OyChicago articles

‘A Christmas Story, The Musical!’

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Something to do on Christmas—besides eat Chinese food
11/29/2011

A Christmas Story photo 1

Composer/lyricist team—Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul

Back in September, when young Jewish composer and lyricist Benj Pasek was touring Seattle with his show A Christmas Story, The Musical! —which comes to Chicago in December—he attended Yom Kippur services. After all, said Pasek, he always goes to synagogue on Yom Kippur-and his mom would have been furious if he hadn't. Then, after shul, Pasek wrote Christmas jingles for the show.

His two Yom Kippur activities seem paradoxical, yet Pasek joins a long history of Jews writing Christmas music. There's Irving Berlin's '"White Christmas;" Mel Torme's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire;" and Jerry Herman's "We Need a Little Christmas." Apparently, we Jews do need a little Christmas too.

There's something anthropological about looking in at Christmas from the outside, according to Pasek. "We have a longstanding tradition of Jews who wrote Christmas songs," said Pasek, who lives in New York. "There is something about looking in on a culture in a way that being Jewish on Christmas allows you to do. You observe what people love about it."

A Christmas Story, The Musical!, a new musical based on the holiday movie classic, plays the Chicago Theatre just in time for the holidays—Chanukah and that other little December holiday you may have heard of—from Wednesday, Dec. 14 to Friday, Dec. 30.  

I watch the film version of the A Christmas Story on a continual loop on cable every Christmas as many of you probably do-after all, what else is there for a Jew to do on Christmas before going out for Chinese food?

A Christmas Story photo 2

Chinese For Christmas. Photo credit: Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

The 1983 film comedy—and now the musical—are based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shephard. The plot centers around young, bespectacled Ralphie Parker's Rockwellian existence in 1940s Indiana as he schemes his way toward his ideal holiday gift-a Red Ryder Action Air Rifle BB Gun. Yet, the adults in his life burst his bubble with repeated warnings that "You'll shoot your eye out." Peter Billingsley, who starred as Ralphie in the film, is among the producers of the new musical, while Joseph Robinette wrote the script, John Rando directs, and Warren Carlyle choreographs the show.

Pasek talks about the process of adapting a film into a musical. "Usually, in musicals, the biggest emotional high points are the ones you want to sing," said Pasek, who is half of a composer/lyricst team with his friend and fellow 2007 University of Michigan grad, Justin Paul. "It's expanding the little moments from the movie and making them bigger and broader."

Fans of the movie will be happy to watch beloved elements of the film come alive in the stage version of the story including: a department store Santa, played by Jewish Chicago actor Adam Pelty; a double-dog-dare to lick a freezing flagpole; a dancing leg lamp with backup leg lamp dancers; and some very obnoxious pink bunny PJs Ralphie was forced to wear in childhood.

A Christmas Story photo 3

Old man with leg lamp. Photo credit: Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Pasek's real-life childhood was very Jewish. He was raised in what he calls a "Conservative Reconstructionist" Jewish Philadelphia home, where his family kept kosher and he attended Hebrew school. When he moved to Manhattan, one of his first jobs was teaching Hebrew school. Eventually, he made his way into the theater business—and has found success at it too. He and Paul were named the youngest winners of the Jonathan Larson Award and listed as part of the "50 to Watch" up-and-coming writers by The Dramatist Magazine.

Now, preparing for the new musical, Pasek says Jews will enjoy the show as much as non-Jews. "A Christmas Story transcends religion in a way that it's just part of American popular culture," he said. "…It's not just a Christian thing—it's the same way my family bickers about Chanukah. It feels very universal."

For ticket information, visit The Chicago Theatre box office, visit www.thechicagotheatre.com, or call 1 (800) 745-3000.

Everybody’s Bubbe

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Recipes, wisdom, and love fill the pages of America’s favorite online Bubbe’s new cookbook

11/22/2011

Everybody’s Bubbe photo 1

Bubbe and her grandson, Avrom Honig

Since I got engaged almost two years ago, I've been taking cooking lessons from my grandmas, who I call "Nana." In addition to teaching me to make some of my favorite recipes from growing up, these lessons are also intended to make me less inept in the kitchen now that I'm a married lady (though this is still yet to be seen). But most importantly, these lessons provide invaluable Nana bonding time.

