Shavuot 2015: Remembering Reb Zalman


William Levin, a.k.a. the Jewish Robot, teaches animation to children in NYC. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Last month I participated in the 2015 Shavuot Retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. This year’s retreat was a special tribute to the memory of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who was deeply involved in teaching Torah, Talmud and mysticism at Isabella Freedman. He died one year ago, making Shavuot 5775 the first without Reb Zalman.

Many are familiar with the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Chabad emissaries are dispatched to all four corners of the earth to spread the message of Torah and mitzvot to Jews around the world. Reb Zalman and his musical friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach were among the earliest emissaries, or shluchim. They were also the most infamously rebellious.

In the 1960s, a decade known for its hippie movement, Reb Zalman is believed to have experimented with psychedelic drugs, an indulgence that is frowned upon by the hasidic lifestyle. It was around that time that Reb Zalman branched away from Chabad and, drawing inspiration from modern counterculture, formed the Jewish Renewal Movement.

Shabbat at Isabella Freedman was filled with spirited Renewal services, unlike most traditional services I’ve attended. For example, rather than sing entire prayers, we were encouraged to focus on one particular word or phrase contained within a prayer and slowly build it up to a melodic mantra. Accompanied by meditative musical instruments and joyous harmonies, I found services to be quite enjoyable.

The guest of honor at the Shavuot retreat was the late Reb Zalman’s wife, Rebbetzin Eve Ilsen. She spoke fondly and frankly of her late husband, and gave us a personal glimpse into their relationship. Among the more titillating details, the Rebbetzin revealed that Reb Zalman was not a fan of monogamy—he was married five times and has 10 children—believing that the “7 year itch” was a biologically natural impulse which allowed a man to father and watch his children mature from “cubs” so that he could move onto the next romantic relationship. Rebbetzin Eve, who did not have any children with Reb Zalman, claims the title of being his last wife, having been together for over 30 years.

And, of course, there was plenty of all-night Torah and Talmud learning for Shavuot, commemorating the Jews receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The learning was particularly special for me this year, not only because I was among friends and family of the late Reb Zalman, but because this was my and my wife Malya’s first Shavuot together as expectant parents.

Midrash teaches us that the unborn Jewish soul already knows the entire Torah. But at the moment of birth, an angel touches the newborn baby just below its nose—hence the dimple above our lips—causing the baby to forget everything and initiating its lifelong journey to relearn the Torah. So this year I felt I was in particularly scholarly company.