Al Levin (as in ‘begin’) grew up in Edina and now lives with his family in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, not far from Peace Coffee, where we met recently. I first heard Al’s story last week, when he spoke at Shabbat services, on the topic of mental health, including his own struggles with depression, and his current role as co-chair of Mount Zion’s Mental Health Task Force. The timing of this profile seemed appropriate, coming at the end of February, which is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM), while also coinciding with the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which Talmud teaches that our joy should increase.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your growing up years.
I was born in Skokie, Illinois, and lived there a brief time with my family. My father was in what he used to call the “rag business” – he sold different lines of women’s clothes. He worked a five-state region, so when I was about two, we moved to Madison, where I lived until the second grade, then we moved to Edina where I lived through high school.
Growing up we always had a mobile home around – my father would clear out most of the furniture and keep all his clothing samples in it – and that became his showroom. He would pull up to department stores in different cities around the state and invite the buyers out to the motor home, and they would sit on the couch while he showed them samples. And then he would sleep in it that night. Some of my favorite vacations as a kid were in those motor homes. I remember I used to love being next to the little window above the cab, this was in the days before seatbelts, so I could get a great view as he was driving down the highway.
Did you belong to a synagogue growing up?
We were culturally Jewish, but not very active. We would go on the High Holy Days and get together with family for the holidays. And my mom was the one who would make sure that everything would get done. So growing up I went to Temple Israel, and became a bar mitzvah there. It was interesting though, because at the time not many people wore yarmulkes at that temple. My brother was the first one to be allowed to wear a yarmulke for his bar mitzvah, and my mom had to fight for it. But he was not allowed to wear a tallit. That didn’t happen until a few years later, and I was actually the first one to be allowed to wear a tallit at my bar mitzvah. And I remember I learned my Torah portion from a cassette tape.
Well that certainly dates us both, because I learned mine with a record player. I had to keep placing the needle at just the right spot and ended up wearing out a little groove where it had my portion. So, were you active in other Jewish activities or groups?
I would say none of my close friends in junior high were Jewish, but my friends then are still close friends to this day. I felt like there were cliques at the temple, and when I finally had my bar mitzvah I told my mom I’m done. The Hebrew school bus would pick me up and it would be full of kids from the west side of Edina, that I didn’t really know. I couldn’t even find a seat, and I just didn’t feel comfortable. That’s not to say they were bad people, it was just very tough to break into that group.
As a kid I did play baseball, football, and mostly hockey in Edina. And actually, later in life I went back to hockey and refereed for many years, and was pretty successful at that, and at many different levels. Eventually I just got out of it when I got too busy.
Tell me about your family growing up.
My mother got her degree in education, and she did that and other things for a while. But when I was in seventh grade my dad got into a bad car accident, driving that mobile home, and he was in the hospital for over six months, so my mom did what she could to take over the business. Eventually she went back into education, with the St. Paul Public Schools. She taught, and was licensed in Montessori, and became a principal, and by the end she was the Director of Elementary Education for the St. Paul Public Schools.
And my dad – you should be interviewing him here, because he can tell all sorts of stories. But my dad had been in the Coast Guard. He was one of two men on the ship that were called “swimmers,” because he was such a strong swimmer that if anybody went overboard, he would be the one to jump ship and save them. And I never really knew that story until my nephew and niece told me. They are both strong swimmers and they always say it’s in the blood.
My older brother is now a doctor in England. He had practiced here in Minnesota, and then did a couple of stints with Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, working overseas. He was really involved in TB and infectious diseases, so he ended up going to the School for Tropical Diseases in England and that’s where he met his then wife and has stayed ever since. And my sister is another brilliant person – she had worked for Ford and other places in IT. I have so much respect for my brother and sister.
Where was college for you?
My brother and sister both went to Madison, so I ended up following in their footsteps and graduated from there with a major in economics. But I had spent my junior year studying in Japan, so after college I lived on and off in both Japan and Minnesota for four years, until getting a job in Chicago for a small Japanese company. Nowadays I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I am conversational in Japanese, and I have a teaching license for Japanese, as well as one for ESL (English as a Second Language). Then after Chicago, I decided to come back to Minneapolis to attend a post baccalaureate program in ESL and Japanese, while working towards my Master’s degree in education.
Let’s skip back to your family and genealogy. What do you know of your family tree?
That’s a great question. I should know more. I almost feel guilty that I don’t. I know that my zayde, my father’s father, probably came from Russia, and ended up in Leeds, England before coming to Chicago. And my dad’s mother, my bubbe, was from Russia. They both retired to Florida and we would see them during trips down there. My grandmother was definitely known as a tough woman. She was loved by all of my dad’s friends and families, but she was also tough on them. Made them toe the line. And my grandfather was a postman in Chicago.
On my mother’s side, she was a Schneider, and also from Chicago. My mother’s mother died when I was very young, and her father remarried. It’s interesting that my mom has an older sister, and two younger twin siblings – a boy and a girl. Which happens to be the exact same makeup as my family now – and the age differences between my mom and her siblings are almost exactly the same as my kids.
