Remarks at the first memorial and annual Gershon Jacobson Lecture, June 6th 2006
In Jewish history and tradition, the concept of a sofer, a scribe, has particular significance. When a true Torah scribe writes a sefer Torah, mezuzah or tefillin, he writes it with particular sanctity because, as Jews always knew, through all the ups and downs of life, the preservation of emes, truth, is through the word.
The first word spoken by G-d at the beginning of the Ten Commandments which we just read on Shavuos, is Anochi. According to the Talmud, the four letters of Anochi are also an acronym for Ana nafshi kasavis yahavis, that G-d imbues His spirit, His soul, into the words. Therefore, when we recreate those words, we don’t just print or fax them, but write them with exacting sanctity. It’s one of the most fascinating and underestimated eternal powers that every sefer Torah all over the world is exactly the same and hasn’t changed for 3278 years, from the time the first sefer Torah was written by Moses.
The sanctity of the word in our times, l’havdil, you have to say, has its own unique challenges because of the easy dissemination and distribution made possible today through the Internet, radio and TV. Words have unfortunately become very frivolous, and we have to make an extra effort to recognize and respect the sacred power of the word.
Since I was a little child, and I speak now on behalf of my entire beautiful family -- my mother Tzivia, life partner of my dearly beloved father Gershon, and my siblings Freida, Boruch Shalom, Chani and Yosef Yitzchok -- I recall, from the youngest age, my father as a man of the word. And though he wasn’t a sofer in the traditional sense, his typewriter, his pen and his pads were his sacred tools. (Many of you have no doubt seen him carry these around; he never let go of his pens and pads, even in the hospital.)
Kierkegaard wrote that, “Life must be lived frontward, but could only be understood backwards.”
We live in the moment; seeing neither context nor perspective. When we look backwards, we see the Divine providence, the bizarre mysterious twists and turns of G-d leading our footsteps.
I can only appreciate now in retrospect how my father recognized the moments as the story of history unfolding. And we are witnesses today, literally, to the most dramatic and powerful period in our history, our Jewish history. From the brink of the abyss of disaster just 60-70 years ago – which many of you here tonight experienced personally – we came to an unbelievable renewal, like the moon, as the Jewish people have been promised. But to see and witness it is a living miracle.
My father had the honor and privilege to document it. So yes, he documented it piece by piece, as the picture unfolded. But in the last year, when my family and I were looking at the Algemeiner archives and all my father’s writings, we were amazed to find that he saved it all in an incredibly organized way. Though at the time they were just fragments, when you look at it now, it’s the unfolding story of my life, your life, our lives, in a most fascinating way.
He understood the sanctity of telling the story, of staying away from personal bias and political interests, because the story is not about him or any individual, or any particular interest. It’s a story that has to be preserved, because it’s the story of the Jewish people and the story of G-d, of which we are witness. Atem eidai. And to me, of all the merits my father has, besides being a father and all that comes with that, his ability to document history in such a powerful way is perhaps his greatest.
This is why we decided, as a family, right after my father passed a year ago, to make the absolute commitment not just to preserve all that was written, but to perpetuate it, to continue it. When you have such a powerful archive of documents, such a powerful legacy, it is simply unheard of -- a sin -- not to capture it in the fullest sense.
It’s been a very difficult year as you can imagine. But at the same time holding on to this legacy was extremely consoling and powerful.
I want to first begin with a personal thank you to all of you here, and all those who couldn’t make it tonight because of traveling out of town or for other personal reasons. It was with your help that we were able to maintain, and to allow, the Algemeiner Journal, my father’s baby, to grow and develop into something of which we’ve only seen the beginning.
I want to personally thank my youngest brother, Yosef Yitzchok, who has stood at the helm of the editorship; all the writers, some of whom are here; and all the people working to produce 52 quality issues from the week that my father passed away until this very day. With your help, we make a pledge to continue to do so.
So I want everyone to give a round of applause to my brother and his staff at the Algemeiner.
In studying this past year all that my father accomplished and worked on and all the different people that he met, from 1934, the year he was born, until his sad passing last year, we realized that we’re sitting on an unbelievable wealth of material. And so I want to announce here that we’ve determined to launch five major initiatives in honor of my father that will continue to tell the story of the Jewish people in this powerful and hopefully unbiased fashion.
One, is the continued publication of the Algemeiner Journal and its development into something that speaks to our times that addresses the challenges ahead of us. The Algemeiner, which means “all inclusive,” will be a vehicle to build bridges between the many fragmented and partisan Jewish communities.
