If I had a nickel for every time somebody asks me why on earth I moved to Israel from Los Angeles, I’d be very rich by now. And I realized something odd – I write all the time, I have written much about living in Israel, but I have never really told the story of just what got me here and what keeps me here. Sometimes, a bit flippantly (and cryptically) I say that “death brought me to Israel”. Ever the story teller, I like to see a whetted appetite. And – it’s true. Death did bring me to this part of the world. But nothing is quite as simple as that, is it?
I had been living in LA for about 7 years or so, and I was really energized by it and had thrown myself into my life and my business there. I was experiencing a rapid climb in becoming known around town and in the screenwriting world, as this “guru” and I had an office on a studio lot. I hobnobbed with a lot of well known writers and was really flying high. I didn’t know it, but even then, there were things coming at me that would turn my world upside down.
A really talented and good friend of mine had taken a six month animation job at a company in Jerusalem and she invited me many times to come visit while she was there. Though I am Jewish, I had ZERO interest in going. All I could picture in my mind was a hot, dangerous, rocky place. Why the HELL would I go there?! I had nary a Zionist bone in my body and I like to think my bus will not explode. Call me crazy. She’d be home soon enough, we’d visit then. Besides, I was busy. So busy.
Then one day, Blake Snyder, of Save the Cat died. He just got up one morning and died. He was about 57, I think. I had just seen him about two months prior. I won’t pretend we were friends, but we’d spent some time together and he had mentored me, for which I will always be grateful. His death was very shocking to me in its suddenness. Blake just – died one day. It really scared me, the fragility of life. If it could happen to Blake, it could happen to anyone. I had just seen him. He looked fine.
I contacted my friend in Jerusalem and said okay I’m coming. I’m just coming. It’s the last place I want to go but I was just so shaken up, I decided it was stupid to miss an opportunity like this. So I went to Israel for about two weeks, including a few days in Egypt. Like most things that completely change your life, I didn’t recognize that something enormous had just happened.
Egypt was chaotic and amazing but Israel – wow – the minute I arrived, I felt something deep within me, a very deep connection. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem – the holy city. I’m not in the least bit religious but there is something in the air in Jerusalem that is inexplicable. A faint scent of oil and incense and flowers. The Jerusalem stone is dun colored and warm. Laundry flutters from windows and the streets are both crowded and quiet. I went back to Los Angeles, and I cried all the way home. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought it was a really bad case of jet lag. But I just couldn’t get Israel – and the way I felt when I was there – out of my mind.
I returned to my hyper-busy, life being the “script guru” in Hollywood, staying up too late and drinking too much and thinking myself all that, far beyond what I or what was going on around me really was. I was losing perspective inside of a bell jar of my own making.
Then a few things began to happen at once – I had no idea how they would gather to become the perfect storm, I really didn’t see the changes coming.
My friend Lynn began to die of breast cancer. She was fifty-three. Lynn had been ill for a long time but she began to decline sharply and it was clear she had only months to live. I visited and knitted at her side and brought her treats to make her feel better but she was dying and there was no use denying it. At the same time, my brother was experiencing a serious depression and struggling very much in his life. My family and I cycled in and out of helplessness, frustration and growing alarm.
At the time, one of my best, closest friends was the writer of a very famous comedy film that you know and love. And he had a drug problem and I knew it and it was no secret – he spoke of it openly, but I was so enamored of his fame and his wit that I naively figured it would be okay, that it didn’t matter, and we began seriously discussing starting a production company together. This idea was going to change my life forever and it was all quite heady. Then I went to England and taught and lapped up all of that recognition and came home having hired a new business consultant that I’d only just met there in London. He was tall, dark, handsome, smart as hell and I was sure he was what I needed to take my business to the next level. Things were happening really fast.
My brother was getting worse and worse and Lynn was confined to her bed. But I was moving at the speed of light and was traveling, teaching and feeling myself quite important. I went back to Israel to spend about 3 weeks in Jerusalem in a rented flat, to work on my screenwriting book. It was a welcome respite, so much more quiet than Hollywood and I shopped and cooked and hung out my laundry and felt a world apart from the hurly burly my life had become. I would go to the King David hotel and sip expensive coffee and write my book and look out on the Old City in awe. When the plane left the tarmac of Ben Gurion and headed toward Europe, I felt a great loss, a sadness that I could not fathom or understand. I wanted to stay in Israel more than I didn’t want to return to LA. I felt I was headed in the opposite direction of home.
