Rabbi Meir Kahane during Press Conference, 1974 (Image credit: Saar Yaacov/Government Press Office of Israel)
I had the privilege of knowing the one Jew who best represented the concept of ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew). Rabbi Meir Kahane of blessed and saintly memory, HY"D, was a towering giant, both in the US and in Israel.
I would say that he is the main source for my identity as a Jew today. He opened my eyes to some of the most important concepts of Judaism, of being a Jew and a person.
I know that these are very big words, but they are true. I have had many teachers and read many words about Judaism, but he was the man.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn back in the ‘60s, I attended yeshivot (religious Jewish schools) where we learned how to dress and how not to dress. We learned about shabbos and eating kosher. We learned lots of Torah, but I never heard about the centrality of am Yisrael (the people Israel) and eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) in the life and essence of a Jew.
I never heard that Israel was a miraculous gift from Hashem to His people, the fruition of prophecy. I never learned that it was something to get excited about and be proud of.
All I knew was that it was osur (forbidden) to attend the treif (non-kosher) Israel solidarity parade because there were girls there. Did they have such parades in Poland? No. Then how dare Jews deviate from an old tradition?
The idea was to keep the golus (exile) in our hearts and thank God that we are living in the most comfortable exile: America. What more could a Jew ever dream of?
The concept of am Yisrael was barely even an academic theoretical term where I studied. Demonstrations for our millions of brothers in the vast Soviet prison? That wasn't the Jewish way. There were girls there, and besides, it will only anger the goyim (non-Jews).
That was the eleventh commandment - never upset the goyim and threaten our place in the golden golus.
But as the complexion of the Jewish neighborhoods changed, those who could flee did so quickly. Those who could not were left to the humiliations and attacks by angry young urban youth. Their lives were hell. It was no longer the golden golus for them. Who helped them?
My grandfather, may he rest in peace, was almost killed one Friday night when some urban youths were angry that he had no money to give them. Shabbat was not a day of rest for them.
In the hospital, as I looked at his very swollen head where they repeatedly kicked him, I mused, "Zeidy, you fled the goyim in Poland. And now this, in the goldene golus?" The Jewish establishment, religious and secular alike, did not want to rock the boat as usual. They were all very frum (devout) about observing the important eleventh commandment.
Had it not been for the teaching, and even more so the example, of Rabbi Kahane, I too would have been a strict eleventh commandment hassid. He taught me that something was very not kosher.
I partook in a Jewish Defense League (JDL) patrol in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We were sent to confront, if necessary, Puerto Rican toughs who threatened to take over a Jewish home. That night they learned that there were other kinds of Jews; Jews who were there to challenge them - a strange phenomenon. They seemed very confused.
I realized that "Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li (Pirkei Avot 1:14)?” If I am not for myself who will be for me? Who taught Jews that it is the worst chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) when a goy humiliates a Jew?
Where else could I have learned this most basic concept? Not in yeshiva for sure.
Years later, when I lived in Israel, I took a cab and the driver had a Russian accent. I asked him if he heard of Rabbi Kahane in Russia?
"Of course!" he said.
"And what did you hear?"
"We were told that he was public enemy number one of the Soviet Union, and therefore we all knew that he was a tzadik! Then I sent him a letter. I explained that I want to leave Russia but I need some money. Rabbi Kahane sent me money!"
This I heard from a chance encounter with a taxi driver. I assume that his story is not unique. Oy, has there ever been a ohev Yisrael (lover of Israel) like our great rabbi?
Rabbi Kahane explained that he was motivated to do battle for Soviet Jews because someone had to do tshuva (repentance) for the criminal negligence of American Jewry during the Holocaust. The establishment then too would not rock the boat. They would not break the law and be arrested for their brothers in Europe.
But, ten years later that same establishment was ready to do just that for the Civil Rights movement. Some were even moser nefesh (self-sacrificing) and were killed for the cause. But not for European Jewry ten years earlier.
When he moved to Israel, Rabbi Kahane was very quickly beaten, imprisoned and demonized by the establishment. Establishments don't like boat rockers. That is the twelfth commandment: "Thou shalt not rock the boat."
As he warned us, pleaded with us, to remove the cancer of a foreign enemy from within before it destroys us, he was treated as a lunatic at best by the establishment, both secular and religious. Many years and rivers of blood later, we know who was sane and who is still not.
He cited the survival instinct, clear Torah sources that no one challenged, common sense - nothing could move the establishment. They discovered that they could not buy him or scare him so they banned him and ultimately destroyed him. They destroyed his body but his spirit is with us, and the seed grows.
The prophet Jeremiah shared a very similar fate as Rabbi Kahane. Both were propelled by a power that they could not subdue. They had to tell am Yisrael the truth - no matter the cost. They both paid the price, and I am sure would they would do it again.
I am a tour guide so I get around and meet all kinds of Israelis. I constantly poll people I meet throughout the country. I sidle up to a person and whisper, "'Kahane tzodek' nachon? (Kahane is right, correct?)” Usually, they give a knowing secret look and in a hushed tone say, “Betach! Tamid! (Of course, always!)"
He has planted for them the seed of Jewish pride, common sense and the knowledge that they were not crazy when they did not accept that the king has no clothes. With time, the king is looking more and more naked to more and more people - thanks to the one who stood, alone, and yelled out the truth.
It is a great honor for me to be counted among the few who knew then that there was indeed a prophet among us. May he be a melitz yosher (advocate) for the people he so so loved and may am Yisrael be zoche (meritorious) to walk in his path.
More information on events commemorating the 27th yahrzeit of Rav Meir Kahane, HY’’D, to be held in English on November 4th and in Hebrew on November 7th, can be found here.
Shalom Pollack, veteran licensed tour guide, is the director of Shalom Pollack Tours: Personalized Tours in Israel.