Bezalel Naor

The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Missing Mayer 

Rav Kook’s Missing Student[1]

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Recent years have seen a breakthrough regarding the elusive identity of “Monsieur Chouchani,” the mysterious vagabond who in the capacity of mentor, exerted such an incredibly profound effect upon the Nobel-laureate novelist Elie Wiesel as well as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the post-war, post-Holocaust years in France. I am referring to the identification of Chouchani as none other than Hillel Pearlman, an early student of Rav Kook in his short-lived Jaffa Yeshivah.[2]

Pivotal to the identification (which we shall not enter into here) is a letter that Rav Kook penned from exile in St. Gallen, Switzerland to two students of the Yeshivah. We offer the letter in English translation:

With the help of God

6 Tishri 5676 [i.e., 1915]

A good conclusion[3] to my beloved soul-friends, each man according to his blessing,[4] the dear “groom,” the Rabbi, sharp and encyclopedic, crowned with rare qualities and character traits, our teacher Rabbi Hillel, may his light shine; and the dear “groom,” exceptional in Torah and awe of heaven, modest and crowned with rare character traits, Mr. Meir, may his light shine.

Peace! Peace! Blessing with abundant love.

My dear friends, for too, too long I delayed the response to your dear letter. In your goodness you will give me the benefit of the doubt. Only as a result of the preoccupation brought on by the pain of exile and the heart’s longing produced by the general situation (God have mercy), were things put off.

Many thanks to you, our dear Mr. Meir, for your detailed letter, whereby you deigned in your goodness to write to us in detail the state of our family members in the Holy Land, especially the state of the girls, may they live.[5] May the Lord repay your kindness and gladden your soul with every manner of happiness and success, and may we together rejoice in the joy of the Land of Delight upon the holy soil, when the Lord will grant salvation to His world, His land and His inheritance, speedily, speedily, soon.

And you, my beloved Mr. Hillel, all power to you for your dear words, upright words pronounced with proper feeling and the longing of a pure heart. We are standing opposite a great and powerful vision previously unknown in human history. There is no doubt that changes of great value are hidden in the depths of this world vision. There is also no doubt that the hand of Israel through the spirit, the voice of Jacob,[6] must be revealed here. Far be it from us to treat as false all the deeds and events, the longing for general life, that we experienced the past years. As much as they are mixed with impurities; as much as they failed to assume their proper form, their living description, their true life—we see in them in the final analysis, correspondence to the holy vision, unmistakable signs that things are happening according to a higher plan. The hand of the Lord holds them, to pave a way for His people, weary from its multitudinous troubles, and also for His world, crouching under the weight of confused life.

It is certainly difficulty at this time to trace which is the way of the process, but in this respect we may be certain: The terrible wandering of such great and essential portions of our nation residing in Eastern Europe, where the spiritual life of Israel is concentrated, and the necessity of rebuilding physically and spiritually new communities, educational institutions and Torah academies—will bring numerous new results, certainly for good. From those new winds that have been blowing in our world for the past half-century and more, something is to be derived, if we can purify them, erecting them upon foundations of purity and holiness. The opinions and longing for spiritual and physical building of Israel; the mighty desire of building the Land and the Nation, despite external and internal obstacles; the visions tucked away in the hearts of numerous thinkers to uplift the horn of Israel and its spirit, to bind together the strength of life with the sanctity of the soul, the talent of understanding with the depth of faith, immediate implementation with longing for salvation—all these are things that will bear fruit, and the Master of Wars, blessed be He, will grow from all of them His salvation.[7]

One thing we know for certain, that we are invited to great projects: philosophic projects; literary and publicistic projects; practical and social projects; projects at the interior of eternal life and projects of temporal and secular life; projects that remain within the border of Israel; and projects that overflow and touch the streams of life of the world at large and their many relations with the world of Israel, which was, is, and will be a blessing to all the families of earth,[8] as the word of the Lord to our ancestor [Abraham] in antiquity.

My beloved, I request that you write to us whatever is [happening] to you, your situation in detail, whether in spiritual or material matters; whatever you imagine might interest us, whether of private or public affairs. For all I will be exceedingly grateful to you, with God’s help.

