OyChicago articles

All She Wants to do is Dance

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Amy Williams, Niki Wilk, and Kareem Dixon in Michael Sherman's "The Letter" 

There was an extended pause in the conversation when I asked my husband, Joe, if he would like to join me at a dance performance last Saturday night. I have dragged my poor jock husband to countless musicals and plays, but never to a dance show. I could see the images swirling through his brain – scantily clad men slithering on the floor in a bizarre interpretive dance – and braced myself for the “no.”

It never came. Always the trooper (no pun intended), Joe tagged along to Innervation Dance Cooperative’s 2008 fall concert, Nothing in Common, at The Galaxie in Logan Square.

Much to Joe’s – and my – delight, Innervation’s roots are based in both dance and theater, so even we dance novices were able to follow and appreciate the stories told in each of the 10 dances. The company was founded in 1998 by Michael Sherman as Irreverence Dance + Theater, and the focus of the contemporary dance company was on storytelling. The group has evolved into a cooperative led by nine volunteers with diverse backgrounds including ballet, dance team and modern.

“That is one of the coolest parts about Innervation,” says Rachel Zanders, one of the nine members of the co-op. “It makes for a varied aesthetic. It’s cohesive, but still interesting.”


Rachel Zanders quit her day job and brings dance to the people

Rachel is a classically trained ballerina, donning her first pair of ballet slippers at age 2 and later spending as much time outside of school as she could at the studio.  While she majored in Comparative Literature at Haverford College, she minored in dance and kept it a central focus in her life. After college, she left a job at a publishing company because it didn’t allow her the time for dance.

Now working as a freelance writer/editor/proofreader (“whatever people will hire me to do with words,” she says), Rachel dedicates a large amount of her time to Innervation. Leading up to the performance we saw, the company rehearsed three nights a week practicing 10 pieces, unconnected by any common theme, hence the title of the show.


Julie Haller, Diana Stewart, Sandy Donahue, Mandy Work, and Shayna Bjerke in Elisa Carlson's "Club"

Much of the music and dancing evoked emotional responses in Joe and me, particularly numbers like The Letter, choreographed by Michael Sherman, a story of wartime loss through the eyes of a military wife, and Dark Dreams, choreographed by Shayna Bjerke, which was like watching a live version of our childhood nightmares. Pieces like Crooked, choreographed by Mandy Work, and over (and over), choreographed by Amy Williams, were joyous and just plain fun to watch.

The company’s latest project is re-mounting a dance version of the classic play Everyman, which they have set to the music of Led Zeppelin. Their goal is to bring the production to Chicago Public Schools along with  a study guide that teachers can use to introduce the show to students and prepare them for what they’re going to see.

“I really like being able to associate the arts with things students are learning in school, and make [dance] something that applies to them as opposed to something that people just do for entertainment,” says Rachel. “It’s something that actually pertains to them in their lives, and to all of us in our lives. We want to be sure to give them the opportunity to be exposed to the arts.”

With Nothing in Common behind them, the company is busy planning its next production, which they hope will be staged in a “real” theater (The Galaxie is a very cold studio space – I wore gloves the whole time, and Joe complained of losing all sensation in his butt). While they make their plans, I’m busy trying to come up with a new art form that I can introduce to Joe. He took so well to the musicals and the dancing that I have high hopes that we can enjoy an opera together some day.

Marla’s Mandel Bread

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Mother-daughter team launches mandel bread business, making one family’s beloved recipe available to all 


Marla’s Mandel Bread is run by mother-and-daughter team Marla Templer and Rachael Halstuk

For as long as Rachael Halstuk can remember, her mother’s mandel bread has been a constant in her life.

From age four, Halstuk acted as a young sous-chef to her mother, Marla Templer, helping her to prepare the mandel bread, a dessert often called the Jewish biscotti. And when Halstuk was away at Jewish summer camp, Templer would ship her daughter a bag of the goodies. “It would be 90 degrees and I would make the mandel bread last for four weeks hidden under my bed. I guess that’s kind of disgusting,” jokes Halstuk.

Two decades later, in 2007, the mother and now-grown daughter were trying to occupy themselves in the kitchen on a wintery Chicago day so Halstuk whipped up a batch of her mom’s mandel bread for her co-workers. Back at work, her colleagues “went crazy” for the treats, which got Templer and Halstuk to thinking.

For so long, loved ones had urged Templer, a nurse by trade, to sell her mandel bread, a centerpiece of every Jewish holiday meal at Templer’s home. “Over the years, family and friends have stopped by my house and the first thing they do is look in the kitchen for my mandel bread stash,” says Templer, of Highland Park. “It’s rare that I’m invited to a dinner party and not asked to bring my ‘famous recipe.’”

