Yakov Baruchman was on the verge of making the deal of a lifetime. Or rather, the second deal of a lifetime. Once a baron's daughter offered him rare gems and pearls the size of bird eggs. But those gems were sold and the cash was spent already. This second chance might have seemed like peanuts to some, 100,000 guilders, but he so badly needed the money that it felt like a treasure worth risking his life to preserve. His confidence was partially chemical and partly fostered by past successes. Yakov trusted himself, an expert judge of character, a king of his own underworld that extended from an appliance store in Tel Aviv to the alleys of Amsterdam.

How was he going to survive without money to get home, to pay his debts to his dangerous creditors? The guys drove up in the car with a woman in the back seat. Yakov was ready. One young, scruffy man jumped out and approached Yakov, took his package and said he'd be right back with the money. Yakov had a sinking feeling for a moment. Perhaps he should approach the car to see what was going on. Off the car sped with the drugs and the money, leaving Yakov broke and friendless on the streets of a foreign city that had seen so many deals, winners and losers, whose brazen face was indifferent to the fate of its visitors.

Yakov began to mutter to himself. He was losing his touch and what else was left for him to do? How was he going to survive without money to get home, to pay his debts to his dangerous creditors? Yakov began to mutter to an unknown listener, and then, feeling it was odd but no longer caring, Yakov began to talk to G‑d, "If you give me the 100,000 guilders, I'll go live in Jerusalem and return to Judaism."

Yakov could hardly believe the words that left his lips, but when high, stoned and hallucinating, he had said, thought and experienced crazier things. He had always hated religion. The opium of the masses? Why not the real thing? He prided himself on never setting foot in Jerusalem because it was too "holy." So where did this promise come from?

At 5am the next morning, Yakov was awakened from his slumber by a rough-looking Dutch woman knocking at the door of his hotel room. He opened the door. "You know my boyfriend," she asked abruptly. Yakov recalled she was in the car that sped off with his money and drugs. "I robbed my boyfriend, so here is the 100,000 guilders that creep owed you. Wait for me to come back with more."

Yakov felt as high as the plane bringing him back to Tel Aviv with his money, and was prepared to return to making profitable drug deals while working at the appliance store. The guys who worked there and the owner never suspected a thing and thought he was a stellar salesman. Ever since he was a teenager and started taking drugs to enhance his confidence to compensate for ridicule about his short stature, he knew how to be a salesman, how to close a deal fast, and how to do so without getting caught. Okay, he did some jail time in Sweden, but after that, he resumed his business with great success.

No matter how many drugs he took, Yakov remembered his desperate conversation with G‑dWhile sitting on the plane, he remembered his bizarre promise to a G‑d he thought probably didn't exist. It was just crazy. How could he become religious, put boxes on his head and arms, and give up his whole life? It would be like a bird renouncing flight. This is who he was. Yakov Baruchman decided to forget about the crazy promise to G‑d.

Baruchman during his years as a drug dealer.
Baruchman during his years as a drug dealer.

But he couldn't. No matter how many drugs he took, Yakov remembered his desperate conversation with G‑d. So there was only one thing to do. He approached a rabbi.

"I promised G‑d I would become religious. But I don't want to do it. So how do I get out of this oath?"

"Well," said the rabbi, "to cancel an oath one needs to appear before a court of three rabbis."

"Oh, so when can I make an appointment?" Yakov Baruchman said excitedly. The rabbi was touched at how enthusiastically the drug dealer wanted to set things straight with the Almighty.

"But, you know, your soul took an oath at Mount Sinai to keep G‑d's commandments," the rabbi continued. "Such an oath cannot be canceled."

But Yakov Baruchman knew how to get out of any predicament. "So how much money do those three rabbis want?"

"No," said the rabbi, "It doesn't work that way. The oath can't be nullified."

"So maybe I should start eating kosher?" asked Yakov.

"For starters," said the rabbi, "but that is only the beginning."

Yaakov Baruchman departed from the rabbi and felt again how ridiculous it all was to suddenly become religious. To drown out the voices that babbled on about G‑d, Yakov got busier with his deals, took greater risks, and somewhere along the line, got careless. He was on the "Most Wanted" list in Israel and the police finally found their target. Desperate to prevent the escape of their prize catch, they tied Yakov Baruchman to a tree. It was two years in Sweden, but it could be 12 years in Tel Aviv, thought Baruchman, who was already 46 and would be too old to deal when released.

The police were ready to take their prisoner but Baruchman refused to move. "I won't go anywhere unless you bring me a pair of tefillin!" he heard himself say. The police officers laughed in unison. "What's between you and G‑d anyway? Do you believe in anything at all? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" But Baruchman was firm. "I know a rabbi who can bring me some tefillin. I'm not going anywhere until he brings the tefillin." The police officers thought it was a good joke, but saw he was serious and didn't bother fighting with their prisoner.

Late at night, he talks to young people who hang out in the streets and battle the pressure of drugsThe twelve year sentence was reduced to 2.5 years. Baruchman put on tefillin every day in prison, weaned himself off of drugs and headed the Narcotics Anonymous group in jail, of which he is still a member many years after his release. He returns to the appliance store which was once the center of his criminal activities and gives lectures in Chassidic philosophy to workers and customers. He dresses and lives like a religious Jew, and has a wife and family in Jerusalem. Late at night, he frequents Ben Yehuda Street, a major Jerusalem hangout, and talks to young people who hang out in the streets and battle the pressure of drugs and quick fixes. He tells his story, befriends the youth and inspires change.

At 60, does he ever miss the way he lived for decades or feel the lure of temptation? "It would be lying to say I don't have these feelings at all. At those moments, I take a book on chassidic thought and take the highest flight, an ascent without a descent that doesn't involve cheating or hurting anyone. It's replacing one addiction with another. But this addiction is a healthy one."

Yakov Baruchman describes his journey into darkness and toward observance in his memoir The Lion Without Teeth.