I wanted to like my neighbor, I really did. But it wasn't easy.
Not long after I arrived in Israel, I bought an apartment in Jerusalem. It was small – about the size of a Manhattan studio apartment – but it was mine and I felt on top of the world.
But then there was my neighbor.
I met Albert the first week I moved in. I was working in Jerusalem with the foreign press and had gone out on assignment. I arrived home about 10:30 p.m. and as I turned the key, I heard a noise. I swung around to see a short, stocky man about 40, standing in his doorway in pajamas. "You woke me up!” he yelled, his finger stabbing wildly at the air. "Why did you come so late? You have to be home at 10 o'clock!"
I looked at him in disbelief. "You're not my father," I said. "You can't tell me what to do."
After that, he tried to be friendly. Originally from Morocco, he’d been working as a house painter but was fired after a fight with his boss. He offered to fix up my apartment. “No thanks,” I politely said. “I like my apartment just fine.”
A week later, I ran into him in the hall. It was hard not to cross paths since our doors faced each other directly, about four feet apart. He tried to make conversation.
"Look," he said, "you're alone, I'm alone. Why don't you invite me for kos café (a cup of coffee), just to be friends."
I mumbled something inane like, "I don't have any coffee."
The situation grew chillier due to my dog’s barking. Albert complained, so to keep the peace I often took the dog with me when I went out. I'd leave her in the car with all the windows open. But I couldn't take her with me all the time, especially when I had to work.
A deafening blast of noise was followed by silence, again and again.
One day I ran into my neighbor outside on the walkway. He looked at me with wild, darting eyes. I didn’t know if his fury was because of my dog or something else. He suddenly spat on the ground in front of me. I was horrified.
Things went steadily downhill after that. One day when I arrived home, I literally jumped up in alarm over a deafening blast of noise. It was coming from my neighbor's radio. Then there was silence, followed a few seconds later by another blast. This was repeated day after day. Loud, soft, loud, soft.
He’s trying to get me to move, I thought. He’s trying to drive me crazy.
His next modus operandi was to open both his door and his windows so the door would slam shut with a bang. As time went on, the more nervous I became.
When I would return home from an assignment, my neighbor would hear me come in. I would sit down but couldn't relax. I would wonder, "What's he going to do next?"
I tried contacting his social worker and a community psychiatrist to see if they could get him to move. They told me that since he had not physically injured me, there was nothing they could do.
Weeks of annoyances turned into two years of harassment. I was beginning to think maybe I was ready for the psychiatrist.
One night close to midnight, I realized I didn't have clean clothes, so I ran the washing machine. Suddenly, there was knock on the door, more like an explosion. I looked through the peephole to see Albert, his eyes bulging with rage. "Turn that machine off!" he screamed. "I can't sleep!" I apologized and turned it off immediately.
The next morning when Albert saw me, he spat on the ground and screamed, "I'm going to kill you!!" Till then it was a cold war; now it was a conflagration. I went straight to the police.
The desk officer was assertive. "This man threatened your life," he said. "You should bring charges."
I pressed charges and a court date was set. But then I began thinking. What if Albert winds up in jail? He'll be in the company of hardened criminals, and then when he gets out he'll blame me and might, God forbid, try to kill me!
I dropped the charges.
Yet I could not live with this slow torture and knew I needed advice. But from whom?
I had an unusual idea. I’m here in Israel, the land of the Bible. Why not find out what the Torah would say about this?
I had never before considered the Torah as a source of wisdom.
I surprised myself with this thought. I had never before considered the Torah as being a source of wisdom. Yet I had good feelings about Judaism because of my wonderful grandmother who observed Shabbat and kashrut and who prayed with an intensity that held me in awe.
Then I remembered having met someone named Patsy who owned a bookstore. Like me, she was an American raised as a Conservative Jew. After becoming Torah-observant, she had opened a Judaica shop.
The next morning I headed for the bookstore. "Patsy," I said, "I want a religious book. What can you suggest?"
Without missing a beat, she said, “You want A Tzaddik in Our Time, the biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin.” I stayed up till four in the morning reading this fascinating book. Granted, I couldn’t imagine reaching the high spiritual level of Rabbi Levin, but this book showed me what a human being was capable of. It inspired me to grow, to become a better person.
I went back to the bookstore the next day. "Patsy, that book was great. I'm thirsty for more.”
She directed me to a table and I couldn't believe what I saw. Staring up at me was a book called Love Your Neighbor by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. I grabbed it.
That book changed my life. One passage in particular spoke directly to me:
If you see your friend unloading his donkey, help him. But if you see your enemy unloading his donkey, first help your enemy. This way, you can overcome your bad inclination. Furthermore, by giving to your enemy, you will come to love him.
Wow. I didn't want to love my neighbor, but if I could get to like him, that would be something.
But how could I give to Albert? And if I did, how could I do it so he wouldn't misunderstand my intentions? I certainly didn't want to buy him a gift. That would be ingratiating and possibly misinterpreted.
The very next morning, as fate would have it, as I pulled out of the driveway, I saw Albert in the distance, waiting for the bus. That's it – I can give him a ride into town. As I slowly drove down the hill, I could almost hear my mother's reaction: "What do you need this for? Why look for trouble?" But I answered my mother's unspoken voice, saying to myself, If the Torah says to give to my enemy, I should do it. If I don't do it now, I may lose my chance for peace.
I pulled up to the bus stop. “Would you like a ride?” I asked Albert. He got into the car and made light conversation as though he had never harassed me, as though he wasn't my worst enemy in the world.
From that day on, I never had any problems with my neighbor.. He never complained about my dog or about anything else. Nor did he ask me again for a kos café. (He did once say, in a casual tone as if talking about the weather, "Maybe you'd like to marry me." But he never said anything further about it.)
After that, whenever I saw him, we exchanged greetings of "Shalom." Quiet, polite, two ships passing in the night.
Debt of Gratitude
Giving Albert a ride that day did more than just make peace between us. The Torah works, I remember thinking afterwards. I want more.
I enrolled in a yeshiva for women and found the classes stimulating and challenging, the way I wished my university studies had been. Slowly, slowly I began my journey, observing Shabbat and kashrut, just as my grandmother had done before me.
Eventually, I sold my apartment and returned to the U.S. I lost touch with my neighbor, but I think of him often. He nearly pushed me over the brink of sanity, but I owe him everything because he helped me discover not only God, but a part of myself I didn’t know existed.