(Almost all of the following up to 1993 was written by me in 1993. Most of the material from 1994 to 2004 was written contemporaneously, and the stuff that wasn’t during that time is obvious. Since 2013, this post is 98% untouched.)
I moved to Los Angeles in August 1988, a month before my dormitory (Rieber Hall) opened up at UCLA. I slept in the bushes beside a softball field near Sunset Blvd and commuted regularly to Santa Ana, where Dr. Norman Beals, an endocrinologist, believed he could help me with my devastating fatigue.
I was 22 years old (born 5/28/66).
While lying in the bushes one Sunday night, I heard Dennis Prager‘s commanding voice and intellect over KABC radio. He used words such as “good and evil” which I rarely heard in academia and media. I called his show regularly because he seemed to have answers to the great questions of life that had long puzzled me.
Dennis Prager became the most powerful father figure I’ve ever had (aside from my own father and aside from my own fumbling attempts towards God). I had looked for years for an older man (aside from my dad) to lay down the law (I had a history of closer attachment to my friends’ fathers than to my friends). I particularly wanted to hear that my Marxist play-acting was stupid.
“Good evening Dennis. I’m a 22 year old Economics student at UCLA and I’m flirting with the doctrines of Karl Marx, who I take is one of your favorite philosophers.”
“Yeah, he’s the only man to be consistently wrong,” said Prager.
I continued: “I came out of a strict Christian upbringing. Then at 18, I looked around and saw a world that didn’t make sense to me. Two-thirds of its inhabitants suffered whether they lived under regimes of the right or left. You ask for an evil greater than communism [besides Nazism]. How about imperialism?
“‘White Man’s burden’ sent Europeans around the world to Christianize it. In the process they slaughtered… millions… from my own country Australia where we slaughtered the Aboriginees to this country where we slaughtered the Native Americans… [to]… Africa and much of Asia….”
“The moral record of imperialism is light years ahead of the moral record of Marxism,” said Prager.
“Though we have a world today where affluent western countries are richer than they need be… [while the rest of the] world is starving,” I said.
Prager: “That’s not the west’s fault.”
As I lay in bed that night listening to the rest of Prager’s show, I felt good hearing many people comment on my call. But I felt stupid when I reflected on what I had said.
The pre-colonial world was not a beautiful one. I had read enough by age eight to know that. It took going college to learn something so stupid as the thesis that the rich countries of the northern hemisphere caused the poverty of the southern hemisphere.
Prager also hosted the “Religion on the Line” program which featured different priests, ministers and rabbis each week. I found the rabbis most impressive, particularly a blunt Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein.
After listening to a drawn-out Christian discussion on faith vs works, Rabbi Adlerstein made three sharp points that I still remember. First, that faith goes nowhere to gaining heaven. According to Judaism, each person is rewarded according to his deeds. Second, how do we know what is right and wrong? Judaism’s detailed legal code provides answers. Third, because there’s much more to this life than gaining after-life, Judaism concentrates on how to live each day, balancing the competing demands of family, work, friendship, education, play and worship.
In reply to a Pastor’s insistence that only faith in Jesus Christ brings salvation, Rabbi Adlerstein told the story of a Protestant minister from Canada who flew to Israel to provide Adolf Eichmann (the architect of the Holocaust) with last rites. Met at the airport by reporters, the minister said that if Eichmann confessed his sins and took on Christ he would be saved. And what about Eichmann’s six million Jewish victims? If they died as Jews and without taking on Christ, could they too be saved? The minister replied with a pithy “no.”
Rabbi Adlerstein’s story made clear to me what I’d always felt – any system that makes beliefs more important than behavior will lead to evil. And he showed me a masculine approach to religion. The rabbi didn’t get angry at people’s differing theologies as much as he got angry at evil – gratuitous human cruelty.
Dennis Prager was the first religious thinker I’d encountered who wasn’t horrified by pre-marital sex and pornography. He seemed to have indulged in both and yet led a holy life. He seemed like the type of bloke who still enjoyed a bit of porn now and again.
Over the course of my year at UCLA, I came to believe in Prager’s presentation of Judaism as a humane middle road between the extremes of denial and indulgence, chastity and promiscuity, standards and compassion, freedom and community. Here was a rational religion immersed in action, with a divine mandate to transform this world.
I got many of my dorm friends to listen in to my radio debates.
“I’m going to slam-dunk Prager tonight,” I promised everybody.
Prager’s thought was getting through to me by the Spring of 1989. I still wanted, however, to test the Jewish theologian by throwing at him in a vehement tone every objection that I or my secular leftist professors could think of.
I strode up and down my dorm on Saturday and Sunday nights preparing for combat.
Then I called in to the show: “Good evening Dennis. I think that we are watching events in China tonight to which the United States is irrelevant. They are a unique culture and we have no influence. They don’t want your way of life, they don’t want your system of government…. We’ve been naive about their Lady of Liberty to think that they want a U.S.-style two party democratic system with unlimited capitalism….”
“How do you know?”
“By reading the newspapers… Many students sing “Internationale,” the communist anthem.”
Prager: “I think those students are naive because everybody who has sung that song and gotten into power has deprived people of liberty and put them in concentration camps. They’re allowed to be naive. I’ve met Vietnamese who supported the Viet Cong and then became boat people. There are many disgusting human traits but none is more pathetic than the inability of people to learn from others’ errors… They [communist dictators] all deprive people of the most fundamental desire after living – freedom…”
“I don’t know what freedom means,” I said.
Prager: “The ability to work and speak and father as you like.
“I’m surprised that you don’t know what freedom means. You seemed intelligent When you don’t have freedom you certainly know what it means. The problem is that a lot of Westerners who have it, don’t know what it means. That was a revealing statement you made.”
“Freedom to you and me…”
Prager: “Is the same to the vast majority of human beings on earth. People don’t like to be told that they won’t get rations if they don’t line up for the party.”
Several dorm friends asked my girlfriend after that call: “Is Luke ok? He got destroyed tonight.”
I walked around in shock for daddy had spanked me hard.
Dennis Prager was a man of great dignity. Me? Not so much. When I listened to the dignified way Dennis Prager spoke, it filled me with respect and rebellion. Much of the time, I just wanted to mock him and to bait him and to tear him down because he was just so damn dignified. I tended to treat myself like trash much of the time and other people the same way. I knew I had much to learn from Dennis Prager’s ways.
After a full year of testing, my doctors concluded in March 1989 through a diagnosis of exclusion that I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I left school in June and never returned.
My diagnosis of Judaism for what ails the world came similarly through exclusion. Every religion of which I was aware made the next life more important than this life, which, while reducing pain, also reduced purpose. I had left Christianity because I didn’t see anything important in it for me to do.
Living for myself had been fine while I had my health, but now what? In whom could I believe now that I could not believe in Luke? Perhaps in the socialist vision of people organizing for the gigantic task of meeting human needs (such as CFS)? I longed to lead the workers into the promised land.
“Luke, you are a true believer,” said Prager. “Just like the Christian waiting for Jesus, and the Jew waiting for the Messiah, you wait for socialism despite all evidence to the contrary.”
I thought about what he said and on my last weekend at UCLA I asked Prager: “To what extent do you hold Karl Marx responsible for the Gulag Archipelago, that instrument of Stalinist terror which killed about twenty million people in the Soviet Union in the 1930s… who were inconvenient to the communist regime?”
“That’s a question that is more worthy to be posed to God because God has to judge motives and acts that an individual did not directly cause,” said Prager.
“I tried to talk to God but he wasn’t in, and so…”
“In that case I’ll try to play second fiddle,” said Prager.
“Had Marx been a personally ethical type… who showed sympathy for moral values but had merely described a world in which economic equality reigned, I’d have a more sympathetic answer.
“But, there’s an entire book on the racism of Karl Marx and…I’d offer you this thought:
“Any system that does not hold the individual morally accountable for his actions will breed evil. The essence of Marxism is that the individual is not morally accountable for his actions, and any notion of a [moral] system that transcends the society and economics is nonsense. [Marx] destroyed the two pillars upon which goodness can prevail…
“No,” I answered.
“Though the stuff on Judaism may not interest you,” said Prager, “I have a chapter comparing Marxism with Judaism… based upon an essay I wrote at Columbia University…. You might like it.”
CFS forced me to leave UCLA in June 1989, and I returned to my parents home (at 7955 Bullard Drive in Newcastle, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range 40 minutes drive up I-80 from Sacramento). Too sick to do anything, I sat alone in our isolated house watching TV and movies as my friends in particular and life in general passed me by. My low state led me one day to pick up Prager’s book, hand it to my stepmother to read to me, and begin my study of the most difficult religion in the world.
I came to the Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism knowing that my present approach to life did not work, and that all other approaches to life of which I was aware were inadequate. Now too sick to distract myself from the pursuit of meaning with the temporary pleasures of sex and success, I sought answers to life’s ultimate issues from the man whose loving kindness touched my life and opened me to his religion. Prager not only answered my calls over KABC radio but he also answered my personal letters and he sent me at no charge two editions of his quarterly journal Ultimate Issues.
Out of the many profound religious thinkers (generally Christians) that I’d met through a lifetime of study, I chose Prager to change my life for these distinguishing reasons.
* He has no agenda besides what works. For instance, how a person comes to ethical monotheism, for instance, be it through Christianity, Islam or Judaism, does not matter much to him.
* He’s real.
* He speaks frankly about sex and the rest of life.
* His sharp clear definition of evil as “gratuitous human cruelty.”
* He hates evil, not people with differing theologies from his.
* His honesty in stating that he didn’t know why there was unjust natural suffering.
* His honesty in admitting that he didn’t know many things. He rarely spoke about economics, for instance.
* His moderation.
* His openness to truth from any source.
* By staying open to many conflicting values, he struggled, and I appreciate that the point of life is not in the reward (as it was for the Apostle Paul) but in the struggle.
* His fairness, shown for example, in his comparison of Marxism with Judaism (in chapter four of The Nine Questions). After reading it, and after nearly a year of listening to Prager on the radio, I easily realized that socialism had been a substitute religion for me. IN the fall of 1989, when I was 23, I decided to take real religion seriously.
Nine Questions gave no new arguments for God’s existence, but it showed me more clearly than I had seen before the stark necessity for taking the God question seriously. Without belief in God, life has no ultimate meaning and no objective standard of good and evil. If the only thing wrong with gratuitous torture was that I didn’t like it, depressed me.
I decided to take God and organized religion seriously, and to reject the secular life which in my teens had looked attractive because it allowed me to act in any way that I wanted.
I wrote to Prager to tell him what he’d done for me and he wrote back: “I receive many letters, but few have touched me as much as yours. Get better. You are needed in the fight for good values.”
I accepted that we needed to organize to make a better world, but why should I join the Jewish organization and hold myself accountable to hundreds of painful laws? Judaism, after all, unique amongst world religions, says that it is easier to get afterlife rewards by staying outside the religion than by coming in. Judaism holds non-Jews accountable to only a few rules of basic decency (the seven laws of the sons of Noah).
One strong argument to converting to Judaism was my painful awareness of how I had screwed up my life. In the years before my illness, I abandoned the Sabbath, and worked and studied every spare minute to get ahead. In the process, however, I abandoned my family and friends, failed to develop myself in areas outside work and study, cut ethical corners in schoolwork and taxes, and destroyed my health.
I saw Judaism’s balanced approach to life as a combination wife and mother and father figure to keep me on the straight and narrow path.
Until I went to UCLA in 1988, until I discovered Dennis Prager, I had high regard for my father. After discovering Dennis Prager, I didn’t. I came to view my dad as psychologically damaged by the neglect of his parents and I dismissed his teachings. I wouldn’t listen to my dad any more and we drifted out of touch (even though I lived with my parents from 1990-1993). My pursuit of Judaism (and my dramatic failures to live up to its ethics) caused my dad great pain. And I didn’t care.
From June to December, 1989 I lived in secular and Christian environments and they convinced me that I could not return to either approach to life.
Thus, my second and most powerful reason for converting to Judaism was that I saw no alternative.
I began observing Jewish Law in October (both the Sabbath and vegetarianism were familiar to me from my Adventist upbringing) 1989.
The third reason propelling me to Judaism was my desire for importance. You can’t get more important than belonging to the Chosen Ones. They possess the only step-by-step detailed system for making a better world — halacah (Jewish Law).
I found solace in listening to Dennis Prager lectures on cassette tape. They were filled with a sense of Judaism’s mission to the world.
Sitting by the Brisbane river in early 1990, I made a tape of my own to Dennis Prager talking about his lectures and radio show and how much they had influenced my life. I also gave him some tips on how he could improve his radio show.
For the first time when I mailed him, I did not hear back.
“Dennis doesn’t have time to listen to tapes,” said my now ex-girlfriend from UCLA.
One day I heard Prager mention my name during question time of his February 28, 1990 lecture morally comparing Liberalism with Conservatism delivered before the Beverly Hills Republican Club:
“My wife [Fran Prager] knows this example well. Some of you who’ve heard my show may recall Luke. Luke was a UCLA student from Australia. You may recall this young man with an accent. Burning, as the Yiddish say ‘fabrenta marxist’… burning, passionate Marxist..Called me, debated me for a year. Before he went home to Australia last year he sent me a long letter saying “You have changed my life. I have now decided to take religion seriously and I now realize that Marxism was my own religion and I was wrong.”
I lay in bed one summer afternoon in 1990 listening to Prager’s lecture “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism.” Jews bother the world because its the Jewish mission to bother the world and to give it no peace so long as it has not God. The Jews’ allegiance to Judaism’s trinity of Ellohim, Torah and Yisrael (God, law and peoplehood) challenges the gods, laws and national identities of the goyim (non-Jews).
“And just in case you weren’t antisemitic until now, and we didn’t challenge your values enough,” said Prager on tape, “we also believe that we are chosen by God….
“But every nation in history has believed itself chosen. Do you know what China means in Chinese? Center of the world. Would you say that’s ethnocentric? Do you know why the Japanese flag has a large red circle in it? That is the sun. The Japanese have the quaint belief that the sun rises first on Japan and then goes to the rest of the world… Americans believe in Manifest Destiny….
“How many of you want to see the Chinese exterminated because they think they are the center of the world? I suspect none of you. How many of you want to see the Japanese thrust into gas chambers because they think they’re the land of the Rising Sun? You know why you don’t care? Because you don’t believe it.
“Any do you know why they hated us for our belief in chosenness? Because they did believe it! That’s the difference. Nobody laughed about Jews being chosen. They believed it and they resented it…”
My telephone rang and I switched off the tape. I heard a familiar voice on the other end of the line.
“Oh my God.”
“Do you know who this is from one word?”
“Oh my God. It’s Dennis Prager,” I said.
“You’ve called me many times,” said Prager. “So I thought it was time I called you.”
I told Prager that I now lived for God and he told me to be moderate. “There’s no need to enter a monastery.”
Prager invited me to sit in on his radio show when I’m next in Los Angeles.
Around this time, I started telling people that Dennis Prager was the the most important intellectual of the 20th Century and the most important Jewish thinker since Maimonides.
I yearned for him to run for president of the United States.
I had left for UCLA with high regard for my father, the Christian evangelist. Even though I was putatively an atheist and Marxist, I knew that there was much magnificence in my father’s approach to life and that I would return to something like it. If I heard any criticisms of my dad, I would instinctively react by defending him.
Then I started listening to Dennis Prager and started realizing all the ways my father didn’t match up. My dad called himself a Bible scholar (and published a commentary on the Book of Daniel) but he couldn’t read the Bible in its original languages. Dennis did not call himself a Bible scholar but was as fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic as he was in English.
My father’s sermons were filled with clever lines he’d read but he rarely attributed these zingers to their sources. By contrast, Dennis Prager strove to attribute everything he said to its source.
My father talked like an expert about many things he didn’t know much about, while Dennis Prager was quick to say, “I do not know.”
It was obvious on Prager’s show that he listened to people in a deep way but my father rarely could do this.
My father used many rhetorical tricks and delighted in cutting people down. Dennis never went for cheap shots and rhetorical tricks.
As Dennis Prager became a hero to me, my father fell in my esteem. I wanted to become like Dennis and to flee from my father. I embraced Judaism and welcomed its contrasts to Christianity. As I studied Jewish history, I became angry at Christianity. I was glad I had good reasons to hate Christianity, and by extension, to much of my father’s preaching (and to everything I hated about my childhood).I could reject my past and I could reject my unwanted self. When I emerged from the mikveh upon my conversion to Judaism, I would be born again.
I felt guilty about my continuing relationship with Tien* (my girlfriend at UCLA). I did not want to marry her, but I did not want to leave her alone either. She taped Dennis Prager’s radio show for me and showered me with phone calls, letters and other expressions of love.
Rabbi M. told me to cut off our relationship and so I did a couple of days later.
As a parting gift, I sent Tien a two-year gift subscription to Prager’s quarterly journal Ultimate Issues and over 20 Prager tapes.
I looked around to meet Jews. I was staying with my parents at the time in Newcastle, CA, about 45-minutes drive north of Sacramento.
There weren’t many Jews around.
My Christian stepmother assisted my search by asking people randomly “Do you know any Jews?” One lady said yes. She had once considered converting to Judaism. She knew several Jews in Grass Valley, including the lay leader Michal Kohane. I phoned Michal in the summer of 1991 and we talked for an hour. She found my interest in Judaism strange but agreed to write in the Nevada County Jewish Community Center (N.C.J.C.C.) newsletter a few paragraphs about me and my desire to make Jewish friends. About 100 families received the newsletter and the only person who called me was a non-Jewish Unitarian.
Michal Kohane and her husband Mark Taylor visited me in March 1991 for the first time. I lent them three Prager tapes and Michal loved them. I lent her more. And more.
I helped ignite Michal’s and later Mark’s enthusiasm for Judaism and they in turn encouraged mine. I grew a beard and earlocks and wore the yarmulka they gave me.
A Jewish friend, whom I’ll call The Enforcer, reproved me: “Such adornments (as a yarmulka, payos (earlocks) and tzitzit) come after full observance, not before. If illness did not confine you to your house, I’d cut off your earlocks.”
The Enforcer agonized for weeks before he wore a kipa (skull cap) in public. “It’s the awesome responsibility of representing Judaism to the world,” he said. “Can I now eat in restaurants or enter a video store?”
My Dennis Prager tapes ignited an enthusiasm for Judaism in Michal, Mark and two other Jews in their circle. Over the course of a couple of years, they became Orthodox and moved to within walking distance of a shul.
In 1992, Michal got a letter back from Dennis Prager. He wrote to her: “Anyone who is a friend of Luke Ford’s is a friend of mine.”
I felt proud.
On the downside, when I misbehaved, people started saying to me, “What would Dennis Prager say about that?”
When I sent a sexually suggestive cassette tape to a young lady named Robyn Vandiver, she responded: “What would Dennis Prager think if I sent him a copy of this tape? Or that rabbi who performed your penis-puncturing ceremony?”
I read and reread all of Dennis Prager’s essays in the back issues of his quarterly journal Ultimate Issues.
In the Spring 1988 edition, he wrote about pornography:
One of the most widely held anti-pornography arguments is that it demeans women — those who pose for it, as well as women generally.
This is not a strong argument.
First, it is not fully accurate to speak of people being demeaned — and it is even more difficult to speak of them as being exploited — when they freely choose to do what they do, when they are well compensated for their posing, and when they have the choice to earn a living through other means. Most important, in America today, posing nude is not widely considered demeaning. Indeed, many women pose for pornographic pictures in the belief — which is quite rational, unfortunately — that it will actually help their careers. When Playboy magazine’s “Playmate of the Year” is an honored guest on the “Tonight” show, the most popular talk show in America, one cannot honestly speak of pornography as demeaning.
In a society where posing nude is more a stepping stone than an obstacle to success, the argument that pornography demeans women holds little water.
…The other dominant concern — pornography as a cause of violence — the subject of a United States government (the Meese Commission) report — is an even more misdirected line of inquiry. Neither common sense nor data suggest that pornography leads to violence. Millions of men buy pornography, yet only an infinitessimally small percentage of them engages in violence. And of that tiny fraction, how many do so as a result of pornography? The answer is probably unknowable, and probably negligible.
As for violent pornography leading to violence, why single out violence in pornography? Presumably, any graphic depiction of violence causes some viewers to commit violent acts. Yet, there is good reason to be highly skeptical about a relationship between viewing violence and committing it. Millions of people, myself included, have viewed thousands of murders on television and in movie theaters, yet we are no less sensitive to real violence.
Moreover, what about societies without pornography or even television violence? Presumably these societies should be far less violent.
It is not difficult to test this thesis — we can identify the most violent society of the past decade. In the late 1970s, Cambodians murdered and tortured about one out of every three of their fellow citizens. Cambodia was a society immersed in an orgy of violence and sadism. And the word orgy is relevant here, since much of the torture was sex related, with rape and mutilation for sadistic sexual gratification commonplace.
Now, to the best of our knowledge, there was no pornography in Cambodia. In fact, nearly all communist states — many of which are the most militarized and aggressive in the world — forbid it. The same holds true for the Muslim world, which is second to the communists in violence. It, too, is pornography free. In fact, if exposure to female flesh leads to violence, Muslim countries like Iran, which ban the public exposure of women’s knees or elbows, should be among the most peaceful places on earth.
Now, let us examine countries that are relatively free of violence. Take Japan, a country that has among the lowest crime rates in the world. Japan not only allows pornography but specializes in bondage pornography, and it even features striptease acts on its state run television.
What does all of this mean? Am I implying that pornography is good, that it decreases violence or performs a public service? Not at all. There are some powerful arguments to be made against pornography. That it leads to violence, however, is not one of them.
In various lectures (including ones on Genesis) and on his radio show, I heard Dennis Prager repeatedly cite the work of the late UCLA psychiatrist Robert Stoller. In particular, Dennis cited Dr. Stoller’s book Sexual Excitement. I made a note in my mind to read this book.
In the April – June 1990 issue of his quarterly journal of thought, Ultimate Issues, Dennis wrote: “Generally speaking, I do not concern myself with the actions of consenting adults in the privacy of their homes, and I certainly oppose government involvement with what consenting adults do in private.”
In a 1992 lecture on Genesis 12-15, Dennis Prager says: “Sometimes we invest more in the sex act morally than it deserves.”
Under the guidance of Pragerism, I felt happy that I did not have to give up pre-marital sex to be a religious Jew.
After three years of study and practice, I converted to Judaism through a Reform rabbi in early 1993 (and through an Orthodox Beit Din in 2009).
My inherited religious extremism survived my 1993 Reform conversion. I wore a yarmulke, sidelocks and scraggly beard around my parents’ home and answered the phone “Shalom.” Like fervently Orthodox Jews, I refused to shake hands with the opposite sex. In fits of zealotry, I sold my rock ‘n’ roll CDs and burned the pornographic novel I wrote in 1988 (before I ever had sex), and my Penthouse magazine collection.
My commitment to purity lasted until the Spring of 1993 when I met Diana (a 22 year old with E-cup natural breasts) through her mother’s singles ad in the San Francisco Jewish weekly.
We celebrated the Sabbath one day in July by frolicking in my father’s bathtub. Hearing the crunch of gravel, Diana stopped our play. ‘Is that your mother coming home?’
I scrambled out of the tub and jogged nude down the hall to look into the garage. Yes, my stepmom Gill had returned from church.
I raced back to the bath. Diana was already out and drying herself. I pulled the plug and as the water gurgled down the drain, we slipped into our separate rooms.
I lay on my bed and heard my mother’s heavy footsteps down the hall, past my room to dad’s. Then, a minute later, back she came and knocked on my door.
‘Were you and Diana in your father’s bathtub?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I lied.
‘I saw water going down the drain when I looked in. Stay out of your father’s room.’
Two weeks later, I’m not so lucky when my father caught me taking a shower with another woman (T.).
‘You’ve come a long way from the day when you wouldn’t even touch a
woman,’ said an angry Dr. Ford.
Aug. 5, 1993: To fulfill my promise, I call Diana to tell her I’ve met someone else and been intimate with her. Diana tells me that Dennis Prager phoned her this morning replying to her FAX of a couple weeks ago complaining about me. Prager counseled her about me and recommended a couple of movies we should see.
Diana sends a long letter to my mother telling her about all the places around the house we had sex, including in my father’s room. She tells them about all sorts of things I did against their wishes, including using dad’s computer to write this.
My parents are distraught by my fornicating. They feel utterly betrayed. They don’t recognize the monster named Luke Carey Ford. They don’t want to believe that I’m evil, so they conclude I’m sick.
“Somebody should warn Dennis Prager about you,” says my mom. “I guess he’ll find out eventually.”
“Please, God, no,” I think. “Don’t let me ever do anything to betray Dennis Prager. I owe him my life. He’s helped me turn things around. Don’t let me ever hurt him or disappoint him.”
Yet I walked around with a fear that my parents were right — I am a Judas. I betray those I love most. I profess religious values, yet I fornicate like a dog. I say I revere Dennis Prager, yet do I live in a way that would make him proud?
I have this deep fear that I am a dangerous person. I’m not physically dangerous, but at my core I’m a writer who likes to tell the story, and the story will usually be messy.
I don’t see things from one perspective. Instead, I juggle competing values when I make decisions. When I am accused of betrayal, it is always a case of my choosing some other value ahead of what some people expect of me.
Because I value my writing ahead of almost everything, and equal with anything, I sometimes betray those who believe they have primary dibs on my allegiances.
Aug. 25, 1993: At the tender age of 27, I run away from home to live in Orlando with the shower woman eleven years my senior (T.).
Sept. 15, 1993:
T. had a bad night. She listened to Dennis Prager tapes on relationships and they irritated her. She told me this morning that Prager and I are biased against women.
Prager says that what a man most wants in a romantic relationship is femininity, and that he be the most important thing in the woman’s life. What women want, however, is more complex – that the man be ambitious, assertive, aggressive, driven, successful while at the same time being intimately involved in her life and that of the children, friends and community. Women want men who are highly sexed, but monogamous…Sensitive but not weak…
“I understand that Prager must speak in generalities,” said T. this morning, “but I don’t think his views on men and women are any more valid than any other person’s views… I understand that you are a child in your Judaism, and that Prager is a father to you, but I hope that soon you’ll look for other mentors.
“We should both admit that we both have a strong need to feel superior to people…We like to flaunt our intelligence…Speak down to people… We resent it when anyone speaks down to us…Call us anything – mean, awkward, socially retarded…but don’t call us stupid.”
I move out from T. in early November, 1993 to a home next door to my Conservative synagogue Ohev Shalom. I will always be grateful to T. for introducing me to her psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Golwyn, who puts me on the medication Nardil, which helps me make a partial recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
I stay on Nardil until the summer of 1999, when I go off it without any ill effects. As of this writing — Jan. 31, 2010 — I am on no medication. Still, at no time since 1993 have I been able to return to more than half of the life I once lived. Whereas I once ran through life, now I crawl. There hasn’t been a day since February 1988 that I haven’t felt sick.
In December, 1993, I get a non-Jewish girlfriend, Paula, who comes to shul with me and eventually starts the process of converting to Judaism (which she abandons when I leave her for Los Angeles in March 1994).
I drove to Tampa Bay this afternoon with Paula Lemire to hear Dennis Prager lecture twice each at a Conservative and a Reform synagogue over the weekend.
After years of reading and listening to my hero, I set eyes on Prager for the first time at 7:45PM. I introduced myself and the 6’4 240 pound Prager asked me to repeat my name and then he beamed and hugged me. We talked for ten minutes and he appeared thrilled about my turnaround in health. I told Prager (Saturday afternoon) that his pro-medication attitude persuaded me (along with the good advice of Prager’s right-wing Orthodox friend Rabbi Yitzhock Adlerstein) to try anti-depressants. After a year of mixed success, I found help from Nardil, recommended by my ex-girlfriend’s doctor Daniel Golwyn.
“You owe her your life,” Prager told me, referring to T.
“Didn’t anyone recommend Nardil to you earlier?” asked Prager.
“Not that I remember,” I replied. “But because I come from a Seventh Day Adventist background that discourages the use of mind-altering medication, I resisted for years trying anti-depressants. Also, I never thought that I had a depression problem. I believed that I had a physical problem.
“Nardil’s great. It blunts my sex drive so that I’m more in control of myself. Nardil gives me energy and improves my self-confidence. I am returning to how I felt before my illness.”
“That’s right,” said Prager. “There’s a great misconception about anti-depressants that they give you self-confidence, etc…. Nardil has simply brought your brain chemistry back to normal.”
Prager told me that he received a letter from my worried mother six months ago. People who cannot change me frequently write to people in my life who can change me – such as Jules Zentner and Dennis Prager.
“Your parents must be glad about your recovery in health,” said Prager Friday night before his lecture.
“I also heard from your ex-girlfriend,” said Prager.
“Which one?” I asked.
We established that it was Diana who grew so discouraged by my failure to take her out that she faxed Prager complaining about me. Prager phoned her back a few minutes after Diana heard from me that I had gone off with T.
I appreciate the time that Prager has spent replying to the letters of my friends and family. I’m embarrassed that they take his valuable time. I limit my own correspondence to Prager because I know that he gets hundreds of letters a week, and that he tries to reply to all the serious ones.
I frequently told my Christian friend Joanne Boleman who most encouraged me to see my hero, that I do not feel that I have much to contribute to Prager. Yet Friday night and throughout the weekend, Prager seemed interested in me. He wants to read my book on my conversion to Judaism. I feel however that I have nothing to say that is as significant as what Prager could read in other more important books.
In his Friday night lecture, Prager referred to me. Then during question time, we had a 10-12 minute dialogue.
I addressed my hero through the public microphone. “You want people to take Judaism seriously. I think you would agree that an excellent way to begin is with study of Judaism’s sacred texts. I’m a pisher (boy) in Judaism, but I bet that the majority of people who immerse themselves in study of text think that your thought is bizarre.”
Prager to the audience: “Did most of you hear the question?”
Audience, Prager and I laugh.
Prager said that I asked an excellent question. He admitted that Orthodox Jews are ambivalent about him.
Prager quoted a prominent Chabad rabbi in Los Angeles who said that Prager had brought more people to Orthodox Judaism than anyone else (aside from the entire Lubavitch movement).
Prager regularly speaks for Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect. And he does have the encouragement of many Orthodox rabbis.
“But those are rabbis that deal with reality rather than study of sacred text all day,” I interjected. Prager agreed with me.
Prager said that many Orthodox scholars do dislike his thought, but my hero pointed out that passionate sects in general frequently most hate those who differ only slightly.
“But if all I knew about a Conservative rabbi was that he’d spent a life studying text, I would bet that he would think you nuts,” I said.
“Give me an example,” replied Prager and we went on to discuss the Jewish mission to bring the world to ethical monotheism.
Prager said that the Conservative movement is growing more insular.
“I love your ideas,” I told Prager, “but when I discuss them with scholars of Judaism, they cut me to peices. You Dennis use human logic outside of traditional Jewish means of thought. You are human first, Jew second. What helps make you great is that you left Judaism for years and then came back in…. [You see Jewish things inside out.]
“You are unlike every major thinker in the rabbinic tradition… unlike Joseph Karo (who compiled the most authoritative code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch) unlike the Vilna Gaon (who studied 16 hours a day.”
“The Vilna Gaon said that you should study Talmud rather than talk with your wife,” said Prager.
Later I reflected that the Vilna Gaon had much basis in the rabbinic tradition for his statement.
Prager said that it did not personally upset him that so many Jewish scholars thought him nuts, but he did feel for people like me – people who came to Judaism to touch the world with ethical monotheism and found that those who most knew Judaism seemed to occupy themselves with trivia.
I appreciated Prager’s kind words but I do not mind a fight, even if it is with people who know much more than I do.
After I stopped arguing with Prager during Friday night’s question period, he told my story to the audience and allowed me to plug my book.
Afterwards, during schmoozing and eating time, I met two interesting Jewish men in their late 30s – Michael and Lance. Along with Paula, we hung out at a jazz club for an hour after services.
After Prager’s second talk finished early Saturday afternoon, I asked him how much energy I should use to combat congregational rabbis who deny the God of Judaism. Dennis said we must be respectful in how we go about this. We agreed that God matters and that reconstructionist Judaism deserves our opposition.
I asked Prager for his latest list of favorite Jewish thinkers alive today, and he did not have any. All his favorite thinkers are non-Jews.
“Who are those thinkers?” a man asked, and Prager allowed me to answer for him. I have heard most of Prager’s lecture tapes and radio shows, and I have read most everything important that he has published.
I have heard recordings of every lecture that Prager gave this weekend, but luckily he threw in 20% new material.
As Prager drove out of the parking lot, he called me over to him and we talked privately for almost ten minutes.
Afterwards, back in the Conservative shul, I met Rabbi Adler’s daughter Rae and and her husband Paul. We talked for fifteen minutes about Rabbi Adler, and Rae said that I probably knew more about his Judaism than she did.
At the beginning of Prager’s Saturday night and his Sunday morning lectures, my hero had me hand around papers for people to sign up for his $25 a year quarterly journal Ultimate Issues.
Before I gave Prager his papers back Saturday night, I demanded that he answer another question of mine – If I had a girlfriend that I was 95% sure I wouldn’t marry, did I have to tell her that?
Prager said yes and cited the shopkeeper law – “You may not ask a shopkeeper the price of an item that you know you will not buy, because it would raise the hopes of the storekeeper for no reason.” (Talmud)
Before Prager drove off Saturday night, he told me again how happy he was to see me. “If I die now,” he said to me, “I will die happy and in large part it will be due to you.” Prager told the people gathered around us how well I knew his thought.
“If I die tonight,” he said to me, “you will have a heavy responsibility to carry on.”
During Sunday morning’s lecture on how to raise a Jewish child in a secular society, Dennis Prager lost his train of thought. But I yelled a few words up to him and they enabled him to continue.
“I told you that he was good,” Prager said to the audience of 500 people about me.
Prager hugged me again before he drove away and told me to stay in touch. If I return to Los Angeles, he said that he might have work for me.
Tears welled up in my eyes.
Dennis Prager drove away to catch a flight for Miami where he’ll record the first of his guaranteed 39 weekly half-hour national tv shows. His show will be produced by the makers of the “Rush Limbaugh program” and Prager’s TV show will follow Rush in most cities. If Prager’s tv show gets good ratings and stays on the air, Prager’s radio show should at long last go national.
I reminded Prager Saturday night that he had said that he’d never do a TV show unless he got his way in almost everything. Prager said that he had on this new show.
People gathered around me all weekend. I enjoyed being the center of attention. They wanted my address and phone number. They wanted to read my book. They wanted me to come speak for them. They wanted me. They wanted me.
One lady said to me, “So, you’re the pisher (boy).”
“In my Judaism,” I replied. “My Hebrew is weak.”
“Most Jews in America do not know Hebrew,” she replied. “I am impressed by how much Judaism you do know.”
“In comparison to a scholar, I’m a pisher,” I replied. “But in comparison to the average Jew, I am the Messiah.”
I arrive in Los Angeles on March 31, 1994 and a week later I have a job interview with Mark Wilcox about going to work for Prager’s operation.
I spent almost two hours talking to Mark. He’s totally cool. I feel like we hit it off.
A few years before, Dennis Prager said I could call him up when I got to LA and he’d invite me to sit in on his radio show.
A few weeks into my return to LA, I asked Mark Wilcox about this and he said he didn’t know anything. I pushed him and he said he didn’t have time. I pissed him off.
My character flaws were becoming apparent.
I talked to a girl I was seeing, Debbie, about my hopes for working for Dennis Prager. The weeks were going by and I wasn’t hearing anything back. So she took action and called the office. The next day I got a letter in the mail saying they had no position for me.
The rejection stung.
Dennis later later told me that he had unbelievable health insurance costs on his employees and that’s why he couldn’t give me work. When I brought up sitting in on his radio show, he arranged it right away.
I showed up to KABC 20 minutes early — there was no parking nearby to sit and wait and I didn’t want to take the chance on traffic making me late. I figured it was best to be a little early and that I’d sit in the waiting room until the time came. Unfortunately, I was ushered in to the studio immediately and it made me look overly eager.
“You’re 20 minutes early,” said Dennis.
“Should I leave?” I asked.
“No,” said Dennis. “Just noting that you are 20 minutes early.”
It was fun to sit in the studio for 80 minutes to watch Dennis do his show. His personal assistant Laurie Zimmet bustled in and out. Part of me wanted her job but I knew I was not suited for it.
