Rabbi Lau and Peres - 1993
Rabbi Lau and Peres - 1993Photo: Yaakov Sa'ar/GPO

Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau spoke Wednesday about his memories of former President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who passed away Tuesday night at age 93.

Rabbi Lau knew Peres for 40 years. In an interview with Radio Lelo Hafsaka, he said that "we can learn from Peres what it is to be stiff-necked [a reference to a Biblical description of the Jewish people], an expression meaning a person who knows how to stand up for what he believes in and never give up. Simon Peres could lose an election in a humiliating and painful fashion, and then go right on and ask his assistants what the schedule was for tomorrow.

"He would then go back to work and not show the humiliation externally, but deal with it internally. After all those election losses he eventually managed to shake free of all those things and return to his position as someone who was beloved by the people, admired in every way, something that can't be described at all."

Rabbi Lau, who is also the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, gave his sketch of Peres' character: "In terms of love of the public, he was the complete opposite of David Ben-Gurion who was essentially isolated from the people. I never saw Ben-Gurion at parties or social events. Shimon Peres, on the other hand, looked for warmth and company.

"For example, journalist Mira Avrech was like a member of his household. When she got married at a somewhat advanced age, the wedding was held in Peres' house in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood, while he was serving as Foreign Minister. I got there to officiate the Huppah, and I see his wife Sonya standing and cooking the food for the wedding, and Shimon Peres with a dishtowel around his waist washing the dishes in the kitchen. You wouldn't find that with Ben-Gurion or Moshe Sharett.

Shimon and Sonya Peres
Shimon and Sonya PeresPhoto by Nati Harnik / GPO / Flash9

Regarding Peres' relationship with his wife Sonya, who didn't live with him in the President's residence during the last few years of her life, Rabbi Lau said: "I was greatly saddened. I had a bit of a relationship with Sonya. I would see her going to the supermarket in the Neve Avivim neighborhood [in Tel Aviv] like everyone else, never asking for any sort of special treatment or discounts.

"When they lived in Jerusalem she would go to the Mahane Yehuda market and ask her driver to stay near the police station on Yaffo street, because in the marketplace she wanted to be one of the people, with no special treatment. Shimon Peres loved her. When he said she was 'the love of his life' it wasn't just a figure of speech. I think his pain when she stayed in Tel Aviv and didn't go to live with him in the President's residence in Jerusalem was a very deep anguish.

"I remember when we were together at an economic conference in New York," reminisced Rabbi Lau, "and there with us was Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, who never liked us or the state of Israel. I explained that Moussa is the name of Moses our teacher, who also was born in Egypt and was raised on Pharaoh's knee. But Moses was for brotherhood, so let us go back to that, I said. Peres shook my hand warmly.

"Many years later, we were in Yad Vashem. President Obama, President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. My speech was directed at Obama. Afterwards, Peres came and shook my hand, saying that he always enjoyed hearing me speak, but this time he had a special feeling."