Maria was born in Illinois, and grew up mostly in Joplin Missouri before going to college in Kansas City, and finally moving to the Cities. She now lives in the Seward neighborhood with her son, soon to be high school senior, Fred.
In the true Seward spirit, she has given up her car and now either bikes, walks, or busses through life. We met at one of her favorite neighborhood haunts – United Noodle, which happens to have a great, remodeled café, in addition to the store itself. The photo (her holding fish snack) is the closest Maria comes, for now, to her goal of someday getting her degree in marine biology.
I was born in Metropolis, Illinois – the home of Superman! Seriously, it’s in southern Illinois. Eventually we moved to Joplin, Missouri, where I finished high school. Then I went to Rockhurst College, which was a Jesuit school in Kansas City, before coming here in about 1980. My mother had had surgery, and I moved here to be close by. So that summer I came and hung out with her, and I’ve stayed ever since.
I was the fifth of six kids. I was raised Catholic, so I’m a ‘new Jew’. I converted several years ago, so maybe by now I’m a ‘middle Jew’. My dad was a cheesemaker, of all things. He wanted to be a chemist, and he got a scholarship to the University of Chicago, but his mother wouldn’t let him go. So we moved around a lot. My dad was a bit of a wanderer, so I have some of that from him.
What was your major in college?
Well I still have like 12 hours left. I was initially a biology major, but there was way too much math, so then I was going to be a sociology major, but you had to take statistics. So I finally ended up in English, because I am a good reader. I have occasionally gone to the University for classes, but all the classes I still need are the boring ones. And at my age nobody ever asks me anymore if I have my degree. I might go again, when you are 65, you can go to the U for free. I’ve always wanted a degree in marine biology. I think that would be really cool.
There goes my next question.
I had a fortune cookie once that said that to me. It said ‘you will have a career in marine biology’. I have always been interested in it. Right now I’m reading a book about octopuses. Those critters are amazing.
What did you do after college?
I went into debt like every other 22 year old. I worked in advertising for a while, in Golden Valley, but I didn’t like that. Now I draft real estate documents for a downtown law firm. I’ve done that for a long time, for something like 18 years. It sounds boring but I really like it. We get to do work on different deals, put together a whole portfolio of documents. It’s like a puzzle.
Can you tell me about your family here now?
I was married. Fred’s dad and I were married for ten years. Now it’s Fred and me and the cats. Fred is short for Frederick. Like Fred Astaire.
Is he named after anyone?
He is … Fred Astaire. And we used to have a dog named Ginger.
Fred will be a senior this year. It blows my mind. He plans to go to the U and major in the classics. He will be taking his fourth year of Latin. When he was little, I used to read him Greek mythology. He loves classical history. He can tell you who the Hittites are. He’s not quite like Jules, but he could become that.
Referring to a member of our Temple’s study group, where just after our weekly question – “what’s bothering Rashi about this verse?” – whenever we are stumped by some aspect of historical fact or trivia, perhaps our second favorite line is “let’s ask Jules”.
Classical history is his thing. But like all of his mates, right now he just wants to design video games. He’s had the same friends since the fifth grade, so they’re really tight. Have you seen those games lately? Many of them are beautiful, very sophisticated. And surprisingly, they’re very social, they can involve a lot of communication.
You had mentioned becoming Jewish, was it about twelve years ago?
Yeah, but I’ve been Jewish a long time. In Joplin, we have one of those amazing libraries. Who was the robber baron dude? Carnegie! This beautiful old library, and they have this amazing collection of books. That’s where I found P.G. Wodehouse, for example. But they also had God in Search of Man, by Abraham Heschel. I was in high school and as I was pulling it off the shelf I remember thinking ‘wow, what an interesting title’. Because being raised Catholic, that was not a concept that was familiar to me. And I can’t say I understood the thing, but it was so poetic.
So I took to wearing a little Star of David necklace – underneath my clothes, because my parents would have had a fit. I wore it through Catholic college. I wish I still had that thing.
Then I moved to Minnesota, and I was a practicing Buddhist for a while in St. Paul. And then Fred ended up in Temple Israel preschool, because I heard they had a program there that would be good for him. So that was kind of my first regular connection. That’s where I converted. Then Dan Rybeck brought me to Mount Zion one Shabbat evening. He also had a son in the Temple Israel preschool. Cantor Spilker was on the bima that evening, and he said ‘you have to come hear our cantor’. She started to sing, and it was breathtaking. And I said, ‘I’m coming here’.
I’m a huge music lover. My parents and the kids, we all took piano lessons, violin lessons. I don’t know how they afforded it all, but they did.
Fred’s actually Methodist, but he says he’s Jewish. We’ll see what happens. He comes to Mount Zion all the time. He loves the High Holy Days. He’s the very fervent kid in the back of the Temple. He loves to sing. He loves the tunes. So do I. The Rabbis have been very kind to him, and let him do things like open the ark, and they always greet him.
I’ll be curious to see what he ends up doing.
So we do all the holy days, and we have a big Hanukah party. And we have a ‘sit in the dark’ Seder. We sit on the floor and turn off all the lights, and use flashlights. It’s like the opposite of Tisha b’av. It just makes sense to me, on some weird level. And I make matzo lasagna or something. The kids have always liked it.
Was Rubinstein your ‘maiden’ or your ‘married’ name?
I picked Rubinstein actually. When I was about 21. Partly because of Arthur and Anton (Rubinstein, obviously). Arthur was a famous pianist, and Anton was a famous composer. But mainly because there was this very famous dancer, named Ida Rubinstein. She was one of the original women to dance Scheherazade. She wasn’t actually a dancer, she just had an amazing presence.
