Let the chips fall

Jerusalem resident and community pillar Barak Hullman writes about living life with no regrets.

Taking things slowly in Jerusalem: Barak Hullman, holding a copy of his new memoir (photo credit: ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN)
Taking things slowly in Jerusalem: Barak Hullman, holding a copy of his new memoir
Barak Hullman is the kind of guy who could have been a motivational speaker, if motivational speakers were laid-back mensches who talked about hassidism.
Hullman possesses a kind of unassuming charisma that makes you feel that everything is going to be all right and lends his storytelling an affable earnestness. Hullman loves stories; he thrives on them and recalls them in near perfect detail.
During our interview, I was on the receiving end of some of those stories, beginning in North Miami Beach, where Hullman was raised in a Reform Jewish family. His first experience in Israel came in high school, when he participated in a program called Alexander Moss High School in Israel. Those two months in Hod Hasharon changed his life; he emphasizes that he is still in touch with his teacher from that period.
Upon returning, he decided that he wanted to be a Reform rabbi and quickly informed his family’s rabbi of this choice.
“I started going to the local Chabad House to learn more about Jewish life, since all I knew was Reform,” Hullman says.
“After seven days a week in this Reform synagogue for my whole life, I knew nothing, I was shocked. I thought I could get up and lead the service. I came back to my family’s rabbi, and he told me that Chabad does their thing and we do ours. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be an ignoramus.’ So I went back again and again to the Chabad House.”
As fate would have it, Hullman met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, shortly thereafter on what was otherwise a trip to check out Rutgers University with his father. Hullman had no idea who he was or what a rebbe was, but he felt that the encounter was significant.
Upon leaving 770 Eastern Parkway, the rebbe’s residence, someone handed Hullman a brochure, explaining that the rebbe was the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
“From that point on, I just connected with Chabad. So I went from Reform to Chabad, which might be extreme, but I never saw myself as a full-fledged Chabadnik wearing a fedora.”
Hullman attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he pursued a BA in Islamic Studies. He spent his junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, which he cites as a particularly influential chapter in his life. The Jewish community in Edinburgh is quite small. Hullman baked hallot every Friday because there was no kosher bakery; he was plugged into every facet of Jewish life there. In the summer, he found his way back to Israel by joining the Livnot U’Lehibanot program in Safed.
“I saw everyone becoming religious too quickly, so I was convincing people to drop everything except for one mitzva and they kicked me off the program for that. Many years later, I ran into the whole staff at a wedding and they said how happy they were that I was still religious and living in Israel. They thought they blew it with me! But I always took everything very slowly. It’s a constant progress forward with my whole religious life.”
Upon returning to Rutgers for his senior year, he became even more involved with Chabad; thus the transition and the journey into religious life was officially under way.
HULLMAN’S DREAM at that time was to get into Princeton University for graduate school. It was the perfect antidote to being a subpar student in high school, he thought. After graduating from Rutgers, Hullman applied to Princeton and found his way back to Israel again while awaiting his fate. He joined a program on Kibbutz Shluhot near Beit She’an, where he spent the majority of his days listening to Israeli radio and reading Hebrew newspapers in a devoted effort to learn Hebrew. It paid off.
Then his graduate school dreams came true when he was admitted to Princeton for a master’s in Islamic studies. However, during his first year, a friend named Yochanan Friedman who was a professor at the Hebrew University said that they needed an editor for the Islamic studies journal. Hullman was offered a full scholarship to finish his degree, a grant for his work, plus his own office and a decent salary. He accepted the offer after only one year at Princeton; it was too good to pass up.
“So I came to Israel in 1994, which was when the bus bombings started. I thought about the Oslo Accords and that it was the best time to come here. I was very left-wing at the time; not anti-Israel, very Zionist, but I was young and naive and believed everyone would live in peace.”
The first bus bombing that Hullman witnessed was right after he arrived at Hebrew University. There were two No. 18 buses; he got on the second one because the first was full. Sitting in the front, he watched the first bus blow up. One of his classmates was paralyzed and later died. Much to Hullman’s surprise, they still had class that day. As his teachers said, Israelis are tough and they keep on going.
For the next 10 years, Hullman was unable to ride the bus. He finally forced himself and has now gotten over the trauma. He witnessed another bombing in front of his office in Davidka Square, where a bus was blown up right in front of his building.
“I walked out and there were body parts everywhere. I didn’t know what to do or how to comprehend what I was looking at. But within seconds, people were coming from all over the place to help those who were still alive.”
Despite these atrocities, there was more light than darkness. Hullman noticed a beautiful woman roaming the halls of Hebrew University. They began talking. He learned her name was Noga and that they lived in the same dorm; she on the religious women’s floor and he on the religious men’s. He left a note asking if she would go out with him. She responded with a note in the affirmative.
When the two eventually married, Noga compiled all of the notes he wrote, hundreds in total.
“I probably understood about 70% of what she said when we first started dating. But I tried my best. Three weeks in, she said, ‘Okay let’s get married.’ I told her I wasn’t ready for that, but she said that’s how things work in the religious world in Israel. She said either we get married or we break up. So we broke up. But a couple of days later, she came back and asked me how much time I needed. I said I needed a year. She agreed, only if we got engaged after six months. So we did. I said to myself at the time, ‘If you don’t marry her, you’re an idiot. What more could you ask for in a person?’ Okay, if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but thankfully it did.
