September 23, 2004
From Con Man to Convict to Rabbi, Mark Borovitz Recounts His Life as The Holy Thief
Sixteen years ago, Mark Borovitz was in prison for the second time. A Cleveland native, he began selling stolen goods for the Cleveland mob out of his high school locker, then graduated to con games and hustles. In prison, he came under the influence of Rabbi Mel Silverman and began a return to faith that culminated, after his release, in his earning a rabbinical degree. Today, Borovitz is rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah in Culver City, the first Jewish residential recovery center that uses Torah, the 12 steps and psychotherapy. Following are a series of excerpts from "The Holy Thief" by Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock (Morrow, 2004).
This book is my t'shuvah. It is my return.
For 30 years, I lived a life of illusion. I was a magician of sorts. I specialized in cheap tricks, quick hits and sleight of hand, especially when it came to writing checks.
I got my audience's attention, then lured them into wanting to hand me their trust. I got them to believe in small miracles, if just for a moment, which was all I needed. And then I struck.
I know I cannot give everything back to everyone I have harmed. Even if I could, I know it would never be enough, because I have stolen a part of people's souls. I know also that I cannot undo what I have done. I stand humbly here before you, any of you who have been my victims, and offer you a piece of my soul to take as your own.
In the end, there is no amount of money, no degree of apology, no amount of prayer that can repair the damage I have done to those souls. I can only attempt to repair my own soul, fill in the holes that have pierced my being and return my refurbished soul into the world as evidence of the value and power of t'shuvah, of repentance.
Forgive me, oh Lord, for I have sinned. And sinned. And sinned ... I am redemption's son....
I was a thief. Every thief uses a weapon, usually a gun or a knife. My weapon of choice was a checkbook.
Someone once told me that as long as you have a check, you'll never go broke. It's true. I discovered this early on, when I first forged my mother's signature on a check and watched the bank teller count out five crisp $10 bills right in front of me. I smiled, she smiled, and I walked away.
Forging checks was a lot easier and more lucrative than stealing a wad of ones from my mother's purse.
I began to devise more elaborate scams. The simplest, of course, was writing a check from my account and bouncing it. Sometimes I'd make it good, sometimes I wouldn't.
I meant to make it good. I just wouldn't get around to it, or I'd forget about it, or I'd be too drunk to move or too pissed off to bother.
Other times, I'd open an account in a bank in another city or even another state and a second account in a bank in Cleveland. I'd put a $100 in each account. Then I'd write a check for a large amount, say $2,500, from the out-of-town account and deposit it in the city account. The next day, I'd write a check for cash out of the city account for $2,000.
Back then, it took two weeks for a check to clear from an out-of-city bank. I'd get to know the people at the banks in Cleveland, get them to recognize me. I'd ------ -- with the guy tellers about sports and flirt with the female tellers.
They never checked picture IDs; never wrote down license numbers; and they had no problem cashing my $2,000 check. This was called a float. Also known as check-kiting or splitting. All fancy names for stealing.
I was living a dream. Nothing was real. I was a character in my own life, a gangster, a high roller with a bulging billfold. Nothing made sense, so I'd drink to shut out the real world.
I didn't want to have to deal with reality. Even when reality reared its ugly head at me time and time again. Like when I'd get fired from job after job, because I was drinking, coming in late, ------ -- off. Or when I'd beat someone in my family.
I didn't care. One time the mail came, and there was a credit card addressed to my brother, Neal, who was away at college. I took the credit card, activated it and started banging out cash. I didn't care if I was running up a mountain of debt and that my mother was the one who would get stuck. Did not care.
I wasn't the good Jewish boy she thought I was. That was a myth. That was her dream, not mine.
I couldn't stand the thought of winding up stuck in a Jewish suburb with a dead-end job, a nagging wife who belonged to the synagogue sisterhood and a house full of screaming little kids. That wasn't me. I wasn't going to end up being an ice cream maven like my cousin, even though he invited me to be his partner. Ben, Jerry and Mark? Never.
My mother found out about my drinking the hard way. One New Year's Eve, when I was drunk out of my head, I borrowed my aunt Nettie's car and drove it into a tree. I walked away with a couple of bruises and scratches. The car was totaled, and my mother was beside herself.
She found out about my check-writing a few weeks later, when the bank called her and told her that her account was overdrawn by several hundred dollars. She didn't understand.
My mother balanced her checkbook meticulously every month. She knew what she had to the penny.
Her hands quivering on the steering wheel, she drove to the bank. A bank officer sat her down in his office and pulled out a stack of checks, all of them made out to cash, all bad, all forged by me.
My mother recognized my handwriting. She lowered her head and in the bank officer's cubicle, she began to cry. He lowered the blinds.
Eventually, I paid her back. My mother didn't know how to react to me. When she saw me, she turned cold. She couldn't help herself. She felt pummeled with emotion.
What I had done was beyond the scope of her imagination. It was as if I was a stranger living in her house. She did not recognize the man I had become. She did not know who I was.
I can understand that.
I didn't know who I was either.
I knew that I couldn't climb out of the pit alone. I needed somebody who would help me up, who would wrestle with me, who would wrestle with my soul. Someone who would force me to face the lies I was telling myself.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that one of the great passions of human beings is our ability to deceive ourselves.
I was a master at deceiving myself. I had a gift for it. I could deny the obvious even when it was shoved right in my face.
Mel Silverman was the one who made me wrestle my own soul, and he made me wrestle with him. He made me confront all the -- -- in my life, and he made me see that my life wasn't all ----. He was a master wrestler himself because he was tenacious and he was kind, and once he saw that this time I wasn't going to give up, he never let me go.
