Tag Archives: civility

“Shushani and the Problem of Humiliation”

“Shushani and the Problem of HumiliationIMG_3013

Not every teacher thus honored performed their task with equanimity of spirit. Many were angry, some morose. But Mordechai Rosenbaum (aka Harav Mordechai Shushani) presents a special case. His brilliance, erudition, and devotion to study are legendary, as experienced by Wiesel, Emmanuel Levinas, Shalom Rosenberg, and other members of an elite group of students. He was eccentric in appearance, behavior, and method, dressing poorly, maintaining secrecy in his comings and goings, saying little about his past, and holding marathon classes some days and disappearing for long stretches on others. (…) Wiesel also characterizes Harav Shushani as rude and abrupt, stooping so low as to mock, humiliate, and and torment his students. (…)
Harav Shushani did everything, in other words, that his student wouldn’t think of doing. Wiesel’s way is not to humiliate but to humanize.
Indeed, the relationship between Rav Shushani and his admiring student – humiliation on the one hand, loyalty on the other – replays how Wiesel some years later described the relationship between the renegade talmudic master, Elisha ben Abuya, and his lone remaining disciple, Rabbi Meir.(…) Wiesel never refers to Shushani as an apostate (though others apparently did). The question was more the effect of his teaching on the faith of others rather than on his own. Nevertheless, what thy shared was a pedagogy that had room for the humiliation of their closest disciples.
What then did our teacher learn from his own about teaching ? Perhaps he learned what NOT to do; perhaps WE learn, indirectly and paradoxically, that sometimes one chooses a master (or a master chooses a student) from whom one eventually diverges 180 degrees. But then again, it may be that Wiesel’s classroom teaching draws on Shushani’s, while filtering away its excesses.”

from ELIE WIESEL Jewish, Literary and Moral Perspectives. Alan Rosen.

“Magical Mystery Man” – new article in Haaretz about Mr. Shoshani

A beautiful mind: The mysterious Jewish genius whose riddle saved him

Filmmaker Michael Grynszpan is trying to unravel the enigma named Chouchan, an indigent wanderer and scholar of Torah and other subjects, whose full name and biography are still unknown 45 years after his death.

By  | Oct. 18, 2013 | 1:30 PM
The enigmatic scholar, Chouchan
The enigmatic scholar. “Resembled a vagabond-turned-clown,” wrote Elie Wiesel.

Sixty-one years ago, on October 16, 1952, a somewhat peculiar article appeared in the daily Maariv under the heading “Faces on the ship.” The reporter, David Giladi, Yair Lapid’s maternal grandfather, described a group of passengers on their way to Israel from France. “There were many important people onboard the ship, professors and judges, consuls and envoys, but the most popular figure was that Jew named Ben-Chouchan,” he wrote.

This Ben-Chouchan spent his nights on a bench on the upper deck of the ship, bundled up in his coat against the night chill. “The man is unkempt in his outward appearance, dressed in rags, and at first glance you would not give a penny for him,” Giladi wrote. But those who got to know Ben-Chouchan noticed at once that he was no ordinary man. “This is a Torah scholar, the likes of which there are not many, who swims like a champion swimmer in the sea of the Talmud, the midrashim, the earliest and later [biblical] commentators and external sciences,” added Giladi. “His knowledge flows like a fountainhead, and his strange midrashim astound the ears and hearts of his listeners, and his speech is fluent in multiple languages. And if an erudite person is said to be a ‘prodigy,’ then such a one is said to be a ‘genius.’”

Who was that mysterious Jew aboard the ship? What was his full name, where did he come from and where did he go? In the 45 years since his death, in Uruguay, many have wondered about him and tried to crack the riddle of the mysterious figure who was so full of contradictions − a brilliant Jew who knew the Bible, the Talmud and “The Guide for the Perplexed,” by heart, who grasped nuclear physics and solved mathematical mysteries, who lived like a vagabond, beggar and ascetic, but was actually wealthy, and whose money to this day is apparently used to help the indigent, as well as yeshiva students.

His death in Uruguay in 1968 left a great many open questions − but also countless enthusiastic devotees of his teachings, among them intellectuals and scientists, professors and well-known scholars from Israel and elsewhere in the world, who had been his disciples. Among them were Hebrew University professor of Jewish philosophy Shalom Rosenberg and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and renowned philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

“People who met him talk about him as if he were the prophet Elijah. Some say he was an angel, others − a devil. But nobody remained indifferent. This strange Jewish genius became a legend,” explained Tel Aviv-based filmmaker Michael Grynszpan last week. Grynszpan has devoted the past few months to exhaustive and cross-continental research into the man he refers to simply as “Mr. Chouchani” ‏(also spelled “Shushani” in some sources‏), which will be presented in a new, as-yet untitled film. “As far as I’m concerned, he is the puzzle of the 20th century,” he added.