I am your fast friend, looking for your happiness and success, and your return together with all our scattered people to the holy soil in happiness and success. May the Lord bless you with all good and extend to you peace and blessing and a good conclusion, as is your wish and the wish of one who seeks your peace and good all the days, longing for the salvation of the Lord,

Abraham Isaac Ha[Kohen] K[ook][9]

In order to understand the contents of the letter, the better to grasp the identities of its two recipients, we must first acquaint ourselves with the circumstances in which it was written.

For one decade, from 1904 to 1914, Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook served as Rabbi of the port city of Jaffa (precursor to Tel-Aviv). During those years in Jaffa he taught a select group of students in a yeshivah of his own making. (This yeshivah is not to be confused with the famous Yeshivah Merkaz Harav founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 1920s.) In summer of 1914, Rav Kook set sail for Europe to attend the Knessiyah Gedolah or World Congress of the recently organized Agudath Israel movement. Due to the outbreak of World War One (on Tish’ah be-Av of that year), the conference was cancelled. Unable to return to Jaffa, Rav Kook remained stranded in Europe for the duration of the War, first in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where his needs were provided for by a sympathetic Mr. Abraham Kimhi, and later in London, where Rav Kook served as Rabbi of the Mahzikei Hadat synagogue in London’s East End.[10]

Much concerning the Jaffa yeshivah remains shrouded in mystery. No archive remains of this short-lived institution.[11] Thus we are pretty much left in the dark as to the curriculum,[12] enrollment, and even location. Fortunately, significant headway has been made in this direction in the recent article by Moshe Nahmani of the Yeshivat Hesder of Ramat Gan, “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo” (“Closed Gates—The Yeshivah of Rabbi Kook in Jaffa”).[13] Through painstaking research, the author was able to put together a list of students. Researchers had no difficulty identifying the “Hillel” of the letter as Hillel Pearlman. It was merely a case of “connecting the dots.”[14] But Nahmani was baffled by the “Meir” who is one of two co-addressees in our letter.[15]

I believe that I have solved the mystery of the missing Meir. In 1977, I was a visitor to the home of Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. Rabbi Goldberg was a successful businessman (at that time in real estate) and a Jewish philanthropist, especially supportive of yeshivot or rabbinical academies. Rabbi Goldberg revealed to me that he had studied under Rabbi Kook in Jaffa.[16] He then went on to share with me a teaching of Rav Kook that I have since repeated on many an occasion. He said that before being exposed to Rav Kook’s teaching, the term “yir’at shamayim” (“fear of heaven”) had only a restrictive, narrowing connotation. Rav Kook explained the term in a totally different light. By the term “yir’at shamayim,” Rav Kook conveyed to his young listeners the vastness, the enormity, the infinitude of the universe.

Reading Moshe Nachmani’s article concerning Rav Kook’s yeshivah in Jaffa, and his bafflement as to the full identity of the student named simply “Meir,” I recalled my meeting with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg. I resolved that during my forthcoming visit to the East Bay area (as it has come to be known) I would meet with the late Rabbi’s children to learn from them more details of their father’s involvement with Rav Kook. What emerged from our discussion (conducted on February 14, 2013) is the following reconstruction of events.

Mayer Vevrick was born circa 1890 “near Kiev.”[17] At some time before World War One, Mayer boarded a ship from Odessa to Jaffa. In the words of his daughter Rachel Landes:

Once he arrived in Jaffa, he sought out the yeshiva of Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Avraham Kook was a world renowned scholar and it was there my father headed to study further. He became a “hasid,” a follower of the Rabbi, and thoroughly enjoyed his studies there. He lived in Rabbi Kook’s home.[18] He studied Talmud…with Rashi and the commentaries, for many hours a day with the other young men. These were the happiest days of his life, with uninterrupted Torah study, and the joy of learning with Rabbi Kook. Mayer adopted [Rabbi] Kook’s philosophy and was guided by it for the rest of his life.[19]

In World War One, Mayer left Jaffa for Egypt. There he was held by the British in an internment camp. Eventually, with some ingenuity, he was able to book passage on a boat to the United States.[20] Initially he resided on the East Coast. In Boston, he received a ketav semikha (writ of ordination) from Rabbi [Joseph M.] Jacobson. The semikha was written by Rabbi Jacobson on the spot in recognition of Mayer’s knowledge of Torah.[21] Later, Rabbi Mayer relocated to the West Coast, first to Washington State and finally to California.[22]

