Did you ever wonder how someone becomes a Torah scholar? I don’t mean just any old neighborhood rabbi who is able to quote a few sources (which for me is still very impressive) but rather someone who has an in depth understanding of the underlying ideas that all the various sources are trying to convey. Although this may sound like a trivial matter, the truth is there are few people who really acquire such an understanding.
One such person I’ve had the privilege of knowing for several years is Rabbi Moshe Zuriel. Although his appearance could cast him as just another “black hat” haredi rabbi living in Bnei Brak, the Rav (Hebrew for Rabbi) is anything but that. For starters he’s an ardent Zionist and strong advocate of Jewish settlement anywhere in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). For many years, until health slowed him down, he would periodically give lectures in various communities throughout Judea and Samaria in order to strengthen the morale of the people living there. In addition, he’s penned one of the more well-known books on the works of Rabbi Avraham Kook, a five volume set called Otrzot Ha-Ra’ayah. For anyone who is familiar with Israel, this in itself separates the Rav from most of the residents in Bnei Brak since in the haredi world Rabbi Kook is more or less a persona non grata.
A prolific writer known, amongst other things, for both providing indexes to some of the most difficult material (ie. an index for the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Tikunei Ha-Zohar) as well as for collating tremendous amounts of scattered sources (in Otzrot Emunah he provides 170 different books as reference material for over a hundred topics of Jewish religious thought), the Rav has written roughly thirty books on a wide variety of Torah subjects as well as countless articles. Although fluent in English as a result of spending most of his youth in America, all of his published works are in Hebrew. For anyone interested, many of his articles can be found on the Beit El Yeshiva site.
In order to better understand how he acquired such vast knowledge as well as hear his story firsthand (everyone has a story), I recently made a long overdue visit to the Rav in his Bnei Brak apartment.
From Germany to Cuba to America
Yoel Meltzer (YM): It’s good to see you Rav Zuriel, I haven’t been here in years. I want to go back in time with you and hear your story. If I’m not mistaken, you were born in Germany in 1938. If so, how did you get out of Germany?
Rabbi Moshe Zuriel (MZ): My father was a Polish citizen and my mother was German born. My father was thrown out of Germany as a foreigner half a year before my mother was also ejected from the country. She was placed on a train with four children and a few hundred other Jews, all of us deported to Poland. We were the last train before the border was closed. The Poles however didn’t want any more Jews, which turned out to be a godsend since otherwise we would have ended up in a concentration camp. At the same time, however, the Germans didn’t want us back as well. So we were stuck on the train for two days, all of us crushed together. Being a small infant, only six months old, I fainted from hunger. My mother told me that someone gave me half a banana which in turn kept me alive.
The Germans then decided to let us come back for two weeks to make preparations for leaving. They didn’t care where we went as long as we left Germany. However, since no country in Europe was ready to accept a few hundred Jewish refugees we decided to hire a ship, at our own expense, and set sail for South America in the hope that some country would let us in. My father, who until then was in Switzerland, was also with us on the ship.
Similar to the case in Europe, no one in South America wanted us and we were rejected by nine countries – Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, etc. We were on the ship for about two months until finally some wealthy Jews in New York gave serious bribe money to the leadership in Cuba in order to convince them to let us stay in Cuba. They agreed and we were there for two years with all of our expenses being paid by the same New York Jews.
YM: And after two years, where did you go?
MZ: We were then allowed into America and we settled in New York (Brooklyn). I grew up there and as a youth I was involved in the Bnei Akiva youth movement where I developed my love for Israel. Eventually I studied at the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore during the day while at night I studied at Loyola University in order get a degree in education. I wanted to be a teacher in Israel so I needed to get a degree.