On my first Shabbat in Los Angeles, I went to Adat Shalom (a Conservative synagogue in Westwood) on Friday night for services. Shabbat morning, I went to Chabad for 90 minutes and then drove to Adat Shalom, where I was set up for the next two nights of Passover seders.
That Sabbath afternoon, I drove to Venice Beach and walked around, finally davening mincha/maariv at Michael Medved’s Pacific Jewish Center.
On my second Friday night, I davened at the Westwood Kehilla. The rabbi invited me to his home the next day for lunch. I accepted. Then Sabbath morning, I drove instead to Stephen S. Wise temple (Reform) and its “Mountaintop Minyan” so I could see Dennis Prager.
I began going to Stephen S. Wise almost every Friday night and Saturday morning while attending Aish HaTorah (Orthodox) events as often as I could.
I shared a 100-page plus print-out of my in-progress auto-biography with friends at the Mountaintop Minyan. They became my new family and we became close quickly. They welcomed me. They were generous with me. They read my story. They shared a copy with Fran Prager, Dennis’s wife.
I eventually worked up the courage and mailed Dennis a letter asking him to write a forward for my autobiography. He replied that he did not have the time.
I felt stupid. I knew he didn’t have time. I dreaded becoming the type of friend who asked more from Dennis Prager than he could give. I didn’t want to be a pest, but I had just asked a pesty request.
As the years went by, my character flaws became more and more apparent to Dennis Prager and I felt him distancing himself. This hurt. I knew why he was distancing. Because I wasn’t acting like a mentch.
My closest friends at the Mountaintop Minyan and in Los Angeles were Laurie Zimmet and Chris Donald. Dennis Prager’s close friends, Allen Estrin and Stephen Marmer, were kind to me. Stephen Marmer, noticing I needed a tie, brought me a big bag of ties one Sabbath.
Attending the Minyan was regularly the highlight of my week. I sometimes slept in my car Friday night at Stephen S. Wise and then took a shower at the Minyan before services.
I was weird like this but everyone was kind to me. They knew I was new to Los Angeles and to the Jewish thing and that I struggled with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and it was hard for me to earn a living.
I often attended the Synagogue of the Performing Arts, which met once a month and was presided over by Prager’s best friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
I went up to Rabbi Telushkin and told him how much his books meant to me, that they had inspired me to convert to Judaism.
It was very important to me to try to connect with good guys like Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin as I tried to recreate my life. I am sure I came across as needy at times. I wonder when the first alarm bells rang in their heads that there was something dangerously wrong with me? How loud did those bells ring? Did they have any conception of the betrayal headed their way? I doubt it. Not even I did.
In the Spring and Summer of 1994, I considered returning to UCLA in September of that year to finish my degree in Economics but I did not feel strong enough. I needed a career that would accommodate a man still shackled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and bed-ridden much of the time.
One Sunday in 1994, I attended a seminar on sexuality at Young Israel of Century City (YICC). Without fear, I marched right up to its rabbi, Elazar Muskin, and told him that the featured speaker, Dennis Prager, was the inspiration for my conversion to Judaism.
YICC used to be Prager’s home until he could stand its rote prayers and claustrophobic community (in his view) no more and drove off in 1992 to the Reform temple Stephen S. Wise with its guitar-strumming female cantor.
Rabbi Muskin took heat from his most conservative congregants for inviting Prager that day to deliver his comparatively liberal views on sex (that masturbation is OK and pre-marital sex within a committed relationship is not a big deal) in the Orthodox shul.
After Prager’s speech, Rabbi Muskin mentioned my story from the pulpit as a way of defending himself. Rabbi Muskin said that while Prager may be outside the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism, he brings many people such as myself to a life of Torah.
Outside the shul, Prager thanked me. “I know it was you the rabbi was talking about.”
Ironically, Rabbi Muskin does not want converts and baalei teshuva (penitents) at his shul. He ships off potential converts to Orthodox Judaism to the RCC, where almost all (more than 90%) are rejected. I know of only one convert who has davened at YICC for years (an Asian woman).
In my first 18 months in Los Angeles (half of which I spent homeless and sleeping in my car), I go to a lot of synagogues and I sleep with a lot of women (about 20, half of whom I meet in shul).
During my first 18 months in Los Angeles, I go out for auditions for acting and modeling work. I also do student films to get credits and an acting reel.
A couple of my auditions call for me to kiss a guy. The idea creeps me out as I am heterosexual. I talk to Dennis at Stephen S. Wise temple one Sabbath morning and ask him what I should do. He says to avoid such contact.
I’m relieved and I follow his advice. No man kissing for me!
One time after services on Sabbath morning, I interrupt Dennis’s enjoyment of the singing to ask him about a documentary I was working on. Tentatively titled “What Women Want“, I am interviewing young women about what they seek in a man.
I ask Dennis for recommended questions. He says to wait for the end of a particular song and then he tells me that I should ask them about the importance of a man’s earning-potential.
I feel bad for impinging on his Sabbath. I am in danger of over-reaching. I am in danger of violating Prager’s maxim, “Never ask for more from a friendship than it can provide.”
I’m way too needy.
My documentary project does not pan out. The sound quality is lousy. My shoddy side bites me in the butt again.
I have to look elsewhere to achieve.
In the fall of 1995, I fall through the cracks of ethical monotheism into porn.
I tell this story more fully in my memoir, XXX-Communicated: A Rebel Without A Shul.
Sept. 1995: I decide that I must publish a book. That will rocket me out of the ooze of LA’s struggling actors into the stratosphere of distinguished thinkers. It will show my family that I am a scholar like my father. It will show women that I am desirable. And it will show my Jewish community that I am learned enough to apply the insights of a 4000-year-old tradition to modernity.
But on what topic? My first inclination is to follow up my 1992 conversion to Judaism with a book on how to be a good person, developing upon the teachings of my hero Dennis Prager. I send him a letter. Through his assistant Laurie, he asks me to hold off.
Stymied, I turn to the obvious alternative for a man of my delicate sensibilities. Though I’ve seen but a handful of adult videos in my 29 years, I decide in September to write a history of sex in film. My father at this age was getting his first doctorate (Rhetoric).
How could I, a somewhat Torah Jew, even conceive of writing about pornography? After all, I attend synagogue several times a week. I believe in the divine origins of the Bible and the ideals of Judaic holiness. I practice most of the Torah’s commandments.
Here’s why. My rebbe, Dennis Prager, says Judaism is strong enough to tackle reality. I figure I’ll penetrate the most religiously-challenged corner of modernity with my newly-acquired Jewish conscience and come out the other side with insights into the human condition.
I then read two books Dr. Stoller wrote on the porn industry — Porn: Myths for the Twentieth Century and Coming Attractions: The Making of an X-Rated Video.
If Dennis Prager considered Dr. Robert Stoller’s work on sexual excitement so important, which included two books on the porn industry, why could I not as a Dennis Prager disciple write my own book on this topic and also receive Dennis Prager’s approbation?
In late 1995, using my adopted Hebrew name of Levi Ben Avraham, I make a dozen trips to schmooze pornographer Yosef Shemesh of Factory Home Video, taking the 405 freeway from my guesthouse in Beverly Hills to the San Fernando Valley, where the wide open spaces provide the anonymity necessary for a pornography industry, and the freedom I desire to create my own life.
Without my yarmulke or fringes, with my credit card debt at $5,000, I walk into Factory with my poor posture (in contrast to my father’s upright stand), my shoulders slumped from reading too many books, my neck tight, my knees knocking, my feet tripping, my body, mind, and soul at war with each other. It’s exhausting to be me because I constantly do what I know to be wrong and then try to justify it (in contrast to my robust father, who knows and lives Christ’s truth).
I rationalize that I have the gift of dispassionate analysis, the ability to see multiple perspectives on the same thing, and the moral discernment to pick and choose among differing codes. One says porn is OK (secular), another says it is unholy (Prager), and another says it is forbidden (Orthodox Judaism).
I believe all three perspectives are true. For instance, I won’t condemn a man who has no sex partner for using porn. For some couples, it can help restart their sex lives. Yet, I believe most people are better off without it, and I’m sure that a few months of watching smut and banging sluts will confirm my hypothesis.
In Yosef’s office filled with porn videos sits a picture of him and his son wearing yarmulkes at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (all of Yosef’s kids go to Orthodox day schools). I’m fascinated and appalled by this juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. It reminds me too much of my own life.
In the three years preceding my conversion, I idealized Jews. Now I devalue them as I keep encountering Jew after Jew in porn. Israelis, in particular, have the worst reputation for unethical dealings. ‘He’s got that Israeli disease,’ says Italian-American porn director James DiGiorgio (The Sopornos) about a peer. ‘Whenever his lips move, he lies.’
Judging by all the Jewish pornographers, it seems that my people are chosen for fornication rather than sanctification. I want both. I want to keep my Sabbaths, eat my kosher food, and enjoy my sexual desserts.
This is not the way I was raised. I never saw my father do anything immoral nor did he allow me to get away with anything. He gave me an absolute Bible-based code which constantly conflicted with what I wanted to do. In 1988, after a two year flirtation with Marxism, I became attracted to Judaism as the best vehicle to making a better world. It has a sophisticated step-by-step moral system, which in the non-Orthodox streams turns into license to do what you want. It’s not a big step from Reform Judaism to hardcore pornography.
In January 1996, Yosef gives me a $4,000 check made out to my DBA (Doing Business As) Ford Publications (not to be confused with Desmond Ford Publications, my father’s publishing entity) to make a porn movie.
I decide to title it “What Women Want” — inspired by Dennis Prager lectures on the differences between men and women.
I know that directing porn isn’t the Torah’s way, but after six years on the sick bed, and with a haunting fear that my CFS could return any time, I will risk heavenly reward for earthly pleasure. I will sacrifice my honor for knowledge. I will surrender my social standing to merge with my subjects. From here on, I can have no illusion that I’m better than those I write about.
Some questions haunt me:
What’s wrong with promiscuous sex?
What’s wrong with sex as art?
Does illicit sex tend to lead to personal destruction?
Does sleeping around harm your soul?
Does it eat away at your moral character, even if it is all consensual and there’s no deceit?
My moral guidelines come from on high, KABC radio talk show host Dennis Prager. He says that pornography is a simple reflection of the male imagination. If models choose to do something for which they are paid, how can you call them exploited? If porn leads to violence, why are the most violent places (Arab, Islamic and communist countries) devoid of porn while the most peaceful ones (Japan, Scandinavia) are saturated with it?
Consensual sex between unmarried adults, on or off videotape, is not immoral, only unholy.
I agree. Who wants to be holy seven days a week? I will be holy six days a week, and on the Seventh-Day fornicate. I’ll be ‘modern Orthodox,’ i.e., Orthodox one day a week (the Sabbath) and modern (everything’s OK so long as you don’t hurt anyone) the other six. I will be religious and real.
On January 23rd, 1996, I scribble notes, put on my white shul suit, and drive to Hollywood and Vine Boulevards in Hollywood, and take an elevator up several floors to the headquarters of JT Video, where I step over the threshold of polite society in search of cinematic, journalistic, and personal breakthroughs.
For $300, JT rents me a video camera and a room for the afternoon. The place reeks from spilled body fluid, but after a few minutes, I no longer smell anything.
The five male performers arrive on time but Kimberly Kummings, the rebellious daughter of a millionaire business executive, shows up an hour late.
She eyes me with surprise. ‘You’re way too clean-cut for this business.’
‘I’m a nice Jewish boy.’
Kimberly smiles. ‘I need a nice Jewish boy in my life. My boyfriend beats the shit out of me. I once talked to the University of Judaism about conversion classes.’
‘You should do it. I converted. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’
‘Then what are you doing in this business?’
‘I’m not in the business. I’m just making one movie as research for my book. I have traditional values.’
Impatient with our conversation, the studs urge that we begin the shoot.
Kim and I walk into the changing room and she undresses and tries on different lingerie. My fantasies running wild, I select the white ones. I feel like a figure of light in a world of darkness, bringing ethical monotheism to X-rated video. Dennis Prager (The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism) would be so proud.
I make the porn video. I take over the camera and have Kimberly perform for me.
I’ve never been in such a situation. I’ve never seen any model strip, let alone have sex. Now this chick, who normally wouldn’t pay any attention to me, is moaning for me and doing everything I say.
So why am I terrified? Why are my hands ice-cold? Am I unable to shake my upbringing? I should be having the time of my life, yet I’m freaked. The queasy feeling in my stomach tells me that I’m in moral free-fall.
How did I get into this position? How did a sincere convert to Judaism, my new law-giving father, end up making porn, and making it badly?
The bitter truth is that I lack meaningful relationships. My social isolation has paved the way for me to slide into the sewer. I’m not bonded enough to anyone to fear shaming them.
Twenty minutes into the taping, I walk into the scene and orate to the camera.
‘I know there’s a shortage of real men in America, but this is ridiculous. A woman like this and no one to satisfy her. Where are the real men? The rock-hard strong rods of steel pounding, pounding, bringing this woman pleasure? Aren’t there any men out here to satisfy her? Let us bring in the Designated Licker.’
After the sex, while everyone cleans up in the bathroom, I catch my breath and prepare for my big role.
For the introduction to my epic, I have Kimberly get down on her knees in front of me and the camera while I deliver my lines based on Dennis Prager’s teachings. Though the Talmud says that one who quotes a source correctly brings redemption to the world, I figure in this context Dennis would rather not be credited.
‘G-day, I’m Dick Dundee, digging down deep to get to the bottom to stay on top. What do women want? It is a perplexing question that has troubled human ity for millennia. Sigmund Freud, a great voyager into the human psyche, even when he was on his deathbed, he was crying out, ‘What do women want?”
Kimberly moans throughout my oration, squealing at just the right times.
Blown away by her performance, I struggle to stay in character. Her black hair and bobbing head cover my shame.
‘Women want a man who is strong and aggressive yet sensitive and loves her up in all her moods. And despite her PMS, he hugs her and he loves her and he’s sensitive and he has dinner with her and he shares breakfast in bed with her and he takes her out at night and he’s intimately involved in her life and her family’s life and the life of the children and the life of the community. Yet he’s moving ahead in the outside world. He’s successful and strong and aggressive and ambitious and highly sexed, an animal. Passionate. Yet he keeps his sex drive and his passion just for her, because he’s totally monogamous.
‘I’m Dick Dundee, digging down deep to get to the bottom to stay on top.’
Finishing my oration frustrated, I feel righteous that I haven’t used Kimberly to get off.
Living off my credit cards (profligacy in my dad’s ethic), I begin my academic research on porn with Dennis Prager’s recommendation of Dr. Robert Stoller, who argued that sexual excitement, as exemplified by pornography, demands the desire to sin.
Through Dr. Stoller’s writings, I understand the erotic devils that drive me. As a child, I experienced frustration at the hands of those I turned to for love and protection. As I grew up, I constructed erotic scripts to convert my earlier painful experiences into fantasized triumphs, finding relief from the humiliation that real life delivers through the imagined revenge of porn.
To become aroused, I reduce women to less than they are. By dehumanizing the opposite sex, by treating them as a means to an end, I undo my sense of victimhood vis-a-vis those I desire most.
At Aish Ha Torah, I can’t tell anyone about what I’ve done but at the Reform temple Stephen S. Wise (which has more members than any other synagogue in the world), where religion revolves around taste, joy and choice as opposed to Orthodoxy’s unswerving emphasis on observing God’s Law, I tell all of my friends.
One day, Dennis Prager (who lent me $30 in 1995 when I was broke) introduces me to the hired help as “the most religious member of his profession.”
Dennis enjoys teasing. Once he told me with a straight face, “I heard you were bisexual.”
I give it right back to him. Knowing his opposition to corporal punishment, I tell him, “I was smacked around all the time as a kid, and look how I turned out.”
He rolls his eyes and keeps silent.
‘Everything I am today is because of you, Dennis,’ I say.
This bait is too juicy and he must respond.
‘It’s too much,’ he smiles. ‘I’m not worthy of so much credit.’
“I want to dedicate my first book to you,” I say.
“Let’s wait for the one you write on the Baal Shem Tov [founder of Hasidic Judaism].”
I’ve put Prager in an impossible position. Though he is liberal on porn, he can’t endorse what I do. He wants me to succeed as a writer and as a man, but he also wants me to be holy.
Leading Grace After Meals, Dennis looks at me while reciting the prayer that God ‘help us earn an honorable livelihood.’ While playing the piano, he gives me a penetrating gaze. ‘What are you doing?’ it says. ‘I thought you were a genuine convert? Haven’t you been listening to me for a decade? Don’t you know that what you are doing is wrong? You’re shaming me. I told people that anyone who’s a friend of yours is a friend of mine. But now you’ve made friends with pornographers. You’re on a path that can only end in tragedy.’
I sense Dennis Prager and the other Godly people in my life distancing themselves from me as they learn what I do for a living. Porn spills out of my conversations and jars sensibilities. Boundaries have never been my strong point. Ignoring my better judgment, I pass out rough drafts of my book to folks at temple (including the Persian father of this woman I love). They are aghast.
As such examples show, much of the time I am not in touch with reality and am in the grip of my various emotional addictions (to sex, love, co-dependent relationships, over-eating, TV sports, entertainment, anything to distract myself from my misery over my inability to connect normally with other people).
After lunch, I share my hate mail with my closest friends and play them a tape of death threats from the Editor of Hustler Erotic Video Guide, Mike Albo. Into the shocked silence, I giggle. My friends are appalled.
‘Have you gone to the police?’ asks Chris Donald.
‘Yes. They said to call back if Mike comes to my door.’
‘Then what are you going to do? What have you done to attract such hatred? Jesus, Luke. You’ve got to get out of that world. It’s evil. You’ll get yourself killed.’
Dennis Prager’s slim blonde assistant Laurie Zimmet says: ‘If Aish HaTorah finds out, they will throw you out. They’re not Modern Orthodox like Beth Jacob. They’re charedi (fervently Orthodox). They won’t play around.’
My friends say they’ve had it with me and porn. If I don’t leave it, they will leave me. They look at me as though I’m an addict, not so much to porn but to attention.
In December 1996, I make a post on a talk radio usenet group that Dennis Prager’s radio show has become repetitive. More repetitive than normal. That I don’t like the new format of only one topic per hour.
My post gets me into trouble with a lot of my Dennis Prager friends. I email Dennis an apology. He accepts it. He says it is tiring enough fighting for his values in the public square. He doesn’t want to deal with public criticism from people he thought were friends. He says his show topics are more varied than I posted.
“I’m thinking of going in a new direction,” I say a couple of weeks later, as Chris Donald and I sit in Laurie Zimmet’s car on Christmas Day, immersed in a three-hour conversation about the direction of my life. They brighten until I deliver the sentence that ends our friendship. “I want to write a biography of Dennis Prager.”
“Don’t do that,” Laurie says. “If you do, Dennis will never talk to you again. I will never talk to you again. The friends you have in common with Dennis will never talk to you again. You are not the one to write that biography.”
My father would have the same attitude if I wanted to write his biography. Any decent person would.
A week later, I start an unauthorized web site on Prager (eventually moving to the domain DennisPrager.net, a domain I give to Dennis Prager in 2001 and move all the content to Lukeford.net).
Why do I do write on Dennis Prager knowing I will lose all my friends and my synagogue home as a result? Nobody is going to understand this, but I’ll say it anyway — once I started thinking about writing on Dennis Prager, I know it is my destiny.
“Think of how much you could have accomplished if you weren’t obsessed with Dennis Prager,” says my friend Chaim Amalek. “You could’ve made a million dollars or earned a graduate degree or learned a foreign language.”
January 15, 1998
On a cold and rainy night, I walk into the Barnes and Noble store in Westwood for a signing of Dennis Prager’s new book Happiness is a Serious Problem. The crowd of over 100 is largely composed of men in the second half of life.
Dennis sprawls on a chair behind a small table, shaking hands, laughing, and autographing books with a favorite fountain pen.
Laurie blows in. She gives me a quick hug and kiss. ‘No time to talk,’ she says.
I buy a book and line up to get my first autograph as an adult. When my turn comes, Prager greets me with a big smile and some ribbing, ‘Well, Luke, I didn’t know you could afford this.’ He introduces me to the people around him. ‘Do you know what this guy does for a living? He makes porn films. He probably spent his last dollar to buy my book.’
I look into their stunned faces and feel humiliated.
Dennis signs, ‘For Luke Ford, No comment but warm wishes.’
My face burning, I force a smile, a nod, a ‘Thank you,’ and walk into the rain. I shiver. My world will be colder without Dennis, Laurie and Chris.
Are Dennis’ activities on his Sabbath fair grist for unsolicited written commentary, for world-wide distribution?
Is it just me, or is it indeed an invasion of Mr. Prager’s privacy to follow him into and then detail comments he makes at his Temple while teaching the Torah? Comments he himself did not reven ecord? If the writer were to confront/overhear Mr. Prager using the bathroom afterwards, would whatever he heard as well be open to reportage?
Prager cannot even teach Torah to members of his own synagogue without worrying what type of coverage he may be getting?
I am disgusted that things that Mr. Prager does in- and desires to keep-private not be respected. That someone would abuse the privaledge of knowing where Mr. Prager attends synagogue to further his personal financial/social wants is the worst. If Mr. Prager wanted this lecture public, he would have taped it to offer it publically- as he has done before.
I think it patently unfair to follow him into his schul and report what he does – good or bad. This is a religious and holy activity, and he has a right to have his Sabbath observance respected as private. Everything he does at all times is not for general public consumption.
This may have been something that other’s wanted to hear. Some may have wanted to hear what he said to his wife or son afterwards as well. Is it fair to follow him from shul to eavesdrop to report that? To interview Prager’s highschool buddies and post whatever sexually-explicit stories they may “seem” to remember?
Mr. Prager made clear to the writer in question -long ago – his desire that this type of activity stop. His assistant has also made clear her disapproval.
So have other of Prager’s associates. Yet it continues, and indeed gets more egregious over time.
Where does it end, Luke? And where does the support for this gossip end from members of this list?
Anyone on this list over a month can retrieve numerous posts of yours (from their computer archives) dealing with blatant, explicitly sexual themes, using explicit sexual language, even asking if “any women on this list are into DP and pornography?”.
VERY classy. That’s what I was speaking of. I’ve never accused you of “posting pornography”, but of “posting ON pornography” (occassionally vulgarly) and on other sexually explicit topics. You may recall several posts responding to your peculiar tastes in topics and such – not from myself. I am reminded of the post where you detailed a fantasy about wanting to sexually degrade and humiliate women, and suggesting that ALL men have this fantasy.
True or false, that is – as I told you privatly at the time – NOT appropriate grist for this list.
I was the one who introduced you to this list, remember?
…DP’s personal assistant spent over two hours drilling this theme [not writing about Prager’s personal life] home with the both of us present. She is far more a Prager associate. Several mutual friends of ours and Mr Prager’s have discontinued contact with you over it.
How much discouragement does one need?
Mr. Prager has many employees- but ONE assistant who handles his daily and business affairs. She has done so for several years. You are ACUTELY aware of this. To suggest otherwise is very dishonest. Her name [Laurie Zimmet] stands alone in all his literature.
She has made it clear that this is so offensive to Dennis that she is done with you and thus has not responded further, and that DP would not likely respond either. She spoke to you of this for over two hours one night – with myself in attandance. She has made his disapproval of this unauthorized autobiography clear – in my presence – to you.
What else must be said? My intent is not to embarrass nor in any way to do anything but protect the rights of a man I respect and who has changed our world for the better. We owe that type of man reasonable loyalty, in my opinion.
Luke Ford has written numerous errors in his biography on Dennis. I have been told this by the (angered) individuals themselves. The people on this list and others go into his website, read it, and because it is in print they may believe it to be true. That is a terrible wrong done to Dennis Prager.
Secondly, much of the personal information Luke has put in this unauthorized, misinformed biography, he learned by ingratiating himself into Dennis Pager’s and Joseph Telushkin’s lives. Personal statements that J.T. made before his Los Angeles family (his congregation) Luke believed was fair game for world wide public reading. Personal information D.P. has shared with his community (his congregation) Luke feels is fair game for world wide public reading. What I reject about Luke Ford is his inability to distinguish between that which could be put on his website and personal, gossipy information that should not be put in any public forum.
