A Hero Among Us - Rabbi Shlomo Matusof OBM

By Rabbi Shimon Posner

I would like to talk about an old chosid. But there aren’t any. Dennis Prager claims that all shluchim are the same age; the old ones have the energy of youth and the young ones have the wisdom of maturity. Still, there are those with silvered and blanched beards and faces which convey that what only experience mixed with character can create.

Reb Shlomo has that all and more. When I first knew him, I didn’t get along with him at all. We literally screamed at each other (yes, I know its chutzpadik etc.) time after time. But there was always a respect. A mutual one, I later found out. Honestly, I’m not writing this because either of us is running for office.

We (my kvutza) met him after we cleared customs in Casablanca’s airport. It has some grand name like His Royal Highness Mohammed V International Airport; it’s a run-down terminal. The customs agent had called over his boss to quiz us. The boss wore a suit! He gestured vigorously to the agent and muttered in Arabic what could only be vile curses. He looked at me and shot off a question with a look that could murder. Mustering what little French I knew I tried to tell them Menachem Matusof was holding our visas. How do you say he? Oh yeh, il. How do you say ? Right, a. How do you say the? Le or la. And paper is papier, pronounced papyay. “Il a le papier!” I pronounced triumphantly. “Quelle papier?” He shot me down; what paper? But eventually we were allowed into the Royal Kingdom of Maroc with greasy smiles and elaborate gestures and blessings showered upon our mothers and progeny.

Reb Shlomo met us outside the terminal and gave us sholom. Short, hunched, white- bearded he had been feeling this love since decades before we were born. He drove us to the yeshiva. “Check it out,” one of the guys whispered as we pulled out, “this dude drives shift!” From then on, English was our secret language.

“Mistama du zuchts gemolim,” you’re probably looking for camels he said as we passed whitewashed squat little houses by the road as he dodged the chickens, “far dem darft mehn fohren in Marrakech.”

We were afraid he was going to pull off into one of the dirt patches near one of those houses and there would be a sign Yeshivas Lubavitch, but as we crested the mountain Casablanca lay at our feet gleaming, white, resplendent. As we go closer we saw it was teeming and filthy with urchins running dodging scooters, mothers nursing in the gutter near where young men were relieving themselves. It gets worse but I’ll stop there. The scooters sounded like the German Army crossing into Poland.

Reb Shlomo let us know the rules. When we were five minutes late to Chassidus he accused us of making a strike. He said we weren’t evil, just American. “Nechoshim v’akrovim ein bo takeh, ober mayim ein bo. Mayim ein bo.” We returned his warmth.

Slowly I picked up French and with it (and Laibel Raskin’s not taking no for an answer) I began teaching le jeunesse, the youth, some who came for the American candy and knick-knacks and some who were the purest souls. I started hearing about Rabi Shelomo. They told me what they had heard from their grandmothers. In the Fifties he would come into a Moroccan village, on donkey back, get off the donkey, introduce himself and start putting together a cheder. He farhered a yungerman, made him the melamid, arranged funding (probably not in line with N.Y. Board of Ed union rules) got back onto his donkey and went to the next village. He had started dozens and dozens of chedorim this way. There were approximately 300,000 Jews in Morocco in 1945, 250k by the time he came and in ‘56 and ’67 they left en masse. When we were there (1985-6) some 8,000 remained in Casablanca and 2,000 spread around the country. (Don’t bet the ranch on my numbers, but you get the drift.)

When I went home for Pesach I shared my frustration with my parents. My father’s reaction: I don’t really know him. The only thing he knew about him was from Lazer Nanes’s book. (My father had translated Subbota.)

Lazer Nanes tells of a young chosid shoveling in the gulag when a husky officer in a fur coat ripped the shovel out of the chosid’s hand and began shoveling vigorously. After a few seconds he threw the shovel at the chosid and screamed, That is how you shovel! The chosid answered “If I ate what you had to eat, was allowed to sleep as you sleep and had a coat as warm as you, I would shovel better you could.” The officer walked off without a word.

“You mean that story happened with Shlomo Matusof?!!” I had heard the story when the name meant nothing to me; now the story meant something to me.

When I told my mother of how Reb Shlomo speaks of his disappointments with his work she said simply, “Oh, he has to learn that his talmidim all over the world are his satellites.”

I never looked at him the same after that, even though I didn’t realize that my parents had made an impression on me until years later. And now I find myself quoting Reb Shlomo. Often.

Explaining nais and tevah he said the dor hamidbar ate mon for nearly forty years. Meaning that two generations came of age expecting mon every morning. When they first saw wheat kernels planted, grown, harvested, milled and baked they thought it was miraculous. When we hear of mon falling from heaven we think that it is a nais. Who is right? Both and neither. Tevah is what you are used to, ness is a novelty.

Simple and profound. Over the Shabbos table I would prod him for stories of Russia, of his first years here. He would practically sneer, as if to say what are you making a big deal about? Occasionally some snippets would come through, sometimes when one of my friends heard it and told it over.

Shlomo once saw his arrest papers. Under crime was written ‘yeshiva bochur’. For most of his seven years in Siberia he never saw another Jew and even began dreaming in Russian. He did the time for his crime and upon release from the Motherland he virtually went straight to Morocco to continue in his chosen profession. When I asked him about how he traveled to the villages he didn’t admit to the donkey. The most I got was “nisht mit a Mercedes!”

But wherever I go, I strike up conversations with Moroccan Jews, some of them two generations outside of Morocco. They remember Rabi Shelomo very, very well.

Obviously Madame Matusof (I still don’t know her proper name) was special. She called us kinderlach, and we came to like that very quickly. She served every course with a nem noch! and even the shape of her silverware, especially the soup-spoons, seemed to say Nem noch!

When I saw her recently at her grand-nieces chasunah she paid me the ultimate compliment. She hadn’t recognized me and when I told her my name she exclaimed “Shimon Posner??!!” “ Unzere?!!”

Her niece told me that she and her sisters feel fortunate to have her living nearby. They both need help getting around these days and carry themselves as if they aren’t walking legends.

A number of years ago she remarked to me that yes, you didn’t have an easy time with Reb Shlomo, but what he gave you is yours to keep and will always be with you. Simple, profound and how right she is.

We are fortunate to have them in our midst. Simple. Profound.