OyChicago articles

The Rumors of Her Death

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12/30/2008

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Libby and Bubba, crawling like pros

When the men were gone and she could no longer think of the word for the thing she used to light cigarettes, my grandmother, Barbara Russakoff—Bubba to those who loved her most—gave up, wrote a note, and overdosed on anti-depressants and applesauce. And it didn't work.

That was seven years ago. I was sitting in a gray cubicle in Boston pretending to work when I got the call from my mom. I don't remember the five-hour drive to Bubba’s home in Skowhegan, Maine. It was strange to be in her house without her. For the first time I could remember, the large, round schoolhouse clock on the wall opposite the table was silent. When I was a kid, its tick was the constant soundtrack of summer. A few days earlier, Bubba had told my mom that it was just wound too tight and not to bother about fixing it.

We drank too much, playing cards and telling old stories. Bubba was, as far as I’m concerned, the best grandmother a kid could have. She was beautiful and wild, she smoked—as my mom explained—using each cigarette like punctuation. She played bridge and golfed, she had affairs with married men and painted her toenails coral, she made me chicken salad with sliced cucumbers, taught me to play poker and drove all over the state (speeding, with me perched on the armrest) to find the Blueberry Muffin doll I was desperate to have. She smelled like Salem Ultra Lite 100s and Jean Nate. She loved men who were unapologetic cads and told me to keep a list of people I would bite if I ever got rabies. She thought I was the best kid ever—aside from my mom. I loved her unconditionally.

And there we were in that kitchen without her. Rooting around for a bottle opener, my mom found an old grocery receipt. Bub liked to listen to the radio and write down quotes that appealed to her. In her arthritic scrawl were Mark Twain’s words, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."  It was followed by a reminder to herself: "Get cigarettes."

I would have been happy if that had been the official suicide note—those were apt, hilarious instructions. Then, on her desk, I found a yellow Post-It just big enough to hold her words: "Libby, don’t mourn. Be happy that I can do what I want! I love you." If Bubba had actually died, that note would have been the best thing.

When I went to see Bubba in the hospital the morning after her attempt, I thought about the year my friend’s grandmother died; I was four. When my parents and I visited Maine that summer, I was worried and I asked Bubba what would happen if she died. "Oh, I’ll still be your grandmother. I will just be your dead grandmother," she said easily. At the time, I was satisfied.

Bubba had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years before her suicide attempt. Her seemingly lifelong depression became increasingly more severe. Every time I called, I wondered if it might be the last time we would speak. She’d always been vocal about her plans to kill herself when she decided the time was right. But 20 years of contradictions between her words and her actions left me simultaneously expecting her suicide and feeling sure it would never happen.

In the hospital she was in pain and very confused because the large dose of drugs had caused hallucinations. In and out of restraints, she rubbed her heels raw trying to kick her way out of the bed. Bubba couldn’t move her arms much, so did the verbal equivalent of grabbing my mom by the sleeve when she mustered all her concentration to hatch a plan. "Call a cab." When my mom explained that she couldn’t, Bubba archly said, "If you wouldn’t be too cold, we could go sit outside on the curb and wait for the cab." Bubba is accustomed to getting her way and couldn’t imagine why my mom wasn’t following orders.

We’re not a religious family and often find in literature what I imagine others must find in prayer. Before I left her house that weekend, I came across a passage by E. B. White that Bubba had torn out of a magazine years before and stuck on her fridge: "Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness." I cried. My mom rolled up her sleeves with a sigh and sadly walked over to the old clock and took it off the wall. "Well, let's get it fixed," she said, hoping as I did that maybe Bubba and the clock would find their ways back to the little brown kitchen.

They didn’t. The years that followed were a mix of ups and downs, mostly downs, in various assisted living and nursing facilities. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which sometimes came in handy for my mom when the staff called her about Bub’s bad behavior—sleeping around, calling people bitches, the usual nursing home stuff. Blaming the Alzheimer’s was much easier for us than trying to explain that Bubba would have said and done these things quite happily before she was sick—and even more happily if she knew she was pissing people off.

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Bubba in her glam days

There was the time I brought my dog to visit, and Bub suddenly looked like a woman with an idea (or “idear” as pronounced in her thick Maine accent). She did always love a conspiracy. "Lib, could you train that dog to bite a nurse?" I got it right away: the rabies list. "It won't work. The dog’s had her shots." We sat and laughed until we cried.

And the time I called and we had this phone conversation, me in Chicago, and her in home number three in Portland, Maine:
Me: Hiya Bub, how’s it going over there?
Bub: I’m wearing a robe and there’s a man in my bed.
Me: I hope you know him.
Bub: (Giggling) Yes, that’s my boyfriend, Forrest. Your mom won’t let me talk to her about my sex life.
Me: Well, I’m glad you have one again. That usually perks you up. Forrest sounds nice.
Bub: He’s fine but he’s no Eddie or Carl.
Me: Hmm, maybe you’ll end up liking him more than you think you will.
Bub: No, I’ll never care for him much, but he does take his Viagra and the sex…
Me (interrupting—who wouldn’t?): Uh, that’s fantastic. Just great. So, tell me about Forrest, what did he do before he landed in the nursing home?
Bub: Oh! He screwed around!! I have to go, I’m proud on you!

She always said, “I’m proud on you” rather than proud of you—my friend Bevin once pointed out that this more aggressive form of praise was actually the highest, far as she could tell.

There was the time she told my mom she had a new suicide plan: her boyfriend Ed (married) would borrow his brother’s gun and shoot her. My mom, upon hearing this, couldn’t help it and started laughing. Bub got mad and went into one of her rants about how she can do whatever she wants and Jack Kevorkian is a saint among men and Mother Theresa is a fucking bitch. Never mind that she herself is a non-religious Jew and saints had been of very little interest to her in the past. Then she snarled, “Well, why won’t it work?” And my mom said, “Bub, Ed has Parkinson’s disease! He’ll never hit what he’s aiming at!” In the old days, the two of them would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. But Bubba just got very sad that once again, she had no way out.

Those were the semi-funny times when she had a rotating team of what she could call boyfriends—two of whom had one leg each, one who was legally blind and many with wives—and was always after my mom to buy a double bed for her room in the home. Back then we saw a glimmer of the old Bubba, even though she kept telling us she knew she was losing her mind.

The less good days involved her crawling into my lap and crying, pleading for me to smother her with a pillow. She explained that if I loved her, I could kill her and that I was a smart girl and would not get caught—and that if I did, the sentence probably wouldn’t be that long. Or her trying to get my mom to promise that when she died she would not cry and that she would leave her ashes at the cremation place for the garbage men. She didn’t care that I would be known in jail as “that girl who killed her grandmother” or that my mom would be that awful woman who abandoned her mother’s remains. If there had been a way for us to wish her dead, we would have because that’s how much we loved her.

The last time I saw her, about two years ago, she wasn’t sure who I was. I sat on her bed, she gripped my hand like there was something I could do. It felt like this was going to last forever, like it already had.

When my dad called last summer to tell me that Bubba died—from a heart attack uncharacteristically fast and drama-free—I crumpled to the floor, sobbing, miserable and relieved. It was, at the time, a shocking emotional mix. Looking back, I imagine lots of people feel similarly when they lose someone so loved but so very ready to go.

My mom wrote a beautiful obituary about Bubba’s competitive bridge skills, her humor, her strong belief in civil liberty and justice, her elegant cooking and how much she loved us all. There wasn’t a funeral to attend but there was an outpouring of support.

My friend Sam credited Bubba for my irreverence. Our friend Eileen wrote to my mom, “I'm sure that she felt that the best of her was in you and Libby.” My mom’s cousin said Bubba taught her that apple pie is a viable breakfast option. Diane, the woman who helped my mom navigate nursing home politics and became a terrific friend to her and Bub, wrote, “She was such a hot shit!” Bevin remembered knowing her when we were little and thinking that, with her teased-up hair and her stylish bright blue Reebok high-tops, she was far too glamorous to be a grandmother.

My fiancé Erik and I went to Maine to see my parents a couple of weeks after Bub died. My mom and I had planned to scatter her ashes behind one of the granite outcroppings in my parents’ yard. We'd had to give up our first choice of scattering them in the ocean because legally you can't release ashes until you're a few miles offshore. We may be from Maine but we are not marine people, so we chose the rocks at home.

In the morning, after coffee, my dad, Erik and I went out to the yard and my mom got the ashes. She poked her head out of the house and said, “Guys, I started thinking about something I'd somehow never thought about before—the wind.” In addition to not being mariners, we are clumsy people. We decided that scattering could end badly. As glib as we can be sometimes, no one wanted to hear, “Hey, you have a piece of Bubba on your arm.”

My dad said that he had a hydrangea ready to plant and suggested planting it on top of the ashes, so Erik dug the hole, my dad did the pouring and that was that. We spent the rest of the strange day at the beach and played some cards. Then, before dinner, my dad walked into the kitchen and said, “Well, I just watered good old Bubba.” We cracked up, realizing that in a sense, we’d given her a funeral and that it was one she would have been okay with.

When Erik and I went out East last summer, I checked on the plant, found myself saying, “bye, Bub” and then went to the beach. We played cards at the kitchen table, we laughed and told the old stories because we miss her. And, now that she is really gone, I got the clock out of my parents’ basement and brought it home.

Memories of Ashkelon

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Amid terror attacks from Gaza, an Oy! reader recalls simpler times in Ashkelon 
12/30/2008

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Erica, in Israel

During the fall of 1999, I made an effort to see every sunset on the beach in Ashkelon until the air and water finally began to make my teeth chatter. Our beach trips were a highlight of my days volunteering in Ashkelon, but they weren't all postcard perfect experiences. Some of my companions got toppled by the large surfable waves or stung by the numerous jellyfish that swarmed the Mediterranean waters. Once, I tried to explain in my broken Hebrew to the lifeguard about my friend's jellyfish sting, but not knowing the word medusot at the time, I was stuck saying dag (fish) and making a zzzz sound.

