Reb Zalman’s Last Breath

His leaving was as unconventional as his teaching and his life.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wanted no casket, no plain pine box. For his funeral, held on the fourth of July, he wanted to be clothed in his white kittel (prayer robe), enfolded in his father’s tallis (prayer shawl), sprinkled with ashes brought from Auschwitz, then shrouded in white linen and lowered directly into the earth near his home in Boulder, CO.

He wanted the ashes buried with him in honor of his uncle, cousins, and the millions who’d died without receiving “a holy burial.”

It felt wrenching to shovel dirt onto his body. It also felt a privilege.

Carrying his body to the grave site.

Carrying his body to the grave.

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Reb Zalman Dies

I am grieving the loss of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died at his home in Boulder, CO on July 3, 2014.  He’d been sick and hospitalized for many weeks, but was recovering and hopeful he would make it through this year’s High Holidays.  A great celebration of his 90th birthday had been planned for August.  But around 8:40 a.m., his breathing stopped.

I’m grateful for the time we spent together, and that he was able to complete with me what he considered his final teaching.  He’d told me repeatedly that he was at peace with dying, he had his “travelin’ shoes,” and was “ready to go.”  The only thing he still wanted to do was communicate how it feels “when you know you’re approaching the end,” and how to prepare for the mystery.  His wife, Eve, and I take comfort in the fact that he was able to see the book launched, his last thoughts and words published.

His funeral is tomorrow, the 4th of  July, and I’ll be posting afterward.

Reb Zalman at a wedding several years ago. How we will miss him!

Reb Zalman at a wedding several years ago. How we will miss him! (photo courtesy of Donna Zerner)

 

 

 

 

Sara’s Picks for the Lost Vacation

Has “summer vacation”—two of the loveliest words in our language—gone the way of “free time?” Does anyone take a real vacation anymore, and what, I’m wondering, qualifies as a vacation these days?

A trip with young children is not a vacation.  A family reunion is not necessarily a vacation.   Staying home and “catching up” is not a vacation.

As defined by dictionary.com, vacation is “a period of suspension of work or study,” used for rest or recreation. The Italians call it “il bel far niente,” the beautiful doing nothing.

Good luck.

At a recent dinner with friends, one woman said she had family travel plans this summer but nothing that would give her a breather from stress. So, I asked her and others at the table, “What would allow you to unwind, relax, and recharge?”

Most shook their heads; they hadn’t had that kind of vacation in years, and one man said he’d never taken one. He wouldn’t know how.

Read book hammock For me, vacation has always meant the beach. Perched by the water with a hat or umbrella, feeling the tranquilizing warmth of sun on bare skin, listening to the rising, cresting, foom! of the waves, and—the icing on this cake—reading a book.

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Encounter with the Trickster

No one smiles at you in Mea Shearim—the ultra orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. Signs on the buildings warn: “Jewish women—dress modestly!”  I’d been warned that girls who entered the quarter wearing t-shirts or short skirts had been stoned.

mea stIt was my first visit to Jerusalem at age 35, and I hadn’t been in a synagogue for 15 years. I couldn’t wait to flee the Reform temple in Los Angeles that my family had attended, (but only on high holidays) where services were boring and Sunday school was an ordeal. Yet I was a seeker, and in the Sixties I began exploring Eastern mystical traditions.

In 1975, when I stopped in Jerusalem on my way to take a nature tour of the Sinai desert, I was startled to find a vibrancy in Jewish practice, scholars creating fresh translations of the Torah, and mystics unlocking the Kabbalah—nothing I’d seen in West Los Angeles.  I had yet to encounter a spiritual community in which I felt at home, and wondered if I might find that here.

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Your Crazy Time?

There was a story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi told me that I wasn’t able to include in The December Project. It’s about Maimonides, the venerated rabbi, physician, astronomer and philosopher of the 13th century who’s considered one of the key Torah scholars in Jewish history.

Maimonides

Maimonides

Reb Zalman first learned about Maimonides at 14, when he’d just escaped from the Nazis with his family, stealing over the border to Belgium.  After the horrors he’d witnessed, he thought that the God he’d been taught to believe in at his yeshiva had “finked out.” Zalman could no longer accept that there was a “world to come,” when the Messiah would resurrect the dead, the rivers would flow with wine, and bagels would grow on trees.

He was angry and wanted to fight, and since he couldn’t fight God, he was looking for a stand-in. He visited a Torah class and called out, “Do you really believe that when the Messiah comes, the dead will crawl out from their graves to be resurrected? This is stupid! Opiate of the masses. Rob the people in this world but promise they’ll get something in the next.”

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Too Much to Dream Last Night

Last night I dreamed I was with Jonathan again.*

Aggghh! Why is he appearing in my dream? I haven’t even thought of him in years. We were married in 1968 and divorced in ’73.

The dream dissolved instantly when I woke up, feeling distraught and confused, thrashing in the sheets. I tried to think, why was I so rattled?

Leibniz said that mortals can't see the full picture.

Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher, said that mortals can’t see the full picture.

Then I remembered. The dream. I couldn’t recall what Jonathan and I had been wrangling about, but I remembered that he had two briefcases with him, a fat one and a slim one. The slim one looked like the wine-colored leather attaché case he’d given me, but the initials engraved on it were: “A.D.”  Not mine or my ex husband’s.

What the…?

 

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How the Rabbi Got His Name

Reb Zalman in Hasidic garb

Reb Zalman in Hasidic garb

Back in the ’70s, when I met Reb Zalman, the subject of my new book, The December Project, his name was Zalman Schachter.  The last name means ritual slaughterer, which, in old world Jewish communities, was a position of honor second only to the rabbi.

I saw him occasionally through the years, but when I moved to Boulder, CO, in 2002, I found him teaching at Naropa University as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.  I figured he must have married a woman named Shalomi and hyphenated their names.

Wrong.

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Tiny New Light

I’m sitting on a couch in my daughter Rachel’s home in Chicago, holding my first grandchild, a boy, seven days old.  I’ve heard grandparents talk, ad nauseum, about the thrill of this relationship, but, as with having your first baby, you have no clue what it will be like until it happens.

I still don’t know the baby’s name.  Rachel and her husband, Jay, decided not to reveal it to our S smiling w Ffamily and friends until the bris—the circumcision and blessing performed eight days after his birth.  Traditionally, parents give the baby his Hebrew name during the ceremony, but Rachel and Jay wanted to do the same with his English name.  So they wrote it on his birth certificate and told no one else.

Months before, when they’d learned they were having a boy, Rachel asked me to plan the bris. I live in Colorado, so I wondered, how would I find a mohel—the man trained and certified to perform the bris—in Chicago?  Online, of course. The mohels are even rated on Yelp, and I discovered there are now female mohels, often former pediatricians, who refer to themselves as a “mohelet.”

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My Son’s Chinese Wedding

Last week I put on a traditional Chinese costume and sat beside my ex-husband in an obscure city in China, waiting for our son, Andrew, to come riding up on a horse with his bride in a sedan chair and ask us to accept her as our daughter.

Our children can take strange tacks and end up in places we never would have predicted.  A friend’s daughter grew up to be a trapeze artist in Cirque du Soleil.  “It was not a career path I ever envisioned for her,” the father said.  Another friend had a son who partied and slacked his way through school but went on to earn $30 million in the tech business.  The mother shook her head.  “I never would have predicted that.”

So it was for me.  I never imagined my son would go to China and jump headlong into the culture, start two businesses and marry a Chinese woman.  I’ve searched my memory for clues in his childhood that might have predicted this, but I’ve come up empty.  I mean, he liked Chinese food, but he also liked Japanese, Mexican and Italian. 

After earning a computer science degree at U.C. San Diego, he decided it would be useful in his career to spend a year learning Mandarin.  He picked out a language school cold on the Internet, in a city he couldn’t pronounce—Shijiazhuang—170 miles south of Beijing.  He chose it because the school offered four hours of private instruction a day, and total immersion in a city that had ten million people but only a hundred foreigners.  The natives spoke a pure Mandarin and almost no one spoke English.  It would be sink or swim, and I worried he would be lonely.

Instead, he became like a rock star in the city.  At 6’3,” he stood out and people would follow him shouting, “Hello!  Hello!”—the only English word they knew.  Businessmen wanted to befriend him and a beautiful young TV host wanted to interview him because she’d never met a foreigner.  

Fast forward eight years.  Thirteen of Andy’s family and friends have made the long trip to Shijiazhuang, and are checking out the apartment he and his bride, Yang Fei, have decorated for the wedding. 

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Guru Unmasked

I rarely go to see a movie twice, but after watching Kumaré, I went back to see it again the next day. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film is hilarious and profound, playful and edgy. A bright, indie film maker conducts an experiment: putting on the orange robes of a guru, he sets out to see if people might find the same inner peace and nourishment from a made-up religion as they do from a “real one.”

Kurt Vonnegut played with this concept in Cat’s Cradle, as do Trey Parker and Matt Stone in The Book of Mormon, which begins a national tour in August for which tickets have sold out in hours. I suspect one reason that Mormon has struck a nerve is that it reveals, under the ribald comedy, a truth that is the central point of Kumaré: religious practices can be made to look absurd, but they can act as a placebo to make people feel happy and inspired.

Vikram Gandhi as himself

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey to parents from India, who forced him to attend Hindu rituals and pray to gods that included a flying monkey and an elephant with a man’s body. He saw it all as embarrassing claptrap that “somebody made up” long ago. He studied religion at Columbia University, which made him more of a skeptic. But at the very time he was trying to throw off his Hindu heritage, he realized that millions of Americans were embracing it. He started making a documentary about yoga and concluded that the gurus he filmed were largely “making stuff up.” He traveled to India, where he found the swamis “just as phony as those I met in America.”

Vikram grows a beard and long hair, wraps some orange cloth around him and begins walking barefoot and carrying a staff with a giant Om symbol. Then all he has to do, he says, is “imitate my grandmother’s voice”—a sing-song Indian accent.

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