How the Rabbi Hooked Me

In 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.

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