OyChicago articles

A Little Taste of Israel

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A serious falafel craving leads me to Highland Park
01/27/2009

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How they schwarma in Israel

After arriving home from a 10-day visit to Israel on January 2, I declared to all who would listen that I would never eat falafel again. Fewer than three weeks later, while thumbing through a coupon book, I saw an ad for Mizrahi Grill, and was overcome with a craving for deep-fried chickpea balls. I grabbed my husband, ripped out the coupon and headed to Highland Park.

Mizrahi Grill is a Kosher meat restaurant tucked into a large strip mall but, despite the generic exterior, the restaurant was inviting, packed with families, and had a casual, boisterous atmosphere. The menu, handwritten on a chalkboard, offered classic Israeli dishes. We placed our order at the counter, where I tried to understand the line cooks’ Hebrew conversation, and waited for a table to open up.

Once we were seated, a waiter brought over three small tasting dishes, a beet salad, turnips and garlic chips, my second reminder (after the Hebrew) of my recent stay in Israel, where endless salads streamed out of the kitchen and onto my table, whether or not I wanted them. The extra dishes were a nice touch in a place that felt like a fast-food joint.

We started with the white bean soup, one of a rotating list of homemade soups. It was quite hearty, with lots of veggies, and the portion was very big (for $4, I suppose I should have known it would be a lot of soup). My bowl needed just a little help in the salt and pepper department, but was otherwise pretty good.

The appetizer combo came next, with eight falafel balls, four cigars and two kubeh. Clearly Israeli appetizer combos don’t vary much from their American counterparts—the only difference being the particular items that get a trip to the deep fryer. The cigars (rolled, stuffed and fried phyllo dough) were crispy, and the filling was tasty, though we couldn’t really identify what it was. The kubeh (fried dough filled with ground beef and pine nuts) were very aromatic, taking me back to the spice merchants of Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s bustling, colorful outdoor market.

The falafels were a very appetizing golden brown, perfectly crisped on the outside, soft on the inside. They were a bit blander than the many, many falafels I enjoyed while strolling down Ben Yehuda Street, but the texture and crunch were perfect. Joe ate five before I even finished one.

I finished off my meal with a huge plate of hummus and pita, while Joe raved about his schwarma sandwich. The enormous pita was stuffed to the brim with turkey and lamb meat, plus an array of toppings including pickles, Israeli salad, tahini and chips (French fries), just like I remembered. The sandwich was a bit pricy at $8, but seemingly well worth it.

The pita, baked on site, was soft, chewy and delicious. The enormous plate of hummus, topped with olive oil, a dollop of tahini and herbs, plus about eight small pitas was $6. While the portion was generous, the hummus itself lacked zing.

Several meat dishes round out the menu, including various kabobs, skirt steak, a mixed grill and schnitzel. Sandwiches range from $6-$12, and entrees, with choice of two salads and a side dish, run from $15-$25. The entrée pricing seems a bit steep, but the portions are easily large enough to share.

We left the restaurant happy and very full, Joe still marveling about the French fries inside of his sandwich, while I chattered about all of the things I did on my trip (again). On the ride home, I found the coupon in my jacket pocket. Forgetting to use it seems like perfect excuse to feed my next Israeli food craving–I definitely want to try that schwarma!

Oy! Put That Nipple Away!

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The superpowers that come with being a mom 
01/27/2009

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Karen, getting some Mom-practice in thanks to her friend — a REAL supermom juggling her career, two kids both under age 2, and her husband — a Rabbi

For years, my breasts had one great superpower: the ability to attract men faster than the speed of light in a singles bar. In a couple of weeks, my supersized breasts will have different superpowers: the ability to feed a crying infant faster than a speeding bullet, repelling men and women at the sight.

It’s a bit disturbing to realize that my breasts are on the verge of becoming human kryptonite, about to become objects of disdain rather than lust. And it’s something that I am grasping to understand.

It’s completely ironic that, while our society readily accepts visuals of women’s breasts on magazine covers and in movies, when it comes to breastfeeding, the opposite is true. We’ll stare at Pamela Anderson’s cleavage on Baywatch, but if she was breastfeeding, we’d probably look everywhere but — at her eyes, the ceiling — as she was nursing her child.

And there are people who are down-right outraged at the prospect of a woman breastfeeding in public. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that formula companies and doctors had “civilized society” convinced that breastfeeding was archaic. My own mother, who bottle fed both my sister and me, isn’t completely down with the idea of me breastfeeding.

Countless numbers of women have received spiteful remarks from strangers (men and women) while breastfeeding in public, some women even asked to leave malls, restaurants, and libraries. Women are often “encouraged” to breastfeed in ‘nursing lounge areas’ located in the women’s bathroom. Think about this: would you eat your lunch in the bathroom?

So, apparently, when feeding my child, my breasts should have the superpower of being invisible too.

With that said, I can understand why many people are uncomfortable when a woman breastfeeds in public view. Let’s face it: we’re not talking about legs or an elbow here. We’re talking about a nipple, which — except maybe for porn stars and Janet Jackson — is a private part of a woman’s body. Or, at least it was for me until it suddenly, upon achieving milk-bearing capacity, became “communal property”.

‘Caring individuals’ — who I like to refer to as Breast Nazis — believe that they have the right to publically denounce any woman who does not breastfeed because, in their minds, she is harming her child, and therefore society.

