On a Friday night in March 1995, I met Leonarto August aka Shimon Saadi at the Westwood Chabad. He was an Israeli movie director who made his living selling electronics. I lived with him until May 31, 1996.
He often told people he was from Italy, thus the fake name Leonarto August.
Shimon (1994-95) said he sensed something sweet about my aura. I was living out of my car at the time. He invited me to move in with him in exchange for helping him twenty hours a week with a screenplay.
I was amazed by Shimon's success with women. They flocked to him. I heard he had a prodigious endowment.
A couple of times I got Shimon's leftovers, for which I'm eternally grateful because these ladies were hot.
He was also blessed with some keen perceptions into life. He had a mystical gift. He taught me many practical things, including that I could call my credit card company if I felt I had gotten ripped off on a purchase (this saved me hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars).
I helped him too. One Shabbos afternoon, I bailed him out of jail. He'd been pulled over by the cops and because he had unpaid traffic tickets, he was jailed.
He had a daughter (circa 11yo) from his first marriage. She lived in South Africa.
Shimon said he'd been with about 500 women in his life.
We'd go to Jewish singles events and I'd get nothing and he'd get blown in the parking lot.
I've never been blown in a parking lot.
Shimon returned to Israel in the summer of 1996. Essentially secular when I met him, he eventually became Orthodox. He davened regularly at the Kabbalah Centre (picture) on Robertson Drive and took classes in Jewish mysticism.
Shimon had a friend named Robert Goodman, who was vastly more successful and classy than we were. Robert was finishing off a documentary (1996's Choke) on no-holds-barred fighting centered on Rickson Gracie.
Shimon borrowed Robert's money and his Mac computer which we used to write a never-finished screenplay. I also used it to write most of my first book.
After Shimon and I moved, I rarely saw Rob (the last time was probably 1999).
I always felt out-classed when I talked to him. I felt like he was leagues above me socially.
He had a girlfriend that I still see in Jewish life. I feel like she's leagues above me socially.
Shimon had a girlfriend who married a friend of mine.
Rob Goodman and I met up again Wednesday night, April 26, 2006. We talked for almost two hours at my hovel.
He gave me a copy of his 24-minute documentary 180 Degrees to Jerusalem. It's hilarious.
The old hustler Shimon, now about 46, has turned charedi (ultra-Orthodox) and now goes by "Shimon Sade." He's remarried and has four kids. He looks as grumpy as ever. In his own way, he's probably still hustling the Israeli welfare system to get by financially. The clothes change but Shimon's tendencies to mysticism and fanaticism don't.
The Hebrew version of the documentary played on Channel 2 in Israel. Now it's seeking an English-language American release.
Rob's the narrarator, and strictly speaking, most of the documentary is about him, though it's posed as a search for his old friend Shimon.
I don't have a lot of friends, so I hope nothing here costs me my chance at a new one in Rob.
"Wow," he writes me Thursday morning, "I don't think I've ever been blogged."
Rob begins the documentary: "Page one. The family photo album. My great grandparents escaping Europe."
Rob was initially going to do a documentary on the visit to Israel and search for spirituality by the adopted daughter of Roseanne Barr. He got 40 hours of footage of her over two weeks but it was dull. So by piecing together his family's photos and home movies with his wedding video and a few interviews, Goodman made something completely different.
Rob: "They came for the promise of the new world. The irony is that they only exchanged one ghetto for another. My grandfather...was just another immigrant kid trying to get uptown. And that he did. He never looked back.
"By the mid-thirties, he and his brother were the biggest rubber importers on the East Coast.
"Sidney Segal had arrived.
"Fast-forward to the sixties. My turn. [Rob's born around 1963.] Long Island homes. Summer camp. Games at the club.
"Religion? My grandfather and his pals invented the three-day-a-year Jew thing [Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur]. And that's what he passed on to us.
"The American dream -- make up the rules as you go."
The screen flashes to pictures of LA highway interchanges.
"So of course I ended up in LA -- the world capitol of calling your own shots, inventing myself as I went along. That's where I met Shimon Saadi, an Israeli ex-pat living on nothing but balls and an expired Israeli tourist visa. My grandfather all over again. I couldn't help but look up to him."
Shimon's friend: "Shimon's out there hustling around, trying to scrape together money. He thinks he's going to come over and get over. Everyone's a millionaire. He's going to outhustle everyone. But this is a city built on hustlers."
