Aaron Becker has a “mad crush” on the world, the mountains of Norway included
Aaron Becker digs the music, savors the wine, and makes new friends wherever he goes, whether it’s the Chabad house in Florence or the bathhouse in Konya. His resume crisscrosses the planet: ten languages studied, a 2007 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, two Fulbright scholarships (Turkey and Morocco), educational programs in Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Russia, Egypt, and around the world we go. Growing up, Aaron’s commute to class was never far – Solomon Schechter, Niles North, Glenbrook South, University of Illinois. But he has since traveled the distance and continued to learn.
The classroom where Aaron teaches history and global studies at Evanston Township High School looks different from the rest. For one thing, there are no desks. Kick off your shoes, grab some tea, pull up a pillow and get ready to learn. Mr. Becker is the kind of teacher who simultaneously brings out your best and blows your mind.
So if you’re at home on the road with a thirst for knowledge, tea, truth, or Madeira, Aaron Becker is a Jew You Should Know.
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
You mean to tell me that money and time aren’t limitless? Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet – one month each. Cape Town for six months. Maybe a year wandering through Southeast Asia.
3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
It’s been done. Being John Malkovich was a total rip-off of the film based on the biographical novel Being Aaron Becker. Also, I should tell you that John Ritter played me in Three’s Company.
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve? I would have a picnic and hear a concert in Millennium Park with Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King. I would bring a few bottles of Madeira, and make a huge salad, a hearty stew and pecan pie for dessert. My two guests should be disguised somehow, so as not to attract too much attention. Depending on their omniscience, I’d try to bring them up to speed on world events – I’d give Dr. King a report on the Chicago Public School system and I’d give Jefferson an iPhone to fiddle around with. It’s funny – I’m more interested in their responses to the changes that have transpired since they’ve left this world than any of their stories or wisdom.
5. What's your idea of the perfect day? Coffee on my hotel balcony overlooking the water, a short walk to language class, a stroll through the colorful crowded market and lunch in the local botanical garden. An afternoon field trip with a new friend from my adopted neighborhood – maybe to a castle or a concert or a place special only to my new friend. Late afternoon nap. Meet friends for drinks and appetizers. Then back to one of their houses to cook dinner together as we talk and listen to music. Watch the waves come in beneath the moon from the roof of my hotel.
Meeting a friendly stranger who challenges my preconceptions.
Seeing a student channel the divine.
6. What do you love about what you do? My students are goddamn brilliant. I have a more up-to date iPod than most of my friends. I work with smart, cool people. I feel appreciated by everyone around me.
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
Foreign service, flipping houses, confidence man, cheese counter employee.
8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Random walk-ins at synagogues in my shtetly neighborhood (otherwise known as Rogers Park), and Shabbat dinners with old friends. A big shout-out to the heimish crowd at Kehilat Shalom – I used to read Torah there from time to time and I miss them.
I remember first hearing Max Quinlan’s beautiful voice when he was just a little boy, singing in Buffalo Grove community theater productions. Growing up, both of our moms were active on the Village Arts Commission, so we often found ourselves on stage or backstage together. Max, who comes from a family of musical and artistic talent—his mother and sister both have amazing voices and his father was always helping out backstage—always exuded extraordinary talent on stage, even from a very young age. So I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone, especially me, that Max is now starring in two productions—“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “High School Musical”—at the Marriot Theatre in Lincolnshire.
Max says he initially got into theater because of his parents—his mom studied voice in college. He did his first community theater show at age four and made his professional debut not too long after in the Chicago production of “Ragtime.” He recently graduated from Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with a B.F.A. in Musical Theater. He made his New York debut Off-Broadway with the York Theatre Company in “Grind” and after several other roles, returned home to the Chicago suburbs and the Marriot Theatre, where he recently completed runs of “The Bowery Boys” and “All Shook Up” and is now starring as Joseph in “Joseph” and Troy in “High School Musical.”
“It’s great (to be at Marriot),” Max said. “It’s such a wonderful place with a great reputation. It’s kind of nice to be back home and be where all my friends and family can see me in the shows.”
He is excited about “Joseph,” a show that is great because everyone knows and loves the story.
“It’s also a huge responsibility because people come in with huge expectations,” he said. “I try to bring something new to it while also respecting the tradition (of the original).”
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Joseph” is a “colorful” retelling of the biblical life of Joseph and his amazing abilities. The original production starred Donny Osmond as Joseph.
“To be doing something like ‘Joseph’ is great because it is a religious show and it has such a great message,” Max said. “It’s a story that is important to be told, especially to people of the Jewish faith.”
For Max, Jewish identity is also tied to music. He says his first singing experience came from going to temple and he once thought he wanted to be a cantor.
“I realized how big of an impact music is on life in general,” he said.
