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Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from a friend and colleague of mine.  See this earlier post that shares a NY Times blog post which was a precursor to the publishing of the book.

We have multiple terms to describe people as they age.  Often, we refer to retirement as the golden years.  Yet, when the elderly are polled, many find the term “golden years” to be misinformed, as those years often contain much suffering and little of the “golden.”.  A new phrase was coined by Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the “December” years.  This idea of life’s end years being the winter of our existence is the focus of a new book, The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mysteryby Sara Davidson.

The author takes through edited versions of conversation she had with Reb Zalman over the course of two years.  She had known him prior to this journey they walked together.  The book’s goal is to explore how Reb Zalman confronts his mortality and how the author struggles with her views on death, dying and the afterlife.

As I was reading the book, two thoughts kept coming to mind.  As a book on aging, there is much to be garnered from the stories and thoughts Davidson presents coming from Reb Zalman.  I particularly like her description in chapter 21, “Let Go, Let Go,” in which she describes Reb Zalman’s spiritual exercise of having a tahara (Jewish pre-burial ritual) done while he was alive.  While this is not a spiritual exercise most of us would even have an iota of a thought to do when alive, it was a profound moment of confronting the rituals of death while alive.  There is much in all religious and spiritual traditions of mindfulness and meditation on dying, yet few in today’s world would go so far as to simulate any sort of action towards actual burial.

At the same time, I don’t feel she truly gets to the core of Reb Zalman as the elder, the thinker who is now staring mortality in its face.  I would expect an author of a book about a great spiritual thinker and guide to develop some of the thinker’s ideas about the subject being engaged.  Davidson’s book falls far short, as it contains no outside research.  It is purely journalistic, which makes for a good read, but one that I found was missing intellectual depth.  Also, for those who know Reb Zalman through his writings and the writings about him which are coming out more and more, this book doesn’t provide much that is new.

To offer the benefit of the doubt, I could speculate on why the book is not an academic treatise but is a series of conversations instead.  Perhaps aging makes much of the debate and intellectual sparring seem unimportant.  There is a sense that an underlying theme throughout is the need to “Let go,” to be able to de-attach from the world.  And it could well be that de-attachment includes the move away from the mind as something intellectual for the mind as a place of focus and contemplation.  To that end, if one looks at the end of the book, and looks through the exercises for the “December” years, this will be one of the themes.

Overall, I commend Sara Davidson’s attempt at engaging the “greatest mystery” but feel that this book does not fulfill that goal in its entirety.  This is less a book about Reb Zalman’s thought on death and dying as it is an encounter about mindfulness in aging as born out of the conversations Davidson presents.

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