From the depths to your bookshelf

A discussion with Israel Meir Lau on the publication of his autobiography.

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Seen in person, Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s lined and bearded face looks exactly like the images I have seen staring out of the pictures in his book. I don’t know why this surprises me, but it does. However, the man, one of Israel’s most famous Holocaust survivors, exudes a warmth and a sense of intimacy that pictures cannot convey. Lau has agreed to speak with Metro on the publication of his autobiography, Out of The Depths, in English.

The rabbi’s story is well known in Hebrew-speaking circles. Born in Piotrkow, Poland, to the town’s chief rabbi, Haim Moshe Lau, young Israel Meir was the heir to a rabbinic dynasty going back a thousand years.

His journey from the ghetto to labor camps to Buchenwald, accompanied and protected by his older brother Naftali, enraptured Israelis of all backgrounds, who learned of the wanderings of a young child, from his scared and helpless days in postwar Poland to his rehabilitation in France and eventually in Israel, where he entered the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, eventually emerging as one of Israel’s leading rabbinic figures.

Lau, who served in the army rabbinate, recounts the formation of the state from the perspective of a young boy looking to reestablish himself. He finds parallels between himself and the Jewish nationalist ideology of Zionism, telling Metro that he sees his role as that of a “bridge” between the secular and religious camps in contemporary Israel.

From his account of hiding in the ghetto from a German “Aktion” to his close relationship with a Russian POW who saved his life in the camps, his tale humanized the Holocaust for many who would otherwise have difficulty relating to its horrors.

The chief rabbi’s autobiography – covering as it did his journey from child Holocaust survivor to state official and recounting the rebirth and development of Israel along the way – was, not unsurprisingly, a best-seller in Hebrew. It gives readers a new understanding of the country’s haredi community and its development in parallel to that of the state itself.

The book, as it chronicles the integration of young Israel Meir Lau into Israeli society, mirrors the cultural and spiritual development of both Israeli society as a whole and haredi society in particular.

A love of the land and of the Jewish people runs through the book, and Lau is especially particular to show the special resonance that the Holocaust had for Israelis, even those with no direct connection to the European genocide. However, the real importance of Lau’s book in his eyes was its portrayal of rebirth, both his own and the nation’s.

In one of the later chapters, Lau quoted Seventh Brigade commander Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen, a colonel during the Six Day War.

“When you hear the order ‘move,’ you tank soldiers will understand that ‘move’ for us, the Israel Defense Forces, means in only one direction: forward,” Gonen was quoted as saying. “Always forward, and only forward. Because we, the Jewish people, have nowhere else to go.”

“When I met Gorodish,” Lau wrote, “I asked him how he – one who grew up in Jerusalem during World War II – could say such a thing, since he had not experienced the Holocaust in person. Gorodish evaded my question, saying ‘never mind. I myself don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t planned.’ But his hedging made me realize how deeply the memory of the Holocaust is embedded in the consciousness of every Israeli, even those without a direct connection to it.”

Young Israel Meir, only two years old when World War II broke out, spent his formative years shaped by that experience and, as he wrote, had to learn how to be a child all over again.

Playing with newly found friends in Kiryat Motzkin in the courtyard of the uncle who took him in after his arrival with his brother Naftali following the war, Lau, whose cheeks had been repeatedly pinched by the older concentration camp inmates around him, did not know how to interact with others his own age, who as a rule had not lasted long in Buchenwald.

Wanting to show his appreciation for their friendship, the future chief rabbi gravely pinched their cheeks, expressing his approval. He was no longer a child despite his young age.

Stories such as these and incidents such as when he, still a young student, was compared by a Jerusalem bookseller to future Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then a poor kollel student, make the book a fascinating window into a world that straddled the line between two eras.

Following his term as chief rabbi, Lau returned to his previous position as the rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Asked about the contrast between his own observance and the secularism of his constituents (Tel Aviv being known as the center of Israel’s secular culture), Lau replied that there was another side to Tel Aviv, a side not known to those who lived outside of the city.

The secular stigma, he explains, stems from those who come to Tel Aviv for recreation, for the bars, clubs and the beach, who he says do not see the city’s religious life.

