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.
I like how you capture your awe and excitement over discovering your old classmate’s life and work. People are so surprising, aren’t they? Good story.
Thanks Steve. This is the bridge I was looking for last week, between discovering you were Jewish and deciding to write the book. I am going to look up Alan Lew’s books.
Hmmm? So “Israeli” paratroopers seized Jerusalem in 1967 because of what the Romans did in 70 CE? Or was it the Babylonians in 586 BCE?
Great story and a surprising and incredible gift from your old friend! Looking forward to reading more.
“This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared”
In the month preceding the High Holidays, Alan’s book is one of a few staples I turn to every year.
::tears:: I CANNOT wait to read this book. I find myself rocking as if at that wall…
So so good.
Moving and inspirational.
Will you be doing some kind of promotion? I’m perfectly willing to ordre the ebook on a certain day, if it might boost your ranking or something.
Ulla, your blessing is enough. Thank you.
Beautiful, Steve. I’m always fascinated to hear “the story behind the story” — how novels come-to-be for authors. These posts are great, TY!
Thank you Mr. Pressfield. Semper Fidelis.
Thanks for a great slice of life. We never know what connections may create or how the ripples will spread from the pebbles we drop in the water. 25+ years ago I tried to make my Jewish heritage fill the empty spiritual place within me. I couldn’t. I sought insight from 3 local rabbis. Fruitless. Blank stares. I tried on my own. The emptiness grew.
Maybe your new book and your old friend’s books may finally help me do that. And maybe I have come to a place, through my continuing search, where I am ready to make that step for myself. Thanks again for your work.
The War of Art has been a great insight for my writing and I am now working through Turning Pro. Thanks again!
I appreciate this article on so many levels. One being, that death comes to us all. I also have an appreciation of how many stories, lives, each of us carry within us “hidden from view.” I am not sure what others from my past assume about me––it wouldn’t all be good. To realize the other’s stories, that is really knowing someone. Thank you, Steven, for sharing yours.
I love your books Steven, and you’ve helped me figure out some stuff professionally – which I appreciate. But I hope your new book will be more balanced than these first posts about it seem to indicate.
I have a friend whose family lived in a Palestinian village named Imwas. It was captured by the IDF during the Six Day War, and all of its inhabitants were ordered to leave. Then it was completely destroyed to prevent them from coming back. They have lived in Jordan ever since – which is not their home.
BTW – These people could also trace their ancestors back to before Christ.
So it is with a bit of dismay that I now see you celebrating these events.
There are certainly two sides to every story – and I’m just hoping that your book includes a bit of balance. The story is certainly much more complex than “heroic” Israelis and evil Palestinians.
Your title caught my attention “The Zen Rabbi of San Francisco.” Two religions melded into one. I was a practicing Buddhist for 18 years and was very much interested in the “religious experience” and transformation. However, I gave up my Buddhist practice because no matter how good the tenets are purposed to be, they are doomed to fall short in the real world. Religion I’m afraid is a setup to divide and conquer the human family. I know this view doesn’t get me many brownie points, but I had to say it. Still interested in reading more about your work and book.
I am sorry about the death of your friend.
Thank you for sharing him, his books, and how the seed to write “The Lion’s Gate,” was planted.
Your stories behind the book, are a book in themselves.
Great story. I am very much looking forward to The Lion’s Gate. Two years ago on my own website, I wrote a blog “Where Ideas Come From: The Hamsa.” Published in 2010, I often refer to The Hamsa as a ‘Holocaust’ story. I practice Catholicism, but wear a Star of David engraved with ‘The Shema’ about my neck. Don’t ask me how all of that works, but the evolution of my story began when I was a young boy attending Seder every year at the home of my father’s best friend, Louie Green (to whom I dedicated the book). Fifty years later, the seed that was planted at those suppers became The Hamsa.
