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.


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.

Pir Vilayat Kahn

Pir Vilayat Khan

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.”

The universalist

The universalist

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





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I look forward to hearing your thoughts and conversing. So please leave a comment below.

30 thoughts on “How the Rabbi Got His Name

  1. Reggie Gray

    Sara, i loved your blog for many reasons. I am turning the big 70 this week. i assume we are the same age! Congratulations.

    I look forward to reading the book and will order it after I write this.

    the best part of the blog for me was Reb Zalman getting initiated as a sheikh. I have been studying with a Brazilian teacher and felt conflicted until now on how to reconcile my Jewish roots with these important teachings. I won’t go into the details but Reb Zalman via you has given me a huge liberating birthday gift! Thanks to you both.
    Reggie Gray

  2. Heena Reiter

    Happy Birthday! Have a great day and year.
    I [finally] pre-ordered the book. How do I get the mp3 file?

  3. Jonathan Stoler

    Dearest Sara,
    Thank you and Mazel tov on the completion of this most important work which I so look forward to reading and re-reading.
    And blessings to you for all good things on your birthday! May our paths cross at the right time.
    ~Jonathan Stoler in Philadelphia

  4. Nuria Janet Quinn

    Happy Birthday Sara! Did you know that you share this date with the Urs of Pir Vilayat’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan? Sufis celebrate the day that one dies as the magnificent wedding day with the Beloved, and the Urs is the remembrance of that. It is said that on the Urs that one is very close! May you be showered with blessings from the whole lineage of Inayat Khan and from the Beloved on this day. Love to you from me, too!

  5. Peter Lake

    Fine story,
    Can you ask him if a Gentile can adopt the name Schachter?
    “Peter the Slaughterer” has a ring to it.
    I’m ordering……..

  6. stephen foehr

    Happy birthday, Sara. Just order December Project as it seems age appropriate. My new novel, Water War, Snake Valley Okies vs Las Vegas is up on Smashword and will be officially released on Amazon this Friday.
    Look forward to talking with you on return return from Hawaii. Stephen

  7. Nancy Spaeder

    Happy Birth-Day Sara! I just ordered the December Project; my husband and I have experienced the passing on of his mother and father, my father and brother. And now my 91 year young momma is rounding that corner, but she does not speak of it, so this book will be a catalyst for conversation.
    Thank you for your open exploration of self and meaning of life all of these years. I have enjoyed your sense of humor and honest seeking of truth.

  8. Candace Howard

    Wonderful, Sara, to catch up a bit and hear about your life and your book…Life is slower now, bringing an opportunity for my husband and I to leisurely enjoy golden days. Let us know if you ever decide to come to Louisiana.
    Candace Howard
    Baton Rouge

  9. Joey Bortnick

    Well Sara,
    This blog took me back to the book Loose Change when Tasha goes to Chaminix to study/meditate with Pir Vilayat Khan. I remember the kitchen fire and how she had not looked in a mirror for so long, until she needed to check her face for burns. Anyway, how wonderful that Reb Zalman’s story ties in with your first book. Of course I will order it. Happy birthday, by the way, and I look forward to meeting you when you come to California. I would love to take you to lunch if you have time.
    Respect and Blessings,

  10. Jessica Guff

    Hi Sara,
    Your new book sounds fascinating! I just pre-ordered the Kindle edition on Amazon. My mother died a year ago on Sunday, 2/9, three months shy of her 99th birthday. She had NOT made peace with death and I hope to go out differently (as I’d hoped to do EVERYTHING differently, though the older I get the more I recognize that we were very similar ;). Thanks for writing what could prove to be a blueprint.

    All the best,

  11. Palle Rilinger

    Happy Birthday, Sara!! I am ordering your book immediately and looking forward to insights and perspective. Hugs and Best Birthday Wishes, Palle

  12. Silvia

    Dearest Sara,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from you. Happy to know you’re doing well. Happy, happy birthday, my dear!!

  13. JJ Shefa

    Joyous Birthday. I was a big fan of your book, LEAP; its wisdom, humor, and authenticity. It helped me to navigate a difficult passage. I so much look forward to reading this spiritual mentoring treatise from you and Reb Zalman. It will be published on my (60th) birthday, and I will most certainly purchase a copy–can’t wait! Gratefully, JJ Shefa

  14. Shane Connor

    Dear Sara

    many happy returns on your Birthday (almost missed it).
    I’m looking forward to the release of you book and will put in a pre-order

    kind regards
    Shane xxoo

  15. Roger

    What a great story. I call myself the only Jewish Christian, Buddhis, Toaist, Sufi tax lawyer in Hawaii, maybe in the world. Very gald to see a Rebbe with the same dimensions. Please bring him with you, when you next come to Hawaii, to speak at an All -Beleivers Networki function, where we have members of 18 different religions who believe exactly what you quote from Ghandi.
    much love and aloha, Roger

  16. Tania Reis

    Hi Sara

    So excited to read your book! I just re-read Leap – and was reawakened. Your talent is organic and I appreciate the care you take in telling the story of important thoughts. Mazel tov!

  17. Wilma Greenfield

    Rushed out to Barnes and Nobles to buy the book only to find out they won’t have it
    until March 25? I’ll order it from you, shortly!

  18. Ken Pyburn

    Glad to hear it is finished, I ordered it today and a friend in Kentucky did as well, Barbara Kammerlohr, since she has followed Reb for years like me but has not followed your blog. I am a member of Sage-ing International the organization the his Institute morphed into and he always addresses our conferences, recently by video hookup or video recording. I hope I enjoy it as much as I did Leap. I cannot tell you how happy I was to note his four marriages, since I too have multiples with no regrets at all and now know I am in fine company. Love your occasional postings by the way.

  19. Tom Boczan

    Hi Sarah,
    I’ve really enjoyed your writing and blog. I also have become a grandfather, 8 months ago. I didn’t know how to respond in the past, I’m not very computer oriented. My father’s birthday was also 2/5. Happy birthday. I haven’t talked with Terry in a long time. It sounds like you’re doing well and healthy.
    All my best, love Tom

  20. Lynn

    Hi Sara-

    Happy belated birthday! I hope it was a great one! I love your blog and have pre-ordered the book. I cannot wait to read it and learn more about the fascinating Reb Zalman.

  21. shana deane

    beautiful! thank you sara. i always wondered about zalman’s name. my birthday is feb. 4th. and i’m a member of rabbi david ingber’s congretation, romemu in NYC., and an end of life doula. i’ll order the book and if i am in town, i hope to meet you at the JCC talk.

  22. Arthur Gillman, Mathematician, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    Thanks for your – sensitive – remarks about Zalman. I came to know him when he was my Hillel Rabbi, over a period of several years in Winnipeg (before “Renewal”). He urged me to become a Rabbi, and arranged a scholarship for me to the Yeshiva in Cincinnati. I demurred, to become a mathematician (Abstract Algebra – “nearer to God”) instead. Which of us got nearer to God? Now, he knows. Inevitably I too will find out. /Shalom! Arthur /

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