Today, the people of Ashkelon are living underground. Schools and malls have been closed. The Chanukah celebration was moved to a bunker.  My interest in reading Israel-related news always peaks when the country is under attack, but an extra level of sadness settles in when the target is one of the places I lived and know so well.

I wonder what has happened to the immigrant absorption center I lived in as a volunteer on Project Otzma, whose residents at the time were from Ethiopia, Iran, Yemen, Russia, and Bosnia--many leaving terrible situations in their homelands. Now Hamas wants to tell them "Welcome to Israel, you're not safe here either."

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An Israeli family takes shelter in an reinforced room as sirens sound in the sea town of Ashkelon, December 29.
Photo Credit: Brian Hendler


I always knew that Gaza was just a short drive from town. Many international workers stayed at the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, escaping their hard days around the pool. But really, Ashkelon never felt like a border town. It was a full scale city where people complained more about the humidity than any potential dangers from our neighbors to the south—the north of Israel always felt to be more of the potential war zone. Kiryat Shmona and the northern kibbutzim faced the threat of ketyusha rockets from Lebanon. Even in Karmiel, a town slightly farther south, I had the surreal experience of watching a TV warning for the residents of the towns just to north of me to go down to bomb shelters as ketyushas rained.

Ashkelon, I hope that one day soon you can return to a state where it feels safe to go outside. Where children can play in the immigrant absorption center courtyard. Where you can learn, work and live freely as Israelis. Where you can watch the sunset on the beach and your greatest fear will be jellyfish.

Learn more and read local reactions to the situation in Gaza.

Eat, Live, Write

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Chicago Magazine’s Jeff Ruby has an awesome job. 
12/30/2008

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Jeff Ruby

As a kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Ruby thought Chi-Chi’s was the height of culinary excellence. And a little over a decade ago, he had a job interview with  Chicago Magazine’s  dining editor Penny Pollack that went a little something like this:

Pollack: Do you know anything about food?
Ruby: No, not really, I had Taco Bell on the way over here.

Pollack: Do you know anything about Chicago?
Ruby: Well, I just got here last week, so, you know, I don’t claim to know anything about Chicago either.

He doesn’t exactly possess the typical Jewish obsession with food, nor is he the most likely candidate to write what are arguably the most trusted dining reviews in Chicago.

And yet, for the last 11 years, Ruby has worked his way up the totem pole from fact-checking restaurant hours and addresses and being hazed with assignments to review Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Café – “the amphibian and guitar beat” – to his current position as Senior Editor for the magazine, not only writing about food and dining, but also penning a monthly column called The Closer about, well, whatever he wants. And that includes testing whether Ferris Bueller really could have fit all of his legendary Day Off antics into a single school day.

Ruby is the first to admit that his job is a pretty sweet deal for a guy who tried to do as little traditional reporting and as much writing in his own voice as possible during his two years of journalism school at the University of Kansas: “I’m getting paid to sit in a corner office in a big city, overlooking the river, with a blank screen in front of me and people just waiting for me to fill it,” he says.

Not that his writing is a completely solo project; a lot of his ideas for The Closer come from his wife. Together with their one- and three-year-olds, the couple spends a good amount of time traveling back and forth from their home in Andersonville to Hyde Park, where his wife grew up and where they are both active in creating an engaging synagogue life for other young families at Rodfei Zedek. It has become pretty common practice that right around the Oak Street curve on Lake Shore Drive, Ruby will ask his wife if she has any ideas for the column, and by the time they get home 15 minutes later they’ve come up with a few.

“The problem is when my boss doesn’t think any of the ideas are funny. Then I have to back them up by saying that other people on staff liked them, so he doesn’t think I’m just some dumb kid shooting my mouth off – which I pretty much am,” Ruby says.

   

"The Lonely Critic," Ruby's bubble-gum pop ode to "the life"

There’s evidence to suggest that Ruby may be selling himself short, though. A few years ago, when rising star chef Grant Achatz first came to Chicago, he worked at Trio, a restaurant in Evantson. As a year-end bonus of sorts, Ruby got to take his wife to Trio and spend as much money as he wanted; Chicago Magazine would pick up the tab, no writing assignment required, no strings attached.

It was during this mind-blowing five-and-a-half-hour meal that Ruby learned he had finally made it as a writer. Sitting a few tables away, an older couple was quoting something Ruby had written in Chicago Magazine, but saying it as though it was their original thought.

Though his wife was incredulous that her husband wasn’t going to call them out on their source, Ruby opted to remain anonymous. “It was a real ego boost,” he recalls. “I was the youngest guy in the restaurant by far, and this snobby guy is over there quoting me. All I ever wanted to do was have people read my writing; it was a real moment of arrival for me.”

Not only did he want to bask in the glory of the moment a few years ago at Trio, but Ruby also believes that anonymity is paramount in his profession – even in this age of online social networking. With all of his friends on Facebook, he created a fake profile, and furiously polices friends’ photo albums to make sure he remains untagged in pictures.

So far, it has paid off. There is only one meal during which he knew the restaurant knew who he was, and he cringes as he remembers how awkward the experience was. “They were so nervous… this guy poured salad dressing in my wine or something, and he looked like he was about to shoot himself.”

