Where did you grow up?
Los Angeles, California
How did you like it there?
Hated it. The superficiality of the Hollywood glitter culture was everywhere and inescapable. I went to a fancy prep school, which only made matters worse. I left as soon as I graduated high school.
Where did you go to college?
University of California, Davis
What was your college experience like?
Terrific. Northern California is a different world from SoCal. Slower pace of life, more down-to-earth people. I fit in much better than I did in LA. And it’s beautiful up there. The most rewarding thing I did was to train and and work as a peer counselor.
What did you like most about living in California?
The biggest advantage I discovered when I started traveling. Tell Europeans that you’re from the United States and they shrug their shoulders… or worse. But tell them you’re from California and they get very excited, as if you’re from a different planet (which isn’t far from the truth). Even around the U.S. people are fascinated by California and Californians.
How many states have you visited?
38, according to my last count, although some of them I just passed through while I was hitchhiking cross-country. The only place other than California, Georgia, and Missouri where I spent a considerable amount of time was Key West Florida, where I lived for two months.
What did you do there?
I wrote a lot, and worked for a company that transported boats seized for drug trafficking to the Coast Guard docks in northern Florida.
Why did you go hitchhiking?
When I finished college, I had no idea what I wanted to do, except to write. I also felt that my whole life had been too comfortable and too predictable. I decided that the best way to grow was to put myself in a situation of total unpredictability.
What was the hardest part about hitchhiking?
The mental exhaustion that came from never having a plan and never knowing what’s coming next. After 5 months I burned out completely and needed to go home.
What was the best part?
Learning to cope with uncertainty and discomfort. Occasionally, I couldn’t find a place to sleep, and I had to deal with it. Also, the insights I gained into people — usually the drivers who picked me up, many of whom opened up to me in a way they didn’t to their closest friends… the “strangers on a train” principle.
How many countries have you visited?
21, on four continents. The most beautiful was Sri Lanka. The most charming was Scotland. The most fascinating was India. I lived in Israel for almost nine years, and in Hungary for a year.
What had the greatest impact on you in your travels?
I saw how mothers in India maimed their children so they would become better beggars transposed against the fairy-tale beauty of the Taj Mahal; I met a poor tea plantation worker in Sri Lanka giddy with pleasure at having a guest in his hovel; I saw children living in a Manila tenement so filled with infectious joy that I didn’t want to leave. And, while hitchhiking, I heard endless narratives from lonely drivers complaining about their wives, their children, and their jobs. It struck me that the people with every reason to be unhappy were often much happier than the rest of us.
Why did you study English?
Nothing else appealed to me. I loved to read and I loved to write. It was a natural choice, even if it didn’t lead immediately to gainful employment.
What were your first writing jobs?
I wrote commentaries for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for several years, as well as articles for Jewish print and online magazines. Many of those were adapted in my books.
How did studying English prepare you to be a rabbi?
The type of textual analysis involved in the study of literature taught me to read and think in a way similar to the approach taken in talmudic scholarship. Ultimately, literature uses storytelling to teach values and deeper truths, so the transition to Jewish studies was easier for me than it is for many, even though I had to learn a new language.
Where is your wife from, and where did you meet?
She’s from Massachusetts, and we met Israel.
Was it an arranged marriage?
We were introduced by a matchmaker, but it was our choice to marry. I had been meeting young women for a year before I was introduced to my wife. It’s a much better system, really. No game playing, no hidden agendas. We celebrated our 27th anniversary this year.
Does your religion force you to reject science or anything else in the modern world?
Just the opposite. Solid Jewish training teaches how to engage the secular world on a more objective level, evaluating what it has to offer and differentiating between what is spiritually, emotionally, and morally beneficial and what is harmful, dangerous, and deceptive. A proper understanding of religious teachings can lead to a more informed, balanced, and rewarding life.