Ya just can’t make this stuff up! My Jewish grandfather escaped the Russian pograms; we don’t know if my Russian immigrant grandmother, whom he met in the US, was Jewish. So I’m uncertifiable ; )
I spent today’s wee hours wrestling over why I still feel called to a priesthood for which my training cured me of religion; during seminary I used Tibetan Buddhist meditation tech in prayer, and briefly attended Temple and Torah portion. (Reform Jews don’t mind Jesus.)
Your dear friend has spoken from the grave, and I’m grateful you’ve listened and scribed.
May the Holy of Holies continue.
I expect The Lion’s Gatewill be politically balanced and interestingly narrated with riveting characters. I sure admire you for taking it on!
Wonderful story and indeed every day it seems I hear something that makes me aware of the contributions our Jewish peoples have made to making our world a better place. Now what’s keeping me from writing my first line!
I heard Alan Lew speak once, probably a few years before he died. At the time, I assumed he knew from a young age what he wanted to be when he grew up. Thanks for sharing your childhood memories of him and how he inspired you.
Yeah, Ilona, Alan’s book “One God Clapping” was a real eye-opener to me because Alan was so cool and so on-top-of-it in high school, yet in his book he revealed the inner torment he was going through then and later when the Sixties arrived and he was caught up in it. A really good book.
At the risk of using an overused word, I’ll take the risk. This post of your journey and the book’s journey is awesome. Thank you, can’t wait to read your book.
Cannot wait for the book 🙂
Would love to know did you identify parallels between the Israeli army and the ‘Warrior Ethos’? How an army of a small, newly formed country like Israel could win against 3 countries in 6 days – almost the modern day Battle of Thermopylae. Was the ‘Warrior Ethos’ central to the Israeli victory?
A couple of historical notes: The expulsion from Spain in 1492 (the day before Columbus sailed) was also Tisha B’Av. It was the largest expulsion of a Jewish community between the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the immigration from Eastern Europe to America at the turn of the 20th century. (Imagine the Jews of New York being given four months to leave.) The psychological and spiritual repercussions reverberated for centuries.
World War I began on Tisha B’Av. Some (Many?) historians conclude that that World War II – and the Holocaust – was a continuation or conclusion of World War I.
Some more not-so-coincidences: The Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman oppression ended with a massacre at Betar on Tisha B’Av.
The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 on Tisha B’Av.
Aryeh Kaplan wrote two books on Jewish Meditation. “Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide,” “Meditation and Kabbalah” and “Meditation and the Bible.” Highly recommended.
The Western Wall: It is an ineffable experience. One cannot prepare nor can one transmit what penetrates the soul.
“anguish, guilt, grief, terror, massive emotional turmoil, desperate searching, struggles to find his identity” – the deeper the connection with one’s spiritual essence, the more one wrestles with these. I won’t say “desperately,” but the battle (War of Art is a part of the War of the Soul) is quite intense. The mistake we make – or are misled to believe – is that “belief,” “faith,” discovering the root, etc. is easy or that once a commitment has been made (as your friend Alan made it), the struggle ceases. In fact, it becomes multi-dimensional. (See Abraham arguing with G-d, or Moses pleading for the people after the Golden Calf.)
Of course, there is much joy and meaning – as Alan taught you. In some ways, the deepest joy. The joy of discovery, the joy of “doing the work.”
I’m reading (again) and deriving inspiration and hop- to-it from The War of Art. Came here today to thank you for that excellent work, and stumbled across your dedication to and appreciation of your friend, Alan Lew. I look forward to reading Lion’s Gate, though your lovely story of Alan has served to help me remember that my job is to do the work knowing I will never know how far those seeds will spread. xo Dawnya
A true religion should improve reliance, a bridge to God. A good religious beliefs summons us in group of people to express care for toward each other and toward individuals less fortunate, and mobilizes us to feed the hungry, dress poor people, make well the fallen and protect the surviving. Theology manuals our thoughts while religious beliefs guides our actions. Holiness is inward while religious conviction leads outward. Religion can be utilized alone, but religion in community. Particularly theology makes us more empathetic, religious beliefs impels us to perform concrete acts of loving-kindness.