OyChicago articles

8 Questions for Michael Goldenberg, Financial Planner, Superhero, Bjork Fan

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Michael Goldenberg, citizen of the Jewish World

In his 31 years, Michael Goldenberg has lived in three very different places. Born in Nizhnii Novgorod (then Gorkii), Russia, Goldenberg moved to Israel at the age of 13, and then came to Chicago in 2002 to earn his MBA from Loyola University. Now a financial planner at MB Bank, Goldenberg has also devoted time to engaging other Russian-speaking Jews in community initiatives.

So whether you’ve served in elite Israeli army divisions, love Russian American literature or crunch numbers for a living, Michael Goldenberg is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A superhero: I always thought it would be fun to jump around, fly and save people.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
As a financial planner, I meet a lot of different people and see a variety of situations. I actually did become a superhero of a sort – I help people in different situations.

3. What are you reading?
I’m part of the Russian Jewish American book club. The most recent book was Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis ,  which showed me the reality of Russia in a way that I didn’t understand it as a child when I left it at 13. It made me appreciate the fact that my parents emigrated from Russia and provided me with the opportunity to grow up in the Western world.

4. What is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?

I love Flat Top Grill, a make-your-own-stir-fry place. I get to make my own choices about ingredients and invent new combinations. It’s a bit about exploring life.

5. If money and logistics played no part, what would you invent?
That’s a hard one. I’m quite satisfied with the world the way it is. But if I really had to, I would invent a real all-in-one workout machine that would also let you play actual video games. Not like WiiFit, but one where you actually exert yourself.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or to be invisible?
I never really wanted to fly; I just wanted to have powers to jump really high. I definitely never wanted to be invisible – that’s somewhat depressing because it’s total solitude. If no one can see you, no one can communicate with you.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod what guilty pleasure would I find?
The strangest thing that I wouldn’t expect myself to listen to is Bjork. It’s a weird sound, but I like her music.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
I like doing all kinds of Jewish things with my friends: Hillel parties, Shabbat dinners; most recently a Purim in October party a friend hosted on Halloween night. And I like the Israeli Film Festival – I’ve attended every single year since I came to the States and will definitely check out the movies from this year.


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Matthue Roth’s new novel, a love letter to his past 


Matthue Roth, blending Orthodox and Pop culture

Former Lakeview resident Matthue Roth has always been a writer, spending many of his early teen years running home after school to write science fiction stories. His new novel,  Losers  might not be about outer space, but the story of a Russian Jew named Jupiter Glazer’s struggle against loser-dom does have elements of a stranger in a strange land.

While Roth has written about Jewish life before—his first book,  Never Mind the Goldbergs , tells the story of an Orthodox punk-rock girl who runs off to Hollywood to star on a sitcom—he says that Losers is a more personal story.

“When I was in Jr. High and I had no friends, I would come home every day and write more. I grew up in a working class Jewish environment in Philly, the neighborhood is somewhat like Rogers Park, just a little too far from the city to go hang out after school. Because the story takes place in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, writing Losers was like going home.”

I spoke with Roth about the book and his life as a self-described Hasidic Jew who embraces the modern world.


Oy!: You’ve written about teenagers a few times now. What is it about that age group that inspires you?
Roth: I kinda feel like I’m still 15 sometimes! Teenagers have the autonomy to inspire themselves and the real world hasn’t gotten them down. When you’re a teenager, you’re angry and righteously so, but you’re idealistic. I hope I haven’t lost my passion, idealism or the ability to stay up all night. It’s the time in life when stuff is starting to happen and you’re in control of your destiny. Nothing has ever been so hard or so exciting.

How much of your own life inspired the character of Jupiter Glazer? Do you miss him now that the book is finished?
I miss my characters tremendously. I want to write more about the characters from Goldberg but I am not ready. A lot of characters in Losers are based on parts of people I know—the book is dedicated to my best friend who died recently. We met in third grade and became friends and stuck it out. Everyone thinks that I’m Jupiter or he is, but that’s not it. There are parts of him in [all of the characters]. I am writing because I can’t hold these characters back, they surprise you and they should.

