OyChicago articles

8 Questions for Aviva Gibbs, Political Junkie, Theater Buff, Target Lover

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Aviva, doing it all

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a theater degree, Aviva Gibbs landed a development job at the Goodman Theater. As a hobby, she volunteered for political campaigns; then, one afternoon, she got a tip from a friend about a job opening as Chief of Staff for an Illinois State Representative. She wrote an email to Rep. John Fritchey, convincing him that her theater degree qualified her to be his Chief of Staff.  After three years in Rep. Fritchey’s office, Aviva made the jump to the corporate world, becoming a Senior Account Executive at Resolute Consulting, a public affairs and communications firm.

But she didn’t leave her theater degree too far behind.  Aviva can be spotted performing at bars all over the city, singing jazz and bluegrass music.  With what’s left of her free time, Aviva is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from DePaul University.

So, if you too have charted your own course in life, wish there was a mute button for unruly shoppers, or enjoy Sunday brunch at The Bagel, Aviva Gibbs is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
For a while, I wanted to be a lawyer. Or rather, my grandparents wanted me to be a lawyer. Then I wanted to be a performer. And then a politician. But I repeat myself.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I work with smart people and learn something about something from every project; no two days are the same which keeps me on my toes. My job also allows me to take a giant step back from a usually-complex situation and see several points of view, which is a unique and disarming place to stand.

3. What are you reading?
I keep restarting  The World is Flat , but get distracted by about nine newspapers and 17 blogs every day. I read it when it came out a few years ago, and think he issued a “3.0” update which I bet is pretty darn good.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
There are too many favorites to choose from. I like the popular, rated restaurants – the Fronteras, the Petterino’s – but I always fall for the neighborhood spots. Feast for brunch, Sola for shortribs, Nandu for empanadas, Club Lucky for dinner, and the S&G Restaurant for the best Sunday morning skillets in town. And that was just last weekend.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
This is going to sound harsh, but a remote that could mute screaming children would be amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like kids, but sometimes a girl just wants to go to Target in peace, you know? Come to think of it, let’s make it work on adults too.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Invisibility, so I could actually be that fly on the wall.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
It might run the gamut, but I’ll stand behind everything in my iPod! Then again, I'm Jewish, and we feel guilty about most things, right?

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
It’s a toss up between The Bagel and Wrigley Field. Nana never wrote down her recipe for brisket (or many things, for that matter) so until I can figure it out, I’ll go to the Bagel. As for Wrigley, let’s just say it’s taught me a lot more about faith than my seven years of Hebrew School.

The Entertainer

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T.J. Shanoff does it all 


T.J.’s super serious headshot

Whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it too has not been in the shoes of T.J. Shanoff. He is passionate about his work, has never had a day job, owns a home in the city he loves, travels the world and has a flexible schedule. Jealous?

So what does he do? Apparently, it’s complicated, says T.J.: “If after I tell you, if you could please call my mother and let her know…I’m serious, would you?”

So this story goes out to T.J.’s mom.

In no particular order, T.J. is…

A Director

T.J. is the co-creator and director of Jewsical! The Musical , a sketch comedy show about Jewish life and culture for all ages, with songs of course (see A Musician, below). “One of the biggest projects I’m proud of is Jewsical. We just did a run in Michigan – we’ve been touring the country for three years."

Revamping and touring Jewsical is the next big thing on T.J.’s plate. After the last tour – “mostly in crappy rental cars with cassette decks” – he learned that the show can be easily customized to the venue and event. “One of the fun things about Jewish society is that it never stagnates- there’s always something going on. We want to make the show elastic.”

T.J. directs many other shows for Second City. He just returned from a Second City gig on a Norwegian cruise line where he directed a new show. Though he was only on the ship for eight days, the show will run for four months. He’s set to direct another cruise ship show in the Bahamas this January.

A Corporate Talk Show Host

Second City often sends T.J. on MC or hosting missions for corporate events all across the country. For this type of show, a 45-60 minute classic Second City show gets intertwined with scenes written specifically for that company. He’ll host meetings or talk shows for big events where he’ll interview the CFO or the Company’s President about serious topics and make them entertaining. Just back from Richmond, VA, he will soon visit Arizona and Florida during our coldest months.

A Chicagoan

On why he lives in Chicago: “It’s a simple answer. I grew up here, in the Gold Coast – though I hate calling it that – right by the Latin school. Since I’ve been a kid I loved the city. Almost every close friend I grew up with lives here still. If a job came up I would go, but I’m not looking to move. I’m very content here. And I’m a die hard Cubs fan.”

A Musician

Though he doesn’t gig in the typical sense, T.J. incorporates his piano skills as a musical director, song writer and on-stage performer in many Second City shows.


T.J. directing Jewsical! The Musical on the road in West Palm Beach

A Writer

T.J. and another Second City writer work with theaters in other cities to write shows that blend classic Second City scenes with custom scenes about that city.

The two writers do research in the city for three days. They tour the city with tour guides who take them to all the touristy places that the locals never go to. This is not helpful in writing a funny show for the people of the town, so instead of paying attention to the locations, they listen to what the tour guides are saying – what they like to do, where they like to go, how they feel about the political spectrum. That insight is what gives them good material for the show. A custom show at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta just closed and got great reviews. “What’s really funny is at least one review said, ‘we were so offended that these two Chicago writers were coming in to write the show and then we saw it and we loved it.’”

A Camp Lover

T.J. is co-creator of the website mycampfriends.com discussed in depth here. One friend from camp now writes for the Colbert Report and talks about how camp makes you a stud, even if you’re not one back home. Eventually he sees this site as “the ultimate destination for all things camp.”

An Entertainer

Above all, T.J. calls himself an entertainer. (Anyone else hearing a Scott Joplin piece right now?) “One month I’m a musical director, one month I’m performing, in a good month I’m doing everything.”

The second project he’s most proud of is “The Roof Is On Fiddler,” a parody that he co-wrote and directed. The show uses the original script of Fiddler on the Roof, but with songs from the 80’s instead. Like a Virgin or the Who’s the Boss Theme might surprise you after a tearful scene, leaving you crying tears of laughter by the end of the show. It was a hit at Improv Olympic in 2001, playing every Thursday at midnight.

The projects he is most proud of are Jewishly themed, not surprising considering his strong affiliation to cultural Judaism. “I’m by no means the most religious of Jews, but I’m very culturally Jewish and tremendously respectful and proud of my Judaism. It’s not a coincidence that the two things I’m most proud of are Jewsical and Fiddler.”

What future entertainment does T.J. have in store for us? “I have a couple of projects coming up – one hopefully on television with the Second City. That’s all I can say for now.”

This is only a snapshot of what T.J. does. T.J.’s mom, take note. He has also been a radio personality, a lyricist, and a talk show co-host. That said, his self-assigned professional title of Entertainer seems to encompass it all.

Asshole, Part 2

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The Redemption of a Former Jackass 


Irving Flashman, asshole no more

They may not have taught you this in Hebrew School, but the number forty is the gematria , the mystical numerological value, for the Hebrew word for “asshole.”  I know this because I’m a former asshole myself.

She moved to my town for the start of junior year. And so began my serial transgression of our sacred commandments.

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But what if a particular, rather humorless stranger just tumbles in from the boonies with a giant stick wedged up her scrawny behind? And honestly, does it really count as “wronging” said stranger, in the true, biblical sense, if you merely slap her books out of her hands and kick them across the floor at the bottom of a crowded stairwell? During her first week in a new school?

You shall not be a gossipmonger among the people. What the hell does this mean to a high school asshole—part baseball jock, part AP geek, but complete jerkoff? That I was supposed to get a fucking DNA sample before trafficking the rumor (starting the rumor, perpetuating the rumor, let’s not split hairs) that she banged the stud linebacker in the school library?

