Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

I loved Meir Kahane. He was real.Q

We should lament his passing and how he was treated by his fellow Jews. I used to think of him all the time and speak about him with everyone. It was not a very good business plan. Who comes to a photographer expecting to discuss They Must Go or Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews? Yet passion cannot be hidden and a true artist must believe in his feelings and put feeling into his beliefs! So when something makes sense, and the only response one has is derision, substance always beats stupidity.

Rabbi Meir Kahane was a controversial figure–what an understatement if ever there was one. Over time, I realized from too many firsthand accounts that many of his critics had never read a single one of his books. Critics mostly relied on sound bites here and there, radio interviews (remember the Bob Grant Show?), and newspaper reports. His shortest book, Listen World, Listen Jew, should be required reading for every bar and bat mitzvah of every affiliation. I am not saying he was 100% right. No one is. And hindsight makes criticism too easy. But brilliance should be recognized. Courage should be recognized. And love should be recognized.

I am not a joiner and have never been in the JDL–the Jewish Defense League. But I was born in Brooklyn, lived in the Bronx–both South and parts North–and for some years attended his lectures, collected all his books, and spent some days on his campaign trail in Israel.

He was a gentle, compassionate, and sensitive man, slight of build, and low-key in manner. He bristled with impatience and frustration at a smart people–his people, our people–who simply refuse to learn from history, are too proud to believe that history repeats itself, and prefer to be ignorant than educated, when being educated means knowing the evils in this world. We want to believe good things and prefer ignorant sound bites denouncing one man, rather than fact-filled books reminding us of history we would prefer to rewrite! It is a pleasure when visitors to my studio recognize my large, never-published photo of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Sadly, few do these days, and it is a rare individual who has even heard of him. Members of the under-40 crowd, at best, say he is someone they should know but, that they cannot quite place the name. How sad.

Kahane dared to ask the tough questions such as whether Israel is a democracy or a Jewish State–before that question was on anyone’s radar–and what happens when Jews are no longer a majority. How can a non-Jew salute the Israeli flag with the Hatikvah’s words of “a Jewish soul yearning to be free”? When last I engaged in discussion on Kahane, I was told that by then most agreed he was right about everything–that nearly all of what he predicted has occurred. Twenty years ago, I discovered PLO authors in bookstores, but Kahane’s books were nowhere to be found. Jews and Israelis shrug their shoulders and have no meaningful answers as to how that could have been justified. How could we, the people of the book, resort to censorship of any extent, let alone removing a voice of one who loved Jews, and gave so much of himself and his family to help them? Several people have suggested that I write about my time spent with him. I would hope others who knew him far better than me–but, like me, felt pain on his passing–would write something that does justice to his spirit and introduces his insights and knowledge of history to the many who today do not yet need to remember! His books should be reprinted. Kahane was killed by an Arab’s bullet. But it was we Jews who made that possible. He was assassinated right here, in New York City, while speaking to an audience of fifty. Fifty! He should have been speaking to 5,000. Then he would have had good security. But because he spoke from the heart, because he dared to criticize all denominations, he was abandoned by his own people.

Those who have heard him speak will remember that he would pour his heart into his words. He would search for each word and make you feel them too. While Jews tried so hard not to believe those words, the fact that Meir Kahane was the first target of the terrorists who would then proceed to destroy the World Trade Center shows that the rabbi was not crazy. Maybe us, but not him.

This article was unplanned. Some weeks ago, I typed “Never Again” as a title for an article on a situation I got myself into . . . when I caught myself doing what I criticize others for doing: casually using of an iconic expression, which refers to a massively traumatic event, in connection with relatively mundane trivialities.

Today, the expression “Never Again” is commonplace in daily speech, as well as being the name of half a dozen popular songs. There is an ever-growing list of such titles, topped by Kahane’s exhortation and the title of his major 1972 book–Never Again!

Words should mean something. As society constantly pushes the envelope on shock value, the use of meaningful words linked to a specific historical event should seem shallow, careless, and offensive to anyone who understands their historic roots. It is easy to repeat powerful words in frivolous settings, just as it is easy to misapply dramatic lighting to carefree poses. Neither is appropriate, of much value, or very meaningful. The opposite occurs when a great man or moment is recorded in a weak snapshot-like way. Ironically, none of Kahane’s published photos have ever conveyed his essence. Again, like his security–a budgetary issue. v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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