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Tuesday
Dec222015

THE MYSTERIOUS CHACHAM SHUSHANI

The mysterious genius who knew all of Torah was born in Europe, immigrated to Yerushalayim, and returned to life in exile at a young age. He lived a bizarre homeless lifestyle and chose to live under a veil of mystery. * In 5707 he met the Rebbe in Paris for deep discussions in learning and at the end of his life he met the Rebbe’s secretary and indicated that he knew the Rebbe from up close. * Who was this man, Monsieur Chouchani – Chacham Shushani?

The davening had been over for a while in the shul of RZalman Schneersohn in the center of Paris. Only a few people remained, some of them looking into some volume or another. The silence was interrupted suddenly by a conversation that was held quietly, but in that utter stillness it was possible to hear well. However, even if those present had tried to follow it, they would have been unable to understand any of it.

The two people were involved in a learned discussion. As though a fire was burning within them, they began pacing the shul, their eyes fixed, their brows furrowed. A learned person would hear topics in Shas being bandied about: Rishonim, Acharonim, Midrashim, logical arguments and exegetical dialectics from all over.

The first person was familiar. Although he was only a guest in Paris who had come for a short time, many already knew him. Upright of stature with penetrating eyes, dressed simply but impeccably in a short gray suit, a pinched hat, and with a short black beard; it was Ramash, the son-in-law of the Rebbe Rayatz, later to be his successor. He had come to greet his mother, Rebbetzin Chana. Although he was a guest, many Jews had gotten to know this mighty spiritual personality. He made a deep impression on hundreds of people within the religious community in Paris.

Who was the other man who spoke with the Rebbe with such genius? Who was the person who could hold his own with the Rebbe in all areas of Torah?

It is the secret of this mystery man that is our story here. Nobody knew his true identity aside from the fact that he introduced himself as Chacham Shushani and sometimes as Professor Shushani. More than that, nobody knew anything about him. He was of medium height and clean shaven. A few of his acquaintances knew this, that he was proficient in Shas and Rishonim by heart. People also spoke about his proficiency in kabbalistic works. Strangely enough, nobody ever saw him studying, which only added to the riddle which was this man.

Who was Chacham Shushani to who, not for naught, was attributed the nickname, “The enigma of the twentieth century?”

THE WANDERER WHO BECAME AN ENIGMA

Chacham Shushani, with his enormous knowledge of Torah, was able to effortlessly quote by heart from an array of sources from all parts of Torah. There was no question to which he did not have an immediate answer with a full quote and sources. People would go to him with questions in halacha and Judaism, in all areas of life, and Shushani would respond immediately.

Aside from that, he knew many languages and had deep knowledge of many subjects in the humanities, philosophy and mathematics. He read books nonstop and with great speed. Those who did research on him wrote in admiration of the “talmid chacham with not many like him, who swims like a champion swimmer in the sea of Talmud, Midrash, commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim, and secular knowledge… His knowledge pours forth like a wellspring and his amazing insights astonish his listeners and he holds forth fluently in numerous languages. If regarding a knowledgeable person we say he is an ilui, about someone like this we say he is a gaon.”

One of his many and famous talmidim was Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, who said about him, “I know that I would not have become the man that I am, the Jew that I am, if not for that day when an astonishing wanderer, who inspired unease, told me that I understand nothing.” The Jewish-French philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, called him an incredible teacher and attributed to him his ability to unravel a topic in Gemara. He repeatedly emphasized that his understanding of Talmud was only a “shadow of the shadow” of what he learned from his great teacher, Chacham Shushani.

His acquaintances and students knew him only as Monsieur Chouchani but that too seems to be merely a nickname he chose for himself. In his lifetime he traveled between Eastern Europe, France, the US, Eretz Yisroel, North Africa, and South America. A perpetual wanderer, he dressed like a vagabond. Alone in the world, he would stay in people’s homes for a few days at a time and would eat with his hosts. He zealously guarded his past and his origins.

And yet, wherever he visited, he left a trail of admirers who were stunned by his knowledge, both Jewish and general, and by his ability to weave them into fascinating chiddushim. Wiesel wrote in his memoirs that anywhere in the world where he spoke about Shushani, he met people who had also met him at some point in their lives and were deeply impacted by him, “In S Francisco and Montreal, in Caracas and Marseilles, when I mentioned Shushani, a few listeners smiled and I knew that I had reignited the flame.”

Many considered him one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century in the Jewish world while simultaneously considering him as one of the most mysterious figures of the century; a sort of human comet who zipped by and excited all he met.

Until today, his date of birth is not known, nor the country in which he was born. Even his real name is disputed. He was supposedly born in Eastern Europe. Guesses range from Lithuania to White Russia (Belarus). Wiesel wrote in his memoirs that his real name was Mordechai Rosenbaum based on evidence he amassed.

