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The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Zen Rabbi of San Francisco

By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 21, 2014

How does the idea for a book come to us? Is there a seed? A trigger event? Do we recognize the inspiration in the moment or does it need to gestate for a period before finally surfacing into consciousness?

Rabbi Alan Lew

I had a classmate in high school named Alan Lew. Alan was a star. Co-captain of the football team, smart, funny, popular. I wouldn’t say Alan played down his Jewishness but it was not a particularly visible part of his life. He graduated in my year and went off to Penn, bound, one felt, for a conventional successful life.

I heard nothing of Alan until January 13, 2009, when he died, suddenly and tragically, while jogging.

The wife of a classmate, Ginger Gross, contacted me, I can’t remember how, maybe over Facebook, to tell me the news. Ginger said, “Did you know that Alan became a rabbi?”

“What?”

“He was tremendously influential, a community leader, a truly beloved figure. He was known as ‘the Zen Rabbi of San Francisco.’”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Alan wrote a couple of books. Really good ones. I thought you might be interested.”

It is no small thing, learning of the sudden death of an old friend. But it’s even bigger to hear that that friend had become somebody completely different from the person you once knew, or thought you knew.

I ordered Alan’s books on the spot and devoured them the minute they arrived.

The first one was called One God Clapping. It was an informal autobiography, co-written with his wife, detailing Alan’s path to Judaism.

The book floored me. You know how you remember high school classmates? “Yeah, Joe was pretty good at math, but who knew he’d become head of NASA and figure out a new orbit for Pluto?”

In high school, Alan was always cool. Nothing ruffled him. Now I’m reading his book and he’s describing anguish, guilt, grief, terror, massive emotional turmoil, desperate searching, struggles to find his identity. More than that, Alan’s odyssey is happening at the same time and in the same places in Northern California where I myself went through the same shit.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Northern California.

Tassajara is a mountain retreat run by the Zen Center of San Francisco. I used to go there. Alan did too. In fact, as he wrote in his book, he was just about to become ordained as a lay priest when he suddenly found himself paralyzed, trying to sew his monk’s robe. “I’m a Jew,” he kept thinking. “Why am I becoming a Buddhist?”

Alan’s life turned around in that moment. He went to rabbinical school at 38 (he had been driving a tour bus when he had his breakthrough moment), found his wife-to-be, the writer Sherril Jaffe, and went on, in only a few years, to become a widely influential spiritual leader in Northern California. He introduced meditation into his congregation’s practice, not as a dilution of the Jewish way but as an intensification of it. Hence “Zen Rabbi.”

And that was just Alan’s first book.

The second arrived at my door a few days later. It was called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

If there ever was an LSD-infused title, that was it. But the book wasn’t about psychedelic adventures in Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties (though apparently Alan had been there and done that), it was about the calendar practice of the Jewish religion, specifically the “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I of course had never heard of any of this.
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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Can Writing Be Taught?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 23, 2014

There was an article on this subject in the New York Times a few weeks back. The question posed was, as I understand it:

James Rhodes and his teacher

If your son or daughter came to you and declared, “I want to be a writer,” what advice would you give him or her on how to pursue this dream?

Would you suggest an academic program, the Times asked. An MFA in Creative Writing? Or would it be more productive for your aspiring artist to enroll in the College of Hard Knocks, out on the street, gaining experience in the real world?

Questions like these make me want to spit nails.

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper,¬†albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven—to be a concert pianist.

This is Englishman James Rhodes, from his brilliant screed in The Guardian UK [full piece here] of April 26, 2013.

Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”

Yes, it’s true that any art has principles and techniques, which must be studied and mastered, as James himself testifies that he did here. But what I love about him is the passion and, even more, the madness (note the “nine months in a mental hospital.”)

You have to be crazy to do what James did, or what anybody does to get to the depths you have to get to.

How did Hemingway end his life? Or Hunter Thompson. Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And these were geniuses, with deathless works behind them. What wall did they hit? What monster devoured them? Writing, or any art, is not some bloodless craft possessed of an academy that the neophyte can enroll in and trundle, like a sausage, down a processing line to emerge at graduation with a credential.
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The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

Saving Tel Aviv

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 18, 2014

[This is the second post in a new series about the writing of The Lion's Gate. The series will continue Fridays and Mondays. "Writing Wednesdays" returns in its normal slot next week.]

Okay, here I am with the idea to do a book about the Six Day War of 1967. But that’s all I’ve got.

Marine captain Lou Lenart on Okinawa, 1945.

What comes next? How does a writer start a project?

The first thing I did was phone David Mamet.

NOTE TO READERS: Don’t try this at home. I am friendly with Dave. Otherwise I would never have dared impose on him.

“Dave, do you know anyone in Israel who is connected in military circles?”

“Come to my house this Friday for Shabbat dinner. I’ll introduce you to a guy you’re gonna fall in love with.”

So when Friday came, my friend Kate and I took a bottle of wine and went to Dave’s. Standing in the kitchen as we entered, chatting with Dave’s wife Rebecca, was the gentleman in the photo on the right, taken on Okinawa in 1945:

“Steve, I want you to meet Lou Lenart. Steve, you were a Marine. Lou was a Marine. What else needs to be said?”

SECOND NOTE TO READERS: This is when you know the gods are smiling on you.

Lou and I wound up talking for hours, that night and in the succeeding days at his apartment in Santa Monica. Lou had been a USMC captain in World War II. He flew F4U Corsairs in the battle for Okinawa and against the home islands of Japan.

After the war, in 1948, Lou evaded the FBI (which was trying to prevent any American citizen from bringing aid to the infant state of Israel) and fought as a combat pilot in the Jewish state’s War of Independence.

“Lou led the first fighter mission in Israel Air Force history,” Dave said. “He saved Tel Aviv when the Egyptian army was advancing up the coast road, seventeen miles away.”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Lou said to me. “I will plug you in with anybody you need to talk to.”

Lou got on the phone to Israel. He introduced me to the two key people—Ran Ronen and Danny Grossman, both IAF aviators—without whose contributions The Lion’s Gate could never have been written.

Lou began telling me stories. We sat in his living room and he took me back to May 14, 1948, the date when the state of Israel was born. “That same day, the armies of five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—crossed the border intending to drive the Jews into the sea.”

A Czech-built Messerschmitt-109 of the Israel Air Force, 1948.

For two weeks the Israelis fought a desperate holding action against the invaders. But the Arab armies kept advancing. Israel at that time, Lou told me, had no pilots except himself and a few WWII veteran/volunteers from the U.S., Australia, South Africa—with a handful of homegrown Israelis, none of whom had flown in combat.¬† The Egyptians had fifty brand-new Spitfires, a gift from the British. The Israelis had no fighter planes at all except four Messerschmitt 109s, cobbled together from mismatched surplus parts—and as of May 28 these planes had only arrived in Israel hours earlier, in pieces, from Czechoslovakia.
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