RABBI KAHANE LEARNED TO SMILE DESPITE THE HOLOCAUST

HUMAN RACE

RABBI KAHANE WAS A MAN OF WISDOM.

     For some, wisdom doesn’t come easy. Lots of people go through life with a half-a-thimble full. I knew a rabbi who could fill a barrel with his brand of knowledge collected over a lifetime. Seated amongst an early-morning gathering of mostly Christians sprinkled with other denominations at the Manhattan Beach Community Church, I told Rabbi Leon Kahane who was the lecturer that he was a man of wisdom. His reply: “Tell that to my wife. She makes me sleep in the garage!”

     Wisdom grows with pain and a touch of improv humor.

     Leon was a youngster growing up in Poland when in the mid-1930s, he said, “Germany brought anti-Semitism” into his country. “The writing was on the wall. We were a bright people, but our attitude was, ‘God will help us, don’t worry!’ We were sitting like passive ducks floating in a pond.”

     As a youngster, the rabbi had harrowing experiences evading the Nazi troops during the Holocaust. Hiding in bunkers, forests and once at a farm house half submerged in human feces, he wound up as the only Holocaust survivor of the entire Kahane family.

     He was a teenager when in 1943 on Yom Kippur he was hiding nearby when he heard the shots that killed his brother Jacob. His mother, father and relatives were all taken to death camps.

     The memory of a pleasant childhood that erupted in tragedy, plus finding the courage and inner strength to survive, eventually brought Leon and his wife, Peppa, to America.

     As refugees with a limited command of the English language, it was a lifestyle far removed from Poland. The fear, the heartbreaking emptiness of being wrenched from your loving parents by Hitler’s Nazis during the Holocaust when more than six-million European Jews were systematically killed is beyond my comprehension.

     How did this gentle, compassionate, mentally strong man, who in his late eighties died in 2011, manage to live with memories of such genocidal atrocities? Although his story of survival is poignantly horrific, it was a World War II tragedy suffered by untold millions who have their own nightmares to cope with.

     “When tragic memories enter my thoughts I hear my father’s words, ‘Be an overcomer!’,” he had told me. “It boosts my spirit and doesn’t allow me to be stuck in self-pity.”

     Another meaningful weapon he used to cope with unforgettable recollections of escaping the Nazi troops during the invasion of Poland was a sense of humor.

     “That’s how Jewish people survive.

     “Suicide is not a virtue. Forgiveness is. Yet I can’t forgive the Nazis for their vice. I owe that to the people who were massacred not to forget.”

     At the age of five, Leon began studying the Scriptures. The results of his never-ending examination of the holy words were, “You live up to the values of the Bible — serving God and others.”

     At war’s end, with anti-Semitism still rampant in Poland, Leon had joined hundreds of Jewish men, women and children fleeing his country on foot along “secret roads” in total darkness across mountains and valleys. Although the fate of their long journey was unknown, their goal was to reach the Holy Land.

     It was at a refugee camp in Italy where he was reunited with a pretty brunette named Peppa Gastfreund. Three days later they were married. Prior to that, they had met only briefly at a kibbutz in Poland.

     “My wife has been married to me for 63 years,” said the rabbi. “I have been married to her for 126 years and have the scars to prove it. Of course, they are all heart-shaped.”

     Catch that sense of humor?

     From his bucket Leon the Rabbi, a tall, slender man who has seen healthier days, poured his inspirational words willingly and unaffected.

     I listened as he addressed a gathering of intellectually hungry Christians — each searching for their own solutions to life’s problems. Impressed by his simple yet profound logic, they were also entertained by the obvious humor buried in his irony.

     He joked about the non-believer who announced, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” He spoke of greed: “If more is better, then whatever you possess is not enough.”

     For more than four decades the Rabbi had labored diligently on the words he delivered from the pulpit. With obvious pride, he claimed he had never repeated a sermon.

     What’s the secret behind the popularity of his spiritual and light-hearted words presented to diverse believers?

     “I’m talking to myself,” he said. “People just happen to be there to hear it.”

   At one small gathering, with the help of a blackboard, he explained the difference between two religious factions. Traditional fundamentalism assumes that every story in the Bible is “literally correct.”   Non-traditional progressivism, he said, allows for “interpretation of the scriptures.”   

     Has the Rabbi ever questioned the existence of God? Although he gave no yes-or-no answer, he offered this response:   

     “I asked Him: ‘Where were you? Why didn’t you show up?'”           Then with humor Leon answered for God: “‘Look, I gave you brains… Intellect! What else do you want?'”

     When I read him a farewell toast from my Italian friend, “If I don’t see you again, have a happy death,” Leon’s instant reply was, “Death cannot be happy because you die alone.”

     Here are a few more Rabbi Kahaneisms:

     “We must have an anchor in life. If not, life becomes iffy.

     “The force of life is stronger than the force of death.

     “No matter how long we live, it’s too brief. So there must be a goal.   

     “Die doing something worthwhile.”

Boots LeBaron

Chapter 1 of my nearly finished Semi Autobiographical memoir is avail below. Tell me what you think.

https://bootslebaronsworld.com/2015/01/18/conversation-with-a-dead-man-5/

Also

In Boots’ book, THE HUMAN RACE,  Rabbi Kahane is one of many features, essays and light poetry available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. The popular work features humorous and inspirational views of life, death, love, courage, showbiz, war, the workplace and woman’s rights.

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