More than one of my friends has been reduced to tears by vicious comments made by Breast Nazis about how they are ‘bad mothers’ for choosing not to breast feed. Not that it is anyone’s business, but many women have problems with breastfeeding that cannot be resolved, leaving them to feel as if somehow they are inadequate mothers. These comments just rub salt into open wounds. The most outrageous example I can think of happened when my friend Jen adopted her son. A Breast Nazi insisted that, if Jen truly cared about her son, Jen would employ “certain techniques” to develop the capacity to breastfeed him.

I’d like to employ some techniques of my own on these so-called ‘concerned citizens.’

All I know is this: women’s breasts are both functional and sexual, and until recently, society has only emphasized the latter role, and even then, preferring to inundate the public with unrealistic, plastic versions of what women’s breasts should be. So can we really expect total acceptance of a natural act, when society accepts nothing natural about our bodies?

And, while I’m sure I will catch hell for this remark (I already have from some friends), there are — in my opinion — some instances where breastfeeding perhaps isn’t appropriate. For example:

During a friend’s wedding, as she and her Beshert exchanged vows underneath the chuppah, I heard a loud slurping noise, like someone polishing off a Big Gulp. Curious, I — along with many others — turned my head to the left to see one of the guests nursing her one-year-old son (no privacy shield or blanket either). I found this completely disrespectful: to my friend whose wedding should have been the center of attention, to the sanctity of the ceremony, and to my own eyes which I thought I would have to gouge out at the sight. (I should mention, this woman — who I knew well — was very “militant” about her right to breastfeed, thus I suspect her motivations went beyond mere necessity.)

When I relayed this story to another friend, she rose in defense of the woman, asking me “So, she should have missed the ceremony?”

Without hesitation, I replied “Yes, she should have.” And then I started to think about it. I don’t know how I would answer her question now.

I expect that, as I begin breastfeeding, I will encounter disapproving glances and remarks. And, despite my belief it’s a women’s right to breastfeed however she chooses, I will most likely be very private about it, keeping my breasts out of public view. Maybe I’ll eat these words later, but I still need to relate to my breasts as a sexual — if also purposeful — part of my body. I might be a mom, married, and in my 30s, but I that doesn’t mean I want to surrender the super-power of feeling attractive.

Of course, I’m looking forward to acquiring other superpowers that come with being a mom. Like the power of being able to fold fitted bed sheets into a neat square. I’ve always wondered how my mom did that.

You’ve Got Your Mother’s Eyes … But What Else?

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What you need to know about getting tested for Jewish genetic disorders 
01/27/2009

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No matter who your partner is, it’s important to get yourself tested for genetic disorders

It’s easy to look in the mirror and see your aunt Sophie’s hair or your uncle Archie’s nose. But there are other traits you could have inherited from your family that may not be so obvious — luckily, there’s lots of information available about Jewish genetic disorders and tests to help you figure out what you might be dealing with. Getting tested is an important part of taking care of your health, and is especially important if you are considering having children.

You’ve probably heard of Tay-Sachs disease, an enzyme deficiency which results in progressive brain deterioration and shortened lifespan. And perhaps you’re also familiar with cystic fibrosis, which causes the body to produce thick, sticky mucus that causes problems in the digestive system and lungs. But there are at least 11 Jewish genetic disorders for which testing is available.

Why You Should Get Tested

Getting tested is important even if you don’t have a family history. These disorders are recessive, so in order to have an affected child, both parents must be carriers. There could be a long history of carriers in your family that no one knows about, because so far, none of these carriers have had children with other carriers. And carriers are healthy, so the only way to find out if you are one, before having an affected child, is to be tested.

If your parents were tested back in the 1970s, that’s great. But, like most technologies from the 1970s, genetic testing has come a long, long way. Most of today’s tests have only been available for 10-15 years.

And having a non-Ashkenazi  partner won’t get you out of it either. Whether your partner is Sephardic, a convert, or just not Jewish, there is still a risk of having a child with one of these disorders. Individuals without Ashkenazi ancestry can be carriers, though it is less likely. If you’re the ethnically Ashkenazi partner in a mixed relationship, you should consider getting tested first. Then, if you’re a carrier, your partner can get screened for all the possible mutations that could cause that particular disorder.

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Want to know more? Schedule a counseling session with a genetic counselor

Take Control

Despite her best intentions, your doctor might not tell you about these tests. She may not know you’re planning on starting a family soon, or that you’re Ashkenazi. But having this information before you start trying to conceive allows you to have the widest range of reproductive options. Be proactive and ask your doctor for genetic testing. Be aware, however, that:

-  Screening is very expensive, usually between $3,000-$4,000! And your insurance company may not cover this testing in full, if at all.

-  Screening entails just a simple blood test. After your screening, be sure to keep your results so that you know what you were tested for in case new tests become available.

-  Not all communities offer affordable screening options — but you’re in luck! You can get screened in Chicago through the JUF. Through a grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, you can get screened by the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders for only $90. Visit the Center for upcoming screening dates and program information.

The Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders is a cooperative effort of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Children’s Memorial Hospital. The Center is a support foundation of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and is funded in part by the Michael Reese Health Trust.

Rachel Sacks is the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders, which provides public and professional education about Jewish genetic disorders and genetic mutations associated with hereditary cancers. Read more about the Center at  www.jewishgeneticscenter.org .

Meet the Mousepeople

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A story about a band, and then some 
01/20/2009

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Avicado and Dannyberry, lighting the light

Of 761 things to do in Denver last Friday night, Josephine and the Mousepeople's live show at the Lion’s Lair was the Editor’s Choice on Metromix. But long before this electro-pop duo was creating a buzz on the Denver music scene, they were two kids finding their voices in the Chicago Orthodox community. Back then on Friday nights, Avi Sherbill and Danny Shyman were not performing She Needs Fire – they were chanting the kiddush.

