Journalist Michael Freund converses with Israel’s former chief rabbi about the Israeli scene, anti-Semitism, and the recent translation into English of his remarkable memoir Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last.
Jewish Action: A few years ago, you wrote a book in Hebrew about your experiences in the Holocaust. It has now been translated into English and is being published in the United States. What prompted you to write this book?
Rabbi Lau: As believing Jews, we have a dual obligation of “zachor,” to remember, and “lo tishkach,” to not forget. The Sifrei explains the distinction between the two: lo tishkach refers to what takes place in one’s heart, while zachor refers to actions that serve to remind people. When a person says Kaddish, lights a yahrtzeit candle or learns mishnayot, these are all in the realm of zachor. Zachor is not just a spiritual act; it is something active.
The commandment “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek” [“Remember what Amalek did unto you”] is an obligation upon everyone, in particular those who came from there [the Holocaust]. I understood that one way for me to fulfill the obligation of zachor is by telling my story precisely as it happened.
JA: But why did you decide to publish a book now?
RL: I had never told my children my story in its entirety, and people would often ask me why I didn’t compile my memories into a book. I was busy all these years, so I put it off. But Hashem helped me. After I completed my term as chief rabbi of Israel [in 2003, after serving in that position for ten years], I was elected a second time to serve as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 2005. During the two years in between positions, I published a six-volume work on Pirkei Avot [known in the US as Rav Lau on Avot]—and I also prepared the book Out of the Depths.
But the book is not a standard autobiography. For example, there is not one story in it about the fifty-one years I spent in the rabbinate. Everything in the book is in some way connected to the Holocaust. The stories in the book, regarding my meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, or Mikhail Gorbachev, are [all] in some way related to the Holocaust.
JA: As chairman of Yad Vashem, and in light of your own personal experience, what do you think of the spread of Holocaust denial in our generation?
RL: It does not frighten me when the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says the Holocaust never happened. People with numbers on their arms from Auschwitz and other camps still walk among us. In the summer, when many people wear short sleeves and they reach up to grab the bus strap, you can see the numbers on their arms. Holocaust denial doesn’t frighten me. What does worry me is why some are denying the Holocaust—the motivation, the reason behind it.
After all, why does Ahmadinejad care if my parents perished in the Holocaust or passed away in a normal fashion? What difference does it make to him? Why does he deny it? Because he is preparing Holocaust number two! If there was already a Shoah—a final solution—and the result is that Hitler and Nazism [were eradicated], and the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust, it is not good for his case. People will say to him, “Look, there was already something like this and look how it ended.” So he says, “It never happened. I will throw them into the sea.” To make his case, as an anti-Semite, he erases the past.
JA: What can be done to counter denial of the Shoah, especially in the Muslim world?
RL: Earlier this year, I traveled to Auschwitz together with a group of Muslim leaders. The visit was arranged, in part, by the Aladdin Project, an independent organization whose aim is to increase knowledge of the Holocaust in the Islamic world. Among those taking part in the trip were former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the president of Croatia, the imams of London and Paris and the mufti of Bosnia.
Rabbi Lau converses with two of the greatest and most influential halachic authorities in recent times, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (center) and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Photos courtesy of Rabbi Lau
I spoke to the crowd—around 200 or 300 people—about the Shoah. The mufti of Bosnia stood up and said, “Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, come here! We invite you to see with your very eyes that the Holocaust occurred!” It was very powerful. If each of them goes back and talks about the Holocaust in their mosques, then we have accomplished something.
Among the Muslims there are those who understand the danger of denying the Holocaust.
JA: How do you understand the persistence of anti-Semitism?
RL: Anti-Semitism is an international mental illness. There is no logical explanation for it, and all attempts to deal with it in a rational manner are doomed to failure. Before the Holocaust, when there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, many of them were Jews with beards and peyot and Chassidic garb. The Maskilim among us said, “This is what brings anti-Semitism: the pious Jews with their peyot, the shtreimels, et cetera. If we learn the Polish language, if we become academics, if we dress like the non-Jews and behave like them, not only won’t they hate us, they will embrace us.” Or so they thought. But in Germany, there were no peyot and no shtreimels, sometimes not even a kippa. The Jews in Germany knew the language no less than their fellow Germans, and perhaps even better. They produced people such as Einstein and were involved in all aspects of life there. Nu? Did they embrace us? According to the Maskilim and their theories, they should have hugged and kissed us! But it was there that Nazism and the Final Solution were born. This is just one example of how illogical anti-Semitism is, of how dealing with it in a rational manner is not possible.
