We are told of a time when the Dalai Lama visited Jerusalem and asked a group of rabbis a critical question: "What is the secret to maintaining your national identity, your faith, and your unique way of life across so many continents and so many thousands of years?"
The Dalai Lama explained: "Like your people, my people, the Tibetan Buddhists, are oppressed. Many have gone into exile. We are still trying to understand how to live our national religious Tibetan Buddhist culture when we no longer live in our homeland. You, the Jewish people, know how to do this. What is the secret?"
Younger rabbis referred him to the use of technology to bind his people together. Educator rabbis recommended developing adult Jewish education curricula. Others urged building Tibetan Buddhist community centers and Temples in the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora. The Dalai Lama listened before motioning to a heretofore silent rabbi, asking, 'What do you think?' This rabbi said, "Make a Tibetan Buddhist cookbook."
This was met with embarrassed silence. The other rabbis and Jewish scholars could not believe their ears. One of the world's greatest spiritual figures had asked how to maintain his people in exile, and this rabbi had recommended a cookbook? And worse, the Dalai Lama's learned and scholarly retinue started laughing. That's the key to continuity when you lose your homeland? What does a cookbook have to do with anything?
The Dalai Lama giggled-as he does when he likes something-and nodded to the rabbi to go on. The rabbi explained that immigrant children growing up in a strange land lose their traditional foods faster than anything. They become assimilated into the food culture of BBQ, pizza, hot dogs, and hamburgers. There is a Tibetan Buddhist sacred calendar with Holy Days and Festivals, each with special foods, readings and meditations. A cookbook could be organized according to this calendar, with menus and recipes fit for each Holy Day-along with the holiday's readings and meditations. The result would be a book that sets the Tibetan Buddhist family table, fills the exiled Tibetan home with the aromas of Tibet, and keeps Tibetan Buddhism in the warm embrace of food and family.
The laughing ceased. They got it: A cookbook would make Tibetan Buddhism portable.
How did this young rabbi come up with such an idea? In 1975, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the legendary Rebbe of Lubavitch and spiritual leader of Chabad, launched a campaign for kashrut observance. Inspired by the Rebbe and this campaign, a group of women from Crown Heights instinctively understood that if someone was going to keep kosher, they needed a cookbook overflowing with easy and attractive recipes. They assembled such a cookbook in the way that so many synagogues societies and institutions do, cheaply printed and loosely bound. They presented it to the Rebbe, who examined it and said that since a cookbook can have such a profound influence on a Jewish family's life, "it needs to be externally beautiful." The Rebbe advised them to consult a variety of popular cookbooks available in bookstores.
The result is the Kosher living classic, Spice and Spirit: The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook . Published by Lubavitch Women's Cookbook Publications, this cookbook-which has gone through several printings-is a monumental work that launched the explosion in the kosher cookbook market. Spice and Spirit provides a culinary journey through the celebration of the Jewish calendar, Shabbat and the various holidays through the year. It weaves together food, family, fun, and 3,000 years of Jewish experience.
And not only did it revolutionize the publication of American Jewish cookbooks over the past half century, the Rebbe's cookbook also gave birth to the Dalai Lama's cookbook.