Avi and Danny became friends as fifth graders at Hillel Torah in the 90s, but drifted apart in their teens and didn’t come together musically until a few years ago. At different points along the way, Danny could have been the 13 year old in the bunk next to yours at Camp Ramah, picking up a guitar for the first time. Avi, the youngest son of a rabbi, could have been the kid in the corner studying Torah up to 12 hours a day. Did anyone predict that one day they’d be jammin’ in a land of “Levi’s jeans and cowboys” where kosher restaurants and kippah sightings are few and far between?

While Colorado may be short on Jews, it’s long on Bluegrass, which was reason enough for Danny to move out there. The Josephine and the Mousepeople (J&MP) flame was lit when Danny came home for a visit and ended up spending the week in the bathroom with his old childhood friend, recording music. And the rest is history.

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Sure you can have an epiphany in the bathroom – ask Avi

They’ve still got day jobs. They still do their own laundry. They still chuckle when asked what they’d want to be if they weren’t musicians. But during their debut year, J&MP landed high on lists like Top 25 Denver Recordings of 2008 and 10 Denver Acts on the Rise. Music critics and fans alike are talking about their “gorgeous and slightly unorthodox” music, their “emotionally raw” vocals, their “powerfully energetic” performances. And they’ve inspired more than a few people to go back and read the Kafka short story whose name they bear.

At just 23, Avi and Danny are breaking the mold, religiously and musically. Not in a chest-pounding, lapel-ripping, rule-snubbing way. But in a way that has absorbed the beauty and compassion and rhythms of the worlds in which they have walked, while remaining true to themselves.

Oy: So how would you describe your music to someone like me who had to look up “ep” on Wikipedia to get excited about the fact that you will be releasing one this year?
J&MP: We can’t apply a specific genre since we’re in the process of creating a sound, but it’s music for people who are yearning. In the same way that a Beatles song displays the heart of a person, electronic music displays the heart of a building or a city street or a lamppost. We are trying to connect those two things together, we are trying to create a sonical landscape, we are trying to talk about things that haven’t been talked about and it is taking a minute.

Oy: How have your Chicago Jewish roots influenced your music?
Danny: More than Judaism, my parents influenced my music. They showed me the kind of love that I did nothing to deserve. I relate to them now through this, even though at times it was hard to see as a kid. They never said, “Okay, we gave him what was necessary for him to survive, now we are done.” They let me breathe as an individual. I use that as my gold standard in terms of what is possible between people. And while I don't approach music as a religion, it helps me constantly search for something I can't just hold in my hand. I think that, similar to Judaism, with music I can never be content or stagnate. I'm just looking to keep making progress through growth.
Avi: It’s important to be firm with who you are as a response to what you were. I wouldn’t be anything without my mom and dad and how I grew up. Both Judaism and music are all-embracing forms. It’s not like on the weekend I’m a Jew, or on the weekend, I do music. They are both there all the time – my soul is Jewish. Both Judaism and music are very much about attention to detail. Within a regimented routine, you can have bursts of inspiration. People like me who chase whatever is energizing need something to hone in on. And in Chasidic music, there is such an attention to the spirit of the music rather than the sound – I don’t understand music as much sonically as I do spiritually.

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J&MP bringing it home at a Sherbill family wedding. (Afterall, who doesn’t love simcha music?)

Oy: I see themes of polarity and balance in your music and your lives. Can you speak to that?
Avi: With music, you start at a very isolated point and then present it to a community of people. With Judaism, it’s the inverse; you experience everything communally – including prayer – and it influences your personal life. My teachers taught me to choose wisely what you bring to the table and choose to speak about. It’s the opposite in American music, where pain is a starting point and it’s cool to talk about, I’m a little guy from Nebraska and I don’t have much of a thing going. Other cultures don’t have time to be sad when they’re doing their music, it’s one of the few times they can let loose the spirit. I feel both the pain of American life and the exuberance of the art of existing. If you’re cold, do you choose to put on a coat or light a fire in a stove? With music, I feel this ability to not only warm myself up, but to warm others up as well. And on another level, Danny is my balance. I’ll go out there and he’ll bring me back, especially musically. He’s a phenomenal producer, with a grasp of what is approachable. I try to go after ideas that I feel in my body or things I hear on the street. Sometimes it takes a minute to happen musically but Danny has a very concrete way of getting that done. And he gives me room to breathe.
Danny: Avi has a draw about his personality, especially when he sings, that’s hard to wrap your head around. We write a lot together, but it is beyond that his creativity inspires me. If he comes up with something really moving and impressive, I feel like I need to match him – there are healthy undertones of competition.

Keep up with Josephine & the Mousepeople on MySpace at  www.myspace.com/josephineandthemousepeople .

8 Questions for Brad Rubin, Eleven City Diner guy, old school deli lover, and cross-country motorcycle traveler

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01/20/2009

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Brad Rubin, serving up a hearty meal of Jewish culture at Eleven City Diner
Photo Credit: Helen Maureen Cooper


Brad Rubin grew up on Jewish delis and diners. In his lifetime, Rubin has traveled by car and motorcycle across America — all 50 states — always stopping for a bite at diners and delis along the way. Rubin, originally from Chicago’s northern suburbs and now a South Loop resident, worked at 24 restaurants in 23 years, including Chicago hotspots MK, SushiSamba Rio and Bin 36. Recently, he broke out of fine dining to return to his culinary roots. In 2006, he opened Eleven City Diner, a deli/diner hybrid named for the street the restaurant sits on in the South Loop. The diner is Rubin’s way of tipping his hat to the old school diners that are disappearing from Chicago’s street corners.