As you can imagine, I perked up when a cookbook titled Feed me Bubbe: Recipes and Wisdom from America's Favorite Online Grandmother came across my desk. The book is written by Bubbe, and her grandson, Avrom Honig.

Immediately, I googled Bubbe and watched her first online show, where she taught her viewers how to make her famous Jelly Jammies. After just one episode, I could see why viewers were so entranced by Bubbe-her sweet nature, easy-to-follow recipes, and delicious looking food are likely to evoke memories of everyone's Bubbes.

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So how did Bubbe, who finds herself with a new career in her 80s, get into the online cooking video business? 

Honig, Bubbe's grandson, was struggling to find a job and make a successful demo reel. His father suggested he create a show about Bubbe's amazing food. "He gave me all these different names and I hated every single one of them," Honig said. "…He got angry at me and said, why don't you just call it 'Feed me Bubbe?'"  Though his father was being sarcastic, Honig liked the name and called up Bubbe, who happened to be making Jelly Jammies at the time.

"It was quite an unexpected experience," Bubbe said, referring to Honig making a video in her kitchen and posting it on YouTube. "This was a brand new experience for me- whoever knew what email was? At my age do I need all this technology? And before you knew it we started getting feedback and also a call from BBC, they wanted an interview for a talk show…It just mushroomed unexpectedly until where we are today publishing a book."

In the book, which is number on one Amazon's Kosher Cooking list and received a gold "Mom's Choice" award, Bubbe shares 100 of her best recipes, intertwined with stories from her life and Yiddish words. The book is also a kosher guide, and symbols in the book indicate if a dish contains dairy, meat, is pareve, or for Passover. In writing the book, Bubbe began to understand that so many stories relate to food and she hopes people will view the book as more than a cookbook.

If a fortune teller had told her that this would happen to her, Bubbe said she wouldn't have believed it in her wildest dreams. Bubbe and Honig went on to create over 30 episodes of the show, which each feature a kosher recipe and teach a Yiddish word. Bubbe also answers emails, Facebook messages, and Bubbe 911 calls. She ends each episode by saying, "Ess gezunterhait," eat in good health. The show can now be seen online at www.feedmebubbe.com and on JLTV. Honig's production company, Chalutz Productions, produces the show out of Bubbe's kitchen.

"The most amazing thing about our show is no matter if you're from Florida, California, even Chicago, everyone looks at Bubbe as if they're looking at their own Bubbe, no matter where they're located," Honig said. Bubbe said she gets emails from younger people, asking her to adopt them as her grandchildren.

"…To some of them I became like a therapist...if they're asking me I'll give them what i would tell my grandchildren I will tell them and they seem to be so appreciative," Bubbe said. "I encourage them-don't worry if it doesn't come out good. They all needed a little bit of encouragement."  

The biggest reward for Bubbe and Honig, is to get to work with each other. "It is such a grand pleasure," Honig said about working with his Bubbe. "This is a dream and say it over and over again, pinch me I cannot believe this is real.

"The one thing that this shows you is that when you go and you have something with decent values, people love [it]," Honig said. "This is what people want today especially with all the different trash television that's out there currently on television."

Bubbe had the following advice for newly married couples:  "My first big meal, I burnt the pot roast. So, I want everyone to feel comfortable that it happens to all of us, but…a little trial and error brings good results and I want to give everyone encouragement. And for me, she said: "You will be very successful. The funny part of it is that all it takes is a little bit of trying and use your taste buds like an artist develops a painting."

Thanks, Bubbe!

‘Late Night Snack’

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11/15/2011

‘Late Night Snack’ photo 1 

Have you ever seen the YouTube clip of late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon impersonating singer Neil Young—with Bruce Springsteen as himself—singing a duet of Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair? If you haven’t, this article can wait. Go watch it and then come back…

…It’s hilarious, right? The comedian’s impersonations are all that spot-on, from Barry Gibb to John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Eddie Vedder, Jerry Seinfeld, and even Chris Rock.

You can catch Fallon and his many personalities at the Young Leadership Division’s (YLD) fourth Annual Big Event, on Saturday, Dec. 10, at 8pm, which will launch YLD’s 2012 Campaign and feature an evening of stand-up comedy with Fallon, a comedian, actor, writer, and musician. The event, to be held at the Sheraton Chicago, will include dessert reception, open bar, after party, and late night bar food.

Last year YLD’s Big Event, which featured comedian Sarah Silverman, drew more than 1,500 people, making it the single largest YLD event in history. This time around, YLD hopes to attract an even larger crowd—both to entertain and spread the word about the vital work of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.“It will be a historical night for the YLD community as we are expecting a record-breaking number of people,” said Jimmy Sarnoff, YLD’s 2012 Campaign vice president.  “Not only is Jimmy Fallon the biggest name to perform at any JUF YLD event, but he is one of the biggest names to perform at any Federation event throughout the country.”

Fallon’s star keeps rising these days. He carries on the Late Night legacy, begun by David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, and premiered the NBC talk show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in March of 2009. When you watch Fallon’s show, perhaps one last laugh before your head hits the pillow or maybe on DVR the next day, you get the feeling Fallon’s just a really good guy. He’s like a big kid in the best way possible, famous for “breaking,” or cracking up, during his comedy bits. Fallon and his jokes are kind, charming, and playful, and he avoids mean-spirited jabs at people. “I don’t like to kick people when they’re down,” said Fallon in an interview with talk show host Piers Morgan.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Upstate New York in an Irish-Catholic home, Fallon was an altar boy at his church and almost became a priest. As kids, he and his older sister, Gloria, would reenact the “clean parts” of Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketches that his parents would tape for him. He idolized SNL his whole life, which proved prophetic when he was later cast on the show as a series regular.

Fallon got his big break after his mother told him about an impersonation contest at a comedy club in Poughkeepsie, NY. He created a stand-up routine based on a commercial for troll dolls, inspired by a troll doll he received before graduating high school. He won the contest and, after dropping out of college, toured the country doing stand-up gigs. He later relocated to Los Angeles and joined the famous improvisational comedy troupe, The Groundlings.

After one failed audition for Saturday Night Live, he returned for a second try and landed his dream job on the sketch comedy showfirst as a featured player in 1998 and then as a full cast member in 1999. As both a comedian and musician, who has made a career out of mixing his comedy and music, he incorporated his signature song parodies into the show. In 2000, he became co-anchor of SNL’sWeekend Update with Tina Fey. Then, Fallon left the show in 2004 to pursue a film career. He returns home to host Saturday Night Live’s Christmas episode on Dec. 17, one week after YLD’s Big Event.

‘Late Night Snack’ photo 2 

Fallon, who lives with his wife in New York City, has acted in a string of films, including a starring role opposite Queen Latifah in the 2004 action comedy Taxi. Then, in 2005, he starred alongside Drew Barrymore in the Farrelly Brothers’ romantic comedy Fever Pitch, about how a man’s obsession with the Boston Red Sox gets in the way of his romantic relationship. He’s also a go-to host for award shows, including the MTV Music Awards and the MTV Movie Awards.

This past spring, he and his fellow Late Night writers released a humor book called Thank You Notes (Grand Central Publishing)—based on a popular segment from his talk show—expressing gratitude for everything from microbreweries for making alcoholism look like a fun hobby to “haters for giving rappers so much to talk about.”

The talk show host isn’t the only one doing the thanking these days. The ice cream guys, Ben & Jerry, wanted to thank Fallon and his late night crew for singing an ode to Ben & Jerry’s by creating a flavor inspired by the talk show host and his show. The new flavor, Late Night Snack, is a combination of the salty and sweet—vanilla ice cream, fudge covered potato chip clusters, and salty caramel swirl. But if the ice cream’s anything like the guy who inspired the flavor, it’s probably less salty and more sweet.

Tickets to YLD’s Big Event—ages 21 and older—cost $80 per person (not tax-deductible) and require a gift to the 2012 JUF Annual Campaign. If you are a Birthright Alum, discounted $25 tickets are available here courtesy of the Birthright Israel Foundation. The minimum requirement is a match or increase to your previous JUF gift. If you have not given to JUF in the past, you are required to make a gift. Attendance to the event signifies your consent to make a donation, which can be paid through December 2012. Advance registration is required and space is limited. Register online here. For more information, contact the YLD office at (312) 357-4880 or yld@juf.org. 

What’s new on the Jewish bookshelf?

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Discovering new perspectives in the Jewish experience through literature 
11/08/2011

For Jewish readers of all ages, books about the Holocaust and World War II have always been popular, both in fiction and non-fiction. Given the magnitude of those historical events, and the particular importance that their memories hold for the Jewish people, it makes sense that so much literature is dedicated to them. But it also seems that when it comes to Jewish history and experience in books, the scope tends to be limited. 

Not so much anymore, said Rachel Kamin, director of the Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. “Rather than continuing to focus on the Eastern European shetl experience or on the American immigrant experience of New York's lower east side,” she said. “We are seeing many books being published for adults, as well as for teens and younger readers, that include other voices from American and world Jewry, both historical and contemporary.”  

While there is a bond that connects all Jews across the world, there are also unique experiences faced by Jewish people in different countries, something that is being explored more in Jewish books in recent years. “The Russian-Jewish voice is really coming out in literature,” Kamin said. “The voices of Russian immigrants to the US are now represented in an increasing number of novels, short stories, and memoirs.” The experience of being an Israeli in America has also been covered in several recent books. 

New books are also shedding light on Jewish life in places not often associated with Jewish history, such as Africa. “Jewish communities in South Africa, Argentina, Iraq, Egypt, and Shanghai are highlighted in both recent fiction and non-fiction,” said Kamin.  

Since November is Jewish Book Month, Oy!Chicago asked Kamin to list book recommendations that expand our understanding of the global Jewish experience.    

Israelis in America 

The Importance of Wings, by Robin Friedman (Charlesbridge Publishing). Although she longs to be an all-American girl, Roxanne, a timid, Israeli-born 13-year-old, begins to see things differently when the supremely confident Liat, also from Israel, moves into the “cursed house” next door and they become friends. Ages 9-12.

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Ask for a Convertible, by Danit Brown (Pantheon). A collection of linked short stories spanning about twenty years, centering on Osnat Greenberg, the teenage daughter of an American father and Israeli mother, who moves from Tel Aviv to Michigan. Adult.

Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger Ross (Overlook Hardcover). Sixty-five-year-old Sima Goldner owns a discount lingerie shop in her orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Her everyday routine dramatically changes when Timna, a young, attractive Israeli expatriate comes to work for her as a seamstress. Adult.

Russian Jewish Immigrant Experience 

Inconvenient,by Margie Gelbwasser (Flux). Gelbwasser’s own experience as a Russian immigrant growing up in New Jersey inspires her debut novel about a 15-year-old Russian-Jewish girl trying to fit into her American high school while dealing with her mother's alcoholism. Ages 13-16.

The Free World,by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This is a powerful novel about a multi-generation Russian Jewish family living in Italy while attempting to immigrate to the United States. Adult.  

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir, by Meir Shalev, translated from Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg (Schocken). The Israeli author of A Pigeon and a Boy dedicates his latest book to capturing the essence of his Russian grandmother Tonia and her obsession with housekeeping, as well as exploring the cultural conflicts that can divide a family. Adult.  

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When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save SovietJewry, by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Beckerman, editor at TheForward, uses historical documents and interviews to trace the struggles and path of Soviet Jews in their fight to leave the former Soviet Union. Adult.

Jews in "Other" Lands 

Life, After, by Sarah Darer Littman (Scholastic Press). When poverty and terrorism forces her family to leave their home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dani has a hard time adjusting to life in New York City, but an unlikely bond with a brother and sister who lost their father on 9-11 helps heal both families. Ages 12-15.

Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado (Ecco / HarperCollins). In this follow-up memoir, the author of award-winning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit tells the story of her mother, Edith, who came of age in a magical old Cairo, as well as her own story growing up in America. Adult.

My Father’s Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books). A journalist describes his father's birth into an isolated community of Kurdish Jews, their emigration to Israel in the 1950s, and their journey to postwar Iraq to uncover the vanished history of a people and place. Adult.

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The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History, by Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain (Jonathan Ball Publishers). Two professors of history at the University of Cape Town have creatively documented the generally unknown history of Jews in South Africa, including an array of rare, historical photographs. Adult.

Iraq's Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon, edited by Tamar Morad, Dennis Shasha and Robert Shasha (Palgrave Macmillan). This is a powerful collection of first-person narratives about the complicated experience of being an Iraqi Jew—from life in a vibrant community to escape during its downfall.  Adult.  

An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America--A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II, by Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs (Barricade Books).  This memoir, authored by a brother and sister, write about their family’s escape from Nazi Austria to Shanghai, China in 1939. Adult.

The ultimate dream job

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11/01/2011

The ultimate dream job photo 

On a chilly October night, 100 women from JUF’s Young Women’s City Council (YWC) got the inside scoop from four women who are living their dream: working for Oprah Winfrey.

On Oct. 18 at the Hotel Palomar Chicago, YWC offered the opportunity to spend an evening with four producers—Lindsay Feitlinger, senior producer for The Rosie Show, Cindy Mori, vice president of booking and talent relations for Harpo Studios, Dana Brooks Reinglass, co-executive producer at Harpo Studios and executive producer  of Oprah's Lifeclass,  and Jill Van Lokeren, executive vice president and executive producer of development broadcast and cable for Harpo Studios— who were all part of the historic 25th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Julie Novack, YWC chair, moderated the discussion, asking the panelists what it was like to work at their dream jobs, to work with Oprah, to go from behind the scenes to in front of the cameras, which celebs are the toughest and more.  

So how did these four women end up working at their dream job?

Brooks Reinglass shared the story of her first interview—all she ever wanted to do was work for Oprah, and she was so emotional over the opportunity to get her dream job that she cried during her interview. Convinced she’d blown her chance, she sent an onion along with a thank you note explaining that she had found it in her pocket and that this was responsible for her emotional outburst. Soon after, she got a call back—and the rest is history.

“Anything can happen—you can turn anything around,” Brooks Reinglass said. “I wouldn’t suggest you send produce whenever you mess up, but it’s up to you. Just think about it and you can make it work.”

Feitlinger, who was always “obsessed with the Oprah show,” says there’s no one like Oprah.  “All the things that she does—it’s amazing how she [has so much] energy and she wants to change the world,” she said. “I don’t know anybody quite like her in the world that wants to do so much.”

Oprah’s “a-ha moment” happened in 1988, after she had skinheads on the show as guests. “I think she just believed ‘I’ll give them a platform and then this will maybe spark a change,’ really hopeful wide-eyed and it ended up being a big disaster,” Van Lokeren said. “She walked away from that and said ‘I swear I will never give a platform to evil on this show ever again and I want to use this for good.’”

The producers also shared stories about the perks of working for Oprah—family vacations, the celebrities, and doing what they love—and some of the tribulations—the long, hard work days, time away from their families, and the pressure to always been on top of their game.

One major change for them was during the show’s final season, which finished up in May, when the cameras were turned, and viewers were invited to look behind-the-scenes at the making of the show’s final season on OWN. The panelists, especially Van Lokeren, found themselves getting recognized on the streets. The 25th season culminated with a huge event which featured 35 A-List celebrities, 13,000 at the United Center and a surprised and tearful Oprah.

For Mori, the moment it all became real to her was when the “Morehouse Men,” the 415 young men who received The Oprah Winfrey Scholarship at Morehouse College, came out onto the stage while Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth sang "For Good" from Wicked. “It was the moment that it hit me that there is no other phenomenon like this and I am witnessing it and I have been a part of it,” Mori said. “For me, that segment really epitomized what The Oprah Show accomplished in the past 25 years. And that was all I needed to see. I had my moment, I cried tears of sadness and tears of joy at the same time.” 

The four women have now moved on to the next chapter of their work with Oprah through new projects on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), including The Rosie Show.  

For more information about JUF’s Young Women’s City Council visit www.juf.org/women. 

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