Photo Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect
National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel (NLI) has received and has now opened public access to singularly significant archival materials from “Mr. Shushani” (also known as “Monsieur Chouchani”), a mysterious and brilliant man who served as the personal and perhaps most influential teacher to a number of significant 20th century Jewish cultural and intellectual figures, including Elie Wiesel and Emmanuel Levinas.

Shushani had an extraordinary photographic memory, and was reportedly able to recall and cite the entire Hebrew Bible, Talmud and many other Jewish texts from memory, while also mastering various fields of mathematics, physics, modern philosophy and different languages. The disheveled figure attracted students who were captivated by his unexpected charisma. Many of them saw him as one of the most influential figures in their intellectual development.

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The notebooks are full of thoughts and musings, concrete ideas in the realms of Jewish thought and other fields, memory exercises, mathematical formulas and more. Extremely difficult to decipher, a handful of scholars have been given access to some of the writings in recent years and they will now be open to the general public for the first time. Scholars believe that the notebooks will reveal some potentially groundbreaking ideas and teachings related to Jewish thought and texts.

Shushani zealously guarded his true identity and few details about his personal life are known today, more than fifty years after his death. Born in the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century, throughout his life he traveled as a vagabond around the world: in Europe, Mandatory Palestine and later Israel, the United States, Uruguay and other countries. During his travels he left a tremendous impression on his numerous students.

Though his real name remains a mystery, a number of modern scholars believe it was probably Hillel Perlman. Among his students were Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel; philosopher Emmanuel Levinas; and Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, former chair of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who donated Shushani’s materials to NLI.

As a teacher, Shushani provoked unrest in his students, attacked them with difficult questions and sometimes even verbally assaulted them for their lack of understanding. However, he encouraged them to improve and progress, and especially to think in unexpected ways. Legendary spiritual and intellectual figure Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who knew him in his youth, described Shushani as “one of the most excellent young people… sharp, knowledgeable, complete and multi-minded.”

One of Shushani’s greatest admirers was the writer Eli Wiesel, who wrote of him: “He had mastered some thirty ancient and modern languages, including Hindi and Hungarian. His French was pure, his English perfect, and his Yiddish harmonized with the accent of whatever person he was speaking with. The Vedas and the Zohar he could recite by heart. A wandering Jew, he felt at home in every culture.”

Mr. Shushani died on January 26, 1968 in Uruguay. Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, one of Israel’s leading intellectuals, was his student at the time of his death. According to Prof. Rosenberg, “the world is divided into those who knew him, and those who did not.”

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the NLI’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, “There is no more suitable place for Mr. Shushani’s archive than at the National Library, whose role is to preserve and make available to the public the intellectual and cultural treasures of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We consider it of paramount importance to bring to the public’s attention the story of one of the most mysterious and influential figures in twentieth-century Jewish thought.”

A live Zoom event (in Hebrew) exploring the collection and Mr. Shushani is set for Thursday, October 21st at 19:00 Israel time. Speakers include Prof. Elchanan Reiner, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, Prof. Shmuel Wygoda, Prof. Hanoch Ben-Pazi, Hodaya Samet Har-Shefi, David Lang, and Dr. Rina Rosenberg.

For free registration through the National Library of Israel’s website, click here.

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.