As Troy, the heartthrob originally played by Zac Efron in the movie “High School Musical” Max will surely grab the attention of teenage girls throughout the North Shore. The show, based on the wildly popular Disney Channel Original movie, follows Gabriella, a shy, brainy transfer student, and Troy, the hunky captain of the basketball team as they discover their secret passion for singing.
“High School Musical” is a lot of fun,” Max said. “It’s been such a huge influence on this young generation and gotten kids really excited about musicals.”
For Max, excitement about musicals came without the help of a Disney movie. He realized at a young age that you can learn a lot about life through theater.
“Musicals are not just a spectacle of sorts, they have messages behind them and lessons to learn,” he said, recalling that “Ragtime” his first professional show, taught him many lessons, including a history lesson that coincided with his seventh grade history class at the time.
“This was the first time I realized what theater was all about and what it could do for an audience,” Max said.
His advice to other aspiring young actors is to keep studying and know there is so much to learn. “I think the best advice anyone can ever give you is to follow your passion.”
After completing the runs of “Joseph” and “High School Musical” Max plans to follow his passion back to New York to revisit the theater scene there, hoping to make a home both out east and in Chicago.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through May 10. The performance schedule for all shows is Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $45 excluding tax and handling fees and a $5 discount for students and seniors is valid for Wednesday matinees and Sunday performances. The performance schedule for “High School Musical” is Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 10 a.m. and Saturdays at 11 p.m. though some show times and dates may vary. Tickets for all shows are $12 To reserve tickets, call the Marriot Theatre Box Office at (847)634-0200 or visitwww.marriottheatre.com.
Every day, there is more bad news about the lousy economy—the slump, the downturn, the recession. The steep drop in retail sales reflects our new reality. But, just take a stroll to your neighborhood cosmetics counter and you may be surprised to see things are still buzzing along. This is the “lipstick indicator” in action.
Traditionally, in times of economic uncertainty, makeup sales tend to rise. Leonard Lauder, Chairman of Estee Lauder, saw lipstick sales skyrocket after 9/11. During the Great Depression cosmetic sales rose approximately 25 percent and many cosmetics companies emerged from the Depression wealthier than they had been. U.S. households were more likely to own a tube of lipstick than a jar of mustard. The Red Lipstick of the day offered women a lot of bang for their buck. When you can’t afford to buy a new dress, it’s an easy way to perk up your look, and your mood.
During World War II, makeup was seen as a vital part of the war effort; advertisers turned lipstick into a symbol of resilient femininity in the face of danger, a symbol that would boost the morale of both the women wearing the lipstick and the male soldiers who saw such attractive American females. A leading cosmetic company at that time had a “War, Women and Lipstick” campaign as an effort to boost personal morale. The Marines even used lipsticks “Montezuma Red” by Estee Lauder and Revlon’s “Certainly Red" as a part of women’s uniforms.
So, just as the American generation of women did during the Great Depression and WW II – today’s American women are creating our own “Recession Chic.” While we may not be recycling last year’s sweater for the wool to knit a new one, many women are being forced to make sacrifices.
Some of us are starting small, forgoing a visit to the salon and doing our nails at home. And the days of spending $35 on the newest mascara formula are over. We’re going back to basics. The classic Maybelline Great Lash Mascara ($5) does the job, and the pink and green tube is still found in every professional makeup artist’s kit from New York to Paris.
As in past decades, when the economy gets bad, hemlines get lower, more durable fabrics are used and lipstick gets brighter and darker. We are seeing that cycle now, as makeup and fashion move right past the pastel colored, frillier Spring collections (which were designed last year) – and the Fall 2009 Collections move decidedly toward a darker, more somber palette, black was everywhere and matte and semi-matte makeup is making a comeback. Natural nude lips are still a favorite, but Red lipstick dominated the runways. Fashion week featured heavy coats of MAC Ruffian Red and Chanel Rouge Allure Laque.
American women are not going to let this recession get their appearances down. We are strong, beautiful and resilient. Just like the Great Generation of women that preceded us, “We can do it!”
At her big sister’s funeral, 6-year-old Ava searched for coins to throw in the baptismal font so she could make a wish. It was the only moment of the entire event that could pass for normal.
In the front of the church lay the body of Ava’s sister, a beautiful 17-year-old girl—a girl who only days beforehand had been full of life, promise and no small measure of piss and vinegar. One minute she was preparing to audition for college music scholarships and getting ready for her senior prom, and the next she was in a box.
It was, as her heartbroken friends said, so random.
Marie was sassy and funny and sweet and talented, and the girl could fight. She had a weak lung but the heart of a lion. I heard that even when that heart stopped, so strong was her spirit that Marie clawed her way back to life—four times over. The fifth time, death won.
If I were a betting woman, I would have bet on Marie.
At her parents’ request, Marie’s friends from jazz and choir sang at her memorial service and funeral mass. Teetering on their high heels, the ashen-faced teenagers rose to the occasion. Later that night they would kick off their shoes and their composure, but at the church they stood together like soldiers and sang like angels.
Afterwards, I held my sobbing child in my arms and yearned for the days when she only needed comfort because she’d scraped her knee.
Each of us punctuates our lives with annual holidays and occasional life cycle events, creating a personal sense of our position in time. We might calculate “He was president when I was in 8th grade,” or ask “Wasn’t that the year we went to Denver for Passover?” But there is also a parallel universe in which grown-ups measure the passing years by annual screening tests and yarzheits: “That was just before my surgery,” we say, and “This is our first Thanksgiving since Herb died.” Isn’t 16 too young to start cataloguing the passage of time in terms of loss?
It is said that teenagers are resilient, and I suppose that’s true. In the days surrounding her death, Marie’s friends created Facebook groups, videos and posters in her memory. My daughter politely asked her literature teacher for an extension on reading a book centered around a child’s life-threatening illness. The teens comforted one another, and made plans to honor Marie at their remaining choir performances. They were exceptionally kind and compassionate to the anguished high school administrators and teachers hovering over them. Gradually the students resumed their schoolwork, their car pools and their college applications. But the look in their eyes was changed, maybe forever.
Rule #1: Sometimes life sucks.
Rule #2: Mothers can’t change Rule #1.
I religiously recorded my daughter’s first tooth, first steps and first words, but I found no space in her baby book for this milestone. The hardest part of being a mom is neither the “terrible twos” nor the teen years, but this: the agony of bearing witness as my child’s heart is broken. I expected this to come when she didn’t get the role she wanted in a school play, or when a boy she liked just wanted to be “friends.” I did not expect a loss so great that it also would shatter her to the core.
When others reminisce about their first lover, first apartment or first job, I’m afraid my daughter and her friends will instead identify Marie’s death as the moment in time when their childhoods ended. Because it’s the truth.
You don’t meet a lot of Jews named Christopher Campbell.
Well, actually, Christopher Campbell is no longer Christopher. He’s now Yisrael Campbell, but he journeyed on a long and spiritual road to arrive at his new identity.
An American-born Israeli comedian and actor, Campbell will perform for a program of the Young Leadership Division (YLD) of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the Young Adult Division (YAD) of Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, to be held at the synagogue on Saturday, March 28, at 8 p.m. following a Havdalah service.
Back in the 1960s, Campbell was born into a Philadelphia Catholic family, to an Italian mother and Irish father. As Campbell describes it, “I’m the first-born son of a manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman. That makes me wildly emotional…in a very quiet way.”
His late aunt was a nun, meaning “she was the bride of Christ,” says Campbell. “The joke is she was my aunt and Jesus was my uncle.” His mother, too, had joined a convent for a while, but eventually left both the convent and her strict adherence to the faith and started a family. Campbell and his younger sister, though baptized, were raised in an unobservant Catholic household. In fact, their mother insisted they attend public rather than parochial school.
At 16, Campbell was diagnosed with alcoholism and drug addiction, and on his quest toward recovery, he sought spiritual guidance. First, he turned to his Christian faith for answers, attending mass and confession, but yearned for an alternative spiritual path. He also gave meditation a try, but says he wasn’t cut out for a Zen life. “I got an 85-mile-per-hour speeding ticket on my way to the Zen center,” says Campbell, laughing at his own irony.
A few years after high school—clean and sober but still on his religious quest—Campbell met a Jewish friend who introduced him to Judaism, specifically the Jewish relationship between people and God. “She told me, ‘If you’re angry at God, yell at God. If you’re happy at God, laugh at God, and if you’re sad, cry,’” recalls Campbell. “I thought that was so profound—and also dangerous. Yell at God? What? Do you want to get struck by lightning? God will kill you. Read the literature. Do you know what ‘smite’ means?”
That same Jewish woman gave him Exodus, the famed novel by Leon Uris about the founding of Israel. “I read that and was so blown away by the story of this tiny little people that survived the Holocaust and went on to found the State of Israel, surrounded by enemies,” says Campbell.
After reading Exodus, he pored over Holocaust literature including books by survivors Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, and he yearned to visit Israel. “I had this ongoing infatuation with Israel, stories of survival from the Holocaust, Jewish culture—and, of course, Jewish women. [I saw the religion] through rose-colored glasses…” he explains.
Another part of Judaism that resonated with Campbell is that on Yom Kippur, one must right their wrongs with other human beings as well as with God. As a Catholic child, Campbell says, he had felt uneasy about confessing one’s sins against another person in church without apologizing to that person first.
