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The Tragedy of Uri Zohar, a Secular Jew Who Turned to God for Answers

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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Uri Zohar, from ‘Zohar – The Return’.
Uri Zohar.Credit: Yaniv Linton
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

It’s been a long time since we’ve been privileged to see such major unity among the Israeli people. (We actually may have never seen it before). It happened following the death of Uri Zohar, who, unusually, was eulogized both in the ultra-Orthodox community and among the secular public.

The ultra-Orthodox spoke of Zohar as a righteous figure who had embraced the Creator, lived modestly and devoted all of his time to Torah study. The secular community spoke of him as a prominent cultural figure, one of Israel’s greatest artistic creators, who changed the face of Israeli cinema.

In fact, however, his death did not produce unity. Quite the opposite. Hiding beneath the superlatives about the actor, director and comedian who abandoned his career for ultra-Orthodoxy was a tough cultural battle between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, who in addition to paying their respects, wanted to prove that theirs was a rich heritage, while the life of the secular community was empty.

It’s a fact that this great spiritual figure who had once been clearly secular left that emptiness for a life of Torah and commandments. Could there be any greater proof of ultra-Orthodox superiority?

It’s a known ultra-Orthodox practice to glorify any secular celebrity or semi-celebrity who embraces Orthodox Judaism, becoming a “ba’al teshuva,” as it is called in Hebrew. And shamefully, the secular media plays along with this false narrative and repeats the nonsense that the newly religious public figure has “seen the light.” They also don’t bother publicizing the cases of the many others who have fled the religious-ultra-Orthodox prison to become free and happy people.

In any event, the data proves that the number of ultra-Orthodox who abandon religion is much greater than the number of newly religious, who for the most part are looking for miracle solutions to their personal troubles, crises or drug problems. Some of them choose religion. Others choose cults.

Zohar was a weak man who in a crisis began believing in a God that doesn’t exist and an afterlife that isn’t there. He took the most addictive drug of them all, the “opiate of the masses,” as Karl Marx dubbed religion.

Zohar was a missionary whose main activity was preaching to secular families on pirate radio, urging them to transfer their children from secular schools to religious ones. He carried out this effort in cooperation with Shas party leader Arye Dery, explicitly denouncing secular education.

So why wouldn’t the ultra-Orthodox love him? But despite the public respect that the ultra-Orthodox community accorded to Zohar, it is highly suspect of the newly religious. No Haredi would have his daughter marry the son of a “ba’al teshuva.”

After all, the “ba’al teshuva” has no pedigree. He doesn’t come from a God-fearing family that keeps Shabbat and has observed family purity rituals from generation to generation. Maybe, Heaven forbid, they don’t. And in any case, how can one rely on a “ba’al teshuva?”

They’re not stable, and one day they might cross the lines back to a secular lifestyle. Any ultra-Orthodox who for a moment would ponder marrying someone newly religious knows that it would constitute a stain on their relatives and that future matchmaking in the family would become problematic. Among the ultra-Orthodox community, people would say that the family is hiding a terrible secret. Therefore, this must be avoided.

Life can also be expected to tough for the children Zohar managed to make religious. They won’t be able to enroll in regular ultra-Orthodox schools or yeshivas. Ultra-Orthodox won’t be willing to study with them, and they would be forced to enroll in schools designated for “ba’alei teshuva,” as if they were lepers.

There are such special yeshivas – Or Hachaim for Sephardim and Netivot Olam for Ashkenazim. It’s part of the cruel discrimination that controls the ultra-Orthodox street.

The newly religious have many other problems, as well. They are laughed at behind their backs for their different pronunciation of prayers and can’t purchase apartments in ultra-Orthodox communities where there are admissions committees. People steer clear of them to the extent they can. They’re of an inferior caste.

So don’t envy “ba’alei teshuva,” particularly if you’re not a celebrity like Uri Zohar.

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