Many others concluded that Shushani was Hillel Perlman, a Torah scholar mentioned in two letters of R’ Avrohom Yitzchok Kook. Shushani himself said he learned by R’ Kook in Eretz Yisroel in the beginning of the 20th century and then went to the United States. In one of his letters, R’ Kook wrote to his friend in America, R’ Meir Bar Ilan, and asked him to welcome Hillel Perlman, describing him glowingly for his great knowledge and brilliance.

Additional testimony, which supports the Hillel Perlman theory, comes from a Moshe Schweber who lived in Yerushalayim. Shushani lived in his house for a few years. When Schweber was asked about Shushani, he said, “Mr. Shushani had a sister who lived in New York and her daughter-in-law told me explicitly that his real name was Hillel Perlman.”

Rosenbaum or Perlman or “Shushani,” whatever his name was, grew up in Eastern Europe as a wonder child, an ilui from an early age who knew all of Tanach and Shas by heart. It is assumed that he had a photographic memory and that his brain operated like a computer scanner. Rosenberg and others say that from the little they managed to extract from Shushani himself, his father would take him around towns in Eastern Europe and earn money from the feats of incredible memory demonstrations that he performed. It could very well be that this was a traumatic childhood for him and which turned Shushani into an eternal wanderer and someone who could not adapt his prodigious talents to any structural format.

Some witnesses say he was seen in the 1920’s in Morocco and Algeria. He also lived in the US during the 1920’s.

Throughout the years, Shushani was a poor wanderer. His acquaintances say that he always looked dirty and did not have his hair cut. He always wore the same small cap and the thick lenses of his glasses distorted his gaze. If you met him in the street and did not know him you would keep your distance. As for him, he preferred it that way.

THE ZILBERSTROM HOME

In the period prior to World War II, R’ Binyamin Nachum Zilberstrom, a big talmid chacham who lived in Paris, who was known as someone who helped Jewish refugees tremendously, met Shushani. R’ Zilberstrom was one of the pillars of the religious community and that is where he met him.

In those days, before the outbreak of the war, the Consistoire – the official Jewish body that oversaw Jewish congregations in France, began instituting reforms in traditional practices from generations back. R’ Binyamin Nachum was one of those who fought against these compromises.

When these reforms took hold among the Jews of France, R’ Binyamin Nachum sought to provide a proper Jewish education for his older son, R’ Aharon Mordechai. Chacham Shushani was the person selected to teach his son.

Chacham Shushani, despite not having a home of his own and living on odd jobs, kept the greatest possible distance from fraternizing with people unless forced to do so. This is the reason why he did not readily accept R’ Binyamin Nachum’s offer. But when he was begged again and again and was even offered lodging in his home for an unlimited time, he agreed. He began living with the Zilberstroms and all his needs were provided for.

Aharon Mordechai was only eight years old when he began learning with the anonymous genius. “For about a year he taught me Gemara with Tosafos and other commentaries and spoke with me a lot in the afternoon hours whenever he was in the mood,” R’ Aharon Mordechai later recounted. R’ Aharon Mordechai later became an outstanding educator and was one of the founders of Reshet Oholei Yosef Yitzchok in Eretz Yisroel.

Although Chacham Shushani lived with the Zilberstrom family, he continued to keep his private life a secret and nobody had an inkling or a glimpse into what his life was really like. He would receive many letters in the mail but he maintained absolute privacy and never allowed anyone to know what they contained.

SAVING A LIFE

Summer 5700/1940. The Germans conquered large swaths of France in a relatively short amount of time. With the Nazi conquest, Shushani tried to escape to neutral Switzerland but was caught, according to one of the stories told about him, by German guards and was taken to the Gestapo for interrogation.

He hid his Jewish identity and claimed he was born in Alsace and that he was a professor of mathematics at the university in Strasbourg. The Nazi officer laughed at the man who looked like a beggar but claimed to be a professor and said, “You made a serious mistake. In civilian life, I myself was a math professor.”

Chacham Shushani offered a deal. He would present a mathematical riddle. If the officer solved it, Shushani would be executed; if he failed, he would be released. Shushani was released soon after and somehow escaped to Switzerland.

According to another version, when he was arrested by the Gestapo he had no documents but because he was circumcised he was assumed to be a Jew. He managed to convince his interrogators that he was circumcised as a Moslem. To corroborate his story, the head mufti of France was brought to his cell. After five hours of conversation, the mufti demanded Shushani’s release, saying he was a Moslem holy man.

After the war, Shushani returned to France, at first to Strasbourg and then to Paris. Once again, he subsisted thanks to the Jews who appreciated his gifts and also from private lessons.

It was at this time that he met the Rebbe who came to Paris for a few months, from Adar until Sivan 1947.

Decades later, R’ Aharon Mordechai said that Shushani had a connection with the Rebbe who was a prodigious scholar like himself with whom he could discuss various matters:

“As far as I remember, the two of them closeted themselves together at least one time in R’ Shneur Zalman Schneersohn’s library or in the hall that served as the beis midrash then (on the third floor next to the living quarters of R’ Zalman), and I think that when they met, those who stood outside the room could hear loud voices. I don’t know whether the meeting was initiated by one or the other or occurred providentially.”

Years later, R’ Aharon Mordechai met Chacham Shushani in Eretz Yisroel and asked him about his impression of the Rebbe. Shushani said that the Rebbe was expert in Bavli and Yerushalmi and many sciences.

THE REBBE’S SECRETARY MEETS WITH SHUSHANI

Shushani traveled all his life, in Europe, Eretz Yisroel, the US, Uruguay, and other countries. Until 5712, he stayed in France and then he decided it was time to move on. He went to Eretz Yisroel after one of his students arranged a forged birth certificate for him with which he was able to obtain a passport. In Eretz Yisroel he mainly spent his time on religious kibbutzim. Professor Tzvi Bachrach, later a history lecturer at Bar Ilan University, met him at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzchok:

“One day, someone nobody knew appeared and said, ‘Give me a room and board and I will teach you whatever you want.’ He looked unkempt, like a vagabond. We thought he was a weirdo but we couldn’t chase him away so we gave him some wooden shed. After a while we said: Let’s hear what you have to teach. He gave a Gemara shiur while correcting a printing error in Tosafos’ commentary and it was all by heart. It was so impressive that we decided to give him living quarters with us.”

He lived at Be’erot Yitzchok for a few months and then moved to Kibbutz Saad in the south and later to the kibbutzim in the Beit Shaan valley.

Over the years, hundreds of students and admirers gathered round him. All who heard him were mesmerized by his prowess and encyclopedic knowledge in Torah, his breadth and depth, and he encouraged them to improve and make progress. They say that he could spend hours explaining one line in the Gemara without repeating himself. With the help of a short statement in the Gemara he would expound on all the contemporary issues of the time.

He was considered a tough teacher. The mythos about him was built, among other things, on his various obsessions. The biggest one was his zealous guarding of his privacy and his identity. His students say that he declined aliyos to the Torah so that his real name would remain unknown. Bachrach tells that one time he entered Shushani’s room and saw a paper on the floor. He innocently picked it up and saw lines written in Shushani’s cramped handwriting which looked like mathematical formulas. “He grabbed the paper out of my hand.”

All his life he lived as a poor man and yet there were rumors that he was in possession of a lot of money that he received as a salary from famous people who wanted him to teach them. This is how, for example, his ability to travel was explained. Elie Wiesel thinks it was more than rumors, “One time, in France, we sat and learned in my room when we suddenly saw soldiers enter the building. They had come to check our documents but he was frightened and ran and told me to watch his suitcase. It was an old, shabby suitcase. When I opened it I saw silver and gold. I closed it and when he returned I did not say a word about it.”

Between the years 5716 and 5717, Shushani lived in France and in the middle of the fifties he moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, his final stop. He was invited there by a former student from France who had emigrated there.

The Rebbe’s secretary, R’ Binyamin Klein a”h, once went to Montevideo on Merkos Shlichus and he took the opportunity to meet with the mystery prodigy whom he knew had a connection with the Rebbe.

“On one of my trips to Uruguay with a fellow shliach we heard that there is someone by the name of Professor Shushani who knew the Rebbe in Europe. We looked for him for a while and finally found him sitting in one of the shuls. He was wearing very old clothes and looked neglected. When we met him we told him we are Chabad Chassidim.

“‘Do you know the Rebbe,’ he asked us.

“‘Of course, we see him every day,’ we said.

“He said, ‘You see him but you don’t know him.’

“Then he asked that the Rebbe send him a big tallis and a Shas.


“When we returned to New York, we reported to the Rebbe and the Rebbe said to fulfill his request. After a while, I heard that after he passed away he was buried in that tallis sent to him by the Rebbe.”

On Shabbos, Parshas VaEira, 26 Teves 5728, he attended a seminar for youth in Montevideo. Two of his students participated too. Friday night he collapsed, apparently of a heart attack. His student, Sholom Rosenberg, says that time was wasted looking for a doctor. “The doctor who finally came did not have the necessary skills,” and Mr. Shushani passed away.

Even at this stage, at the end of his life, the riddle of his identity was not solved. An amazing thing occurred. In his pocket was a note with the phone number in Switzerland of someone he knew. When they called the number, they found out that the man had died 24 hours earlier.

His secrets were taken to the grave and he remains a mystery in death as in his lifetime. His real name was not even put on his gravestone. All it says is, “HaRav V’ha’Chacham Shushani z”l. His birth and life were shrouded in mystery.”

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