How did you meet your wife?
I always joke that I met my wife in elementary school – because she was student teaching at a school where I was teaching, at Randolph Heights. She taught with a third grade teacher, who is still there, and I was teaching ESL. My wife was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, and went to Catholic school. In fact, her dad is a deacon in the church, and also a psychologist, and does some canon law.
While we were dating, and becoming serious, we began to talk about religion and how we would raise kids if we had them. I am ten years older than her, so I thought we needed to work this stuff out before we get married. Make sure we were on the same page. Eventually we took a workshop at Temple Israel that helped a lot, and we even attended couples weekends put on by the church. And they were all great. It seemed that an interfaith marriage can often be more complicated, when the man is Jewish, because traditionally it is Jewish women that seem to uphold the traditions. So if you’re the Jewish man in a marriage, you’re going to have to step up. And as the Jewish man in our marriage, I don’t know if I can say that I have done very well at that, but I know that my wife certainly has. She’s been amazing about it.
That seems common with many interfaith marriages. I don’t know if many of us would be involved at all today, if it hadn’t been for our spouses, being able to see things through new eyes.
Yeah. So in our case, we were married in a hotel in Dubuque under a chuppah and with a cantor. And her dad was there and co-officiated. So it was really cool. And I really respect and admire him for that, because he could have just been OK with our marriage, and not have anything to do with it, but he had a lot to do with it. And that speaks volumes to what a good man he is.
But before we were married, I told her that I thought she should talk to her folks, and make sure they were OK with it. So I wasn’t on that call, but she did call them, and they were. But she also told me that her parents were kind of old school, so I should be asking her dad for permission to marry her. And I still remember that phone call. He said I understand that you are raising your kids Jewish, but we’d like you to come here for Christmas. And I said, yes of course, we would always come to visit for Christmas.
And he has always been respectful of me, and even changes the prayer before meals when we are there, which I told him he didn’t have to do, but I think it’s awesome. At first it made me a little uncomfortable, I wouldn’t want people to change their traditions because of me. But it’s been great. Her parents are amazing and have been super supportive.
How did you end up at Mount Zion?
We love the fact that Mount Zion is so open to interfaith families and families regardless of color or gender. I just think Mount Zion is such an amazing, comfortable place to be and that the clergy have a lot to do with that. They created an incredible environment and culture of openness. We’ve been members for about ten years now, just after our oldest daughter was born. We didn’t think about joining anywhere until we had kids. Then we wanted a temple near home, so we could be more part of the community. That was really why we chose Mount Zion. I didn’t really know much about it and then we started going to Tot Shabbat. So we’ve been active mostly through our kids’ activities, and our oldest daughter will become a bat mitzvah in a year.
It should be great to have your in-laws at the bat mitzvah.
Definitely! And my father in law is already helping her study her Haftarah. She has a fairly complicated one that involves sexual relations. And I think he loves when we call him for information, or thoughts and feedback. It’s fair to say they’ve been a large part of our life in a religious aspect as well, because of those connections.
What does Jill do?
She started as a pre-K teacher, and left that as we started having kids, and now that the twins are in kindergarten she’s back to some part-time jobs. She substitutes at the early childhood Center at Temple Israel, where we had our twins, and she is a substitute for ECFE classes. And she does the ‘front of house’ at a salon in the in St. Paul. Basically, it’s like a receptionist. And in the summers, she sometimes serves beer at the Dabbler concession stand at Saints games.
Do you have any hobbies?
I had a darkroom as a kid and still do a lot of digital photography. And I love shooting pool, but haven’t done that too often lately, though we had a 9 foot table growing up.
A new hobby of mine that I developed when I was at the partial hospitalization program is working with pastels. I was able to bring that to my kids, and we use their picture books to choose pictures to draw. And I love it because I never considered myself artistic at all. So that’s a hobby that I created for myself and am able to share with my kids. And it’s part of the reason they encouraged crafts during the hospitalization program, because it is very mindful, and therapeutic, but it can encourage conversation as well.
Lets go back to your talk last Friday, and the amazing panel before services, with folks that were so open about their own mental health concerns. Can you summarize for me, when did your health concerns start?
I was a teacher for about four or five years before I became an administrator, as assistant principal. And my health concerns started when I was promoted to school principal in 2010. And looking back it was definitely what I would consider to be situational depression. I suddenly had a lot of challenges, right off the bat, while also having to deal with a five-year-old, and a three-year-old, and two newborns at home. And that’s when my depression began. There were many symptoms. Suddenly I wasn’t eating, I had a knot in my stomach, and I was not sleeping very well, and eventually just stopped functioning.