I had returned to LA for about a week when I went to see Lynn. She had moved from her home in Santa Monica to a hotel by the beach so she could look at the sea while she died. She was only semi-conscious when I got there. So frail. She instructed me to sit precisely as I always did and to knit. She wanted me to knit because I always did when we visited. I was shaky and tearful – I had never been in such close proximity to death – I could feel its presence in the room – but I picked up my yarn and needles and sort of pretended for her sake. What I held in my hands was a ball of knots. Every few minutes I excused myself, went into the other room and sobbed for a couple of minutes, blew my nose and came back. I didn’t want her to see that.
Tell me about Israel, Lynn said, in her barely audible voice. She couldn’t even open her eyes. It seemed a terrible thing to me, to talk about a vacation while my friend lay dying. I protested that no, this time should be about her. But she was firm. She wanted to hear about my trip. She knew I’d gone to the Red Sea and she began to weakly, slowly, fill in the gaps – was it warm, she said? What did it feel like? `It took me a moment to realize how important this was to Lynn, this story, she wanted to be transported away from her death bed. So I told her all about it, in great detail. I told her about the Red Sea and how you can see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I told her about the creamy hummus with golden olive oil. I told her of the call of the muezzin over Arab villages. I felt like Sheherezade.
Lynn listened in near silence, she was barely able to speak. Then, one tear slowly slid down her cheek and she whispered – it’s so ancient, so ancient. Those were the last words she said to me. Three days later, she died.
The man I’d hired as a business consultant, the one living in London, began to act more and more strangely. He missed Skype meetings, he texted me sometimes unintelligibly, he said that someone had broken into his home and he was looking over hours of CCTV footage to find the culprit. He didn’t make sense. I got scared.
I talked it over with my lawyer and she said do you have an actual contract with this guy? Anything on paper? This is a frightening situation, Julie. So I took a deep breath, called him and cheerfully said, hey let’s get our agreement on paper, okay? What he said next still sends chills down my spine; he went from a growl to a scream: who have you been TALKING TO?! And he hung up. Now I was scared. This guy had every password, every bit of information about my company, he had the keys to the kingdom. And something was seriously wrong with him. What was I going to do?!
My brother continued his downward slide. According to my parents, he had lost a lot of weight. When I spoke to him which was several times a week, he went in circles and was agitated and anxious. Over the months I had sent him books, and affirmations and tapes and anything – anything to help him out of his slide. I called doctors and hospitals in his area, with his insurance information and looked for programs where he could stay for a few weeks and get better. He was going on and off medications like a merry go round, totally unsupervised. He was in danger. I found a hospital that was about an hour’s drive away but he couldn’t drive because of his condition and it was outpatient, he’d have to go four times a week – back and forth. It wouldn’t work.
I never really had the time to mourn for Lynn. But she was gone. One day, while in the shower, I felt Lynn – I felt her presence right over my head, and she said SMILE, Julie. SMILE, I am okay.
But the crazy guy in England has totally gone off the rails. He calls me late at night and threatens me. He asks me to send several thousand dollars immediately, or he will “ruin” me. He sends me emails detailing how he will “crawl through blood and broken glass” to get me. I am really scared. He calls the famous writer I was about to work with and tells him that I am telling everybody he has a drug problem. It’s not true – of course I had not said anything to anybody – except to this increasingly frightening person, and only then lightly, that I had concerns. But my friend, probably scared that I was in fact telling everyone in Hollywood what they already knew, called me up, ended our friendship and canceled our business deal. The lost opportunity was not the worst of it. It was the lost friendship. That still hurts.
It was during this time that I thought more and more of Israel. Compared to hell I was going through – a death I didn’t even have time to mourn, a business partner who was spiraling into madness, my brother’s alarming slide into depression – all I could think was that I wanted to be in that warm country and just be quiet. I wanted to go away. But I couldn’t. I had to deal with what was in front of me.
On May 13th, 2010, at about 5:20pm my mother called me. She was hysterical. The sheriff had just been there – Pete had shot himself. No, I said. Put dad on the phone, thinking my mother had gone insane. My father confirmed it. I must have screamed or something – all I remember is slamming my hands down on my desk and saying - NO. One of my rings, that I had bought in Israel, is still bent where it made impact.
I think I was wailing or something, because people came running up the hall there on the lot – What? What? What? I had to be driven home, unable to stand.
It was true. Three days later, I was at my brother’s funeral. I hadn’t been able to help him. Nobody had. Why didn’t he call me that day? Why hadn’t I called him? It was too late. He was 48 years old. He shot himself in front of a bathroom mirror covered with post-its with affirmations.
My life changed forever.
None of this slowed down the crazy guy in England. My lawyer staunchly said no, we do not send money before we have a contract, we do not yield to blackmail and threats! So the guy went crazy. He sent out emails to all my clients saying I had cheated them and put my cell phone number in the email. He began to call other colleagues and telling them all sorts of stuff – he just made it up. And the sad part – the part that ultimately made me leave Hollywood – people were perfectly willing to believe a perfect stranger with an English accent, who said vague things, rather than ask me what was going on. The fact that he’d made the calls was enough for most people. There was no fact checking, there were no questions asked. People began to disassociate themselves from me. My book editor took her payment of several thousand dollars and then quit not having done her job. The guy had called her too. I don’t know what he said to her, she never told me. My assistant received an email from him. She quit too. I’ll never forget, a very famous producer of a very famous movie called me up and told me we’d not associate with one another again because a “private detective from England” had called him with some serious allegations – Gary, I said, listen – this is a crazy guy who is threatening me! He’s nuts! But no, Gary was done. No questions asked. Nobody wants the stink of a scandal – even a completely fabricated one – anywhere near them. My business began to collapse.
My friend had died, three weeks later my brother had committed suicide, and my business was collapsing under my feet because of a crazy person in England who happened to have a nice accent. My legal fees were enormous. I carried on, best I could, which wasn’t very well – and a few months later, I took my brother’s ashes to Israel.
On a stormy day over the Mediterranean, I hired a drunk skipper (the only one willing to go out in the storm) to take me a kilometer or so off of Jaffa so I could scatter his ashes. My brother had never traveled in his life. Now you’ve traveled, you son of a bitch! – was all I could think of saying as I scattered his ashes into the same sea the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and Egyptians had sailed. When the boat chugged back to the pier, a bride and groom where braving the rising wind to take photos.
My life in LA was in tatters and nobody was interested in the aftermath, of how the FBI had opened a case file on the guy in England and barred him from entering the US because of his threats. Nobody was interested in the few people in England who came out of the woodwork and told me of similar behavior of his in the past. Turns out this very genteel, intelligent man was in fact a sociopath with a long history of freak outs and business ruining. But that was not of interest to anybody. So I mopped up the mess and tried to carry on, but I wasn’t able to.
I just wanted to go to Israel and heal. That was all I wanted to do. I knew it was a tough place and a dangerous place. I knew I couldn’t speak Hebrew at all, I knew these things would be tough. But I also knew, at least for awhile, I couldn’t go anywhere. My parents were hurting too much. My family was torn asunder. So I stuck it out for a couple more years, as my business evaporated and grief overtook me. I visited my parents at every opportunity and we’d sit in lawn chairs on the patio and listen to the wind in the trees.
Finally I said, I’ve got to go. I have to go on living. So I sold everything I own – I mean – everything, my car, my furniture, I sold everything and came to Israel with three suitcases and a citizenship. I had little money on me, I didn’t speak the language and it was HOT. Hot, hot hot. Tel Aviv in the summer is something to reckon with. I got a little studio flat on a busy central street and just dived in. I was scared to go outside because people might speak to me and I couldn’t speak back. I didn’t know how much a shekel was worth compared to a dollar, I had no idea where the sea was from my flat. I was totally lost.
Over time, I began to meet people, and took the state required language lessons and began to fit in a tiny bit. Not really though. Tel Aviv is a very urban, dense, chaotic city compared to Los Angeles. And my grief over all of it – my brother, Lynn, my business and reputation – it all weighed on me like a stone. You can’t outrun these feelings, I learned. But I had to cope. There I was. I had to learn the language, I had to hang out my laundry just like everybody else, I had to figure out the busses which was no mean feat for a life long car owner and one who didn’t know how to ask “where is bus number five” to save her life.
I began to make a life here. And oddly, improbably, the heat, the underlying tension, the intensity of Israel distracted me from the pain I had run from. One day I met an American girl with a dog on a leash and a floppy sunhat. Darcy had been living in Israel for a couple of years already. We became best friends. She was the polar opposite of everything I’d gone through – she heard my story, it was good enough for her, and she took me into her family and that was that. I think she is the best friend I have ever had in my life.
