The year was 1991, and I was a senior at Stern College for Women and Others (as I still affectionately call the college, which is part of Yeshiva University). I seem to recall that the New York Times columnist William Safire was either going to be speaking at the annual Yeshiva University Chanukah dinner or receiving some kind of award. The details are fuzzy.
What isn’t fuzzy is that I really wanted to go to the dinner.
The only way a student got to attend one of these shindigs was if they were president of a club or editor of a paper. I, not surprisingly, was never either — though I was always a close second. But we know how that turns out in life — second place doesn’t win the gold, and that is okay. Anyway, I was determined to get invited to this dinner because I was a huge Safire fan. (You can google his “On Language” column.)
With all of the literary resolve I could muster, I took out a piece of neon orange paper — I had been using that paper to send out résumés — and I wrote a letter to Rabbi Norman Lamm. The head honcho. The man in charge. I wrote a very detailed letter about how I started Stern College on probation (long story) but managed to thrive there, not only with my grade point average, but with all the clubs I was a part of. And, of course, that included the paper “The Observer.” (My “Marriage — The Final Solution” column is still making waves, if any of you are interested.) I wrote him about how all I had ever wanted to do was to attend the Chanukah dinner, and I wrote, “I won’t even eat anything.” (Yes, even back then, food was a huge part of my life.)
I sent this letter interoffice mail, which meant putting it in a manila envelope and having the chutzpah to check off that it was to go right to the top. To Rabbi Lamm.
And then I waited, thinking I would never hear anything about it again.
The next day, or maybe the day after that, I got a phone call from Dean Efrem Nullman, who worked with Rabbi Lamm. He told me that not only did Rabbi Lamm want me to go to the dinner, but he wants me to eat there. AND he wants to meet me!
Needless to say, I was out of my mind with glee.
Fast forward to the night of the dinner. I am running late, I think I had a wedding (hey, I was a senior at Stern what do you expect??) and I finally arrive at the Waldorf Astoria. When I enter the lobby, a bunch of Stern “presidents” run up to me and say, “Rabbi Lamm keeps asking where Banji Latkin is!!!” And then I met him.
There is a reason why he was president of Yeshiva University and why he was married to his amazing, gracious, and beautiful wife. He made me feel so comfortable, and we had an unforgettable conversation.
But that wasn’t all.
Every time I would see him, he remembered me, and we spoke of my letter and the whole dinner story. But the best was when I was first married to husband #1. My father-in-law was president of the Orthodox Union. He went over to speak to Rabbi Lamm, and Rabbi Lamm said, “Mazal tov. I hear you are Banji Latkin’s father-in-law!” I received beautiful letters from him, with personalized, handwritten messages when my sons were born. He and his wife were the pillar of the modern Orthodox world; a world that unfortunately tends to be slipping out of our grasp…but that is for another column.
When I heard that Mrs. Lamm had died, I reached out to her daughter and shared how she always humored me when I would retell the tale of the letter and the dinner. And when I heard that Rabbi Lamm had passed, I wanted to share this story with all of you. Because not only was he erudite and well spoken, but he was a true mensch.
May his family and all of us who were his students be comforted by his memory and continue his legacy of Torah and Mada.
Banji Ganchrow of Teaneck has evidently been out of her mind for years and was so grateful that someone like Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm humored her as he did.