Unscrolling: My New Weekly Torah Blog Starts Today

UNSCROLLING: A Year of Wrestling, Quoting, and Reclaiming Torah
Amichai’s New Weekly Blog (10/2013-10/2014)
This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers   in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.
Week One and Two: The Saddest Road
“Guide me to write a different better story.”
Josh Radnor believes in God and jump starts this journey. But he’s not praying here to that angry scripture papa that smites and judges and alienates. 72% of American Jews believe in some sort of God or universal spirit, according to the new Pew Report released this week  – and I think more will believe and pray and feel part of something bigger if they read what Josh was writing about divinity –  wild, and loving, mystery, a moan, a father-mother mixer at the core of what we are. Not that what matters is if more people  believe in God and if more Jews know more  Torah and Jew it better. But what matters, here, to me, is the beauty of the journey, questions asked, words that tackle life’s big meaning, ancient text as pretext to the journey of our lives. If this was the case then this report would look quite different and I think one day it will. So many of us are so removed from the simple soul truths that are covered by layers of austere religion. We need to start again, from the beginning.
Radnor, a beloved brother, brave spiritual warrior, prays the first step of this year long journey: “Teach me the true meaning of the garden, the snake, the apple and the fall. Let me learn anew.”
Then fall, and flood, and crash:
“The tower crashed. After the dust cleared, the people looked around, bewildered, coughing.
They all began talking at once. It was loud and confusing.. Someone was singing a song no one had even heard before, to a melody that had no match.
I was weeping on the ground and a man walked by.
…He reached into  his pocket and unscrolled a parchment. He read it quietly for a while. Than handed it to me.
I could not read a word of it, but mostly it was just a picture of a road. A long road into an open horizon, which matched the view I saw when I looked up.
But where does it lead?
To everything.”
Aimee Bender takes on Babble – tower, topple, words gone wrong, what happens when communication crashes, quoting Andre Breton, she frames the second Torah portion and the second genesis of our human polyglot reality sending us to translate signals, seeking ways to get on the same scroll:
“Keep reminding yourself that literature is the saddest road that leads to everything.” Aimee quotes Breton, and I quote her here, traveling along the same and the saddest road, less traveled by and also full of smiles, that leads to everything, one word, one week at a time, unwinding like this giant scroll.
Join us for the journey.

Before Birthright – there was Deathright? Burial in Zion. Word #12

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Burial קבר

Death is  big business. Especially, as I have learnt this week, in Israel.

 Hundreds of Christian pilgrims on my flight to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, eager Christmas tourists on their way to celebrate the birth of the most famous Jew of all. Somehow I end up sitting next to the somber Jewish family on their way to bury a quite un-famous Jew in Jerusalem. The coffin was in cargo.


We didn’t talk much – I’m not so good at that on planes anyway – but I learned that the elderly deceased was a lawyer, from NJ, father and grandfather, a widower in his late 80’s who had been fragile and ill. They were not really religious, had once belonged to a Reform Temple, and then a Conservative Synagogue, but when the kids grew up only  Mom would still get involved, mostly in the socials. She was  buried in Jerusalem in 2005, and the spot next to hers has been reserved for him. Why Israel? Their son shrugs, it was mom’s idea: they had a rabbi once who convinced them that it was a good investment in their family’s future Jewish education –  his mom used to quote the rabbi: ‘this way, you’ll visit Israel every once in a while – and it’s cheaper than day school.’

wow. Forget birthright – there’s deathright! and it’s been going on for a very long time. 

Death is  big business in Israel. Thousands of coffins are flown in each year, mostly Ultra Orthodox or plain-pious Jews who hold on to the mystical belief that those who are buried in Jerusalem will rise first when the Messiah comes and Resurrection happens. The Mount of Olives is top of the line – an average plot in Israel can go for $2,500 – but a good view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives can go up to $50,000! and there’s a waiting list. Several burial companies are making, well, a killing, reminding customers that the Holy Land is the ultimate destination – for about $20,000 total – not including flights and such for the bereaved. Check out this recent article on the reality – with ads by EL AL!

It all comes from this week’s Torah text, Va’Yechi. Every online buy-and-bury site I’ve visited quotes these verses from Genesis as the source for the tradition. Jacob, on his deathbed in Egypt, instructs his children to bury him in Canaan, with his ancestors.  And so he will be  buried in the first piece of real estate to be purchased in the promised land – Sarah’s burial cave. The funeral procession from Goshen to Hebron takes over 70 days. And then he’s home.  Jacob is the first to ask for this last honor. Joseph will follow suit – his bones will be carried by the fleeing Hebrews for forty years of wandering before ending up in the land he hadn’t seen since he was a teen. The Book of Genesis ends with this image of Joseph’s body inside a coffin – like one of those Egyptian mummies we always stare at at the Met.