With her instincts in the kitchen and Halstuk’s head for business and entrepreneurship –skills she built by working in finance for five years, the mother-daughter team launched Marla’s Mandel Bread in April.


Marla’s Mandel Bread

Their mandel bread resembles Italian biscotti, but isn’t identical. Unlike its Italian counterpart which is made with no butter or oil, mandel bread is prepared with oil to give it a much lighter and crunchier texture and is coated with cinnamon sugar. “When the vast majority of people think of mandel bread, they think of a hard, more biscotti-like cookie that their grandparents made that was good, but not that great,” says Halstuk, who lives in Chicago where their business is based. “Ours has more of a contemporary twist to it and is more of a gourmet dessert as opposed to only something to dip in coffee and tea.”


Chocolate chip mandel bread

Baking is part of their family’s roots, tracing back to Templer’s grandfather, a baker who immigrated to America from Poland at the turn of the 20th century. He settled in Canton, Ohio where, ironically, he wanted to open a bagel shop. People laughed at his business idea because Canton had been a predominantly non-Jewish town and bagels were still considered a solely Jewish food. “He never opened his bagel shop, but in a way we are carrying on the family [baking] legacy with mandel bread,” said Halstuk.

Mandel bread, too, has its own long history. According to Wikipedia, mandel bread (also spelled as mandelbrodt, mandelbrot among other spellings) has Eastern European Jewish origins. Mandel bread, a twice-baked cake usually prepared in a loaf, translates literally to mean almond bread, but can be made with other ingredients as well.

Besides the mandel bread itself, another sweet byproduct of the business is the mother-daughter bonding time. “I’m 27 and my mother is old enough to be my mom,” says Halstuk. “Without the business, we wouldn’t get to spend as much time together. Yesterday afternoon, we got together for four hours and baked. It is work, but it never feels like work.”


Apricot and cranberry mandel bread

In addition to appealing to Jewish palates, Templer and Halstuk hope their mandel bread reaches a broader population of taste buds as well. “When I was a little girl, bagels were strictly a Jewish food and now they are everywhere,” says Templer. “When I was a little girl, I never heard of sushi and now it’s everywhere. Things become a part of the American culture because the culture is made up of so many different culture and we’re such a melting pot. I really want everyone to love the mandel bread.”

Marla’s Mandel Bread is available in the Chicago area at Sunset Foods, Goddess & Grocer, and Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand. The mandel bread is also available at  www.marlasmandels.com . If you order online by Dec. 31, 2008, you can receive 15% off your order. Enter the code “OY!CHICAGO” in the “Additional Information About Your Order” box at the website checkout to receive the discount. The discount will not appear at the checkout, but will be included in a receipt sent to you. 

8 Questions for Caroline Friduss and Jason Chess, foodies, gold coast dwellers, Oy!Chicago Lovers

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Jason and Caroline out and about in the city

Many of you have attended an Oy!Chicago gathering in the past and have gotten to know some of your fellow Oy!sters. Jason Chess and Caroline Friduss met and hit it off at the get together at Matilda last June, and the couple has since been inseparable. Caroline is a Registered Dietitian who works with the elderly as a nutritionist at Friendship Village (a retirement community) in Schaumburg. Jason, a recent West Bloomfield, Michigan transplant, is a Business Banking Officer and Assistant Vice President for National City Bank. The two have discovered that they share a lot in common. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that they live just a few short blocks apart in the Gold Coast, but it’s the second time they are close neighbors. Caroline grew up in the town next door (Bloomfield Hills) to Jason and lived there until she was eight and her family moved to Highland Park.

So, if you too are looking to meet new people, enjoy eating out or hate Chicago traffic, Caroline and Jason are Jews You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Jason: When I was really little I wanted to be a baseball player. Later, I wanted to be a CEO.
Caroline: I wanted to be a chef on the food network.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
Jason: Making a difference for my small business clients and networking to meet new people everyday.
Caroline: I love working within the healthcare field, knowing that I am helping people everyday.

3. What are you reading?
Jason: Crain’s Chicago Business and the RedEye.
Caroline:  Loving Frank  by Nancy Horan. It is the next book on my book club list.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Jason: It’s always hard to think of something on the spot because we always like to try something new. So we keep a list of restaurants we want to try. We just had sushi at Mirai, Indian at Veerasway, brunch at Bongo Room, and lunch at Steve’s Deli. And the next on our list is Le Lan.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
Jason: The ability to make it 75 and sunny every day.
Caroline: The ability to get to work with no traffic.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
Jason: Definitely invisible. I can always fly in an airplane.
Caroline: Probably fly. So I can fly to work.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Jason: Hungry Eyes from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
Caroline: Anything Kenny Chesney! I’m a country fan.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
Jason: My involvement at the Standard Club and being a member of the YLD board.
Caroline: Oy!Chicago, because I met Jason at the first Oy! event.