Two, to utilize modern technology, the power of the Internet, to capture the importance of this endeavor for an international audience. To this end, we have established the website Algemeiner.com to disseminate which cannot always be captured in the pages of a newspaper.
Three, is what we’re calling “Preserving Legacies”: digitalizing all these archives and making them available to the public. When we look at the organizations, the individuals, the people, in these archives, we see an unfolding story. Each of you may know it in your heart, but when you see it in print, it comes alive in a very real way.
Four, is to publish documentaries, films, books, and periodicals. You have a taste of it here in the materials we’ve prepared for this evening. You’ll also see at the end of the evening in a not-to-be-missed powerful ten-minute video of my father’s life and legacy.
And finally, number five, is the annual Gershon Jacobson lecture, which was suggested by close friends. How better to capture, honor, and celebrate a man who put important issues at the forefront. Shlomo Shamir, a distinguished journalist and colleague of my father for many years, wrote right after my father’s passing, that one of his major contributions in journalism, one that will go down in history, is that he was the first to take Yiddish journalism from light journalism (romances and poetry), to hard news about Israel and other political and traditional issues.
A few weeks ago, Hirsch Katz, another writer at the Algemeiner, wrote that my father’s contribution will be that he was the first Yiddish journalist to bridge Yiddish culture and religion. As we know, the Yiddish culture writers either cut out religion or saw it as insignificant.
This annual lecture will be addressed by a prominent leader and speaker on vital issues that face the Jewish community. And there are many issues today: issues that didn’t exist in 1972 when the Algemeiner began; issues that didn’t exist when we were trying to rebuild our lives after the Holocaust.
Today complacency, apathy, and divisiveness are major problems facing the Jewish nation. The meaning of Zionism has to be revisited as well. The Zionist dream was a dream of a homeland. And now that we have a homeland? Now what? What is the future of Israel? There are hundreds of such issues that some people shy away from addressing due to political correctness and their controversial nature. We hope to be able to address something significant every year that can be published as well as stimulate dialogue. Above all, we hope to offer suggestions, suggestions that individuals like you and me can implement to shape a better and more powerful Jewish future.
In that spirit, to launch the first Gershon Jacobson lecture, we chose a family friend, a prominent Rabbi, to address us tonight. There aren’t many today who are able to bridge different worlds and who represent different segments of the Jewish community. Tonight’s lecturer, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, is such a man.
If the word “former” sounds a little strange, it’s because when you’re a rabbi you’re a rabbi forever. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau Shlita is now the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, considered to be the bastion of probably the largest group of secular Jews. But he is a person beloved by all communities and therefore it is not surprising that he has risen to be the prime candidate for the Israeli presidency. Being able to represent so many different segments — which in itself is historic, being able to talk about culture, politics, and true Torah Judaism — Rabbi Lau recently published a best-selling book in Israel, Al teshlach yado el ha’naar (Do not Touch (hurt) the Child), which will soon be translated into English.
In it, he documents his own story: how he was saved from the clutches of the Holocaust. How his brother Naftali, may he be well, lifted him in his arms, snatching him from the clutches of the Nazis. Though their entire family perished, they fulfilled the promise to their father to perpetuate the Rabbinic chain that has been in the Lau family for many years. It’s an extremely moving book and a powerful documentation.
But you see something more impressive: Rabbi Lau was lifted by the arms of his brother, repaying that kindness to his brother, he, in return, has lifted many Jews on his arms through his inspirational talks, writings, personal counseling, weddings, and, G-d forbid, funerals. He has lifted the hearts of many, many Jews. A person who has gone through what he has gone through has a particular credibility, and he has imbued tens of thousands with strength and bitachon (trust).
It’s rare to find someone who is a Torah Jew with a vision, unafraid to address relevant, sometimes controversial, issues. We therefore felt it appropriate that tonight, honoring my father’s first yahrzeit, Rabbi Lau, who is a dear friend of my father as well, would deliver the first annual Gershon Jacobson lecture and on a most befitting topic: The Future of Judaism.
What will Judaism look like twenty years from now? How will we deal with the challenges that we face ahead of us and what can we all do about it? We have an incessant alienated youth, and there is a terrible divisiveness here and in Israel between the hareidim and the chilonim, as they call them – the religious and secular – and among the religious themselves. Divisiveness, one of the plagues of our time.
So we asked Rabbi Lau to address us on a topic of this nature, which will hopefully not just inspire but educate, and above all motivate us to make a move. When it comes down to it, hamaaseh hu ha’ikar, the deed is the most important thing.
I’d like everyone to give Rabbi Lau a proper welcome. He came especially from Israel to deliver this lecture, and to give honor to my father – Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, Shlita.