Then they persecuted us because we did not have a home. Now they do so because we do have a home. Is this normal? Anti-Semitism has no logic. Education and dialogue can minimize it. But as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, and he was an expert on the subject from his dealings with the Romans, “Halachah hi beyadua she’Esav soneh l’Yaakov.” [“It is a law that Esav hates Yaakov.”] Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto on Chol Hamoed Pesach, asked the following: Why does Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai say the same thing twice—“halachah” and “beyadua”? Just say beyadua; why is it necessary to say halachah? Because, he answers, one is required to uphold halachah even if one does not understand the reason behind it. What Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is telling us is that the knowledge that Esav hates Yaakov is in the realm of halachah. It is an axiom that we have to acknowledge, even if we do not understand it.
JA: You are the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. What is the state of the city’s Jewish life?
RL: Many Jewish Action readers will be surprised to learn how many functioning shuls there are in Tel Aviv. I ask people many times: How many shuls are there in Tel Aviv—twenty? Maybe thirty? In fact, there are 545 functioning shuls, and 200 daf yomi shiurim in this city. In the past year, I personally opened five new synagogues: at the Tel Aviv municipality, in the Fire Department headquarters, at Bank Hapoalim, at the Kupat Holim Clalit, and at the headquarters of the police of northern Tel Aviv.
Most synagogues in Tel Aviv do not have a rabbi because they lack the necessary funds. In Tel Aviv there aren’t 100 rabbis; there aren’t even fifty. There are just fifteen official neighborhood rabbis. So the chief rabbi of the city has to fill in.
The chief rabbi also signs off on all of the kashrut certificates in Tel Aviv. There is no law requiring a restaurant, hotel or supermarket to be kosher. But there are 970 such certificates in Tel Aviv, of which eighty are mehadrin. They are not all doing it for religious or ideological reasons. Many are doing it for commercial reasons—there is a demand. This, baruch Hashem, is a good sign.
Rabbi Lau with President Bill Clinton in Jerusalem.
JA: The image of the rabbinate in Israel is not what it once was. Why? How can it be improved?
RL: I am not sure that your assumption is correct. In every generation they say, “If only we had rabbis like those from yesteryear . . . ” There is a lot of nostalgia at work here. I will give one example to shatter the myth. I am invited to speak by many different organizations, such as the IDF, university campuses, and others. I have not found one place in the country, including the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim, that refuses to allow me to come and speak.
When I previously served as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, it was during the anniversary of the establishment of the chief rabbinate by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l. Israeli Television approached me and wanted me to follow the same path Rav Kook took when he made his famous journey to the kibbutzim. They wanted to see how I would be received, more than seventy years later.
When Rav Kook became chief rabbi of Israel, it pained him greatly that there were good young people who were pioneers on the kibbutzim but did not keep the mitzvot. He wanted to draw them closer. He always said, “Instead of them accusing me of senseless hatred, I prefer to be accused of senseless love.” He was interested in how it might be possible to influence the residents of the kibbutzim. He was told that the leading ideologue of the movement was A. D. Gordon, who lived in Degania. So Rav Kook sought to meet him and start a dialogue with him and he traveled from Jerusalem to the kibbutz. He arrived there in the afternoon at the gate of the kibbutz, where a man stood guard – a man whose last name began with Gimel. Rav Kook introduced himself and said that he had come from Jerusalem to meet with A.D. Gordon. “Impossible!” he was told by this man. “These are work hours, and Gordon will not receive anyone.” All of Rav Kook’s pleas went unanswered, so he had no choice but to turn around and go back to Jerusalem. He never did meet with Gordon. But when I came to the kibbutz, that same man whose last name began with Gimel waited for me, and he, together with the secretary of the kibbutz and high school students from the area, received me warmly.
JA: What are some of the challenges facing the Israeli rabbinate?
RL: I had a case twenty-five years ago where a young Israeli, someone who was not raised in a Torah-observant family, met a girl who was not Jewish. She underwent a sincere conversion and they went to register to get married. But the boy’s family name was Katz—he was a Kohen. So the couple could not register to marry. The girl had begun studying Judaism because of him and had become completely observant. When she heard that a Kohen was forbidden to marry a convert, she decided to leave him. Now the boy hates the rabbi who would not register him. Overseas this wouldn’t have happened, because the moment that a rabbi decides not to marry someone, he either foregoes a religious ceremony altogether or he finds a rabbi from one movement or another who will do it.
It is not easy being a rabbi in Israel. You can be as nice as possible, but when a situation such as this comes along—a boy is a Kohen and a girl is a convert and there is nothing one can do—the result is that the family and friends feel it is religious coercion. A rabbi in America doesn’t have this problem.
JA: What is your message to American Orthodox Jews?
