Wrestling with the Texts


Zoe B. Zak is a rabbi at the helm of Temple Israel of Catskill, a congregation that has thrived since the 1920s. She grew up in Loudonville, New York, and has lived in Ulster County for the past thirty years. What follows is a transcribed version of a talk we had late last month.

William Shannon: Could you describe your childhood?

Zoe Zak: Well, my world was made up of my three older brothers. And my parents, of course. But my brothers all took an avid interest in me and did so much with me. For which I’m really grateful. I was the baby, and by many years. 

So my brother closest to me in age, Bill, is eight years older. He taught me how to play piano. We’d sit on the bench together. He let me jam with his friends. He always had a band. I always sat in, even when I was very, very little. And he took it upon himself to be my teacher, which he really took very seriously. We would sit on his bed and listen to jazz records and he’d have me—when I was little; I remember sitting there in pajamas with a stuffed animal—and he would say, What’s that instrument? and I’d have to identify it—Oh, that’s an alto sax on the solo or, whatever it was. So he was an amazing mentor. 

My brother, Jack, of blessed memory—he passed about seven years ago—he and Arthur were the twins. Twelve years older than me. And Jack took it upon himself to make sure I had fun. And he taught me how to ski—winter ski and water ski—and we had a boxing bag in the basement, we had a ping pong table, and he took wrestling in high school and would try his holds on me. All my brothers—there was no competition because I was so much younger and I was the only girl. So I got this wonderful attention from my brothers. And, my brother, Arthur, when I was thirteen he introduced me to yoga and meditation and he used to go to an ashram for retreats and he would take me. And my parents let him take me—it was kind of amazing. He introduced me to vegetarian eating and macrobiotic cooking when I was a kid. 

So, all my brothers were powerful influences and enhanced my life immeasurably. 

And my parents, of blessed memory, were quite amazing. My dad was a businessman. But he was really like—when I look back at it now, he was like a rabbi. Not that he was a learned Torah scholar or Talmud scholar or anything like that. But, he was really wise and people would come to him for advice. Younger businessmen-and-women would come and ask for his business advice. During dinner, there might be a knock at the door and it’d be someone who really needed to talk with my dad and he would take them aside and into another room—and the person, you could see, was distressed. And when they would come back from the meeting, you could see their burden was lightened. My father was completely confidential—I never knew why he met with people, but I know he helped them financially.

He really was like a rabbi. Like an old-world rabbi. 

WS: What business was he in?

ZZ: He and his brother owned a manufacturing business that manufactured bedding goods—pillows and quilts and comforters. So, in my world, down-comforters and pillows; we always had lots of them.

And my mother, of blessed memory, was—I really learned a tremendous lot from her—she visited everybody who was sick. She always brought food. She always, whether she was close to them or not, she took it upon herself to help other people. And she was very creative. Very artistic. She had a gorgeous voice. My voice definitely came from my mom, for which I’m very grateful. She painted, she did dancing—I mean, she was really creative. And my life has always been filled with creativity. And my dad was a great appreciator of the arts and my mom was a doer of the arts. So, I got a lot from them both for being a creative person. They supported that in me. 

WS: What led you to be a rabbi?

ZZ: You know, people are always looking for an answer that is succinct to such a question. So, I will try to be succinct, but it’s deep and multi-layered, of course. When I was a kid, what got me through difficult times and what helped me celebrate things I was happy about, was music. And prayer. They were both very deep inner experiences. Music for me was always—I always dreamed of healing people through playing music. I always believed that music had healing powers. Like, I knew if the mailman was coming, I’d sit at the piano and I would send him healing vibes. Not that our mailman was sick, that I knew of. But, even as a little kid, I had this awareness that everybody needed healing. And that you could always send out healing to people. So, music came from a very inner place in me. And, when I had trouble in school, like I didn’t want to study my geography or something, I’d put my geography book on the piano and I’d make up things with the words out of music. So, music helped me get through—when I was really miserable, or an angst-ridden teenager, playing music helped me get through everything and so did prayer. 

And my first career was as a professional musician. And I was always, always, always interested in everybody’s spiritual paths. My brother who introduced me to Hinduism through yoga and everything—I was interested in that, and Buddhism, and I asked my Christian friends if I could go to church with them. I wasn’t particularly interested in my Jewish roots as a kid. We didn’t go to Synagogue that often and it didn’t—. It didn’t draw me, when I did go. But, as a young person in my twenties, people would say, Oh, you’re Jewish—Chanukah’s coming up; can you tell me, what is Chanukah? Or, I know Passover’s coming up; what is Passover?