Eleven City Diner serves up a huge menu of favorites, including Chicago-centric dishes like “The “Springer,” a corned beef and pastrami sandwich and Jeff Garlin’s Veggie Cob. Rubin’s business is a family affair — his parents, beloved by Eleven City regulars, help out at the diner on weekends and holidays. Patrons dub his mother “The Lollipop Lady,” because she’s famous for handing out multi-colored lollipops to the restaurant’s youngest diners. And Rubin’s father is the resident soda jerk, who awards members of the “clean plate club” with gold stars.

So whether you’re nostalgic for the diners of yesterday, are impressed by nice Jewish boys who call their mothers, or you just really love a big pastrami sandwich, Brad Rubin is a Jew you should know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Favorite? Tough one. I, of course, love Heeb.com  (Heeb named Rubin in its top “Heeb 100” in the food category.) I also like this cat named David Sax from www.savethedeli.com, a site devoted to the preservation of the Jewish delicatessen. I love his ideas and why he is doing what he is doing. Plus, he is so damn funny.

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would buy a time machine and travel back in time…

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Philip Seymour Hoffman or Natalie Portman.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
a) With the Poet Rumi and the woman I love.
b) In front of the large second story bay windows in this beautifully strange guesthouse in Fez, Morocco.
c) Whatever they were cooking up that day.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
In this order: Waking up early with the sun, a hard workout, a quick shfitz, exploring and disappearing in a chaotic Asian fish market somewhere far away, eating something green and light, a power nap, a good steam, a great piece of fish for dinner at the perfect joint, a nice walk to walk it off, a brilliant film, a stop off at the Fudge Pot for dessert, a late night piano bar for no more than two tunes…sleep.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I’m Jewish—I love to entertain, I love to eat, I love to feed people, and…oh yeah… I love to make shekels. I do realize how fortunate I am to be in love with what I do.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I have had no fewer than 42 different jobs in my young 39 years.  I hope I keep evolving and reinventing myself. What next? This one has some legs on it still…

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Let’s see. I go to Manny’s on Jefferson on a Saturday afternoon or hit Chinatown and a movie on Christmas. I love to go to the Spertus for a lecture and then over to see Clara at Russian Tea Time. And of course, I call my mother. I work seven days a week and have little time outside my work to enjoy many things. Being Jewish, for me, is so deeply and strongly attached to the culture itself. I’m in a Jewish diner/delicatessen everyday. I see the grandparents taking in their grandchildren for a lunch of matzoh balls and egg salad sandwiches and a lollipop before heading out the door. I have heard stories from Holocaust survivors while standing by the coffee makers, I see families meet to get their nosh on for breaking the fast, birthdays, Rosh Hashanah and even Christmas (when there is nowhere else to go).  I get to see the old school machers and snow birds slowly shuffle in with big smiles and stories to tell every day. I am honored they come here. The feeling I get from “hosting” all this everyday is wonderful.  I love the “Jewish-ness” of it all. The culture so many of us grew up with is a big part of my heart.  I guess you could say I “Jew” everyday.

Word Games

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Webstein's isn't your bubbe's Yiddish dictionary. 
01/20/2009

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Webstein’s Dictionary: Yiddishizing your life, one word at a time

In October 2007, Joel Stein was sitting in the parking lot in Old Orchard, waiting. Alone in the car, he started to laugh — the word sadorachmonesism had popped into his head. Using the root word rachmones (pity, sympathy) he created a new noun:

sadorachmonesism

Defined as: the act of your mother telling you that you look “a little thick” in your new dress, then handing you her credit card to go buy something “more flattering.”

He thought the word would make a funny t-shirt and mentioned it to his friend Linda Cassidy, a designer who works for his family’s office furniture business — where he spends his workdays. “Linda said she thought I could come up with a whole book and these ideas just stated pouring out of me,” says Stein. Working on nights and weekends, and running ideas by his wife, Adele, and his friends, Stein came up with enough new words for a dictionary and returned to Cassidy for illustrations.

Stein’s interest in Yiddish comes from growing up on the North Shore with a father from Rogers Park. He says there was always little Yiddish being used at family gatherings. “My mom, who converted when she married my father, really picked it up. Yiddish is such a nuanced language and while I’m by no means a scholar, I appreciate that it’s very clever and conveys a very funny side of our culture,” Stein says.

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An excerpt from Webstein’s Dictionary

Thinking in Yiddish

“Since I began writing the book, almost every Yiddish word is in my head. It’s funniest to me when non-Jews use Yiddish. It was the most influential language in the 20th century to American English — Spanish might be taking over now. People don’t always recognize that some expressions like, “Joe schmo,” are Yiddish.”

Stein himself had a funny moment with his non-Jewish sister-in-law and the phrase Bissell blower, n., root, bissell: a little, which Stein defines as: “a woman who tells the world of your lackluster performance in bed.”

“Right out loud in front of my Catholic in-laws she stopped at that one and said, ‘I don’t get it.’ I couldn’t have turned a brighter shade of red — it was a very funny moment,” Stein says.

Stein seems to enjoy a good double entndre and has a few more book ideas kicking around in his head, but he admits that Webstein’s Dictionary might be the most mainstream. “One is Erroritca, like the word error. It’s about things people think are hot and sexy, but really aren’t.”

For now, Stein is pleased with the response he’s gotten to Webstein’s and enjoying helping people Yiddish-ize their lives via the book and his blog. When he’s not thinking up new plays on words, he’s hanging out with his wife, three children and two dogs in Evanston.

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The Yiddishizer himself, with his family on Halloween

You can find Webstein’s Dictionary at numerous locations around the city, including Spertus and online at Pop Judaica.

8 Questions for Annice Moses and Mike Rosenthal: Urban Renewers, Herbivores, Mini-Van Drivers

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01/13/2009

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Annice Moses and Michael Rosenthal, with help from friends and neighbors, took Englewood teenagers on a trip to Washington D.C. There they met with some of the nation's leaders and saw the sights. 

Some people talk about making the world a better place. Other people just do it, in their own unassuming way. For Annice Moses and Mike Rosenthal, this means taking I-94 from their home in Glencoe and investing their time, hearts and money in their adopted community, Englewood. In a neighborhood where liquor stores double as food stores and fresh produce is scarce, Mike’s passion is the community garden. And last March, inspired by a story in  People magazine, Annice rounded up 30 high school kids – most of whom had never left Englewood – and boarded a plane to DC on a whirlwind advocacy mission. Three days later, Annice and Mike flew home with 30 tired teens who now understood that some people talk about making the world a better place, and others just do it.

So whether you put your passions to action, your dogs walk you, or you just wish for a good night’s sleep, Annice Moses and Mike Rosenthal are Jews You Should Know.

1. What do you love about what you do?
Annice: I have a master’s in counseling and used to work with teens at Response Center. After our first son was born, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. Our brood has now grown to include – in order of acquisition: Sidney Oy (our yellow lab/Weimaraner mix), Milo (our black lab), BJ (age 7), Ryder (age 5), and Phoenix (age 3). In the spring, we are adopting a daughter from Ethiopia. (And how do the boys feel about that? They vacillate between being excited and suggesting we name her Poo Poo Head, depending on the day.) This is what I’ve always wanted – a big family, lots of noise and chaos, volunteer time, and the opportunity to infuse hippie, vegetarian, liberal views on unsuspecting dependents.
Mike: I help run Rosenthal Manufacturing, my family's business. As an engineer, I design and build custom machinery from start to finish. There is satisfaction in seeing something on paper come to life and be useful for someone else. And I love the flexibility it gives me to pursue my other passions – my family, biking, hiking, nonprofit work like Imagine Englewood If.
Annice: In other words, our sons love playing in piles of dirt. Whether that dirt is in our suburban backyard or in the serenity of the Englewood community garden, the boys don’t notice and don’t care. And we love that. Walking into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, a teen from Englewood told me he had never met a Jew besides “that guy on South Park.” I was like, that’s not a guy – that’s a cartoon. Walking out of the Holocaust Museum, the teens were so angered by the senseless persecution Jews faced because they were different, and it was an experience they, as African-Americans, could relate to.  That’s powerful, too.

2. What is your favorite blog or website?
Annice: Mike says he’s a “Facebook widower” if that gives you a clue.  All 266 of my bestest friends ever are on there. Needless to say, Mike is not my Facebook friend.
Mike: Ha’aretz – my favorite news source. It's how I look up stuff about Israel.

3. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
Annice: Australia, if for nothing else, to be surrounded by that excellent accent all day (although as a vegetarian, the food options might be a slim). Mike wanted to honeymoon in Africa, but at the time I was afraid to camp out with wild animals – I'm much more of a trooper these days.
Mike: I would take my family on a boat trip up the Amazon River – one of the last places untouched by human hands.

4. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Annice: Lauren Ambrose (Claire from  Six Feet Under ).
Mike: Benji – the dog.
Annice: He says it’s because he’s soft and cuddly, but in reality, Benji is the only pop culture icon Mike can name.

5. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
Annice: It’s hard to top the backyard barbeque when we first met each other and, of course, both opted for the veggie burger. We never let the fact that I was an ETHS grad and he was a New Trier grad get in our way.
Mike: Okay, we admit, we’re just stumped by this question.

6. What's your idea of the perfect day?
Annice: Waking up from a good night’s sleep, mint-green tea in my cup, my family buzzing around me happily, getting in a workout and some semi-trashy reality TV after the kids are sleeping, a bath and to bed! (So maybe a beer or glass of wine is in there somewhere.)
Mike: Waking up from a good night’s sleep, going on a family adventure where we all learn something new, a peaceful hike, and a nice chocolate dessert followed by dinner (dessert is always better when it's first) where no one complains about what they are eating and everyone goes to bed without a fuss.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
Mike:  A teacher or a community organizer. I like the idea of empowering people to make their lives better.
Annice: Running an overnight camp would be awesome, living there year-round with our kids, being a perpetual teenager as my official job.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Mike: Building a sukkah in our yard every year.
Annice: Two years ago, Mike slept overnight with the boys in the sukkah and ended up with walking pneumonia. So now we limit our sukkah-dwelling activities to my favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago: eat, eat and more eat.

All Thaied Up

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01/13/2009

Thalia Spice
833 W. Chicago
www.thaliaspice.com

Rating: Three and a half stars

StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey StarStaceyHalf

Thalia Spice

Thalia Spice—adding a touch of class to Thai food

The old Sunday night take-out standby for members of the tribe used to be Chinese. I myself have nothing but fond memories of the Sunday nights of my childhood: waiting to watch whatever was the special Sunday Night Movie on network TV as my mom arranged the signature red and white cylinders and white trapezoidal boxes on wooden trays. We got to eat on television trays and drink pop instead of milk—Sunday nights were special.

