Mordell Klein (1943-2024) was my oldest friend! A brilliant, charismatic, multi-faceted man of many talents and contradictions. He was born into a remarkable family. His father was an outstanding Talmid Chacham and Rosh Yeshivah, his mother was a bright, forceful woman with a strong personality. His were siblings brilliant each in a different way. The death of his father at an unseemly early age had a profound impact on him. He was a sickly child and spent time in a sanatorium in Switzerland. Doctors stupidly told him he would not live beyond his twenties.
He was sent to Carmel College, a boarding school in the English countryside, where he flourished. The founder, my father Kopul Rosen, had a very soft spot for him and called him Mottel affectionately, a derivation of his Hebrew name Mordechai. And that was how Mordell was known during his time at Carmel. My father became a surrogate father and he too was devastated by his early death. A second loss of a guiding influence.
At school, he was a brilliant student, both in secular and religious studies. And, over time as he gained confidence, he cultivated a unique eccentric intellectual personality, both in dress and manner, which marked him at this stage as an unusual individualist.
He was awarded a scholarship in Classical Hebrew at Cambridge University and spent a year in between in yeshiva in Israel at my father’s urging and with his support. He ended up in what was then, a small yeshivah, Mercaz HaRav Kook in the center of Jerusalem. It was then so much smaller and more intimate than it is today. But then it was dominated by a group of young dynamic religious nationalist students inspired by the great Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. It was his son, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook who now presided but at that time was not much in the public eye. But he took a strong liking to Mordell and was very much attached to him, and he threw himself into Jerusalem life. But reluctantly, he returned to England to study at Cambridge.
Mordell went off to Cambridge University where I would join him a year later. There he had abandoned classical Hebrew for Arabic ( he couldn’t tolerate the way the non-Jewish Hebrew lecturers followed Wellhausen’s Biblical Criticism which at that time liked to reorganize or amend the text to suit his Documentary Hypothesis).
There I found a side of Mordell I did not recognize. He had taken his individuality many steps further and become a well-known eccentric character both in dress and habit. Experimenting with all kinds of substances, kicking over the traces, and becoming quite notorious in Cambridge circles. Yet juggling his Jewish life with his nonconformity.
After three years, much to everyone’s surprise he decided to join me in going to yeshivah and we traveled together on a Zim cruise ship to Haifa. Me, dressed primly and conventionally. He with his long hair, jeans, and cowboy boots. Much to the amusement of the other passengers and crew.
I went to Mir Yeshiva, and he returned to Mercaz Harav Kook. Amazingly they welcomed him back, cleaned him up, and seemed to have transformed him. He studied hard and became a favorite of Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook who took him under his wing. They seemed inseparable.
After the Six Day War when the West Bank came under Israel’s control, we could travel south directly instead of circuitously, we both used to travel each week down to the World Union of Jewish Students center at Arad, which had been founded by old friends from Jewish student life in England. It seemed that Mordell was going to commit himself to a rabbinic or academic career. At the same time he published personally and jointly several books on Jewish themes.
Jerusalem at that time was a small little town with several distinct areas. Although we were both studying elsewhere in the city, we always gravitated towards Rehavia on Shabbat. It was an amazing concentration of some of the brightest minds Jewish scholars, both religious and secular, as well as multicultural students from all over the Jewish world. It was certainly the most eclectic and inspiring collection of Jewish minds I ever encountered. It was an exciting place for us both to meet the cultural elite of the Jewish world.
The Six-Day War changed many lives. And Mordell now felt he no longer fitted into the highly messianic nationalism of Mercaz Harav Kook. And he went off in a very different direction. He found accommodation in a seedy little tourist hotel just inside the Old City of Jerusalem, the notorious Hotel Petra, where all kinds of weird characters from around the world seem to gravitate towards its drug-infused atmosphere. And where Mordell reigned as the supreme guru. After a while, he tired of the Petra and moved down to Beersheba, where he taught for a while and then he picked up the traveling bug. Using Israel as a springboard east, hitch-hiking from Turkey across to India, and all stops on the way and beyond. The fact that he was fluent in Arabic helped him to make friends along the various routes he traveled. He was no longer going to be a rabbi though he was eminently qualified. We went our separate ways.
I left Jerusalem in 1968 for the rabbinate in Scotland. On one very memorable occasion, Mordell turned up at my house. He had just come back from Afghanistan. Dressed like an Afghani Mullah, reeking of pot. When he came to shul with me, he was still in native gear. Even so, they gave him an Aliyah and afterward gave a speech. They were impressed at his learning.
From Glasgow, I went to Carmel and Mordell went off to make his fortune. At the time North Sea oil had been discovered and there was a shortage of oil pipes for drilling. On his travels in Borneo, he noticed that there were a lot of BP pipes that were surplus and lying around. BP needed pipes but seemed to have forgotten those in Borneo. Mordell and a friend bought the stock from BP Borneo and sold it at a whopping profit to BP UK. This was the foundation of a fortune that enabled him to live henceforth the almost nomadic carefree life. We drank to his success one soft warm English summer overlooking the Thames at Carmel.
We kept in touch regularly. He would visit me at Carmel, and later on, in the various places I moved on to. He ended up being based in Jerusalem even though he would travel to the Far East particularly when the weather was cold and try to develop a range of different businesses over there. But creative as he was and always full of ideas, after his initial BP Borneo triumph, however much he traveled and explored he never found the same success again. He did not fit in completely in any society though he was at ease everywhere.
His friends became a kind of secret society that interacted over the years to meet, exchange ideas, and enjoy his company, his iconoclasm, and gossip. All of them talented, gilded, young men and women of that era. But I like to think we maintained a particularly close friendship precisely because in a sense we shared the same father.
We took opposite paths in life. Mine to a circumscribed, Jewish, educational world. He to freedom, multiple experiences, and constant change. A world traveler and an accumulator of ideas and experiences. People would say of him that he never fulfilled his potential. There are different measures of success in life. I would argue that in his terms he was a great success. He remained this stubborn individualist who wouldn’t let people advise him, tell him what to do, or even take care of him. The world is a poorer place without him.