Grynszpan has set up a website and Facebook page to help him make contact with any people who may have known or heard of the subject of his film. Armed with a camera, the filmmaker has been collecting testimonies about his enigmatic persona.

Twelve years after the article appeared in Maariv, in 1964, the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth also reported on the mysterious Jew. Elie Wiesel, who then wrote for the newspaper, published an article in 1964 under the headline “The rabbi − a modern legend,” in which he wrote: “Nobody knew his name, or how old he was. Perhaps he had no name. Perhaps he had no age. He lacked all of those qualities by which a man is defined as belonging to a certain group.”

Adding to the puzzlement surrounding him, “Mr. Chouchan” was apparently in the habit of vanishing and popping up, each time in a new place. Wiesel wrote: “Suddenly he would appear, and then vanish a month or a year later, without leaving a trace. He would accidentally be discovered on the other side of a border … A businessman, a prophet who was dispatched, quite a number of times he went around the world without money, without papers, no one knew how.” Wiesel, too, described the man’s shabby appearance: “He was always filthy, unkempt and dressed in rags. He resembled a vagabond-turned-clown.”

Wiesel had previously met up with Mr. Chouchan on and off for about three years, after the war, after making an initial acquaintance at a small synagogue in Paris. He wrote in the Yedioth article that Chouchan “knew everything, but always lived in the shadows. He read all the books, penetrated all the secrets, traversed all the countries. He was at home everywhere and nowhere. Nobody knew where he lived and what he lived off of … He recognized no law, no authority, neither of time nor of place. He always appeared to have arrived from faraway and magical vacations.”

From the articles and testimonies Grynszpan has amassed, and some archival research, the following picture emerges: The wise mysterious Jew in question was born around the beginning of the 20th century, some say in Lithuania and others say in North Africa. His full, real name is unknown. Some say it was “Hillel Perlmann” − a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook; others believe his name was Mordechai Rosenbaum; many refer to him as “Mr. Chouchan,” or simply “Chouchani.”

He apparently survived the Holocaust thanks to his sharpness and courage. There is one story about him being arrested by the Germans and taken for interrogation by the Gestapo. In his interrogation he claimed to be Aryan, a native of the Alsace region, a professor of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg. The interrogating officer, sneering at the sight of the beggar with airs of being a professor, said to Chouchan, according to the stories: “You have made a grave mistake. In civilian life I myself was a professor of mathematics.”

Chouchan, so the story goes, suggested making a deal with the devil, with the Nazi officer: He would present the officer with a tough mathematical riddle, and if the officer solved it − he would execute Chouchan. If he failed, he would have to let the man go free. A short while later, Chouchan was released, and he escaped to Switzerland after making a difficult journey.

According to another story, he was arrested by the Nazis in Paris and forced to undress. When they saw he was circumcised, he told them he was a Muslim. Then he amazed all present by reciting parts of the Koran perfectly − to the point where an imam who was brought in by the Germans confirmed that the detainee was indeed Muslim.

After the Holocaust, according to the research, he began to wander the globe, acquiring numerous students and admirers on various continents. He died 45 years ago, and his gravestone in Montevideo reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.”

Hebrew University’s Rosenberg was asked recently in an interview with the history magazine Segula which spiritual figure from the past most impressed him. The answer was unequivocal: “Mr. Chouchani, who is also called Prof. Chouchani.” Rosenberg said that Chouchani’s name had been tied to “a lot of legends, none of which I believed [at first], and after meeting him I said that any person who tells me that what has been said about him is not possible or that it’s a myth − that person does not understand his greatness.”

Meanwhile, Grynszpan is continuing to search for people with information about Chouchani. “I am midway through [my research] but maybe actually only at the beginning,” says the filmmaker, who has been collecting testimonies in Israel, Canada, the U.S. and France, where he met a 100-year-old woman who studied with the enigmatic scholar. Soon Grynszpan will travel to the final stop in Mr. Chouchan’s life: Uruguay.

“They say he was crazy, insane and inhuman. They say he had a phenomenal photographic memory, for anything. There are so many wild stories about this human being,” he summed up.

“The words of the sages are like glowing embers”

Levinas says in an interview:
“I am extremely grateful for what I learned from him [Shoshani]. In a haggadic text of the treatise dessin-de-Jeruzolemski-217x300Pirke Avoth, there is this phrase: “The words of the sages are like glowing embers.” One can ask, why embers, why not flame? Because it only becomes a flame when one knows how to blow on it! I have hardly learned to blow. There are always great minds who contest this manner of blowing. They say, “You see, he draws out of the text what is not in the text. He forces a meaning into it.” But if one does it with Goethe, with Valery, with Corneille, the critics accept it. It appears more scandalous to them when one does it with regard to Scripture. And one has to have met Shoshani in order not to be convinced by these critical minds. Shoshani taught me: what is essential is that the meaning found merits, by its wisdom, the research that reveals it. That the text had suggested it to you.”

Elie Wiesel in an interview in 1978 talks about Shushani / Chouchani / Shoshani / שושני

books-elie-wiesel-1280x960In an interview of Elie Wiesel in 1978:

INTERVIEWER
What about Rav Mordechai Shushani? Where did you and he meet?

WIESEL
We met in Paris and I stayed with him for several years. He was a strange man. A genius who looked like a bum, or a clown. He pushed me to the abyss. But he believed in that. One day I am going to write a monograph about him. His concept was to shock, to shake you up, to push you further and further. If you don’t succeed, too bad. But you must risk it. If I had stayed with him longer, I don’t know what would have happened.

INTERVIEWER
Did he push anybody over the abyss?

WIESEL
He did. I heard stories later when I began picking up pieces looking for him. He did it with the best of intentions. Few people have had such an influence on my life as he did.

INTERVIEWER
Who were the others?

WIESEL
Here and there a teacher, a friend. But he is probably the strongest. He’s the opposite of Professor Saul Lieberman, who is no longer alive, but whom I considered to be the greatest Jewish scholar of his day. One cannot study the Talmud without the help of his commentaries. He was my friend and my teacher. Shushani, on the other hand, was not my friend. Surely he possessed a certain strength and power; so did Professor Lieberman—but his was not frightening.

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.

Emmanuel Levinas says about his Master Shushani

Emmanuel Levinas says about his Master Shushani: “As human beings we are not worth a lot, but next to this man we worth nothing”.

ELevinas

עמנואל לוינס אומר על מורו ורבו שושני

כבני אדם אנחנו לא שווים הרבה”
אבל ליד שושני לא שווים כלום”
Emmanuel Levinas dit de son Maitre Chouchani : “En soi on n’est pas grand-chose, mais à côté de cet homme on n’est rien.”

Elie Wiesel écrit sur Monsieur Chouchani – Elie Wiesel wrote about Mister Shoshani

Elie Wiesel écrit sur son Maitre : “Mystère sept fois vérrouillé. Il ne parlait de lui-même que pour dérouter : oui et non se valaient, le bien et le mal tiraient dans la même direction. Ses théories, ilElie Wiesel NYC 3.9.07 075 les construisait et les démolissait du même coup, en faisant usage des mêmes moyens. Plus on l’écoutait et moins on en apprenait sur sa vie, sur le monde qui l’habitait. Il possédait le pouvoir surhumain de se refaire un passé. Il inspirait la peur. L’admiration aussi, bien sûr. On disait de lui : “C’est un personnage dangereux, il sait trop de choses.” Il aimait qu’on le dît. Il se voulait seul, étranger, inaccessible.”

Monsieur Chouchani’s page on Facebook www.facebook.com/ChouchaniShushani

Monsieur Chouchani’s page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ChouchaniShushani

Same message again, important:

We are producing  a movie about Mister Shushani / Monsieur Chouchani / מר שושני

If you have any new information about this man, if you met him, or if you know people who met him, please contact us. Email: contactfilm@chouchani.com

Nous produisons un film sur Monsieur Chouchani / Mister Shushani/  מר שושני
Si vous disposez de quelque information nouvelle à propos de cet homme, si vous l’avez rencontré ou si vous connaissez des personnes qui l’ont rencontré, veuillez avoir la gentillesse de nous contacter. Email : contactfilm@chouchani.com 

How many published books were written thanks to Mister Shushani?

Professeur Shalom Rosenberg dit de son maitre MonsieurChouchani : “On n’imagine pas le nombre de livres parus qui lui doivent tout.”shalom rosenberg

Professor Shalom Rosenberg says about his Master Mister Shushani: “One can’t imagine how many published books were written only thanks to him”.

פרופסור שלום רוזנברג אומר על מורו מר שושני : “קשה לתפוס כמה ספרים שהוצאו לאור נכתבו אך ורק בזכותו”

Admiration of a tramp by Professor Emmanuel Levinas

cropped-Header-Emmanuel-Levinas3His disciple Emmanuel Levinas says about Mister Shushani that he was not impressed at first sight by the man. But after this first meeting he said “I don’t know what this man knows, but what I do know is that everything that I know – he also knows it.”
Levinas admired Shushani for the rest of his life.

תלמידו עמנואל לווינס מספר שכשראהו לראשונה לא  גםהתרשם ממראהו, אך לאחר פגישה זו אמר “איני יודע מה האיש הזה יודע, אבל מה שאני כן יודע : כל מה שאני יודע – הוא גם כן יודע”. לוינס העריץ את שושני עד סוף ימיו.

Son élève Emmanuel Levinas raconte que lorsqu’il l’a rencontré pour la première fois, il n’était à première vue pas très impressionné par le personnage.
Mais juste après cette rencontre il a dit “Je ne sais pas ce que cet homme sait, mais ce que je sais c’est : tout ce que je sais – il le sait aussi.”
Levinas a admiré Chouchani jusqu’à la fin de sa vie.