July 22, 2016
Barely breathing. 1AM yesterday, Thursday night, inside the ER in “Gates of Justice,” one of Jerusalem’s large hospitals, full with patients and pain, pacing relatives and tired doctors, beeps and sighs. One of the rare sites where Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, all mix with tenderness but not without some tension. My aunt Judy, 100 years old, breathes her last breaths as my mother, her youngest sister, is there by her side chanting psalms from the book their mother gave her 60 years ago. My aunt’s children and grandchildren are there too, ultra-Orthodox, deep in prayer, as the monitors indicate decline. It’s a blessing. She’s suffered from dementia for years.
I came here right from the Pride March in the center of town, light years away. I’m still dressed in a pink shirt, but quickly took off the stickers and wiped off the rainbow from my cheek on the way over. Leaving my mother and cousins for quiet time together, I go to sit in the waiting room, next to a solider asleep with his gun pointed at me and a weeping Muslim woman in a wheel chair. I take out of my pocket the Traveler’s Prayer for the Path that I composed yesterday and recited only hours ago along with hundreds of marchers as the Pride March started: a prayer for a peaceful path and a safe return home.
I read it quietly, for the second time today, bidding my auntie goodbye, thanking her for being kind and for fond memories, sending her on her path to rest and peace.
What a bizarre and beautiful way to finish a packed day of pride and prayer and fears of violence and brutal death. But death came softly tonight, with monitors and a final sigh of relief.
“Source of Life, God of our fathers and mothers,
May it be Your Will that we walk in peace, guided in peace, and that we reach our destination blessed by life, joy, peace…Spread over us all a roof of peace.”
30,000 people showed up today to what was the largest Pride March in Jerusalem’s history. I was there 15 years ago when just a few hundred of us walked under a barrage of curses and hate. I was there with my children 4 years ago when soiled diapers were thrown at us from one of the balconies, but we cheered and walked on. Today’s was armed to the teeth with security measures that were sure to prevent last year’s terrible murder of Shira Banki, the 16 year old ally to the LGBTQ community who was stabbed by Yishai Shlisel, an Ultra Orthodox man with a disturbed soul and homophobic obsessions.
The Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, producers of this incredibly complex political event, ran out of wrist bands at some point as epic crowds filled the Jerusalem streets trying to enter the park where the pre-march events took place. We got there early, my sister with me for support, and helped set up the basketball court where an afternoon prayer in memory of Shira was about to take place. I was asked to lead it.
Not exactly a small thing to lead a prayer moment in the middle of Pride. The crowd – all hues of religious and not, including Shira’s parents, stood on the basketball court just 100 feet from the loudspeakers where dance music was blaring and a local drag queen (I trained her!) took the stage.
We planned a short and inclusive ritual with one stirring opening song, “Love Others as you Love Self,” followed by a poem, a brief moment of silence, Mourners’ Kaddish in memory of Shira, and a joined recitation of the Traveler’s Prayer for the Path. I spoke briefly about the privilege of standing here in Jerusalem, loud and proud, cautious and excited. I used to walk the paths of this park late at night looking for love, men, lurking in shame and hiding in the shadows. “The opposite of pride is not humility,” I said, “it’s shame.” And we were gathered to banish shame in the name of the most sacred notion: all human beings are in the image of the Divine; all are holy. I quoted the words of the Sabbath prayer – “Be not ashamed, do not be desolate – Divine glory resides within you.”
Shira’s parents stood near by, nobly. I had met them earlier this week and extended an invitation to join us for the memorial prayer. They told me that they are not religious. I told them that I lead a God-optional community back in NYC and what that means. They liked the concept and came, standing there as we honored their painful presence, one year later after losing a radiant child to needless hatred. “Shira’s memory is truly a blessing now,” I said. “Look around – from all over the county and from around the world so many are standing up against violence, are remembering and committing themselves to justice and hope.” A terrible price to pay for progress.
Somehow the dance music was turned down as we chanted the rest of the prayer together:
“May we walk together, today and on all days, in safety and pride, friendship and solidarity, forgiveness and love, all in Divine image. May we walk with open hearts, raised heads, proud souls, as one body for freedom and hope, sanctity and acceptance, equality and peace – here in Jerusalem, all over this land and around the world, now and forever.”
And then it was over, we hugged and posed and the march began. It was a mess because of the masses but everybody was kind and patient and ecstatic. It took us over 40 minutes just to get out of the park to the launch point. We met up with old friends and colleagues, religious and non-religious, parents with babies in strollers, wheel chairs and walkers, parents and grandparents – a sea of people from all over the country, all here to be with each other, to support, to be in solidarity.
What became clear this Pride is that what’s at stake here is not just the rights of LGBTQ people to live our lives with dignity, equality and respect. Jerusalem Pride offers an opportunity to broaden the issue as a test case for the fast changing pace of Jewish life and the limits of the Jewish law. Rabbis, some of them respected and important, came out with horrendous homophobic statements in recent weeks. Others retaliated. My older brother, Rav Benny Lau, released a short video earlier this week denouncing the homophobia and calling for open hearts and new acceptance. It went viral. This is about gay rights, but it is also about what progress means and how change happens. Are we coming from fear – or coming from love?