Later, I thought that’s kind of Jewish sounding isn’t it? So I had to convert!
I know you chant at services quite often, how did that come about?
I became a Bat Mitzvah in 5767! I was in the class with Dick Swiler, Siana Goodwin, and Todd Marshall, and lots of great people.
But I’m a fair weather chanter. I gave up my car, so I chant a lot when I can bike. Last summer I chanted almost every Shabbat morning. It was quite awesome. That’s a real discipline. It’s about a 40 minute bike trip. But it’s faster than the bus, or train. I like languages a lot. Fred’s really good at languages too. So in chanting, the combination of the language and the sound is really satisfying.
I recall you telling our Rashi group about your trip with Fred to New York about a year ago.
Oh yeah! Every time I show up at Rashi something awesome happens. Rabbi Spilker had just returned from New York with the Confirmation Class, and he had a hand out for the “The Trial of Abraham” that was going to be put on with Alan Dershowitz and Elliot Spitzer. I don’t remember the name of the synagogue there, but I still get emails from them all the time. They’re actually having the Trial of Moses this fall. But I don’t think we’ll be going to that one.
I used to go to New York a lot, but Fred had never been, so I said ‘we’re going to go’. We were lucky to get cheap airfare, and we stayed at the 63rd street Y, which is like a dorm, but very cheap and perfectly located just west of Central Park. We had the best time. We spent two days at the Met. They had a big Assyrian exhibition. We went to the Cloisters, it was a rainy day, right before Thanksgiving. It was a beautiful autumn in New York.
I love New York. I like cities. I like theater a lot. It used to be cheap to go there. It used to be really cheap to go to London, so I would go there for the weekend. Just to go to plays. Fred would go to his dad’s for the weekend and I would go to London. You don’t have time to get jet lagged.
Where else have you gone?
I’ve been to London a lot. Paris several times. Vancouver. That was an outdoor trip. We hired a guide and kayaked. It was on the archipelago or is it pronounced archipelago?
Actually, I don’t know.
Well that’s OK, people will just read it. Nobody ever says it, you just wait for somebody else to say it. So we went there.
And next summer will be 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death so we’re going to go to the UK again. This will be Fred’s third trip.
I haven’t been to Israel. I hope to do that trip someday.
But when Fred graduates college, we’re going to take the Trans Mongolian railway from Moscow to Beijing. We’ll fly to Amsterdam, and take a train to Berlin. Then Berlin to Moscow. Then here’s the best part, after we get to Beijing, we’re going to go back to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, because the airport there is the Gengis Kahn International Airport, and I just have to fly out of there! What an awesome name for an airport! Why doesn’t our airport have a name like that?
Well, we do have Terminal 2.
Somehow it’s not the same. Also, there was a Don Quixote National Airport. Out in the middle of nowhere, and the Chinese just bought it.
Fred has a thing about Mongolia, and Gengis Khan. He was trying to teach himself Cyrillic last year. This year he’s learning Turkish from our next door neighbor.
Are there aspects of Judaism that most appeal to you?
Really I like the study part of it. I like going to Rashi when I can make it. I do love the music, and I love Tisha B’av … Selichot. I love those late night holidays, there’s just something about those. Like Selichot. It’s a lovely little service. It’s one of my favorites.
My mom was a very mystical Catholic woman. I get that part of me from her. So I can kind of groove on how the Hebrew letters look, like the aleph. I think our letters are really beautiful.
But I do love the study. When I started at Rashi we were at the part where Abraham cuts up the bird. I still remember that.
The covenant of the pieces?
Yeah, that’s it. And I was like – hooked! That we could spend all this time thinking about this. Growing up Catholic I never did that stuff. And so for me, the thought that you would actually study and question is great. I’m a curious person.
I know. It seems odd, but I can’t imagine not doing that.
And it took me a long time to get used to that, being Jewish. When you are Catholic, everybody knows the same stuff. And then you realize when you’re Jewish, that’s not true. People have different levels of what they do and don’t do. First it kind of threw me for a loop, but now I really like it. Like not knowing what to do with some ritual object, I realize that I’m not the only person. It’s kind of comforting.
You know, back to Rashi, there have been times, once recently in fact, when the Rabbi would toss out a question that we all ought to know, but don’t. So the last time, both Jean and I happened to study up on a question he had asked, and we both came prepared the next week.
I know, and you come in the next week and he’s moved on to something else.
Aren’t we lucky to have our clergy? I think we have the most amazing clergy. They’re so learned. They’re so kind. They bring a lot to our temple.
I’m so glad the Spilkers will be taking a sabbatical soon. Everybody needs to regenerate. And how can he be so wise? He’s so much younger than I am. Sometimes I want to just say ‘stop it!’. Stop it Rabbi Spilker!
Final question. Do you have a favorite photograph?
Yeah … I do. It’s a photo of me and Fred at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. When he was about three. It’s so funny because, we don’t have many pictures of ourselves, just the two of us. There are like a thousand pictures of Fred and me, but we’re always in someone else’s photos. Like we were the original photobombers. And this is before you could just take a selfie, so we would have to ask a stranger to take a picture of us, and that’s always weird.
Have you been to the Space Needle? It’s the most expensive cup of coffee in the world, but it’s totally worth it. We go to Seattle a lot. Partly for the aquarium there, and my love of marine biology.
So we were at the top of the Space Needle, and we asked this guy to take our picture, and it was freezing cold. And the wind was blowing. But we were just grinning, and it was so cool because this guy was taking our picture. And you know when kids are like three and they’re so cute, and they actually like being with you and stuff? That was this.
That would be my favorite photo.
“Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism