Salvador accidentally launches a hit blog

HOLLYWOOD screenwriter Salvador Litvak may have come from an uninspiring Jewish background - but an epiphany of his grandmother led to him completing a seven-and-a-half year cycle of learning the entire Talmud.

But little did he know that these foreign pages of Hebrew and Aramaic would redirect the course of his life into a world of fulfilment and inspiration.

Los Angeles-based Salvador now writes a blog, Accidental Talmudist, in which he shares a piece of knowledge he learned from the Talmud every day in a humorous and historical way, spawning more than 100,000 followers on his Facebook page.

"I became more interested in Judaism because of my grandmother, Magda, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor," he told me.

"Her grandfather was killed at Dachau, so she decided to go back to Hungary after the war, where she stayed until 1956.

"She had lost her husband in the war and in 1997 she had been waiting 50 years to be reunited with him.

"From then on, she never went on a date or was interested in another man. She poured all her love into her only child, my mother Katalina, and her two grandsons, my brother and I. Never have I seen such dedication and love before.

"So much so that at her funeral, my brother and I thought no one would ever love us again with that kind of selfless and endless love.

"I remember being at her bedside when she was dying. The moment she took her last breath, my mum, brother and I were holding her hand and weeping away.

"I looked up to the side, and saw an opening of the window, and a vision of my grandmother going towards someone. She was moving towards a man in his 30s, my grandfather. They were finally being reunited after 50 years.

"She wasn't happy and rather reluctant to go towards him. I could see in her body language she felt like an old lady.

"Here is this young man and she was thinking 'What was he going to want me for?'

"He pulled her to him and embraced her with a huge blowing of life and she became young again like the last time she saw him. It was so love-drenched.

"It was as real to me as my hands are in front of me."

He added: "I was so moved by my grandmother's happiness, I thought, 'The next world must be real' and wanted to honour my grandmother by going to synagogue.

"This was the first time in my life that I wanted to go without someone dragging me. I knew I had walked into the right synagogue on the right day.

"Sitting there as the music was flushing over me, weeping my eyes out, I felt like I reconnected with my grandmother and all my ancestors, with traditions stretching back thousands of years.

"And that is when I was hooked on Judaism. I felt like I missed decades where I could have been learning."

The Chile-born writer and his filmmaker wife, Nina Davidovich, work together as a writing team, producing Jewish-themed movies and content for the blog.

Salvador's great-great-grandfather was raised in Russia and escaped, settling in Chile.

His parents met in Chile, but his mother grew up partially under the communists in Hungary, so she moved to New York, where Salvador was raised.

He described the community in Chile as "small, with only one Orthodox shul".

He added: "My family didn't go much. My grandmother was the type of survivor to become more religious after the Holocaust.

"She came from a traditional place, so women didn't really go to shul and her religion was a private thing for her."

Becoming more involved with Judaism, he began to realise that among all the rabbis teaching in LA, every rabbi had different thoughts on what the Talmud means.

He said: "I always thought I'd like to read the Talmud, but I didn't know what it was or where to start and didn't know if I was allowed to.

"Every time I walked into a Jewish bookstore, I saw all the shelves filled with volumes of Talmud, but was unsure if I should read one.

"One time I thought to myself, 'They're just books, what am I so scared of? There must be a number one book of the Talmud'.

"I found a book called Berachos 1 and took it over to the counter. The kid at the register said, 'Oh, you're doing Daf Yomi?' I replied 'What is Daf Yomi?'

"He looked at me in a funny way and I thought, 'Oh man, it's true, I'm not allowed to read the Talmud. I must look like such a fool'.

"He explained that Daf Yomi is a worldwide programme where people set out to read the whole Talmud over the course of seven and a half years.

"It takes this long because only one page is read each day. So I said 'today is day one'. I loved learning about God, but there were times when I had doubt."

Salvador was 40 when he started the long learning cycle. It may be a challenge for many, but he knew he had to stick with it.

After realising he couldn't study alone, he attended a class nearer to his home, still with little English, but could now understand the logic and context of topics being discussed - and began to enjoy what he was learning.

At the end of the cycle, he decided to tell his story because of the unlikeness of an 'ordinary man' like him reading the entire Talmud, with hopes that maybe he would inspire others to do the same.

As he neared the end of the cycle, Salvador approached Jewish Journal editor David Suissa about his story, who said 'That's a cover story' and advised him to write a blog.

Thus the popular blog Accidental Talmudist started.

"If I was going to start a blog, I thought I may as well start a Facebook page to go along with it," he said.

"Not in a billion years would I have guessed two years later more than 100,000 followers around the world would be following a page about the Talmud.

"I would guess that three-quarters of my readers are not Jewish.

"I think what draws people to it is the authentic wisdom that has survived for thousands of years."

He continued: "There are many rabbis teaching other Jews, and videos online with a man with a long beard in front of a book case, but I am trying to make it as accessible and fun as possible with humour and history.

"I simply share what excites me."

He spends more than two hours a day on this project, but from day one he never referred to it as a Facebook page, but a community.

He said: "There are characters in the community who know each other and talk in the posts.

"I have gotten to know these people, who have helped guide me in how to write and what will appeal to readers.

"The most moving thing to my wife and I is receiving messages from people who live in small towns with no access to Judaism except for online, saying 'Thank you so much for doing this', 'I never knew Judaism could be like this' or 'Your journey is like my journey'."

Due to a combination of his family background, his approach to Judaism and his "own stubbornness", he found Judaism dry, boring and uninspiring.

He commented: "As soon as I had my barmitzvah, I was out of there.

"The tragic thing was that I was a spiritual person, really interested in God and understanding of the hidden world surrounding us, but thought Judaism had nothing for me."

After exploring careers in law and medicine, the film industry was calling his name, and he became the Jewish film director he is today.

It all came together for him living in California and pursuing his film-making.

His first feature, When Do We Eat, which he made in 2005, is a comedy in which a family's Pesach takes a turn for the worst as a son slips his father a hit of ecstasy at a family gathering.

The film was entered into 100 different Jewish and non-Jewish film festivals, with many positive reviews, but it also had its fair share of criticism.

He said: "It was frustrating when the movie came out because it is an overtly-religious film.

"In Hollywood, among critics and the media, they can blow anything up and it will be accepted, but if you talk about religion it is an issue, especially if you're positive about religion and not critical.

"The New York Times called the movie offensive, which, coming from them, was difficult for an independent film company to recover from.

"My question was, 'How can it be offensive if rabbis from Chabad to Reform all loved the movie?'

"In the end it was fine because the film has become a cult classic and, for many people, has become the thing to do at Pesach.

"In the same way Americans watch It's A Wonderful Life every Christmas, so do they watch When Do We Eat? every year."

Salvador expressed Judaism to be an "inspiring, exciting and fulfilling pursuit".

He said: "That doesn't mean it's easy. If Judaism does not feel that way to you, find another path and a good teacher and community where it does feel that way.

"Not everyone lives in a big city with lots of choices, but you can supplement what you have locally with tremendous opportunities online."

One of the main fulfilments he gained from his cycle was the celebration which took place at the New York Metlife stadium in 2012.

He said: "At the end of the seven-and-a-half year cycle, various venues all over the world hold celebrations of completing the Talmud.

"The venue seated 93,000 people, filled to its capacity with Jews celebrating. I'd never seen anything like it and could not help but think of my grandmother and grandfather who was murdered.

"Also the fact the Nazis filled stadiums with people shouting 'Kill the Jews' that are now gone and here we were, 93,000 strong, dancing and singing.

"I took my seven-year-old son with me and, in the midst of it, he turns to me and goes 'Dad, this is a party'.

"It was so moving that the next day I asked myself, 'Am I going to start the seven-and-a-half-year cycle again?'

"I did because I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I reached the eighth month, but didn't carry on because at this point there was a lot to the Talmud I wanted to go even deeper into, which I now have the chance to do."

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph