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 fifth and the sixth chapters of the book.
BACK TO NEW YORK
Leaving the Land of Israel to come back to New York was exceedingly difficult. I had to leave the place in which I had started to feel emotionally alive. I was not yet committed to a Torah way of life and my Jewish knowledge and experience was very basic. I did start wearing a yarmulke. My parents were not sure of what to make of my new spiritual interests and what it would mean for my future career and interpersonal relationships. From their perspective, I was an accomplished secular young man with an outstanding future. They were unaware of my spiritual emptiness as well as my poor self-esteem and emotional pain. My brother was supportive and seemed to intuitively understand what I was going through, perhaps better then I understood it myself.
Very soon, after I returned home, my mother and I were walking on Avenue U in Brooklyn. My mother decided to get takeout Chinese food for dinner from our favorite family restaurant. I was not yet keeping kosher. After the order was completed the Chinese waiter brought out the food and told us “I removed the pork” while pointing to my yarmulke. The embarrassment and shame that I felt at that moment was a powerful catalyst to continue my spiritual growth.
A few days later, I experienced some car trouble and had to go to the mechanic. A Russian Jew that my family had known for many years owned this repair shop. When he saw me wearing my yarmulke he became very irritated. He asked me, “What the hell happened to you?” I innocently said that I was exploring my roots and discovering G-d. He became overtly hostile, reached into his pocket, took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, and yelled at me, “This is my ‘g-d.’”
My new interests in Judaism were causing vibrations and ripples, everywhere I went. Everyone seemed to have an opinion of what I was doing, mostly in opposition and some in support. However, no one was neutral or indifferent. It was confusing to find out that it mattered to other people what I believe or do not believe in, and what I wear or do not wear. I even had to tell someone close to me, “Don’t make me choose between you and G-d because you will lose.” The situation became very uncomfortable, and I was glad to move to Buffalo and escape the constant scrutiny.
SHUFFLE OFF TO BUFFALO
I moved to Buffalo, New York in August 1995 to start med- ical school. I had long hair, and wore ripped jeans and a big yarmulke. Medical school was difficult. The volume of information that had to be learned daily was overwhelming. In the first year of school, we had to take a course called Gross Anatomy. In this course, we dissected a dead human body. The body assigned to me was a 70-year-old man who had died from lung cancer. Before every dissection, the anatomy professor would lecture to us and demonstrate how to perform the required procedure. One day, I walked into the lecture hall and saw human heads on the table. The professor proceeded to demonstrate what needed to be done. Afterward, I returned to the body assigned to me and performed the required dissection. For the next week, I walked around the anatomy lab with half of someone’s face in my hands.
This macabre experience made me become obsessed with fundamental questions of the human condition. What separates me from this piece of meat in my hands? What keeps me in dynamic equilibrium and homeostasis? What happens after death? What does it mean to be Jewish? Is there a universal code of right and wrong? If G-d exists, what does He want from me?
I reached out to Rabbi Gurary, the Chabad rabbi I had met in Jerusalem, and started to occasionally visit his synagogue. I still struggled with faith in G-d and the belief that He cares about the details of what I do. I still did not observe the laws of Shabbos and kashrus
kashrus:The biblical dietary laws of “keeping kosher,” which include not eating shellfish and pork, and not eating dairy and meat/poultry at the same meal. ↩︎
On January 6, 1996, there was a historic blizzard in the Northeast with over four feet of snow blanketing the area. I called my father in Brooklyn to say hello. He picked up the phone and did not sound right. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that he was shoveling snow off his car and had started to feel sick. He had just come home, he heard the phone ring, and it was me. I asked him what he was feeling. He said that he had chest pain and trouble breathing. I told him that he may be having a heart attack and that he should call an ambulance. He put the phone down and called 911. A few minutes later, I called him back. He was feeling worse, getting more anxious and afraid. I asked him to say Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Translated, this means, “Hear O Israel, G-d is our G-d; He is One.” This is the fundamental proclamation of Jewish faith in G-d’s unity and, at the time, it was the only prayer that I knew by heart. My father repeated it, word for word. To my knowledge, that was the first time my father prayed. The ambulance arrived within five minutes of his call, and he was taken to Coney Island Hospital. As he was being wheeled into the emergency room, his heart went into ventricular fibrillation and he clinically died. However, since he was in the emergency room, the doctor was able to shock his heart and give him the appropriate medications. His heart started to beat normally again, and he was revived. My father had experienced a serious heart attack and he was transferred to the cardiac care unit.
While this was all happening, I was in Buffalo, completely unaware of his condition. I could not reach any relatives for an update and felt helpless. This was the first time in my life that I sincerely and heartfully prayed to G-d. I was four hundred miles away and could do nothing except beg the Creator that my father should live.
After a few days, my father was discharged from the hospital in stable condition and told to follow up with an interventional cardiologist at New York University Medical Center. My father had a cardiac catheterization the following week, and the results showed that he would need to have open-heart surgery to repair the blocked arteries. He came home and began to prepare for what needed to be done. The next day, the doctor called him and said that there had been a mistake and a mix-up with the results. He did not need surgery but required only medicine to control his condition.
Within a few weeks of my father’s heart attack, my parents put up mezuzot in their apartment. I asked my father what he remembered of his death experience and he said that he saw nothing. It seems to me that G-d got my father’s attention and he had become motivated to grow.
I was deeply affected by what had happened to my father. I felt that G-d had answered my prayers. My father’s heart attack solidified my faith in G-d and my desire to live according to Jewish law. I began to attend synagogue daily, wore tzitzit, bought tefillin, and started to keep kosher and Shabbos. Around this time, I had the good fortune of meeting Rabbi Heschel Greenberg. Rabbi Greenberg, a Lubavitcher shliach in Buffalo, became one of the most influential people in my life. Rabbi Greenberg and his wife opened their home, family, and hearts to me. They fed my body and soul. I spent almost every Shabbos and Yom Tov at their house and started to learn and internalize the nuances of Jewish observance. Rabbi Greenberg exposed me to the deepest Chassidic teachings. He also told me that he feels that I have a grandfather somewhere in heaven looking after me. I felt my soul flowing through me for the first time, and prayer became an integral part of my daily routine. Something extremely powerful had been unleashed within me and it was all-encompassing. For the first time in my life, I truly believed in G-d and wanted to live according to His will.
mezuzah (pl.: mezuzot): Small, rolled parchment scrolls inscribed with passages from the Torah—including the Shema prayer said by my father at the time of his heart attack—that Jews affix in a protective cover to the doorposts of their homes in accordance with biblical instructions (Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20). ↩︎
tzitzit: string fringes attached to certain corners of garments worn by Jewish men and boys, in fulfillment of biblical commandments (Deuteronomy 22:12 and Numbers 15:37–41). ↩︎
tefillin (“Phylacteries”—English word derived from the Greek word for “amulets”): black leather, cube-shaped vessels containing parchment scrolls with biblical passages (Exodus 12:1–10 and 13:11–16, and Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21), strapped onto the head, arm, and hand of Jewish men as part of morning prayers on weekdays, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:8 and
11:18, and Exodus 13:9 and 13:16. ↩︎
shliach (pl.: shluchim): Among Chassidic Jews in the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition, a shliach is an emissary or agent of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, assigned to encourage, educate, and uplift Jews in the locality to which they have been sent ↩︎
Yom Tov: Any holiday period on the Jewish calendar. ↩︎
At around this time, my mother called me, and she was very upset. My brother had stopped eating in the house and was smuggling kosher food into his room. She found wrappers and other evidence of my brother’s “contraband.” My mother told me that I had to fix this so that my brother could eat in the house. I called an organization called Go Kosher and a nice elderly religious couple from Crown Heights came to my parents’ home to teach them about the laws of kashrus. Whenthey were ready, my parents obtained new pots, cutlery, and kitchen utensils. Then the blowtorch crew came to the house and transformed their oven and stove, and the rest of their kitchen, to a kosher one.
My brother was in public high school at that time. He and I pressured my parents and they agreed to allow him to enroll in a Jewish school. My brother transferred to Torah Academy of Brooklyn. My brother found Jewish observance intuitively natural. He is now married, fully observant, and a Jewish scholar.
At this time I was in my second semester of the first year of medical school. School was going well, and summer break was approaching. I was spending a lot of time at the Greenberg home and my Jewish knowledge was expanding. I knew that I wanted to live an observant Jewish life but was not yet sure where in the Jewish world I fit in. Most of my exposure was through Chabad-Lubavitch. While I loved what I was learning and experiencing, I was aware of other approaches in Yiddishkeit. I spoke to Rabbi Greenberg and he encouraged me to explore other options. I found out about a program called Jewish Learning Experience at a yeshivah called Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. At this point, I cut off my long hair and started to dress in a more mature way: no more ripped jeans.
In the summer of 1996, I returned to Jerusalem and studied for two months at Ohr Somayach. I enjoyed the yeshivah’s emphasis on Talmudic studies and Jewish law. However, I missed the Chassidic and mystical learning that I had become accustomed to with Rabbi Greenberg. My experience in Ohr Somayach solidified my desire to become a Lubavitcher (Chabad) Chassid.
Yiddishkeit (literally, “Jewishness”): The traditional Jewish lifestyle and experience. ↩︎