(Reviewed by JD Jung)
A few months ago I attended a Writers Bloc event to see author Sara Davidson promote her new book, The December Project. The evening began with a live video chat with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi from his Colorado home. She met weekly with the eighty- five year old Rabbi to work on this project, with the purpose of educating people on how to navigate the latter years of their life. Though I found the lecture quite interesting, I didn’t see the need to read the book right at the time. However, it was on my “to read” list.
Actually it was on my “maybe read later” list. I was raised a Christian Scientist which contributed to my deep-seeded aversion to organized religion. I am Christian (I guess), but have not experienced the cultural tradition and history of many established religions, like Judaism. Even though Davidson describes herself as owning a “seeker’s heart and a skeptic’s mind”, I doubted that I would be able to relate to this book.
Then my younger cousin unexpectedly died. I decided to pick up a copy of The December Project hoping to get some clarity. What I got was so much more.
Rabbi Zalman, who recently passed away at the age of eighty-nine, claimed that “December” (our later years) should be a time of surrender (letting go) , repairing harm that you have done to others, and forgiving others as well as yourself. It is also a period of self-reflection.
But how could Rabbi Zalman forgive? He barely escaped the Nazis and faced enormous hate and betrayal growing up in Vienna.
As an adult in the United States, he was a founder of The Jewish Renewal, a movement to make Judaism more accessible. He met and studied Thomas Merton and Howard Thurman, significant 20th century Christian theologians. He even dropped acid with Timothy Leary. He initially thought that studying Christianity would soften his belief in Judaism. Instead it strengthened it; but he also found “the borders had softened between Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.” It broadened his perspective and points of view, and he appreciated different religions and their ways of dealing with consciousness.
The December Project is a fascinating book on Rabbi Zalman’s life, philosophy and thoughts on how to spend the December of our lives. I also enjoyed his quirkiness and love of life. However, what I found most valuable is that it is an inspiring reminder of the importance of living in the present.