The Robert Slater Interview: The optimist

Scion of a long line of rabbis, Israel Meir Lau has a rare gap-bridging ability.

For nearly six decades Rabbi Israel Meir Lau kept his Holocaust traumas from public view.
It was not simply that he found his ordeal too painful to articulate in detail; it was more that he found himself distracted as he rose through the rabbinic ranks in Israel and eventually became one of the country’s foremost religious leaders. “I did not talk about the Holocaust for almost 60 years even though I gave thousands of speeches,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Appointed seven times to rabbinical posts – rabbi in south Tel Aviv, rabbi in north Tel Aviv, chief rabbi of Netanya, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv twice, a member of the Rabbinical Council, and Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel – he insists, “My head was not in Buchenwald.”
Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust.
Only in 2003, when he stepped down after 10 years as chief rabbi of Israel, did Lau, then 66, begin writing a Hebrew-language memoir, “Do Not Lay a Hand against the Boy,” telling the full story of his Holocaust experience.
Published in 2008, it became a bestseller, with 175,000 copies sold. A 2011 English-language version, “Out of the Depths,” sold 50,000 copies.
Lau was born in 1937 in the Polish town of Piotrkow Trybunalski. In 1942, at the age of five, when most of the town’s Jews were deported to Treblinka, he evaded deportation and escaped death. In November 1944, his mother managed to keep him with his older brother, Naftali, and the two children were sent to a slave labor camp, Czestochowa, and from there, in January 1945, to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
There, Lau was kept with Russian prisoners until someone found him hiding under a heap of corpses, after US General George Patton’s forces liberated the camp that April. In July 1945, Lau immigrated to Palestine with his brother, Naftali Lau-Lavie, today 87, whom he credits with saving his life during the Holocaust. Their father, Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau, was killed in Treblinka in 1942.
On the eve of leaving for Buchenwald their father asked Naftali, then 16, to watch over his brother, known by the diminutive, “Lulek.” Moshe Haim said, “I can’t protect you anymore. If by some miracle you survive this hell, you can make sure that Israel continues the chain of our rabbinic dynasty. That will be our victory over the Nazi enemy.”
At one stage, Naftali carried his younger brother in a sack to prevent him from being sent to his death. Lavie became a chief aide to Moshe Dayan and a leading Israeli diplomat.
Few moments aroused Israel Lau as passionately as the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, with its attendant symbols of sovereignty: the Israel Defense Forces, Hebrew policemen, and the Hebrew phrase, Rakevet Yisrael – Israel Railways – on the side of a train.
“After they wanted to kill us up at Buchenwald, I knew then in 1948 that Jews were protecting me. No one was going to hit me or kill me,” Lau says.
Settling in the new Jewish state, Lau studied at three yeshivas and was ordained as a rabbi in 1961, at the age of 24. He polished his oratorical skills as the chief rabbi of Netanya from 1978 to 1988. He married Chaya Ita, the daughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Yedidya Frankel, the rabbi of south Tel Aviv, and they had eight children.
Lau served as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1988 to 1993, when he was appointed Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, holding that post until 2003. Two years later, he was reinstalled as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, the post he holds today at age 76, a seemingly thankless job given the city’s reputation as a secular “black hole.” In 2008, he was appointed chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
Serving as a rabbi comes naturally to the Lau family, for which it has become the family business. Israel Lau is the 38th generation of Lau rabbis, dating back nearly 1,000 years. His three sons are rabbis. His eldest, Moshe Chaim, replaced his father as chief rabbi of Netanya; David became the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel this past summer; and his youngest, Tzvi Yehuda, became rabbi of north Tel Aviv.
We met in late October in his 4th floor office at the Tel Aviv Rabbinate on Uri Lesser Street. Religious books rest in glass-protected bookshelves. Four photos of relatives adorn the wall behind Lau’s desk – his father, his wife’s father, his uncle, a cousin – all were rabbis.
Ultra-Orthodox by habit and dress, he wears a long coat with a gray tie; a black skullcap sits on his head; his gray beard is neat, short; his silverframed eyeglasses suggest a certain scholarly bent. But his reputation has not centered on his scholarship.
His authoritative voice, his easygoing manner, and a burning desire to play a major part in building a Jewish state free of intra- Jewish feuding suggest why he has become one of the country’s most popular rabbis.
He is not preachy; he does not pepper his conversation with wise Talmudic sayings or lengthy anecdotes of Jewish wisdom. He is one of Israel’s great peacemakers.
He has been able to gain the trust of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations, something few political or religious leaders have been able to do. Appreciated among political leaders as the “go to” rabbi to resolve domestic conflicts, Lau cherishes his role as a consensus-builder.
