by Michael Freund
Sometimes the most serious journey can begin with a silly television program. As a teenager growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban New York in the 1980s, I shared many Americans’ love for the TV show Dallas. Each Friday night, I tuned in to Channel 2 (remember when TVs had dials?) to get my fill of the CBS primetime soap opera.
With all the intensity of a young adult with minimal acne and maximal hormones, I followed the twists and turns, the scheming and backstabbing, of the Ewings of Texas, whose exploits and misdeeds were the focus of the hour-long plot each week.
It was one of those shows that had it all: cliffhanger episodes, beautiful actresses such as Victoria Principal and Charlene Tilton (wow, did I have a crush on them!) and plenty of intrigue, power struggles and sex. What more could a 15-year-old ask for?
Indeed, who can forget the media frenzy sparked by that most profound of questions: “Who shot J.R.?” – a reference to the program’s lead villain.
In a season-ending episode broadcast in the spring of 1980, the hated J.R. was gunned down by an unknown assailant, and all of America seemed to wait for months to find out who did it (it was his sister-in- law Kristin), or even if the victim would survive (which, of course, he did).
Other shows tried to mimic its success, such as Knots Landing, Dynasty and Falcon Crest, but they just never had the allure which Dallas had week in and week out.
BUT AFTER several years, my loyalty to the show faced a new and highly unexpected challenge, the aftereffects of which continue to resonate with me.
For it was 26 years ago this week, at the tender age of 16, that I decided to begin observing the Sabbath. It was a decision I had reached after a great deal of thought and reflection, and I was far from certain that it would stick. But I figured I would give it a try. Something inside simply compelled me to do so.
I went ahead and made all the necessary preparations, brushed up on Jewish law and prepared myself to spend 25 hours without turning on lights, riding in a car, or watching…
Wait a minute! What about Dallas? It was the height of the fall TV series, and the show was in its seventh season at the time. How couldn’t I have thought of it? Could I give up the show just like that, in the middle of it all? What would J.R. and his friends at Southfork Ranch think?
And then I realized that I would also have to forgo some of the other staples of my weekly television diet. There was This Week in Baseball , with the crisp voice of Mel Allen, and of course the Saturday morning cartoons such as Superfriends and Scooby Doo.
What a dilemma! Or as Scooby would say: “Rikes!!”
Of course in retrospect it all sounds quite silly, getting so worked up about a couple of television programs (no wonder my mother used to refer to the TV as “the idiot box”). But silliness is a part of growing up, and it makes life far more interesting.
Nevertheless, after weighing the benefits of one hour of television ecstasy versus an eternity of heavenly bliss, I realized I had no choice but to make the “sacrifice” and say farewell to Dallas.
It wasn’t easy at first – when something becomes a stable element in our otherwise seemingly chaotic existence, letting go is not simple.
Giving up Saturday TV, and especially Dallas, was a demonstrative symbol that I was changing my life in ways I could not yet possibly imagine.
But when night fell, after making kiddush and eating a Sabbath meal with my family, I reached for a book and let the television screen have a rest, too.
When I awoke the next morning, I made my way to synagogue on foot, unsure of what on earth I was doing.
My entire family, all my friends, the whole flow and rhythm of my life, would be disrupted if I were to stick to this path. No more Saturday afternoon street hockey games with friends who lived beyond walking distance. No TV, no video games, nothing but long afternoons and lots of reading and thinking to do.
Dear God, are You sure You want me to do this, I wondered.
And then, as if in answer to my question, the person reading the Torah recited the opening verse of this week’s portion, when God tells Abraham to begin a great journey to an unknown destination with two simple words: “Lech lecha,” which literally mean “go to yourself.”
I shook in my seat as the words sank in, suddenly infused with certainty in the path that I had chosen, as well as with confidence that I wasn’t really giving up a part of who I was, but instead recovering my true inner self. It was then that I knew that I would embrace the Sabbath and make it part of my life.
That first step has led me down a winding trail, as I grew in observance and became Orthodox.
Naturally, there have been many challenges along the way. But ever since that first Sabbath, when I withstood the juvenile desire for some mind-numbing television, I have known that there is no turning back.
And who says God does not reward the faithful?
Just last month, the TNT cable network announced it is moving ahead with a new Dallas television series which will follow the offspring of “bitter rivals and brothers J.R. and Bobby Ewing, who clash over the future of the Ewing dynasty while the fate of Southfork itself weighs in the balance,” according to the release.
I just hope that, unlike the original series, they don’t broadcast this one on Friday nights.