With deep passions for both music and spirituality, Rabbi Laurie Matzkin took a step toward her vision of becoming a classical flutist while she studied abroad in Vienna. Music history and chamber music filled her weeks, and historic works of art framed her experience. Above all, she found herself on a path of self-discovery, exploring the dichotomies of what it means to be a contemporary Jew in Europe with German roots. Emerging as a confident traveler, with high regard for planning and purpose, Laurie underwent a deeply personal, ideological journey that ultimately led her to join the rabbinate. Today, Rabbi Matzkin works with all ages and stages of the Jewish community across California, harnessing her creativity through educational programming centered on music, the arts, and the Jewish tradition. In our interview, Rabbi Matzkin discusses her time in Vienna and gives us insight into her own personal journey as a religious leader.
IES Abroad: Why did you decide to study abroad and what drew you to IES Abroad’s program in Vienna?
Laurie Matzkin: Many of my friends in the Jewish Studies program were planning to study abroad in Israel. But the general consensus in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University was that the faculty – the studio teachers, conductors, etc. – are irreplaceable, even for a semester, and studying abroad would not be possible for a music major. That was true until Indiana University started its partnership with IES Abroad. I can picture where I was standing in the music school practice building. It must have been January or February of ’99. There was a yellow flyer posted near a pay phone: “Study in Vienna! Study music in a castle! Be there for yourself!” I noticed the flyer, walked past it, came back to look again, and immediately called my parents. “Looks interesting, sounds great, sign up!” they said. I have always been very travel oriented. Many of my family members have traveled throughout the generations; my grandparents spent extensive time in Europe and China. And I remember, at age seven, I flew by myself for two weeks to visit my parents’ friends in Chicago. The idea of traveling abroad felt really exciting, especially in Classical Vienna. I share my birthday with Mozart, I regularly visited Beethoven’s house, stopped by Mahler’s summer cottage on a Eurorail train trip.
IES Abroad: Had you ever traveled abroad or been to Europe before studying in Vienna?
LM: Studying abroad was the first time I had been to Europe. My mom’s side of the family were German Jews and my dad’s side were Russian and Lithuanian Jews. My father’s family had come to the U.S. well before World War II, but my mom’s side shortly before the Holocaust. My maternal grandparents, the exotic travelers, would never go to a German-speaking country. They would meet our remaining German relatives in a French resort town near the border. I thought a lot about the implications when I decided to live in Vienna for a semester. My family has German roots, on the one hand, but I had just taken a course on the Holocaust and was painfully connected to the atrocities throughout Europe. My mind (and ears) focused on 1830-1910, but I was very aware of the 1910-1950 period of Jewish European history. This theme of experiencing Europe through the lenses both as a classical music student and as a contemporary Jew informed everything about my experience – where to travel, what to visit, how to connect with local Jewish communities, how to learn from different pieces of music or art.
IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Vienna as an undergraduate student?
LM: I was incredibly privileged to be assigned to study flute with Werner Tripp, the former principal flutist in the Vienna Philharmonic. Each week, I would take the bus or electric rail out to the suburb where he lived. I would walk past the Hundertwasserhaus (KunstHaus Wien) to get to his flat. I fell in love with Hundertwasser’s art and philosophy. What an amazing contrast: I would be going to this staunch, traditional Viennese musician to take flute lessons from him at his home, and on the way, I would be interacting with this very modern and creative philosopher through his artistic legacy. There also happened to be a personal family connection that we didn’t realize ahead of time. It turned out that family friends, a young Jewish couple studying on a Fulbright and their baby (now a teenager!), lived in that same neighborhood, and they would host me two or three times a month for dinner in their home. All these treasures gave me a real sense of independence and understanding of the cultural elements and the history of the city.
IES Abroad: Were there any courses that you found particularly influential?
LM: Dr. Ottersbruck, who taught Austrian Art and Architecture, put the values of experiential education into action. Our only (and ongoing) homework assignment was to create an art journal. Wherever we traveled, we had to create an entry noting something artistic that we encountered – a painting in a museum, a sculpture, church windows, public art, whatever. For each entry, we had to take a picture, buy a postcard, or make a sketch, then write our reaction and why it struck us. I have the most incredible, intimate, unique entries. I went to 11 countries. I traveled every weekend. I have pictures and notes of what I liked in Vienna, in Budapest, in Strasbourg, in Prague – literally from across the continent. This assignment helped me capture my travels in an aesthetic sense, forcing me to look more intimately at what I was seeing. Because our work still needed to be graded, all of our work would be shipped on a cargo carrier back to the U.S. after the term. We thought my art journal was lost in transit, but miraculously nine months later, the mailman knocked on my parents’ door, white in the face, and my mom immediately knew what it was and started crying! My art journal is like a locket. That is how I feel about the intimacy of it. The assignment was so brilliant.
