Some three decades ago, while working as editor of The Buffalo Jewish Review, I happened across a reference to a story I knew I would pursue the next time I went to Israel: a professional wrestling champion turned Orthodox rabbi-scholar.
In those days, before e-mail or Facebook or easy international phone calls, I did not make any arrangements until I got to Israel, calling Rabbi Raphael Halperin as soon as I checked into my Jerusalem hotel. Although he had a busy schedule as a lecturer and author, although he had frequent interview requests, although he had just concluded an exhausting campaign for a Knesset seat, he graciously allowed me to come to his Tel Aviv house, a few blocks from the Mediterranean.
It was a memorable interview. How many people can discuss with equal ease both Rocca (Antonio, a top pro wrestler of the 1960s and one of Rabbi Halperin’s contemporaries) and Rashi (the ultimate commentator on Torah and Talmud)?
Rabbi Halperin, died of cancer on Aug. 20 at age 87. When I met him, he was 50, still in the prime of his post-wrestling health, 20 years removed from his glory days as “The Wrestling Rabbi.” A former boxer, karate competitor, weightlifter and bodybuilder, he had remade himself into a wrestler who reportedly — competitive records in the world of pro wrestling are, at best, nebulous — had won 159 consecutive matches and refused, as a matter of principle, to throw a match as part of a promoter’s script.
Rabbi Halperin still maintained an enviable physical fitness regimen, working out regularly with the weights he kept on his back patio, with biceps that could intimidate any chavruta (study partner). He could, I would tell people, do hagbah, lift a Torah scroll during worship services, with a single hand.
A onetime “137-pound weakling” who was “not at all” athletic in his youth, he developed his impressive physique and memorable record of sporting accomplishments through dint of hard work. He wrestled as “Mr. Israel,” resting on Shabbat and delivering sermons in synagogues near his hotel, to “bring honor to the Jewish people,” he said.
But it wasn’t his athletic prowess alone that drew attention in Israel, though it certainly added to a notoriety that crossed religious-secular boundaries. After leaving the ring and returning to his childhood intellectual path — raised religious in Vienna, he moved to British Mandate Palestine with his family in 1933, attended yeshiva, strayed from the religious path, then returned — he established his reputation first as author of a series of historical-genealogical books about Torah sages and an encyclopedia geared for traditional families. Later he founded the discount Optika Halperin eyewear chain, which expanded to the United States three years ago.
In Israel, he was one of those rare figures who established his bona fides in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities.
After making “lots of money” in sports, he said, he turned his back on his “make-believe success,” devoting his time to study of Torah and Talmud. “All my mind was on learning.”
After retiring from the athletic life, Rabbi Halperin used his athletic accomplishments to reach and influence the wider public, teaching on army bases and kibbutzim, he told me in our interview. “I saw society without any goals. I felt I could do something to help.” His success in sports and his army service (active duty in 1948, reserves in 1973) earned the respect of Israelis little interested in his theological expertise. “I opened the eyes of thousands of people.”
“Some people call me ‘rabbi,’” he said. “Some people call me ‘Raphael.’ Some people call me ‘champ.’”
He was clean-shaven in 1980, although in later years he grew a beard that at the end was snow white.
He entered, with varying degrees of success, several business enterprises over the years.
He remained both a standard scholar and an iconoclastic activist, opening Israel’s first (closed on Shabbat) professional gym, campaigning for the creation of a Sabbath-observant credit card, writing a weight-loss guide, running for the Knesset. His small Otzma party, which advocated immigrant-style benefits for discharged soldiers, lost badly.
When the results of the election were clear, Rabbi Halperin said, his life as a candidate was over. “I went to sleep [on election night] at 10 o’clock,” he said. “At five o’clock the next morning I was in my yeshiva.”
I never spoke with Rabbi Halperin again, but I followed his many exploits.
The rabbi re-entered my world when I went to Israel last year. I needed new frames for the spare set of jogging glasses that I keep at a friend’s apartment in Jerusalem, and the optical shop at a nearby mall turned out to be to be part of the Optika Halperin chain.
As I waited for my new pair of glasses to be fitted, I noticed a series of young Orthodox men, apparently yeshiva students, walking up to the checkout desk, introducing themselves and being handed a hardcover brown book from a shelf underneath the cash register.
Rabbi Halperin, an employee of the store informed me, had written an extensive commentary on the Torah, in Hebrew, and anyone who identified himself as a yeshiva student got a copy for free.
I was intrigued and asked to look at one of the books. With my rudimentary Hebrew skills, I could recognize that “Diyukim B’Torah” was solid lomdus, high-level commentary. I paid for a copy.
The book — so far I have only Genesis — is now part of my Torah library at home.
Now, when I wrestle with Torah, I get some posthumous help from “The Wrestling Rabbi.”