Sisterhood Blog

When Reb Zalman Met the Dalai Lama

By Joy Levitt

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The Dalai Lama speaks during a visit to Germany. / Getty Images

It was, and will always remain, one of the most mysteriously significant experiences of my life. In 1990, eight of us travelled to Dharmsala, India at the invitation of his Holiness the Dalai Lama under the auspices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The Dalai Lama wanted some simple information he thought we Jews possessed: how to survive diaspora.

I went on this trip filled with anxiety and trepidation. I was a young mother with huge responsibilities at home and totally unsure whether I had anything at all to offer. But this was not the case for Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my fellow traveller. He knew exactly why he was there. He and the Dalai Lama were brothers, soul mates; you only had to be there in the library witnessing Reb Zalman’s teaching and you’d have seen it immediately.

Each of us brought a teaching that we hoped would be helpful to the Dalai Lama in his quest to keep his people together in India and beyond as they waited to return to Tibet, then and now under the control of China. Naturally, I worried as much about what to wear as what to teach. But not Zalman. He knew exactly what to wear when meeting royalty and he showed up for our first session in full Hasidic regalia, streimel, kapota, the works. I wore a pants suit.

Zalman chose to teach the esoteric tradition in Judaism. Taking his allotted hour, he simply captivated the Dalai Lama with the breadth and depth of his knowledge of Kabbalah, which the Dalai Lama seemed to have studied a bit. As I remember it, the Dalai Lama was focused on Zalman in an extraordinary way, listening to every word as though it held great significance.

At one point, as Zalman was describing angels, the Dalai Lama asked if Jewish angels had colors. I held my breadth. In the entirety of my fairly traditional Jewish education, colored angels had simply never come up.

“Oh yes, ” replied Zalman, “some are blue and some are orange.”

I tried not to choke. What on earth (or in the heavens) was he talking about? But the Dalai Lama remained fascinated and urged Zalman to continue. When the time was up, the Dalai Lama commented on how interesting Zalman’s teaching was and how he had not heard it before.

“Neither have we, ” I quipped, unable to contain myself.

The rest of the group chuckled, but not Zalman. I suddenly felt ashamed, as though I had gotten off a cheap laugh at his expense. Still, I remember feeling confused. Was this Judaism? What was he talking about?

The next morning, before we went back to the library to continue our session, we davenned overlooking the Kanga valley. It was a magnificent sight and there was some thing very grounding in immersing ourselves in Hebrew liturgy before going into the otherness of Buddhism. I asked Zalman to show me how to lay tefillin – I had actually never wanted to try before. Without a moment’s hesitation, he removed his own tefillin and showed me how to wrap it. He did it with such kindness and gentleness and with no judgement. It was a pure act of generosity.

Years later, when we were building the JCC in Manhattan, I called on Zalman to help us design the meditation room, which took on added significance following the Dharmsala trip. Again, with complete openness he designed the room, suggesting it be oval (to the chagrin of the architects!) so people could feel the embrace of the room.

After our meeting, I asked him to forgive me for my careless remark in India. Either he pretended not to remember or he literally had no memory of the moment, so radiant from the experience that a silly comment couldn’t mar it for him. In any event, he simply put his hand in mine and squeezed it and that was that.

Thirteen years later, thousands of people have felt the embrace of our meditation room designed by Zalman and his spirit hovers whenever I sit there in silence trying to quiet my mind. Rest in peace, Reb Zalman. Your angels of many colors are by your side.

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