When it comes to religion, a lot of people take a straight path. Not Robin Chotzinoff. In her new memoir, “Holy Unexpected: My New Life as a Jew,” the writer chronicles a twisted trail to her own unique brand of Orthodoxy, detailing bouts of binge eating, sexual promiscuity, drugs and depression.
Chotzinoff was raised on New York City’s Upper West Side as what she calls a “born again agnostic,” by a family of intellectuals that encouraged her to retain all the things that were culturally Jewish (kvetching, chopped liver) while eschewing all things sacred. She spent her childhood believing in Jesus (because it seemed like everybody else did), her grandfather (because everyone she ever met seemed to revere the man, renowned author Samuel Chotzinoff) and the healing powers of food and psychopharmacology, before it ever occurred to her to believe in God.
Unlike typical conversion narratives that favor sudden epiphanies, Chotzinoff’s religious awakening is more measured, almost akin to the slow dance that some of cinema’s best couples do before they finally get together for that long-awaited kiss.
Leading lady Chotzinoff comes across God when she attends services at a liberal-minded synagogue in Denver. She’s intrigued yet mistrustful at first. But after a couple of chance meetings on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she decides that God might not be half bad, after all. Music surges, lip-smacking ensues and the screen fades to black as we, the audience, dare to believe in happily ever after. But before the conclusive kiss, Chotzinoff embarks on a harrowing personal journey to find God, and she sets out to understand exactly what a Jew needs to know and do. She interviews everyone she can think of, including her local rabbi, an observant cable access TV show host and a Jew for Jesus.
Her husband initially shares her interest in Judaism, but steadily loses steam when he is apprised of the restrictions that religious life entails. Chotzinoff wrestles with similar issues, and eventually concludes that some things about Orthodoxy simply aren’t for her. The book, which culminates in a bat mitzvah ceremony for the 47-year-old Chotzinoff, is at times moving — as when her disbelieving dad is brought to tears watching Chotzinoff’s daughter, Coco, read her Torah portion at her own bat mitzvah. And at times it is hysterical — as when an adventurous female rabbi teaches her to pray and snowboard simultaneously. But her journey from doubter to devotee is still touching.
Chotzinoff does not turn her back on her family in order to embrace Hashem. Nor does she make any excuses for the sordid past that led her to look for something more meaningful. There are all kinds of Jews in this world, she is repeatedly told on her quest for understanding. Some keep kosher. Some observe the Sabbath. Some know how to folk dance. Chotzinoff does none of these. While she attends synagogue each week, she still eats bacon, sings Protestant hymns and collects Zuni religious objects. But hey, she can make a decent challah.
And in Judaism, a faith in which food and observance are so intimately intertwined, this seemingly small thing might make Chotzinoff the most religious of us all.
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.