And, honestly, I couldn’t answer these questions. I could say, I know you light Chanukah candles on Chanukah. But I didn’t know why. I knew you had a Passover Seder. But, I didn’t know why.

So, I actually think it was that I was embarrassed that I couldn’t answer these questions. And, just a realization that I didn’t know where I came from. My roots. I knew more about Christianity; I knew more about Hinduism; I knew more about Buddhism. I really did. I knew more about Sufism than I did about Judaism. So I said, Let me explore this. And then I’ll be able to own it if I say, I’m Jewish, and feel good about it. Or maybe I’ll choose some other path. Because there’s so many cool spiritual paths. 

So, as I started to learn, I had a friend who was my mentor. And the more I read and the more I learned—first I was utterly fascinated. And, secondly, when I would read about the rituals, I loved the rituals. Of course, I do love every tradition’s rituals, but the Jewish rituals for the holidays and what they meant, and the symbolism, really excited me. 

So, I started doing them. I learned how to welcome the Sabbath. Lighting candles. And a little blessing. Because, I didn’t know any of this stuff.  So, the more I learned, the more it felt like me. And when I would read why Jews do these rituals and what’s behind them and what the belief system is, I said, Oh yeah, this is me. To my great surprise—because I didn’t expect that, at all, was going to be my experience. 

So, as that deepened—this started easily ten years before my daughter was born. By the time she was born, which was in 1990, I wanted to go to a Synagogue. And my same friend who had been my mentor—which by the way I did in complete secrecy; nobody knew I was on this Jewish quest. It was a very inner experience for me. I wasn’t looking to do it in a community or with others. I was really doing it between me and my soul. With my one friend’s help. So, I was really kind of drawn to go to a Synagogue and, when I went, I uncontrollably wept through—as soon as the Shema, which is the central prayer in Judaism and the only prayer that I knew—when that prayer was uttered, I cried from that moment through the rest of the service. Like something just opened in me. 

And then, I wanted to go to every service. And learn every prayer and every meaning. And every song. I was unquenchably thirsty and hungry for this. 

And then the rabbi found out that I was a musician and invited me to bring my accordion and play one night. And I had been going home and learning all the melodies. So, I went and I played at the Synagogue and was so utterly at home. It was like I’d just returned home from a long journey.

So I started to play for services occasionally, in little bits. But, I was learning all the material, so I eventually accompanied the rabbi. 

I eventually learned Hebrew. I wanted to chant Torah. I became an adult Bat Mitzvah at 41. I was just learning, learning and learning. 

And then the rabbi wanted me to start teaching other people. And then he was going away and he asked me to fill in for him. So, I became over time—and, he was my mentor: Rabbi Jonathan Kligler—over time, as I learned more and more I led more and more services; I did more and more. 

Eventually, I was doing funerals. I was marrying people. 

Because, in the Jewish tradition, you don’t have to be ordained in order to do these things. You have to know your stuff, but you don’t have to have a certificate to do so. 

So, for me—it was the music that drew me into Synagogue. I had to learn and I had to sing in Hebrew and I had to play and I started to write music. Taking Hebrew texts from the Bible or the prayer book and setting them to music. 

So, it was really like my music and my prayer life found each other, like perfect soulmates. And through that wedding, this is what I was doing. And, eventually, I felt I really needed to go to school. Because I hadn’t learned in a traditional way. I had learned in a non-traditional way. So, I wanted to go to Rabbinical school. And get a deeper foundation in Jewish learning. 

So, it was a very organic process that, like anything else, even though I became a Rabbi and received ordination, it’s an unending process of learning and thinking and questioning. And researching. And praying. And, it’s a way of life. And most of it I do through music or with music. 

WS: What’ve been your toughest moments?

ZZ: Toughest moments. Well, getting divorced twice hasn’t been the easiest thing. Because—I really don’t know how much I want to talk about this—. But, serious change, whatever it is—any kind of change—is very difficult. And I guess I would include those as being right up there. And the other thing I guess I would add, is that dealing with the pain and violence in the world is pretty difficult. Knowing how to help and how to navigate through that. Not have that pull me down. And, also, how to lead a congregation in a time when there’s so much trouble in the world. I suppose there’s always been so much trouble in the world. But, this is when I’m alive and I’m experiencing it extremely, as is everyone else I know. And I find that pretty hard. 

WS: How many people are in your congregation here?

