I just completed reading The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery written by Sara Davidson. In 2009, when author, visionary, teacher and founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Schacter was 85 years old, he invited author Sara Davidson, a self-proclaimed skeptical seeker, into his home to talk, listen, record and eventually write about his last life stage or what the Rabbi calls the December years.
This is what I would call a nontraditional biography. The author and the subject of the book, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi dialogue and discuss, explore and challenge one another on probably the greatest mystery of all – mortality, death and how to live fully up until that last breath. The conversations pull the reader in as Schacter-Shalomi and Davidson, both at different life stages, are personally open and honest as they share, commiserate, disagree, question, kvetch, learn and grow together. And we the readers not only become privy to this intimate conversation, we are given exercises and practices to bring us closer to embracing an understanding and acceptance of our own mortality.
Interspersed between their talks, the author weaves us through the life of Zalman Schacter. Born in Poland, he and his family escaped from Nazi occupied Europe. Finding their way to New York City, Zalman Schacter followed up on his love of the Hasidic teachings and became an orthodox Rabbi. We learn about his 4 marriages, 11 children and how he became the sperm donor for a lesbian rabbi. With an uncompromising curiosity and a deep need to understand, gain more knowledge and expand his horizons, Rabbi Schacter was unable to stay boxed into a set of constricted rules and expectations and he befriended some of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders of his time. Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and experiments with LSD with his friend Timothy Leary opened his heart and mind to the interconnectedness of all religions and spiritual practices.
What I find so rich and meaningful about The December Project is that we the readers get to witness the genuine realities- the pain, discomfort and suffering as Rebbe Zalman’s health fails. And yet intertwined within this reality is his ever present acceptance, commitment to be fully alive, his willingness to let go and his love and trust in God.
The December Project is a beautiful book for people of any faith or spiritual leaning. The magic of this biography is that as we witness Zalman Schacter-Shalomi prepare for his last day, we get to vision a better tomorrow for ourselves.
By Roberta Teller