In preparation for Getting It... Together, the coming weekend's gathering celebrating the 25th anniversary of that historic trip taken by a group of rabbis and a poet to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama, I finally watched Laurel Chiten's film The Jew in the Lotus, which arose, of course, from Rodger Kamenetz's best-selling book of the same title. (Here's Patrick Sullivan's review of the film: Spiritual power blossoms in 'The Jew and the Lotus'.) Here's the first minute or so of the film:
The film and the book overlap in obvious ways. The filmmaker became interested in the story after reading the book, and there are moments from the book which appear in the film -- much to my delight. But in many ways the film's project is the telling of a different story, a story about personal loss and how the trip to Dharamsala marked a turning point for healing. I hadn't known that story, nor that it would be so central. It moved me deeply, though it wasn't what I was expecting to see.
For me the greatest joy was in glimpsing the footage of the dialogue in Dharamsala. Because I just reread the book, its images and scenes are alive in my memory. In rereading, I was particularly struck by a description of joyful morning prayer -- which the film offers me the chance to briefly witness. And of course there's the amazing scene where Reb Zalman z"l is talking about the angel of the Jews and the angel of Tibet, about which I wrote a few weeks ago; to my delight, that scene is in the film, too.
I wasn't blessed to meet Reb Zalman in person until he was 80, so I only knew him during the last decade of his life. But on the trip to Dharamsala he was a hale and hearty 65, and when the film was made he wasn't much older. I loved having the chance to witness him as he was then. His voice and his demeanor and the sparkle in his eye are all familiar, but this is a younger Zalman than I ever knew. It's a little bit like seeing old movies of one's parents or grandparents -- the past, once again made life.
I know that next time I reread the book I'll have some of these visuals in mind alongside Rodger's descriptions. And now I'm even more excited about the Sunday session which will serve as the culmination of the weekend -- "Tracing Reb Zalman’s Vision, from Dharamsala to the Future" -- where we'll hear from several of the trip's participants. I'm looking forward to hearing how they reflect back on that journey now, and their hopes for how its values can be carried forward in years to come.
If you won't be able to join us in West Chester but are interested in the Sunday program, go to aleph.org/together and click on the "Live-streaming and yahrzeit tributes" link. If you make a donation there, you'll receive a link to the livestream of Sunday's program.