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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexander Weinstein shared how the cosmic humor of his science fiction stories was discovered by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. With the release of his book Children of the New World, this week, Alexander has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I was in my mid-twenties when I met Rabbi Zalman again. It was a rough time for me as a writer and a young man. I had graduated with a BA in Creative Writing, a degree which I discovered was good for finding restaurant work. I was working over 60-hour workweeks as a chef, had recently become a father, was overworked, overtired, and worried I would never make it as an author. I was trying to keep my writing alive in the few spare hours I had. I saw that Rabbi Zalman was teaching a course called Rituals for People Healers. I missed the university life, and missed studying with Zalman, so I asked if I could sit in on his class. And in this way, Reb Zalman reentered my life at a time when I needed him the most.

The class centered around creating rituals for others during times of need. As Reb Zalman explained, there were major events in life, such as divorces, teenage years, deaths in the family, buying or selling one’s home, infidelities, promotions and lay-offs, which we didn’t have elaborate rituals for. Yet, these events were often highly significant rites of passage, and times when we most needed the love and support of our family, friends, and community. Because of a lack of ritual around these key moments, Zalman believed people were left with unresolved emotions and a feeling of disconnection from their community. So the class explored the occasions where we, as “people healers,” might be called to create rituals to help friends and family through difficult transitions. The class was a kind of training ground to equip us with the resources of ritual creation which we might use to help those we cared for. Zalman’s central philosophy was that, as humans, we had an obligation to help build a larger and more loving world.

The class was a powerful one, and it gave me a structure for community building—a teaching which led to my founding of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, the non-profit organization I founded seven years ago, whose focus is aiding writers within a summer arts community where they can work and be creatively inspired. I didn’t know it at the time, but Zalman’s teachings would shape my future. It also turned out to be the last time I would talk with my rabbi.

Soon after the semester ended, I moved to Indiana with my family, where I pursued my MFA in Fiction. In the years that passed, I often thought about Rabbi Zalman—promising myself to write him soon and thank him for all his wisdom, guidance, and generosity. Time passed, I worked on my stories, and found myself busy with fatherhood, publishing, editing, directing the Institute, and the daily demands of life.

Last year, on a spring day, I decided to finally search out Reb Zalman and write him a letter. As I searched for his email address, I discovered the news that he had died two years earlier, in 2014. There was no one to share my grief with, and so, in the ways Reb Zalman had taught me, I held a ritual to say goodbye to the man who’d so deeply influenced my life.

I’ve been listening to Reb Zalman’s teachings as I drive to work these days, watching his YouTube videos, and hearing his singing of Judaic chants. In one video, he stands in the Rocky Mountains, his voice beautiful as he brings all those around him into the presence of the sacred. As I listen to his teachings, I’ve come to understand how profoundly Reb Zalman has influenced my writing. Many of the stories in my collection, Children of the New World, are about people who are trying to live good lives within a world where technology has separated us from human interaction. The hope beneath the tales is that we might better practice what it means to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and family to create a more nurturing community—one which exists in our physical reality rather than within online worlds. The collection, like my work with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute, is another extension of Rabbi Zalman’s teachings: to remember what it means to be “people healers” and to do what we can to make this world a better and more loving place.

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: The Humor of Enlightenment

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Permalink

Alexander Weinstein is the author of Children of the New World, a provocative collection of science fiction stories of the near-future. With the release of the book this Tuesday, Alexander is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I was twenty-two years old, and finishing my BA in creative writing at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, when I first met Reb Zalman.

The Kerouac School was a fantastic program, one which taught me to take risks in my writing and revealed the intersection between spirituality and literature. There was a free community class on The Search for Enlightenment, led by a man named Rabbi Zalman. The idea of learning from a rabbi was intimidating. For one—in spite of the fact that as a little boy I had accompanied my father to hear my grandfather sing as the cantor of his small synagogue—I was never a very religious person. And secondly, I worried that Reb Zalman would be judgmental, and sternly rabbinical. But, I was also young, searching for answers (in the best Talmudic tradition), and drawn to the topic. And so I went. Zalman was in his late seventies at the time, and surprisingly laid back in his black shirt and yarmulke, his face beaming with warmth. He welcomed us to the session, and then asked us to stand up and walk the space leisurely.

“As you walk, I want you to look for enlightenment,” he instructed. “Ask everyone you meet: ‘Are you Moksha?’” And so we walked around the room, and with every person we passed, we asked the same question: “Are you Moksha?”

“Moksha,” it turns out, was not a person, but rather a state of being. I experienced two specific emotions during this experience. The first was that I didn’t believe myself to be enlightened, nor to have the answer of enlightenment for those who came asking for moksha. More importantly, as I watched myself searching the faces, I realized I’d been searching for enlightenment since I was sixteen. I’d been fascinated by the idea of spiritual liberation and findingenlightenment. With every new person I asked about moksha, I understood that this was how I’d been living: I was looking everywhere for the secrets of spirituality, and constantly searching for the wise men and women who had a grasp on liberation. Little did I know, I was in a room with a man who was as close to enlightenment as I’d ever meet.

“So,” he asked us, putting his hands together and smiling, “Did you find it?”

After that first session, I enrolled in Rabbi Zalman’s Intro to Judaism class. It wasn’t my interest in the subject matter that compelled me—I simply wanted to be in the rabbi’s presence. He was a wisdom keeper in the truest sense of the word, and had prayed with all faiths. From Native American ceremonies to Hindu deities, from the great Buddhist masters to his encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism, he believed in a human spirituality. And it was through his belief in inter-spirituality that he opened the Jewish faith to me. He shared wisdom tales of the old rabbis, and was able to unpack the Old Testament, often agreeing with our critiques, knowing that it was through our questioning that we might better come to understand the sacred. Within his laughter, which rolled from him naturally, I began to understand what it meant to be holy, and in turn, I grew interested in the spiritual wealth of Judaism.

Reb Zalman wasn’t a creative writing teacher, but nearly two decades later, I recognize his humor within my writing. In my recent collection, Children of the New World, there’s a story entitled Moksha. The main character, Abe, is engaged in a spiritual search, and he travels to Nepal to find electronic enlightenment, which they have on the cheap in Kathmandu. He’s looking for an easy spiritual fix, and everywhere he goes, he’s hoping to find the secret. It was Zalman who first taught me the word moksha, and who helped me understand the humor in Abe’s (and my own) search. Like most humans, I still long for things, still wonder about enlightenment, and I work to cultivate peace, happiness, and love with those around me. In my stories, I attempt a similar feat: to write characters who have good hearts, who hurt in the ways we all do, who love as best they can, and who, in their struggles, are seeking to make things better. Whether it be enlightenment, happiness, or love, we are all searching for ways to improve our lives. And there’s a great cosmic humor in this search, one which Zalman understood as he watched us wandering that small room at Naropa so many years ago, fully enjoying the sacred dance we were reenacting.

Read Part II of Alexander Weinstein's Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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