By Judi Markowitz
My dad was considered the rebel in his family. He was born in Janow, Poland in 1916 and his family was Orthodox. Practically every Jewish person in Europe was observant during this time period.
When my dad was 10 years old, he traveled to the United States with his mother, grandfather, and two older brothers. They took a slow boat ride to America. The Flastersteins were moving on up — or so they thought. They left their profitable family farm behind for a better life. My grandfather headed to America first —a decade prior to their departure. He heard the streets were paved with gold and that his fortune would be waiting. Sadly, he found neither.
Culture shock cannot even begin to describe what the family witnessed when they arrived in Pittsburgh. My grandfather’s business acumen was less than ideal — the family struggled. My dad was wide-eyed and took in the landscape – he wanted more. As he grew older, he made it known that he did not want to follow the strict religious footprint of his family.
But my grandfather had other ideas. He wanted him to become a mashgiach, overseeing that kosher meat was properly handled according to Jewish law. My dad wasn’t buying into that career choice and my grandfather didn’t like his “American” assimilation ideas. Religion was no longer on my dad’s mind
In 1939, when my dad and mom got married in Akron, Ohio, they kept a kosher home, but my dad worked on Saturdays instead of observing the Sabbath. Shortly after, they moved to Michigan. My dad and his two brothers changed their last name from Flasterstein to Foster, so there would be no religious affiliation. This was done for business purposes. The brother’s owned a small grocery store.
My mother continued with the tradition of lighting Shabbos candles every Friday night. However, Saturdays were reserved for lunch and shopping with me and my sister. Eventually kosher food went by the wayside too. My mother started to become more “modern”, and we delighted in eating forbidden treif (Yiddish for not kosher) food— cheeseburgers, pork ribs, shrimp, lobster and bacon became staples in our home. But never a glass of milk with meat! That was a no, no. According to Jewish dietary laws, milk and meat are always kept separate.
Holidays were observed with the extended family, who continued to follow traditional religious practices.. My dad would still attend services at an Orthodox synagogue on the High Holidays. However, this is where his observance ended.
When I had a family, my husband, who is also Jewish, and I decided to join a reform temple since we were not brought up religious and temple life felt comfortable. It was a welcoming community. My children received a fine Jewish education along with having their bat and bar mitzvahs celebrated in reform style.
And then 10 years later, there was a 180 degree turn of events.
Our next-door neighbor and close family friend, Jack Jaffe, hosted a weekly Torah study group that was quite popular. Many of our neighbors came on a regular basis. Todd, our oldest son, was invited to sit in when he was 23, in his last year of college. From the outset, Todd was fascinated, and he told us that Rabbi Meisels, who instructed the group, was charismatic. Todd said that this gathering was not like the Sunday school or bar mitzvah classes he had attended in previous years. He came home and announced that he was interested in continuing with the group and desired to have private lessons with the rabbi as well. Todd instinctively knew the religious path was the best life for him.
After graduating from college, Todd went to Israel to study Torah in a yeshiva (Jewish school) for those who wanted to become religious. The name for this is a ba’al teshuva— Hebrew, for a path to return to Judaism. This two-month excursion was his graduation gift. However, my husband Jeffrey and I were skeptical at first and discussed this journey with Rabbi Meisels. His response – Todd’s a cupcake – he will be back in two weeks. The rabbi knew we were a close family and assumed that taking off for two months to study Torah would be a stretch. He was wrong. A two-month jaunt turned into nine months.
When the day came for Todd’s flight to Israel he wore typical college-style clothing — jeans, a colorful print shirt, athletic shoes, with his long, curly, hair in a ponytail. He did not fit the mold of those who worked or attended the yeshiva. He was worlds away from the black and white clothing of religious men. It didn’t matter — they welcomed him with open arms.
This strange, new land was captivating to Todd, and the program offered an abundance of tours to important Jewish sites. He immersed himself in his studies and called frequently to let us know about his Jewish education. Our son became our teacher concerning all things Orthodox. Todd was on a learning quest, and we were the wide-eyed beneficiaries. This was unfamiliar terrain to all of us and Todd was filled with joy to be on the road to religion — he felt complete. He had found his place in the world.