What do you do when you’re not working on novels?
I’m an editor at MyJewishLearning.com--it’s actually really cool, I get to do the weirder things like videos and multi-media and the blog.  The whole concept of a day job is still really new to me, in the past; I have done a lot of freelancing and a lot of spoken word performing. But now I have a baby and I want things to be a bit more stable. My wife and I had a baby eight months ago and it’s really awesome. Every time you hear a song on the radio it’s like a new song for the first time. She’s in love with everything--right now she’s in love with Prince and They Might Giants. I’m in love with Losers. I see a million flaws in Jupiter, but that’s why I love him. But love for my kid trumps my love for the book, which is a new concept.

Your bio describes you as a Hasidic Jew who embraces the modern world. Can you talk about those seemingly opposing religious and cultural ideas?
I grew up conservative and then became modern Orthodox. My wife grew up Hasidic. My Rabbi had always said the difference between modern and traditional Orthodox is that modern Orthodox people sees holiness in everything—his philosophy is that everything is holy, all music has some degree of passion and holiness and godliness. I met my wife’s family who are all Hasidic and learned that my father-in-law’s favorite band is Dire Straits. I mean you can question his taste but there’s a degree to which passion extends to the things they love.

How does that blending of religion and pop culture influence your work?
My first two books are about being Orthodox. The sitcom in Never Mind the Goldbergs is about an Orthodox family, but she is also a punk girl playing a straight Orthodox girl. At its heart, the book is about how you can’t say this is Orthodox, this is Judaism, this is God. In Losers, Jupiter is just a Russian dork that is not sure about himself or his place in the universe. But over the course of the book, he is learning and making connections to people. That’s religion to me, this process of discovery where you never actually discover anything –the process is where the love is.

What advice do you have to aspiring authors or performers?
Before I sold Losers I had literally five books I have written get rejected. When I sold my first book, I came to New York to walk into offices and tell agents to be interested in me. After doing that a lot and people looked at me like I was crazy, I got a call from a company in San Francisco asking me to write a memoir. They had seen my ‘zines and heard about my spoken word--I was at open mikes six nights a week for three years. My advice would be never underestimate the power of saying things. Say things loud and in as many places as you can because you never know who’s listening.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to Losers, right now it’s called Enemies but I’m bad with sticking to a title. I’m also working on big project called G-dcast, it’s basically getting artists and musicians and writers and other cool people to tell stories from the Torah portions each week.

For more from Matthue Roth, check out his blog  http://matthues.diaryland.com/ . 

Song leader inspired through music, acceptance

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Falling in love with being Jewish 


In a continuing exploration of Jewishness, Jane Charney discovered Jewish history and Jewish life on Gibraltar in August 2008

Gilana Alpert had a way with music. She played guitar like it was an extension of her hands rather than a separate instrument. As she led Friday-night Reform services at Indiana University Hillel, she brought music into the service that made the sanctuary feel empty for me when the guitar wasn’t there. A striking redhead, Gilana made me – a newbie to the world of Jewish practice – feel welcomed and accepted.

In a testament to how small the Jewish world is, I now work with Gilana’s sister Aleza at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. We played Jewish geography recently and figured out that Gilana and I studied at IU at nearly the same time. I lost touch with Gilana when she graduated and stopped leading services after my sophomore year at Indiana University. Aleza told me last week that Gilana suffered a stroke last year and died tragically at 26. Her yarzheit was Monday, November 3, and I want to let her family know that they are not the only ones missing her voice and her music.

The Friday night services were something my friends and I looked forward to all week. We’d go to services, have Hillel dinner made by a Baptist cook (who by now knew more about kashrut than many rabbis), and then go out for dessert, a movie or to a party afterward. I had never been big into Judaism as a religion. By then, I’d gone to a Reform Sunday School for three years (mostly because I loved the history courses), and I struggled – and still do – with my relationship with G-d. I had also tried to forget three atrocious summers at a Lubavitcher summer camp just outside of Moscow, where my parents had sent my sister and me because other Jewish experiences were hard to come by in Russia in the early 1990s. My sister loved it; I hated it. Now our roles have reversed.

