The Zen Rabbi of San Francisco
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
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.
I probably would have rejected the book and its contents, had it not been written by my old high school friend.
Alan wrote of another commemorative date called Tisha B’Av.
Tisha, he explained, means “nine.” Av is a month in the Hebrew calendar.
Twice on the same day, the ninth of Av, 655 years apart, enemies of the Jewish people destroyed the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonians first, in 586 BCE. Then the Romans in 70 CE.
Both times the victors rounded up the Jews and drove them from their homeland in Judea. The people returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BCE as part of a universal clemency offered by Cyrus the Great of Persia. They rebuilt the temple. But then the Romans came, crushed a Jewish revolt, razed the temple again, and expelled the Jews for the second time.
This time the people did not return. The Diaspora had begun. For nineteen hundred years, until May 14, 1948, the Jewish people survived as exiles and strangers in the lands of others.
I had known this before, but only in the vaguest and most remote way. That’s why the pogroms? The Inquisition? The Holocaust?
Now it sunk in, coming from Alan. It sunk in, coming from the guy I sat next to in Mr. Wittern’s English class, who had struggled with the same issues I had—and had come to a radically different answer: a return, full-bore, to his Jewish roots.
Alan’s books were the seed for The Lion’s Gate.
I began thinking about the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall—the last remnant of the temple in Jerusalem. The Wall was emblematic of the expulsion of the Jewish people from their ancient homeland, of their 2000-year exile, and of the specific and inevitable suffering of any exile cast out from his or her home.
In June 1967, I was twenty-four years old. I remember the news footage of Israeli paratroopers, victorious in the Six Day War, weeping at the Wailing Wall, which they had just captured and reclaimed for the first time in nearly two thousand years.
Thanks to Alan, I understood.
I had not understood before.
This stuff took a few months to germinate. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. I wasn’t looking for a new idea. Then one day I thought, “I’m going to write a book about the Six Day War and the emotional climax is going to be the moment when the Israeli paratroopers liberate the Western Wall.”
I wrote a mockup first chapter. In this chapter there was a character called Rabbi Lov. He was a made-up character, an Israeli tank commander. In this mockup chapter Rabbi Lov gave a short talk to the troops on the eve of the ’67 War.
He talked about the meaning of Tisha B’Av. He made the point, as a good rabbi might, that physical possession of the site of the Great Temple was not important in the deepest spiritual sense. What mattered was its existence in the individual and collective soul. In a sense, it might be better not to possess the physical site of the temple, because then we could reconstitute the Holy of Holies within our own hearts. There it would be imperishable. It would be with us always.
In this mockup chapter, I had the soldiers listening to Rabbi Lov on the eve of war and being moved by his words. All except one soldier.
“The Wall belongs to us,” this soldier said. “Why have we let it reside in the hands of others for two thousand years? It is ours. What is stopping us from taking it?”
I changed that chapter a lot between then and the finished book. Rabbi Lov went away. So did his talk. So did the other soldier. But the centrality of the Western Wall remained.
That chapter was The Lion’s Gate in embryo. In it was embedded the theme, the idiom, the narrative format, and the crisis, climax and resolution.
And that’s how a tiny seed was passed to me by the death of my old friend Alan Lew, the Zen Rabbi of San Francisco.