A Healer Returns

Daniel Libeskind is coming back to New York to help heal the
wounds created on Sept. 11. He won’t be working with words or medicine but with
stone, cement, glass and steel.

“My hopes are that out of the tragedy that happened, from
the depths of the ground, something will soar into the life of New York that
reaffirms the values we share: democracy and family and freedom and
independence,” said Libeskind, whose architectural designs were chosen to
replace the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror

The decision, announced Feb. 27 in New York, means both a
homecoming for Libeskind and the weaving together of themes that wind through
much of his work: openness, contrast of dark and light, the interplay of memory
and dreams for the future.

While Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin is a sprawling
zigzag that hugs the earth, his main tower in Manhattan would soar toward the
heavens. Yet the two designs have something in common: Both contain elements of
sadness and hope.

“I have learned many things” through working in Berlin,
including that “one has to believe the future holds something better than the
past,” the 57-year-old Libeskind explained.

Like his Jewish Museum, which contains a space for
meditation on the destruction of European Jewry, the design for lower Manhattan
includes a memorial at the original foundation of the World Trade Center, where
some 2,800 people were killed. Relatives of some victims already have said they
appreciate the fact that Libeskind did not want to build over the pit.

Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946 to two Holocaust
survivors. He became an American citizen in 1965 and studied music in Israel
and New York.

He was described as a musical genius but ultimately decided
to study architecture. He earned degrees in 1970 from New York City’s Cooper
Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and in 1972 from the School of Comparative
Studies at Essex University in England.

Libeskind and his wife, Nina, moved to Berlin with their
three children in 1989, after Libeskind won the competition to design the
city’s Jewish Museum. It was his first contract, but his first completed
building was the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum that opened in Osnabrck, Germany,
in July 1998. His Imperial War Museum in North Manchester, England, opened in
July 2002.

He has a number of other works in progress, including the
Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Maurice Wohl Auditorium at Bar-Ilan University

Tel Aviv.

The Jewish Museum, the work for which he is most famous, was
completed in 1999. Its unique design drew hundreds of thousands of visitors
even while the building was still empty. The museum was to open to the public
on Sept. 11, 2001, but the event was postponed two days because of the tragic
events in the United States.

“When the attacks happened, I felt personally attacked,”
Libeskind said in a telephone interview from his Berlin office. “My
brother-in-law worked for 30 years in that tower. He had just retired” and so
escaped the fate of thousands of others.

Working on the Berlin museum “prepared me to compete for the
project in New York,” Libeskind said. “I believe the memory of what happened”
in New York “is an eternal part of the place and has to be seriously addressed.
And it is so important to also have something that soars.”

Libeskind said it was essential that people feel comfortable
going to work again at the site.

“It should not be just a symbolic entity. It should affirm
that people work every day at a height that is safe,” he said.

Site developer Larry Silverstein reportedly wanted more
office space in the design proposals.

But “it’s not realistic that anyone would want to work at
that height or that any investor would build it,” Libeskind said. So he created
a place that transforms itself with gardens, an observatory and a restaurant as
it rises to 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year of American independence.

The main tower would be the world’s tallest building. Several
smaller structures would surround it, with the original four-and-a-half-acre
World Trade Center foundation as a focal point.

Libeskind has said it would cost approximately $330 million
to build his design. Construction reportedly would be funded partly by
insurance payments for the destroyed buildings. The plan may go through changes
before it is realized, Libeskind said.

“I think every design evolves, if it is good, and this one
will also,” he said.

Libeskind’s museum has changed Berlin. One of Germany’s most
visited institutions, it has exhibits covering nearly 2,000 years of German
Jewish life. The museum is expecting its one millionth visitor, according to
Eva Soederman, spokeswoman for the Jewish Museum.

School classes provide a large number of the visitors, and
students come away with an understanding that Jews are not merely Holocaust
victims but a people with a rich history, tradition and faith.

Berlin also has changed the Libeskind family — in
particular, his daughter Rachel, who became a bat mitzvah one day before the
gala opening of her father’s building. Speaking to the Oranienburgerstrasse
congregation that morning, Rachel said the history around every corner in
Berlin had affected her self-awareness as a Jew.

“I am the most religious member of the family,” she said.

“That still is true,” her father said with a laugh. “And she
will bring that to New York, a city that has a vital and deeply rooted Jewish
community. That is one of the reasons I am happy we are going there.”  

Healing the Sick

Jews don’t over drink. Jews don’t beat their spouses. Jews don’t get HIV.

The absurdity of it all. One lie after the other. We Jews fell in love with these lies. We ate them up and for many years our full bellies lulled us into a sleepy state of denial. Now we recognize that alcoholism, spousal abuse and AIDS (to name a few) are Jewish realities. We live with their presence in our lives. Whether it is a relative, co-worker or close friend who endures these trials, we have slowly begun to move from silent suffering to communal care.

I believe this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora (a double portion that addresses the laws around the disease called tzara’at and the diseased person called a metzora) was ahead of its time. It is progressive because the metzora and the community were expected to act publicly.

To this day it is unclear who was a metzora. The most common translation is “leper.” But as Luzzatto points out, the metzora was isolated to prevent the spread of ritual contamination and not to protect public health. A bridegroom suspected of having tzara’at was permitted to postpone his examination until his marriage week was over, and a gentile metzora did not cause ritual defilement (Negaim 3:1-2). Judging by these statements, the metzora must not have had the contagious disease of leprosy.

Given this confusion, what is interesting is the responsibility of the metzora. According to Leviticus 13:45-46, after the metzora is examined by the priest and pronounced tamei (ritually impure) he must “have his clothes ripped, have his hair left bare [which are acts of a person in mourning], cover his upper lip, and … call out, ‘Tamei! Tamei! (I am ritually impure!)'” The Torah then goes on to say that he shall be tamei as long as he has the tzara’at, and he shall remain living apart from the community until that time is over.

This is radical. Why? Because sickness is made public. No longer is the metzora told to suffer silently in a hospital bed. No longer is the word “cancer” whispered under one’s breath. Rather we are commanded to shout out, for everyone to hear, “Tamei! Tamei!”

Though a surface reading of this text may appear to teach that the metzora is degraded by performing acts of a person in mourning and then sending him or her outside the community, another reading may teach a different set of values. The command for the metzora to publicly change his or her appearance is significant. The Torah is teaching us that some illnesses can be and are life-changing events, and that we as a community are obligated to know who among us are suffering. In addition, some illnesses, whether we recover from them or live with them chronically, are a type of death.

Secondly, it is important to note that the Torah reads “have his clothes ripped, have his hair left bare,” implying that he does not rip his own clothes or shave his own head, but that others must assist him in the act. Again, this is another hint that the metzora is not suffering alone but, from the moment of diagnosis, is reaching out for others to help him accept his changed identity. The recent trend of healing services in synagogues across the country and the popularity of Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach” blessing attests to this powerful mitzvah.

Now we can understand the final radical action the Torah commands the metzora to do: to leave, to go outside the camp until the tzara’at has gone. Why, after all the public attention, is the person told to leave? Because part of communal care is allowing sick people time to transform, allowing them time to process their illnesses with God. Leaving allows them to be alone rather than lonely, to carve out time and resist returning to the world unchanged, to discourage them from pretending that their months of chemotherapy treatment are over and done with or their addictions have ended. Instead, we are to recognize that wandering in the wilderness with God is sometimes a blessing of opportunity.