A few weeks ago there was an item in Al-Quds, a Palestinian paper: Mahmoud Damra, a career terrorist, was promoted to major-general by Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Some of the "kils" in Damra’s belt were the murders of Esh-Kadosh Gilmore, as well as Talia and Binyamin Kahane — son of Meir.
Not everyone remembers Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Jewish Jeremiah Wright, who was murdered in a Manhattan ballroom in 1990 by an Islamic fascist who was later linked to the first World Trade Center terror attack. Fewer remember that Meir was Arlo Guthrie’s bar mitzvah teacher when Woody’s family lived in Seagate, near Coney Island.
I was in Israel when Kahane was killed and felt obliged to go to his shiva. A few years before, Meir had come to the East Bronx, to a small abandoned shul — Knesset Israel Nusach Sfard — on Manor Avenue, that had been built, in large part, by my grandfather in the 1920s. It was no longer used as a shul by the 1970s but as a Jamaican social club, with needles and whiskey bottles on the floor, and every now and then it was used as a drop-in spot for some of the old Jews who didn’t get the memo that no Jews lived in that part of the Bronx anymore. I’d go back because it used to be my grandfather’s place. Kahane came, as did Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, because the bottom line with both of them is that they fully loved the Jewish people. You don’t have to like what that love led Kahane to say and do, but the proof of his love is that he would come and speak to — and energize — a small group of old, poor and powerless Jews in a terrible neighborhood simply because they were Jews and he was asked. It’s interesting how many other, finer Jews would travel to Washington to lobby for some fashionable cause de jour but who wouldn’t show up for a handful of lonely Jews in an abandoned shul in the shadows of the Pelham Line elevated tracks.
The day of the shiva, Arab rooftops in Jerusalem had pro-Palestinian flags attached to TV attennas and clothes lines, like the skulls and crossbones of a pirate fleet. The Kahanes lived in a small and barely furnished Jerusalem apartment, surely smaller than any apartment — or even any office — belonging to an American politician. There was no one paying a shiva call but me, that afternoon. There were empty plastic soda bottles on a table and a small hanging frame of "Or zarua latzadik…" (Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the upright heart) though joy was hardly the first thing that Meir brought to mind. His wife sat in one room, his son sat in the other, and I could see the ‘skull and crossbones’ on rooftops through the windows.
The son didn’t know it but he had just ten years left to live.
The way Meir Kahane paid a visit to the poor Jews for no other reason than that was what Jews do, I paid a shiva call for the same reason, because that’s what Jews do. I wanted to tell Meir’s son, Binyamin, whom I never met before the shiva, something about his father that had nothing to do with politics or controversy, about what his father meant to those lonely East Bronx Jews.
Sometime after that, when Binyamin attempted to assume leadership of his father’s movement, he would drop by The Jewish Week offices, and I don’t think I ever interviewed a sadder, more awkward young man who aspired to be a leader. Despite his love for his father, Meir and Binyamin had the most miserably broken relationship — all Meir’s fault, from what Binyamin told me, and the little I knew. The father was distant, absent, sarcastic and dismissive, a public man rather than a paternal one, while Binyamin was hungry, left to his mother, isolated, admiring his father for all the public skills and confidence that the son didn’t inherit, and ambivalent about what he did inherit. When I turned off the tape recorder I told Binyamin that maybe it was none of my business but he should just go home, back to Israel, quit politics, and play with his kids. At that point he was a public figure, attempting to enter politics, so he was a legitimate story, but I was embarrassed to write it.
Binyamin married, had five daughters, a son Meir that he named after his murdered father, and then Binyamin and his wife Tali were ambushed and murdered by Palestinians who had no idea who they were killing. Hit by bullets, Binyamin lost control of his van, and it overturned with his five little girls in the back seats on a road near Ofra. They had just come from dropping off little Meir, aged 9, at school in Beit-El. I was in New York at the time or I would have made a second shiva call, this time to Binyamin’s kids. But have you ever made a shiva call to six orphans, one of whom was two months old?
I would have told them a children’s story, about the boy who cried wolf — two boys who cried wolf — everyone said they were crazy, and then the wolf ate them.