RL: Every year at the end of Yom Kippur, we blow the shofar, which recalls the Jubilee year that was marked only in the Land of Israel. And then we all say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” I would be very happy if this indeed were to happen [all Jews around the world were to make aliyah]. But until then, there is a need to strengthen Jewish education and the Jewish community in every place around the world, so that there will be someone to whom we can declare, “Next year in Jerusalem.” There is no community without education.
Michael Freund is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which reaches out and assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people. He writes a syndicated column and feature stories for the Jerusalem Post. Previously, he served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term.
“Everything Is In Your Hands”
Excerpted from Out of the Depths by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, pp. 260-62
At eight in the morning one Sunday in February 1996, a peak traffic hour in Israel’s capital, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the number eighteen bus in Jerusalem, killing twenty-six passengers.
Several hours after the attack, I found a neat list on my desk with the names of twenty-four victims and their addresses in Jerusalem. But on the radio, I had heard reports of twenty-six killed. Two names were missing. My secretary explained that she had obtained the list from Jerusalem’s welfare department, which was responsible for gathering information on each of the victims. I insisted that she call again and ask for the names of the other two who had been killed. She did so, and the municipality was able to confirm the two others, a new immigrant couple from the Ukraine, the Kushnirovs. They were survived by their two sons, a boy of eight and a half and a baby of five months. The family probably was not sitting shiva, the office informed me, so there was no need to provide the address. I persevered, and found out that they lived in the Katamon neighborhood. I will never forget that visit.
I arrived at the apartment in the afternoon to find three adults in shock: a relatively young woman and two older neighbors from the building. Vladik, the older boy, sat on the floor, while Tomer, the baby, lay in his playpen. When I entered, Vladik stared at me in astonishment; a stranger was entering his home, wearing a long black coat and a hat, surely for him a strange and unforgettable sight.
I wanted to talk with him, mainly to distract him from the tragedy. I sat on one of the two simple, narrow beds in the room, and the adults sat opposite. They stared at me—and I at them. After a minute or two of uncomfortable silence, the young woman introduced herself in Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent. Her name was Larissa, and she was the sister of the dead mother. She said she had just gotten married three weeks before the attack. Before I could introduce myself, she addressed the boy: “Vladik, do you know who has come to visit us? Glavnyi ravvin, the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Lau.” The boy raised his eyes and looked at me as if asking, What is this rabbi doing here? His aunt continued, “You know, Vladik, that when Rabbi Lau was eight years old, he also did not have his mother or father. He came to Israel without parents, and just look— today he is the glavnyi ravvin of Israel. Take a lesson from him, Vladik. Everything is in your hands.” When Larissa finished speaking, the boy stood up from the floor, came over to sit next to me on the thin mattress, and lay his head on my chest. He sat like that for a whole hour, without saying a word.
After a while, I said one thing to him: “It’s true that our fates are similar, but there is one big difference between us. I came to Israel with an older brother who took care of me. When I was your age, I had no responsibilities other than worrying about my own future. But you, on the other hand, have a double responsibility, despite your young age: besides yourself, you must also take care of Tomer, the baby sleeping in the playpen who doesn’t know what’s going on. That is the big difference between us, and it means you have a responsibility.”
When I said good-bye to the grieving family, I said that if they were willing to, they should come visit me in my office in Jerusalem after the mourning period. Some time later, Vladik and Larissa came to my office. I was happy to learn that after the shiva, Larissa and her new husband had legally adopted her deceased sister’s two children. . .
Four and a half years after the terror attack on the number eighteen bus, I met Vladik again. Each year on the day before Passover, Chabad organizes a bar and bat mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall for one thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Regularly honored guests include government ministers, the mayor of Jerusalem, and the chief rabbis of Israel. Throughout my ten years as chief rabbi, I never missed this ceremony. I gave my speech, then passed out tefillin to each boy and candlesticks to each girl. One by one, the boys and girls mounted the platform to receive their gifts.
Suddenly, someone hugged me from behind and grabbed the bag of tefillin from my hands. I turned around. Behind me stood a tall, muscular youth whom I did not recognize. Noticing my embarrassment, he introduced himself: “I’m Vladik. Today is my bar mitzvah. You came to visit us in Katamon when my parents were killed in the attack on bus eighteen. Remember? I was with my brother, Tomer. Remember Aunt Larissa told me that you were also without parents at eight years old?” I replied that I remembered quite well, but more important, he should remember what Aunt Larissa had told him. “Everything is in your hands,” I said, repeating her assertion word for word. “She said that if you desire it and try, you can succeed. I share her blessing, and hope that the Master of the Universe will light up your path in life.” We parted with a strong handshake.
Courtesy Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Copyright (c) Yedioth Ahronoth Sifre Hemed, 2005; Copyright (c) Jerusalem Publications, 2009; English-language edition copyright (c) 2011 by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau; Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.