Daily Israel Report

Kahane Biography Now in Hebrew

The translation into Hebrew of the authoritative biography of Rabbi Meir Kahane is occasion to talk with the author - his widow, Rebbetzin Libby.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 8/16/2010, 12:40 PM / Last Update: 8/16/2010, 12:21 PM

The appearance of the Hebrew translation of the authoritative biography of Rabbi Meir Kahane is occasion to talk with the author – his widow, Rebbetzin Libby Kahane. Arutz-7’s Shimon Cohen interviewed her.

Entitled “Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought,” Volume One was published in English in 2008, and covers the rabbi-activist’s first 43 years, up until 1975. Libby says that she chose to translate it into Hebrew (with her daughter, Tzippy Kaplan of Jerusalem) rather than proceed immediately with Volume Two, “because I think Israelis need to know more about Meir and his ideas, and not just what the leftist media tells them.” 

The English edition is long and detailed - 566 pages of text plus 180 pages of footnotes – but very readable, and the same is true of the Hebrew edition. Libby’s master’s degree in library science and 27 years as reference librarian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem prepared her well for her “labor of love.”

“In order to depict the Rabbi,” as she sometimes refers to her late husband, who was felled by an Arab assassin’s bullet in New York City nearly 20 years ago, “it’s not enough to describe the central events. You have to get into the nitty gritty details, which then come together to present the true and complete picture of who and what he really was.” The book contains fascinating quotes not only from his writings, but also from his thousands of speeches around the world, providing more than a glimpse not only into his life, but also into his times.

“The thread running through his entire life,” says his devoted widow, “from the time he was a young Betar activist, through his days as a Bnei Akiva counselor, synagogue rabbi, founder of the Jewish Defense League, and Knesset Member, was the emphasis he placed on Jewish pride and the avoidance of the desecration of G-d’s Name. This is what motivated him in everything he did.” He is also the author of a learned Torah commentary on several books of the Bible.

One little-known detail that grabbed the attention of many readers of the English edition is that he wrote a sports column for several months in a daily paper published by the Jewish Press during a long newspaper strike in New York City. “He had a special style in his sports columns,” says Mrs. Kahane, “in which his rabbinical training was evident. He often wrote about the ethical aspects of the games and the players.”

Before the Kahane family – parents and four children – moved to Israel in 1971, Rabbi Kahane often traveled to Israel for long periods. “I quote in full a letter by Meir to the children,” his widow explained on another occasion, “in which he expressed his sorrow at being away from them and not giving them more of his time. He ends that letter with his sincere conviction that by devoting himself to working for the Jewish people, he is being a good father. He taught them by example, not merely words.” 

The book depicts much of Kahane’s efforts on behalf of Jews in New York City and Soviet Russia; Israeli readers who might be more interested in his work with Sephardic Jews in Israel, his successful run for Knesset, and the outlawing of his party just when polls predicted it would win at least 10 seats, will have to wait for Volume II.

Libby does reveal, however, that shortly before their Aliyah to Israel, “he was welcomed warmly, in the merit of his activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry. But when he actually made Aliyah at the end of 1971, and started doing things like placing a mezuzah on Damascus Gate, the ‘elite’ realized that his ideas and activities are not in line with their own agenda, and they treated him accordingly.”

Asked how her husband would have reacted to the events of today, she says, “I only know that G-d did him a great kindness by enabling him not to have to suffer through the desecration of G-d’s Name, the Jewish degradation in Gentile eyes, that we see today.”

Not all bookstores are clamoring to sell the book, Mrs. Kahane relates. “They are scared of what some people might think… I don’t know what Steimatzky will do with the Hebrew edition, but I can tell you that they refused to take the English one… In any event, it can be purchased over the internet on Amazon.”

It is noteworthy to quote Rabbi Aaron Rakefet, a contemporary of Meir Kahane, whom Rabbi Rakefet “adored.” Kahane was “among the earliest voices to publicly detail the plight of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain,” he wrote. “Often, he did so by reminding his audiences of their failures during World War II [just 25 years earlier – ed.]. Before a Brooklyn College audience, Meir “reminded the audience that an earlier generation of Jews had failed to meet its responsibility. “

Furthermore, Rakefet writes, “As the history of the redemption of Soviet Jewry was reconstructed by contemporary scholars, Meir was essentially dismissed as an anti-establishment maverick. He is barely mentioned in Professor Henry Feingold’s major study Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989. My wife and I visited Russia a number of times as emissaries of Nativ, then a branch of the Israeli intelligence community. Only after those trips did we fully appreciate the profound respect for Meir felt by many within the refusenik community. On one trip, Naphtali Belyatsky, a refusenik from Leningrad, met us with a picture of Meir sticking out of his shirt pocket. Belyatsky and many others attributed the miraculous liberation of Soviet Jewry to the chain of events sparked by Meir’s pioneering efforts a generation earlier.” 

Volume One took ten years to write and four years to translate. Though work on Volume Two has begun, “I’m making no promises,” she says.