I’ve been meeting with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to collaborate on a book he’s calling “The December Project.” I see it as lessons from a rabbi in his later years that you can use for all your years.
On July 1, I’m about to leave Reb Zalman’s house and fly to New York for a magazine assignment. “Wait!” he says, “I want to give you something.” He leads me into his prayer room, which I call “the cave.” It’s small and dark, lit by 3 blinking orange lights that are always burning.
He keeps four charity boxes by the chair where he prays. Opening one, he hands me a coin minted in 2000 that’s worth one dollar and bears the image of a Native American woman with a papoose on her back.
“The Talmud says that emissaries of a mitzvah (good deed) are not harmed,” Reb Zalman says.
He tells me to keep the coin with me and exchange it for one of my own dollar bills. “When you get to a place where you’ll see someone who suffers, you’ll be my emissary and give them something.” He adds that he has a “double purpose. The coin I’m giving you has a female picture instead of a president. I want it to help you do excellent work.”
It felt good, carrying the coin with the Indian woman in my purse. It seemed to be giving off a secret magnetic charge. BUT…as I walked through the streets of New York, I didn’t see any homeless people as I always had before.
The purpose of my trip was to interview Joan Didion for Oprah magazine about her new memoir, Blue Nights, to be published in November. The book is provocative and gorgeously written; she’s been a mentor since the ‘70s and it’s always a treat to spend time with her.
The trip had two other highlights – walking the High Line for the first time and seeing the Alexander McQueen show at the Met. What surprised me was that I have friends who live in New York and have not done either.
Kathy Goodman, a buddy since childhood, took me to the High Line at sunset. For 30 years it was an abandoned elevated train track, an eyesore that the city wanted to demolish. Then a neighborhood group formed to turn it into an elevated park, a narrow promenade, and in 2009, the High Line opened and now runs from Gansevoort Street to 30th on the far West side. The design and landscaping are awesome — elegant and inviting. But what makes the walk spectacular are the views of the Hudson River and the city. Every few steps, different vistas open up and as the sky turns from blue to orange and mauve, you can look right, left, in front or behind and in any direction, the view takes your breath away.
It was, literally, a peak experience, but I did not expect the same from the Alexander McQueen show. I’ve never been interested in high fashion, but many had told me this show was not about clothes but an extraordinary artist using haute couture as his canvas.
They were right. I had planned on staying an hour and couldn’t tear myself away after three. Every runway show McQueen created had a theme and told a story. In “It’s Only a Game,” the models stood on black and white squares like pieces on a chessboard and moved as their pieces allowed.
But what of Reb Zalman and the mitzvah coin? As my visit was coming to a close, I still had not come across anyone begging or suffering. But I had to give the dollar to someone!
When the doorman where I was staying scurried out in the rain to find me a cab, I gave him an extra dollar. I figured he doesn’t earn much and could use it. I tipped the taxi driver an extra dollar, but I still kept looking for street people. Where had they all gone? I treated a friend to breakfast because he has four children and is feeling the strain of sending them all to college.
I’m back in Colorado now; the coin was supposed to protect me and bring good work, both of which were accomplished. But the magic of Reb Zalmans’ coin was that it expanded my sensitivity and capacity to be generous. Reb Zalman keeps a stash of dollar bills in the ashtray of his car for when he passes people on the street holding signs asking for help.
“Do you always give?” I ask.
“Always, unless the light changes and I can’t stop. Even if the guy is going to buy beer,” he says, “why not still give?”
I must look puzzled, because he lowers his head and looks into my eyes. At age 13, he had to flee the Nazis with his family. They had no passports and carried sterling silverware to exchange for food, until the silver ran out. They were arrested and put in camps, where they had to survive on scraps of bread and water.
“Do you know,” he asks me, “what it feels like to have to go beg?”
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