The world lost one of its luminaries, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l), in early July. At a moving celebration of his life last weekend, I recalled a few of the more powerful times when my life intersected with this amazing being, with a “heart as big as the world”, if not as large as the cosmos.
Grief introduced me to Reb Zalman. I first met him in June 2004 at the Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center, then in upstate New York. It was my second visit to the center, following a silent retreat in December 2003, seven months after my father’s unexpected passing. Until I found Elat Chayyim through an online search, I hadn’t known meditation was available in a Jewish context. Such had been my estrangement from my birth religion and its evolution over the ensuing decades. Attempting to fill the void left by my father’s death, I returned for the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah.
Dozens of us sat on meditation cushions or backjacks at his feet. Gentle and superbly alert, he invited our deep yet unstrained attention as he seamlessly wove contemporary phenomena, such as web surfing and downloading, into his teachings and Torah commentary. It seemed more important for me to bask in his energy of utter delight and complete acceptance than to assiduously take notes. For those of us who lost grandparents in the Holocaust, and for others who found the limited menu of mainstream Judaism unpalatable, he bridged the vanished world and contemporary society, a spiritual grandfather (zayde) to many. As the founder of Jewish Renewal, he “married the counterculture to Hasidic Judaism“, creating a space where Jews wanting depth and tradition without rigidity or right-wing politics could feel at home. Reb Zalman brought lightness, humor and relevance to a religion that often seemed stultifying if not stuck in time. Like a gleeful spiritual bartender, he fearlessly mixed together devotional practices from other traditions, creating the possibility of broader and deeper participation in this ancient religion. Even I, a reluctant joiner, later became a member of a Boston area synagogue whose rabbi was inspired by Reb Zalman’s out-of-the-box influence.
Renewal put me in his presence a second time. In 2008, freshly transplanted to Colorado, I attended Simchat Torah services in Boulder, where Reb Zalman lived. He and other rabbis presided over the “I-Ching” of the Torah, a ritual in which participants, standing shoulder to shoulder, carefully held an unfurled Torah scroll (at least 100 feet long) in the round, the scripture facing the center of the circle where the rabbis stood. They made their way around and asked us to randomly point our fingers towards the inked side of the parchment, and told us what our “I-Ching” said.
As I wrote then on a different blog, that Reb Zalman himself came over to my section of the scroll delighted me. When he translated the phrase to which I happened to point, my heart skipped a beat. It was the same verse (Deuteronomy 30:19) that my father used to quote, part of which appears on his headstone. In brief, the message I received was: Choose Life. I took this coincidence as his blessing to follow what makes me feel most vital and alive, even if that meant climbing mountains rather than attending synagogue or studying ancient texts.
Releasing some of those texts led me to his orbit for one of the last times in November 2013. Fewer than eight months before his passing, Reb Zalman officiated at a genizah burial in Boulder. The severe flooding the preceding September had destroyed or ruined prayer books and other texts in synagogues and homes. In Jewish tradition, damaged books and pamphlets carrying God’s name(s) and other sacred passages are buried in a grave. I went to the cemetery out of curiosity and to attend the funeral of my Tanach (the Old Testament).
Presented to me by Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts when I was thirteen, the two volumes had my name and the date of my Bat Mitzvah embossed in gold letters on blue cloth covers. While the books were bone dry, they bore a different kind of damage, the misspelling of my first name. It’s a common mistake in the Jewish world, to hear or see Ilona (Hungarian) as Ilana (Hebrew). Often, my name was received with confusion and consternation, as if my parents had made an error (they hadn’t), rather than open-eared curiosity. More so when I was younger, whether someone paid close enough attention to notice meant the difference between feeling seen and welcomed or invisible and ignored. As a teen, shy and aware of the expense of things, I said nothing rather than ask the synagogue to order another, correctly spelled, set.
The books, covers faded and bindings slack, were bricks in my hands. The misspelling grated. The staid translation of the Hebrew dragged. While I had diligently prepared for my Bat Mitzvah, spending hours and hours practicing my Torah portion, my memories of the actual day were neutral at best. Even the dress I wore, cream colored with a navy jacket, looked more like a flight attendant’s uniform than a celebratory outfit. I had kept the books only because I believed I should. But every so often I’ve debated finding homes for these texts. Once I contacted a branch of Chabad (a Jewish outreach organization) about respectfully disposing of them. No one responded to my e-mail.
Unsure what to do with the books, since I could not throw them out, I tried to make peace with the mistake and with my own silence around it, born of a tendency to prioritize others’ concerns, real or imagined, over my own needs. At one point I scratched out the first “a” in Ilana so I wouldn’t have to look at a name not my own. That just made them uglier. Eventually I decided to eliminate any tangible reminders of moments in my life when, out of fear or other reasons, I chose silence and accommodation over authentic self-expression. The books would have to go.
The afternoon of the genizah ceremony, I drove to the Mountain View cemetery in Boulder; I had my iPad with me, thinking I’d write in a cafe afterward. Patches of snow covered the ground, damp grass mixed with mud. The cemetery manager had erected a tent with an awning, placed a green cloth under it and arranged upon it a few rows of chairs, robed in velvet covers, also green, creating an impromptu chapel. A plywood plank covered the grave, just outside the tent. Folding tables stood nearby, with a few boxes on each. I tucked my books into one carton. The cars and vans carrying the rest of the materials were, for a reason I’ve since forgotten, delayed. Since it was cold, I considered leaving, but thought again, and retrieved my hat, gloves and my iPad from my car.
Eventually the other vehicles arrived, filled with a staggering amount of cardboard boxes, each packed with texts, estimated at more than a ton. Someone removed the plank to reveal the cement lined grave. I tried to ignore the sense of dread in my gut. A man lowered a stepladder into the vault and climbed to the bottom, receding from view. He reached his arms skyward to receive box upon box, handed from the edge, which he meticulously layered. Children, some standing frighteningly close to the edge of the hole, filled the small gap between the boxes and the cement wall with loose papers and pamphlets. As space for boxes became scarce, people scattered books across the top. Unprotected by cardboard, arranged randomly, they seemed naked and vulnerable. Chilled and numb with an unexpected and unnamable ache, I froze in place and snapped pictures with my iPad.
Reb Zalman, seated in the front row, rose with some difficulty. Despite his failing health, he brought lightness to an otherwise solemn scenario. In Jewish tradition, he said, upon burial, the words would fly off the pages into the heavens. Within seconds, dozens of geese ascended in formation, as if they were the sacred letters taking their cue. Awestruck laughter rose from the group.
I like to think that Reb Zalman’s soul is now playing and dancing with the words he liberated, maybe even joyously and mischievously rearranging them, creating ripples throughout the World to Come.