You shall not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is shed. Of course not. But if I stood idled while my friends wiped boogers on her pizza that night at Buffo’s, it wasn’t out of indifference to her gustatory suffering (at least not total indifference); it was only because I was paralyzed by laughter. Oh get over it, I don’t even think she kept kosher.

Luckily for me, you don’t need a conscience to earn a diploma; and by the time we graduated, I had broken easily one-third of the commandments over her clenched ass.

The former things shall not be remembered. Or maybe they shall. I saw her only once after that, seven or eight years later, in downtown Highland Park, a few blocks from the scene of the crime, the scene of my crime. We made small talk. Very small talk. I remembered. And she remembered. How could we not?

And the wolf shall dwell—or at least kibitz—with the lamb. Then one day, maybe five years after that encounter, she sent me an email. I paraphrase:  “I’m bored  today. I googled you. Are you still an asshole?” Stalker? Post-Traumatic Jewish Stockholm Syndrome? Neither, as it turns out. Just someone wanting an answer. I responded by saying I was sorry. No excuse, no explanation. Just an apology. And maybe a taunt or two, for old-time’s sake, but mostly an apology.

And while we would later debate (Did I mention that we’re best friends now? That we debate now? Mainly idiotic things like the utility of such words as “ass face” and “douche bag,” but that we debate now?) the difference between apologizing and asking for forgiveness, the truth is that she had given me a pass a long time ago. A pass I didn’t earn or deserve.

Is there a lesson in all this? I think there is:  Don’t be an asshole. People can change. Cherish your friendships.

Asshole, Part 1

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What happens when you befriend your bully

Dana Rhodes, her Sweet 16 . . . eh, not so sweet  

I coerced my dear friend " Irving " into writing a story with me about how he used to be my bully. I told him he had to get off his lawyerly ass and write something creative about himself being an asshole a long, long time ago. That's exactly what I told him.

Yes, you have five kids to schlep to Sunday school. Five kids, a goddamn migraine, impatient clients and a mouse on the loose in your twice-flooded, newly finished basement. No, you haven't written anything since high school other than legal briefs, checks to your plumber and a shitload of email to me. Yes, this will require you to expose to the universe the fact that, once upon a time, you were not very nice. (Okay, a complete dick, prick and otherwise schmuck.) Yes, you may use a penname, if you insist, wuss.

At first he said, Whatever . But when I pulled out the big fat guilt card, the one that read: This will be your payback for 23 years ago when you were my bully , he surrendered. And I quote Irving Flashman, at 8:46 PM on 9/18/08: I will not let you down .

That alone should have signaled that this was about more than Oy!Chicago. But no, I - in my bionic stoicism, in my blinding blindness, in my astounding short-sightedness -- just thought this would be our funny little story with all of our favorite swear words. He was her bully and now he's her friend, how sweet.

Let's face it, folks. High school sucks, even for the most well adjusted among us. Try transferring to  Highland Park High School  your junior year with an Indiana twang, a chip on your shoulder, and your own private asshole seated one desk to your right in Mr. Larson's fifth period creative writing class.

We both liked to write. We both had a serious amount of respect for  Holden Caulfield , we both hated trigonometry, and both our dads were doctors. But the similarities seemed to end there.

How ironic that he was the son of a cardiologist and I was the daughter of a pulmonologist. He had no heart. I held my breath.

His asshole friends jumped on his bully bandwagon and the next 15 months passed in a blur of spit. Spit, insults, threats, lies, a Ford Bronco coming straight at me in the school parking lot. You get the ugly picture.

Or maybe you don't. My Oy! editors say you don't - they want me to delve deeper into my painful memories for the sake of art. Fine. Join me for a little walk through the halls of HPHS in March of 1986. There's Irving, blocking my locker with a desk as he's done every day for the past two months. When he comments on my chicken legs, don't answer. When he asks if I really had sex with J.S. in the school library, just stand there and stare at him.  Eventually the bell will ring and Irving will leave, we'll grab my books for U.S. History and on our way to class, his dumbass friend will punch me in the arm hard enough to throw me off balance. Don't blink.

