By Dan Baron
JERUSALEM, Jan. 30 (JTA) - To many Jews, he was the celebrity of the century, a mystic with mystique.
No one knows exactly the age of Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, who died of pneumonia over the weekend. The official statements of the Israeli religious party Shas, for which he served as charismatic figurehead and sage, said he was 106 years old. But other accounts spoke of 104, or 112.
Yet close to a quarter-million mourners, including Israel’s chief rabbis and political notables, attended Kadouri’s funeral in Jerusalem on Sunday, bringing the capital to a halt as his coffin was borne through the streets.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav eulogized him as “one of the outstanding leaders of the Jewish people in the past generations.”
Kadouri was the first name in Kabbalah - a discipline which, almost by definition, fits those who seem more ethereal than others.
Well before Kabbalah was well-known outside the secretive circles of Jewish mystics, Kadouri was studying it, prognosticating and even concocting his own talismans.
The Iraqi-born rabbi was an icon to Sephardi Jews, who attributed special powers to even the most mundane items - such as chairs and food - that he touched. Kadouri contributed to this image with a lifestyle at once virile and ascetic. A resident of Jerusalem's impoverished Bukhari Quarter for most of his life, he chainsmoked cheap cigarettes with little apparent impact on his health, and was married twice - the second time when in his 90s, to a woman half his age.
Katsav called him "a symbol and example to all of the repudiation of materialism."
His influence was important to the hordes of politicians who would seek Kadouri's counsel, especially around election time. In 1996, Shas leader Aryeh Deri persuaded Kadouri to endorse the party, and it went on to major gains in the Knesset.
Kadouri's support also helped Benjamin Netanyahu, a Shas ally, win the premiership in 1997.
"What interested him was that the religious parties would help the people of Israel and the Torah world," Deri said.