For the next decade, his love for all things Jewish “percolated” and Israel lived on, to him, as a “mythical” place. He figured maybe if he gave it some time, he would come to realize that Judaism wasn’t the right spiritual path for him. But instead, the opposite happened and his interest in the religion grew. While living in Los Angeles and attending drama school, Campbell spotted an advertisement in the back of an L.A. weekly for a Judaism 101 class.
Yisrael Campbell, an American-born Israeli comedian, converted from Catholicism to Judaism 15 years ago
In 1994, at the age of 31, after taking the religion class, he completed a Reform conversion to Judaism, his first of three Jewish conversions in the coming years. His first included immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath) and undergoing a hatafat dam brit (in the case of an already-circumcised Jew by choice, this symbolic “drop of the blood” ritual fulfills the requirements of the brit milah—the covenant of the circumcision).
Around that time, he met an Egyptian non-practicing Muslim woman, whom he married but soon divorced. Then, two years after his first conversion, he grew gradually more religious and made a Conservative conversion, sitting before a beit din (rabbinical court of Judaism).
Campbell then traveled to Israel for a summer, where he lived as a traditionally observant Jew, following all the laws of Judaism, including wearing a beard, black hat, and peyas (religiously uncut portion of hair behind the ears). But despite his strict observance, he longed for acceptance by the entire Jewish community. Because he hadn’t completed an Orthodox conversion, he felt that he wasn’t recognized by all Jews as a member of the tribe.
For instance, as a guest at an observant Jewish wedding, Campbell wanted to chant one of the sheva brachot (seven blessings said according to religious Jewish law at weddings), but his friend urged him to refrain because of his questionable religious status.
So Campbell chose to make a third and final conversion, this time to Orthodox Judaism, repeating a strict conversion process.
He also made aliyah and met his second wife in Israel. Married seven years, they live in a town called Baka, south of the Old City in Jerusalem, with their three children, 3-year-old twins (a son and daughter) and a younger son who will turn two in May.
After moving to Israel, Campbell started going by the name Yisrael, which he had selected as his Hebrew name for his initial conversion to Judaism. “Israelis, unlike Americans, weren’t shy about saying, ‘How can someone who looks like you be named Chris?’ They couldn’t handle it,” says Campbell.
Currently, the comedian and his family are spending the year in Manhattan, where Campbell is working on a one-man off-Broadway comedy show about the story of his life. He’s also been touring the Jewish film festival circuit with Circumcise Me (a riff on the title Supersize Me), the 2008 documentary about Campbell’s journey, produced by Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld.
Yisrael wears his sunglasses at night
In 2007, Campbell toured with the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, the first-ever Israeli Palestinian comedy tour, founded by Palestinian comedian and columnist Ray Hanania and Israeli comedian Charley Warady, both Chicagoans. Campbell and Chicago comedian Aaron Freeman, an African-American Jew by choice, joined Hanania and Warady for the tour.
Now that Campbell and his family have returned to the States for a while, his parents get to see their grandchildren often. His mother and father embrace Campbell’s new religious identity, but ask many questions, like why he doesn’t answer the phone on Shabbat and when the family is next celebrating in that “little house holiday” (Sukkot).
When Campbell was visiting his hometown recently, he bumped into a blast from the past—his Irish-Catholic high school prom date. She didn’t recognize Campbell in his peyas, beard, and hat. “‘It’s me, Chris Campbell,’” he said, jogging her memory. ‘Now I see it—do you live around here?’ his former date wondered. “I didn’t say it to her, but my answer in my head was ‘not in any conceivable way,’” says Campbell. “I don’t live here spiritually, I don’t live here physically, and I don’t look like the same person. I’m a different person.”
The cost of the March 28 show is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. This includes dessert, wine, and the program. Register online on the YLD website. For more information, contact Ariel Zipkin atArielZipkin@juf.org or (312) 357-4692. Also check it out on Oy!'s events page.
Rabbi Heather Altman is a well-balanced person. Through her creation, “Rav Yoga,” she has united yoga and Judaism in a manner that is authentic to both beautiful traditions--aiming to empower, renew, and connect the body, mind, and soul. She also balances life as a yoga instructor and rabbi with the realities of being a stepmom to a 7-year-old, Haley, and a mom to 9-month-old triplets: Hallel, Emunah and Noam.
“I love to use my unique combination of roles to help prepare people for big life moments,” she says. “My favorites are wedding-day yoga with the bride and/or groom, preparation for surgery, moving through divorce, and leading Brit Bat ceremonies for baby girls.” She has recently started blogging about “the things that make me smile.”
So whether you want tips for getting in touch with yourself, being calm in stressful situations, or picking a beautiful name for your new baby, Rabbi Heather Altman is a Jew you should know!
1. What is your favorite blog or website? Diapers.com makes my life so much easier, despite the time when I started a family drama by posting on Facebook that I had 3 diapers left for 3 babies and was about to start with towels and duct tape. I also love to look at other triplet families’ sites and blogs; it is a relief to see other people whose days look the same as mine.
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
With limitless money I would have round-the-clock nanny coverage so I could have the freedom to leave my home in Chicago or travel elsewhere with or without my family. With limitless time I would start with a vacation in Hawaii, probably just for me and my husband, Jeff Block. At the right age, we’d take our girls to Israel for a year. I’d also like to go back to Italy and Greece, and then explore Japan, Thailand and South Africa.
3. If a movie were made about your life, who would play you?
Friends have suggested Natalie Portman and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I’d prefer to play myself if you can lock in Johnny Depp to play my husband. It would be a shame to make him shave his hair off for the role, but I’m sure he would wear it well.
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
I wish I could sit with my paternal grandfather, Irving “Beansy” Altman, who we called Poppi Beansy and my husband’s maternal grandfather, Zayde Mayer Levin. My Poppi taught me a lot about people and life; and my husband speaks so lovingly of his Zayde’s influence on him. Although my favorite meal is sushi, I don’t think either of these old school men would enjoy it, so I would serve gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, brisket and any other Ashkenazi favorites. The last time I saw Poppi Beansy alive was at the airport shortly after my ordination and a day after my first wedding. He was happy for me, but he would have just kvelled to see my career develop and to see me marry my best match, Jeff, and to meet our babies. I feel his presence and believe that he knows all about my love, my family and my work.
5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
Since I had my triplets I haven’t had a day away from them so my perfect day is a dream vacation day with sleeping in, sun and warmth, massage and sauna, a walk and yoga by the water, hours with a good book, private time with my husband, laughing with friends at night, sushi and chocolate. In a fantasy world I’d get all those things and still get some smiles and hugs from my sweet girls.
6. What do you love about what you do?
I love that my life now is all about love. My primary role is making sure that my babies are healthy, safe and happy. Caring for souls has been my work all along and now I have these three growing babies who benefit from all I have cultivated in my professional life. I love that they have taught me how to quickly sort out what is essential and what is extraneous, and how to be realistic about my commitments. I don’t waste time on situations that don’t feel 100% right. I choose the work I love and the people with whom I can be loving and generous. I love that I help people heal, that I deeply affect their souls, that I accompany souls through life, that I guide people to know and be their true selves, find their strength within and from their roots.
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now? I created my own ideal job when I left congregational work and I love the life I created. If I did not have the full-time job of caring for my three babies right now, I would be doing the same work that I did before – leading weekend and week-long Rav Yoga retreats, offering Spiritual Direction (group and private), and leading people through ritual and ceremony. During my first pulpit I dreamed up Netivot: a Jewish Center for Growth and Healing. I actually created Netivot while at Anshe Emet. The next step of the dream is to have an actual address, and of course lots of funding so everyone can come for yoga, meditation, Jewish learning and ritual, spiritual direction and more.
8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
My favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago is to go to Anshe Emet to see my friends. Many weeks, my only social time is Shabbat afternoon Kiddush. It is quite unusual for a rabbi to stop working at a synagogue and stay there as a member. I feel so blessed that we had a smooth transition and I still get to see the congregants and friends who I love. Equally unique is that my family has had the opportunity and benefit of receiving so much hesed (loving kindness) from the staff and members of Anshe Emet while I was on bed rest and then back at home with baby triplets. No words can express the degree of gratitude I have for this much needed support. I also love the live music at KFAR events and wish I could get out more to enjoy them.
Avi and Rachel Finegold say (almost) all's kosher in sex and Judaism
So here’s something they probably don’t teach you in Hebrew school: According to Judaism, sex (of all shapes, sizes and positions) between a husband and wife is not only kosher, it’s a mitzvah!
Yes, there are some rules and regulations, but not as many as you might think. And although for most religious Jews, talking about sex in a Jewish sense is taboo, especially within the Orthodox community, Rachel Kohl Finegold and her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, are working to demystify sex for young Jewish brides and grooms at their Lakeview synagogue.
For the past year and a half, as educational and ritual director at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel synagogue, a Modern Orthodox shul, Rachel has been counseling new brides about traditional topics taught in Kallah classes, like how to properly use the mikvah, the practices around menstruation and the laws of Niddah (traditionally a woman must be separated from her husband starting the first day of her menstrual cycle through her seventh “clean day”). But she is taking it one step further, bringing her husband and the groom into the sessions and looking to Jewish texts to find the answers to questions about Jewish views on sexuality.
“I’m not a sex expert,” Rachel says, “but we’ve learned the Jewish text and we’re open enough to talk to people about it.”
“The workshop had a special emphasis on sexuality which framed the way I now teach both men and women,” Rachel said.
The Sex Talk
When meeting with a new bride, Rachel spends the first few sessions on the laws of family purity, always doing a section on Judaism and sexuality.
