Example Story for The Wisdom of Reb Zalman

Until January 15, 2015 Reclaiming Judaism Press invites submission of short pieces about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Z"l. Here is an example story:

Landing with a wet splat of snow covered boots onto the floor of Reb Zalman's basement at his home in Philadelphia on Emlen Street, I'm surprised to see an abundance of computers. One one side of the room is an IBM 5150, on the other a Sinclair ZX-81, and there's also a Commodore computer of some sort. 

"Good, you made it. I appreciate you volunteering to do some editing. Did you walk or bring your car?" 

"Car. We had to put chains on the snow tires to get here because it's still rough out there given last night's ice storm. Plows seem to come through this part of Mt. Airy last. Why do you ask?"

"There's something I forgot to do and I'd like you to drive me."

Reb Zalman coughs deeply as he wraps a plaid scarf around his throat. I'm concerned about his desire to go out. While he'd been my favorite teacher in rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, this was only the second time I'd been with him in person outside of classes. The first time, last week, he'd mentioned that he sustained a lung injury while imprisoned in a work camp under the Vichy French and that he can get quite ill from something others of us might shake off easily. Helping with his coat, I take his leather bag from him--it seems rather heavy.

"Could I do the errand for you, so you won't have to go out in this weather?"

"It would be too hard too explain. Are you hungry? I made vegetable soup. Would you like to warm up first?" 

"Thank you. We're both dressed for the outdoors already, so how about we both warm up with soup when we get back?"


Oh no. The the sun-melting streets are freezing up again under newly arrived cloud cover. Reb Zalman directs each turn from memory. "...Now, stop at that house with the tilted red porch....Good. No, don't get out. I'll be right back."

The house looks abandoned. Some windows are broken and patched with cardboard. Everything on the place is rotting and needs painting. Reb Zalman begins to inch his way across the frozen lawn and to the side of the house where he pulls out a long pole and a shovel. Cautiously sliding outward into the side yard, he smashes the shovel downward, tossing ice and snow furiously from side to side.

Now what? He's unscrewing something in the ground?! Now he's sticking the pole down into the ground. He's pulling it out, looking at it, and shaking his head. I guess his reaching back in there in means he's going to put back on whatever he's removed. Could Reb Zalman be measuring heating oil in an underground tank? Why do that on an abandoned house in such disrepair?

Replacing the shovel and pole Reb Zalman turns back toward the car. Kerplop! As he slips and flips up in the air and falls down hard my heart flies into my throat anticipating a broken...what? Leaping out of the car and coming around to the curb side, I am relieved and a bit perturbed to see he is laughing and has rolled himself onto his bottom. Look at that! He's pushing himself along toward me like a human sled.

"Goldie leybn, go back into the warm car. I'm fine, I don't break so easily." At the curb Reb Zalman stands, gets into the car and sinks into his seat without complaint. 

I'm driving very slowly and cautiously, so focused as almost forget about my passenger. What's that sound? Oh, Reb Zalman is speaking so softly I can barely hear him...Maybe he's talking to himself?

"...Not good. She'll never get through the day. The tank is almost empty." Then I realize he's praying: "Ribono shel Olam, I need a little inspiration here."

"Reb Zalman, you said 'she'. Who is she? How did you know to look there? How come you didn't knock and let her know we're here? What now? How is prayer going to help put oil in a tank?"

Reb Zalman looks at me. "Don't you ever pray for inspiration?" He reaches behind the seat for his bag. "Such prayers are often answered. Now we make a different kind of call."

"From the car? How does one do that? Did you bring a CB radio?"

He grins, a really cheshire cat-I've-got-something-surprising kind of grin. He reaches behind the seat and shleps his bag into the front seat. Undoing the lock he pulls out a black plastic case with old-fashioned luggage-like clasps on each side and opens it..."

"Reb Zalman...is that a...phone?"

"It's called a cellphone. They've been out for awhile. A fellow lent me this one to try. Never mind about it. We can't waste time, she needs the oil. I hope we can get it to her today."

Plugging the monstrosity into the cigarette lighter, Reb Zalman dials a number from memory. "Mickey, if I give you an address, would you call my heating oil company and use your credit card to make a payment for a poor neighbor I recently met? Could you keep her on your card until my people get her into public housing? If you have any contact with her just say it's a public service; don't give my name. The street address is....and the number for the oil company is..." Reb Zalman pulls a napkin with the number out of his glove and starts to read it: 2--1--5--4--Mickey? Mickey?! Oy gevalt! There's no signal."

Reb Zalman tugs on his beard thoughtfully. "Goldie leybn, let's head back and use the phone at the house if need be. Meanwhile I'll keep trying to get this machine to work. Such an exciting development! Do you like science fiction? We could trade paperbacks you know..."