The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery (Hardcover)
In the tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture, New York Times bestselling author Sara Davidson met every Friday with 89-year-old Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the iconic founder of the Jewish Renewal movment, to discuss what he calls The December Project. "When you can feel in your cells that you're coming to the end of your tour of duty," he said, "what is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery?"
Davidson, who has a seeker's heart and a skeptic's mind, jumped at the chance to spend time with him. She'd long feared that death would be a complete annihilation, while Reb Zalman felt certain that "something continues." He said he didn't want to convince her of anything. "What I want is to loosen your mind." Through their talks, he wanted to help people "not freak out about dying," and enable them to have a more heightened and grateful life.
For two years, they met every week, and this is Davidson's memoir of what they learned and how they changed. Interspersed with their talks are sketches from Reb Zalman's extraordinary life. He barely escaped the Nazis, became an Orthodox rabbi in the US, was married four times and had eleven children, one from a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi, and formed friendships with leaders of other faiths, such as Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. Breaking with the Orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to encourage people to have a direct experience of God.
During their time together, Davidson was nearly killed by a suicide bomb, and Reb Zalman struggled with a steep decline in health. Together they created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss, and found tools to cultivate simplicity, fearlessness, and joy—at any age. Davidson includes twelve exercises so that readers may experience what she did—a sea change in facing what we all must face: mortality.
“Thoroughly engaging, this book about the winter season of life glitters with insight and wisdom—for all our years.”
“Anyone embarking on The December Project is in for a surprise: there is as much laughter, healing, and deep peace in these pages as sober reflection on being human. Above all, this book is a testament to the rich rewards of conversation between fearless friends.”
“Revelatory… the best rendering of Reb Zalman’s wisdom that I’ve come across… (Davidson’s) transformation seems to have come simply from being in the elder sage’s presence - and seeing that there’s a real person behind the “sage.” Thanks to “The December Project,” we can taste some of that presence ourselves.”
“A gem of a book for anyone of any faith tradition. Reb Zalman is wise, funny and irresistible. You will want to read this book cover to cover.”
“An exuberant piece of writing I found both moving and instructive. What makes it so rich is that Davidson owns ‘a seeker’s heart and a skeptic’s mind.’”
“Anyone who has had the opportunity to spend private time with Reb Zalman, to be in spiritual intimacy with him, knows it is a life-changing experience. Sara Davidson has had that experience, and now through her writing, you can too.”
“As baby boomers begin to approach the end of their lives, the time is right for books about the spirituality of dying.... This is a book they’ll want to read.”
“For boomers who wish to devote serious attention to questions of meaning as they experience ineluctable aging, this book of intense, personal conversations leavened with profound insights is an excellent place to begin.”
“A biography of a spiritual genius preparing for his last day by helping us prepare for our next day. If you don’t know Reb Zalman, please let Sara introduce you to him. If you do know him, please let Sara introduce you to him more intimately.”
“This is not a morbid book about the end of life, but a bright, spirited discussion between a great teacher and a sincere seeker.”
“Davidson brings us the dialogue we dream of having: where we can place our darkest doubts and fears in the loving embrace of a profound elder, who’s grooming us patiently for what’s waiting around the inevitable corner of our lives.”
“The December Project embodies deep spiritual wisdom…. A lovely book.”
“Renowned journalist Sara Davidson has drawn out new, previously unrevealed dimensions of Reb Zalman, one of the great teachers of our age. Listening in on their conversations is both mind and soul expanding.”
“Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi is the most creative teacher and practitioner of Jewish spirituality in the Western world. Sara Davidson’s lively engagement with his teachings highlights a curious mind and a beautiful soul that we are blessed to be able to encounter through this book.”
“Bracing, brave observations [that] should empower readers of any age.”
“A warm and wise new book . . . a mediated memoir and meditation on the end of life. … A tour through the rabbi’s unusual life sprinkled with bits of folksy wisdom, and suggestions on how to achieve a little peace yourself.”
“The December Project is full of the ‘great questions’ that Schachter-Shalomi is famous for asking. [The book] distills spiritual wisdom and teachings about coping with mortality of this rabbi who has spent his life both deepening his ties to the Jewish tradition and innovating outward.”
“In her compelling new book, Davidson allows us to eavesdrop on two years of conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. . . . Reb Zalman’s wisdom shines out from the book’s pages . . . a celebratory book.”
“Sara Davidson shares the joy and wisdom that she gleaned from two years of weekly talks with eighty-six year old Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. A delight to read, the lingering gifts of this book are peace, love and sweetness.”
“Sara Davidson caught the spirit of this many-sided man in her interviews, and she has transmitted his insights into how to live in the December stage of our lives to all those who read this book. I recommend this one wholeheartedly.”
Shortly before Jewish renewal movement founder Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died in July, The December Project appeared. In it, the guru-like rabbi shared eldering wisdom and anticipatory thoughts on dying well. ... A chance for a wider audience to access the teachings of Reb Zalman.
“[Davidson] strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he’s harvested over nearly ninety years of life.”