“There are 200 daily Talmud classes” in Tel Aviv, he states. “There is no law that a restaurant has to be kosher, but I sign over 970 kashrut certificates every year. If there was no request for it the business owners wouldn’t sign up for it. All of the big hotels” [are kosher], he adds.

The media “writes and speaks about the gay pride parade, which is for one hour, once a year,” but does not discuss the other parade, comprising thousands, that “twice daily makes its way to the synagogues of Tel Aviv in rain or heat. No one writes or speaks about that.”

Lau implies that Israel’s religious divides, as exemplified by Tel Aviv, are not as stark as those on the fringes of both the Orthodox and secular communities would lead one to believe.

Lau’s claim that “the problem between the religious and nonreligious is a problem of education, knowledge and public relations,” is familiar to any who know him. While stating that secular Israelis need more of a Jewishly orientated education, which he himself provided for years as a teacher in secular schools, he also comments that despite headlines highlighting haredi extremism and rejectionism, the haredim are beginning to integrate into Israeli life.

Citing the geographic dispersal of his community across the country among other factors, he says that “there is a big change in the haredi community. They are joining the IDF and are leaving the traditional haredi areas for the Galilee and Samaria and the Negev. The haredi community was once only Jerusalem and afterwards Petah Tikva and Bnei Brak.

The strong motivation for life and the desire to continue to exist gives birth to the necessity to leave the ghetto, and this obligates mixing with [other Israelis] in daily life, primarily in the matter of work. Today many are entering into the field of hi-tech and computer studies and electronics [and] there are many haredi colleges now.”

Lau’s positive outlook stems partly from his experiences with rabbis, as recounted often in his book, who balanced extremely rigorous personal piety with a respect for others, a trait which he has attempted to emulate. In fact, Lau sees the growing boldness of haredi extremists as a reaction to a wave of openness that is slowly breaking over their community.

Speaking with Metro prior to the haredi rally in Jerusalem that sparked national outrage over the use of Holocaust imagery, including concentration camp uniforms and yellow stars, Lau indicates his opposition to the politicization of the European genocide.

Responding to a recent event in which a political blogger circulated images of the prime minister dressed as a Nazi, Lau expresses his opposition to the use of Holocaust imagery in any political context.

“They use the idea of the Holocaust in connection to other ideas, such as discussing the ‘financial holocaust.’ It is forbidden to use the name of the Holocaust for any other purpose than remembrance, it cheapens the Holocaust,” he states emphatically.

“One of the most widely distributed Holocaust books is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl,” he says. “In that book the concentration camps are not discussed, and neither are death or even the trains on the way to death.

The book deals with a hideaway in Amsterdam and the interactions of family and neighbors. It went out to the whole world, this book, because for the first time it gave a name to a specific person and gave her humanity and a face and an identity, she isn’t number. She wasn’t just one of six million, but rather a person. She has personality.

Therefore people all over the world could identify and show empathy to this poor girl, Anne Frank.” Drawing a distinction between the diary and his book, Lau says that he, too, had had a name when he entered Buchenwald, after which he was only No. 117030. “I had neither name nor identity.”

“I went back to visit [the camp] as the chief rabbi of Israel, an independent Jewish state. This marks the difference from Holocaust to redemption and I want this story to go out to the whole world, not just the Jewish world.”

This emphasis on the Holocaust, critics of the Jews’ “obsession” with it notwithstanding, is vital, he emphasizes. Denial of the Holocaust is frequently used as a tool to delegitimize Israel, and when the world forgets the Holocaust, it makes it easier for people like the Iranian theocrats to begin planning “Shoah No. 2.”

What makes him afraid, he says, “is the motivation for denying the Holocaust.”

Countries such as Poland and Germany, which have had to face up to their role in the slaughter, he believes, have become strong allies of Israel precisely because of having “learned their lesson” and having focused on the Holocaust as part of their national dialogue.

These lessons from the Holocaust are of supreme importance, he believes, indicating that those who forget the lessons of the Holocaust will destroy its meaning. This has certainly been seen in Israel in recent days, and it is precisely fighting this type of misuse to which Lau has dedicated his career.