He was my friend, teacher, purveyor of love and joy, and literary collaborator.
We published “The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery” (HarperOne 2014) in March. Three months later, on July 3, at the age of 89, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died — and he was ready.
In 2009, he’d asked me to have a series of talks about what he called “The December Project.” He said, “When you can feel your cells getting tired and your hard drive is running slow, what is the spiritual work of this time and how do you prepare for the mystery?”
I jumped at the chance. I’d never heard a description of the afterlife that rang true to me, and I was terrified of dying. Reb Zalman, by contrast, felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind,” he said.
We met every Friday for two years. I would drive to his home in Boulder, Colo., open the door, which was rarely locked, slip off my shoes and walk down to the basement, which was Reb Zalman’s domain. The very air there felt charged and intimate.
“Saraleh!” he’d call in his booming baritone. He added “aleh” to almost everybody’s name. He called his wife, Eve, “Chavaleh,” and his former student, David Ingber, the founding rabbi of Romemu, a Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side, “Davalah.”
We’d sit down in chairs facing each other, and I’d pull out my list of questions. I soon learned that he never answered a question directly. He’d tell a story, sing a song, recall a memory that reminded him of another story until I couldn’t remember where we’d started. At some point, though, a jewel would emerge — an idea so startling, unexpected, and thrilling — that after a month, I stopped trying to manage the conversation and just let him run.
He was the most open-minded person I’ve known, game to try new things, excited to adopt emerging technology, and reluctant to dismiss even the most outlandish idea before exploring it. At 79, he tried hang-gliding, and started studying Arabic so his mind “wouldn’t get stale.”
His memory was sharp and his knowledge so broad that after each session, I’d go scurrying home to look up an artist, philosopher, musician or scientist he’d quoted whom I’d never heard of.
Reb Zalman was fearless. At his burial service on July 4, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, whom he’d ordained, reminded everyone that his innovations, which have now been adopted throughout the mainstream, were radical and heretical when he began introducing them in the 1970s. They caused him to be denounced by the Chabad community that had ordained him.
He developed Jewish Renewal to “take the blinders off Judaism” and encourage everyone to have a direct experience of God. He taught people to daven in English, using the singsong rhythms and body movements used by the Orthodox in Hebrew. He included women in the minyan, asked groups to try praying in the dark with strobe lights, wrote the first book in English on Jewish meditation and welcomed gays and lesbians as full participants.
Reb Tirzah said, “Despite the pushback and condemnation that Reb Zalman received, he always moved forward.” This was possible, she said, because “his love outsized his fear. He had remarkably little fear of social pressure and disapproval, because his commitment to the Living God was simply greater than any other force around.”
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I experienced that love from Reb Zalman every time I saw him. Then, at his memorial service, I discovered that hundreds who’d gathered there all felt loved by him, that they were special to Reb Zalman, and that he recognized and encouraged their unique gifts.
The greatest gift he gave me was his serenity about mortality. He told me repeatedly that he was at peace with dying, he had his “travelin’ shoes” and was “ready to go.” But he was not at peace with the rapid decline of the body he suffered in his last years. “I do not feel serene,” he said, “when I’m struggling to breathe and adrenaline is rushing through me saying, ‘Warning, red alert!’ How do I manage that?”
Together we developed strategies for handling pain, and for memory loss. We created exercises to prepare for mortality, which I consider vital at any age: forgiveness, gratitude and most important, letting go. He said we should start letting go with small things. If someone cancels a lunch you’re looking forward to, can you feel disappointed and then let it go? He wanted people to practice this daily, working up to a readiness for the ultimate letting go — of life itself.
Around the same time Reb Zalman developed pneumonia in June, I had an attack of dizziness so extreme that I couldn’t walk and couldn’t hear anything in my right ear. Doctors weren’t sure what was causing the symptoms: Meniere’s disease, a virus? Then an MRI revealed a tumor at the base of the skull.
When I was told this, my immediate response was: calmness. I thought, “OK, I’ll need surgery to remove the tumor and there’ll be risks. But if this is my time, it’s all right. I can let go.”
Later, CT scans showed that the mass probably was not a tumor and not life-threatening. But I understood then, unequivocally, that the time I’d spent with Reb Zalman had changed me.
I remembered how every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted he and I might be when we sat down to talk, at some point, a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”
Sara Davidson is the author of eight books, including “Loose Change, Leap!” and “Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion.” To read more about her and Reb Zalman, visit www.saradavidson.com.