ZZ: We have about ninety members. Some are families; some are couples; some are singles. And, everyone is welcome to everything we do. I’m very proud that we have people of every faith come through our door. We have clergy from other churches who come regularly and celebrate with us here. Whether it’s for Passover or for Chanukah. 

WS: And how long have you been the rabbi here?

ZZ: I’m about to start my sixth year here.

WS: Can you describe what a typical week might entail for you?

ZZ: My calendar looks like a jigsaw puzzle. Where everything literally is just perfectly fit to the next thing. And, in a jigsaw puzzle, you have no space between pieces—so, that’s how I experience my life. I serve this community which is a great joy and honor—Temple Israel of Catskill. What that means is I lead services; I meet with congregants; I visit congregants who might not be well and are either home or in a hospital or are getting rehab after surgery; I attend board meetings. We have an interfaith group that meets monthly with any house of worship and their members—it’s not just clergy—that want to get together. And we do things together for the community. Currently, once a month we’re playing music at the Eliot, an elder community in Catskill. And the Hebrew school that I teach in. And I lead a teen group, where we go also to nursing homes and visit with residents there, sometimes play music. Engage, talk. I work as a Jewish chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, which is an organization based in Albany and for them I’m their Jewish chaplain in Columbia and Greene counties. So, I go to all the nursing homes and assisted living facilities and elder communities—visit all the Jewish residents and do Jewish programming. 

So, that keeps me very busy. 

And, I have an interfaith group called the Peace Ensemble. We have a Baptist minister. And a Hazzan which is a Cantor in the Jewish tradition. And myself and a bass player. And we do concerts. So, we rehearse. And, here at the Synagogue, almost all the services do involve music and I have other musicians come and join me. So, I’m always rehearsing with them. 

My daughter, who is the love of my life, who lives in New York City—I go see her and she comes to see me. There’s nothing I’d rather do than be with her. 

WS: What’ve been some of the moments when you’ve been most content?

ZZ: Most content. When I’m playing music. When I’m singing and playing I am extraordinarily content. When I gave birth, I was extraordinarily fulfilled and content. And, I would say, time with my daughter. And, for me, praying and playing—I often don’t distinguish between them. So, I would say prayer and music—when that’s what I’m doing I’m really, really happy. Also, kayaking makes me extraordinarily happy. 

WS: How do you view your role when it comes to interpreting ancient texts for modern, busy, distracted people?

ZZ: That’s an excellent question. The thing is, about all of our prayers—some of them are ancient and they come directly from the Torah, from the Bible. And some of them are written by people. And whatever’s in our prayer book and whatever our traditions are, many, many, many of them have changed over time. 

Even the ones we think are most ancient. How we said them or where we said them. There are certain things that have been very constant, but prayers have changed and often changed with the times. So, I believe any ritual or practice needs to—make sense isn’t the right word. But, even if it’s an ancient practice, for me, it needs to be in harmony with the physical plane in 2016—or whatever year we’re in at the time. So, I question everything. It’s very traditional to do that in Judaism. We’re taught to question, to think about, to wrestle with the texts. To wrestle with, to think about all of this—not just to accept it, but to really wrestle with it. So I support wrestling with the texts and thinking about it. And I do my very best to support people where they are in their process. And never try to ask or expect somebody should do what I do or how I do it. I’m interested in people finding their path. And their way in. 

WS: Do you have any advice on how a person can have their best shot at leading a good life?

ZZ: I think that we all have innate wisdom in our bodies, in our souls, and, with all of the outer stimuli that we all have at our access, it is incredibly difficult to tune it out and to center and to be in touch with what’s inside. It can also be dangerous to do that because what do we use as our gauge, right? If I tell you I’m in tune with myself, but I want to go and do something you know is wrong—that doesn’t make any sense either. So, I think that we all need a teacher. Or teachers. I’ve always had great teachers. I still have wonderful teachers. Rabbis. People I go to and say, Hmm, what do you think about this?

So, I wrestle and think about things within myself. Judaism teaches us to be in community. You know, we don’t have Jewish monks who go off and live outside of a community. Part of the practice of being a Jewish person is being in community. And, even if one is carrying on ancient traditions and rituals and ways of life, to know how to be in the world and to deal with the world.

So, I think having good teachers, good friends, and connecting wherever we connect and nurturing those connections. The people connections—whether it’s art, whether it’s music, whether it’s prayer—I think everybody has a place where they can connect most deeply and that place needs to be nurtured and taken care of and loved and supported so that person has a deep connection that can help get them through anything.