Remembering Jeff Zaslow

Literally many decades ago, when Computer Cowboy and I were college kids, we had a wonderful friend, Jeff Zaslow. That fellow Jew and fellow writer had the prettiest sweethearts, the warmest roommates, and the best accolades from our teachers. He received those social merits because he, himself, was a fabulous human being. 


Jeff didn’t compete; he coordinated. He was not mean-spirited, but was full of ruach. Remarkably, his vigor derived, atypically for the late 1970s, from his neshemah, not from chemicals. He was, as well, very tenacious.


As was the case, and it remains the case, that in most groups of young adults, lots of individuals have magnificent dreams. Jeff, however, was among the minority of our circle in that he persistently worked hard to reach his goals (at a time when many among us coasted on smarts). Furthermore, his focus was on his histadlut, not on kvetching.


I recall when he landed his recurring role with Pittsburgh’s (now defunct) Pittsburgher Magazine. Such an honor was rare among the college crowd, even among a group of young ones prepped by families and by faculty to become “achievers.” His attitude toward his opportunity was rarer still. Jeff was not boastful, just busy. His professional accomplishment did nothing, in his mind, to separate him from the guys and gals with who he was sharing his college years. His “big chance” was a personal stepping stone to which he meant to adhere, nothing more. Humility, too, was among his middot.


In short succession, most of us graduated. Some of us took on additional education. Some of us did not (Given that we were, mostly, a bunch of engineers and of future computer scientists, the greater portion of our gang didn’t have to bother with secondary or tertiary degrees to get desirable jobs). In addition, many of us got married, a large per cent of which, as evidenced by the union of Computer Cowboy and myself, to each other. Babies came into the picture as did mortgages and others of the trappings of midlife.


Over the years, my husband and I moved away, first geographically, and then spiritually, from that coterie. We lost contact with many of our former friends. Intermittently, though, Jeff and I corresponded. I become an academic. He became an advice columnist, and a well-respected reporter, one who wrote for a major outlet. We still had words in common. We also still shared a history.


Ten of years passed. Jeff and I continued on in loose communication. Meanwhile, my family took on a Torah way of life. Concurrently, Jeff received his new book contracts. In one of his emails, Jeff shared his ability to embrace the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit; one of his brothers was Orthodox, and, as such, was no more or less a brother to him than his more secular sister. There was and would be no judgment forthcoming, from Jeff, on my husband’s and my journey.   


After moving to the Holy Land and coming to the realization that I could not teach university-level rhetoric, without a powerful command of Hebrew (I was struggling with my ulpan’s Level Aleph, at the time), I returned to an old aptitude, creative writing. The Jeff, who had cheered me on when a musical, which I had written during our undergraduate days, had been produced, was the Jeff, who cheered me on when an older me received my first nonacademic book contract. He was not too busy or too important to give an old friend encouragement. In fact, his words are among the blurbs on that book’s back cover.


Over recent years, I’m not sure whether his select, personalized missives, or his many, general examples of modeling gracious professionalism were more important to me. Both were extremely valuable. In fact, a few months ago, when I received an email from Jeff, which apologized for the richness of his publishing two books in one calendar year, I saved that letter. I meant for his words to be a template for me; I was experiencing, b’ayin tova, similar good fortune. Sadly, that note serves, foremost, as the last message I have from Jeff. I’ve yet to delete that well-shaped piece of modesty.


Jeff’s works, deservedly, found places on The New York Times Best Sellers List time and again. Not only was he an amazing human being, but he was also a very skilled writer. My voice is not needed to laud his work; both the big house publishers, which gave him contracts, and the highly visible folk, about whom he wrote, trusted him, based on his merit, to deliver superlative texts.


Like many individuals whose lives he touched, I, too, counted on Jeff to deliver unique human standards. I remember once he asked me why someone we both knew, who had made it big in the media, had refused an interview. Not wanting to speak loshen hora, I said I wasn’t sure. To Jeff, it was inconceivable that people could be mean-spirited.


Hence, I am at a lost. Hakodesh Baruch Hu took this very special individual, may Jeff have merit in Shemyim, from this world when Jeff was only fifty-three. Although his shloshim has already passed, I have been unable to write, before now, about his transfer to Olam HaBa.


As has been said, deservedly so, by many other people, both by those persons who knew Jeff in his youth, and by those persons who knew Jeff in his prime, Jeff Zaslow was an extraordinary, selfless, and talented man. While his books, articles, and advice columns will continue to be celebrated for their combination of insight and sensitivity, it was Jeff’s quality of mitzvot adam la-chaveiro that is his greatest legacy. 


In Pirkei Avot, we are instructed to be wise by learning from everyone we encounter. Accordingly, we would merit to learn from the unassuming Jew who was Jeff Zaslow and from his character trait of loving all of the rest of us, no exceptions whatsoever.