“These women are not necessarily sexually active and have been learning what not to do and when not to do it,” she says.
Though contraception isn’t part of their main curriculum, many couples are curious about Jewish views on the subject.
“I consider this a very personal decision that a couple makes, about when they are ready to have children, and I don't offer my opinion unless it's asked for,” Rachel says. “If a couple is interested in learning, I will sometimes do an extra session just about the Jewish laws around contraception. There are many views, but ultimately there is definitely room to allow a couple to wait before having kids, if that is what they feel most comfortable with.”
She says most of the couples they meet with tend to wait a bit to have children, so she shows them the texts, explaining how Jewish law approaches contraception, specifically focusing on which modes of contraception are preferred.
For the final session with the bride and the groom, Rachel’s husband Avi joins the session to go through the Jewish sources. They usually schedule one post-wedding check-in to make sure that everything is running smoothly.
“There are important things to be said from the male perspective, from the female perspective and from hearing the two different voices,” Avi says. “By adding more people into the conversation, you end up with a large component of this demystification”
“To infuse (these sessions) with an awareness that sex is something that is beautiful, holy, fun…it normalizes it,” Rachel says. “The Talmud really is not shy, so why should we be?”
Just ask Avi and Rachel and they’ll happily point you to sources and excerpts in the Talmud that say that sex is generally OK by the Rabbis—as long as it is between a man and a women in a committed, loving relationship, of course.
Sex Laws After examining the sources, it becomes very clear how Judaism views sexual practices. For one, sex is not purely for procreation, it is to be enjoyed. Anything, (really, anything) is allowed, as long as it is something that will bring a married couple closer together. Oh, and by the way, it is a man’s biblical duty to pleasure his wife whenever she asks—this rule does not apply the other way around…
While all of these discussions of the “rules” of sexuality focus on a consensual relationship between a man and his wife, the more liberal denominations of Judaism have also applied these same ideas to unmarried couples in long-term relationships.
In fact, Avi says, the Rabbis themselves were really very open to discussions of sex until they felt the Puritanical influence from the emergence of Christianity during the medieval period. Unfortunately, the effects are still felt today, and a lot of this great, useful information is never communicated to young adults in observant, Orthodox communities.
Religious Jews can be very modest, Rachel says. And with so much emphasis on modest dress and certain taboos, it’s no wonder that people aren’t talking about sex. “Talking about sex is seen as something that ‘they’ (secular Jews) do,” she says, “when really, everybody goes home and does it.
“How many people are walking around with unsatisfied sex lives because they won’t talk about it?”
Couples often come in with misconceptions and urban legends like they can only have sex through a hole in the sheet or they think that Judaism only condones sex in the missionary position. By confronting the texts, couples learn that sex is not deviant if it makes two people feel closer to each other.
On the other hand, Rachel says, “We live in a very sexualized culture, so people feel like their sex life has to be wild and wacky. They make an effort to present that everything is normal.”
Like George Michael Says, Sex Is Natural, Sex Is Fun
So what advice do the Finegold’s have for young newlyweds?
“Don’t feel compelled to do something,” Avi says, “but feel free to go for it. Don’t take it too seriously. Sometimes you can just have fun with it and that’s okay too. Judaism wants you to have fun with it. Don’t expect that everything has to be an event. Sometimes fun sex is great sex too.”
“A lot of people say sex is not Jewish—it’s something neutral,” Rachel says. “I think what we try to say is sex is very Jewish—it’s a mitzvah. It’s not just about procreation, but there’s something about bringing two people together.”
So what is kosher sex?
“Anything that brings you together as a couple,” Rachel says,—“that’s kosher sex.”
Anyone who has ever been married, or had a serious long-term relationship, knows that there are temptations everywhere. Even the most devoutly monogamous person can find herself drawn in other directions, intrigued by the new. If you are smart, your crush remains chaste; taking the best of what is possible, breaking neither trust nor vows. After all, there is nothing wrong with building a deep friendship; even if underneath that friendship is the tacit understanding that in a different world, in a parallel reality, the boundaries would be very different. If you are less disciplined, the passion takes over and you can find yourself in a full -fledged affair of the heart.
And so it is for me.
I am very happily married to Chicago, would never dream of living elsewhere, cannot imagine a life as full or rich as the one I have here. I want to spend all of my remaining days in my glorious apartment, which could not exist anywhere but on Logan Boulevard. I need everything about this city, up to and including our ridiculous weather, our endlessly heartbreaking sports teams, our amazing culture and, it goes without saying, our spectacular food. I need it like I need oxygen. This city feeds my soul, and I am grateful everyday to live here. As much as I love traveling to far-flung reaches of the planet, even taking extended multiple month trips, Chicago waits for me, and I’ve never thought for a second of leaving it. I’m not really meaningfully me in any sense without Chicago. I am the fifth generation of my family to call the city home; Chicago is in my blood and bones.
