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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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