What becomes apparent from the letter of Rav Kook is that Meir remained in Jaffa after Rav Kook’s departure for Europe (followed almost immediately by the outbreak of World War One), and thus was in a position to give the Rav an update on the welfare of his daughters left behind in Jaffa. What also becomes apparent, is that in the Fall of 1915, Meir and his companion Hillel were no longer in the Land of Israel but somewhere else, for in his concluding remarks Rav Kook expresses the wish that they return to the Holy Land. This is consistent with Rabbi Goldberg’s biography, whereby he (along with countless other Jews of Erets Israel) was forced to flee the Holy Land at that time.[23] This also coincides with the reconstructed biography of Hillel (Pearlman). Both students of Rav Kook, Hillel (Pearlman) and Meir (Goldberg) ended up in the United States in World War One. Whereas we are being told that Hillel (Pearlman) later left the United States for Europe and North Africa, reinventing himself as the mysterious “Monsieur Chouchani,” Mayer Goldberg remained in the United States.

Rabbi Mayer Goldberg passed away on September 25, 1992, a centenarian.[24] Shortly before his passing, Rabbi Goldberg had published in Jerusalem a collection of kabbalistic insights (culled from his marginalia in the books of his library), entitled Margaliyot shel Torah (Pearls of Torah). Much of the material in the book is attributed to the kabbalistic work Yalkut Reubeni.[25] My attention was riveted to an unattributed piece, which would appear to originate with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg himself:

In Exodus 2:12 we read that Moses slew the Egyptian (who was beating a Hebrew) and buried him in the sand. The Hebrew words are: “Vayyakh et ha-mitsri vayitmenehu ba-hol.”

 

Rabbi Goldberg observes that the word “ha-mitsri” (“the Egyptian”) has the same numerical value (gematria) as the word “Moshe” (“Moses”). In other words, Moses slew himself! The Rabbi then goes on to explain that what is truly conveyed by the verse, is that Moses slew the opinions of Egypt. Moses, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, had imbibed secular knowledge stripped of Godliness. So in other words, on a deeper level, what Moses was actually slaying was himself, or a part of himself that was thoroughly Egyptian in outlook. He then buried that secular learning devoid of Godliness “in the sand.” Here the Rabbi plays on the word “hol,”which may have another meaning beside “sand”: the secular. This is to say, Moses buried that tainted learning in the secular realm.[26]



©2013 by Bezalel Naor

[1] The writer wishes to express his gratitude to Eve Gordon-Ramek and Robert H. Warwick, children of the late Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, for their invaluable contribution to the preparation of this article.

[2] Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, former Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who was present at the time of Chouchani’s death in Uruguay, was so convinced of the identification that he named his son “Hillel” after his revered master. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel,” Mussaf Shabbat, Makor Rishon, 3 Ellul, 5771 [2.9.2011]; Yair Sheleg, “Goodbye, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, Sept. 26, 2003; Solomon Malka, Monsieur Chouchani: L’énigme d’un maitre du XXème siècle (Paris, 1994). Recently, a website has been devoted exclusively  to Chouchani. At www.chouchani.com we are told that a film is being produced of the life of Mr. Shushani!

I have two anecdotes to contribute to the growing literature on Chouchani, the first heard from Prof. Andre Neher (1914-1988), the second from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky (former Chief Rabbi of Mexico).

  • My dear friend Andre (Asher Dov) Neher z”l had been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at the University of Strasburg. I knew him in his last years after his retirement to Jerusalem. Neher told me that in his youth, his father had hired Chouchani to teach him Talmud. At their initial meeting it was decided that they would study Tractate Beitsah. Chouchani said to the young Neher: “In the next hour I can either teach you the first folio of the Tractate, or sum up for you the entire Tractate!”
  • Similarly, in the final phase of Chouchani’s career (in Montevideo, Uruguay), Rabbi Aaron Milevsky (1904-1986), Chief Rabbi of Uruguay, hired Chouchani to tutor his young son Uzi in Talmud. Chouchani rewarded Uzi’s diligence by allowing him to quiz him on any entry in the dictionary. Uzi asked Chouchani for the Latin name of some obscure butterfly, which Chouchani was able to supply without hesitation! (Heard from Rabbi Nachum Lansky of Baltimore, shelit”a, quoting Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z”l.)