I know there were guys in prison, inmates, who were suspicious of me. I can understand their doubts. There are a lot of con men in prison. Lot of guys trying to figure ways to get plum assignments.
They saw being a religious newborn as a way out. I heard rumblings that I wasn't for real. They called it hiding behind God's cloak. "Borovitz is using this religion thing. It's just another one of his hustles."
I couldn't do anything about what they were thinking. I found myself more and more alone. I did my job, hung out with the Jewish guys, tried to keep my focus. I got very charged, very energized. I wanted to learn.
That became my action and my fight. I fought to replace my self-deception with self-discovery. That's what it was all about for me. Hearing the music of my soul. Hearing the music.
I could hear God speaking to me. I'm serious. Dead serious. In the Torah, God speaks. How do we know? We just know.
So there I was in prison doing my time for crimes I had committed, and I knew that this was not a moral problem. It was a spiritual problem. I knew that this was deep in my soul, not in my psyche, in my soul.
I began to work on my soul. I started the search for my essence. I had to learn to listen to my soul instead of listening to my mind and to the ------ -- I could sell myself.
I knew this was no overnight thing. I knew that I wasn't going to just hear some truth and it would be "Abracadbra! Wow! I'm changed! I'm a new man!" I knew that nobody was going to slap me on the forehead and yell, "Heal!" and that would be that.
It doesn't work like that. It is a life process. It began for me in prison, and it continues to this day and will continue all my days, a constant and messy and difficult wrestling. And I have to keep a constant awareness. I have to always be on high alert. We all do. Both internally, our unconscious or subconscious, and externally, our deeds....
I left prison for the last time on my birthday, Nov. 1, 1988. I was 37 years old. I had served almost two years of my four-years, four-months sentence....
It took me a while to find Beit T'Shuvah. A 45-minute bus ride deposited me downtown, and a short, meandering walk brought me to Lake Street.
There it was. In the middle of the block. A large house looming in front of me, partially hidden by an immense, swaying palm tree. A rickety air-conditioning unit protruded from the left side like a giant nose. The main entrance was off to the right, up a few stairs, at the back of a wide porch. Heavy metal -- Metallica or Guns N' Roses -- roared out of an open second-floor window.
The house was a wreck. The roof was splotched, and shingles lay scattered over its peak like a bad toupee. The porch steps creaked as I climbed them. The screen in the front door was torn, and the paint on the walls was peeling away.
I walked in, and the first sound I heard was Harriet's deep, melodic voice. I followed it down a hallway and found her in her office, talking on the phone. I waited until she finished her call, then I knocked on the open door. She turned to me, and her mouth dropped open like a puppet's.
I said, "I'm here to help."
She looked at me blankly.
"Remember? You said I should come see you when I get out. I'm out."
She started to say something, stopped, tried again. "Nobody's ever -"
And then I blurted out: "I need a job."
She hesitated. "Well, I could use someone to run the thrift shop. It's a mess."
"I'll take it."
"I can only pay you minimum wage. Five-sixty an hour."
"I'll take it."
"I can't afford to pay you full-time. It'll have to be part-time for a while."
"I'll take it."
She smiled. "You said that, didn't you?"
I stepped all the way into her office. I looked out her window. Or tried to. It was entirely smudged in dirt. Looked as if it were smeared with chocolate.
"This place," I said, "is a dump."
"I know," Harriet said.
"I kind of like it...."
I began losing myself in the study of Torah. I read the English translations, commentaries, related books, anything I could get my hands on. I struggled to find meaning in the vastness of the text, in the textures of the story.
My study inspired and baffled me. Some of what I read spoke to my soul, and some of it infuriated me.
I wrote and called Mel Silverman. He did his best to teach me in his letters and over the phone. It was hard working with Mel this way, from a distance.
The study of Torah doesn't work so well as a correspondence course. And the more I studied, the more questions, contradictions and insights burned inside me. I wanted more.
At the suggestion of a friend, Harriet and I went to Hillel at UCLA one morning to hear a teacher named Jonathan Omerman.
As soon as Jonathan spoke, I fell in love with him. He had a quiet, gentle manner. He was British and spoke with an intoxicating lilt. While his speech was soft, his thoughts were full of fire. He was dynamic, intelligent, and original. I was riveted.
I went over to Jonathan afterward, and I introduced myself. I briefly told him my story. I saw his eyes fill up with sympathy and interest.
I asked Jonathan if he would teach me, one-on-one. He agreed. We began meeting at his house. I would continue studying with Jonathan every week for the next five years.
Jonathan changed the way I looked at life. He made religion personal. All of my studying started to click.
I began to relate to God and Judaism in a way I had never envisioned. I saw my whole life - my past, my present, my losses, my loves, my failings, my successes, my sins, my good deeds, my rage, my empathy, all of it, all of me - as part of a whole. And I saw that all of these things, the good and the bad, were validated. As I worked with Jonathan, I felt an energy shift. An awakening.
One of Jonathan's lessons that resonated with me concerned the difference between essential pain and voluntary suffering. When you stub your toe, you experience pain, real pain, and that pain lasts however long it lasts. Depending on who you are, the bitching about the pain lasts a lot longer. The bitching about it is voluntary suffering.
As long as we allow voluntary suffering to exist, we remain victims. We don't allow ourselves to experience the essential pain in proper measure and then move on.
I certainly knew all about voluntary suffering. I'd been suffering that way since the day my father died. It was time now for me to let go. Time to take the next step. I was no longer going to be a victim....
Excerpted with permission.