Though he has learned a lot about food over the years – he has even written two books, about drinking and pizza – Ruby’s overall opinion of the topic hasn’t changed much. Sure, he has opinions about how his wife’s challah compares to his aunt’s (very favorably), and how one should eat a latke (neither applesauce nor sour cream; a latke is supposed to taste like a latke!), but in the end, it’s not his passion for the edible that inspires him in his daily work. It’s all about the writing.

While his own culinary background may be less than epicurean, Ruby is in good company among Jewish food writers – for example, Alan Richman from GQJeffrey Steingarten from VogueGael Greene, formerly of New York Magazine and Oy!’s own Stacey Ballis. With a nod to prevailing cultural stereotypes, Ruby jokes, “there’s that Jewish thing that we love to eat and argue,” and food writing is just that: eating and voicing an opinion about it.

It’s the arguing, or at least the chance to write an argument in his own voice, that Ruby really loves, even after all these years. “If I was writing about hockey, or anything else, I’d put the same oomph into it,” he says, “I almost feel guilty.”

Ah yes, the third essential trait of Judaism: guilt.

Alternate Realities

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AngelAtTheFence

The Living Jewishly stories in Oy! are always some of our favorites--but writing these true tales of Jewish life from all angles can be tricky business. You want to be fair to the people you write about, be sure your point of view is understood and make your story cohesive and interesting to read.

There have been some big stories over the last few years about major authors who have falsified memoirs--including James Frey and Margaret Seltzer to name a couple. This week, Angel At the Fence author, Herman Rosenblat, is making headlines for falsifying a story about meeting his wife while he was in a concentration camp and then finding her by chance years later.

What do you think about the Holocaust survivor's false claims?

Giving Up the Christmas Tree

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12/09/2008

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Karen, learning that giving up the Christmas tree doesn’t mean giving up on family traditions

Even though by the age of 13 I had stopped believing in Jesus, I still went all-out every year to celebrate Christmas. I searched endlessly for the perfect tree, decorated my condo until it looked like a red and green bomb had exploded, and baked for days. I conveniently ignored the guilty feeling that I was going to hell for dispensing the holiday’s religious significance and instead focusing solely on the commercial aspects.

When, at the age of 28, I finally converted to Judaism after more than a decade of procrastination, I channeled my inner-Martha from Christmas to Chanukah. In the window, out went the tree, in the menorah. Egg nog was replaced with latkes (I figured equally fattening), and the green and red tacky Christmas decorations were exchanged for blue and silver tacky decorations. I even went as far as buying blue Chanukah hand towels for the bathroom. I was a woman on a mission.

I thought only of the fringe-benefits of the exchange such as the valuable closet space in my tiny condo I gained once all my Christmas decorations were given away. As for my husband, he was relieved that he would never again go through the drama of setting up a Christmas tree. I can still recall the terror on his face the first time he saw me with a saw in my hand, swearing like a drunk frat boy as I madly hacked away the Christmas tree trunk in a wretched attempt to get it to fit into its stand.

I told people that ‘giving up Christmas’ was no big deal, and I even bought that myself, until I called my mother to make arrangements to come home for the holiday.  Instead of responding to my query with her usual detailed account of the tactical maneuvers it would take required to bring my dispersed family together on Christmas Day, my mother was surprised I was coming home. She had, in short, written me off for Christmas.

I was floored. “What makes you think that I wouldn’t come home this year?” I asked, part wounded, and part cross.

The response: silence. I could hear my father snoring on the other end of the phone in the background.
Finally, sounding thoroughly confused, she replied, “You’re, well, Jewish now. I thought you didn’t celebrate it anymore.”

Oh, yeah.

I realized at that moment that while I had focused on the superficial changes of the holiday season, I hadn’t thought about or discussed with my family how my religious choice would play out in family gatherings revolving around Christian traditions. I assumed nothing would change about the holiday except that it wouldn’t be in my home. My family assumed that it meant more Christmas ham for them.

Their assumption came from a good place. While they may have been disappointed that I would not be at the gathering, they had completely accepted my religious choice and weren’t about to make me take part of the Christian celebration of the birth of the Messiah. My mother, who wears various Christmas-themed sweaters from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, even sent me my first Chanukah menorah and 8 presents, one for each night, that year.

And I wondered if they might be right. Was I supposed to stop celebrating Christmas with my family? I couldn’t imagine not being there for the holiday, especially because living in different cities across the country, Christmas is the only time of year when my entire family gets together. It’s when we catch up on one another’s lives and laugh about the past. On the Christmas tree and throughout the house are the decorations we made as kids, evoking fond childhood memories. And, best of all, on Christmas morning I get to watch the sheer delight spread across my two young nieces’ faces as they open their gifts, as I vicariously relive my own childhood through them. I could not fathom no longer being a part of these precious family moments.

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Karen's niece, enjoying Christmas with the Flayharts

I talked about it with my Rabbi and my Jewish husband, and ultimately concluded that what was most important was being with my family. Christmas wasn’t off-limits, in fact, it was healthier for me and my family dynamic that I continue to participate in their lives. Eating a Christmas meal or buying Christmas presents for my family doesn’t make me “less Jewish.” It makes me a member of the Flayhart family.

