In 2007 the two of us—novelist Stephen Billias and filmmaker Dennis Lanson—completed our collaboration on a screenplay entitled The 36 about the Lamed Vov, the Thirty-Six Just Men of Jewish folklore. While trying to sell the screenplay, we decided to make a separate documentary film called Seeking the 36 in which we would look for the Lamed Vov living in the world today. To this end, we obtained two small grants from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and thus began our journey, asking people if they might know anyone who fit the characteristics of a Lamed Vov-nik, those anonymous souls who are so virtuous that they keep the world in balance for the rest of us sinners. In every generation there are said to be thirty-six of these special people, who don’t think of themselves as special and may not even know that they are members of this unique group. It is also said they may not know each other, and that if they are revealed, they cease to be part of the three dozen whose job it is to keep the world from being overcome by evil.
We found a few potential candidates—an old shoemaker in Northampton, a car mechanic in Gloucester, a young woman doing Tikkun Olam work in Springfield. But the project floundered. It lacked a sense of presence, of energy. Of life. Until two things happened—first, we decided to approach Dennis’s daughter Nico and get her to agree to be our Seeker character, which gave the project needed focus and what Hollywood likes to call a “story arc.” She was a live person, a young person, and someone on a genuine quest, struggling to make sense of the world she was just beginning to enter as an adult. Second, through author and Kabbalah scholar Dr. Edward Hoffman, we connected with Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi.
Rabbi Zalman held the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute, and is an emeritus professor at Naropa University. He maintains his home and several foundations associated with his name there in Boulder. He is generally credited as a leading founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, which came out of the cultural turmoil of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. According to the web page of Havura Shir Hadash, a current Jewish Renewal community in Ashland, Oregon, “Schachter-Shalomi has become “the great sage of a worldwide movement … by virtue of his keen understanding of where his own tradition can connect with the psycho-eco-spiritual revolutions of our millennial age.” One of the informal goals of the movement was, and is, to bring back to the faith Jews who were exploring spirituality in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions that seemed more relevant to the time. Jewish Renewal seeks to reinvigorate Judaism with mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices drawn from a wide variety of sources. As theology it stresses the links to other religions—especially in relation to mystical experience—as well as the clear ritualistic distinctions. A 1990 visit to the Dalai Lama by Reb Zalman and a delegation of other rabbis and Jewish scholars was recounted in Roger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.
Our first interview with Rabbi Zalman took place after a workshop he gave in the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont, as part of an Assisi Institute Conference. We shot the workshop on video, without quite knowing what to do with it. Rabbi Zalman spoke extemporaneously for nearly six hours, not counting a lunch break, telling stories, sharing insights, eliciting comments from and thoroughly captivating his audience. It was clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary individual, a true wise man. Afterwards, he graciously granted us a few minutes for an interview. But he was exhausted from a long weekend and the fantastic output of energy he had just expended. After a few moments he suggested: “Why don’t you come out to Boulder and interview me at length there?” We spent nearly all our remaining grant money to make the trip.
It’s October, and the golden aspens and yellow-orange cottonwoods are showing their best foliage in the subtle display of a Rocky Mountain autumn. There’s a chill in the air, and even a few flurries of snow as we drive from the airport up to the edge of Colorado’s Front Range. We have enlisted young Nico by this time, who is already writing bits of her narration in the car. In Boulder we hire the services of a second cameraman and a crew to help with sound and lighting.
We pull up in front of a modest single-story home. Eve Ilson, Rabbi Zalman’s wife, meets us at the door. Eve is a force in her own right, an imposing but gentle woman who is a teacher, singer, storyteller, and professional therapist. She is protective of her 83-year-old husband, whose health has been precarious of late, and initially a little skeptical of these strangers—an entire crew—invading her home with cases of lighting and camera equipment. But over the course of the afternoon, she and Zalman warm to us, and especially to Nico, whose innocent enthusiasm charms them both.
At the time, Nico has just graduated from high school, and has decided to take a gap year traveling through Europe and teaching English as a second language before beginning her college career. She is engaged in a range of spiritual investigations and reading, and seems quite confident dealing with a man of Zalman’s erudition and experience. Surely a case of Beginner’s Mind, we think. She doesn’t know enough to be intimidated.
