A giant in the valley

An admirer on former chief rabbi Eliyahu.

311_Mordechai Eliyahu (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_Mordechai Eliyahu
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I grew up in Palo Alto, California, home to Hewlett- Packard, Stanford University and Facebook. My hometown even hosted Super Bowl XIX in 1985. Off the top of my head, I can rattle off just a few of the many famous Stanford names that passed through Palo Alto: Condoleezza Rice, Tiger Woods, even Chelsea Clinton.
Palo Alto is south of San Francisco, north of San Jose, and right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Although it is not a huge city (60,000 residents according to a census conducted in 2000), many people I meet here have either heard of it, have relatives in the area or have actually been there (usually on a business or pleasure trip through northern California).
But upon hearing of the passing of former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, whose shloshim (thirty-day mourning period) falls this week, I recalled that he had once visited Palo Alto, too – and it had nothing to do with Stanford University.
The year was 1989 and I was still in high school (Gunn High, class of 1990 – Go Titans!) when Eliyahu came to visit. My memories of his visit are sketchy at best, but I sat down with Stan Sussman, the former president of the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan (now called Emek Beracha) to ask him about his memories of Eliyahu’s unique weekend visit.
“The chief rabbi’s visit was arranged by Halfon Hamaoui, a member of our congregation who was very close to Rav Eliyahu, who even purchased an apartment in the rabbi’s Jerusalem apartment complex to be near him,” Sussman explained. “It was my understanding that Halfon had been pushing the rabbi to take a much needed vacation and wanted him to come to California for a bit. After he visited us, I believe he went on to Los Angeles and met the Jewish communities there.”
THE RABBI, his wife and their son, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, currently chief rabbi of Safed, all came to spend Shabbat in Palo Alto. The rabbi and the rebbetzin stayed at the Sussman’s home as it was among the closest to the synagogue.
“Rav Eliyahu always walked quickly,” Sussman recalled. “Some of us who were younger than him even had difficulty keeping up with his quick pace.”
The rabbi spoke at the small Ashkenazi synagogue that was then housed in an office complex (the synagogue now has a permanent facility of its own). The synagogue was packed as congregants from all the local synagogues came to hear the rabbi speak. He spoke in Hebrew and his speech was translated by future Nobel Prize winner Prof. Robert Aumann, who was a guest lecturer at Stanford and a beloved member of our community.
“Rabbi Eliyahu would sometimes speak for long periods of time without pausing to give Prof. Aumann a chance to translate,” Sussman laughed. “I recall wondering how on earth Aumann would manage to translate it all, but somehow he did.”
Those who translated for Eliyahu always told the same story. They would approach him asking him to relay the speech to them so they could be prepared to translate the subject matter. Eliyahu’s response was always the same – rather than provide a written speech, he’d pull out a hefty volume and tell the translator, “Let’s learn together.”
Danny Wallach, who was also in high school at the time, recalls that once after the rabbi spoke, he turned to one of the local Israelis, Rabbi Ya’acov Kushnir, and asked him what the rabbi had said. Kushnir responded that he could not relate the chief rabbi’s words in English, as it would simply not do them justice.
Others recall the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School dinner that was held that Sunday night with Eliyahu as the guest of honor. My mother still tears up when she recalls the crowd rising as the entered the hall as the children’s choir greeting him with the singing of the Shehechiyanu.
“The rabbi was very unassuming,” Sussman explained. “I mentioned a certain tradition we had at the shul that I thought I should explain to him so he wouldn’t object or be surprised. He simply insisted that we not change anything for him, that we continue as we always had. I was very impressed. Even the next night at the dinner people were hesitant to approach him, but he encouraged us to come close and even take pictures with him.”
ELIYAHU ALWAYS SHOWED an interest in what was going on in Diaspora communities. He quizzed Sussman about the makeup of the community; he expressed concern for the growing number of secular Israelis who came to Silicon Valley for work-related reasons, but were not affiliated with a synagogue and were in risk of losing their Jewish identity.
My personal memories of Eliyahu’s visit might seem trivial, but they are the same as of many of the congregants; it was simply his presence. My family used to take a shortcut returning from the synagogue, we’d cut through the parking lot of the Acapulco Mexican restaurant on the corner of El Camino Real and Sherman Avenue to save a couple of minutes walk. As we exited the minyan that Shabbat, my father signaled to me that we would not be taking any shortcuts this time, but would be walking with the rabbi and his entourage around the corner. I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes in life it is not appropriate to take shortcuts.
Eliot Klugman, who was the gabbai, recalls walking with the rabbi, “It was quite a site walking down El Camino with him from the minyan to the Sussmans for lunch. People in cars and on bikes as well as pedestrians stopped and stared. Here was a man in a white beard and a turban and robes walking down El Camino Real with a crowd of Jewish people in yarmulkes. Remember, this was not Brooklyn or Jerusalem; this was Palo Alto, California! It was a breezy day and the rabbi’s robes were blowing in the wind.”
Perhaps the lasting impression of Eliyahu’s brief visit to my hometown was just that – the impression. True, his attire commanded respect, but just his presence caused awe. The congregants felt close to him even if they could not all follow his Hebrew. For that one Shabbat, everything felt holier, people tried harder to keep Shabbat, to not talk during the prayers, simply because they felt and they knew they were in the presence of a great Torah scholar.
Since his recent passing, many stories have come out about Eliyahu, about his Torah scholarship, about his kindness, about how he cared for all Jews, about how he tried to bring people together regardless if they were Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious or secular. He was a rabbi who brought people in during an era where unfortunately many feel they are being pushed away.
Sussman told how he continued the relationship with Eliyahu after his trip to Palo Alto and would often visit him in Jerusalem. According to the current rabbi in Palo Alto, Eliyahu made at least one subsequent visit to the area. My father told me how when Eliyahu was a guest speaker at my younger brother’s yeshiva high school in Ra’anana, they approached him after his talk and mentioned how they met him in Palo Alto, when Halfon Hamaoui had brought him in late ’80s. Rabbi Eliyahu’s face lit up in recognition as he recalled it.
The fact remains, that anyone who ever came in contact with Eliyahu, even if they never spoke to him, could not walk away unaffected. Those of us who were lucky enough to experience his visit to Palo Alto were certainly moved.
According to Wikipedia, the city of Palo Alto got its name from a stand of tall redwood trees, El Palo Alto, by the banks of the San Francisquito Creek bordering Menlo Park. A plaque recounts the story of a 63 man, 200 horse expedition from San Diego to Monterey from November 7–11, 1769. The group overshot and reached the San Francisco Bay instead. Thinking the bay was too wide to cross, the group decided to turn around near el palo alto. In Spanish, palo means tree and alto is tall.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was indeed a palo alto.
The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University.