So, that Christmas and all the ones after, I travel to see my family, my arms loaded with Christmas presents and cookies. My husband looks forward to the annual opportunity to gorge himself on holiday sweets and play with my nieces. We give my family Christmas presents under the tree, and in exchange they give us presents wrapped in Chanukah paper. One year, during the annual family exchange, “Santa” – played by my uncle – gave us a Jewish cooking book. Ironically, each year Christmas brings me the best present of all: the love my family has for me and not just acceptance but support of my religious choice.

And, when Chanukah falls over Christmas, my family kindles the Menorah lights with us, and we play the Dreidel game with my nieces. What I’ve found is that each time my family participates in my newfound religion – whether it’s my wedding or Chanukah celebrations – it brings them closer to understanding not only Judaism, but who I am.

Looking back, I now realize that the reason I bought into the consumerism of the holidays stemmed from me being able to control the superficial aspects of a significant life change as I had not yet addressed the deeper ones. Now secure in my Jewish identity, I look forward to spending the holidays with my family each year, and I don’t feel any need to use my dreidel-decorated towels. And, more importantly, I’m no longer over-compensating for lacking a belief in the spiritual meaning of my holiday. My mother tells me that’s the best present I could have given her. This year, I vowed to find her a Chanukah sweater to wear.

8 Questions for Arielle Sandler, visual artist, Cincinnatian-turned-Chicagoan, and artist on the big and little screen

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12/09/2008

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Arielle, bringing beauty to the world through art

Have you ever gazed at a painting by Chicago Jewish 20-something artist Arielle Sandler? Before you answer that, do you watch the TV shows “Eli Stone” and/or “Brothers & Sisters?” Maybe you caught Will Smith’s and Charlize Theron’s summer blockbuster “Hancock?” Well if the answer is yes to any those questions, then you have seen Sandler’s paintings, which have been featured on both of those shows and in the Will Smith flick. Sandler, who grew up in Cincinnati, but now resides in Chicago, is an abstract landscape oil painter, who explores bright color and surface in her work, applying paint liberally to the canvas, up to an inch thick like “icing on a cake.” Last year, she launched a series of original oil paintings entitled “100 Paintings in 100 Days” and plans to launch the second “100 Paintings in 100 Days,” in 2009. Subscribe to the series at  www.100paintings100days.com and visit www.ArielleSandlerStudio.com to view her other work.

So whether you’re a painting aficionado or a lover of vegetarian Indian food, Motown, or the show “Brothers & Sisters,” Arielle Sandler is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be an artist.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love the challenge of working with colors until they converse with one another.  I love creating beauty in what sometimes seems like an increasingly ugly world.  I love hearing from people around the globe who describe being moved by my work.  How lucky I am…

3. What are you reading?
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and  The Atlantic .

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Uru-Swati on Devon has the best vegetarian Indian food.  So good!

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A health care system that works and is affordable for all.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Flying would be much more fun, but being invisible would allow for a truer understanding of people.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
“You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes.  It has been a favorite since I was about 6 years old.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
Friday night dinner with friends and family.

Beyond Movies and Chinese Food

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12/09/2008

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Stacey, green with Christmas envy

“Gather around my friends, you are in a sacred place, you are among those you can trust, and your secrets are safe here. No one will judge you. No one will point fingers. And no one will tell your grandparents.”

This is always how I imagine that a support group for Jews with Christmas Envy might start, in a library conference room or a community center basement, with large pots of bitter coffee and platters of slightly stale and lopsided gingerbread men.

Judaism is built on a foundation of questioning, even challenging, the doctrines of our faith. Think of the wonderful debates that rage over the Talmud, as vociferous and passionate now as hundreds of years ago. You can pick your topic of choice, go to the books and find some support, and launch your attack on any aspect of this rich history.

As long as you don’t bring up the C-word. No…the OTHER C-word.

Of all the things we keep hidden from each other as a group—the secret bacon-cheeseburgers scarffed down on the way to Shabbat dinner at the Kosher home of your in-laws, checking e-mail on the Blackberry in the bathroom during High Holy Day services, faking deep religiosity at work with a Gentile boss for a free two-day Rosh Hashanah pass that gets used for a long weekend in Vegas…you know who you are—but nothing holds us in quiet desperation year after year like Christmas Envy.

Some of my favorite holiday tales are rooted in this hush-hush pathology. The Jewish family friend whose four-year-old son insists on waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap, where he confesses that he doesn’t need Santa to bring him any presents, but he sure would like some decorations. And, the girlfriend who, the December after marrying her Gentile husband, called to gloat that she was decorating her first Christmas tree.  When I asked if the two of them were having fun, she shrieked almost maniacally. “I sent him out with his friends for the day! This tree is all mine! When we have kids it can be a family thing, but I’ve waited my whole life for this tree and I’M DOING IT ALL BY MYSELF! I designed it, I bought all the decorations, and it is going to be F***ING PERFECT! Are you JEALOUS?”

Yes. Yes I was.

