Back in the nineties, when ‘supermodels’ where just starting to be massively-paid celebrities in their own right, Israeli-born Avichai Cohen appeared to have it made. With his piercing blue eyes and chiselled chin, companies were falling over themselves to have Avichai be ‘their’ model.
Very quickly, he became ‘the’ male supermodel in Israel, and was in demand for everything from drinking cola to wearing a particular make of sunglasses. Within a very short amount of time, the catwalks of Milan and New York heard about Avichai, and he started to get bookings from designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Yves Saint Laurent.
But as his bank account and fame continued to grow, Avichai’s soul was withering away – and he knew it. The supermodel had grown up in a traditional home, but he’d never been taught to really have a connection with Hashem; the torah he learnt in school was ‘book smarts’, not ‘soul smarts’.
So when he started to look for a more spiritual dimension to his life, he researched everything but Judaism, and started going to one place of religious instruction after another. But each time, Avichai’s searching neshama would find the inherent contradictions in the creeds and belief systems he was being taught about, and he’d go on to the next one.
One of his last stops was at a Buddhist center, where Avichai complained to the spiritual leader that he couldn’t seem to find a spiritual system where faith and intellect could happily co-exist, side-by-side. As soon as the faith systems he’d been learning about were held up to any rigorous intellectual scrutiny, they collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions.
The leader of the Buddhist center – who didn’t know that he was a Jew – told him: “My son; the only place where spiritual faith and intellectual knowledge come together is in the Jewish Kabbalah. You should go and study those books.”
Avichai was stunned; he’d literally been around the world searching for G-d and real meaning in his life, and here he was being told that G-d had always been in his back yard.
A lot of people would have maybe stopped there. But not Avichai. He immediately went out and bought every book on Kabbalah he could find, and devoured them. All of a sudden, after going through all the other religions and ‘isms’ and finding the Achilles Heel in every single one, he understood that Judaism simply didn’t have a ‘weak point’. It was the real deal.
And that’s when Avichai had a very difficult choice to make. He could be a supermodel and a practicing Buddhist, no problem. But to be a supermodel and a practicing Jew? The two things simply didn’t go together, couldn’t go together. Even if he could somehow work things out that he would only eat kosher food and avoid photo-shoots and assignments on Shabbat, the very nature of the work itself went against the Torah.
So he quit.
The media in Israel went wild: what happened to Avichai, the Israeli supermodel? How could he give up that glamorous, globe-trotting, money-making lifestyle – just to do teshuva?
A couple of months after he’d returned to the religion of his fathers, Avichai appeared on a popular Israeli TV show to answer the questions directly. He explained that he had been on a mission to find out what was the purpose of life. Why are we here? What does it all mean?
And once he’d started asking that question, the only place where he got a satisfactory answer was in the Torah. And once he’d discovered that truth, he understood that he had to change his life to fit in with it, instead of trying to bend the truth to accommodate his lifestyle.
Today, Avichai lives with his wife and family in a neighborhood of Jerusalem. In place of the highlights and designer sunglasses, Avichai has the long peyot and shaved head that characterizes many Chassidim.
He spends his days learning Torah in the Belz Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, and he’s got that inner happiness that radiates out of people who really do know why they are here on this planet.
I got to hear Avichai’s story because the film school at Torat Chaim Yeshiva, the world’s only orthodox film school, taped Avichai for one of their productions. It was great.
But when I saw the film, it gave me a real jolt to see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of Avichai. What gave me the biggest jolt was to realize how caught up on externals I still appear to be. A bit of me was actually a little disappointed that he’d gone to the ‘extreme’ of shaving his head.
“What? He couldn’t be frum in a more normal-looking way?”
Once I caught myself thinking that, I had my own moment of truth. And I realized, deep down, that it’s much harder to take the exile out of the Jew than it is to take the Jew out of exile.
So now I have my own bit of soul-searching and rectification to work on. But when it comes to letting go of external appearances and following the truth, wherever it takes me, I couldn’t have a better role model than Avichai Cohen.