In 2018, Dr. Vladimir Zelenko published an autobiographical book Metamorphosis, in which he talks about how he, being a completely non-religious young man, came to faith, and how he overcame a serious illness. The book has multiple positive reviews online and was well received by the readers all around the world.
Today, we are publishing the third and the fourth chapters of the book.
America was in the height of the Cold War, and being a Russian immigrant in the early 1980s made me very unpopular in school. I was bullied by other kids for being a “Russian” and soon became withdrawn and socially awkward. I was called many derogatory names and occasionally even physically pushed around. But I found comfort in my schoolwork. By the time I graduated sixth grade I was at the top of the class and was asked to be the valedictorian.
My teenage years were turbulent, and I had trouble fitting in with other kids. I always did well in school with minimal effort. However, socially, I had few friends and was very lonely. When I was thirteen years old, I got a job as a stock boy at a local high-end and very expensive clothing store. I enjoyed working and making my own money. Money was power. I would spend all my money on expensive clothes and other materialistic objects to try to feel better about myself. I foolishly thought that materialism was the cure for my low self-esteem and social awkwardness.
Over the years, I learned that materialism was only a temporary Band-Aid for my emotional pain and it was never enough. I easily became bored with “things” and always wanted more and more.
As I grew older, I gravitated toward atheism and lived a typical secular lifestyle. By the time I went to college at Hofstra University in 1991, I was a self-proclaimed atheist. I enjoyed debating with people and proving to them that G-d did not exist. I studied philosophy and was drawn to nihilistic thinkers such as Sartre and Nietzsche. I adhered to their dictum that “Hell is other people” and “Conflict is the essence of all human relationships”. This way of thinking appealed to my experience and worldview. To me, people were an obstacle blocking my path to success, so I used and objectified even those close to me. In other words, since I did not have the belief that people have a Divine spark, I had no problem treating them as animalistic adversaries. It was survival of the fittest. I was lonely and depressed. I knew I was Jewish, American, and Russian but I truly lacked any sense of identity and sense of belonging. Being Jewish meant nothing to me, and I would have intermarried if the opportunity had presented itself.
While at Hofstra, I also studied chemistry and premedical sciences. I graduated summa cum laude with high honors in chemistry and a 3.99 GPA. I was at the top of the university and received multiple academic awards. While in my third year of college, I was accepted early into the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo School of Medicine, with a scholarship. Other students admired and envied me, but I felt stupid, ugly, and lonely. I was accomplished and highly respected. Yet I was unhappy and empty. Something was seriously wrong, but I did not know what it was.
FIRST TIME IN ISRAEL
Several weeks before college graduation, my roommate informed me about a free trip to Israel for Jewish students on campus, organized by the Jewish college student organization Hillel International. Seeking something interesting to do for that last summer prior to beginning my medical studies, I signed up for the trip. I was twenty-one years old when I traveled to Israel for the first time. The purpose of my trip was to have fun and had nothing to do with spiritual self-discovery. Our guide was Rabbi Moshe Shur from Queens College Hillel (Queens, New York). Our trip exposed me to the full spectrum of Jewish life in Israel, from secular to religious. For some unknown reason, Rabbi Shur took a special interest in me and invited me to spend Shabbos with his friends in the Old City of Jerusalem. Shabbos was an unfamiliar experience for me. I was clearly out of my element and confused about what was happening. The religious rituals, the blessings, and the routine seemed bizarre and weird to me. I did not know what to do or say and was very uncomfortable. However, I did notice something very beautiful happening at the table. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy. The clothing was formal and beautiful. The smell and taste of the food were amazing. The family structure and order were perfect. The children seemed at ease and had a clear and vital role in the experience. The father asked them questions about their weekly studies. The songs were emotional and deeply penetrating. The ambience and overall emotional experience radiated tranquility and peace. Shabbos touched me deeply.
Shabbos: Yiddish form of “Shabbat,” the Jewish sabbath. ↩︎
One week later was the Jewish holiday of Shavuos. Rabbi Shur took me to the Western Wall. Thousands of Jews were wearing their prayer shawls and were in deep and fervent prayer. I was in the middle of this mass of humanity and I felt absolutely nothing. I did not understand what the purpose of prayer was. I had become accustomed to rationality and only believed in things that my finite mind could comprehend and see. I was perturbed and intrigued simultaneously by what was going on. As a scientist, I had a strong will to understand everything. I wanted to understand what these people were doing and experiencing. The next few weeks were spent traveling around the beautiful Land of Israel. I fell in love with the land. We traveled to Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius, Tzfat, the Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, Masada, Ein Gedi, Akko, and other sites. The Land of Israel seemed to exist on a completely different plane of reality. As the tour unfolded, every experience was progressively more vivid, colorful, and deeply emotionally penetrating. The place that touched me the most was the city of Tzfat. There was something unique in the air. My senses were stimulated in a way that was completely new to me. I felt alive.
After three weeks my trip was ending, and it was time to go back home. I could not leave. Something awoke in me and was pulling at my inner core. It was suprarational and not something I clearly understood. However, it did not matter. I could not leave. I spoke to Rabbi Shur about my feelings and he seemed to understand the psychodynamics at play. He got me enrolled in a program called Isralight, run by Rabbi David Aaron in the old city of Jerusalem. This institution was my first exposure to formal Jewish learning and knowledge. As a side note, I had to call my parents and let them know of my change of plans. I called my mother in New York and told her that I was not coming home with the Hillel group. She was surprised and concerned. I also spoke to my younger brother, who was fourteen years old at that time, and I told him, “I think I’ve discovered G-d.” He told to me that he had been “praying for [me] that this should happen.”
I studied at Isralight for another month while living in the Old City. I was exposed to Jewish law, Talmudic learning, and Chassidic and mystical teachings. It was truly remarkable and difficult to accurately describe the vibrations that I felt in my soul. Jewish learning was completely different from secular learning. Jewish learning penetrates the mind and heart and inspires the soul.
In addition to learning, I became more experienced with authentic Jewish life. During this time, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a deeply observant Jew and world-famous physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Schroeder is the author of several bestselling books, including Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible.
He helped me resolve my perceived contradictions between Torah ideas and current scientific knowledge by intellectually eviscerating me. He showed me that my understanding of science and the Torah was so elementary that it was the epitome of arrogance to deny faith based on my superficial understanding. After talking to him, I ran out of questions that contradicted faith. He challenged me to continue delving into the depths of physics and metaphysics. Only then would I discover the truth.
As my time at Isralight was ending, I spoke to Rabbi Aaron about continuing my Jewish education. I mentioned to him that I was moving to Buffalo to start medical school and that I was worried since I did not know anyone there to learn the Torah with. He told me that he was lecturing to a group of stu- dents and their rabbi from Buffalo that very day in the old city, and I should come along to meet them. I met Rabbi Nosson Gurary, an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rabbi Gurary became my first Jewish contact in Buffalo, New York.