I can’t pinpoint exactly which moment it was that I fell in love with being Jewish, but it was definitely one of the Friday night services Gilana led. A Rabbi’s daughter from Michigan, she taught me that the melodies we produce with our hearts have a worthy accompaniment in the guitar. Her melodies and easygoing style made me see that offering a prayer doesn’t have to be about perfection or fervent belief. It can also be about participating in a tradition that makes you feel like part of a community.

This idea is at the root of my connection to Judaism. Whether I’m making challah, lighting Shabbat candles, or reciting the Haggadah on Passover, I’m feeling an instantaneous connection to the community. Since those freshman year Friday nights, I’ve married a nice Russian Jewish boy. I’ve gone to Israel twice and hope to return again and again. I’ve explored what it means to be a Russian Jewish American through volunteering for Russian Hillel and working as a madricha at the annual Midwest Russian Shabbaton. I’ve attended retreats and leadership training sessions. I’ve worked for the Jewish community in three states. I’ve grown as a Jew and as a human, having decided that combining elements from different movements in a “do-it-yourself Judaism” approach was just as good as each of the movements within official Judaism.

Through it all, I have kept Gilana’s wisdom and gift of music as a source of inspiration throughout the past seven years. In the years to come I will continue to explore what it means to be Jewish. And every time I do, I’ll think back to those wonderful Friday night services and the song leader who has given me one of the greatest gifts – the ability to love my people, my culture, my faith and myself.

Historical Preservation Meets Green Innovation

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Green Exchange: committed to environmental sustainability, profit and positive social impact 


A rendering of what the building will look like upon completion

It’s impossible to turn on the TV or open a magazine without hearing about going green, sustainability, hybrid cars and other issues related to the environment. Today, it’s easy to find organic produce and green cleaning products at most grocery stores and there are entire stores that only sell items made from recycled or repurposed materials. With all the hype, it might be tempting to buy new counter cleaner and call it a day. But in Logan Square, neighbors and business owners are getting together to make sure that going green is more than a trend.

The massive warehouse at 2545 West Diversey has been a landmark in the Logan Square neighborhood since it was erected at the turn of the 20th century.  Throughout the years, it has been a vital source of employment for the community and a driving force in the local economy.  It has survived different owners and changing work environments and today, the building is going green.

Built by the Vasser Swiss Underwear Company to house “the finest knitting mill in the world,” during its heyday, the factory employed over 1,000 people. The mill was equipped with its own power plant, area for coal storage, laboratories and a clock tower. It was one of the first to provide space for employees to eat and take breaks. The company produced a variety of undergarments up until 1967 when Frederick Cooper Lamps purchased the factory to manufacture its high-end lamps. In 2005, Frederick Cooper Lamps closed the factory and put the building up for sale.

Upset over the loss of jobs in the community, neighbors organized to create the Cooper Lamps Task Force to keep the building from being turned into condominiums. With the support of 1st Ward Alderman Manuel Flores, the building was sold to Baum Development, a real estate development company recognized for its expertise in adaptive reuse and acclaimed for its preservation of historic landmarks. Co-founders Doug and David Baum bought the building initially unsure of how to develop it, but recognizing its “great bones,” Doug and David Baum promised that the building’s purpose would be to revitalize the area economy.

Green Exchange

The new concept for the building originated with Barry Bursak, a local longtime environmentalist who saw potential in such a large space. According to David Baum, “[Barry] was envisioning a green marketplace where he could house his sustainable furniture store alongside other eco-friendly businesses.” Bursak envisioned a green building that would encourage the creation and development of different types of green industries. While the brothers had never developed a green building, the concept of a totally green space immediately appealed to them. Having grown up in a household that emphasized recycling, they had always been passionate about environmental issues.

