In advance of the 30th yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir Kahane – assassinated on November 5, 1990 – The Jewish Press spoke with Lenny Goldberg, 62, a longtime Kahane student and author of The Wit and Wisdom of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He lives in the Samarian community of Kfar Tapuach with his wife and eight children.
The Jewish Press: When did you first meet Rabbi Kahane?
Goldberg: I first saw him in 1983 when I was 25. I was a totally secular Jew, but my folks were Zionists. I was visiting a friend who was learning law at Miami University, and my mother called me and said Rabbi Kahane would be speaking on the campus of Miami U. “Maybe you should try listening to him,” she said, worried that I would marry a non-Jewish girl I had been dating.
My friends and I decided to go. Among other things, there were demonstrations and lots of “action” around the event, which aroused our interest. Rabbi Kahane appeared with two bodyguards. Before he spoke, the Hillel rabbi of the campus, who didn’t want him there, confronted Rabbi Kahane and said to him, “I’m not comfortable to see you with bodyguards. This is a peaceful college campus. I’m not comfortable with this.”
Rabbi Meir responded, “There are threats on my life, so I’m comfortable.” My friends and I cracked up, and continued to be mesmerized by his handling of the audience, the hecklers, the Arabs on campus, and the hardcore liberals. It was a great show for us, like watching a master debater and comedian at the same time.
From that point on, we were hooked by his genius. It also gave us a boost of Jewish pride to see an Orthodox rabbi handling himself so masterfully in a mostly hostile atmosphere. We had never been in contact with Orthodox Jews before and had stereotypes of them being square, etc. Rabbi Kahane definitely broke that image for us.
You say you were “hooked.” Was there something in particular that grabbed you?
It was a combination of his convincing style, his certainty, his seriousness, his sense of humor, his erudition, his keen insight and his broad Torah understanding. On a non-Jewish campus in America, he convinced us from a logical point of view why we must embrace the religion of our forefathers and live in Israel.
We sensed his deep immersion in Torah because at one point in the speech, a girl said he was violating something in the Torah, and she quoted what she said was a Torah verse. He answered her, “You show me where that’s written, and I’ll swim back to Israel.”
I saw the dumbest look on that girl’s face. She couldn’t answer. The point is: I knew he must have known a lot of Torah to say that to her. But he didn’t quote passages with us that day; we wouldn’t have understood.
Like many people who’ve heard him speak, I walked out of that room a different person than when I entered.
What happened subsequently?
As I continued to follow the rabbi, his message penetrated deeper and deeper. Basically, he was saying: Go to Israel and learn Torah. I started to read his Jewish Press column and books and became serious about making aliyah.
Then I read something he wrote: “I’m not disappointed with the people who disagree with me. I’m disappointed with the people who agree with me, but who are too mired in their apathy and inability to escape their tiny lives.” That hit me hard. So, two years after I saw him that first time, I mustered up the courage to make aliyah and become a baal teshuvah.
My friends didn’t go all the way with it as I did. But I know countless others who in the rabbi’s merit either learned in yeshiva, broke up with their goyisha girlfriend, or made aliyah – often all three.
Did breaking from your past come easy?
I had an MBA in marketing, and was working for a big ad agency in Manhattan – “J. Walter Thompson” on Lexington Ave – but I knew that if I didn’t make aliyah soon, it wouldn’t happen because I’d become rooted, get married, get a promotion, etc., and it would be harder to leave.
My boss gave me a couple of job leads in Israel, but then I met Rabbi Kahane at a house party and told him he was the reason I was making aliyah and maybe he could give me an idea what I should do there. He told me, “Steep yourself in Torah.”
I didn’t understand the concept of going to yeshiva and learning, but that’s what I eventually did.
How did your family react to your change?
My family is a bit unusual. They were the ones who turned me on to Rabbi Kahane in the first place. They donated to the JDL, they used to hear him on talk radio, and they religiously read his column in The Jewish Press. My whole family eventually became baal teshuvahs because of his influence.
What was your connection with Rabbi Kahane like in Israel?
When I made aliyah, I started to realize that just as he was right about the emptiness and hypocrisy of Jewish life in America, he was also right about the things that needed to be changed in Israel. The difference was, in Israel he was banned from the media and didn’t have a platform to get his message across in an intellectual way.
In the States, he was formally debating Alan Dershowitz. In Israel, he was restricted to holding rallies in the street – speaking to the grassroots – a totally different kind of forum. But he was versatile.
I joined his Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea when it opened in 1987. As a Torah scholar and teacher, Rabbi Kahane was in his element more than anywhere else, quoting from sources with a computer-like memory, in the most simple manner, backing up his passion for truth by quoting Scripture and relying on the commentaries of the great rabbis from the past.
This was a very different side of Rabbi Kahane, not the public image of fire and brimstone or the crafty debater.
What was the yeshiva like?
We learned everything you learn in regular yeshivot with an added dose of Rav Kahane’s teachings. During bein hazmanim, we would go to the political rallies to help the rabbi ignite the crowd.
What was your reaction to the banning of Rabbi Kahane’s Kach party in 1988?
It was totally political. The rabbi’s message of expelling the Arabs was catching on like brushfire because the Intifada broke out in 1987, and it was proving to everyone that Kahane was right.
The media hated him, painting him as a madman who wanted to expel the Arabs, but, ironically the headlines they gave him helped disseminate his message. All the surveys had his party winning 10-20 seats in the Knesset, making it the number three party after Likud and Labor. I have the newspaper clippings to prove it. You could feel the momentum in the air.
The whole rotten episode proved what the rabbi always said about the hypocrisy of Israeli democracy. It exposed the fact that democracy in Israel is a sham. Rabbi Kahane played by their rules and won the people over while keeping within the law. He was ousted from the playing field only because he was getting hugely popular.
The ban put an end to the hope that Israel’s redemption could happen through the existing political mechanisms such as the Supreme Court and the Knesset.
What was your reaction to the murder of Rabbi Kahane?
The assassination shocked me like it did everyone else…. There was a terrible feeling of chillul Hashem right after the murder, knowing that a great and proud Jewish leader whose entire message was kiddush Hashem was killed by an Arab.
Very often, the students of a rabbi feel they have a unique attachment to him. Did you feel such an attachment?
I was blessed to see different sides of the rabbi. Even his closest students, because they were Israeli, never saw the rabbi in the forums I did, debating, answering phone calls on talk-show radio, and meeting the American press with his mastery of the English language.
Two years ago, I organized a yahrzeit for the rabbi in Tapuach, and I put together some of my favorite video clips with really good Hebrew translations. One of them was a two-minute clip where the rabbi was doing kiruv at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. The closest students of the rabbi were at the yahrzeit event, and they were stunned how powerful it was.
As well as they may have known him, an Israeli could only know him from the rallies, where he basically just yelled a simple message, or as a talmid chacham in the yeshiva.
The side of him doing kiruv and his uncanny ability to demolish a debate opponent were aspects of his personality never witnessed by the Israelis, even his students. I put the University of Pennsylvania clip on Facebook and it garnered 20,000 views in a week.
What was your relationship like with his son, Rabbi Binyamin Kahane, who took over the Kach movement after his father’s assassination?
I was very close to him. He was a total student of his father, not diverting from his example. He was a prolific writer, and I translated just about everything he ever said and wrote into English. His writing was so good, it was a thrill to translate. I did this for 10 years on a voluntary basis until he too was assassinated.
What would you say is Rabbi Kahane’s legacy?
Rabbi Kahane taught us that you have to say the truth, even if it’s unpopular, in order to save Jews.
There is also an intrinsic value in speaking the Torah truth even if people won’t listen, as G-d told Ezekiel, “Whether they listen or not, so they will know there was a prophet amongst them.” You have to put G-d’s word out there, so that the people will have the choice – so they won’t be able to say, “We didn’t know.”
The rabbi warned us of the Arab danger, but he was simply repeating the verses of the Torah: “If you don’t drive out the inhabitants of the land, they will be thorns in your eyes.” Rabbi Kahane explained that this is one of the mitzvot that serve as a yardstick for our belief in Hashem. Will we fear the nations or will we fear G-d? When we say in davening, “Those with chariots and horses, but we come in the name of Hashem” – is that just lip service?
Judaism isn’t a matter of merely performing private commandments, he taught. The Torah is our national constitution with national mitzvot that we have to obey – such as [expelling] the Arabs and conquering Eretz Yisrael. The national mitzvot are the ones that test if our faith in Hashem is truly genuine.
The other basic lesson he taught was Kiddush Hashem on a national level. The State of Israel came into being, not because we deserved it, but to wipe out the chillul Hashem of the exile, which reached its peak during the Holocaust. Any weakness on the part of Am Yisrael is a chillul Hashem, since we are His representatives in the world.
Thus, G-d brought us back to Israel and led us to miraculous victories in order to sanctify His Nname which was downtrodden by the nations for 2,000 years.
He taught us was to think in terms of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem. We must hold onto our Divinely-given homeland and defeat the Arab enemy, not for “security” reasons, but for kiddush Hashem, so the nations won’t perceive us as weak, because that means the G-d of Israel is weak or that G-d has abandoned us, Heaven forbid.
The annual gathering in Israel for Rabbi Kahane’s yahrzeit will take place this year on Zoom on November 5 at 8:00 p.m. (Israel time). It can be joined via 30y.co.il.
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Excerpt From Lenny Goldberg’s Book
Another Reform rabbi that Rabbi Kahane dealt with was Emmet Frank, a wealthy Reform rabbi from Miami Beach. Frank was doing “quickie” conversions. But real quick, even by reform standards. “In by 9, out by five” was Frank’s motto. Yes, from gentile to Jew in just eight hours! His ads were plastered all over Miami Beach, and the cost was $1500. Not a bad sum to placate the in-laws.
To expose this fraud, Rabbi Kahane invited the media and the Jewish community to Emmet Frank’s office, and brought over a real-live goat, insisting that Frank convert the goat. When Frank refused, Rabbi Kahane, with goat standing by his side, told Frank: “But the goat has prepared himself for this. He has grown a beard for the occasion. Why are you discriminating against him? He wants to change his name from ‘Billy the Kid’ to ‘Izzy the Eyz’ [eyz is Hebrew for goat], and you refuse to allow him to nestle under the wings of the Divine Presence?”…
Rabbi Kahane viewed Emmet Frank as the most blatant manifestation of Reform Judaism which threatens to split the Jews into two separate nations, one unable to marry the second. He therefore decided to make life miserable for him, and to embarrass him, driving him away from Jewish affairs and preventing him from causing irreparable harm to the Jewish People.