“Figure it out when you get there is the story of my life. I throw myself into something and figure it out after. Jump out of the plane and find the parachute on the way down. I never question whether I’m going to land. Emuna [faith] and bitahon [security] are part of my nature, but I’ve also developed them over the years.”
HULLMAN’S CHILDREN used to watch Gordon Ramsay’s popular cooking show, MasterChef. The chefs all prepare their food with a limited amount of time. Once the timer goes off, that’s it. Hullman views this as how he lives his life. He knows he won’t live forever, so he does as much as he can with the time allotted. When his friend’s father died at 62 a few years ago, it shook him. Hullman was 42 at the time. He decided he would do something he had always dreamed of and write a book.
He began composing a philosophy of life, using stories as examples, and gave it to Noga to read. She said that the stories were much more interesting than the philosophy, and encouraged him to focus on writing a book of stories.
“My life is one big story, so I thought about the people and places that made an impact on me. Then I thought about a message I wanted to give over and sought a story to showcase that. It’s a book of stories with messages. The main message is inspirational: ‘You’re on a timer; do it now. Whatever it is that you really want to do, do it. Be responsible, don’t abandon your family or anything like that, but do whatever it is that you’ve always wanted to do.’ I’ve gotten feedback from people that it has changed their lives. One guy left a big, fancy business to run Birthright trips. Others have been inspired to write books of their own.”
The writing process took more than three years. Hullman went to Trattoria Haba, a restaurant in Mahaneh Yehuda, every Sunday for a set amount of time to write. There is even a short story in the book about these weekly writing dates. He ended up with 60 stories, 52 of which were included. After many revisions and edits, and a total of four years, he was ready to send Figure It Out When You Get There to publishers. Most didn’t respond, and the ones that did, declined, citing Hullman’s lack of a platform.
“They said, ‘No one knows you and no one is going to publish this.’ I’m not an established blogger or personality. So I researched what publishing companies actually do for you, and found that self-publishing is really the new way of publishing, but you have to make it look professional, as good as a real publishing company would.”
So Hullman created his own publishing house through Amazon called Pike & Vagenheim. He and Noga came up with the name from Martha Stewart’s magazine, which Noga loves. She opened up to the editors’ names and they picked the two least Jewish sounding ones.
“I’ve actually had people ask me to publish their books through P&V and I had to reject them. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hullman has been making his living as an Internet marketer for many years. Thus, he was able to expertly navigate the waters of self-publishing his first memoir. He found freelancers on websites such as 99Designs and Fiverr.
“One woman who I used as a freelance editor was inspired to leave her job and become a full-time freelance editor. I quoted her on the back of the book. It’s how I live my life. I want to live with no regrets and I think I have at this point, thank God.”
Hullman’s other passions are cooking and ceramics. He learned to cook as a boy. Both of his parents worked long days and he was sick of eating frozen food. So he learned to cook for himself and continues to this day.
Ceramics came later in life, about 15 years ago, when Noga bought him a month in the studio. He has been doing it ever since and has a real talent for it, as anyone who has been to the Hullman home can attest. It is perhaps all the more fitting that these two hobbies are harmonious; falling into place as if it were meant to be that way is his trademark style.
Hullman also leads weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at Mayanot Synagogue in Rehavia. This was also something that just sort of happened, and then he figured it out. In 2000, Mayanot needed someone to lead and Hullman was chosen, although he had no prior experience. He would practice in his office for 10 hours a week, listening to Shlomo Carlebach tapes on repeat. After about a year, he got the hang of it, and now, Mayanot is packed to capacity every Friday night.
Inspired by his time listening to Carlebach and by the teachings he was learning at that time, Hullman yearned to find a rabbi. Since Carlebach had died, he wrote to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (of the Jewish Renewal movement) and asked if he would take on the role, since he was one of Carlebach’s closest friends. Schachter-Shalomi responded that Hullman didn’t need him; he had Rabbi Sholom Brodt right in Nahlaot.
“So I went to Brodt’s house and asked him to be my rabbi. He said, first, not to call him Rabbi Brodt, but Sholom. He said he was not anyone’s rabbi, but that he would be my friend and we would help each other out. I thought that sounded pretty good. He invited me to attend his weekly class and also to learn one-on-one with him on Shabbos mornings at 7:45 a.m., and we did for 18 years. He was my friend, my rabbi, my teacher and my mentor. We were very close. Then he got sick and ended up in the hospital last year. When he passed away, I cried for months.”
Hullman wanted to share a story about their time together and Noga suggested he share it on Facebook. So he did, and people loved it. Hullman ended up writing a story every day for six months, with an overwhelming response.
“I wrote until I literally couldn’t think of anything else. People called me from all over, mainly the US and Canada, and said that the stories meant so much. It was suggested that I compile them into a book and publish it on his first yahrzeit. So I’m editing it now and putting the final touches on it.”
The book, titled A Shtikl Sholom, will be published in two months, in time to mark one year since Brodt’s death.
It’s safe to say that no matter what life has in store next for Hullman, or how much time is left on the clock, he will continue to roll with the punches – and, you know, figure it out.
For more information: barakhullman.com