“My mother was a school teacher and a big proponent of taking care of the environment,” says Baum. “I have clear memories of driving to the recycling center with my mom so that my brother [Doug] and I could throw glass bottles into the recycling bins. We thought it was a blast, but it also had a lasting effect on how we live and work. Being an environmental steward has long been a part of my life experience, and my brother and I carried that ethos into both our personal and professional lives. And now that we both have children, the health and welfare of this planet and the condition in which we leave it is even more important.”

The two realized that going green was the next evolution in their business plan. The company has what it calls a “triple bottom line approach.”  Meaning that their measure of success is not only a financial return on investment, but also an examination of how the project contributed to the community and how it protected the environment through sustainable development.

Baum explains, “Green Exchange is a prime example of this approach as we are, without a doubt, in this venture to make money, but we are working closely with the local community to create green collar jobs and revitalize the area economically. Finally, from an environmental perspective, the building is aspiring to LEED Platinum status which is the highest level of certification available for green buildings.”

Construction still has to be completed on the site before the building will become the sixth in Chicago to receive its LEED Platinum status; but it has already been rewarded with another impressive designation---historical landmark status, which seems a bit incongruous. A building that receives historical landmark status, it goes without saying, is pretty old. The use of sustainable green technology usually happens within the framework of new construction. The Baum brothers have managed to do both.

Ninety-five percent of the original structure will remain intact. By cutting down on the tons of waste normally produced in a tear down, this building has turned into one big recycling project. Just by adapting the building and re-using the space, it is already well on its way to going green.

A marriage between historic and green has equaled huge savings for the future Green Exchange businesses and their customers. Tenants will benefit from Class L tax incentives that significantly reduce property taxes for historical landmarks. In addition, LEED Platinum building will lower all utility costs due to the highly insulated walls and roofs combined with 600 high-performance windows. In addition, a sophisticated HVAC system will allow for individualized temperature control of tenant spaces, cutting down on individual energy consumption.

“One discovery we made is that a green escalator that incorporates occupancy sensors and varying speeds – using 30% less energy than a traditional escalator,” says Baum. “In addition to cool new features there are green options that are being re-discovered. For example, we will be using a 41,000-gallon rain cistern to irrigate the green roof and sky garden. While some of the technology used to predict rainfall and to pull the water from the basement to the roof is modern, the concept of gathering rain for re-use goes back to ancient civilizations. It’s a lovely blend of the past and the future.”


The sky garden adjacent to the organic restaurant

Inside the Space

Slated to open in the spring of 2009, the 272,000 square-foot building will be the largest eco friendly building in the country. “This will be the healthiest building you can build,” explains Jennifer Schellinger, director of marketing and PR for Green Exchange. Currently, there are six green businesses with plans to move into the space ranging from a packing company that uses sustainable handmade products to a marketing company that specializes in green services. There will also be an organic restaurant adjacent to an 8,000 square foot sky garden and a parking lot with priority spots designated for low-emitting vehicles.

The building will also be able to accommodate entrepreneurs and small businesses that want to be in a green environment, but don’t necessarily need a large, freestanding store. These turn-key type spaces will be equipped with many amenities including an option to rent a space that includes living quarters. The current plan offers any tenant the opportunity to work and live in the same environmentally friendly building.

“The lofts offer the perfect amount of seclusion and interaction, as you are neighbors with some of the world’s most pioneering green businesses, said Schellinger. “You’ll be exposed to myriad networking events, marketing opportunities, educational seminars and eco-leader speaker series as a tenant of the Green Exchange.”

The future of green

Cautiously optimistic about the success of the project, Baum Development hopes to develop similar buildings on a much larger scale. “Green Exchange will hopefully be a business model for the planet,” says Schellinger. And locally, there are plans in place to create an educational center within the building to help educate the city of Chicago about how to live green lifestyles.

“We are creating a one-stop environment where people can learn about green initiatives and the latest innovations, where they can purchase green goods and services and where they can meet and mingle with others who have similar goals and objectives,” says Baum.

According to Baum, the green movement is here to stay. “The future is bright green. This has moved beyond the trend phase and into the mainstream consciousness; we have no choice … attention needs to be paid and changes need to happen if we want our children and our children’s children to inherit a healthy planet.”

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