On Tuesday night my brother and I went together to Zion Square in Jerusalem, smack in the middle of downtown, to sit in a circle with random other people in dialogue about the issues that Pride brings up within society. This wonderful initiative was started last year after the shock of the attack on the Pride March. It continues every week.
It wasn’t easy. There were people who came to listen and others who just wanted to lecture their point of view. There were ultra-Orthodox men in black hats who angrily accused me of being a fraud and a pervert and simply could not understand how I can sit there with a kippa, call myself a rabbi and proclaim that I’m out and gay. I honestly haven’t had these sorts of arguments for years. I felt a bit rusty, my talking points falling flat in the face of so much pain and fear masked by fury and zealous conviction. At some point I just walked away from the “black hats” – defeated, speechless, too tired to articulate.
But even with my brother I came to a sort of standstill. With all his incredible support and acceptance, standing up with our community, taking a complicated brave stand within his own Orthodox community again and again – there still came a moment where our paths parted. On the issues of who’s a Jew, and if there is or isn’t a gatekeeper into the Jewish experience – essentially how far one can take Jewish law to not just tolerate but actually celebrate being gay – he stops at the limits of the law. Orthodoxy literally means “the only path.” But I see a diversity of paths, “flexidox” or “polydox.” I see new blurry boundaries of local and universal values, an emerging Jewish life and law devoted as much to love as it is to legacy and duty. After a heated hour of conversation in Zion Square we walked up Jaffa road towards his car together…to an extent. It was a lovely, cherished, charged moment that is etched in my mind. Same road, different paths – and yet determined to walk together, as much as possible, to be there for each other and for what our worlds represent.
He didn’t march with us on Thursday. It was too much for his public persona and communal role at this time. I get it. We talked about it. But I won’t deny that it is somewhat hurtful, still. Luckily, the Orthodox Gays group printed large signs with photos of rabbis and their pro gay statements. One of them had my brother’s face on it, along with the words he said last year at the end of Pride, as a stunned community gathered to make sense of Shira’s murder: “Get out of the Closet: The Closet is Death.”
So he was there with us anyway. My sister took a photo with the sign. I did too. And while he wasn’t there, many others were. Orthodox and even a few ultra-Orthodox friends, rabbis and leaders of all ages, marching along the heavily guarded road, with cheering on the sidelines.
We left flowers on the spot where Shira was stabbed.
And then it was over, many hugs and reunions later, so many rainbow flags and hysterical slogans, political agendas and protests, loud chanting and big smiles. And all the time I knew that my mother was home, waiting for the call from the hospital with updates about Auntie Judy.
I said goodbye to my friends in the park, and on my way out to find a taxi I found one of the signs with my brother’s face – a souvenir. Then off to my mother at the Gates of Justice with the rainbow wiped off my cheek, reciting the Prayer for the Path, along with verses from the psalms that we recited earlier:
“Our feet are standing at the gates of Jerusalem. O city comprised of so many voices…For the sake of my brothers and friends I seek peace for you.”
In 1945, Judy, born and bred in London, joined the British Army relief unit and spent two years helping survivors in Bergen Belsen. She embodied kindness and care for others. They called her “The Angel of Bergen Belsen.” She had a little private room where she slept but each time a couple got married she gave them her room for the first night. As a child I often played in her home in Jerusalem, especially with the large set of Noah’s ark and all the animals. “Make sure they are all well fed,” she’d tell me.
And now we’re driving off to the Mount of Olives to lay her to final rest. Tonight at the Religious Community Pride Dinner I will share words and dedicate the teaching to her memory, to Shira’s memory, to our shared legacy, to our shared future and destiny. At some big moments like this one, when death sings its final song, all those diverging paths along the way seem so petty and insignificant. I’ll be standing there on the Mount of Olives along with my ultra-Orthodox cousins in black hats and the others ones who live in settlements, burying a woman who had lived through one of the most turbulent and dramatic centuries in Jewish history, a hundred years of radical changes, horror and renewal, lows and highs – and hopes. And no matter our differences, we will be able to stand, if briefly, together, united by common history, present pain, and maybe, maybe some shared grasp of a mutually responsible future.
I am Proud to be here. I am Proud to be on this path with so many of us, a rainbow of voices and yearnings and courage and truths. Complex, real, alive. And sometimes, yes, dead. I am Proud to be part of the complexity and find ways to walk together with as many voices as possible without losing the unique hue of each and every one. To be here for and with each other – my sweet aunt’s legacy.
Rest in peace dear aunt. Rest in peace all those whose lives were taken by intolerance and fear and anger all throughout your lifetime.
May we walk together through gates of justice, on paths of love, together for as much of it as possible, and with respect when we part ways.
Let a new light dawn over Jerusalem: a light as bright as rainbows. May it be a light of courage and justice, passion and love, consolation and acceptance, tolerance and joy.
May a roof of peace be spread over us all.
This past day, a packed 24 hours, sums up a month in Jerusalem. Back to NYC on Saturday night. I’ll recite, one more time, the Prayer for the Path and come from home to home, in peace.
Sabbath of Peace. Shabbat Shalom,
– Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie