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.
I learned how he acquired the name when he asked me, in 2009, to meet with him every Friday to talk about what he called The December Project. He wanted to help people “not freak out about dying,” and show us how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to have a richer and more grateful life.
When I asked him questions, though, I found that he rarely gives a straight answer. He would circle and weave, tell stories and sing until he’d taken us so far afield I couldn’t remember where the hell we’d started. But eventually, a pearl would arise—startling in its brilliance—and I decided to just let him run.
In the process, I learned a great deal about his unconventional life, which I relate in the book. Born in Poland, he barely escaped the Nazis, became a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began seeking wisdom from outside his community. He studied philosophy and psychology, reading books forbidden by his Hasidic teachers. He was married four times and had eleven children, one from a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi. But none of his wives was named Shalomi. (Remember, this blog is about his name? Some of his verbal wandering must have rubbed off.)
So I asked him one Friday in August, how did he get the name Schachter-Shalomi? (which is a mouthful to say and hard to type) He said he’d been introduced to the Sufi leader, Pir Vilayat Khan, in the ‘70s, and they’d become spiritual buddies, sharing their prayers and ideas. Reb Zalman felt a kinship with the Sufis—their ecstatic chanting, dancing, and yearning for God were similar to what he’d experienced with the Hasids in Brooklyn.
Reb Zalman learned to do zikr, a form of Sufi prayer, and he also meditated with Buddhists and prayed with Christians, all while holding firmly to his Jewish roots. He became a catalyst for the shift from triumphalism—the belief that one religion is the best and only way—to universalism, the recognition that, in Gandhi’s words, “It is of no consequence by what name we call God in our homes.”
He told me that “every time I found someone who’d transcended triumphalism, he was my friend.” Pir Vilayat had transcended triumphalism. During a meeting in Santa Cruz, CA, he surprised Reb Zalman by offering to initiate him as a sheikh in the Sufi order. Zalman said he couldn’t assume the duties of a sheikh, but Pir Vilayat explained that it would be like an honorary degree. After the initiation, Pir Vilayat said it was traditional to change one’s name. He thought “Zalman” was fine but “Schachter,” or slaughterer, might be changed to something more uplifting.
Zalman chose Shalomi, meaning “he of the peace.” At that time, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had just made his historic trip to Israel and the two countries were negotiating. Zalman said that when peace was established throughout the Middle East, he would go to court and legally change his last name to Shalomi. In the meantime, he began using Schachter-Shalomi.
In 2012, when we were concluding our talks about The December Project, he said, raising his hands with a puckish smile, “I’m still caught in the hyphen.”
To read more about The December Project, CLICK HERE
If you PRE-ORDER the book now, you’ll receive a Bonus —a free mp3 recording of Reb Zalman singing, talking with me, and leading a meditation on Letting Go. This is all extra material not in the book, and you can start enjoying it right away.
You’ll also be doing a mitzvah: half the proceeds go to support Reb Zalman’s work.
P.S. Today, Feb 5, is my birthday, (Yikes! The number is unbelievable), and ordering the book would be the finest gift I could imagine. xx Sara