Stories of the ‘Jewish Pope’ – Rabbi Israel Meir Lau

November 13, 2011 1:36 pm 0 comments

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau personally signed copies of "Depths" following a long "conversation with Rabbi Menachem Genack at the 92Y in New York. Photo: 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.”

Rabbi Lau spoke at a later event at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Rabbi Lau (center) joins Julius Berman (left) and Rabbi Menachem Genack (right). Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.