Latest update: June 6th, 2012
Let’s continue our Book Week tribute to Rabbi Meir Kahane with a look at a truly wonderful biography published last year, Rabbi Meir Kahane – His Life and Thought written by his wife, Libby Kahane, who lives down the street from me in Jerusalem. The biography is Volume One of the never-dull story, covering the years 1932-1975. Presently, the Rebbetzin is working on Volume Two. I don’t want to give away my age, but for me the book is a combination of nostalgia and a saga of modern Jewish history, covering the Rabbi’s early years, his development into a passionate Jewish leader, willing to risk everything in his towering love for the Jewish People, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the birth of the Jewish Defense League, the Kahane family’s aliyah, and Reb Meir’s first political battles in Israel. All in all, it’s an inspiring story of a true Jewish hero that every Jew should read.
Today, we will look at a passage about the Rabbi’s early days at The Jewish Press, which continued to publish his writings for thirty years until he was murdered by an Arab terrorist during a visit to New York.
Tomorrow, God willing, we will post a surprising section describing his youth that had a dramatic impact on me, teaching me that everyone has the potential and ability to build himself into a person of greatness, in whatever field of endeavor that he or she chooses to pursue.
From Chapter 8, Newspapers (1961-1963):
One year, Meir took the children to the annual “Salute to Israel” parade in Manhattan. The kids came home waving small Israeli flags Meir had bought them. The next morning, our light blue car had the word JEW painted on it in large black letters. After hours of scrubbing, I finally managed to remove all the black paint. I never felt the same about my neighbors again.
Since he had to drive through Flatbush for his editorial job at The Jewish Press, the location of the Mirrer Yeshiva was now more convenient than that of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. Every morning after his newspaper deliveries, Meir went to study at the Mirrer Yeshiva.
Meir drove a manual-shift Austin, which was handy for stop-and-go newspaper delivery, and I had a secondhand light blue Rambler for shopping and car pools. We lived modestly but comfortably on the income from Meir’s newspaper route, occasional private Hebrew lessons, and The Jewish Press.
Meir’s earliest writing in The Jewish Press reflected his preoccupation with Torah study. His first weekly column was “The Shiur of the Week.” Topics included the permissibility of delivering clothes to a laundry that would wash them on Shabbat, the lighting of Shabbat candles, and the blowing of the shofar on the High Holidays. He wrote “The Shiur of the Week” under the pen name Hamaor Hakatan (the small light), a play on the name Meir, which means giving light.
He began to write another column, “A Small Voice,” under his own name at about the same time. The first few columns had the title “A Still, Small Voice,” a phrase from I Kings 19, in which the prophet Elijah hears the word of God: “… but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.” From 1960 to 1962, “A Small Voice” dealt with topics such as South African Jewry, religious laws in Israel, the Eichmann trial, the Bnei Israel Indian Jews, Christian missionary activity among poverty-stricken Israelis, and freedom of speech for Nazis in the U.S.
In “A Small Voice” of June 10, 1960, Meir attacked critics of David Ben-Gurion:
“No one can deny the tragedy inherent in the picture of a Jewish prime minister publicly contradicting the Bible… [But] among the voices of criticism raised were clearly heard those of the Scandal Mongers. They are the voice of those that are always ready to criticize the government of Israel…. Every sin and every transgression is shouted forth, while the good is always interred in silence….”
Meir then gave details of recent Israeli legislation that promoted adherence to Jewish law. For example, “The husband who defies the rabbinical court and refuses to grant a divorce to his wife will be jailed for contempt of court until he complies.” This legislation freed many women from being agunot, chained to their husbands, a situation all too common among Jews in the United States. “Certainly there is much that is wrong with Israel today…. But there is much that is right with Ben-Gurion and with Israel also, and I would be more impressed with the tears of the Scandal Mongers if they acknowledged this…. ”
In a December 1960 column, Meir praised Rabbi Menachem Perr of South Ozone Park, Queens, for banning Saturday bar mitzvahs in his synagogue because so many Jews were desecrating Shabbat to attend them. “My world is divided into two classes – the talkers and the doers,” Meir wrote. “… I have a weakness for the doers. I realize full well the importance of the critic, the role of the muckraker…. The doer, however, is not content with the discovery of wrong. He is bothered by it, he broods over it… His is the greater soul.”
In 1960 Jews in Rockland County, New York, fearful of “standing-out,” tried to have the local zoning board refuse the application of Chasidic Jews to build a community there. Of those who opposed the Chasidic town of New Square, Meir wrote:
“It is the condition of man to be beset by fears and insecurities…. The frail thing that we call man shivers and shakes before every threatening wind that rocks his peaceful equilibrium, yearns for that peaceful and soothing calm.
“It is this yearning that is the father of submissive conformity, this need that gives birth to oppressive uniformity. He who clothes himself in the garb of the community … he who mouths the words of village opinion – is assured that he is an accepted son in the World of Now.