IES Abroad: Did the experience shape the way you think in a profound way today?
LM: I really valued getting out of my comfort zone, and the encouragement to travel on weekends. These were times for students to really get out there. There was a trip with a longer break coinciding with Yom Kippur. A few friends went to Paris, where I got lost in the subway looking for a synagogue, and then a few days later carried on to hike the Swiss Alps with another group. Being a newbie at backpacking, I had my trendy city clothes with me. I didn’t really understand about carrying all of that stuff for two very different settings. These two gorgeous places, as well as learning how to plan ahead, was very valuable. I have been back to Switzerland, in fact, on a recent 3-day layover to Israel, and was thrilled to retrace my hiking footprints!
Also, there was experiencing Europe as a Jew. This was a very visceral feeling. There was construction on my street in Vienna toward the beginning of the trip, jackhammering very early in the mornings. I had visited a couple concentration camps – Dachau, where members of my family were killed, Mauthausen, and Terezin (Theresienstadt). I remember one dream where my mind interpreted the jackhammering on the street outside as a mass killing. The Holocaust gets further and further away, and can sometimes feel just like another statistic, but I had this feeling of being so connected. I felt I was defying the Jewish experience by being there. It’s emotional, but I feel committed to both sides of this experience.
IES Abroad: Why did you decide to become a rabbi?
LM: I have always had these two sides – creativity and music, and spirituality and Judaism. While studying abroad, I was getting involved in the Jewish community in Vienna as much as possible. Even before Vienna, I had changed my degree so that I had a slightly smaller expectation on my practice hours as a flutist, and with that time I added a second Jewish studies course each semester. I didn’t want the isolation of 10-hour practice days. I wanted a more social life. Then, when I cut back, I realized I was not going to make it in the orchestra. My early dreams were to play flute in a Broadway pit orchestra or record on the Disney sound stage. But by the time I finished college, and after having conversations with leaders in the Jewish community, I knew that if I wanted to make a difference, I needed to go all the way and become a rabbi. By my second year working for Hillel in Philadelphia, I was ready to make that leap. I decided to come back to California and start rabbinical school, a 6-year graduate level education. My values have always been clear, and the skills of a rabbi match my natural strengths. I am using music toward a spiritual end, bringing generations together. As a synagogue education director for the past 7 years, I have been leading our school, mentoring teachers, giving sermons and classes, and bringing different innovative models through the arts, music, and more.
IES Abroad: What aspect of your work to-date are you most proud of?
LM: My proudest innovations in the Religious School is the Chugim program, which means “elective” in Hebrew, but is also connected to the word “celebrate.” The chugim are hands-on, experiential, arts-based projects led by artists and creative professionals from both within and beyond our local Jewish community. Kids get to choose what they are interested in – band, orchestra, yoga, art, drama, etc. There is a lot of art – comic book drawing, graphic style, watercolor, and more. The vision, going back to my art journal in Vienna, is to explore your own passion, choose what you want to do, and experience your own interests through a Jewish lens. We learn from and through real artists and real people, not just abstract ideas. I feel that IES shares this educational philosophy.
IES Abroad: What do you consider the most important aspect of your work today as a Rabbi and religious leader in the U.S.?
LM: I want to inspire Jewish identity exploration for children and adults, towards the goal of self-discovery and spiritual depth; to make a positive impact in the greater community and bring connections of justice and holiness to all of our relationships; and through those approaches bring healing, peace, and harmony to our world.
IES Abroad: What words of wisdom do you have for today’s getting ready to embark upon their international education?
LM: If you haven’t chosen where to study yet, really consider going to a non-English-speaking destination. If you have already chosen, push yourself to be in as different of a culture as you can where you feel there is personal meaning for you within that culture. There is a lot of complicated history around the world – repression, genocide, war, treatment of women and minorities. I think it is really the only way to be responsible – it is imperative that we take the chance to look honestly at our host culture and learn about people on the ground and their experience. For example, I went on a trip to El Salvador with rabbinical students. Helping build healthier farms and focusing on the repression of the campesinos exposed me to the harsh experiences and after-effects of civil war. To just look at the beautiful sites and not see the impact on the people is irresponsible. Study abroad helps us be better agents of responsible dialogue as we grow into adults.