But I’m totally sleeping with New York.
I could never be married to New York. New York is moody, and expensive, and fickle, and that bad-boy edge which is so irresistible in a lover, would be a huge impediment to making a life together. New York is impulsive, loud, brash and occasionally cruel. New York would never remember to take the garbage out, would be rude to your mother and would flirt with your best friend. New York wouldn’t always come home at night. New York would forget the mortgage payment and chip the good china. New York doesn’t apologize. But for a little something on the side, New York is both irresistible and ideal. I have a wonderful group of friends there, people to play with. A great spa where I can get a mani/pedi almost as good as Margaret’s at EBella. A hairdresser who can give me a blowout almost as good as Michael’s at Fringe. I have a regular hotel where they know that I like the rooms that end in the number 10, down pillows not foam, extra towels, and a fridge in the room.
And if you, like me, despite your deep and powerful love and connection to your hometown, occasionally need a wicked little fling…New York is the place to sow your outlaw oats.
In the past few years I’ve been spending more and more time in the Big Apple, traveling there for work and play, sometimes as often as once a month. I’ve gotten past the awkward first stages of the relationship, when you are on pins and needles all the time, not really quite yourself, unsure and a little lost, still jumping out of bed first thing in the morning to fix your hair and brush your teeth. I’m now solidly in the best stage, when you feel like you can be yourself, are free and uninhibited, when you know your way around and have figured out exactly what works best. I know where things are, which streets to take, when to jump on the subway and when to hail a cab--and most importantly, where to eat.
Here is just a small round up of some of my favorite New York spots; these are places that are dependable, places that I have been to with regular success and joy. Some will be familiar to you; some are the kinds of places that only locals really know about. All will deliver for you. But be careful…New York is powerfully seductive, visit at your own risk.
The Morning After:
Norma’s (in the Parker Meridian Hotel)
118 W. 57th @ 6th Ave.
Pricy, but worth it. Succulent eggs, amazing French toast, perfectly crispy bacon, and they bring the hot chocolate with a whole separate bowl of whipped cream on the side. Enough said.
The Cupping Room
Corner of Broome and West Broadway
Charming little café, you’ll have to wait on the weekends, but they turn their tables pretty quickly and the wait is worth it. I go for the omelets every time, and the breads are spectacular.
2239 Broadway @ 80th St.
1551 2nd Ave. between 80th and 81st
The classic New York bagel.
Gossiping with the Ladies: Lunch
For some reason in New York, for lunch I always seem to want French bistro food. And they have some of the best! Here are my top three:
80 Spring St. between Crosby and Broadway
Yes, this place was heavily featured in Sex and the City, and continues to be a scene, but it also has spectacular basic French bistro lunches. If you’re starving, go for the classic onion soup and the Croque Monsieur, the best grilled ham and cheese ever. I prefer the sautéed skate wing with brown butter or one of the salads. And if you are really hungry, hit the steak frites, great juicy steak with a pile of perfect crisp fries.
284 W. 12th St. @ West 4th St.
I know it so isn’t French, but they have one of the best burgers I have ever tasted. Ditto the lamb Bolognese. And don’t skip their take on the warm goat cheese salad…this has watercress and green apples and a terrific shallot vinaigrette.
200 W. 70th @ Amsterdam
Chicken paillard. Full stop. And start with whatever the soup of the day is, they are all fantastic.
If you are in the mood for New York Deli, you aren’t going to beat Katz’s, 205 E. Houston St. @ Ludlow St. And yes, you can sit at the table where Meg Ryan faked her famous orgasm. Hit the corned beef or pastrami hard, grab a matzo ball soup, and either a Black Cherry, Cream Soda, or Cel-Ray tonic. Perfection.
And for something a little different, try Cabana for Cuban food, 1022 3rd between 60th and 61st, the best black beans and rice in the city, and classic entrees like arroz con pollo and paella. I like to go and just order appetizers for lunch, especially the beef empanadas, and the tostones rellenos with chicken.
A Little Nibble: Afternoon Snacks
New York is a walking city, and you are going to need sustenance. Never be afraid to grab a hot pretzel or a Gray’s Papaya hot dog along the way. But these places are worth making a special trip for:
Alice’s Tea Cup
156 E. 64th and Lexington
220 E. 81st between 2nd and 3rd Aves.
102 W. 73rd between Amsterdam and Columbus
I go for either crepes (Nutella with bananas, or strawberries with whipped cream) or scones with cream and jam, and a pot of tea. A great place to go with kids, their “menu for the small” is fun, and you’ll be tempted to order off it yourself.