The menu was comforting and always from a minimal rotation of favorite dishes. Egg rolls, bbq pork, won ton soup for the kids and hot and sour soup for the grownups. Sweet and sour chicken, in its reddish brown sauce, filled with sweet chunks of canned pineapple, the occasional maraschino cherry, and crisply fried pieces of chicken. Mongolian beef, moo shu pork, cashew chicken. Egg foo young for dad. Fried rice. Almond cookies if we were feeling particularly festive. That is pretty much it. And frankly, until the late 1980s, that was pretty much it for Asian food in general.

When I saw the sushi display at a teenage house party in the movie Valley Girl, I had never heard of it before. But by the time Molly Ringwald tucked into her California roll at lunchtime in The Breakfast Club, sushi was making its way into regular rotation. Not for Sunday night delivery, it rarely travels well, but certainly it became part of our dining with fair consistency. The 1990s brought an Asian explosion here in Chicago, and our palates followed right along. Mongolian BBQ, Korean kim chee, Vietnamese Pho, even regional Chinese cuisine which is far more subtly nuanced than the fried and sticky sweet dishes of my childhood. But nothing made a dent in the delivery department.

Until Thai food came along.

The key to Sunday night dinner is the perfect combination of ease, affordability and comfort. And Thai food, with its soothing noodles, warming soups and curries, and wide variety of appetizers fits the bill perfectly. It doesn’t replace the nostalgia I have for those Sunday night Chinese dinners, but these days I’m far more likely to spend my Sunday nights with a cucumber salad and pad see ew with chicken.

I had always relegated Thai food into that sort of casual Sunday night take-out noodle shop mode, and never really thought much about it. Until I dined at Thalia Spice, a high-end restaurant at Chicago and Green that has introduced me to a whole different side of Thai.

The restaurant is separated into two rooms, and the décor lacks the usual kitsch, opting instead for simple surroundings. The owner, Anna, is likely to be the one greeting you at the door, and she is a dynamo in a tiny package, assuring you that anything you need or want will be taken care of.

I have eaten at Thalia Spice several times, and the service is always impeccable, the food delicious, and the prices very affordable.

Some highlights for me:

The Volcano soup (which they always obligingly make for me with chicken instead of seafood) is creamy and tart with a gentle back of the throat heat and perfect seasoning.  A green papaya salad will change your thoughts about papaya forever, and the banana blossom salad is a totally unique taste sensation that is worth checking out. While I am usually not one for wraps and rolls as I am not much of a raw fish girl, I changed my mind when Anna insisted I try a sweet potato roll…the combination of seasoned rice and soft sweet potato, wrapped in seaweed and topped with a creamy sauce made a believer out of me. The Sake bbq ribs are a more sophisticated version of the bbq pork from my childhood, and they even have egg rolls and gyoza if you can’t survive without dumplings and little crispy things before your meal.

Standard Thai fare is elevated here, the noodles perfectly cooked and seasoned, everything impeccably fresh. But as satisfying as the basics are, I highly recommend branching out. The Yaya Noodles, spinach noodles stir fried with veggies and your choice of meat, are a new favorite vying for my attention with my beloved pad see ew. And the honey roasted duck is a celebration. I’m not much of a curry fan, but my friends who are swear by all of Thalia’s versions. And I dare you to be able to tell me which of the five fried rice versions is your favorite. And in case you have a dining companion who isn’t feeling much like Thai, they also have a full selection of sushi and sashimi with some very inventive rolls.

They do a great lunch special, affordable and quick; enough food to keep you going but not make you a nap when you get back to work.

And yes. They do take out and delivery, in case you want to check them out some Sunday night.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

Oy38Nosh black pepper

Use Korean Black Garlic to add some Asian flare to your dishes

NOSH of the week: Staying in the Asian mode, my new favorite ingredient...Korean Black Garlic. These sweet fermented cloves taste like a combination of fig, roasted garlic, and balsamic vinegar, and have the texture of dried dates. I love them on soft cheeses like chevre or brie, chopped fine into dips like tapenade for a little something special, and blended into butter with salt and pepper that I then put under the skin of a chicken before I roast it. www.blackgarlic.com

NOSH food read of the week:  The Whole World Over  by Julia Glass

The Pow! ep

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le Bam’s DIY CD Release
01/13/2009

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The le Bam girls 

I invited Libby, Stef and the rest of the Oy! team to my band’s CD release show this coming weekend and the next thing I knew they wanted me to write a story about releasing a record. Well, see the thing is…it is not really a CD release, at least not by traditional standards: we haven’t signed a record deal, we’re not on a major — or any — label. Like many people, we like writing music and because of our access to technology and rubber stamps, my BFF Erin (the other half of le Bam) were able to record an ep of six of our favorite songs — poppy, tongue-in-cheek, melodic works of (he)art. We embraced every DIY idea that came to mind and are having our CD release party this Saturday.

We le Bam girls have a little experience in trying to break into the music industry. It is hard and has nothing to do with how talented you are. Well, it helps to be talented, but you also have to know the right people and be blessed with a little luck. We’ve played in a few different bands together over the past nine years, the last of which, mabel, was pretty serious. For four years, we wrote songs, played shows, networked, sent out press kits, went on tour and finally felt like we were getting our name out there. In the end, like so many other groups, inner band drama got the best of us and we broke up. (Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we weren’t big enough to be profiled by VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’.)

Erin and I wanted to keep writing songs together but instead of trying to “make it,” our mantra became “let’s write music because it’s fun and we love it.” So we started doing that and recruited Larry the Laptop (aka Erin’s powerbook) so we could have drum, bass, and other electronic elements in our songs. We were having fun, loving our new songs, and we had the most reliable bassist and drummer two girls could ask for!

