Latest update: June 7th, 2012
Most people never achieve their full potential, either, because they don’t really know themselves, and don’t know where their potential lies, or because they have some barrier in their way.
Meir Kahane knew himself. Even when he was a teenager, he knew that he wanted to help the Jewish People as much as he could. He recognized that Jewish identity and the true practice of Torah had been distorted by the exile and by life in foreign non-Jewish lands. Stemming from this, he recognized the great dangers of assimilation and yearned with a towering passion to cry out and warn his beloved brothers and sisters. He knew what he wanted. He understood his potential. But there was a barrier in his way. He stuttered. That’s right – Rabbi Meir Kahane, perhaps the most dynamic Jewish orator of our time, a speaker capable of inflaming hearts and inspiring the masses, a par-excellence TV debater who chopped the glib intellectual banter of opponents into tiny insignificant scraps, he had a bothersome stutter in his youth, which had to be mastered in order to fulfill his dream of reaching out to the Jewish People.
This is how he did it, as revealed in the gripping biography, Rabbi Meir Kahane – His Life and Thought, written by his wife.
He overcame his barrier. Through his example, we can learn to overcome ours.
Rabbi Meir Kahane – His Life and Thought
From Chapter Three
During his high school years, Meir began to stutter, or at least to become conscious of it. A classmate said he did not stutter when they were together in fourth grade; if he did she would have been aware of it, because her own brother stuttered.
When Meir was 20 and attending the Mirrer Yeshiva rabbinical seminary during the day and Brooklyn College at night, he decided to do something about his stuttering. In July 1952 he enrolled in the Martin Hall Institute for Speech Disorders in Bristol, Rhode Island. In a summary written for a therapist at Martin Hall, Meir related:
“When I was 9 years old my parents gave me a book for my birthday, titled, ‘So to Speak: A Practical Training Course for Developing a Beautiful Speaking Voice.” I did not know then why they gave me the book. In grade school I had no trouble. I recited in class and acted in plays. I recall going to the office, speaking to the principal, Rabbi Braverman, about skipping a grade, and to Mr. Hirsch about being the valedictorian. I was not afraid then.
“In high school I had no trouble, as far as I remember, during the first and second terms [the first year] – except that I would rather read [aloud] than speak in classes. I had trouble speaking in Rabbi Feivelson’s class, and I think he expressed surprise, but I had no trouble speaking to kids or teachers informally. Once in class, Farber poked me to say I stuttered in reading … even though I was better in reading than in talking…. The teacher definitely expressed surprise. I also had trouble in French class. (I think I was AFRAID.) I also had trouble in English at Lincoln giving reports.
“I spoke up in class, especially English … recited, etc. I approached Rabbi Zuroff about a Begin meeting. I was definitely much better conversationally than now, and had no trouble speaking to girls. My friend Victor confirms this.”
One of the most difficult things for a stutterer is making phone calls. Meir names the friends he phoned easily and those he was afraid to call. He has a fuzzy memory of being nervous about making calls for his father. He recalled a Betar meeting where he could not talk to two girls. He was afraid to speak up at the Betar convention, but he overcame his fear, and a friend assured him that he had not stuttered. In college, Meir’s fear of stuttering became worse. He wrote:
“I did do some speaking in class … though in History, I was afraid but wasn’t BODILY afraid…. I was afraid to give a report in economic geography, and walked out of the Bible Hebrew class. I was deathly afraid of speech in my last term. In fact, I dropped a previous speech class when the teacher said I stuttered. I had bad trouble asking for transcripts. I showed a paper to the guidance counselor [instead of speaking]. I stammered controllably at interviews. I had trouble answering when attendance was taken. I was afraid to talk up in sociology…. When I was 19, I couldn’t ask for a stapler at Macy’s.”
Some stutterers discover that they cease stuttering when they are distracted from their usual speech patterns. Almost any novel stimulus, such as tapping a finger, swinging the arms, or stamping a foot, can serve as a distraction (until the novelty wears off). Meir’s trick was to blink, as he did on various occasions in later years.
Meir was one of many young people from all over the United States who came to Martin Hall for its excellent speech training. The institute’s method of relearning speech patterns helped him immensely. The program began with breathing exercises and proceeded through the diligent practice of sounds, words, and phrases. The students were also made aware of the psychological aspects of stuttering. In large letters, Meir wrote in his Martin Hall notebook: “If fear hits, stop. Say it slowly, long pause(s), but SAY IT.”
During that summer at the institute, Meir was the only Orthodox Jew. Most of the students were not Jewish, and many had never met a Jew. Yet Meir did not hesitate to speak of his beliefs with them, as is evident from their messages to him in his speech notebook. At the back of the notebook, together with his menu plan (cornflakes, canned soup, sardines, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges and apples), are end-of-term greetings such as, “To Kosher Boy: Best of luck to a guy with strong convictions,” and, “To A Very Nice Guy: I hope that you reach your goal in speech and in going to Israel. I am very sure that you will … ”
At the peak of Meir’s career as founder and leader of the Jewish Defense League, a reporter wrote: “At some time in his youth, he apparently forced himself to master a stutter; his tongue still falters occasionally, but the flow of ideas into words is remarkably fluent.”
Intent on mastering his stutter, Meir was on the debating team throughout high school. Rabbi Witty recalled: “Meir was without question – as I look back on our school days together – a highly capable, probably even gifted student. He was especially talented in Jewish studies, no doubt an outcome of being raised in the type of rabbinic home in which he was reared. But what often surprised me was his inordinate knowledge of, and familiarity with, world affairs, current events, and what was transpiring in disciplines and study areas which I had taken always to be the province of adults. Despite his well-known speech impediment, he was amazingly articulate; his command of language and the ideas he offered were impressive…. [He had a] remarkable command of seemingly esoteric information about the Irgun, the Stern Group, and the entire political situation that surrounded the years of pre-state Israel.”
BTA had an important influence on Meir, but Betar, which was his personal choice, was even more important in determining the direction his life would take.
Tomorrow, God willing, we will continue our celebration of Book Week with an excerpt from the scholarly treatise which sets forth Rabbi Kahane’s profound Torah vision: “The Jewish Idea.”
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 solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press
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