Stories of the ‘Jewish Pope’ – Rabbi Israel Meir Lau
by Maxine Dovere
Israel Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel -and both former and current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv – shared the stage of the 92Y in New York with Rabbi Menachem Genack, Director of the Orthodox Union, November 2, 2011. The evening’s wide-ranging conversation combined rabbinical teaching, a bit of social commentary and stories of a series of life changing events and reminiscences.
Rabbi Lau’s immediate family was caught in the horrors of the Holocaust, and other then his two brothers, all were murdered. Lau, than a child of eight, was hidden in a sack carried by his older brother, Naphtali. Other family members had escaped from Europe, some landing in Cuba. Following a South American speaking tour, a visit to the island’s Jewish community was arranged. The Rabbi and his minyan were greeted by Fidel Castro who informed Lau that “I know everything about you,” subsequently asking how an orphaned child, virtually a child of the streets, Lau had achieved a position that effectively made him the leader of the world wide Ashkenazi community. Asked Castro, how could Lau, a poor child with no family, become the “Jewish Pope?”
One result of his meeting with Castro – and by the distinguished Rabbi’s own admission – he became an “international smuggler.” There is, of course, a wonderful story behind the designation. Though Israel and Cuba had no diplomatic relations, the Cuban dictator, who told Lau that Cuba allowed “no displays of anti-Semitism,” told Lau he believed Prime Minister Rabin, together with his colleague “Perez,” would bring peace to the Middle East, and wanted to send the two Israeli leaders gifts. The Rabbi, knowing both loved to smoke, suggested Cuban cigars – “not even to smoke, just to place on the table, with a note from you (Castro).” Three boxes of Cuban cigars soon arrived – in fact, illegal contraband, not allowed in the United States, even in transit. Queried the Rabbi, “how would it have looked if the Jewish Pope had been arrested for smuggling?”
The former Chief Rabbi’s words resonated from the stage of the “Y.” He educated and charmed a packed audience, relating stories of meetings with international leaders and ordinary people, tales of laughter and tears shared with a worldwide “congregation” of the great and the simple. Lau spoke of great hope and great tragedy. He related the results of a meeting with Pope Benedict, and praised him for his refusal to baptize Jewish children orphaned in the Holocaust, saved by Catholic Poles. The Pope, he said, had stated that he would “not interfere with the continuity of our senior brother, the Jewish people.”
Questions were asked about the establishment of the date of Yom HaShoah. Calling the Holocaust an event “uniquely separate from Jewish history,” Rabbi Lau said he believed a singular Day of Remembrance was needed. The date chosen was that of the hardest battle of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto against the gestapo, April 19. Lau said he feared that if the Memorial Day had been combined with Tisha b’Av, Israelis would not significantly remember the reasons behind Yom Ha Shoah.
Rabbi Lau discussed the ransoming of Gilad Shalit, calling it both a halachic and policy question. We are a nation that speaks in aleph bet – ain brera – no alternative. Despite opposition, we had no choice…we are responsible, one for the other. …The disaster was not the liberation of terrorists,” said the Chief Rabbi. “The disaster was when Gilad was in the arms of the terrorists.”
Had time allowed, Rabbi Lau could have kept his audience enthralled for hours. Concluding, he summarized the job of a rabbi, saying a rabbi has to have an ear to listen, be able to answer questions and do chesed – kindness, give of oneself, teach and attract people to the Torah.
Rabbi Lau seems to have all well in hand – and then, he writes books. His latest volume is Out of the Depths, his biography. Lau, the thirty eighth generation of “two rabbinic dynasties,” relates stories of survival – physical, spiritual political and personal. All his words point towards a continuity of generations. Rabbi Lau travels with his readers from Poland, the geographic home of his family to Israel, as he returned to the Jewish ancestral home, and across a worldwide network. The Rabbi concludes, “The struggle for the continuity of the generations is the true battle.” He calls on his children to “spread their light and proclaim…the miracle of the victory of eternal Israel.”