As a kid I didn’t suffer so much. Chanukah was a festival of presents, I always thought eight days were so much cooler than one, and I liked that no matter where in the world we might have traveled for the winter break, we usually managed to find a movie theater and a Chinese restaurant for the traditional Jewish December 25th ritual. My cousin Sue Sussman wrote a great children’s book called There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein , a sort of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret for the grammar school Christmas Envy set. It’s a warm, funny read that helped put things in perspective. I loved all the ABC twirling-rainbow-colored SPECIALS, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, crackling Heat Miser and the fluffy Abominable Snowman, and I thought it was hysterical that Herbie wanted to be a dentist instead of an elf. Scrooged with Bill Murray still makes me laugh hard enough to shoot diet coke through my nose.

But as I got older, the holiday got tougher.

I moved, after college, into the Logan Square neighborhood, where I reside still. Four blocks from the notorious Christmas House. A house that goes so over-the-top on decorations that it blocks up traffic on the Boulevard for a month, and the license plates of gawkers range from Wisconsin to Indiana to Michigan-- once I even saw Florida. Animatronic figurines spin in lit plexiglass boxes on the lawn, Santa and the Reindeers on the roof, flags of a hundred nations, every surface shining with lights that I think you can probably see from space. I can certainly see the incandescent structure from my front window.

The front window in the circular turret part of my Victorian living room that freaking cries out for a huge nine-foot blue spruce with tiny white twinkle lights and glittering ornaments and some shiksa angel in tulle on the top and…

Sorry. I digress.

Now, I can be a Christmas cynic as much as the next person. I frankly detest the imposition of holiday music that is foisted upon me in every public location between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four years of Christmas concerts in my high school band, including having to make the horse neigh at the end of Sleigh Ride through my trumpet, pretty much cured me of Christmas music, despite the fact that most of the best songs are both written and performed by members of the Tribe. (Exception made for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which I love beyond all reason.) But this goes mostly for pre-recorded Christmas music in retail locations. I love the sound of red-cheeked strangers singing on my doorstep on a winter’s night, and the gathered-round-the-piano songs at holiday parties. I hate the commercialism that is attached to the holiday, buying and buying, all about the presents, and the commercials that start right after Halloween and seem anathema to the true spirit of giving.

But sweet fancy Moses, I do love the food.

My friend Doug has a killer holiday party every year, and while the Turkey Tonnato is delish, the meatballs succulent, and the spicy sesame noodles haunt my dreams…you’ll invariably find me parked next to the enormous brown sugar ham, engaged in semi-conscious conversation while surreptitiously sneaking bits into my mouth for two or three hours. If it weren’t so unladylike, I’d probably pilfer the bone into my purse at the end of the night to gnaw on the way home.

Platters of Christmas cookies, sparkling with sanding sugar, decorated with royal icing, like gorgeous edible jewels. Gingerbread houses, elaborate with candy decor, heady with spice. I can’t really get behind egg nog, truth be told, but mulled wine or spiced cider or Christmas punch, yes please! Plus the actual Christmas meal, effectively a redux Thanksgiving, well, if you don’t know how I would feel about that, please check  Oh So Very Thankful  for a full report.

I don’t know what a figgy pudding is, but I’d like to try one. With a side of wassail. Preferably after I’ve spent an afternoon watching A Christmas Story while stringing popcorn. I’ve never tasted a roasted goose, but considering what goose fat can do to a simple French fry, I’m very willing to give it a shot. I’m not interested in fruitcake, but then again, neither are most of my Gentile friends. Mincemeat pie intrigues me, especially since no one makes it with suet anymore, as does the concept of plum pudding with hard sauce. Buche de Noel cakes, roasted chestnuts, candy canes, oranges studded with cloves (although I don’t think you’re supposed to eat these), ham, ham and more ham!

Sigh.

It isn’t ALL about the food…although that is a powerful draw. It is also about the idea of the spirit of Christmas. The Gift of the Magi. The child who puts his allowance money into the Salvation Army bucket. It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve felt the internal glow when a colleague you don’t know well drops a card or a cookie on your desk. When I was working as a teacher, I went to the home of a student for a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas Eve, which moved me deeply, dozens of family members taking turns at the dinner table, with kids decorating the tree and playing with new toys, not to mention the best arroz con pollo and rice and beans I’ve ever tasted. I’ve watched my goddaughter open her presents and nearly pass out with joy, giving hugs and kisses of true gratitude to the gathered crowd. I’ve stood in an Ecuadorian church and heard a choir singing Simon and Garfunkel in Spanish. I’ve been amongst the hoards on the plaza at the Vatican on Christmas morning and heard Pope John Paul say, among other things, Shalom. I’ve had a traditional New Zealand Christmas Barbecue (Best. Lamb chops. Ever.), seen palm trees covered in lights and stars, and not one but two Costa Rican Christmases with the most beautiful and gracious and kibitzing nation of people you could hope to meet. I was twenty-nine before I saw the transcendent Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol for the first time, but I haven’t missed a production since, and every year it delights me and makes me cry and makes me smile and makes me REALLY GREEN WITH ENVY.

