Author Archives: Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson

About Sara Davidson

In 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi asked N.Y. Times best-selling author Sara Davidson to talk with him about "The December Project." He wanted to help people not freak out about dying, and show how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. Davidson’s memoir of the two years they spent meeting every week, The December Project, is published by HarperOne. Davidson is also the author of Loose Change, Leap! and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion. Read more about her here.

The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

bellThe Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do “teshuva”—turning your awareness to God.

“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”

When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.

If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”

You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.

If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.

As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”

All riiiiight.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How the Rabbi Hooked Me

davidson-and-schachter-shalomiIn the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”

I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the Orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God.

As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”

I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”

For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.

In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.

An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.

Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were 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?”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy