Affirming Life, Right To The End
Wed, 07/16/2014
Culture Editor
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, with author Sara Davidson
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, with author Sara Davidson

The late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died earlier this month just short of his 90th birthday, said that he’d been training himself since he was young for the moment he would die. As a yeshiva student, he’d ride the subway to Brooklyn and would imagine that he was ready to depart from life, and would tell himself that he’d be gone from life by the next station. Then he would repeat the “Shema” to himself several times, so that he would be saying the ancient prayers with his last breath.

So it’s no surprise that decades later, when death was indeed closer, he had definitive ideas about his last hours, his funeral and burial, and he was able to put many plans in place before he died. But he also had a strong notion about the last chapter, when he would be affirming life in new ways, even as he anticipated his final days.

The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery” (HarperOne) by Sara Davidson is an unusual collaboration, presenting Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s ideas about the spiritual work to be done, much of it uplifting, to deal with health issues, unresolved relationships, fears of death, forgiveness, memory loss, trusting intuition, completing life goals, passing along lessons, finding new wisdom and facing mortality head-on.

The two first met in the 1970s. Davidson, who now describes herself as a skeptical seeker, grew up in California. In an interview she explains that after finding the Reform synagogue of her youth very boring and even painful, she went on to explore Eastern religious traditions. Then, on a trip to Israel in the 1970s, she found there was more to the Jewish mystical tradition than she imagined, and that many roads led to Reb Zalman, as she refers to him, and to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. She first met Reb Zalman when she interviewed him for a story, and she stayed in touch, calling him over the years about stories she was working on.

Davidson, a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, left Hollywood for Boulder, Colo., about 12 years ago, when a relationship ended, her youngest child left for college, and she was feeling “aged-out” of the writing business. She chose Boulder for its beauty, weather, and what she knew of its rich spiritual community of many stripes — including Buddhist and Jewish Renewal. She would sometimes run into Reb Zalman, who in 1995 became the World Wisdom chair at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, and in 2009, when they saw each other at a bookstore, as she tells it, “I blurted out that I was between books and that if there was anything I can do for you let me know.” He called her at 8 the next morning and said he had a project he wanted to do with her. 

“Why did you pick me,’ I asked. ‘I’m not a true believer, I don’t belong to a synagogue, I love the Jewish tradition but I’m not observant the way your followers are.’”

She came to realize that he felt safe, that he could trust her with the full spectrum of his feelings and beliefs. For about two years, they met every Friday morning at Zalman’s house in Boulder to work together. She’d ask questions, as she was trained, and he’d tell stories and sometimes break into song. Even as his health began to decline, she says that his mind was sharper than hers, that he had access to all of his memories and that he rarely had to reach for a word or reference.

“At some point in every session,” she writes, “unfailingly, out of his wandering storytelling, some amazing things would come up, like a pearl rising from the ocean. He’d startle me with his brilliance.” She recorded everything.

Their conversations led to his life story, which unfolds over the course of the book, detailing events and their emotional resonance, from his childhood years in Vienna and Belgium and earliest studies, to escaping the Nazis and making his way to New York, to his ordination from Lubavitch, his ecumenicism and his founding of Jewish Renewal. The book may well be the closest thing to a biography that has yet been written.

He reveals his loneliness to her, as he doesn’t want to worry those closest to him, like his wife Eve. Davidson writes, “He said the only one with whom ‘I don’t have to be opaque in any direction is God. Here I find understanding in every way. The fact that I’m not strictly within the limits of orthodoxy doesn’t trouble God, because he deployed me outside of those limits.’ Zalman raised his arms and laughed. ‘Or She did.’”

In a series of exercises at the back of the book, he encourages readers to carve out time for solitude, to give thanks “in whatever form it takes,” try meditation between contractions of pain, “kvetch to God,” forgive others and yourself and to let go.

He discusses the exit moment he would prefer to have, which includes being held by his wife and having Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio for Organ and Strings” playing in the background. He wanted to experience the final holy moment as well. One month before his 88th birthday, he asked his close friends to do a “practice tahara,” the ritual washing and dressing before burial, so that he would experience what it’s like “to be a corpse.” One of the participants told Davidson that the rabbi’s face was beaming.

At one point earlier in his life, he announced that he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes spread over Auschwitz, where many relatives were murdered. There was much outcry in response, and he ultimately amended his wishes: Some ashes from Auschwitz were wrapped in his shrouds. He was buried in Boulder.

Davidson’s voice and her own evolving understanding are also part of the story, and it’s clear that the two shared a deep connection. Her many previous books document different episodes in her life; they include her autobiographical novel about three women in the  ’60s; “Cowboy,” about her relationship with a real-life cowboy in Arizona; and “Leap! What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?” about baby boomers facing new chapters.

Reb Zelman was able to participate in several events related to the book, including a live talk in Boulder and, by videoconference, an event at the JCC in Manhattan.

Early on, the rabbi told Davidson that he didn’t think the end was all dark. “Something continues,” he told her. “It’s as if the body and soul are tied together with little strings. The closer you get to leaving, the more the stings loosen and the more you connect with greater awareness, the expanded mind.”