Goodbye, Mr. Chouchani


Even his many admirers - one of whom was the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas - did not know his real name, nor where he came from. Who was this eternal vagabond, ragged and grimy, who was considered one of the most brilliant teachers of the 20th century?

By Yair Sheleg
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel writes that he would not be the person, the Jew, that he is today were it not for the fact that one day, an amazing, rather curious vagabond came along and informed him that he understood nothing. Noted French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the same man a "wonderful teacher" and claimed he was able to decipher any Talmudic text. Levinas repeatedly emphasized that his own understanding of the Talmud (as expressed in his book "Nine Talmudic Readings," translated by Annette Aronowicz) is only the "shadow of the shadow" of what he learned from his great teacher. Shalom Rosenberg, Hebrew University professor of Jewish philosophy, who met this same man a few years before he died in South America 35 years ago, regards him as his most influential teacher and continues to regret that he has not done enough to disseminate his teachings.
Friends and students knew him only as "Mr. Chouchani" (pronounced "Shoushani"). He would sometimes call himself "Prof. Chouchani," but that was apparently only one of the names he used. He spent his life traveling in East Europe, France, the United States, British Mandatory Palestine, North Africa and South America. A solitary, eternal wanderer, he always wore pauper's clothes and sought food and lodging among friends. He zealously concealed his past, yet wherever he went, he left behind many admirers who were astounded by the scope of his knowledge - in both Jewish and general fields - and his skill at integrating various realms to produce stunning innovations. In his memoirs, Wiesel wrote that, wherever he mentioned Chouchani in the world, he invariably encountered people who had met him and had been profoundly influenced by him.

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