April 30 2015

Once you’ve sat Shiva and worn your torn shirt for a few days or a week, what happens to your torn shirt? Is is trash, souvenir, neither, both, or other?

I am honored to be part of the artist in residence year end exhibit opening today at the Jewish Theological Seminary, curated by Tobi Kahn.


I participated in this residence and final exhibit three years ago, focusing on the Geniza concept with Remains to be Seen. One of the items I displayed was the torn shirt my father wore earlier that year as he sat Shiva for his older brother.

This year, I am displaying the shirts worn by my brother, sister and me as we sat Shiva for our father. Also displayed is the same shirt worn by my late father three years ago, and one more shirt worn by a friend and classmate here at JTS.

This archive of torn shirts serves as a memorial, and also as a possible place for acclimated public grief. Can there be a room where our Shiva shirts get collected over time? A Geniza of the gone but not forgotten?

I am grateful to Tobi Kahn, Gregory Gilbert and my teachers at JTS for enabling me to take part of this process of healing.


Amichai Lau-Lavie

April 30 2015



Artist’s Statement

Jewish Law requires certain mourners to tear a visible garment in symbolic demonstration of grief. The garment, often a shirt, is then worn throughout the period of Shiva – the week of mourning that follows the funeral.
Serving as both private meaning-maker and public marker of mourning status, Shiva Shirts are often discarded once the Shiva period is over. And yet, they retain liminality, both cherished and reviled as souvenirs of sorrow.

In displaying the shirts worn by me, my family members and friends during recent loss of loved ones I want to retain the ruptured sense of sacred in everyday materials and the beauty lingering in loss.


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Celebrating the T of Transgender, Truth and Thanks – with Yiscah Smith at JTS.

April 28 2015

The big deal about Monday night’s book signing at JTS is that it wasn’t a big deal at all. 

Yischa Smith, a Transgender spiritual activist, Jewish educator and former Lubativitch rabbi, taught hasidic texts, shared her astounding life story and read from the memoir she just published – 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.  

The event was sponsored by JTS’s RSSO  – Rabbinic Student organization and KESHET JTS – the LGBT alliance, along with Columbia Barnard Hillel and Lab/Shul NYC.  Those of us who worked on the event wanted to link Smith’s visit to the annual anniversary of the 2006 historic decision of the Conservative Movement  – welcoming LGBT students to the rabbinate. Since that decision,the LGB voices have been heard among the faculty and students of JTS. Smith’s inspiring visit enabled us to honor and celebrate the T voices in our community – with one more move towards inclusviness, dignity and progress. 

Smith’s story is truly astonishing, it is “The story of a man, facing his truth, embracing the woman she was always meant to be, and returning to her faith with wholeness and authenticity.”


When he was 20 years old, visiting the Western Wall for the first time, Smith knew that he was on the wrong side of the partition – longing to be on the other side, with the women.  He was also drawn to discovering Judaism on his own terms.  He became a Lubavitch Hasid and local leader, married, and six children and woke up each morning struggling to be grateful for life – and challenged by thanking God for life in the Hebrew words of the prayer that were spoken as a male. ‘Both prayer and pronoun were a lie’ She told the room of rapt listeners. ‘I had to face my truth.’

It took 40 years and a brave process of transition for that wish to come true and for Yiscah to move those few inches across the partition to the sacred authenticity so longed for. 

Some 30 people gathered to listen and learn with Yischa at JTS, among us, Father P., a Catholic priest in his 70’s who shared is own startling journey of transition in process – from male to female, from father – to sister! 

Unable to continue serving his parish and asked by the church to no longer wear his vestments, he is now preparing to resettle and devote her life with a new name and identity to the spiritual wellness of other Trans people. 

Yiscah, now in her sixties, radiant smile, elegant and confident, told of years of hardship and loneliness, yet celebrates faith and a connection to the divine in a deeply profound way.  Like Father P., her commitment to brining light to the darkness and sharing hope and courage with the rest of the world – and esp. those of us seeking validation, compassion and welcoming while living our authentic selves, is deeply moving.  He was an outreach Chabad activist for all those years, and that essence has remained the key to her life – the only difference being her gender – and her happiness. Not a big deal, yet such a huge statement about our lives and times. 

Sometimes a leap of faith is a physical transition, reconnecting body and soul in a brave recreation of creation. The journey to authentic living, we were all reminded, will invariably include crossroads and transitions, and ultimately call on each of us to leap from our own wound into sacred truth. 

Today Yiscah goes back to Israel, to continue teaching Judaism and to help lead the spiritual transgender movement worldwide.  It’s an honor to welcome her, celebrate her courage and share her vision. It’s a very big deal – and we are lucky to live at a time and a place where it’s really just a big deal at all – just a great teacher sharing deep wisdom about what life and love is all about. 

Her book is for sale, and highly recommended: 

40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living

Amichai Lau-Lavie

Sending Candy to Iran: My new Video for Purim

Today is the Fast of Esther, honoring a heroine’s courage – but tomorrow is the feast celebrating her success and our survival. I will focus on the art of goody-bag exchange for friends and foes alike. (Thanks Bibi! Working on a couple of goody bags for my Iranian friends as well) 


Why: Check out my  2 min. new video created by JTS on the power of purim’s gift exchange and why this year I’m not masking or wigging but sharing comfort food instead.

You’re in NYC? Join me downtown: 

Lab/Shul teams up with the Education Alliance’s Project ORE on PURIM DAY, March 5 for a PURIM PIZZA & TEA PARTY. Project ORE is an amazing community center for low-income, homeless and formerly homeless Jewish seniors.

Wishing us all a collective feast of friendship, less fear, more love.










Henrietta’s Kaddish – Homage to a Lesser Known Religious Innovator


This past weekend marked the new moon of the Hebrew month of Adar, and in Israel this past Friday was also celebrated as ‘Family Day’ the newest reiteration of ‘Mother’s Day’ – renamed in the 1990’s to be more inclusive to all parents and care-givers. Even when this day was invented in Israel in 1951 it was already a creative gesture – chosen to be honoring mothers on the day on which a childless ‘mother of the nation‘ passed away at the age of 83:Henrietta Szold.

I had known of Szold my whole life – the founder of the Hadassah Medical Network and the largest Jewish women’s organization in the world, among other amazing achievements, but I did not know that she was a religious innovator as well, blazing the trail for Jewish feminists and serving as a role model for many generations of women scholars, activists and leaders.

In 1916 Szold’s beloved mother died and how Henrietta went about saying the Mourners’ Kaddish in her mother’s honor would eventually change the way Jewish communities worldwide include women in the rite formerly reserved for men only. Almost 100 years after Szold’s famous letter and call for women right to recite the prayer publicly, another Jewish leader dealing with tragedy,Rachelle Fraenkel, rose up in front of millions of TV viewers and recited the Kaddish for her slain son – invoking grief, shock – and respect in the Orthodox world and beyond.
The Frankel Family reciting Kaddish for Naftali. 7/1/15

I just wrote an academic  paper for JTS about Szold, Fraenkel and the century old evolution of women’s fight for the right to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. It’s still a draft – comments and feedback are appreciated and can be sent to [email protected]. I dedicate it to the memory of Henrietta Szold, mother of innovation, on whose shoulders we all stand.

Read it here: No Kaddish Stands Alone- Henrietta Szold and the Emergence of Jewish
Women’s Public Religious Life

Deviation as a Blessing in Disguise. Word 43

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Sometimes you gotta deviate from what’s considered kosher to get to where it matters. 

There are blessings that come in disguise.

This week I was asked to make an on the spot decision about a blessing that was a serious deviation from the norm. Can a Cohen – carrier of the priestly blood line recite the priestly blessing in a cemetery? 
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