Rob: "I swore that if anyone was going to pull it off, it was him. And for a while, he did. Then it all went to hell.
"Shimon and a few of his Israeli buddies tailed a group of starlets to the Kabbalah Centre. The beginning of the end."
Shimon's friend: "He would probably tell you himself that in the beginning it was so he could meet chicks. So he could hang out. And then it took over and he was hooked."
Rob: "Was it something they were putting in the water? Because after a month at the Kabbalah Centre, the chicks were out, the Zohar was in, and Shimon wasn't returning my calls.
"From there, it was only a matter of time until he was keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke, and praying non-stop. And before I knew it, he was on a plane back to Israel.
"That's not the way it is supposed to happen. What if my grandfather had given up and gone home? What happened to Shimon?
"I dropped everything and followed Shimon back for some answers."
Rob visits the town where Shimon grew up and Shimon's old shul. The town is a dump. Only old men go to the shul.
Rob visits "what everyone says is the heart of the new movement -- The Purple Festival [at Atlit Beach in Israel."
A wave hits some of the women and they start choking on sea water. The men, 20 feet away, rush over and help their big-breasted Israeli sisters and bring them to shore.
Rob: "No wonder the old synagogue is empty. I'm all for smoking weed and dancing but when did that become religion?"
This festival is filled with hot chicks. It's presided over by homely old folks such as Gafni. Why must he get all the hot chicks? What happened to "From each according to his ability to each according to his need?"
Gafni: "Let's say, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Shabbat shalom."
Rob: "Me and my friends chose Disneyland over Jerusalem for our bar mitzvah trips. All Yom Kippur meant was sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway and going to our cousins in the city.
"My grandparents died maybe 20 blocks from where they landed."
Aish Ha Torah Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser (formerly Johnny Glaser, surfer): "This is Judaism and there's nothing else really. You're either in or you're out."
Aish Rabbi Avi Geller: "What do you really know about the essence of God?"
Rob: "Mix an identity crisis, a slick talker and a few select Bible quotes and the statistical chances are 23.7% that you'll succeed in adding a member to the team. And that's the program whether it is Aish Ha Torah, the Kaballah Centre or Scientology. Belonging feels good."
Rabbi Avi Geller: "A Jew has a more sensitive soul."
Rob: "It's not breaking news that my friend Shimon became religious after he woke up one morning in LA and saw 40-year old hustler staring him in the eye. And didn't like him."
Rob: "It gave Shimon shivers that men and women weren't separated and women were singing and other things that weren't by the book.
"He made his choice. And I made mine."
Robert Raphael Goodman (email@example.com) Interview
I've known him since 1995. He's produced three movies (and directed two of those three, both documentaries).
I interview him by phone Friday morning, April 28, 2006.
Luke: "How did you come to make the [24-minute documentary] 180 Degrees to Jerusalem?"
Rob: "After I arrived in Israel [in 1999], I got approached by Guy Lieberman, a Jewish guy from South Africa who's spent a lot of time in India. Together we came up with this idea of making a spiritual tour of Israel.
"The vehicle that I then thought would be interesting was Brandi Barr, Roseanne Barr's [adopted] daughter. She'd come to Israel for a year and I'd follow her from time to time as she made her way through the country.
"Then she got scared and didn't want to come. She had a boyfriend.
"She finally came for two weeks for a whirlwind superficial tour. I got 40 hours of bad footage. Just shots of her going, 'Wow. Cool. That's great.'
"I had a lot of bad experiences with the Israeli film industry. This one Israeli producer (Zafrir Kochanovsky) tried to crucify me about it.
"I broke with him after a horrible legal fight and came up with this other idea of a film based on four pictures of Shimon, my wedding video and my family's 16mm films. I made a film that illustrated the same point. It was shorter than I expected. Instead of 60-80 minutes, it was 25-minutes for that slot on TV. Israel's Channel 2 jumped in with a bunch of money."
Luke: "Why didn't you interview Shimon Sade and follow him around with your camera?"
Rob: "To interview Shimon without telling him what the film was about would've been dishonest. I pushed to that line in the way I did it where I made a film about him without him participating or even knowing about it.