Wedding Woes

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The challenge of incorporating non-Jewish family into a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony 


A wedding of mixed religious faiths can be hard work.

A few years ago, I took the greatest risk of my life. I packed up my apartment in D.C., said goodbye to my friends and a great job, and moved to Cincinnati to be with my boyfriend, a Rabbinical student at HUC. The gamble paid off: two weeks after my move, he popped the question. After having dated for a little over five years, the engagement came as less than a surprise and more as a relief to our friends and family. (The relief on the side of my friends who were afraid they would have to carry out their threats and wind up in jail.)

To illustrate: my father’s response to our announcement was “Well, it’s about time.”  Describing my father as having an odd sense of humor is an understatement. Then, just to be clear what we were dealing with, he continued with: “I’m not going up in the chair, and I’m not wearing one of those hats.” Oy vey.

Let me explain: my husband is Jewish and, while dating my husband, I converted to Judaism. While my entire family has been overwhelmingly supportive of my religious choice, I knew that with my Jewish wedding, I had a challenge on my hands that went beyond finding a dress that didn’t make me look like the stay-puff marshmallow woman and didn’t cost more than my car. I needed to find a way to incorporate my Christian family into my Jewish wedding ceremony while respecting their personal boundaries and religious views.

Easier said than done. So many married couples I know can tell their own wedding woes of dealing with family jealousies that arise during wedding planning. Which side has more guests?  Who is paying for said guests? Just how much should this wedding cost? Which home town does the wedding take place in? Now add: Which side gets to understand and participate in the wedding ceremony?

But after all the intense negotiations that resolved issues about venue, budget, and details, we were at the point of no return. And I’m glad: our wedding afforded the opportunity for each side to learn about our respective religious backgrounds. It was the best thing that we ever could have done to merge our families together.

Now, while we are blessed with open minded family members, we had some work cut out for us with families very different from each other. (Philly, meet Texas. Yo y’all.)  And I’m pretty sure that my husband and I are the only Jewish people my aunts, uncles and cousins know because, quite simply, they live in areas where white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the overwhelming majority. No one in my family, parents included, had ever been to a Jewish wedding. The Hora was going to rock their worlds.

My husband’s side wondered just how my family would react to my choosing the Jewish faith. Would my family resent my husband’s side? Would they be comfortable during the ceremony and reception? Would they feel included? Would my family pat their heads looking for horns? (That wasn’t meant to be funny, honestly my grandparents probably would have.)  So, my husband and I looked at our wedding as an opportunity to build bridges between our cultural and religious differences. Thanks to the open-mindedness of our family, and the open bar, the day couldn’t have gone any better. Here’s what we did:

First, each of us spoke to our parents about what we wanted. We made it perfectly clear that what was incorporated into our wedding ceremony was not about what “we had to do” but what we wanted to do. This was especially important to my parents, to know that their daughter was having the wedding that she wanted, not just doing what the groom’s side wanted. Believe me, this is the key. And it worked on all the decisions we made about the wedding details, so that each side knew this is what WE wanted, not what his-or my-parents dictated.

Second, we were up-front with the Rabbis that my family was to be included as fully as my husband’s family. This may have limited the Rabbis that agreed to perform our wedding, but this was a deal-breaker.

Third, we held a class for our non-Jewish friends and family on Jewish wedding rituals. Our friend, also an HUC student, taught the ‘class’ Saturday afternoon (our ceremony was late Saturday night.)  The best part was that plenty of people from my husband’s side showed up either because they never fully knew about all the traditions and wanted to learn, or just wanted to keep my side company. THAT is Texas hospitality.

Fourth, we explained everything in our wedding program. Ok, so the program turned out more of a wedding manual than a program, but who cares?  There is nothing worse than sitting through a ceremony when you don’t know what is going on. Besides, it gave our guests something to read during the 20 minutes it took for my Father-in-law to recover from fainting.

Fifth, and most importantly, we respected the boundaries of our family members. I did not pressure my Dad, who is Baptist and does not drink nor dance, to participate in the Hora or wear a Kippot. And I kept him away from the Groom’s Tish. And my Mother-in-law respected my wishes not to have a Mikveh before the wedding.

In short, we threw away the manual and created our own way of doing things. The result was a fantastic wedding weekend where both sides really bonded. A few minds may even have been changed. Or, at the very least, my family now knows that yes, Rabbis can marry.


Celebration was in order after the wedding ceremony went off without a hitch.

That’s not to say that there weren’t a couple of moments where I wanted to crawl under a chair and die of embarrassment from the well-meaning but off-putting comments of some of my family members. Ok, so actually it was just one family member: my uncle’s fourth wife who can best be described as “country”.

