Reb Zalman’s December Song

Archetypal Sage Tells His Idiosyncratic Story

Ventriloquist: Sara Davidson proves to be an expert at conveying Reb Zalman’s voice.
Carl Studna
Ventriloquist: Sara Davidson proves to be an expert at conveying Reb Zalman’s voice.

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 23, 2014, issue of April 25, 2014.
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● The December Project
By Sara Davidson
HarperCollins Publishers, 208 pages, $25.99

Founded in the aftermath of the Sabbatean heresy, early Hasidism was a paragon of paradox. Its early 19th-century adherents, particularly those of the philosophically rigorous movement Chabad, were uniters of opposites — heaven and earth, being and nothingness, concealment and revelation. The greatest revelations were often those most hidden — even hidden in plain view.

How else to describe this most revelatory of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s many books — a volume whose cover does not bear his name, and which gives but the barest hints of what lies inside? It’s almost as if Reb Zalman, perhaps the most creative shoot of Chabad’s hasidic tree, doesn’t want this quasi-autobiography to even be about him.

And yet the format of “The December Project” — which mostly consists of extended conversations between Reb Zalman and the book’s author, veteran journalist and television writer Sara Davidson — is actually the best rendering of Reb Zalman’s wisdom that I’ve come across. At age 89, he has finally found his voice.

There are two primary reasons why this is so. First, reading Reb Zalman’s books has often been like listening to a Grateful Dead studio album. The genius is there, but the spark sometimes isn’t. The cadences, the digressions — Davidson renders these perfectly, editing just enough so that they aren’t tiresome or cute, letting Reb Zalman’s idiosyncratic voice resonate clearly.

Second, Davidson is the right interlocutor. Reb Zalman’s hasidim — both his immediate followers in the Jewish Renewal movement, and the wider circles of Jews who have been influenced by him — can often seem like, well, followers. All of us who know Reb Zalman personally — and I am honored to say that, in some small way, I am one of that community — know that he is actually quite down-to-earth, and quite open about his flaws and shortcomings. He doesn’t pretend to be a saint.

Yet much of what has been written about Reb Zalman has an air of hagiography. Thankfully, this book strips all that away.

On its face, “The December Project” is about death. December here refers to the December years, which Reb Zalman says he is in. (May he live, healthily, to 120. Although I’m not sure that he’d want to.) Unlike Reb Zalman’s previous book on the subject of eldering — 1995’s “From Age-ing to Sage-Ing,” co-authored with Ronald S. Miller — this book is not about growing old gracefully, but being old, gracefully or not. The book is remarkably frank on the frailty of the body and the descent of the mind. It pulls no punches.


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