A Hasidic Rabbi and an Actor Walk Into an Interview

For the first time, the rabbi who inspired a character in the 9/11-themed musical "Come From Away" met the actor who's been portraying him on stage.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rabbi Levi Sudak boarded a London plane headed for New York City in order to fulfill his annual visit to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s grave ahead of Rosh Hashanah. On September 12, 2001, the rabbi stepped off that plane in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada — the terrorist attacks had caused American airspace to close and all flights to be grounded outside the U.S. On March 12, 2017, the original musical “Come From Away” opened on Broadway to tell the story of the 38 planes and their passengers grounded in Canada, including a storyline about a Hasidic rabbi who set up a kosher kitchen to feed those who needed it while stranded. On January 27, 2022, Rabbi Sudak met the actor, Paul Whitty, who plays him on Broadway eight times a week.

Nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, “Come From Away” (currently on Broadway, in London, in Sydney and on tour in the U.S.) offers a portrait of the people of Gander, the wildly diverse people they took in unexpectedly, and the unbreakable friendships forged in the wake of crisis and despair. We spoke to Rabbi Sudak and Whitty about their long-awaited meeting, the rabbi’s true stories from his days in Gander, and how meeting the rabbi has impacted Whitty’s performance.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you remember thinking and feeling in the moment when all of a sudden, an announcement comes on and the plane is diverted from New York?

Rabbi Levi Sudak: The words that had the greatest impact were when the pilot said that there had been an attack on mainland USA. Now that’s unfathomable. Because mainland USA is 3,000 miles away from London. It’s nowhere near a hostile country. So how could something like that happen? The U.S. technically lives in a place where it is isolated from the war centers of the world.

What do you remember from those first few hours being grounded in Newfoundland?

Sudak: We were on the plane, let’s say from ten o’clock in the morning until four o’clock the following morning. We couldn’t get off the plane. The plane doors were open. There was an RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] officer who was on the plane. He didn’t sit down for a moment. More or less people were calm. Some people had managed to get through, by cell phone, to their families and hear what had happened — planes had flown into the World Trade Center. When we heard that, there was shock and horror. There was some panic.

I just had a question in my mind: Why am I here? I could have taken the earlier flight. I would’ve landed in New York before the skies were closed. Therefore, I had resolved in my mind that this was a message from above, that there is work for me to do. And for the next four days, I was on the lookout: What are my tasks? For what reason am I here in Newfoundland?

Paul, I think about the song “28 hours/Wherever We Are,” a portrait of being stuck on the plane. When you hear the rabbi talk about his reaction, does that mirror what you and your castmates are trying to convey in that moment?

Paul Whitty: Oh, absolutely. I play 20 different characters in the show. Each one of those people has a unique perspective on what that day, and that week, was for them. I think a lot of people had that sense of duty. If nothing else, this story is a wonderful example of people stepping up and helping when the world needed help. The rabbi’s story is a beautiful one. I just feel so much gratitude that I’m able to tell all these stories. It’s been such a blessing to be able to meet the rabbi and to hear his story firsthand. I can’t get the stories out of my head, and he’s made my job a lot easier.

Rabbi, I want to ask you about what you were called to do during those four days’ time  —at the time, you had no idea how long it would last. As a Jew who keeps kosher, it felt significant to witness a plot point about a kosher kitchen on a Broadway stage. What do you remember from that time, setting up the kitchen and serving the people who were there?

Sudak: When we came to Lakewood Academy, we were just overwhelmed by the open-handed generosity and thought and care and attention. And boy was there plenty of food! I noticed two Jewish boys, observant boys, looking around at the food. I tried show them what they could eat and what they couldn’t eat. I went to the front desk where there was this lady, Eithne Smith [who is] now Eithne Daly. I said to her, “Does anyone have any connection with the airport in Gander?” I’m wondering whether in the freezers at Gander airport have any kosher food because, no doubt, they hold a reserve. “Well, how interesting that you ask me, because my husband is the corporal of the RCMP based at Gander.” We had the delivery from Gander airport of 16 kosher meals — there were nine of us. Before I had the chance to say anything, she said, “There are only 16 meals and there are nine of you, which means there isn’t enough food for supper. What are you going to do?” And that was when I said to her, “If there is another kitchen that can be made available to me, I will make a kosher kitchen.” And that’s how the kitchen was born.

Paul, you mentioned that this adds to your performance. In what way?