We commence to interview Rabbi Zalman in his finished basement. At first, though, Zalman finds it difficult to take this pint-size interlocutor seriously. He wants to address the camera directly, rather than her. But as the interview proceeds, her questions begin to surprise, then absorb him with their acuity. His entire manner changes. The first question that tells Rabbi Zalman he is dealing with a live mind comes early in the interview, after he has spoken some preliminary and probably pre-prepared words about the Lamed Vov. Nico asks: “What advice would you have for a young person [entering] this world, going into a new … age, I guess.” Zalman closes his eyes momentarily, as he does frequently throughout the interview. Clearly, he is meditating and deeply considering the questions. Sitting opposite him is a young woman, he begins to realize, full of the kinds of questions he has been contemplating for a lifetime. Why are we here? Why is the world the way it is? What can I do to make it a better place? To transform a troubled culture? To affect change? To make myself a more conscious and realized person? To engage more fully in the experience of being alive? To access the mystical guidance of the universe and apply it to the way I live day to day?
What can he tell her?
Perhaps, as Zalman’s demeanor shifts, he sees an opportunity in Nico to share his wisdom with a young person, and a young audience, that really cares about the world, about the damage being done to it, about what will become of it. This is not, after all, to be a rote presentation of his philosophy but rather a real dialogue with a young Seeker. Suddenly Zalman seems eager for the chance to transmit some of his life’s thinking across several generations. “My time is going to be up after a while, I’m 83 now, and to be able to give over to you a vision, Nico…”
“I want to say that there is a time during the late teens, sometimes the early teens, that a person wakes up—and then they look at their family and all the people around them and they say like Cinderella: ‘What am I doing here?’”
Nico laughs delightedly. He’s struck a nerve. “’Who are these people around me?” he continues, “I’m having new thoughts now.” What does it mean to have ideals? How does one contrive to hold onto them for—the most important part of the equation— a lifetime?
“And I look at you, Nico…it’s not only words and ideas that come, but as I’m talking I’m in touch with a vibration…and if you put your heart to that you feel that vibration, right?” Nico smiles and nods. Zalman smiles and nods back. “And that’s a very special way of transmission.”
Zalman begins a long riff about the desperate need for “transformative spiritual technology…Our society is too often like a cancer. Like those cancer cells that don’t want to be in the healthy discipline of the body, too many human institutions today are casually destroying the planet and the chances for survival of the human race. How are we to save the earth? So you see we now have to do consciously what usually takes a long long time—to evolve. These are the people who speak about cultural evolution. I would call them the Lamed Vov-niks of today.”
Mutely, from behind our equipment, we see an instant friendship form between the two, between speaker and listener, wise man and novice, between kindly grandfather and treasured grand-daughter, though they have met mere moments ago! “I’m amazed,” Zalman says at last, “that there are people like you; I just want to tell you I love you a lot.”
Nico laughs again, pleased and a tad embarrassed.
“I really do. Because of everything you are mentioning in your concerns. I know there are many other people that feel the same way, they are asking the same questions. You see, Nico, I don’t think at this point that we are deploying ourselves … I was deployed to be here with you today and you were deployed to be here with me today. And if you start asking was it all our choice to be here, you find out it was somehow engineered that we should be together and do this thing, right?”
“I think that’s the way it works. You ask about the 36? Perhaps we should think of the 36 as the people who want to save the earth.”
As the interview ends, Zalman kisses Nico on her forehead with real affection, and offers a tour of the house, just the two of them sharing an informal moment while we break down and pack up our equipment. We do overhear one exchange, as Zalman points out a wall poster. “I like this one best,” he says. “Don’t always believe everything you think.”
After the Interview
Seeking the 36 was completed in 2009. Everywhere we showed our film, in synagogues and temples, Quaker meeting houses, churches, and at film festivals, people commented on the specialness of the relationship between Rabbi Zalman and Nico, who is at this writing completing her formal education as a Naropa student combining interests in religious studies, ecology and writing. Some have suggested this would be a good film to play for young audiences, in schools. It was surprising how many people came up to us after screenings, and said: “Oh. I studied with Rabbi Zalman (at a conference, or camp, or seminar) and it changed my life.”
Seeking the 36 was made on a shoestring budget of less than $5,000, most of that spent on our trip to Boulder to interview Rabbi Zalman, It was the best use of funds we could have imagined, and gave the film a meaningful heart that it would have lacked without the towering yet vividly human presence of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.