"He was dishonest with me. When I first came to Israel, he was in this little office outside the shuk in Jerusalem and he was doing commercials for United Torah Judaism, the Israeli religious party, and other little documentaries. He did this little promotional film they have in this tourist place outside the Wailing Wall. Kids from America watch this film before they go through the tunnels and learn about its history.
"A religious organization puts it out and it is basically testimonies from Jews who have some sort of spiritual catharsis at the Wall. He basically gave me a script. 'I want you to say this.' It was based on truth but was not truth. He wanted me to exaggerate. I had a friend who married a Christian girl and how upset I was by that, and how upset his parents were, and how we all learned a lesson from that.
"He manipulated. He said it was just for himself. He was going to cut that part out. We were rolling, unbeknownst to me, while we were having a conversation about something else.
"In the end, he used all that material for the promotional video."
Luke: "He would not have given you an interview if you had told him honestly what you were doing?"
Rob: "Probably not. I didn't want to open the can of worms. I just didn't want to talk to him about it. Once I told him what I was doing, whether or not he agreed to be in it, it would've been another problem I didn't want to deal with."
Luke: "How did Shimon like the video?"
Rob: "I heard he didn't like it. I haven't spoken to him about it. It was three months before I left Israel.
"I heard he was offended by it. For Shimon, not only did I put his picture on Channel 2 without his permission, but I put a picture of him when he was secular in funny positions."
Luke: "When did your friendship with Shimon end and what killed it?"
Rob: "It never really ended. After my wedding, we had a blowup on the phone. I told him that his behavior at my wedding was outrageous. As you see in the photos, he was really moping around and shaking his head 'No, no, no' in an inappropriate way. It kinda put a black cloud over the thing, though not really. We had a good time. Not everyone was paying attention.
"When we started to speak about it and I told him it was awful, he pulled back a layer of opaqueness about how direct he is in his proselytizing, and what he really thinks of secular people. He started to insult me. He said my wife was the best wife I could get outside of the religious. 'She's a good one in your world.' You can hear him saying it, right?"
I'm laughing. "Yeah."
Rob: "There's an image that religious people use that he used. That I'm really like a baby.
"I challenged him on halakhic [Jewish law] things, such as that a man is not supposed to hear a woman sing [because it arouses lustful thoughts]. But it's not black and white. Different [Orthodox] rabbis I went to gave me contrasting opinions. Some say it is a woman's voice alone without musical accompaniment, without a man's voice mixed in, depending on the situation...
"Shimon told me that anyone who gave me halakhic advice only gave it to me because they thought I was a moron and were just trying to chew the bananas so the baby could eat it."
Luke: "I love it."
Rob: "My answer was, 'Go f--- yourself. Don't talk to me like that.'"
Rob and Shimon can lose their temper in frightening ways.
Rob: "We got into it. Shimon really lost his temper. I can't ever remember him losing his temper.
"He was just hammering the point. I was hammering the point. We came to hard feelings.
"He said the rabbi deceived me. That the rabbi should be kicked out of the rabbinut.
"April 2005, was the last time I saw Shimon. I went to Jerusalem and sat in his office. He kinda apologized. He said he didn't remember saying those things.
"When you're with religious people like that who are trying to convert you, every personal encounter you have with them, every way they are is only a strategy. If they have to be soft and nice, they're soft and nice, but it's not a real relationship."
Luke: "How should Shimon have appropriately protested your wedding?"
Rob, after a long pause: "I guess he should not have called attention to himself at the chupa (wedding canopy). He should've acted cooler. It wasn't his day.
"Hang on a second. Someone's at the door.
"I'm with Luke Ford. The blogger.
"Second. Shimon and I have had years of religious debates. It's one of the foundations of our relationship. We could've discussed that too."
Luke: "In the final analysis, did you not really know Shimon because [it was obvious he was going to act this way]?"
Rob: "No. I do know him. He just acted badly. He's the same guy. Just give him an honest pill."
Luke: "Has religion made Shimon a finer, kinder person?"
Luke: "How did you meet Shimon?"
Rob: "Shimon was dating a friend of mine, a black woman, in 1993. She brought him over to my house."
Luke: "What was the basis of your friendship with him?"
Rob: "Shimon was an exciting and fun-loving guy. He wasn't playing by the same rules as everyone else was.