Not in a wanting-to-convert kind of way…I adore being Jewish. It isn’t a self-loathing thing, I think our holidays and traditions generally are really cool and meaningful. And I do not in any way mean to imply that somehow Jews are without a tradition of giving or generosity of spirit, in fact, I think we as a people excel in these very arenas year-round as part and parcel of who we are and how we live in the world. Just in a wistful boy-it-would-be-fun sort of way, to decorate and bake and go caroling and hang a stocking with neither a sense of irony nor guilt, nor outsider status, and nary an ancestor spinning in a grave.

I have always known that these things will never happen for me unless my next romantic partner is a Gentile, in which case I hope he will teach me Christmas, (and that I will let him help decorate the tree!) and that I will be able to bring him into our traditions as well.

In the meantime, while it doesn’t have quite the dramatic oomph of a tree, I do love the way the flickering lights of my menorah bounce off the windows in the circular turret part of my Victorian living room, even if I can’t fling tinsel on it. And I love that my friends who aren’t Jewish include me in the celebrations of their holiday. Even if I do eat most of the ham.

At this time of the year, with Christmas all around us, and Chanukah looming, and the New Year right behind, I wish you all meaningful celebrations with the traditions of your choice.

And if you decide there IS such a thing as a Chanukah bush, I won’t tell your grandparents. As long as you invite me to help decorate.

Merry Everything, and Happy Always.

See you in 2009.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the week: The season of holiday giving is upon us, and for foodies, no gift is better than gourmet goodies. Check out the delectables at the new website www.foodsacrossamerica.com Really yummy stuff. I can attest to quality because I wrote the copy for the website and, to do a bang up job, had to taste most of the offerings! So if you bop around and read the history of the different brands and serving suggestions, it is hopefully entertaining. Just don’t tell me if there is a typo.

NOSH food read of the week:  Tender at the Bone  by Ruth Reichl

Working Girl

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After 25 years in the real world, I’d like to revisit myself at 24 and say nice job 
12/02/2008

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Linda, celebrating 25 years as a working girl

This month is the 25th anniversary of the day I started my first real job. That first day of work was blistering cold, like today. I was wearing a suit with a skirt—no pants for women allowed, then—and I remember making my way across the bridge over the steaming Chicago River, trying to suck it up and act like a tough commuter.

I spent a lot of that first winter trying to suck it up and act tough.

The job market that year was as horrendous as it is now, so here I was, with two degrees, earning jack shit. My last year of college cost more than my first annual salary. My student loans and rent ate up most of my take-home pay, and I was broke. I can still see myself shopping for groceries with my mother, finally explaining to her that I wasn’t buying the economy-size jug of laundry detergent because I just didn’t have enough cash. I had two fancy degrees, and was too poor to buy an extra-large bottle of Tide.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, if someone had just taken me aside and said: “Okay; here’s the deal. The first year or two out of school completely suck, but then it will be okay. It’s not because this is The Real World. It’s because you’re 24.”

Looking back, it all makes sense. I had a fabulous education, but worked an entry-level job. I had developed an appreciation for the finer things in life, but had no money to pursue them. I had made intense friendships in college, but those friends were scattered across the globe. Plus, I had a bad body wave and no boyfriend.

And then, shit just happened to me. I overslept on a work day. My storage locker was broken into, my car was burglarized, and my wallet was snatched out of my purse. It never happened again, but I swear, all this shit happened when I was 24. It was like falling into a cosmic black hole. It took a year or two, but it was an incredible relief to find that this was not my permanent reality.

However, what was permanent was the realization that exchanging academic quarters for fiscal quarters had not been a good trade. Let’s be real: It is a lot more satisfying to end a term with a few days off and a couple of beers than to mark it with a news release about your company’s earnings. Plus, I’d learned to schedule my classes to avoid, you know, morning, so it pissed me off to have office hours at all, let alone office hours that began before the crack of noon. Again, this was not a good trade. Admittedly, when I wrote something, now people paid me instead of giving me a report card—a much better deal—but no one ever suggested that I take time off for an Independent Study or a trip overseas to explore one of my brilliant ideas.

I think I was afraid of having an examined life during this winter of my discontent, so I sleep-walked through my life during that first year or two after college. I found an apartment I loved, managed my own finances, and learned how to deal with patronizing male co-workers (who did a whole lot of things that would be utterly illegal today) without noticing that I had landed well on my feet. I received three promotions in three years without realizing I was a success. I discovered what I truly wanted—and didn’t want—in a life partner without considering how long that took most people. I got involved in causes I believed in without understanding that I had found my life’s work. And I had a body that I would die to have today, but was ashamed of at the time.

So now I wish I could go back and enjoy those accomplishments as they happened—and enjoy the kick ass bod I didn’t appreciate back then.  Basically, I want a do-over. Which is probably the same thing I’ll say about how I’m living today in another 25 years.

Comfort Foods

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My first attempt to make my grandma’s famous kugel, two years in the making
12/02/2008

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Alyssa, whipping up a batch of kugel, and memories

My friend Naomi is intimidated by chicken soup. Another friend recently tackled a fear of Thanksgiving turkey. For most of my adult life, I have resisted noodle kugel.

