My cousin Moish

Identities of the late Rabbi Moshe Hirsch.

Hirsch Arafat 311 (photo credit: Archive)
Hirsch Arafat 311
(photo credit: Archive)
Reading the “talkbacks” about my cousin Moish – close to 200 on one religious blog alone, almost all dancing on the grave of the recently deceased – I kept seeing him and his punchball “motion.”
In punchball, the hitter does not swing with a bat from a fixed batter’s box. Instead, he bounces a rubber ball a few times to get the rhythm, and then, in a “motion” as unique to every individual as a fingerprint, takes a step or so onto the playing field, tosses the ball up and punches it.
Moish’s motion was memorable. He would begin from a deep crouch, like a tiger prepared to spring, but instead of just taking a step, he would take one step after another until he was a third of the way to first base before hitting the ball. There was no way an infielder could throw out a runner with a lead like that, especially one as fast as he.
The image of Moish standing on first base with a roguish smile trumps for me the vilification – “self-hating traitor,” “child killer” – from those who knew only the outrageous, black-clad figure they read about in the newspaper.
Notoriety was the last thing anyone would have envisaged for “Red” Hirsch in the old neighborhood. When he died last month even the international press took note: “Anti-Zionist Rabbi and Arafat Ally Moshe Hirsch Dies in Jerusalem,” read the Associated Press headline.
As a young man, he was far from a brooding Khomeini-in-the-making as his detractors might have it. He was Danny Kaye. Both were redheads for starters. And Moish had the implacable good nature, the wit and sparkle that was the hallmark of the comedian. You left almost any encounter with him smiling.
I don’t remember him being noticeably more religious than any of the other fellows who went to yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side, although he and I were not age peers so my up-close memories of him then are fuzzy. He was a regular on the ball fields of Hamilton Fish Park. But he was religiously knowledgeable enough for my parents to ask him to prepare me for my bar mitzva. He was patient as a teacher and a reassuring presence alongside me on the synagogue bima when the day came.
A year later, when I decided to leave yeshiva and go to a secular high school, he came to my house and tried to persuade my parents to change my mind – I can still hear his knock on the door – but he never pursued it beyond that point or made me feel guilty. As his studies advanced, he became a religious authority for the extended family. Such was his liberal way of interpreting the law that whenever a question arose about whether something was permitted or not, the cry went up from those who wanted it approved, “Call Moishie.”
At some point, the fellows from his and my older brothers’ circles started going out with girls, a terrifying life-form hitherto outside a yeshiva boy’s ken. I may be doing Moish’s memory a disservice but I have a vague recollection of being told – could it have been by him? – that he would prepare himself for such occasions by writing topics for conversation on his palm in anticipation of awkward silences.
At some point, he enrolled in the prestigious, university-level yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, about an hour from New York City. It was there that his life took a major turn. As I understand it, the head of the yeshiva was asked by a prominent Jerusalem rabbi, Aharon Katzenellenbogen, to send his best student as a groom for his daughter. The yeshiva head chose Moish, who accepted the call. His affable personality fit easily into the new Yiddish-speaking milieu of Jerusalem’s haredi community, the Yiddish itself offering it even greater scope.
WHEN I arrived in Israel as a journalist five days before the Six Day War, I went looking for him. He was living in Mea She’arim and residents readily pointed the way to the home of der Roite (the redhead) or der Amerikaner. Moish, it turned out, had married into the Natorei Karta, his father-in-law, Rabbi Katzenellenbogen, being a senior figure in the anti-Zionist organization.
I have no idea if Moish would have chosen this path of his own volition. It seemed a most unlikely direction to take for an easy-going fellow like him. He may have become convinced about its ideology along the way but it seemed to me that the outlandishness of the situation appealed to his sense of fun which had not diminished a whit in his new surroundings.
A few days after my arrival, Moish took me at my request to interview Reb Amram Blau, the legendary head of the Natorei Karta who lived in the Hungarian Houses at the edge of Mea She’arim. He was a saintly looking man with red cheeks, white beard and the face of an innocent. It was said that he received his electricity at home from a generator because he spurned Zionist electricity furnished by an electric company which employed Jews on Shabbat. He regarded Israeli currency as muktza, untouchable, relying instead on the dollar as currency of the realm. And, of course, he would not use Hebrew – lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue – for everyday speech.