Whitty: We can’t get into all of the wonderful details in his story. As actors, we invent backstories for our characters. A lot of these people [I play], I have to make stuff up for them. This [has] really enriched what I was doing — to be able to hear the full breadth of [Rabbi Sudak’s] story. I feel like I know where I’m coming from when I’m standing in the scene.

I think about the stories that the rabbi told me about Eddie, who is the [character] in the show who was in the Kindertransport [and confides to the rabbi that he is Jewish and has been hiding it for decades]. That one little kernel that [the rabbi] gave me [about Eddie] — thank you, Rabbi, for that — is the “Why am I here? What’s my purpose right now? And what has God put in front of me?” That question rings through in all of my scenes when I’m playing the rabbi. No one ever has to know that I know all these stories, right? But the fact that I’m carrying it into the space with me, that translates subconsciously.

“Come From Away” has been around for a few years: multiple productions, an Apple TV+ version. This means there are multiple actors who are playing a version of you at any given time. What is it like to know that so many people are learning about your experience? 

Sudak: To me, the whole episode is sacred and, therefore, this show is sacred. The message portrayed by the show is that in spite of what’s going on around us, in spite of the darkness, humanity can embrace. One can still shake off that darkness and be pillars of light, be pillars of goodness. I tell people: Go and watch the show. It is sacred. The more the show is watched and the more the people watch the show, the more impact this show has, the better it is for all of mankind.

I was fortunate. I was chosen, so to say, by a divine hand, to be the one who was landed at Gander. I do know of quite a number of people that were landed at St. John’s and there is no such story coming out of those many people. To me, it’s been my privilege to be a part of that incredible story.

What’s it like to meet face-to-face for the first time?

Whitty: It’s amazing to me. We tried to meet prior to the pandemic when the rabbi was in New York and we didn’t get a chance to meet then. More than anything else, I was just really looking forward to hearing the story from him. It’s not very often, as an actor, you get the chance to actually have interaction with the person whose story you are embodying. It’s a real blessing. The rabbi talks about the sacred nature of what we do — I feel that theater is a sacred place where we come to tell our stories to each other. There is something very ritualistic about our show. It enriches all of it to have the real story.

Another scene in the show, “Prayer,” begins with the rabbi, but then it brings in many other people, backgrounds and religions. Are you able to clock an audience reaction to that scene? We don’t see prayer onstage often.

Whitty: I’m not Jewish myself, but I have Jewish people come up to me and tell how much they loved my portrayal of the rabbi. How well I sang the Oseh Shalom. It’s the greatest compliment to me because I want to honor that even though it’s not from my personal experience. But I am happy that I am connecting with the Jewish experience and helping to move people and to give them a reflection of themselves, of the human condition.

Rabbi, Paul mentioned earlier the story of Eddie, the man who — in this musical, at least — feels he needs to tell someone that he is Jewish but had hidden it. What was that exchange like for you in real life?

Sudak: I have a natural veneration for any person that survived those terrible years, 1935 to ’45, and I become humbled when I meet any of them. To hear the individual story of Ed and his brother, how they survived the torment of living in Berlin, and then how they survived to adulthood. It’s extremely touching. These two boys were forbidden to connect at all with anything to do with their parents and their birth home by their foster parents, and yet [they] always know that [they were] Jewish. I sent gifts to Ed, a kippah, a tallis, a prayer book; Ed called a party for the day when he is going to receive his gifts. Ed didn’t live much longer before he passed away. He requested to be buried with his Jewish gifts. In other words: If in his life he wasn’t allowed to live as a Jewish person, he wants his afterlife to be as a Jewish person.

Rabbi, do you still do your annual trip?

Sudak: Almost every year.

What is that flight like to take after this experience? 

Sudak: I travel to the States a few times a year. The first thing that I do is I look at the sky map to see what route we are going to be flying. Are we flying over Newfoundland? Then when we get to Newfoundland, I look out the window and I wave. I feel a connection to the people of Gander, the people of Newfoundland, even though I can’t physically interact with them.

For “Come From Away” information and tickets, visit comefromaway.com.

Ruthie Fierberg

Ruthie Fierberg (she/her/hers) is an independent arts journalist, editor, on-air host, producer, and is the creator and host of the podcast Why We Theater (available free on all podcast platforms), which fuses theatre and social justice. The former Executive Editor at Playbill, she spent five years creating innovative content and hosting Playbill's Live From the Red Carpet specials. She regularly hosts Talks at the 92nd Street Y.

Read More