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.
I’ve always loved “The Lives They Lived,” the year-end issue of The New York Times Magazine profiling famous and not-so-famous people who made an impact on the world and died during the previous 12 months.
No, let me correct that. I should say that I’ve loved the issue until now.
This difference is not attributable to the design of this year’s issue (though I can undoubtedly say that it is not my favorite). Rather, it’s because reading “The Lives They Lived” is no longer an edifying coda to my year, a comforting annual tradition allowing me to deepen and broaden my knowledge about the influence of individuals on history.
This year, I knew someone personally in the magazine. And that changed everything.
To be sure, many of those profiled in this year’s issue touched my life in some way. Loops of Whitney Houston songs play in my head when I think of my college and grad school years. Neil Armstrong’s moon landing is my first memory of watching TV. I cannot read the name Vidal Sassoon without recalling the scent of the shampoo I used for years. A worn copy of Maurice Sendak’s “In The Night Kitchen” is one of the only books I made sure to save from my childhood and pass on to my kids.