Who was Mister Shushani? Qui était Monsieur Chouchani?

Monsieur Chouchani (? – 1968), or “Shushani,” is the nickname of an otherwise anonymous and enigmatic Jewish teacher who taught a small number of distinguished students in post-World War II Europe and elsewhere, including Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel.

Not much is known about “M. Chouchani,” including his real name, a secret which he zealously guarded. His origins are completely unknown, and his gravestone (located in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he died in January 1968) reads, “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” The text is by Elie Wiesel who paid for this gravestone. The name “Shushani,” which means “person from Shushan,” is most probably an allegorical reference, or possibly a pun. Elie Wiesel hypothesizes that Chouchani’s real name was Mordechai Rosenbaum, while Hebrew University professor Shalom Rosenberg asserts that Chouchani’s actual name was Hillel Perlmann.

Although there is no known body of works by Chouchani himself, there is a very strong intellectual legacy seen in the influence on his pupils. By all accounts, Chouchani had the appearance of a vagabond and yet was reputed to be a master of vast areas of human knowledge, including science, mathematics, philosophy and especially the Talmud. Most of the biographical details of Chouchani’s life are known from the works and interviews of his various students, as well as anecdotes of people whom he encountered during his lifetime.
Chouchani appeared in Paris after the Second World War, where he taught between the years of 1947 and 1952. He disappeared for a while after that, evidently spent some time in the newly-formed state of Israel, returned to Paris briefly, and then left for South America where he lived until his death.

2 thoughts on “Who was Mister Shushani? Qui était Monsieur Chouchani?

  1. A. Bol

    My teacher Prof. Henri van Praag (Naphtali ben Levi) from the Netherlands (see the wikipedia website, although it’s not very properly translated from Dutch) told his students several times about his Jewish teacher in Paris (originaly from Eastern Europe) who has also been the teacher of Emanuel Levinas. This man had lived in Paris as a clochard, and was feared by his students because of his extensive knowledge of the Torah and Talmud, as Van Praag said: when you would stick a long needle through the whole of the Talmud, his teacher could tell you every word on every page the needle hit (a kind of photographic memory). This teacher was not only a master in religion but also in a lot of other subjects. His teacher went in the fifties to South America, and Van Praag followed him for some time (1953-1954). If I remember well, Van Praag called his teacher Johnson or Levinson.
    I think mr. Chouchani could be the same man as Levinson or Johnson because of the same life stories (Paris, enormous knowledge, travel in the fifties to South America, same student (Levinas)), and Chouchani is also a nickname. At this moment, I’m translating the book of Salomon Malka about Chouchani into Dutch (although this project is developing slowly because of my poor French), wouldn’t it be a good idea to translate this unique book about such an extra-ordinary person into English as well? I’ll check with other students of Van Praag if they remember other stories about this teacher.

    Reply

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