Stranger than fiction

We were in the middle of nowhere and a delightful sense of peace and calm settled over me. The feelings of loneliness and isolation seemed to evaporate.

Annie Zlotnick at Amuka in 1987. This is the photo she sent to Robert in a strange twist of fate (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Annie Zlotnick at Amuka in 1987. This is the photo she sent to Robert in a strange twist of fate
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
It was a sweltering day in June. My entire family had gathered in Israel for the bar mitzva of my sister’s younger son, Roy. I traveled from my home in London, my parents came in from Johannesburg, and my sister and her family arrived from Dallas, Texas. The ceremony was held at the Western Wall.
After the celebrations, I decided to take my parents on a trip to the Galilee, with a stopover in Safed. We were staying at the beautiful Rimon Inn with its magnificent views across the valley to Mt. Meron. The temperature had climbed to around 35º, prompting my parents to take a nap.
I was restless. It was almost seven years since my divorce, and at age 38 I was beginning to feel a little tired of being on my own. As the only observant member of my family, I had resorted to exploring some of the spiritual options for finding a mate. It wasn’t as if I had been complacent after the divorce, but there came a time when blind dates and futile introductions blurred into the same disappointing experience.
But Safed gave me new hope. I was not a hassid. On the contrary, I come from good mitnaged Lithuanian stock, as do most South African Jews. On that afternoon I was reminded of a place called Amuka – the burial site of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel, author of Targum Yonatan and a book of Kabbala known as Megadnim. He was one of the 80 tannaim (scholars) who studied under Hillel the Elder. Legend has it that Ben Uziel had to flee from Roman persecution, and in doing so was unable to find a wife. He therefore remained single and childless, later decreeing that anyone who visited his grave (especially on his yahrzeit) would find a partner within a year of embarking on such a visit.
The idea appealed to me, so I asked the hotel receptionist for the phone number of a local cab company. A fellow by the name of Zion Cohen came to collect me. He must have been in his twenties.
He wore a crocheted kippa and was dressed like any Israeli young person – in jeans and a T-shirt. I was surprised to learn that he knew all about Amuka.
The journey was tortuous; the car negotiated hairpin bends on a dirt road that descended into the depths of a forest about eight kilometers from Safed. My impulsive whim turned out to be a costly venture: 80 shekels in those days was a relatively substantial sum.
My driver, however, did not take advantage of me. In fact he provided an excellent service – including additional ritual advice.
“Here,” he said in Hebrew, handing me a small book from the glove compartment.
“If you really want to be successful, you should say these prayers and verses of Tehillim (Psalms).”
The grave stood in a clearing, surrounded by greenery and an expansive forested area. It was covered by a white cupola that formed the covering of a makeshift synagogue divided into separate areas for men and women to pray.
In the distance one could see Mount Hermon’s snow-capped peak. Dressed in shorts, I had the chutzpah to join a haredi minyan of worshipers reciting the afternoon minha service. After chanting the additional prayers and psalms that my chauffeur had given me, I sat on a rock and admired the magnificent scenery.
We were in the middle of nowhere and a delightful sense of peace and calm settled over me. The feelings of loneliness and isolation seemed to evaporate. I returned to the hotel and found my parents at tea in the hotel garden.
“Where have you been?” they inquired.
“Oh I went to visit the grave of some famous dead rabbi,” I answered, assuming that they would not be interested in any further details.
Four months later when I was back in London I received a phone call on a Friday morning.
“Hello,” chirped an American voice.
“My name is Annie Zlotnick. I am a friend of Shirley Newman. I met her in Israel and she gave me your number.”
I had forgotten about Amuka. The specter of another blind date loomed in front of me. However, I heard my mother’s voice in my head: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained!” I ended meeting Ms. Zlotnick at the little kosher hotel on Ravenscroft Avenue in Golders Green in the heart of northwest London. I had made up my mind to adopt a ruthless approach to the rendezvous. If within the first 10 minutes I found there was no chemistry between us, I would find a rapid excuse to end the whole painful process and put us both out of our mutual misery.
As things turned out, I was very impressed.
From the minute I saw the young lady descending the staircase to the lobby, I decided that the date would definitely go ahead. We ended up at Hampstead Heath on a glorious autumn day. I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Zlotnick’s company. She was a savvy New Yorker and an ex-Bnei Akiva girl to boot! We had a great deal in common, including our love for Eretz Yisrael.
We hastily made arrangements to see each other on Saturday evening (I canceled an existing arrangement to do so) and thus began a kind of remote courtship.
We were unable to go out on a second date before her departure and so we settled for a transatlantic courtship and correspondence. There were no emails in those days, and I looked forward to Sundays when we would call each other.
During one of these phone calls, I mentioned to Annie that I did not have a photograph of her and vice versa.
We agreed to send each other photos of ourselves. About 10 days later, a letter arrived. I recognized the confident garlanded American handwriting and opened the envelope. It contained a short letter explaining that the attached photograph was the only one she could find and that it had been taken in Israel during her recent visit. The photograph fell out. I held it up to inspect it. It was a picture of Annie sitting on a rock. You can imagine my amazement when I recognized the background. The picture was taken at the grave of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel! I literally felt a shiver down my spine.
Our relationship had not progressed to the extent that we were ready to be in engaged. Far from it – we hardly knew each other! During our next phone call she admitted that she was somewhat embarrassed to discover that I had recognized the setting of the photograph.
She was equally shocked to learn that I had visited the grave about four months earlier. She explained to me how one of her Bnei Akiva friends had schlepped her to Amuka at her mother’s behest. He had taken the picture in order to prove to her Holocaust-survivor parents that she was making every effort to find a suitable life partner! The following July, in 1988, less than eight months after Annie had visited Amuka, we got engaged in Johannesburg.
We were married on November 24 of that same year in Brooklyn New York.
Annie moved to London where we set up home.
We decided to visit Israel during Passover in 1989. One of our key objectives was to return to Amuka to give thanks at the grave of Rabbi Yonatan. We traveled to Safed by bus from Jerusalem. The ride seemed to take forever. We hailed a cab at the Safed bus station. As we were driving to our hotel, I began to tell the cab driver the story of our meeting. He was not at all surprised to hear our romantic tale.
“You have no idea how many people sitting in the back of this cab have told me exactly the same story.”
“I would like to find the driver who took me to Amuka.” I told him.
“What was his name?” the driver asked.
“Zion Cohen,” I replied.
“That’s my brother!” he exclaimed.
We were convinced that he was kidding until he pulled out a picture of his brother from the glove compartment.
“Is this the guy that took you to Amuka?” It most certainly was. We took his phone number, but sadly were not able to talk to him, as he was out of town at the time.
Annie and I have been happily married for almost 27 years. Last year we fulfilled a life-long dream and made aliya in the middle of Operation Protective Edge. We landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on August 20, 2014, and settled in our new home in Jerusalem’s north Talpiot neighborhood, where we continue to live the dream – ever-thankful to our “patron saint” Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel of Amuka, near Safed, and to Shirley Perry (née Newman) – the shadchanit (matchmaker).