Steven Pressfield Online

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?”


“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.
More >>

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing


War Stories

Over thirty-plus years of reading and researching, I've compiled a wild and crazy library in my head. In this series, I want to share some of it--the arcane, the obscure, the occult. It'll be eclectic. The posts will bounce all over the place. I plan to feature stuff from Hemingway to Homer, from von Manstein to Moshe Dayan. Posts will come from movies and plays, myths and legends, from journalism and personal correspondence and combat reports. Not all of it will be "war stuff." But it will all deal with issues of honor and virtue and courage in the face of adversity. A lot of it will be real literature. All of it, I hope, will be inspiring.

I also want to invite everyone to chip in with their own stories. Write me at steve {at} stevenpressfield {dot} com. Suggest passages—1000 words or less—from favorite books. Or send in something you've written yourself. Tell us about a patrol in Kunar province, or a letter your Dad sent to you from Pleiku in 1969. If it's great, we'll run it.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "War Stories."


Do The Work Wednesdays

For a few weeks during April and May of 2011, I took a break from "Writing Wednesdays" and wrote "Do The Work Wednesdays" to accompany the launch of Do The Work.


What It Takes

"The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where are they?"
Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

These posts are intended for our men and women in uniform, but I hope that artists, entrepreneurs and other warriors in other walks of life will find them useful as well. The series examines the evolution of the warrior code of honor and "mental toughness." It goes back to the ancient Spartans and Athenians, to Caesar's Romans, Alexander's Macedonians and the Persians of Cyrus the Great (not excluding the Garden of Eden and the primitive hunting band). Sources include Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Xenophon, Vegetius, Arrian and Curtius--and on down to Gen. George Patton, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "The Warrior Ethos."


What It Takes

"What It Takes" is a journal of the campaign to make The Profession a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller. You'll be in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn't work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "What It Takes."


Writing Wednesdays

I wrote The War of Art primarily for writers (its original title was The Writer's Life), but since it was published in 2002, I've received hundreds of e-mails from business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and others, telling me how the book seemed to have been written specifically for them—and how much it has helped their creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. Sometimes the e-mails are short, a sentence or two of thanks. Other times they've been sagas, life-stories packed with more drama and heartbreak than a soap opera. I know exactly what these correspondents are talking about. Resistance kicks everybody's ass—and the desperate desire to defeat it is equally as universal. Writing Wednesdays is an ongoing, blog-version of The War of Art. It's the chapters I would have written if I'd kept on writing the book. Then there's the added dimension of the comments from readers. I always scroll down and take a look. Some of the insights are better than the post itself. "Why didn't I think of that?"

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "Writing Wednesdays."


The Creative Process

I always want to know more about the people behind the work I admire. How do they do it? What does the process feel like from inside their heads? Wouldn't it have been amazing to sit with Hemingway, the way he sat with Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and others, to discuss writing? The Creative Process is a Q&A with a wide range of creative people—from writers to business entrepreneurs and beyond—probing how they do that thing they do.

RSS SUBSCRIBE to "The Creative Process."
Sign up for first look access.

Enter your email to get free access to every new thing I do.

No spam, I promise!

Gates of Fire
The War of Art
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
Video Blog