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.

Relat­ed Content:

Alexan­der Wein­stein is the author of Uni­ver­sal Love and Chil­dren of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR, and Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture. He’s a recip­i­ent of a Sus­tain­able Arts Foun­da­tion Award, and his sto­ries have appeared in Best Amer­i­can Sci­ence Fic­tion & Fan­ta­sy and Best Amer­i­can Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing.