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?
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?”
“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.
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.
ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN
by Kilcullen, David
by Douglas, Keith
Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.
by Sun Tzu
by Rommel, Erwin
This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”
by Halberstam, David
by Danelo, David
Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!
by Coram, Robert
Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.
by McNab, Andy
Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.
by Crisp, Robert
A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.
by Galula, David
by Moorehead, Alan
Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.
by Maclean, Fitzroy
You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.
by Sajer, Guy
Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.
by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich
Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.
by West, Bing
by von Clausewitz, Carl
by Fick, Nathaniel
The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.
by Gant, Jim
The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.
by Gant, Jim
by Bagnold, Ralph
The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”
by Lawrence, T.E.
by Hammes, Thomas X.
Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.
by Small Wars Foundation
by West, Bing
by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril
You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”
by Ranfurly, Hermione
When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.