Friday, August 25, 2017

A Teacher Shrouded in Mystery

In 1956, Uruguay received one of its most interesting Jewish immigrants, known to history only as Mr. Chouchani. While he was not a displaced person, by most accounts of those who knew him, he always seemed to be a man who was forever on the run. Chouchani’s background is elusive, and much of what is known about him is  anecdotal.

It is believed that Chouchani was born and raised in Eastern Europe and given a traditional yeshiva education. It is also believed that he was, for a time, a student of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook before embarking to America, a country he later refused to set foot in. In the 1930s, he was in France. With the rise of the Nazis he fled to Switzerland, supposedly crossing the border by posing as a Muslim and quoting extensively from the Koran.

After World War II, Chouchani returned to his itinerant life in France. He is described as shabbily dressed and lacking interpersonal skills. However, he made a deep impression on those he met. The range of knowledge, religious and secular, attributed to him is rather astounding.

In 1947, in Paris, Chouchani met and eventually became mentor to both Elie Weisel and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who both spoke of Chouchani as an irreplaceable teacher who unexpectedly opened up their minds to entirely new ways of thinking.

After spending four years living on religious kibbutzim in Israel, Chouchani moved to Montevido, Uruguay. Here he was able to live in relative obscurity, although he attracted new students (such as philosophy professor Shalom Rosenberg) and was visited by his old students. In January 1968, Chouchani and Rosenberg were at a Bnei Akiva, religious zionist, weekend when Chouchani suffered a heart attack. Lack of access to proper medical care took his life. Buried in Montevido, his tombstone reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and death are shrouded in mystery.”


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