These dishes have been cooked for countless holidays by our mothers and grandmothers. The familiar aromas wafting through our kitchens inspire feelings of comfort and familiarity, and evoke memories of less complicated times. These dishes hold such esteem in our minds – and our bellies – that we angst over the prospect of cooking them ourselves.

My grandma’s noodle kugel is famous, at least in our family.

When we were little, my grandparents lived in the condo unit farthest from the elevator. After fighting over who got to push the inside button and who the outside button (the inside was far more coveted, as there were many buttons from which to choose), my three brothers and I would burst from the elevator and race to #110, where Grandma and Poppy would be waiting for us in the hall with open arms.

We would proceed immediately to the kitchen, where two noodle kugels always waited for us. The Corn Flakes topping was golden and crispy, coating the layers of sweet, creamy noodles and pineapple morsels. The four of us, with help from Poppy, easily devoured an entire kugel, which is why the second batch was so important. Grandma never let us go home empty-handed.

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 Alyssa and her brothers, kugel connoisseurs

The kugel appeared at most major holidays (except for Passover of course); it was requested each time we slept at Grandma’s, and every time we came home from college for a visit.

She never shared the recipe with anyone, saying she wouldn’t be able to write down the exact measurements because everything was “in her head.” Fortunately for me, she was able to figure it all out just in time for my wedding shower, where she presented me with a handwritten recipe card.

Still, it took me two years to attempt the kugel.

My grandma is not doing a lot of cooking anymore, and I recently found myself with the perfect opportunity to whip up a batch, which quickly turned into a trip down memory lane. I was inspired by our Dinner Club, a group of friends that gets together monthly over a theme dinner. I decided to host a Jewish meal, and dug through my recipe books for my grandma’s card. As I gathered my ingredients, my fear that the dish would be a sure failure began to dwindle away. Following the pretty cursive on the recipe card, I could almost hear my grandma telling me I should probably think twice about a third helping, and my poppy telling her to let me eat as much as I want.

It turned out almost perfect. My timing was a bit off and the kugel should have sat for a while after coming out of the oven, but I served it immediately. The result, while delicious, was a bit wetter than Grandma’s.

Of course, the true test will come when I gather the nerve to serve the kugel to my family, the only critics able to discern the differences between mine and the original. And even if my version doesn’t quite meet their standards, Grandma will be thrilled to know that we sat around my table eating her kugel together, just like we did in her kitchen.

8 Questions for Avi Furhman, DJ by Night, Writer by Day, Dinosaur Fan

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12/02/2008

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DJ Avi Sic

Avigaeil Furhman is a jack of all trades. She is passionate about music and can be found most nights DJing at many Chicago hotspots, including Town Hall PubThe Continental and Swig. But she also makes a living writing for online magazine BuzzNews and is interested in becoming an artist, dancer or actress one day soon. She loves all kinds of animals and once planned on a career in oceanography. Originally from Connecticut, Avi attended the Savannah College of Art and Design before moving to Chicago in 2005. Chicago has been a perfect fit for Avi who wanted the feel of a big city with a thriving theatre and music culture, but smaller than New York and closer to home than Los Angeles. You can see her spin at Liar’s Club every Wednesday night.

So, if you enjoy listening to music, but can’t carry a tune or crave Chinese food, Avi Furhman is A Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Pretty much everything! I always liked performing, music, and the visual arts, but I was also into the ocean, animals and dinosaurs. It’s funny because today that’s totally what I’m still into! When I was really little I wanted to be an oceanographer, then it turned into astronaut. Then I started playing “band” with my friends. Sometimes I would be playing an instrument (which I eventually took on for real), other times I would sing (but quickly realized I have no talent in that arena even after massive singing lessons), sometimes I would play back up dancer hence my later in life stint with dancing. Then I wanted to be an actress which became an on and off passion (and my college major). I wanted to be a writer (my minor), a slam poet, and a rapper…all of which I did for a while during college and post. From middle school until college I wanted to be an artist and took lessons. In college I double minored in art history as well. I pretty much wanted to try everything. My mom is the greatest; [she] let me dabble around in a lot of different areas to allow me to figure myself out.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
It’s the best!  I basically [get to] live and breathe music. I DJ at [local] clubs and bars, it is the most fulfilling thing in the world to open people up to new styles of music or to play their favorite track in a whole new light. I spend all my time researching, digging, working on sets, remixing, bettering my skills, and challenging myself to become the best I can be at what I do. I learn something new every time I put the needle on the record or turn on my computer to research an old blues track. I am constantly on my toes. It’s a timeless art form and I am proud to be able to help preserve, share and create it.

3. What are you reading?
Wax Poetics – it’s a hip-hop, funk, jazz & soul quarterly.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
My kitchen has become a favorite lately, but I’m [also] a sucker for a fancy chain restaurants [such as] P.F. Chang’s.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A machine that cures all diseases and aliments.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Fly. Invisibility seems a bit creepy.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Single Ladies by Beyonce.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
Sneak into the high holy days un-ticketed. What a rush!

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