In my opinion, Luke is behaving like an ungrateful, unstable, intrusive, and yes, actually mean person. His web site on Dennis Prager is filled with slander and gossip (and much that is false beyond what I have previously outlined). He hides behind the protective blanket of combining it with already published information and helpful daily reports on DP’s radio show and appearances. He is immoral for putting up such a site, and any of you who encourage him to continue it and any of you who read it are just as wrong as he is. You also owe Dennis Prager an apology.
Finally, I ask Luke Ford one question. If Dennis Prager publicly requests that you desist from continuing with your web site on him and that you drop your unsolicited, unauthorized biography on him, will you do so? Are you as grateful to Dennis Prager as you have publicly committed yourself to being? If DP asks you to stop, will you?
I likewise promise that, if Dennis publicly states that he is in favor of – or is even neutral to – what you have been doing, I will both apologize here and pay yearly dues for you to any three of your favorite Synagogues.
I responded: “Yes, if Prager says that he is strongly opposed, I will drop both.”
I am shattered by this onslaught, but feel secure in the rightness of my position. On the one hand, I’m an emotional wreck. On the other hand, I know I’m headed in a direction of research that I will enjoy and that will be a blessing to those interested in the topic.
I have been inordinately busy – virtually every minute – over the past two months: traveling around America, making radio and TV appearances and doing booksignings for my new book, in addition to my winter teaching at the University of Judaism, writing my newsletter and, of course doing three hours of live radio each day, not to mention being preoccupied with my family. I have therefore read few of the postings by Luke and of the responses to him about me. This is literally the first evening I have had the time to write a public post.
Moreover, as I try to live by the rule of not publicly commenting until I actually know what I am commenting about, I have been unable to respond to Luke’s request that I tell him whether I approve or not of his writings about me on the web or his “biography” of me. I still have not read enough to precisely react to all his postings.
Of what I have seen, some are fine and some are offensive. Those I find offensive, I find so not because he disagrees with me. If I found all disagreements with me offensive, I would be a depressed man, and one, furthermore, who has no business doing public work.
What I find offensive are intrusions into my private life for Internet publication. Why, for example, must the world know about a private conversation Luke had with my son? My son feels, understandably, taken advantage of. He can now wonder whether because his dad is well known his talking to anyone but a trusted friend or family member might now lead to publication of that conversation. It is irrelevant that Luke reported nothing offensive from that conversation. It was a private chat. Every reporter I have ever known tells people whether a talk will be reported or is off the record.
I still believe that Luke meant nothing malicious, but I am not assessing Luke’s character here, I am reacting to a wrong he committed from whatever motive.
And why must the world learn about any miscarriages or physical ailments in my family or among my friends? That I once years ago wrote in my own newsletter of miscarriages (and as I mentioned this but once in all my writings, I had entirely forgotten about having written about it. I therefore had my belief that this was never made public communicated to Chris Donald when Laurie Zimmet, my assistant, asked me. I, not Chris Donald, am therefore entirely responsible for Chris writing that this was factually wrong). (One day, hopefully, Luke Ford will marry and will understand a husband’s desire to protect his wife’s privacy.)
And then there are the inaccuracies that matter little to me except when they are used to hurt my name. For example, I received $250,000, not $500,000 as Luke wrote – and the man who gave me the money did so solely to help me further my career and work. Instead of using the money for my own work, however, I used it to set up the Micah Center for Ethical Monotheism. And I am enormously proud of the movie on goodness that Micah made. Tens of thousands of students and employees (like the police leadership of Phoenix, Arizona) have watched what I believe is the most effective video of the importance of being a good human being ever made. If Micah only did that, it would have been worth its creation. As I have to make a living, I have not been able to do more with Micah since that film – which, incidentally, I hope will ultimately fund Micah so that it can engage in more such projects.
Luke writes of his love for me. I value this, as I believe it to be sincerely felt. On those occasions when we have met, I have never felt any hostility. I just don’t understand how this love is occasionally expressed – as in the inaccurate and defamatory description of Micah. Nor do I understand how it is loving to post details about my personal life, even if, in isolated moments of public talks, I have alluded to these matters. I often open my heart in lectures or in personal newsletter writings in ways that I never expect to see distributed to wider audiences. So, if Luke needs to hear from me that I do not authorize his work in these arenas, here it is. Presumably words to that effect from my trusted and enormously valuable assistant, Laurie Zimmet, did not suffice.
When Luke offers accurate summaries of my radio shows, on the other hand, these can be quite valuable – to me and hopefully to others as well. If he wishes to expand that endeavor, this might prove to be a real service. And his other participation in discussions of ideas that I raise are certainly welcome. But if I have affected his life and values as much as he says, I want him to know that in my writings and on my radio show, I have said far less about the private lives of figures that are far more public figures than I, than he has said on the web about me. Judaism’s strict laws against gossip prohibit me – and Luke – from doing so.
I wish Luke only happiness and good, and I still believe that that is all he wishes me. I do not wish to write on this again. And thank you to all who have desired to protect my private life and name. It means a great deal to me.
On his radio show Feb. 25, 2011, Dennis said: “I don’t recall in my life having been offended… I am sure I have but my mindset was never such as to be easily or routinely let alone regularly offended.”
On April 13, 1998, everyone in my YICC Talmud class (I’ve been attending daily for about four months) gives me the evil eye when I enter the room. I immediately realize what happened. They know who I am and what I do.
I shrink down in my chair and wait for the storm.
At the end of the lesson, I ask the rabbi a question about profiting from the sale of non-kosher goods. I’m interrupted by Mark, a strictly-observant father of seven boys. He knows exactly what I’m driving at and he delivers a stern answer: ‘You can’t profit from porn banner ads on your Web site.’
I look around to see everyone glaring at me.
Humiliated, I walk out the door and determine that it will be a long time before I return. I drive down the street to Aish HaTorah, and go into a private meeting with Rabbi Moshe Cohen. He leaves me for a minute, walks to a filing cabinet in a back room and returns with a thick folder, which he drops on the desk in front of me.
‘This is the Luke Ford file,’ he says.
I’m rattled as I imagine what it must contain.
Rabbi Cohen gives me a searching glance and then offers an empathetic smile.
‘You didn’t know we kept files? It seems sneaky?’
I shake my head. He sits down beside me and pulls out my post from three days ago to SCJ (soc-culture-Jewish). ‘Did you write that?’
‘I did. It’s satirical. It was a way of me making fun of my situation.’
‘This is very serious. To use a term from law school, it shows bad faith. You’re going to have to make a decision. You can either have nothing to do with porn or you will have to stay away from the synagogue. I thought you were leaving porn?’
‘I was, but I just got a great offer to make $3,000 a month from my column.’
‘You’re a smart guy. You can figure out other ways to make a living.’
Rabbi Cohen digs into the Luke Ford folder and comes out with a letter from Prager’s assistant, Laurie Zimmet, denouncing my unauthorized writings on her boss. He reads it to me and I respond.
He thinks for a few seconds and then shrugs. ‘I don’t care what you do to Dennis,’ he says. ‘What does he call his newsletter?’
‘Ultimate Issues,’ repeats Rabbi Cohen, a look of distaste passing over his face.
‘It sounds arrogant.
‘Dennis is not a part of our community. It’s not important what you write about him. But pornography is very serious. You must choose. No Orthodox synagogue will allow you to write on porn. It’s”
He casts about for the right word to use for the distasteful subject and settles on the Hebrew category ‘Tame.’ He grimaces. ‘Impure. Unclean. I’m sure it’s very academic as you say but we still can’t have that in our community.’
I hold my head in my hands. ‘My father had a similar choice before he was kicked out of the Adventist ministry. Talk about visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons for three generations.’
‘That’s only if the son continues in the sins of the father,’ Rabbi Cohen says quietly. ‘What’s your decision?’
‘I will stay away from the synagogue until I have nothing to do with porn.’
He looks into my soul. ‘OK, then.’
We shake hands and I slump back to my hovel. I close the blinds and lock the door, but I can’t get away from the feeling that the community watches me. I want to believe that I am a heroic servant of the truth, but I fear that I’ve sacrificed my dearest friends at shul for the virtual world of the Internet.
When I email Dennis asking for permission to tape record his Sabbath morning sermons and to transcribe them on my blog, please don’t sic your lawyers on me, Dennis Prager emails me back with a definite no. If I try to record him, he will call security to take away my recorder and to kick me out of the synagogue. He continues:
That you don’t understand why you forced me to go to a lawyer, e.g., your attempt to steal my Web site name, is actually frightening. Either you have less contact with reality than a normal person should have or you are morally partially blind. I pray it is the former even though it brings me no joy to believe it.
Only one other person in my life has so taken my goodwill and turned it around as you have. Since I have allegedly played such a positive role in your life, I would assume good works would flow’especially toward me’from you. Apparently my influence has been nil except in the most superficial sense.
I truly am curious’does it bother you how you have alienated me? If I had done that to someone who I professed to admire, I would feel shell shocked.
Laurie writes on the unofficial Dennis Prager discussion list: “Mr. Ford is not a journalist. He did not send me any credentials. In the four years that I have known him, the only published work I have seen from him was a porn film in which he starred. It was given to a friend of mine for viewing. After a couple minutes, I shut it off.”
Chris Donald writes: “[Laurie] makes about four times your income (Luke the Professional Journalist). Perhaps all those Pulitzer Prize-winning articles and near bestsellers that you’ve written just needed more advertising or something. She doesn’t even write, and she’s managed to publish just as many books as you have.”
Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP
2029 Century Park East
Los Angeles, CA 90067-3086
Michael F. Perlis
March 27, 1998
Via Certified Mail – Return Receipt Requested
Mr. Luke Ford
264 S. La Cienega Blvd, #1417
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Re: Dennis Prager
Dear Mr. Ford:
Our law firm represents Dennis Prager. It has come to our attention that you attempted to have the domain name for Mr. Prager’s web site on the Internet, dennisprager.com., transferred to you. Mr. Prager’s Internet server informed us that they believe you attempted to transfer the domain name by sending a written request to Internic on fraudulent Dennis Prager letterhead. Internic halted the attempted transfer after it was informed that you were not authorized to transfer the domain name for Mr. Prager’s web site or control the web site. These activities are violations of both civil and criminal laws in this state.
In addition, your publication of Mr. Prager’s essays, other writings and speeches on your website, dennisprager.net, without Mr. Prager’s permission, violates his copyrights and other legal rights in such materials. In light of your misappropriation of Mr. Prager’s materials, such materials will no longer be sold to you or sent to your addresses.
Accordingly, you must immediately stop all efforts to transfer the domain name for Mr. Prager’s web site or to control his web site in any other manner, and all publication of Mr. Prager’s essays, other writings and speeches on your website. If you persist in such behavior, we will have no choice but to pursue all legal rights and remedies.
Moreover, we believe that other behavior by you toward Mr. Prager and his family may violate California law, including this state’s stalking laws. Accordingly, you must discontinue all inappropriate behavior directed to Mr. Prager, his family or colleagues. Mr. Prager in no way seeks to infringe on your abilility to exercise your consitutionally protected rights. However, your behavior, in turn, must afford Mr. Prager and his family the legal rights and protections to which they are entitled.
I do not intend to engage in any debate with you on these matters. I would urge you, rather, to take this letter seriously and conform your behavior to the requirements of law. Should you continue your inappropriate and unlawful behavior, we will have no choice but to bring you into compliance with applicable law.
Very truly yours,
Michael F. Perlis
April 24, 1998
Strook & Strook & Lavan LLP
Dear Mr. Ford:
Your publication of Mr. Prager’s essays, other writings, audiotapes and taped lectures and speeches on your websites, dennisprager.net and lukeford.com and elsewhere infringes Mr. Prager’s copyright rights in such materials and violates the copyright laws of the United States, 17 U.S.C. 101 et seq. Accordingly, your publication of Mr. Prager’s copyrighted materials exposes you to an injunction to prevent such publication and an award by you for compensatory damages to Mr. Prager, profits you earn from publishing his copyrighted materials, and attorneys’ fees and costs. In addition, willful copyright infringement can consitute a criminal act.
Moreoever, your unauthorized use of Mr. Prager’s name on your websites and elsewhere for your commercial purposes violates California Civil Code Section 3344, rendering you liable for compensatory damages to Mr. Prager, profits from your unauthorized use of his name, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.