There is a saying about Israelis, that they will run you over with their car, back up and take you to the hospital. It’s true. Once an Israeli is your friend, once you have earned that? That’s it. Whereas, in my experience in Los Angeles, with a few exceptions to be sure, everyone is your friend – until that is no longer advantageous to them. Then – chick chack, as we’d say in Israel – you’re done. Don’t get me wrong; there are still a select few friends I have in LA who were there for me, who I cherish and always will. They believed in me, they tried to support me when I couldn’t stand on my own. But they couldn’t do much to help. This was my experience alone and that was never more plain to anybody than to me.
Nora, Theresa, Margaux, my darling Keith, Steve, Angela, Andrea Bari, Christine, David and Raven Sarnoff – these are amazing humans. And here and now, my beloved Darcy, the amazing Dahlia Lithwick, Lee Zahavi Jessup, Asaf and Yuval, Adi and Gil – so many Israelis who who never, ever pity me, but rather welcome me and make me know I am home now.
But during that terrible time, most of the other people I thought were friends – were gone with the wind the minute I began to suffer to so much that I seemed contagious to them. They just didn’t know what to do. I can’t really blame them.
The anniversary of my brother’s death comes and goes. I cry about it sometimes, wrenchingly. But here I am living on the razor’s edge, and Israelis don’t have time for crying. These are tough people and you have to be tough to earn their respect. This is not an easy place to live. Every single day is a struggle. The economy in Israel is good but is focused in one or two areas only. Start up being one of them. Outside of that, the middle class in Israel is several rungs lower than the middle class in the US, disappearing as it is. Here, outright poverty is much more common than in the US. For a country with the Iron Dome and Start Up Nation, the bureaucracy is something from a third world country. Israel is a strange place. A tiny, feisty, chaotic country, wedged between the sea and the desert, surrounded by enemies. Israelis are like a big, quarreling family. Oh the arguments – sometimes I just….And there are millions of people living on the other side of a wall and they are angry. It is an untenable situation. But here we are. What will happen? I don’t know.
From the moment I first came here, I felt connected to this place. There is something I am here to do – something that matters. To show people that you can in fact traverse hell and come out alive? To give voice to writers who otherwise don’t have one? Does that sound self-important, to think that the universe is guiding you in something? Or deluded? I don’t know. All I know is that I am here.
I started the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and that makes me proud, and I’m slowly getting my writing program for Palestinian women off the ground (although, faced with a mountain of bureaucratic and security issues, this really will take some time) and I live with very little now. No car, no fancy office, no weekly housekeeper, no spacious, 1920s LA apartment. It’s just me now. And Pete is still gone and Lynn is still gone and all I have is what I have.
But what I have could be worth something – I have the ability to get people to tell stories, and to tell them well. I am a teacher, I get people to talk. And that strikes me as something that is valuable in this place, where there are so many stories. I miss my parents, they are grieving and aging back in the US. But I can’t do them any good there. I can’t help them no matter what I do, nothing will heal that gaping hole. So I have to think that I can help somebody else, somehow, someway.
I went back to LA about nine months after I moved to Israel. It seemed such a strange place to me. Sprawling and glittering and somehow, empty for me. I visited with friends still hell bent on breaking in to the entertainment business, with varying levels of success, and while I love and miss them, I could no longer connect with their ambitions. There had just been in Israel, a relatively minor conflict – Hamas had fired 1,500 missiles into Israel, it was the Operation Pillar of Defense. It was the first time in my life that I had heard the wail of sirens and had to run to a shelter and wait for the explosions. It was terrifying. This was not on TV. This was happening. It is an experience that one cannot fully explain or fathom until one has been in it, counting the seconds between the sirens and the explosions. You just keep thinking – this is real, this is happening right now – and your blood turns to ice in your veins and your heart pounds. For days later, the wail of a motorcycle at just the rich pitch makes you panic – is that the siren? Should I run? The Americans send warships to the Mediterranean and tell Americans they can leave if they wish. The Embassy sends out a dire warning. Your family begs you to come home. But, you realize, in what is surely the most extraordinary moment of you life – you are home. And one month later, I am in Los Angeles, having very expensive sushi, sitting with friends and speaking of this experience in ways that were utterly inadequate to describe it.
Oh my god – crazy! My friends say. And you feel yourself being that person – that insufferable person, thinking things like the traffic on the 405? Really? These are your worries?! But these were your worries too, in the Before Times. You are no better now, you just have a different set of worries. How can you live in such a dangerous place, people wanted to know, as we ordered another round of sake. The 405, random shootings, shifting friendships and ambitions, the fragility of life. Pick your poison. But I didn’t say that.
A well known colleague came to Israel from Los Angeles to speak at an event. Of course we met for coffee. You can take the girl out of LA but you can’t take the networker out of the girl. Her teeth were so white was the first thing I noticed. She was enthusiastic about Israel, having never been here before. She was bubbly and spoke, as Americans tend to do, much more loudly than anyone around. I felt slightly embarrassed for her and I didn’t know why. Hadn’t I been just like her? With bleached teeth and a bubbly attitude? I felt jealous as she mentioned this person and that event. That used to be my life. I looked down at my dusty sandals and distinctly unpedicured feet and then at her perfectly manicured hands, feet and outfit. What had I done?
My colleague was ebullient about how FUN Israel is and how GREAT it is and suddenly I heard myself reminding her that Gaza is about 60 kilometers away from where we were sitting. And that it’s not so fun there.
Suddenly, I felt somehow superior to this woman. Had she NO idea where she really was? But I couldn’t forget that not so long ago, before the death and the hurt and the pain, I had been just like her. Ambitious, single-minded and living in Los Angeles, the only town you can die of encouragement.
Hollywood is good and exciting and wonderful – but it’s only one way a writer might find satisfaction and reward in their writing. Just one way and one that in no way, shape or form can be attained through any consultant anywhere. The friends that I do have who have “made it” have done it by sheer perseverance. Years of focus and discipline and talent. You can’t really package that into a book or a talk. My colleague looked at her smart phone, made a frowny face of regret, then brightly announced that she had an important networking event at her Hilton and had to go. They have the BEST hummus there, she said. Unbelievable. I love Israel. We got the check and I was never so relieved in my life.
From the frying pan to the fire, I sometimes say. From Hollywood to Israel. I live in a place that has asked a lot of me and I have proven that I can do it. I can learn a language, I can live with the tensions and compartmentalize that like everybody else here does, I can go toe-to-toe with any Israeli (probably my proudest accomplishment) and I can heal from grief, wherever I am. I like the Mediterranean lifestyle here, I like the heat and the groups of old men who sit and sip tea in the heat of the day, in the shade, I like that nobody here gives a good god damn about Hollywood, I love the bath water warm Mediterranean Sea, I love that Israelis put a huge amount of stock in loyalty and good food. There’s no time here for pretense. You either walk the walk or you aren’t here. So different from Los Angeles – not better – just different. Why a person would go from pain and loss TO a place as intense as Israel is totally counter-intuitive, right? I should have moved to a farm in Nebraska. Having endured more than I thought I could possibly endure – I set myself up to go through even more challenges. There has to be a reason. People often tell me I am “brave” – but I am not brave. I am coping. I just cope in odd ways. Like moving to the Middle East.
I learned that you cannot outrun grief, that you cannot expect people to feel sorry for you in a cutthroat business, as glamorous as it seems, and I have learned that I don’t really care about the tinsel hamster wheel that Hollywood is. It isn’t for me. I only care now about truth – real truth. Truth via stories. And any writer anywhere who wants to express, that is a person after the truth. I happen to be good at sussing it out and at teaching how to write and most importantly, how to get writers to feel good about the story they are telling – about their very impulse to do it – and when you get a writer feeling GOOD, then they begin to tell the truth through their writing. And if they want to get famous doing that, okay, if they want to work in Hollywood doing that okay, but underlying all of that is only one true thing: to tell our stories, to write them down – is to curate the human experience as we see it.
My experience – and it continues – has given me a deep well of empathy, a toughness, an intellectual honesty that I had been lacking before. And I think that honesty, of having lived and suffered and still not suffered a fraction as much as so many others, gives me a certain obligation to help others tell their stories, whether via a novel, a blog or a feature film script. I feel obligated to repay the universe for the lessons I have learned about love and loss, about humility, starting over, authenticity and truth. If I could paint, I would paint this story, if I could weave, I would weave this story. But I am a writer, so that is what I do.
You want to write about loss? I have experienced loss. You want to write about joy? I have experienced joy. You want to write about failure – oh, have I failed. You want to be brave – I’m right there with you, trying to be brave too.
My book, I am Not Myself: A Year Grieving Suicide, is available as an ebook on Amazon.
Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, is available on Lulu.
If you need help dealing with the pain, loss and transition around grief, please seek the help that you need. You can’t do this alone.