 

At the onset of this article I wish to clarify one point. Should the identification of Hillel Pearlman with “Monsieur Chouchani” one day prove incorrect, that would in no way affect the positive identification of Rav Kook’s addressee “Meir” as Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. The identification of the mysterious “Meir” as Rabbi Meir Goldberg is in no way contingent upon the identification of Hillel Pearlman as “Chouchani,” but rather stands on its own merits.

[3] Traditional blessing for the New Year uttered between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

[4] Cf. Genesis 49:28.

[5] While Rav Kook and his Rebbetzin (as well as their only son Tsevi Yehudah) were together in Europe, their daughters were left behind in Jaffa, and Rav Kook was most anxious as to their welfare. The family would not be reunited until after World War One, when Rav Kook returned from European exile to the Holy Land.

[6] Genesis 27:22.

[7] Allusion to the conclusion of the Yotser prayer recited in the morning service: “ba’al milhamot, zore’a tsedakot, matsmi’ah yeshu’ot” (“Master of wars, Planter of righteousness, Grower of salvations”). A year into World War One, Rav Kook already envisioned that the outcome of the War would be a shifting of the center of Jewish life from Eastern Europe elsewhere, as well as the further advancement of the building of the Holy Land.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. III (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1965), Letter 740 (pp. 2-3).

[10] Mr. Jacob Rosenheim, organizer of the Knessiyah Gedolah, subsequently penned a letter of apology to Rav Kook, for by extending the invitation to him to attend the conference, Rosenheim had indirectly brought about Rav Kook’s misfortune.

[11] Moshe Nahmani posits that it existed for 6-7 years from 1909/10-1915.

[12] We do know that one subject on the curriculum, namely Kuzari by Rabbi Judah Halevi, aroused the ire of the Jerusalem zealot Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein. See my translation of Orot (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2004), p. 236, n. 169.

[13] Available on the website www.shoresh.org.il, dated 4/17/2012 or 25 Nissan, 5772.

According to Moshe Nahmani, the true reason that so little is known of this earlier yeshivah of Rav Kook is that Rav Kook himself suppressed publicity concerning its inner life, for fear that should word of the curriculum leak out, the yeshivah would come under attack from the ever vigilant rabbis of Jerusalem. (In fact, Rav Kook’s teaching of Kuzari to the students was sharply criticized by the zealous Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein of Jerusalem.) Nahmani believes that Rav Kook was dispensing the arcane wisdom of Kabbalah to the students—sufficient grounds for keeping publicity away from the yeshivah. (But the Kabbalah may not have been the standard Kabbalah as taught in Jerusalem. We know that one of the instructors in the yeshivah was Shem Tov Geffen (1856-1927), an autodidactic genius who fused the study of Kabbalah together with mathematics and physics.) Of course, this is speculation on Nahmani’s part. What is factual, is that Rav Kook taught in Jaffa the Kuzari of Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary to Tractate Avot or Ethics of the Fathers)—which in themselves represented a departure from the standard curriculum of the contemporary yeshivot.

[14] In one day, 26 Iyyar, 5675, Rav Kook sent two letters from St. Gallen to America (Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. II, Letters 733-734). The first letter is addressed to Rabbi Meir Berlin asking that he lend assistance to Rav Kook’s student, newly arrived immigrant Hillel Pearlman. The second letter is addressed to Hillel Pearlman himself, expressing pain that he too was exiled from the Holy Land, and offering encouragement, as well as the practical suggestion that he establish contact with Rabbi Meir Berlin, and with Rav Kook’s staunch friend Dr. Moshe Seidel, who might be in a position to help. In a postscript Rav Kook, noting that Hillel Perlman had spent some time in the house after Rav Kook’s own absence, asks for details concerning the welfare of the two Kook daughters left behind in Jaffa, Batyah Miriam and Esther Yael. Logic dictates that our Hillel is Hillel Pearlman of the earlier letters. What eventually became of Hillel Perlman and whether he in fact “morphed“ into “Monsieur Chouchani” remains something of a mystery. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[15] “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo,” Part II, note 51. So too in Nahmani’s earlier article “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[16] He told this writer that before arriving in Jaffa from his native Russia, he had studied under the “Gadol of Minsk.”

 

According to the memoir of Rabbi Goldberg’s daughter, Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (October 15, 2009), her father grew up in Krementchug, Ukraine. She also writes that at one point in his career, her father studied in a Yeshivah Gedolah under Rabbi Zimmerman. Though Landes does not specify that the Yeshivah was located in Krementchug (to the contrary she writes that the Yeshivah was in Kiev), one ventures a guess that this Yeshivah of Rabbi Zimmerman was actually that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman, Rabbi of Krementchug. The latter was the father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Baer Leibowitz (famed student of Rabbi Hayyim Halevi Soloveitchik, known as “Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk,” and himself Rosh Yeshivah of Knesset Beit Yitzhak, first located in Slabodka, and between the two World Wars in Kamenetz) and grandfather of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim Halevi Zimmerman (1915-1995), Rosh Yeshivah of Beit ha-Midrash le-Torah (Hebrew Theological College) in Skokie, Illinois. (Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman’s father, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Halevi Zimmerman was the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman of Krementchug.) But again, this is mere conjecture on my part.

[17] According to Rachel Landes’ memoir, her father was born in Krementchug. In his Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), Mayer writes that he was born in “[illegible] near Kiev.” Mayer adopted the surname “Goldberg” in the United States.

[18] The fact that Meir (or Mayer) resided in the Kook home would explain how he was able to supply Rav Kook with information concerning the Rav’s daughters. Nahmani noted that Rav Kook had earlier asked Hillel Perlman for details concerning the girls, the assumption being that Hillel Perlman had resided in the Rav’s home (though that is not explicitly stated in Rav Kook’s letter to Hillel Pearlman). See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[19] Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (2009), p. 2.

[20] According to Mayer Warwick Goldberg’s Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), he booked passage on a Greek steamship from Alexandria, Egypt to New York under the assumed name “Othniel Kaplan” in Spring of 1915 or 1916. Writing twenty-five years after the fact, Mayer could no longer recall the precise date, whether the arrival in New York had taken place in Spring of 1915 or Spring of 1916. We are in a position now to aid his memory. We know from Rav Kook’s letters to Rabbi Meir Berlin and to Hillel Pearlman, both datelined “St. Gallen, 26 Iyyar 5675,” that as of Spring 1915, Hillel Perlman was in America. In order for Rav Kook’s letter of 6 Tishri, 5676 to be addressed jointly to Hillel and Meir, Meir too would have had to reside in America by Fall of 1915. That could only be so if Meir (or Mayer) arrived in New York in Spring of 1915—not 1916!

[21] The fact that Rav Kook does not address Meir by the title “Harav” in the salutation (as he does Hillel) indicates that Meir was not yet an ordained rabbi in the Fall of 1915.

[22] According to information supplied in his 1940 Application for…Naturalization, Mayer resided in New York City and Brooklyn from 1916 to 1917; in New Haven and Colchester, Connecticut from 1917 to 1919; in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington from 1919 to 1922; in San Francisco from 1922 to 1930; and in Oakland from 1930 to 1940.

[23] To quote from Rachel Landes’ memoir (p. 2): “…World War I broke out. The Turks, who were in control of Palestine, sided with Germany, and Russia was on the side of the Allies. My father, being from Russia, found himself classified as an enemy alien. The Turks began to round up all foreign nationals. It became clear that my father could not stay there.”

[24] At the 24th Annual Banquet of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, held on Sunday, December 6, 1992, a moving tribute was paid to the recently departed Rabbi Mayer Goldberg.

[25] Yalkut Reubeni (Wilmersdorf, 1681), by Reuben Hoshke HaKohen (Sofer) of Prague (died 1673), is a kabbalistic collection on the Pentateuch.

[26] Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, Margaliyot shel Torah (Jerusalem, 5750), p. 112. The Hebrew original reads:

ויך – 36 כמנין ל”ו כריתות [משנה, כריתות א, א], משה כרת את המצרי, כרת את החיצונים, ויטמינם בחולין. המצרי שהרג משה – הדעות של מצרים שמשה למד, חיצוניות בלי אלוהות –הרג וטמן בחולין, כי מש”ה בגימטריא המצר”י.

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