It was very rough, but eventually things got better. I actually decided to ask for a demotion, back to assistant principal. And then things were going well until my second episode happened in 2013, when I fell into a deep depression. It’s hard to describe what that’s like, but I knew I felt different, and that it wasn’t going to be good. There is a distinct feeling, at least in my case, and I remember telling certain people many times that I just wanted to feel like myself. What it feels like is so hard to describe to somebody, but I did not feel like me. I had many of the same symptoms from my first episode. I couldn’t eat. I lost almost 50 pounds. I couldn’t sleep well. I had uncontrollable crying bouts and suicidal thoughts, which really scared me. Eventually I checked myself into a partial hospitalization program and that became a big part of my recovery.
So I sometimes wonder whether I fully recovered from the first episode, or whether I ever got back to normal. They talk about wanting to get back to normal, to what they call your baseline. But I may have been in a mild depressive state the entire time and it struck again. It’s hard to say.
How have you been since then?
I feel good again now, but there is a lot that I do now to maintain my mental health. First of all, I’m well aware of it. I go to a men’s support group twice a month for men with depression and anxiety. I still take some medication, and I try to exercise and eat well. And I have become an advocate – I speak for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), and do public speaking, and I’ve created a podcast. It turns out that supporting others is very therapeutic for me. I know that a third bout could happen at any time, so I’m sensitive to that. If I feel like I may be struggling in any way at all, I will try to exercise more, or journal more, or do whatever I need to do. In fact, I would take every tool in my toolkit and put it at its highest level.
What is your podcast all about?
In my podcast I have three goals, one is to educate people around depression because I think too many people believe that depression is just a sadness. And we should just take a walk or exercise a bit. But I want people to understand how debilitating depression can be, and that it is much more than just sadness. Second, I also want to use the podcast to support people who may be going through depression. And third, is to work at chipping away the stigma of depression. The more people share their stories, and more people listen to those stories, the more it normalizes the conversation. So those are the goals of my podcast.
Where do you end up with something like this – is there ever a point where you can consider yourself cured, or in remission?
It’s interesting. I’ve asked people that as well. How would they describe my situation? I think the term that I’ve heard and use for my diagnosis would probably be recurring major depressive disorder. Which just means I’ve had more than one, and that it may or may not come back again. They say that the chance of having a major depression is increased after each one you’ve had. But I believe that mostly applies to people who don’t make any lifestyle changes. I am confident that I have, and I have to be confident because I’m not going to live my life worrying that another one is around the corner.
I believe that my high level of awareness will fend off another major depression, and that I will know what to do if it does happen. Dealing with depression is like a catch-22. Everything you do to recover from depression is compromised by the very illness itself. So you need to exercise more, but you have no energy. And you need to eat healthy, but you’re not hungry. And you need to get more rest, but you cannot sleep. So even if you know what you need to do to get better, it is incredibly challenging. And depending on how severe your depression is, it can be incredibly debilitating.
How did you end up on the Task Force at MZ?
About a year ago, I talked with Rabbi Spilker and happened to ask if there was anything I could do to help on the subject. And he said, what incredible timing, we’re putting together a task force on the subject. So I’ve ended up co-Chairing our Mental Health Task Force with Anna Fox. I am hoping that it will become an ongoing effort in some form, maybe with something going on monthly or every other month related to mental health. It needs to be at the forefront of what we do at Temple. As you may have heard last week, one in five people in any given place are dealing with a mental illness. Look around this coffee shop. There are probably six or eight people right here that are dealing with a mental illness, not to mention the many more that are the parent or child or spouse of someone that is.
How did you go from dealing with depression to becoming an advocate?
Number one, I don’t want anybody to be in the place I have been. And the statistics are incredibly shocking to me, to know that one person dies by suicide every 12.8 minutes in the US, and during that same 12.8 minutes there are 26 attempts. Worldwide somebody dies by suicide every 40 seconds. And what are we doing to normalize conversation and provide support on mental health? There is a lot of work that needs to be done. And I’m just trying to do my share in any way I can.
Not quite sure how to ask this, but is there some way in which you can actually view this all as having been a positive experience?
Yes, in fact, I sometimes think that my first depression didn’t really change my life much, and I certainly didn’t start to advocate around mental illness. And there is a part of me that wonders if there’s some greater power that said “all right, we’re just going to a give you a second dose, and make it a lot more severe, so that you’ll do something about it now.”
So now it has changed the trajectory of my work, and I want to get to a point where I can work in the mental health field, and I’d love to do that for St. Paul Public Schools. There’s this massive need. I’ve already presented in front of 140 administrators and shared my story. And I think I’ve opened up the gates to something that’s never been seen. Several of them pulled me aside to tell me how much my story connected with their own stories. I think there’s a huge need, and I would like to be a part of addressing that. And people are now more open to sharing with me, because of where I’ve been, which I think is important, and I’m more sensitive to their needs. I think there’s a lot of work that we could be doing – from the administrators, to the teachers, and even the students – and if it isn’t yet clear in everyone’s eyes, I think it should be, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Thanks for meeting up with me. And thank you for doing this.