One hour later, if you retrieve the crumpled up piece of paper that I've tossed in the trash can of room 212, U.S. History, it is probably says something like, Corners, hunched shoulders, take up less space. Tremble, voice tapers, keep a stone face. But this isn't a fucking poetry blog.

As my colleague and fellow Oy!ster Aaron Cohen so eloquently recounted, if someone slaps you in the face with a rotting fish, you may come to hate  fish . But let's expand the list of options. Maybe you'll hate the guy swinging the fish. Or maybe you'll hate yourself.  If someone slaps you in the face with a rotting fish, maybe you'll smear the fish guts back in his face or maybe you'll run in the opposite direction, in search of a place where marine life does not exist.

For a longer time than I care to admit, I wondered what was wrong with me . And for a longer time than I care to admit, I chose neither fight nor flight. I chose silence.

It was a silence I didn't break for 13 years. Until one random day I had some downtime, and I Googled Irving without thinking, and I emailed him without thinking, and he wrote right back.

>>>"Rhodes, Dana" 12/15/00 04:17 PM >>>

So Irving Flashman. All I can say by way of introduction is things get slow here on Friday afternoons. You start playing around on the Internet. You plug in the name of some schmuck from high school, for no apparent reason. And you find yourself writing an email to an associate at The Law Offices of Blankstein, Blankberg, and Blank, fully aware that there is no client who can be billed for the time it is going to take to read this. . .

For the record, Mr. Blankstein, Mr. Blankberg and Mr. Blank, on December 15, 2000, I wasn't swinging rotten fish nor was I fishing for an apology. But 34 minutes later, I got one.

>>>"Flashman,  Irving" 12/15/00 04:51 PM >>>

Of course I remember you. Before tapping in one more word, in case I haven't already done it, I apologize for the torment my degenerate friends and I subjected you to what seems like so long ago. The touching use of the word schmuck in your e-mail suggests to me that perhaps I failed to do this before. In any event, for future reference, I prefer the term asshole. . .

Can an asshole grow up to be a mensch? Can a misguided mensch behave like an asshole?  It seems the answer might be yes, because from that day on, we were friends. And like any friends, we share our silly observations, our dreams and disappointments, and our crazy antics which reveal how similar we actually are. After all, in times of quiet desperation, don't we all make into a toilet that which otherwise appears to be a Pringles can, the Governor's lawn, the back stairwell of the Hyatt Regency?

The profane and the sacred. The profound and pathetic. The prophetic and prolific. That's us.

In a noble but unsuccessful last ditch effort to get out of writing Asshole with me, Irving asked what our story had to do with Living Jewishly and Oy!Chicago .  It's not a D'var fucking Torah, I told him. Enough with the scripture, I told him. We are just two Jewish Chicagoans with a story to tell. We are two imperfect, potty-mouthed 39-year olds who - besides swearing - leave a lot unsaid. We are two writer wannabes and devoted parents with unanswered questions swimming around in our heads as we type away on our computers at ungodly hours, hoping our own kids do better than we did. Hoping they learn to look past people's differences. Hoping they learn to forgive - themselves and others.

After 15 months of torment, 13 years of silence, 986 variations of the word asshole, and 8 years of friendship, Dana coerced Irving into writing a story with her. He didn't let her down. See  Asshole, Part 2 .

Embracing Your Inner Cheekiness

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New site celebrates cosmopolitan women, Chicago and cheekiness 


The ‘cheeky’ founders, Jessica Zweig and Erica Bethe Levin

For the CheekyChicago.com founders, it was food at first sight.

Erica Bethe Levin and Jessica Zweig had become fast friends after bonding over their shared love for food. In March, Zweig had dined at a new Chicago restaurant the night before and was gabbing to her friend and co-worker, Levin, all about it the next day on the job at the gym where they worked. In addition to their love for food, they shared other interests too. “We just clicked over being girls and going out in Chicago, trying new restaurants, and having fun,” says Zweig, a lifelong Chicagoan, originally from Highland Park.

Their mutual passion for Chicago hotspots propelled them to spend six hours that same March evening on Zweig’s couch—with a stack of post-it notes and a bottle of bubbly—and flesh out ideas for a new website, which would later morph into CheekyChicago.com.

“We came up with the idea of Cheeky—to be perfectly honest—because we both love to eat,” says Levin. “The idea evolved from restaurant reviews into something much bigger and all encompassing. Cheeky is a one-stop shop for information on restaurants, nightlife, health, fitness, sex, relationships, theater, music, you name it.”

Launched in October, CheekyChicago.com is an online magazine for, by, and about the women of Chicago. The founders—both Jewish 20-something Chicagoans with backgrounds in journalism, theater and public relations—hope the site becomes the ultimate guide for Chicago cosmopolitan women and a way to share the frenetic and “fabulous” city of Chicago.

Levin and Zweig write all the reviews on restaurants, nightlife, and theater themselves. They strive not to slam people in mean-spirited critiques, but focus on the best of Chicago, both newcomer restaurants and entertainment and hidden gems that have been around for years. The founders feel they have something to say because they are regular Chicago women, not professional reviewers. “We’re real people,” says Levin, a Chicago transplant from West Palm Beach, who originally moved here to attend Northwestern University. “We’re not trained in the culinary arts and we didn’t go to school for theater criticism. We’re just two girls who love this city and love to eat and see good shows and drink good wine and we want other women to experience that too.”

While there are many other hip Chicago sites, according to the founders, there’s really no other site reaching out exclusively to this niche demographic in Chicago. “We saw a big void for something like,” says Zweig. “There’s Metromix and Yelp and Daily Candy, and other city-centric resources that sort of touch on female issues and sort of don’t. Some sites are business-focused focused or fashion-focused. Yet, there’s nothing that really covers the gamut for women to enjoy and take something from.”

The homepage—a calendar of Chicago happenings—changes every week, while rotating columnists write features and advice columns on topics including politics, celebrities, wine, relationships, health, and sex. The site also features an open forum that poses daily questions for readers to respond to such as “Where is one city you would like to go live in for three months, purely for fun, and why?” CheekyChicago also offers promotions and discounts for women who navigate the site. Outside of the virtual world, CheekyChicago plans to throw real-world gatherings a couple of times a month, intimate events such as a chef tasting dinner and bigger parties including fashion shows and an upcoming holiday party.

In addition to their love of food and Chicago, Levin and Zweig shared the bond of their Jewish identity right off the bat. They felt an immediate connection, they say, when they met because they were both Jewish. “There was an instant familiarity between us and a sense of “home” because of our mutual heritage,” said Zweig. “I felt like I had known Erica my whole life, because she reminded me of my whole life.”

So what’s so “cheeky” about CheekyChicago? The Levin and Zweig say they’re big fans of the word and it isn’t used often enough. They define “cheeky” on their site as “definitely bold; impudent and saucy.” Who is the cheeky chick? According to the founders, she is “fun, fabulous and fierce…chic, intelligent, and in-the-know…but most of all, she is the kind of woman who embraces, admires, respects, smiles at, and opens her heart to other fabulous chicks.”

In that spirit, the founders hope the site will act not only as a resource for Chicago women, but also will foster positive relationships between women in their real lives. “Women, in general, need to be more open and nicer to each other,” says Zweig. “It’s a weird epidemic in our younger culture that sometimes we can be closed off, judgmental, and threatened. We’re trying to say that—by being “cheeky”—you can be fabulous, intelligent, and have a great job, but, most importantly, it’s about who you are on the inside and being better to each other. That’s what being cheeky is all about.”

CheekyChicago will throw a holiday party at Hub 51 in Chicago from 6-9 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 17. The cost to attend is $45, which will cover food, drinks, and goodies. For details, visit  www.cheekychicago.com .

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