once, on Yom Kippur, I came to him to apologize and I also apologized for the fact that I made him sad when I retired. He told me that I didn't have to apologize."

Children are a big responsibility. Are you capable of dealing with it?

"The children strengthen the point of the man within me and the responsibility. There were things that I used to allow myself, and today it's not simple and not self-evident. Today I have to maintain shalom bayit - domestic harmony. Children bring a blessing and light and that same light also illuminates things that are not so pleasant to see. Dealing with children often overwhelms everything. I can understand a person who says that he doesn't want children. Sometimes, in difficult moments for me and Talia I laugh and say to her: "Never mind, in another 17 years it will pass.'

"The girls are now beginning to clear the dishes from the table and to help. When Ori comes she takes care of Yedidya. We're together."

Are you afraid of another fall?

"I don't have the fear. I know that it's possible. What scares me and preoccupies me more is not falling into manipulations between me and myself. A lot of energy goes there. I found myself so often in an extreme place, and today I know how to see divine supervision in those places too - that same point to which one can connect at the lowest depths and the greatest heights. But there are still confrontations and fears and things that aren't easy."

What is most difficult for you?

"To live a lie."

Would you do things differently?

"Absolutely not. It's irrelevant. It makes no sense to say now that I would have done things differently. What does preoccupy me is learning from the past. The falls and the mistakes are bricks in the temple of my life and without them I couldn't learn and repair. And that's true of my mistakes and falls today; only today did I learn that if I fall, the purpose is for me to get up. I don't get stuck. I get up quickly and continue."

And are you happy?

"I've never connected to the word happiness. You're up one day and down the next. I'm happy with what I have." W