We both love recording (find me a musician who doesn’t), so we decided to record a few of our favorite songs written in the past year or so. We chose six and turned Erin’s living room into our own cozy (if drafty) recording studio. Erin played sound engineer and I played the newbie singer who never recorded vox before. She played her keyboards. I played my electric cello. She sang. I sang. We tweaked Larry’s parts. We mixed. We listened. A lot. It was the most fun I’ve had for awhile. We didn’t start out thinking we’d have a CD release show at all, but then we surprised ourselves by actually liking what we recorded.

We bought recycled cardboard sleeves and pooled our selection of stamping gear. Crafting nights galore as we stamped and stenciled ‘le Bam’ on the front and ‘pow!’ on the back of all the sleeves. The CD labels have a sweet little stamped message for each listener. Even the lyrics are hand written and slide out of the sleeve for your reading pleasure.

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Pow!

I was telling my mom about the CD awhile back and she asked me what the songs were about. In explaining them to her I realized that among other things, the central themes seem to focus on relationships, sex and apathy. For example:

Track One: Whiskey and Water. A celebration of ‘the crush’ – really, it is an artform.

Track Two: Worst Best I Ever Had. Ever had a one-night stand that lasted three months? Whoops.

Track Three: 3-14-06.  Becoming frustrated about being apathetic – a contradiction in song.

Track Four: The Lonely Star. The misunderstood outcast of our solar system gets revenge.

Track Five: The Wedding. Don’t be fooled, the first line is “death is a funny thing.”

Track Six: The Unfortunate Love Song. We end on a happy note – giving in to falling in love with someone you desperately tried not to fall in love with.

So now we have a CD and we want to share it with our friends and fans and possibly a few select people in the actual music industry. But I can’t really tell you about releasing a CD in the typical way where you have a label and a manager and a producer and a lawyer and all of that. We are being very bohemian about the release of our le Bam ep.

So what are we going to do with it? We are going to send it to a few people here and there and continue to write and play the music we love. Hopefully our little beloved DIY album will be enjoyed by other people — maybe even people we’re not related to and who don’t live with us.

If you come to the show on Saturday, it will be the usual le Bam spectacle featuring all the songs on the CD as well as a few that we didn’t record – the vampire song (there is screaming) and black is the new black (there is swearing) to name a couple crowd favorites – and of course, matching outfits. Hope to see you there.

le Bam CD Release Show - Pow!
Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 9:00 p.m.
Silvie's Lounge, 1902 Irving Park Rd - Chicago, IL
Free cd to the first five le Bam fans.

Cancer Fighters

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01/06/2009

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The whole family on our cancer-free cruise to Alaska

In May of 2006, I graduated from college and prepared to enter The Real World. I’d been readying myself mentally for months like most of my peers. After a quick trip to Israel, I came home and started my first job at a big PR firm in June. By August, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Lakeview. I was self sufficient, spending weekends with friends, exploring over 21 life in the city, and in the throes of a wonderful, exciting new relationship. I was following “my plan.”  I thought I was all set, and that I was a real adult.

And then my perfect vision of independent adult life came crashing down. Following my 23rd birthday in October, my mom was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. The doctors told us it had already spread to several of her lymph nodes and that she would need immediate surgery, followed by courses of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

My family is very close. My mom is the center of this universe. My universe. I’m her only child (my sisters are from my dad’s first marriage) and we’ve always been extremely close. How could this happen to the most important person in my life?

I can’t begin to express what it feels like to learn that your mother’s health, well being and general existence in your life is really, seriously, suddenly threatened. To say that I (and the rest of my family) took my mom’s ability to be that center for granted would be a huge understatement.

My mom is the type of mother who when I called to complain about a particularly stressful week in school would fly out from Chicago to upstate New York for the weekend accompanied by my dog, a few books and her Sudoku puzzles to sit in the school library and keep me company while I studied for many straight hours.

The sudden fear of losing her took over my life and the lives of my sisters, my dad, my aunts, my cousins, so many people who always turned to her first in any crisis.

The first few weeks following the diagnosis are still a blur. It was hard for any of us to think. My mom told us from the start that she didn’t want to listen to all of the dire medical pronouncements (I learned quickly that doctors refuse to be even slightly optimistic).

She needed us to go to be her ears, to meet and to interview several oncologists and surgeons before we, as a family, choose a course of action. This was the first time that my mom had really asked us for help. We all immediately reacted. My sister cancelled her family vacation. My aunt flew in for an indefinite stay from San Diego. I got time off from the new job that had seemed so important a few short months before. For the first time ever, we rallied around my mom.

We turned into a mini army. We marched into each doctor’s office with our different assignments. My lawyer sister asked the tough questions, “Why won’t you do annual cat scans to check for new tumors?” My aunt taped and transcribed every meeting. Needless to say, we weren’t always popular with the doctors. More than one doctor told us that he had never before seen such a large group continuously show up at appointment after appointment to support my mom and berate him with questions.

There were a lot of tears shed for a lot of months by people who I don’t usually see cry. There were a few laughs too and many I love yous. We learned quickly (and this is the best advice I can offer anyone else facing cancer) that the one thing you can’t ever do is look back. That was the one rule that kept us all sane for months. Once a course of treatment had been decided and started, we didn’t ever question that decision.

In the end, collectively, we got through it. After my mom’s final radiation treatment, 17 members of my family boarded a celebratory cancer-free cruise to Alaska. It was the beginning of a party that included a trip to Hawaii and culminated in my mom’s 60th birthday bash.