Moish sat alongside me, translating Reb Amram’s Yiddish which was a bit more than I could handle. Behind Reb Amram sat his wife, the attractive French convert 22 years his junior whose marriage to him a few years before had created such a scandal that they had to leave Mea She’arim for the better part of a year. (The rebbetzin, a member of the French resistance during the war, had achieved notoriety in her own right when she smuggled a boy, Yossele Schumacher, out of Israel at his haredi grandfather’s request to avoid having him taken to live in the Soviet Union by his communist parents. The Mossad eventually retrieved the boy in Brooklyn.)
We spoke of the tension caused by the Egyptian army moving into Sinai and the mobilization of the IDF reserves. “If war does break out,” I asked Reb Amram, “which side would you want to win?” Before he could answer, the rebbetzin leaned forward and whispered something into his ear. “Whoever God wills,” he said, avoiding a more provocative answer.
As we left the house, I looked across the barbed-wire concertinas, less than 100 meters away, into Jordanian Jerusalem. No one was visible on either side of the border.
War broke out the next day. Because of its proximity to the border, the Mea She’arim area was hit hard by Jordanian mortars and artillery. I was using the Jerusalem Post building, then on Rehov Havatzelet downtown, as a base. On the second morning of the war Moish reached me in the newsroom by telephone. I could hear explosions in the background and women or children crying. He asked if I knew what was happening. He had taken shelter with his family in the basement of the Torah V’Yira yeshiva, affiliated with the Natorei Karta. They had no radio (Zionist) and no newspapers (Zionist), but from the roar outside it sounded like the end was nigh. I was able to tell him that the Arab air forces had been destroyed and that an Israeli counterattack in Jerusalem had already begun.
WE REMAINED in touch in the ensuing years. In the decade I covered the Jerusalem beat for The Jerusalem Post, including the haredi community, I consulted him frequently. He could usually be found in the study hall on the top floor of the yeshiva studying Talmud by himself. We hardly ever talked politics and if it came up, he always provided an amusing take before moving on to something else.
The philosophy of the Natorei Karta admittedly sounded peculiar, not to say repulsive, to many. Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land, it maintained, could only come with the arrival of the messiah. Therefore, a Jewish state without divine authority was a desecration. However, that view was no more peculiar than the position of right-wing rabbis that the IDF in the Six Day War was merely a subcontractor for God and that they, in promoting Greater Israel, were on heaven’s board of directors.
Moish’s ability to speak English and his accessibility earned him a reputation in time as Natorei Karta’s “foreign minister” although no one ever appointed him to the job. He plainly enjoyed his contacts with the foreign press and with diplomats and academics. For them, he was a colorful character who provided a window into an arcane world. For him, they were a window to the outside world.
I often thought he relished his role because it enabled him to cut a clearing for himself amid the black-clad anonymity of the haredi world. If that was his aim, he achieved it with his much publicized relationship with Yasser Arafat. In public relations terms, it was a free pass to first base, like his punchball motion.
For both of them, it was a match made in heaven. By embracing Moish, Arafat could demonstrate that he, and the Arab world, had nothing against Jews, only against a Jewish state on Palestinian land. For Moish and his allies in the Natorei Karta, it was a demonstration that Jews could get along swimmingly with Arabs and freely practice their religion without the need of a sovereign state. When he visited Arafat in Ramallah, a Palestinian driver would pick him up near Mea She’arim and drive him on back routes that skirted the Israeli roadblocks. I would come to regret, as a journalist, not having joined him on one of those runs to witness the interplay between Moish and the Rais.
Natorei Karta, although few in numbers, has always been riven by factions. Moish became a leading figure in the most extreme of them. Some observers attribute this to his being an outsider – not just from a different country but also from the non-haredi world. This, they believe, induced him to act like a “born again” who feels the need to prove himself. This may be true, but I never heard from him the rhetoric of the true believer. His principal allies were elements within Natorei Karta communities in London and the New York area.
In cozying up to Arafat, he crossed the line for many in Mea She’arim, a line that Amram Blau had not crossed in that 1967 interview. Not everybody in Natorei Karta, let alone the broader Mea She’arim community, crossed it with him. Internal tensions reached the point, a knowledgeable source told me, that Moshe was no longer welcome in recent years in the Torah V’Yira yeshiva where he had been a fixture most of his life.
FOR ALL his photo-ops with Arafat, Moish was a political pussycat compared with his predecessor as “foreign minister,” Leib Weisfish, an authentic eccentric who regarded Friedrich Nietzsche, the non-Jewish German philosopher who wrote “God is dead,” as a saint. “He loved the Jews more than the Jews loved themselves,” Weisfish would say. In opposing the Jewish state, the Jerusalem-born haredi did not make do with words. In 1950, after telling only Reb Amram, he crossed the then porous border to the Jordanian side of the city at Beit Safafa carrying only his tefillin for prayer and a Berlitz English primer. His object was to get to the Arab League, then meeting in Cairo, and ask for weapons so that Natorei Karta could launch an armed insurrection.
Handed back by the Jordanians, Weisfish was put on trial. The prosecutor, attorney-general Haim Cohn, who would become one of Israel’s most respected Supreme Court justices, was intrigued and amused by Weisfish and did not deal with him like an enemy of the state. Weisfish got off with four months’ imprisonment for crossing the border and a brief expulsion to the US. It later developed that Cohn was also a Nietzsche enthusiast. In the 1980s, the pair – ex-prosecutor and ex-defendant – gave Jerusalem one of its most delightful evenings when they held a discussion/dispute on Nietzsche in Beit Ha’am before a rapt audience of haredim and seculars, itself a very rare mix.
Like Weisfish, Moish was regarded with a mixture of amusement and respect in Mea She’arim but he also had enemies. As he walked to synagogue one morning, he was attacked by someone who threw acid in his face. It permanently blinded him in one eye, which accounted for his wall-eyed appearance. The attack apparently had nothing to do with his political activity but was linked to a dispute over real estate inside the Mea She’arim compound. He never wanted to talk about the incident with me.
Moish cultivated, and was cultivated by, the Arab press in east Jerusalem which provided him a platform to reach the Arab world and beyond. At the wedding of one of his children, I shared a table with a number of leading Palestinian journalists who were fascinated by the turbulent goings-on around them in the haredi wedding hall. If I remember correctly, one of them, after witnessing the groom being carried aloft on a chair by the dancers, said that he now understood where Arab villagers in Galilee had acquired that custom.
I would sometimes take my young daughters to see the holiday merrymaking in Mea She’arim and to drop in on Moish. He had a thriving business in his basement selling etrogim for Succot which he purchased from Arab farmers in Jericho. Each year he would provide my girls a miniature set of etrog and lulav.
I was sitting with him in his home one late Purim afternoon when the door was thrown open and a tall yeshiva student staggered in. He had plainly been honoring the talmudic injunction to drink wine on Purim to the full. “Nu, Reb Moishe,” he said, “gib mir a vort” – roughly, give me a quick critical analysis of a religious text. Moish jollied him along a bit, sat him down and then delivered a smooth two-minute talmudic exegesis that seemed to satisfy the youth before he staggered out again into the dusk.
Moish’s good humor never failed him, even toward the end. When I wentwith his brother, who had arrived from the States, to visit him athome, it was pretty clear that he did not recognize us, although he mayhave sensed that he once had. When we asked how he was, he replied witha half smile, “Never better.”
Moish had turned his life into a paradox. Reb Amram and Leibel Weisfishhad been other-worldly, Old World figures. Moish was of this world andalso of generous, outgoing temperament. Yet he had taken up a roleviewed as demonic by the broad society, embracing a man who had broughtterror to Israel’s cities. From his humble one-room apartment in MeaShe’arim, Moish had mounted the world stage but earned the contempt ofmost of the Jewish people in whose name he presumed to be acting. Thehuman psyche is a strange and wondrous thing and it would not do tooveranalyze it. To me, the Khomeini image was never real. But DannyKaye was there to the end.