It’s been a big deal ever since.  For centuries Jews have come here to die. Or be buried.

And when you pause to think about it for a moment – it’s a curious fact and sort of weird. For so many Jews, in past and in present, Israel is an abstract notion, an idea to dwell on, pray towards, more recently – to fight about and maybe visit – but not settle in. Too complicated. But death is safe.  I haven’t checked the data but I wouldn’t be surprised if nowadays more dead Jews come to settle down in Israel on an average year than live ones. I get the Biblical model, the Messianic fantasy, and even the excuse for future Jewish education – but it’s still a little odd – a weird twist on the Zionist dream. One wonders – is this the best use of so much money? isn’t it better spent on actual Jewish education? on a plot that is closer to the family  in Jersey and not waiting for the Messianic Sci Fi fantasies that will or won’t erupt? must we keep on with this fetish?

I get off the plane, say goodbye to the family picking up the coffin at the cargo section of the airport (who knows what’s waiting for them at the hands of the Ultra Orthodox Hevra Kadisha..) and drive up to Jerusalem to see my parents. It’s the Tenth of Tevet, an ancient fast day that has been re-configured and declared in the 1950’s as the memorial day for all those who died in the Holocaust but have no death date or grave. A Yahrtzeit candle is lit in my parents living room in memory of my father’s mother, Helena Chaya who died in 1945 in Ravensbruck, a German Camp. We don’t exactly know when and we know she wasn’t buried. She was 45 years old.

I watch the flame  flicker and think about the old couple from New Jersey, and about Jacob, and the grandmother I had never met, and about our human longing to belong, to call somewhere home, to yearn for connection with the people and places that we are part of – even when we die and decay into something so much larger than it all.  So much of what we do – the pilgrims for this messiah, the ones who wait for the other one  – isn’t about logic or common sense at all.

In this holy land, where graves become tourist attractions and territorial markers of disputes as much as personal memorials, nothing is as quite as it seems. It may be an expensive and irrational choice – but for people such as ours, with such shaky ground under our feet for so very long- it may just be the closest thing to home.

May all the ones who passed ahead, in burial spots marked and unmarked, be remembered and honored and live on through our stories, and our words..

Shabbat Shalom.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

The Altars of the Slain Defy Location: The Weekly Word/Lech Lecha

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3. Altar מזבח/Lech Lecha

Driving through Jerusalem last night with out of town guests I point out landmarks: Here I lived and loved, this is where the bomb went off, see the hidden shrine. For natives and tourists and pilgrims alike some spots are holier than others, some attractions more popular or less. All of Jerusalem is one big sacred site, dotted by plaques and monuments, and in the middle of it all is the holy mount, and on its summit, shining gold, is the ancient altar, covered by layers of faith.  Noah, they say, built an altar here, Abraham almost offered his son.
This week’s Torah text,  Lech Lecha, is full of altars. Abraham, leaving his family’s estate in Mesopotamia to  what will become the Hebraic homeland, pauses on his journey  to mark milestones  – again and again, he builds on altar. Altars are slaughter sites – stone structures where sacrifices are offered to the local deity, food shared and smoke rising – a vertical connection between heaven and earth: the nameless spot becomes a known location: You are here now.
Two altars are on my mind this week, both connected not by space but by time.
This coming Saturday night marks the 70th anniversary of my Grandfather’s murder. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau was gassed to death in Treblinka – that terrible altar of so many sacrifices, along with one of his sons, and his entire congregation. He was the last rabbi of the town, and according to survivors he led his flock to death holding a Torah scroll and chanting the S’hma and Kaddish. This coming Saturday night our extended family will gather in B’nei Brak to welcome a new Torah scroll into my uncle’s Yeshiva.
17 years ago my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was also on Saturday night and in my home in Jerusalem I lit a candle. That was the night on which Yitzchak Rabin was murdered, in the Tel Aviv square now named for him. Spontaneous altars rose all over the country, countless candles lit.
A Rally will take place in Rabin Square this Saturday night – we will vow to never again tolerate this hostile violence. I hope to be able to attend both of these events.
Abraham’s altars lit the fires and the smoke still rises, connecting heaven and earth, private and public, past and present; candles will be lit by that fire and memories ignited: we are here – still here – always, and now.  These altars are not about location – they, like memories, exist beyond.
זכרונם לברכה
shabbat Shalom

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org