Somewhere in the middle of her fourth or fifth beer she screeched out quite loudly on the dance floor more than once “I want to be Jewish!”  Yes, she meant it as a compliment. However, I suspect her envy stemmed less from the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and more from the fun we were having (our band rocked.)  Frankly, she was into the idea that dancing and drinking - of which she was a BIG fan- were not sins for which she’d burn in hell. (I should note my husband and I are Reform Jews. Had we been at an Orthodox wedding she may not have been as comfortable.)  While I applaud her enthusiasm for Jewish people, at some point I think I’m going to have a discussion with her about what it really means to be Jewish. I might need a couple of beers in me for that.

Looking back, I realize that I underestimated my and my husband’s families. Where I feared there would be jealousy or rejection, I found willingness to learn and understand, not to tolerate but embrace Judaism as their daughter’s religion. I could not be more proud of their “Christian values” of love and acceptance that they displayed during my Jewish wedding. I wish the rest of the world was so. Now, can someone please help me explain the bris ceremony to my Dad?  I think this time, HE might be the one who faints!

This story originally appeared in David’s Voice,  www.davidsvoice.com .

Eternal Debate Rages On: Latke v. Hamantash

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Potatoes for Change or Cookies First? Find out who will take the prize tonight at the University of Chicago

Hamantash fans scoff at the latke: “It’s just potatoes,” they say. And latke aficionados can’t find much to be excited about in the hamantash.

The debate about the favorite Jewish holiday food has raged for so long that it spawned an institutional response: the annual Latke-Hamantash Debate at the University of Chicago. The 62-year-old tradition has spread to campuses nationwide for a humorous academic discussion about the relative merits of the two iconic Jewish foods.

University of Chicago professors Gary Tubb (South Asian languages and civilizations), Thomas Ginsburg (law), Roy Weiss (medicine) and Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel Elizabeth Davenport will duke it out in this year’s verbal food fight tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Mandel Hall (1131 E. 57th St.) on the University of Chicago campus. Ted Cohen, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, will moderate. The latke has won more times than the hamantash, although in recent times the pendulum has swung back and forth—the latke side won last year’s debate, while the hamantash got the vote in 2006.

As the debate continues between cooks everywhere, Oy!Chicago asked the community to chime in with their opinions. And at least in this completely unscientific sample, the latke took the lead.

Sarah Levy, owner of Sarah’s Pastries and Candies: “I have always loved latkes, which are a family favorite. It’s sort of a habit. My grandmother has a really good recipe.”

Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of JUF’s Chicago Board of Rabbis: “I prefer the latke. I make terrific latkes and I don’t know how to make hamantash—I have never tried, I’m not into baking. I do not fry my latkes, instead, I bake them in the oven. The secret to great potato latkes is to grate in some carrot, and I also make great sweet potato latkes. I don’t work with recipes, I don’t measure. I just put things together, and it’s never the same twice.”

Josie A.G. Shapiro, chief development officer at Temple Sholom and an avid cook: “I’m a latke girl! They’re more flexible, you can grate different things in—potatoes, beets, or zucchini,The hamantashen have different fillings, but they’re all on the same note, all sweet.”

Miriam Brosseau, singer-songwriter and community mensch extraordinaire:  “Coming from Wisconsin, where all food is fried, I’m kind of partial to the latke.  Now, if it were served on a stick, that’s something Wisconsinites could really go for.  Someday...”

Adam Davis, director of KFAR Jewish Arts Center: “It’s a difficult decision. On the one hand, I salivate at the thought of a savory potato and onion delicacy. I also am tantalized by the sweet triangular treat. I suggest a third way—the sufganiot. I’m a pluralist when it comes to the Jewish people and our food.”

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, author, musician and spiritual leader: “How could I possibly compare latkes and hamantashen? Latkes are savory, and when fried to just the perfect crispy texture without burning, with a bit of sweet-tart applesauce on top, they are perfect on a cold winter night. I couldn’t imagine Chanukah without latkes. Hamantashen are sweet, although when filled with the right mohn (poppyseed) filling, not too sweet. They are perfect for a Purim meal when, together with more sweets and a bit of fermented beverage, one gets silly and giddy and goes a bit crazy with laughter. I couldn’t imagine Purim without hamantashen. But if you are really forcing me to choose, I'd pick the holiday of Purim—with latkes!”

Daniel Libenson, the director of the Newberger Hillel Center at the University of Chicago, has pledged to keep neutral on the issue. Libenson and the Newberger Hillel have betrayed a fondness for politics in the advertisements for the debate. In the ads, Obama’s signature “O” logo is repurposed for the latke, and “this is Obama’s year,” Libenson said.

Post-debate, hungry audience members can devour the contestants – three kinds of hamantash and two kinds of latke for $5.

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