During his earlier stints in Netanya and Tel Aviv, he delved far more into domestic conflict than he does today. His task then was largely to stitch Jewish families back together again after a son wanted to leave Orthodox Jewish life or revamp his home to make it more Orthodox – in Hebrew parlance, shalom bayit – domestic harmony.
Today, he says, “I don’t have time for that because that is something to which you have to devote a great deal of time with a family.
It’s a full seminar for each family. Now, I deal more with public or general issues, including synagogues, marriage and kashrut.”
As he went from one rabbinic post to another, he conducted a 63-year private search for the then-18-year-old Russian prisoner, who had been with him during the last four months of the war and had saved his life.
Hoping to thank the man personally, Lau knew only that the man’s first name was Feodor. Fearing that the Nazis might harm the boy, Feodor stole potatoes and hot soup every day for Lulek; he knitted wool earmuffs for him and found him a sweater to protect against the minus 20-degree weather. He also protected the child with his body as bullets flew nearby.
After the Russian prisoner, Feodor Mikhailichenko, appeared in a 1992 documentary movie filmed at Buchenwald, it still took Lau another 16 years to find out whether he was still alive. He was not, and so Lau never had the chance to thank his savior.
However, in 2008, Feodor’s two daughters traveled from Russia to Israel to inform Lau that their father had died. They were gratified to meet the grown-up Lulek.
For a religious leader bent on bridging gaps, whether social, religious, or political – or all three – there was plenty for Lau to do in Israel in the mid-1990s. The threat of a deep split within Israeli society was apparent. “It became a collective thing,” says Lau, who was then chief rabbi of Israel, “and I was in the middle of it.”
Viewing himself as a conciliator, he took pride in the fact that he was as friendly with the right-wing Ariel Sharon as with the more centrist Yitzhak Rabin. So it was that soon after the Baruch Goldstein massacre of 29 Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in February 1994, then-prime minister Rabin asked Lau to help resolve the Jewish-Arab turf wars over the right to pray at the sacred site. Lau’s solution, in force still today, was to allocate separate prayer times each day for Jews and Muslims and have only Jews or Muslims, pray at the site on each group’s holidays.
Still very much the consensus-builder, Lau today would like to preside over a much less secular Tel Aviv; but, as a realist, he seems grateful that Tel Aviv residents display a degree, however small, of religiosity. He chafes at the city’s secular image. “Everyone comes to Tel Aviv for a good time,” he notes, “so the impression is that Tel Aviv is entirely secular.” He insists, however, that the reputation is partly misplaced, as observers focus only on the tourist attractions – the hotels, the bars, the evening entertainment – in describing Tel Aviv as wildly secular.
As evidence that Tel Aviv is not entirely unobservant, he cites 970 Tel Aviv businesses that have requested, and to whom he has granted, kashrut certificates in the past year. He also cites the 545 synagogues that serve the city’s 410,000 residents. He is all too aware that before he can expand the religious experience for Tel Avivians – there are only 15 neighborhood rabbis, for instance – he must work on eliminating the antipathy toward Judaism in the city. “Before I work on spreading Judaism in Tel Aviv, we have to get rid of the ‘anti,’” he says.
Asked when he looks at the State of Israel today, 65 years after its founding, what would he change, he points to two burning areas of Jewish life that require improvement – the disconnect between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora and the gap between most Israeli youth and their Jewish heritage.
As for the first, he notes bitterly that to most Diaspora Jews, “Israel is an organization, not a national home; they do not consider it their home. It is a very important institution, and they understand that they must support it financially – UJA, Bonds; but it is no more than that.” He notes sadly that of the 5.1 million American Jews, only 30 to 40 percent have visited Israel.
As for the second gap, Lau notes that he knows 18-year-old Israelis who think that Maariv is only a daily newspaper, not a daily time for prayer. “The disconnect between the young Israeli generation with Jewish tradition is large because now any Jew can come here,” he says; “but most prefer to go to America or Germany. That pains me. It will take time for all of the Jewish people to come live in Israel.But I am an optimist.”
In January 2006, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon asked Lau to advise him on how to tackle these two issues. Sharon even hinted that he might ask Lau to serve in his government; but, just days later, Sharon suffered a massive stroke, which has left him in a coma until today, and Lau was unable to take up the Sharon challenge.
How did an orphaned child of the Holocaust become recognized as one of religious Judaism’s most important leaders worldwide – the “Jewish Pope,” as Fidel Castro once called him? Well, one can point to the nearly 1,000 years of rabbinic heritage, and his rare gapbridging ability; but most of all, what seems so significant is the unmistakable spark in Lau’s eyes when he calls himself an optimist.