“To be faceless is to be safe; to conform is to be acceptable…. One does not have to be a Chasid or believe in Chasidism or agree with its essentials to recognize that here is a spark of courage in a world devoid of such things. One does not even have to be courageous himself to perceive the act of bravery in this community of little men and women who want to live their lives as they see fit….”
Meir took an equally firm stand concerning women’s apparel. On July 14, 1961, he wrote, “Increasingly, a small group of Beit Yaakov and Chasidic women stands alone in the observance of the concept of tznius (modesty). They refuse to wear shorts or short-sleeved blouses … [and] they increasingly earn the mockery and anger not alone of the irreligious – but of the nominally Orthodox woman, too. The minority is right! Let the women of Israel listen and take pride in this sublime challenge that is theirs alone to fulfill.”
Thanks to The Jewish Press’ growing circulation, Meir was reaching a large readership, and his decisive stance earned him many admirers. Not yet 30, he did not hesitate to address weighty questions of morality and communal responsibility. Upon meeting him, people often said, “I thought you were much older!”
A major issue of the day was government aid to parochial schools. Like many other Orthodox Jews, Meir felt the government should support all schools, not only public schools. However, the powerful American Jewish Congress and other Jewish Establishment groups considered the separation of church and state vital to safeguarding Jewish civil liberties, and ignored the financial difficulties of parents seeking to educate their children in Jewish day schools. In his articles in The Jewish Press, Meir was an outspoken proponent of federal aid to Jewish schools. On May 15, 1961, he was invited to debate the subject at the prestigious West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan with another Jewish Press columnist, Dr. Jacob B. Glenn. The debate was moderated by the synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi O. Asher Reichel. Shortly after the debate, Meir wrote to Rabbi Reichel:
“I have been informed by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper that you are looking for a youth leader for your congregation. I am at present devoting full time to learning, but rather than be supported by the public funds of a Kollel, I have bought a morning paper route. I find, however, that I must supplement this income. I have a great deal of experience with youth groups of all types and would bring this experience to bear in this position.”
Rabbi Reichel, favorably impressed, hired him to teach the synagogue’s teenagers on Sunday mornings. The synagogue bulletin of October 1961 attests to Meir’s success with the teenagers. “Don’t miss our High School class which meets this Sunday at 10 A.M. with Rabbi Meir Kahane,” it says. “Those who have been attending regularly sing its praises.”
At about the same time Meir started this teaching job, his name was removed from The Jewish Press masthead. Rabbi Klass wrote an editorial explaining that although Meir would no longer be the associate editor, he would continue his column:
“Rabbi Meir Kahane has decided to devote his entire day to studying in the yeshiva…. We take pride in the fact that a young rabbi, at a great personal sacrifice, has decided to devote his life to learning. Let us hope that others follow his example and make greater efforts to devote more of their time to the study of Torah…. We look forward to his growing into a scholar and leader of Israel.”
In November, Meir addressed the young adults of the West Side Institutional Synagogue’s Sinai League on “Is Modern Orthodoxy Really Orthodox?” This theme recurred in his writings and lectures. For him there could be no compromises in Judaism, be they Reform, Conservative, or “modern Orthodox.” A Jew must observe ALL the laws of the Torah. Seeking to reach “the American Jew who has strayed from the fold,” Meir wrote:
“In our struggle to preserve him for Torah and mitzvahs, we must understand what and who [the secular American Jew] is…. What motivates him in his religious feelings…? The image, the image of the American Jew, this is what we must define…. [But] as important as it is for us to understand the American Jew, it is of equal importance to comprehend exactly what HIS image is of us. What does he think when he hears the term Orthodoxy?
Orthodoxy was mistakenly associated with outdated rituals, he said, but it can be presented in a positive way.
“Distorted, we lament: wrong, misunderstood, the product of ignorance, but there it stands; our image in their eyes. Is all lost then? Most emphatically not…. Firstly, young [people] are idealistic. They search for idealism in a society that turns them into craven materialists. They hunger for truth and sacrifice…. We are the ones that can offer it….
“What is necessary is to establish a specially trained group of young Orthodox men and women with the proper traditional background, with a strong secular academic knowledge, and with … rapport with the typical young American Jew. People with … a deep knowledge of Torah. People who can at the same time discuss Plato and Keynes and Faraday and Marx as well. People who can prove themselves adept at the laws of Shabbos and dialectical materialism and the standings of the American League. People who can win the respect and admiration of the American Jew, who can force him to say, “It IS possible to be an Orthodox Jew in 1962!”
Meir was, unwittingly, describing himself. He indeed brought many Jews back to Judaism. In a similar vein, “To Our Non-Orthodox Readers” proclaimed:
“The non-observant Jew knows. Deep in his heart he knows. He knows that the path [he treads] is a false one, that the Judaism he professes is a mockery…. His moment of truth lies within him. His is the power to call it into being. Let him but dig deeply into his Jewish resources and draw from them the traditional Jewish qualities of courage, determination and sacrifice. Let him seek out the traditional rabbi who will hold the lamp as he wends his way home….”
A Rabbi like Meir Kahane. May the Almighty avenge his murder, and may his memory be for a blessing.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Jewish Press
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