No one becomes Orthodox overnight. Todd explained that he had to start learning Torah and the practices of Orthodox Judaism as a beginner. Shortly after his arrival in Israel, Todd began to fully observe the Sabbath and all religious holidays while assuming the obligations of an observant Jew. It is not an easy path, especially when coming from a secular background. We were immensely proud of his desire to lead a religious life. We knew he was happy and felt at home in Israel.
It was at this point that he announced he wanted to be called by his Hebrew name — Binyomin. The transition was difficult for us, but somehow, we made it work — that is, most of the time. Old habits stick like glue.
After three years of learning Torah in the yeshiva and working on his master’s degree online from Texas University, Todd decided to start dating with the express desire to marry. He was 26. Instead of swiping left or right on social media, Todd placed his dating selection in the hands of the rabbi he studied with. This person is called a shadchan (Yiddish for matchmaker) and they take their due diligence seriously. They gather information about the prospective spouse who is about to be fixed up. Parents want to know the inside scoop concerning who they are letting their daughter, or son, go on a date with. Keep in mind — dating is for marriage and the Internet is not used as a resource.
When dating, attraction is always thrown into the mix, but most importantly life goals, ambitions and adherence to similar religious beliefs are the most critical topics. Dating is similar to the secular world in that couples can meet at a coffee shop, go to a museum, or take a walk in the park. But here is the caveat — generally no one dates more than six to eight times unless they have intentions to marry. And — this is the part I like — if a prospective dater wants out of the situation, the rabbi or matchmaker intervenes. You don’t have to call and disappoint the other person. That makes the dating scene much easier.
Todd was fixed up a few times and then the date of all dates was put in motion. But Todd had to fly to New York to meet her. It was promising — they hit it off. She flew to Michigan and the match was ignited. We found out her name was Chana Tova but Jeffrey and I couldn’t meet her until they had decided to become engaged. Stranger yet, Todd’s brothers and sister couldn’t meet her either.
The two prospective mates made several trips back and forth from New York and Michigan. When they decided to marry, we finally met Chana Tova at the rabbi’s house. Jeffrey, wanted to know how to pronounce Chana Tova’s name properly. After several attempts, he finally used guttural sounds and placed his finger on his Adams apple to pronounce it correctly. He's had it right ever since.
The wedding took place on November 12th, 2006. in Brooklyn. It was our first Orthodox wedding, and it was an eye opener, to say the least. Men and women sat separately during the wedding ceremony and the dinner. Dancing was also separate. There was a mechitza (partition) between the rooms. It was a beautiful and intriguing event. The atmosphere was electric and as the band played, dancers — friends and relatives — entertained the happy couple separately and then together.
As the entertainment continued, my son’s new father-in-law rode through the hall on a unicycle, and Chana Tova glided around on rollerblades. Then basketball, or small ball, was played. The ball was hit from the women’s side, over the mechitza to the men’s side. The hoop was placed in the middle. To top the evening off, Chana Tova wrote “Mazel Tov” (congratulations) on the wood floor and set it on fire. A flaming fun time was had by all.
The newlyweds made their home in Arzei Habira, Jerusalem, Todd continued his learning mission and started a three-year program to become a rabbi. Chana Tova worked in a girl’s Jewish seminary and climbed the ladder from madricha (counselor) to dorm mother. When they returned to Detroit for visits, we became a house divided—not by religious beliefs—by food, pots, pans, dishes, silverware, glasses and serving pieces. All non-kosher items stayed in their respective cabinets and drawers while preparing meals for our son’s family — never the twain shall meet! Jeffrey loves to barbeque, so naturally, we purchased another grill — it was designated kosher.
We had to adhere to strict kosher laws and sometimes mistakes were made. We would use the wrong knife, plate, or pan (fleishig and milchig dishes — Yiddish for meat and milk, are separated) and then utensils had to be discarded. It was a true departure from our routine, and we had numerous questions about the rituals of keeping kashrut (kosher). It is a process, and we are always learning something new.
In 2020, after 17 years in Israel, Todd and Chana Tova finally found their way back to Michigan, along with our seven grandchildren. Jeffrey and I view that initial two-month graduation present as the gift that keeps giving, and we are immensely happy they decided to put down roots here. Interestingly, my dad’s Hebrew name was Binyomin, the same as Todd’s. My dad would have been surprised and very proud of Todd’s decision to became observant. Todd took the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference in his life.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.