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Enjoying family dinner aboard the cruise

For a long time, it didn’t seem like things could ever calm down, but they did. And while we all live with the fear of the cancer coming back, we are returning to normalcy. And we’ve learned as a family that we can cope with anything.

My mom once again is leading the pack. She and her nutritionist have successfully convinced my family to adopt a much healthier lifestyle. We all, to varying degrees, eat organic. My mom has lost a great deal of weight. She sports a cute, short, all white, hair-do.  And she looks great--the best that I can remember.

I also have a new outlook on my so-called adult life. I’ve learned to be slightly more independent and I try not to turn to my parents for everything. It took me 25 years to realize that my parents aren’t invincible. Parents age, they get older and they turn to you for support and strength. I still struggle with this whole growing up thing. I can’t pay my own taxes or make most big decisions without consulting my mom first, but I found out that I can really be there for her now too.

I realize that being an adult is a lot more than excelling in school, getting a job, an independent income and an apartment. It’s about facing tough realities and coping with the unexpected wrench in the plans. I’ve been through bad and I can handle almost anything.

Last week, during one of the more treacherous snow storms, my mom woke me up at 6:00 in the morning from her vacation in South Florida to tell me to be extra careful on the roads. This type of overprotective, Jewish mother call before the cancer would have annoyed me to no end, but now it’s one that makes me very happy…and grateful.

Hebrew Roots

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An author finds language is intimately tied to Jewish identity 
01/06/2009

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Author Ilan Stavans at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies
Photo Credit: Jeremy Lawson


Growing up in a Yiddish-speaking community in Mexico City, Ilan Stavans experienced a variety of linguistic conundrums. As a child, each language was assigned a role – Spanish for public life, Yiddish for private, Hebrew for religious – those distinctions left an indelible mark on the author, linguist and lexicographer Stavans would become.

Today, he believes language is fluid and flexible, able to adapt to any situation.

“I don’t believe that language is at any point static or stable. Only a dead language does not change,” says Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts and the author of several novels, collections of short stories and academic treatises. “A living language lends and borrows. The health of a language can be registered in its contact with other languages.”

Stavans personal journey to find the life of his dormant Hebrew, which he learned as a teenager and spoke during a year’s sojourn in Israel, is chronicled in his latest book,  Resurrecting Hebrew , which is part of the “Jewish Encounters” series from Schocken Books. More than simply a linguistic memoir, the book also attempts to map the path of Hebrew from the sacred language of the Torah to the modern tongue spoken by millions. Stavans spoke about this book and other linguistic journeys at a recent Nextbook presentation at Spertus Institute.

It all starts with a dream. In it, Stavans meets a woman who speaks a foreign – yet familiar – language to him. Once Stavans figures out that the mysterious language is Hebrew, he realizes that he had what a friend would later call “language withdrawal.” The same friend also introduces Stavans to Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s autobiography, written in Hebrew, of course.

We might remember from Sunday school lessons that Ben Yehuda can be credited with revitalizing Hebrew and bringing it from the realm of the sacred to the everyday. Ben Yehuda saw Hebrew as the antithesis to Yiddish, which stood for everything early Zionists did not want to embrace: assimilation and persecution, Stavans says.

Yet today’s Hebrew is far different from the language Ben Yehuda helped to revive. As Stavans points out, if Ben Yehuda heard Hebrew spoken today, “he would be totally shocked.” Today’s Hebrew is influenced by the communities of its speakers: native-born Israelis (sabras), Mizrahi Jews, Russian Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazi Jews. And Arabic and English have infused both slang and everyday terms into Hebrew.

“Ben Yehuda wanted to go back to the original sacred language and expand it to the needs of today,” Stavans says. “But the purity [of language] that he celebrated he wouldn’t find today.”

This very mixture of linguistic traditions – one that Ben Yehuda would have abhorred – fascinates Stavans. Before resurrecting his own relationship to Hebrew, Stavans spent years studying Spanglish, the hybrid of English and Spanish spoken largely by immigrants from Latin America. While English is the language of public communication, many Latinos retain Spanish for private interaction among family and friends. Still, English makes inroads into that sphere with new concepts introduced into the more traditional Spanish.

Stavans’ interest in Spanglish is the direct outgrowth of his Yiddish upbringing. The 1960s Bundist – socialist Zionist – community of Stavans’ childhood saw Yiddish as “the ticket to identity.” Yet Yiddish itself is a hybrid language, mixing traces of Biblical Hebrew with vernacular German. And as Yiddish teachers died or retired, Israeli schlichim (Jewish Agency emissaries) replaced them, bringing with them a new dimension to an already convoluted language identity, Stavans says.

The boundaries between languages became fainter as Yiddish began to disappear, too. The juxtaposition of being a Mexican and a Jew became symbolic of the past, only to be replaced by the feeling that the community was not doing enough Jewishly, Stavans says. After all, the ultimate goal of learning this new language – Hebrew – was aliya. “Resurrecting Hebrew” dwells on the relationship between Israel and Jews outside it as much as it recalls the history of the actual language.

“Hebrew is the DNA carrier of who Jews are,” Stavans says. “It is a language carrying secrets that enable our people to survive.”

And yet, for all we know, this moment in Hebrew’s history is only the cradle of a new, powerful tradition, Stavans says. And who knows might happen in the next millennia?

The next Nextbook at Spertus event will feature Ariel Sabar, author of My Father’s Paradise Sunday, Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. A book signing will follow the talk.

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