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The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

Friday, March 28, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, NY Times best-selling author Sara Davidson wrote about talking to your parents about death and about she came to write her memoir The December Project (HarperOne), which is based on her conversations with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi about how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do "teshuva"—turning your awareness to God.

“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”

When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.

If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”

You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.

If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.

As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”

All riiiiight.

To read more about Sara Davidson's "Fridays with Reb Zalman," click here.

In addition to The December Project, Sara Davidson is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, Cowboy: A Novel, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion.

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How to Have “The Talk”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, NY Times best-selling author Sara Davidson wrote about she came to write her memoir The December Project (HarperOne), which is based on her conversations with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi about how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every dayShe will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“What should you do if your parent is close to dying but doesn’t want to talk about it?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

I’d recently moved my 94-year-old mother to a care home for people with Alzheimer’s. She’d made funeral arrangements years before, but she never spoke about the elephant in the room—her approaching death. I wanted to know what she was experiencing. Was she in denial or at peace? What could I do to help her meet the inevitable with grace and love? I couldn’t just blurt, “Mom, you’re dying. How does it feel?”

Reb Zalman raised his hands as if to say, stop. “You don’t have to tell her she’s dying. Just sit with her quietly and think about it. She’ll be going to a different place and you’ll be missing her. You want to make the parting good for her and good for you. The message will seep in. Not everything has to be verbal.”

We had this talk during one of what I called my “Fridays with Reb Zalman,” when we met every week to discuss "The December Project." Reb Zalman had written the book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, in his sixties—the September of his years. Now, he said, it’s December, and one of his priorities is to help people caring for elders understand what they’re going through and what they need.

“The most important thing to realize is: this is not about you. It’s their life, their passing, and you need to find out how they want to do it, not how you think would be best,” he said.

It’s also time to let them fulfill their wishes. “If people want to eat a frankfurter and it has nitrates, so? It’s gonna kill them? If they want to cuddle or have sex with someone in the old age home, what’s the worry? They’re going to get pregnant?”

If people aren’t able to express what they want, he suggested giving them some choices and following their cues.

His own father, he said, wouldn’t tell him what he wanted done with his remains. Whenever Zalman broached the subject, his father would say, “Nu, you can’t wait for me to die already?!”

So Zalman told him what he wanted for himself. At the time, he was considering being cremated and having his ashes scattered at Auschwitz, to join the ashes of his uncle and cousins who’d been burned at the camp, as an act of solidarity. His father reacted instantly. “That’s not good. You should do something else.”

“What have you got in mind?” Zalman said.

His father told him he’d bought a plot in Israel and wants his remains buried there and maybe Zalman should do the same. “I had to flip him into telling me, by speaking first about my own wishes and thoughts,” Zalman said.

He took a different tack when a friend was dying of cancer. “She was able to talk openly, and said she wanted to go to Hawaii because she knew the cancer was incurable,” Zalman said. “Her children wouldn’t let her go because her doctor insisted that she do more chemotherapy to prolong her time.” That had made Reb Zalman sad. He wished her children had considered, “How would I feel if I were in my mother’s place and I wanted to go to a sunny island while I still could?”

The woman was in great pain during the final days and told Reb Zalman she was afraid it would never end. He said she would not feel pain after her transition. “You will not always be in that physical body. You will slough it off and be free. Everything will be calm.” He said that people who’ve had near-death experiences report that they felt “enfolded in unconditional love—love that was stronger than anything they’d known, so strong that they didn’t want to come back to the living world.” For this woman, Reb Zalman said, “hearing that brought her comfort.”

I asked Reb Zalman what he would want in his own final days. “Ha! Remember what Woody Allen said, ‘I don’t mind dying as long as I don’t have to be there?’ I’m the opposite. I want to be awake and present. I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema.”

He’s asked his wife, Eve, who’s 24 years younger, to be with him because “I’d like to feel a loving touch,” but he told her, “When it’s my time, I’d like you to please let me go.”

She agreed, on one condition: “that you take me with you as far as you can.”

They have a deal.

To read more about The December Project, click here

In addition to The December Project, Sara Davidson is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, Cowboy: A Novel, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion.

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How the Rabbi Hooked Me

Monday, March 24, 2014 | Permalink

In 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi asked N.Y. Times best-selling author Sara Davidson to talk with him about "The December Project."  He wanted to help people not freak out about dying, and show how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. Davidson’s memoir of the two years they spent meeting every week, The December Project, will be published March 25 by HarperOne. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”

I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God. 

As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”

I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”

For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.

In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.

An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.

Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were when we sat down to talk, at some point a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”

To read more about the December Project, click here.

Related Content: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Reading List