Unless you immediately (i) remove all of Mr. Prager’s writings and any transcripts of his audiotapes or taped lectures from your websites and any other place where you have published his materials, and refrain from publishing Mr. Prager’s writings, audiotapes and taped lectures in the future, and (ii) cease to use Mr. Prager’s name for any commercial purpose, including, but not limited to, using his name in the domain name for your dennisprager.net website, we will pursue all legal rights and remedies Mr. Prager has, including bringing an action against you for violating his copyright rights and unauthorized use of his name for commercial purposes.
Michael F. Perlis
I responded to these legal notices by drastically trimming my quotations of Dennis Prager’s writings.
As of this writing — Jan. 27, 2013 — this was the last legal threat I received from Dennis Prager. We’ve exchanged brief emails over the years and run into each other on occasion. Our exchanges have always been cordial.
My appreciation of Dennis Prager’s teachings was unchanged by this 1998 onslaught but I felt cold and alone. Over the previous decade, I had taken on Dennis Prager as my Jewish father. When he was attacked, I felt like my own dad had been attacked. But now Dennis was no longer my dad. I was an orphan. I felt small in a big world.
Dennis was taller than me. He was larger than me in every way. I was like a pygmy compared to him. When Dennis walked into a room, everyone swiveled in his direction. When I walked into a room, everyone swiveled in the opposite direction. How dare I write about him?
In the midst of my emotional maelstrom, I tried to blog objectively on Dennis and his ideas.
Shaken up by the loss of all the friends I had in common with Dennis, I entered psycho-therapy in May of 1998. Looking back from the distance of a decade, my therapist recalled that she was concerned that in our early work, she feared I was a psychopath. After a year of talking on and off about Dennis and the friends I’d left behind, my therapist told me one day, “You learned so much from Dennis and you wanted him to learn something from you.”
“Yes!” I said and after that insight, I lost all need to talk about him in therapy. I now knew my motivation. I wanted to matter to daddy.
I had been a fool. A grandiose fool (though uncovering my tawdry motivation did not reduce my commitment to chronicling Dennis, he remained a great window for me into America, God and the universe, I knew my motives constantly changed, I knew I constantly changed, but this mission, that was forever).
“I hate to see you lose your life in delusions,” said my therapist.
In 2010, the same therapist told me, “You betrayed Dennis Prager big time.”
Another therapist told me in 2010, “Grandiosity is usually an escape from reality. It’s an escape from a deep-seated shame that we can’t deal with except by building up this imaginary picture of ourselves. Spending your time dreaming about the great things you’ll do one day is usually an excuse from doing the concrete things right now that can improve your life. You won’t take that staff position because you feel like it is below you. You won’t talk to those people because you feel like they are below you. I picture narcissists sitting at a bar stool and telling strangers how great they’ll be one day.”
On Sunday morning, May 17, 1998 I stand in the sun with a violinist. We’re afraid to play sports with other members of our Reform temple because our hands are the fragile source of our income.
Eventually I give in to temptation and play football. I keep falling and hurting myself. A voice in my head warns me to quit, but I ignore it. I want to win. I want to prove my manliness. I want to recapture, if only for five minutes, the vibrancy of my life before CFS.
I rush the quarterback. Blocked unexpectedly from the side by sisters, I crash to the ground, breaking my left wrist.
Hobbling off the field, afraid to ask for help, I stumble to a friend’s house who takes me to a doctor for an x-ray. Two days later, I walk three miles to the Century City Hospital where I go under general anesthetic for three hours while a doctor fastens steel bolts into my wrist to hold everything together.
Upon waking, I feel alone. As my stretcher is wheeled into the elevator, I feel every bump and know that if I were to fall, there would be no one to catch me. As I slide into bed, I reflect on all my fractured friendships. As I sip coffee, I recall my past hyperbole. How funny it seemed at the time but now I want to salve the wounds of those I’ve infuriated so they won’t hurt me. A parade of angry faces march through my head.
My friends in my Reform temple despise me for writing about Dennis Prager. Someone who writes about pornography should not write about a Jewish theologian. Allow the great man to set his own public image.
My Orthodox community feels annoyed with my insistent questions that disrupt their outreach programs to secular Jews. Then they find out I’m writing on porn. That’s it. Get out of here!
Porners don’t want me because I don’t share their fundamental beliefs that porn is OK and should not be censored, and that its dirty laundry should not be shared with the public. They fear a government crackdown on their Industry.
I vomit. The hospital keeps me in overnight. They want to discharge me to a friend, but I don’t want to bother anyone, so I take a cab home the next afternoon and listen to Dennis Prager’s radio show. With my one good hand, I post that I find his words a comfort.
I return Sharon Mitchell’s call and find out that another porn girl has tested HIV positive. That’s five this year.
I stagger to the drugstore, my left arm in a cast, to pick up my pain medication. A middle-aged woman approaches me. ‘I’m getting a special feeling about you,’ she says and hands me her card. She’s a psychic. ‘You should come see me soon. I’ll give you a special rate.’
I don’t believe in psychics but I visit her anyway. Her office on Pico and Robertson Blvds. is close to my former shuls. As I walk over, I look around to make sure no Orthodox Jew can see how low I’ve fallen.
I have my tarot cards read ($30) and they seem to unveil my life. Moved, I pour out my problems.
She asks me what it is that I want most. ‘To hear from Dennis Prager,’ I say.
She assures me that something will happen in the next 24 hours.
Returning home, I find an email from Prager, my first in months. He quotes from my recent post of appreciation and adds, ‘You should remember that the next time, for whatever reason, you want to hurt me.’
That my hero still reads me, that I still appear on his radar screen, shows that all hope is not lost.
A believer, I now visit the gypsy regularly. I buy candles from her for $100 each and exotic spices ($200) that I mix with water and pour over myself in the shower before leaving for synagogue Sabbath morning.
I buy crystals from her ($150) that I grasp in my hand every day when I dream about what I want. I buy a charm ($100) to put in my pillow.
She tells me it’s working. My aura is cleaner and more powerful.
I accept her instructions on what foods to eat and how to lead my life. She’s not bothered that I make my living from pornography.
If I don’t visit her every few days, she calls me. She says she meditates on my success daily and sends good vibrations my way. She needs more money for ‘materials.’ She inquires about my finances. I reveal that I have $1,500 in the bank and $18,000 worth of credit-card debt. She promises me my money back if my life doesn’t improve.
Following her instructions, I bring $300 worth of quarters to my next appointment. She has me lie down on the floor. Then she unwraps the quarters and outlines my body with them. She pronounces various incantations and takes me on a journey of guided imagery. It reminds me of the mystical things we do at my new Reform temple and I worry that I’m substituting cheap spirituality for the rigor of the Orthodox Judaism I practiced until six weeks ago.
When we finish, she says I need to leave the quarters behind. She has more work to do with them on my behalf.
After spending $1200, and receiving no further improvements in my lot, I give up on the psychic. I feel so ashamed about what I’ve done that I don’t ask for my money back. I tell nobody about the experience.
I pursue a different avenue to healing in late May when I begin psychotherapy with a friend ($75 a session). ‘I’m self-destructive,’ I confess. ‘When I was playing football, I knew I risked injuring myself. I pushed on anyway. I think a part of me wanted to get hurt so I could be nurtured. But when I got hurt, there was nobody to nurture me.
‘I want to diminish the amount of gratuitous harm that I cause others. I keep offending people and it makes them want to hurt me.
‘Women are afraid of me. The Jewish girl I’ve dated the past few months told me we’re not going anywhere. She won’t introduce me to her parents because I write on porn.’
My therapist points out that because I’m insecure in my own worth, I’m driven to lash out. We resolve to work on strengthening my impulse control, building boundaries, and avoiding the infliction of needless pain on others, even when it’s really funny.
Friday night, I put on my best suit and wander the streets of my Pico-Robertson community. I pass Orthodox Jews returning home from shul. They seem to take over the neighborhood, marching in groups down the middle of the street, pushing strollers. Is there room enough for me?
It’s dark now. I recognize people from Aish but they don’t recognize me. At one time, they made me feel whole. But with their great love came great demands, and when sacrifice was required of me, I fled.
The air is fragrant with home cooking. I hear the chanting of Hebrew’the blessings on the Sabbath, the woman of the house, the children, the wine, the washing of hands, the bread. I glance in windows and imagine myself seated as an honored guest.
Once again, I’m an observer rather than a participant, a dreamer rather than a doer, a voyeur rather than an actor. I live in my head rather than in life.
I long to cuddle with the Sabbath bride. I long to commune with Kimberly Kummings. I long to fill the hole in my soul.
I cross Robertson Boulevard and head west to Beverlywood, the affluent part of the community. I walk past former friends, past the homes of people I’ve offended, past the synagogue that ejected me. I hear Sabbath songs and eventually the Grace after Meals, the conclusion of the Sabbath evening meal. I feel a chill in the air by the Museum of Tolerance, the symbol of Orthodox success, and turn for home.
I’ve absorbed my loss of community in my body and my posture is worse than ever. Unlike my silly porn feuds, this loss is real and I am completely unprepared. By polluting the innocent, I’ve added another kink to my back. I walk slumped over, my shoulders sagging under the weight of my sins.
Just before Rosh Hashanah 1998, I email an apology to Dennis Prager for republishing some of his essays without permission on my website. He accepts my apology.
In March 2000, my family pays for me to fly to Brisbane, Australia, to see doctors of their choice. I meet for three hours with a psychiatrist who gives the following notes to my sister:
Luke is not suffering the effects of a head injury. He has a personality disorder of the histrionic/narcissistic type. Luke is very dependent upon other people for his identity as a person.
He has poor identity integration and poor self-esteem. Accordingly, Luke is always looking for mirroring’it’s called ‘narcissistic supply.’ That is to say that Luke is always looking for external validation of himself as a person (i.e., he needs other people to tell him who he is). Because it is not possible for people to mirror him all the time, he gets disappointed and this can turn to envy.
Luke may not be conscious of the fact that he is envious of his family, as they seem to have things he would like to have but does not have. This leads to him fluctuating between, on the one hand, devaluing people such as the family (putting them down) and on the other, idealization of people’such as Dennis Prager.
Luke tends to make unreasonable demands of people who are eventually driven to setting limits on him. Luke takes this badly.
Luke needs five to ten years of insight orientation psychotherapy. It was the falling out with Dennis Prager that caused him to go to therapy. While Luke has a lot of therapy ‘speak,’ he may not really understand the concepts involved. Luke’s therapist did well to keep him in therapy for 15 months’that is unusual for someone with Luke’s condition as such people often leave off therapy when it becomes too confronting. Luke will not continue therapy that is confrontational, particularly in the early stages.
Luke will continue to do what he is doing to satisfy his needs until such times as the rewards (reinforcement) are outweighed by the negative effects of same (punishment). Then he may do something about getting his life on track and getting therapy or going back to finish his degree (which would give him some self-esteem).
The negative effects of his current behavior are that no one will have a long-term relationship with him, as people cannot live without getting something back’and Luke is always taking in without giving anything back. Second, any decent woman who looked at his Web site would be immediately repulsed.
Luke has a complicated personality. He has mood instability. Luke
becomes focused on one thing then, when he is not getting the desired
rewards, he drops it and moves on.
Luke in his current state would not be successful in employment. He wants immediate results and if he does not get them, then he does not want a bar of it.
His rules are situational and he justifies things. Luke is capable of being exploitive.
Whoa! I think she understands me.
Josh Kun writes a column about me in the Oct. 26, 2000 San Francisco Bay Guardian. He says I run a website for Dennis Prager!
Eeek! I do no such thing. I write a website about Dennis Prager on DennisPrager.net, but every page of that site has a disclaimer noting that Dennis Prager has no control of the site, it’s just my reporting and opinions and clips about him. Despite this, everyone seems to think it is part of Dennis Prager’s web operation.
Sheldon Teitelbaum writes two pages about me in the July 30th Jerusalem Report: “And so it should come as no surprise that when the leaders of Young Israel of Century City, where Ford has been studying Talmud on a daily basis, were recently apprised of his profession, they were less than thrilled. As much angered by his misrepresentation of himself as by his Web site, the rabbis stripped him of his tefillin, handed back a $600-donation and drummed him out of the building.”
As the summer gets hotter, the Jewish calendar gets sadder. July 29 is Tisha Be’Av, the most mournful day of the Jewish year. I spend the last hours of the fast at the Orthodox synagogue Beth Jacob. I wonder if the frowns I receive grow out of the occasion or out of my Web site.
I walk home in plastic sandals. My telephone rings. It’s an old friend from Aish HaTorah. I haven’t talked to her since 1998.
‘Do you want to commit suicide?’
‘This Jerusalem Report article is bad enough. Now the Jewish Journal is doing a cover story on you. Everyone in the community will see it and they will shun you. You do realize that?’
‘You must do everything you can to stop this article. Offer them $10,000. This could kill you.’
I can’t take it any more. When I led separate lives, I could separate my religious and secular selves. Now everything is melding together and I can’t face the consequences. I must sell Lukeford.com and quit writing on porn for the following reasons:
* Most of the people important to me are Orthodox Jews.
* I’m willing to sacrifice self-expression for community.
* Pornography has numbed me and I feel in a creative rut.
* By maintaining any connection to porn, I socially isolate myself.
* I want to marry and most women can’t handle the work I do.
August 6, 2001
After selling Lukeford.com for $25,000, and trashing the porn from my hovel, I feel like a free man. I drive down Robertson Blvd through Beverly Hills and up Benedict Canyon into the realm of multi-million dollar homes, headed for a Republican Jewish Coalition barbeque in honor of our president from Texas. I drive carefully, afraid that in my emotional state, I’ll make as much of a mess of my commute as I have of my life.
I got creeped out today reading The New Republic’s cover story on the fatal marriage of Bonny Lee Bakley to actor Robert Blake. Unhappy with her own life, and desperate to connect to the famous and bask in their glow, Bakley stalked stars. She eventually connected with singer Jerry Lee Lewis and in 1993 gave birth to a girl she named Jeri Lee Lewis.
I started when I read that. Had I attempted to do the same thing with my unauthorized Web site on Dennis Prager? Had I tried to give meaning to my miserable existence by latching on in cyberspace to my hero? People at YICC (Young Israel of Century City) regard me as a “verbal terrorist” for just that. I struck them as every bit as creepy as Bonny.
As Benedict Canyon snakes into the Hollywood Hills, and the real estate grows in value, I feel increasingly out of place. I spot the line of cars against the curb and I park farther away from the party than anyone, embarrassed by my junky van. I walk in and made small talk. In my stomach, I feel the horror that would arise in most of these pillars of society if they only knew about Lukeford.com.
I talk to famous drunk driving defense attorney Miles Behrman who advertises all over Los Angeles radio that ‘Friends don’t let friends plead guilty to drunk driving.’ Social opprobrium does not bother Behrman. He’s tall and handsome and healthy. He employs nine attorneys. He’s a big shot. He gets as much criticism for his work as I do, yet he’s rich and seemingly happy. Miles is the only person at the party that I reveal myself to. He accepts me.
A beautiful but overweight woman comes over to the drinks and asks for a Coke. ‘Do you want a Diet Coke?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says. ‘A regular Coke.’
I wince at my faux pas.
I spot a well-heeled couple from the Stephen S. Wise temple. They’d welcomed me to Los Angeles. I’d gotten to know their beautiful daughter. And now I can see the disdain in their eyes. Was it Lukeford.com or Dennisprager.net or some other monstrous act of mine that turned around their positive regard? I don’t always know exactly why people shun me, there are so many reasons. Will I find a socially acceptable voice on Lukeford.net? Will I be lost without porn? Can I compete on merit?
I skip the main course (barbequed meat), pile my plate with potato salad and watermelon, and sit alone at a table. This feels familiar. I’ve sat alone most of my life.
Eventually the place runs out of chairs and people are forced to sit with me.
One woman looks at my name tag and asks if I’m Jewish.
‘Yes, I’m a convert,’ I explain. The table is fascinated. What caused me to take up Judaism?
‘Listening to Dennis Prager,’ I say.
These unsuspecting elderly Republican Jews shower me with good wishes, not knowing the pornographic Luke that lurks beneath the knitted yarmulke. I’m just one of two men wearing a head covering. And I should be nobody’s representative of an Orthodox Jew.
I listen to a series of speeches from prominent members of Southern California’s political community and I know that despite my knowledge of politics, I will never be one of the cool people giving a speech. I can never stand up in public and espouse anything without bringing disrepute to the cause.
I medicate my pain with three helpings of dessert. The sun sets and people leave. I linger to the end, frightened to return to a home without the power of Lukeford.com.
May 12, 2004
Striding into the University of Judaism to debate same-sex marriage, Dennis Prager sees me. He stops, smiles, and says my name.
I walk over and shake his hand.
‘Where are you theologically?’ he asks.
‘I’m Modern Orthodox,’ I claim.
‘So you believe that is the truth?’
‘Just like baseball has rules, I accept that Orthodoxy defines the rules for Jewish life, but when you must do historical [or literary] scholarship, then you must leave religion behind and only follow the evidence. I don’t think [modern scholarship] and [Orthodox] Judaism are compatible.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ he says. Wishing me well, he walks inside. A minute later, I follow him.
In late 2004, two of Dennis Prager’s best friends (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dr. Stephen Marmer) sign a public letter defending controversial rabbi Marc Gafni (an acquaintance of Prager’s and a one-time guest on his radio show) and attacking me. Here’s an excerpt:
The person who has partnered with Vicki in a number of unjustified and distortion-filled character assassinations has been Luke Ford, whom you have cooperated with as well, Rabbi Blau. Luke Ford is a discredited malicious gossip columnist for the pornography industry. He has made clear in his own writings that he does not check information, that he often reports information that is false, and that his definition of truth is that it expresses “the point of view” of the person telling him the information.
We find it shocking that you not only associate with Vicki Polin and Luke Ford, but that you are the major source of professional rabbinic credibility for Vicki Polin and the Awareness Center. Vicki Polin has written clearly that she only publishes materials from “reputable sources.” It is difficult to imagine that under any definition Luke Ford’s blog and reports would fit into that category.
I do not believe that Dennis Prager has made a public comment on the Marc Gafni controversy (showing better judgment than many of his friends).
The big benefit of my rupture from Dennis Prager is that people no longer ask me, “What would Dennis Prager say about that?” They no longer threaten to report my sins to Dennis Prager. Vengeful ex-girlfriends no longer phone his office with complaints about me.
From 1989 to 1997, Dennis Prager was the most sacred person in my life and people knew they could wound me by messing with that.
My views of Dennis Prager have not substantially changed from my first weeks of listening to him in 1988. I found him thought-provoking then and I find him thought-provoking now.
I was interested then in the life behind the ideas and I have that same interest today.
I see no change in my attitude but I understand that the average person will see me as “an object lesson in fandom gone horribly wrong.”
I never liked being put in the box of “Dennis Prager fan” because most people say the phrase as a put-down, implying that I’ve given up my independent thought in slavish adoration of my substitute father.
Ford credits his Jewish conversion to the wisdom of talk-radio host Dennis Prager, whom he heard speaking about Judaism when Ford was bed-ridden with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after dropping out of UCLA. The two began talking regularly by phone, but then Ford bought the domain www.DennisPrager.net and used it to lambast the man he loved like a father. (That info has all been moved over to LukeFord.net.)
Prager has since completely distanced himself.
‘He was neither a pupil nor a friend,’ Prager said in a brief interview. ‘I think I appealed to something good in him at some point, and I hope I did. But I don’t know.’
Could I talk to anyone else Ford wrote about?
I scoured his site and found that the radio host Dennis Prager’s name kept popping up.
‘Oh, he gets obsessed with people but he eventually finds someone else,’ Prager told me with a hint of relief, perhaps at the fact that he was no longer Ford’s target.
So how does Dennis Prager talk about me in private? Although he does not approve of much of what I write and do, I’m told that he invariably speaks of me fondly.
In the summer of 2009, I friend-requested Dennis Prager when he arrived on Facebook and felt happy when he (or an assistant) accepted my request. I knew I was a little deluded but I took my happiness where I could get it.
Mar. 6, 2012:
Dennis Prager? Why Did You Have To Go To Him For? He Was The One Person In The World I Didn’t Want To Hurt
I’m watching The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Duddy runs around, cutting corners, betraying everybody who loved him in his drive to get ahead.
He reminds me of myself. Everybody around me ends up feeling betrayed.
There’s a great line in the movie where Duddy tells his shiksa, “My grandfather? Why did you have to go to him for? He was the one person in the world I didn’t want to hurt.”
And the shiksa says, “And that’s why I went to him.”
Dennis Prager has been my hero since 1988. And when I managed to exchange some letters with him and even get a phone call from him, I was so proud. I was so chuffed. I was all swelled up.
The rest of my life was messy. I was a tad unorthodox. I cut corners and I screwed around. I stepped on my people’s toes as I pursued what I wanted and they retaliated. My mother said to me in 1993, “Somebody should tell Dennis Prager that you’ll betray him just like you did us.”
And my girlfriend Diana who became my ex-girlfriend went to Dennis Prager with her complaints. Everybody knew that was my weak point. When I’d do something a little unorthodox, like making a porn movie, they’d say, “What would Dennis Prager say about that?”
Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. It was time for me (in December 1997) to write about Dennis Prager so everybody could feel betrayed and everybody could say, “See?”
Since then, nobody has said to me, “What would Dennis Prager say about that?”
In April of 2011, I began twelve-stepping for various emotional addictions. In July of 2012 while working the Fourth Step, I realized that I had pretty much exploited everybody I ever knew including Dennis Prager to meet my addictive needs. All of my therapists have said unambiguously that I betrayed Dennis Prager big time, that I abused his friendship and good will.
Out of everything I’ve written, I’ve gotten the fewest kudos and the most contempt for my writings on Dennis Prager. I didn’t expect that.
When you tell people that they’ve changed your life for the good, they want to adopt you. It’s one of my favorite manipulation techniques.
August, 2013: When I became immersed in Dennis Prager’s teachings in 1999-1989, I came to see the world as he did.
I’ve long sought out father figures and Prager was the ultimate daddy for me.
Then in my behavior, I went way off track. To understand what I was doing, I entered therapy in 1998, and in 2011, that led me to 12-step work. Now I primarily see the world in terms of connection. When people such as myself feel connected to others, we tend to act decently, and when we’re disconnected, we’re likely to act badly.
I used to think of self-centered people such as myself as bad. Now I see us as unwanted kids who never got shown how to care for ourselves so that we could then be a blessing to others.
I used to think of alcoholics and drug addicts and gambling addicts as bad. Now I primarily see them as disconnected and trying to fill their emptiness through substances and processes.
If such addicts kill and maim and wreak havoc, then I see them as bad people. Like Dennis Prager, I still want people who do bad things to be punished. I think I still primarily see the world in moral terms.
I now understand my obsession with Dennis Prager as a symptom of my brokenness. In the book Unhooked: How to Quit Anything, the authors have a chapter on addictive habits. Number 18 is: “Celebrity worship, including being a groupie, writing fan letters, stalking, fantasies, and obsessions.” Ouch.
Here‘s a Huffington Post article on the signs of narcissism: “Idol Worship: Another common narcissistic tendency you might be less familiar with is the habit of putting people on pedestals. The logic goes a bit like this: “If I find someone perfect to be close to, maybe some of their perfection will rub off on me, and I’ll become perfect by association.” The fact that no one can be perfect is usually lost on the idol-worshipping narcissist — at least until they discover, as they inevitably do, that their idol has clay feet. And stand back once that happens. Few experiences can prepare you for the vitriol of a suddenly disappointed narcissist. Look out for any pressure to conform to an image of perfection, no matter how lovely or magical the compulsive flattery might feel.”
In 2000, I found historian Marc B. Shapiro and realized he was much smarter and sharper about Judaism than Dennis Prager.
In the summer of 2013, I began reading Steve Sailer closely and quickly came to the conclusion that on every topic that Sailer and Prager each tackled, Sailer was deeper. By the end of the year, I had stopped subscribing to Pragertopia and I felt like I had fully awakened from the hypnotic hold Dennis Prager held over me. With rare exceptions, I stopped listening to his radio show. For the first 14 years of my online biography of the guy who led me to Judaism, I was content to outline my protagonist’s key ideas. Now I began challenging them.
PS. I’d love to write a biography of Steve Sailer, but for his sake and mine, I’ll desist.