"One of the themes of the documentary is the rules we choose to live by in life. Shimon went by one set of rules while he was living in LA, rules I found attractive because of my background, to another set of rules, charedi (fervent) Judaism. How you get out of bed in the morning. Which arm you raise first.
"That's what the Aish guys say in their crazy idiotic way."
Luke: "What was your relationship to Aish HaTorah?"
Rob: "I had no relationship to Aish HaTorah. I davened (prayed) there maybe twice. I didn't really like it.
"In Israel, my friend Guy Lieberman, the hippy religious guy in Sfat, knew them. He knows everyone. They are so hungry to promote themselves. When they meet me and I'm so charming, letting me go in and film their classes, they just loved it."
Luke: "How did they react afterwards?"
Rob: "I heard through Guy that they didn't like it because it wasn't good for Aish.
"If I ran into [Rabbi] Yom Tov [Glaser] on the street, he'd be perfectly nice. He'd say he kinda liked things about it. Maybe he wouldn't.
"When I met Shimon, I started going to the Kabbalah Centre. I never got too religious. I read a lot. My wife and I are moderately traditional. She has 60 first cousins. One lives here and is charedi.
"I love the Kabbalah Centre. I love the people at the Kabbalah Centre. I was very good friends with the rabbi's two sons -- Michael and Yehuda. We played golf often.
"I felt like I was in a cult. It was embarrassing. I immediately cut any involvement."
Rob says he never wore the red string. He bought their expensive edition of the Zohar.
Luke: "Did you run your fingers over the Hebrew letters [to get good vibes]?"
Rob: "No. My basis is rational. I don't have a spiritual or belief basis."
Luke: "Are there any common threads between this and your first documentary (Choke)?"
Rob laughs. "My body of work, Luke...
"There's a theme about fairness and does might make right. I focused on the guy who is the best at [no-holds-barred] fighting and though he partakes in this mega-violence, he does it in a cool Zen-like ironic way. He's a super-amazing character, plus he's very handsome and has an amazing body. He fights in a very athletic cool way.
"It's about fear and might and rationalization. In a way, religion is about the same thing. It boils down to some kind of fear, of death, of the unknown. Rules. What rules do we choose? What rules are written in stone?
"The rules Shimon lives his life by are self-imposed rules that can be interpreted in different ways. He's made a choice, or, as it says in my movie, you can just jerk off forever."
Luke: "How did Shimon's becoming religious affect your friendship?"
Rob: "Negatively. We would've been better friends if he had not become religious. It was the beginning of the disintegration of the bond between us. We were friends and not just him trying to convince me of something. With his strong personality, he wouldn't take no for an answer. That's probably why he was successful with girls. He was there to win.
"It's like we wonder why Mike Tyson lives a crazy life and gets in fights in alleys. He just wants to hit people."
Luke: "How did Roseanne Barr and her daughter Brandi react?"
Rob: "I had no contact with Roseanne. The producer only wanted her in the film. She was the only reason he got involved.
"Once Brandi came to Israel, our relationship also disintegrated. It was boring and expensive. I saw that the film was going nowhere quickly. I came to resent her. She left unhappy. We've been in minimal contact since.
"I interviewed her family, all her sisters. It was meaningless, just dopey housetalk."
Luke: "Tell me about that scene where men and women run naked into the Mediterranean."
Rob: "Mordecai Gafni was giving a lecture to 75 people sitting cross-legged in the sand. It was on the beach. The lecture was about water. He talked about mikveh and he talked about going into the Mediterranean as a mikveh. They all marched out of the tent banging on drums and singing mayim, mayim, mayim.
"The men went straight and took off the clothes. The women went 20 yards down the beach, took off their clothes, most of them, and ran into the water and formed a circle and did immersions and said certain meditations.
"The waves started getting stronger. The Mediterranean is rough. The girls started going under. A rescue had to be made. The men had to run into the sea and drag these girls out and bang on their chests, put them on the sand, and take water out of their chests. If only I had gotten that on film, I would've made a long scene out of that, but the cameraman and I ran into the ocean to help rescue the women.
"Then Gafni gets up when the Sabbath comes in and sings and does the L'chai dodi and bounces around on stage."
Luke: "Did your work on the 180 Degrees documentary change you?"
Rob: "I came to a certain peace with my resentment of Shimon. Now I've said my piece and he saw it. I made a film through the Israeli system which is impossible. I had a lot of hard relationships along the way. It's a hard place to work.
"Many times my back was against the wall. There was no money, no footage, it was dead, it was going to suck, my career was over. In the end, the film worked."
June 27, 2006
Rob tells me about his trip last week.
Rob: "My friend Guy Lieberman [helped] me meet with Zalman Shachter-Shalomi at his house for about half an hour. I interviewed him for my other movie (180 Degrees to Jerusalem). He didn't remember."
Luke: Did you interview him on camera?
Rob: "Not on camera. He recorded it on a tape recorder because he was very suspicious about my coming because everyone reads your blog. Maybe one person reads your blog and tells everybody else but they are all aware of what I said and wrote on your blog. They were nervous, apprehensive, fearful, angry at me, as you said they would be.
"I asked him, 'If you wrote this letter that you'd done your own research, Gafni's innocent, anyone who speaks against him is speaking lashon hara, the people who attack Gafni (you and Vicki Polin) are out of your minds and wrong, and you stand behind Gafni 100%... He put his name on the letter.
"He doesn't seem to remember it. He offered a bunch of explanations as to why: One. Rabbis he trusted, like-minded people, endorsed the letter. Two. He had personal experience with Gafni. Reb Zalman's daughter was shown the light by Gafni. She was secular. She went to a Gafni event and over time became spiritual, religious and leads a meaningful life now. Three. Gafni was doing a lot of good for the Renewal movement. He was attracting a lot of people. They were getting their message out more clearly because Gafni was a part of the team.
"Reb Zalman didn't understand why I was making such a big deal about it. I said that once they made the letter public, it was a letter intended for the public, once they make these proclamations, they have to be accountable for them when it turns out they were wrong.
"You can't talk about your personal healing. You have to talk about the course of events and where you went wrong and the sort of teshuva (repentance) you're going to do. If you don't, you'll seem like the [Catholic] church or the Bush administration.
"He said, 'What do you expect me to do? What can I do? I've made my own teshuva in my own way. I've contacted people. We're speaking amongst ourselves about it.'
"He said I was belittling the situation by continuing to ask questions to which he didn't have an answer. He felt that I knew there was no answer.
"We had a nice talk about other things and that was the end of the meeting.
"Reb Zalman is a very nice man. He's very gentle and guru.
"My encounter with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone: I've never met the woman. But she read what I wrote on your blog. I saw her at the screening of Guy Lieberman's film Universal Faith.
"Guy told me she was on a seven day fast. She did not want to meet me. She felt that I had come aggressively. I did not press her."
Predator Rabbi Mordecai Gafni's Supporters
Metuka Benjamin (Director of Education, Stephen S. Wise Temple), Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Former Director Elat Chayyim summer program), Rabbi Saul Berman (Director, Edah Zivit) Davidovich (Executive Producer, Israel Channel 2 Television), Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (Congregation Nevei Kodesh), Rabbi Shefa Gold (Director C-Deep, composer and teacher), Rabbi Arthur Green (Dean, Hebrew College Rabbinical School), Rabbi Eli Herscher (Stephen S. Wise Synagogue) Arthur Kurzweil (former Director, Elat Chayyim, Jewish Book Club), Avraham Leader (Leader Minyan, Bayit Chadash) Stephen Marmer, M.D. (Psychiatrist, UCLA Medical School) Jacob Ner-David (Board Chair, Bayit Chadash) Peter Pitzele (Ph.D., Bibliodrama Institute) Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Rabbinic Chair, Aleph Don Seeman, Ph.D. Emory University) Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (author, Jewish Literacy and Jewish Wisdom) Rabbi David Zaslow (Havurah Shir Hadash) Noam Zion (Hartman Institute), signed the following letter (in early 2005 I presume) and gave it to Gafni and his supporters to distribute as widely as they say fit:
So now when someone such as Rob Goodman takes them (such as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone) up on their offer to contact them directly, it doesn't sound like they have much to say. Nor do they convey that they have learned anything.
Stephen Marmer, Joseph Telushkin and company made their support of Gafni public. They made harsh attacks on Vicki Polin and myself for reporting and publishing on Gafni's predatory ways. Now they want to keep silent and ask to not be held responsible for their words.
Telushkin wrote the book, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well. Marmer wrote a big fat plug for the book that was featured on the back cover.