I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and that makes me a Midwesterner. I love rockabilly, think about the 1904 World’s Fair at least once a month, and will be a Cardinals baseball fan for the rest of my life.
I was born to Jewish parents, and that makes me a Jew by anyone’s standards, Reform or Orthodox. That means I will always be a minority, an outsider, and anxious about G0d.
My father was also born in St. Louis, as was his mother before him, and my great-grandparents moved there as children. My great-grandfather was at the 1904 World’s fair… Such “yichus”. His uncle made him wait outside with the horse while he enjoyed a day at the fair (History isn’t as glamorous as we imagine). They were Reform Jews, from an enlightened time.
My father’s father was born in Chicago, Illinois. The Sudin lineage is pretty strong there; my grandfather’s grandfather came with his wife from Chotin, Bessarabia in the mid-to-late 1800’s. They were, pictoral and historical evidence suggests, Sephardic Hassids before Americanizing heavily (there’s a picture of my great-uncle from the 1930’s where he looks identical to Al Capone… But history isn’t as glamorous as we imagine). There are now six generations of Sudins that have lived in Chicago.
My father was raised Reform, had a bar mitzvah (which was recorded on reel to reel audio tape!) but doesn’t keep kosher or observe the sabbath. He and my grandfather did not get along very well but were religiously pretty similar. My relationship with my dad is complicated because there is no one in this world I am emotionally and intellectually more similar to, yet religiously we have so many differences. He taught me that being spiritual is more important than observing specific laws, because ultimately your relationship to G0d is between you and G0d.
My mother was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in suburban New Jersey. I always assumed that her parents moved to get away from the city, and to just get away from the Jews. My grandparents were both New York-born children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, raised in the Orthodox way (my grandfather never ate non-kosher before joining the U.S. Army in World War II… But history isn’t as glamorous as we imagine). Once they had their own home, they threw off the yoke of Religion. It is for this reason that among her siblings my mother is the only one who married a Jew or even attempted to recover this lifestyle.
I live in New York now, and I definitely understand why my grandparents got out of dodge. As the saying goes, too many Jews will spoil the religion. They have strange customs that don’t make sense to me, especially the ones that were born out of closeted European shtetl life. But let’s back up a little.
When I was born, the youngest of three, my mother was beginning her religious journey. Aish HaTorah was helping her learn about Judaism. Kosher was making its way into our home. Hebrew had to be learned, and synagogues started to be a thing, especially for Sunday school. I went to kindergarten twice. Once at public school, and the following year at Solomon Schecter Day School. I was given a Shiloh prayer book in a ceremony where parents were invited. We became Conservative Jews.
But my dad stayed the way he was. He was traveling a lot, teaching computers and technology in Hawaii, Japan, and throughout the Far East. It was the 1980’s, and he brought home stories about sushi, video games that you could get for computer instead of Nintendo, and above all else- love. Love for your family, and that relationships with people matter no matter how difficult they are. But that’s my adult take on it, making history more glamorous. The truth was, I didn’t understand my dad or his personality. If I had a problem or was sad, I wouldn’t talk to anyone but my mom.
She had started attending a non-Chabad Nusach Hari synagogue, and she would make us walk 2 miles each way to attend on Shabbat mornings. My dad went to work. He would religiously attend the JCC to play racquetball. My parents argued a lot back then, but they stayed together. Meanwhile I tried to keep up.
Solomon Schecter only went to 5th grade back then, and my older brother had a choice to go to public school or the local Modern Orthodox Hebrew Academy. He chose Orthodoxy. A year later, to avoid carpooling issues, I became Orthodox as well. The first major difference I noticed was that a Rabbi tore up a drawing I did in his Torah class. But otherwise, I was a kid and didn’t know that things were any different for anybody else.
When I was 9, on the way back from a family road trip to Colorado, we stopped for a non-kosher family meal for the last time. It was Pizza Hut, home of a delicious flavor I have seldom recovered at any kosher restaurant, and rubber Land Before Time puppets. I ate McDonalds a few times after that, but only with my dad, and only dairy (trying to explain a cheeseburger happy meal without the burger- aka, a grilled cheese sandwich, to a McDonald’s employee is more difficult than it sounds).
For three years I struggled at school. I was a good student but I was harassed mercilessly by classmates. I was always the new kid. The short kid. The artsy kid. But I couldn’t leave and be home schooled, despite my pleas to my mother. So we compromised. I tested out of 5th grade, and therefore skipped out of that class. I spent the summer learning with my 3rd grade Rabbi, who had given me an Ashkenazi Artscroll prayer book. He taught me that Orthodox Jews have a oral tradition that goes with the written Torah. I learned Mishnah for the first time. The content was a discussion on how to calculate the length of the day to know when Shabbat candle lighting should be every Friday night, or at what times of day you should pray the thrice daily prayers. Although I should say what I really learned is that apparently Orthodox Jews pray three times a day. That was news to me, because in school we prayed once in the mornings. And in synagogue on Saturday, we prayed in the morning as well. This was the extent of my exposure.
Everything was new and scary, just in time for me hitting puberty. In junior high, they separated girls and boys for Judaic studies but we were together for secular. I was the new kid again, in the same school but in a different wing. My Bar Mitzvah was coming up, and I tried to study my Torah reading with a Rabbi from school I felt comfortable with. He got too busy for me, so I switched to learning with the new junior rabbi at my synagogue. Time was tight and in the end I had a Shabbat afternoon bar mitzvah, so that I was only chanting one-seventh the full weekly Torah portion. That was the last time I read publicly from the Torah until last month.
Around the time of my bar mitzvah, my older brother left home for college. This meant I was the man of the house now when it came to religious stuff. I was responsible for saying kiddush over wine and reading lots of comic books on Shabbat, though one of those may have been self appointed. Without a male role model at home, I turned to school for guidance.
I attempted to go to boarding school and accept my destiny as a Jew in Chicago at a very strict boys-only Yeshiva, but something in me broke there. I couldn’t understand why, in addition to strict restrictions on art, there were such meaningless guidelines for every aspect of life. Did I need to tuck in my shirt and never wear jeans to be a good Jew? Was it necessary to be 14 and never talk to a girl to be a good Jew (the school had spies everywhere who would find out if you did)? Their expectations were for everyone to fit the mold of a yeshiva student, and I was a triangle peg being smashed into a square hole. I was dejected, suicidal, and never completed 9th grade after a cry for help attempt. Life had become pretty meaningless at this point.
I defaulted back to St. Louis and coasted through the rest of high school at the one Jewish school in town, which was small, kind of disorganized, and housed in the basement of the same Conservative synagogue I attended as a child. I immersed myself in the music and movies I craved, and started to experiment with drugs. Judaism was a chore, and I went along with it as minimally as possible. If I could come late to school and miss prayers, I would. I slept in on Saturdays, and it certainly didn’t help that our close family rabbi retired and moved to Israel, giving me even less incentive to get up and even try. By the time the dust was settling on school, I was ready to fulfill my life’s true calling: moving to New York, going to art school, and becoming the next great independent filmmaker.
Then someone asked if I was planning to go to yeshiva in Israel for a gap year. My siblings had both done it, and it appealed to me to go halfway around the world and get some life experience. So I begged my way last minute into Yeshivat Ohr Somayach, which had a post-high school program and was known for taking in students who were not religious. You can read more about that here, but the short of it is that I took that time not so much to become what they wanted me to be, but to start taking steps toward what kind of Jew I wanted to be.
So when I finally got to art school at Pratt Institute, I knew what I was. Pratt didn’t have an organized Jewish campus life, and no kosher meal option. But I wore a kippah on my head. I kept kosher to the best of my ability (apparently New York has a few kosher restaurants, which helped). I kept Shabbat in the sense that I did not actively break it; i.e., I would sleep in a lot, not turn on or off lights, and if my friends in the dorm were watching tv I wouldn’t turn it off (though I wouldn’t look away, either). Those were my three rules, and It didn’t matter that this wasn’t exactly Orthodox Judaism, because to everyone else I was still the religious one.
Partway through my sophomore year a Chabad rabbi named Simcha Weinstein started organizing holiday events and a weekly class on campus, thanks to my classmate Dan Berg, who I knew through a non-Jewish friend. That fall, Simcha and his wife Ariella ran into my dad and I moving me into the Junior dorm. He told my dad that he would find me a nice Jewish girl. He says that line to every parent. I attended his class (for the free food), started joining him for Shabbat dinner at his home (for the free food), and we bonded over a mutual love of comic books and movies (with the assistance of free kiddush wine).
Simcha was the first rabbi I met who was like me. Just some messed up, artsy kid who became more comfortable with Judaism as an adult, and because of his Shabbat dinners, I started to attend Friday night services for the first time in my life. He was also true to his word, because a year later a new class of freshmen came in, and one of them was a Jewish girl named Elke. 6 months after we met we started dating, and now we’ve been married for 7 years. Now you might think that this means I became Chabad, and lived happily every after. But no, that’s way too simple. The truth is, we are still figuring out what kind of home we will raise children in and what kind of myriad Jewish influences will be a part of that.
My mom stopped eating asparagus, a staple of her home cooking and one of my dad’s favorite foods, a few years ago because her rabbi said the tops might have bugs in them that you can’t get out. My hassidic rabbi serves asparagus all the time. My dad still eats whatever he wants outside the home, but is mostly respectful and tries to not interfere. He likes to bless his children every Friday night with the Cohanic blessing. He even got involved at Nusach Hari as their treasurer for a time, and that meant he took a turn sitting on stage during services shabbat morning. It was strange but wonderful to have him there when I visited. He told me he can see the shabbat elevator going through its motions from his seat up there, ard meditates of the length of time between the doors opening. That’s a level of meditative holiness I hope to attain one day through prayer.
I’m a product of all my experiences, and those that came before me. They shaped me and continue to make me grow. I’m a Midwesterner, and now I’m a New Yorker. I am Sephardic. I am Ashkenazi on every side but the one that matters. I’m also quite secular, and believe in scientific fact. I am the son of a Bat Cohen, but I’m a Yisroel- the plebeians of Jews. I’m a little bit Reform, a little more Conservative, and mostly Orthodox, though definitely not Yeshivish. I’m Hassidic-friendly, in that I like the Baal Shem Tov and a number of his followers. I’m not Chabad, but I pray in the style of the Ari. I don’t pray as often as I should, don’t do as many mitzvahs as I could, and fall short in a number of ways. I am human.
I am Jewish, my parents are Jewish, and we are all evolving. None of us stand still and no one will be the same person you remember them as for long. And I love that.