401 Bleeker @ W. 11th St.
200 Columbus @ 69th St.
I know that everyone talks cupcakes here, and do not mistake me, they are serious contenders. But for me, it is all about the banana pudding. Fresh vanilla custard layered with Nilla wafers, fresh bananas and whipped cream. Get the small cup, it is too rich for more.
37 Spring St. between Mott and Mulberry
Rice pudding. All rice pudding all the time. Sixteen daily flavors that change, amazing toppings like roasted peaches and cherries and buttered graham cracker crumbs. Chic little spot to rest for a half an hour in the afternoon, or to hit for dessert after dinner. My favorites are: chocolate hazelnut, caramel, traditional vanilla, and peanut butter. I know many of you are saying “I don’t like rice pudding.” And to you I say, yes, you do, you just don’t know it yet.
608 5th St @ 49th (enter on 49th)
Gorgeous traditional Japanese sweets. Not your usual snack, and some very unique flavors, but these little jewels are tasty pieces of art. I especially love the whole cherries suspended in peach jelly.
1032 Lexington between 73rd and 74th St.
The bistro is good, but pricy, but the pastries are totally worth an afternoon visit. Basics like éclairs are always delish, but try some of the classic macaroons. Glorious.
The Big Date: Fancy Dinner
DB Bistro Moderne
55 W. 44th between 5th and 6th Aves.
Daniel Boulud can do no wrong, in my eyes, and the food in this warm lovely room is impeccable. I start with the orechiette pasta with lamb ragu and goat cheese, and the arugula salad is a triumph. The halibut with cauliflower risotto is amazing, and the hanger steak (one of my favorite cuts) is transcendent. But if you’re craving classic French, you’ll never find a better Coq Au Vin or Blanquette de Veau. I could eat here every night, although it would put me in the poorhouse. Let them recommend a wine, the white burgundy they suggested last time I was there was beyond perfect. And be sure at least one person at your table gets the Apple Tarte Tatin for dessert.
9 Jones St. between Broadway and 6th Ave.
For you Top Chef fans, this is Harold Dieterle’s (winner of season one) restaurant and he clearly won for a very good reason. His food is amazing. I start with either the crispy pork belly, the seared scallops or the duck meatballs…all beautiful and complex without being fussy. For entrée’s, the game hen is juicy, wrapped in bacon and anointed with pomegranate molasses, resting on a bed of perfect spaetzle. The steamed black bass is ethereal, and makes you feel almost virtuous. And the braised Elk osso bucco is a dish so good you want to jump in it. Get a side order of Brussels sprouts leaves. And for dessert, the vanilla doughnuts and sticky toffee pudding will fit the bill.
11 E. 53rd St. between Madison and 5th Ave.
Chef Michael White, formerly of Spiggia and Fiamma is an old family friend, lucky for us, and does fine-dining Italian better than anyone. For appetizers, get the scallops or the octopus. Pasta is all done in-house and is uniformly amazing, extra points for the butternut squash ravioli, the duck and chestnut maccheroni, and the gnocchi (and I am not a gnocchi fan!). If you’re in the mood for fish, go for the branzino with black olives, and if meat is on your mind either the rack of lamb or the veal chop will make your night. Save room for dessert, the torrone is rich with chocolate and hazelnut, and bombolini lemon custard filled doughnuts will haunt your dreams.
The Less Big Date: Moderate Dinner
Fabio Piccolo Fiore
44th between 2nd and 3rd Aves.
This is your basic Italian restaurant with a twist…if you don’t see it on the menu, they will make it for you. Really. Their menu dishes are very good, veal marsala or piccata, excellent pastas, the menu won’t surprise you, but you will find plenty to choose from. But I come here when I most wish I had a kitchen. When I’m sad that I can’t just make something simple for myself. On my last visit I looked at my waiter and said “ I need pappardelle, light sauce…just some olive oil and lemon, no garlic, maybe some chicken breast and, um, zucchini?” Without even pausing he said “Very good, some capers, yes?” Sigh. “Yes, please.” The dish arrived, was topped with a flurry of Parmesan, and was exactly what I wanted. Moist chunks of chicken, zucchini slivers perfectly cooked, al dente pasta and just the barest anointing of lemony sauce with a scattering of capers. Almost like being at home.
565 3rd Ave. between 37th and 38th Sts.
This is always where I go when I’m meeting vegetarian friends. The organic cooking has plenty that is great for veg-heads and carnivores alike, and they often have innovative specials on the menu. Start with the potato-broccoli dumplings or a salad. I love both the roasted chicken and the rib eye, and my vegetarian buddies swear by the tofu with fried brown rice and veggies.
54 E. 1st St. between 1st and 2nd Ave.
Intimate and cozy, this East Village gem is worth making a special trip for. The roasted marrowbones are an amazing luxury, and the Parmesan omelet is a unique starter. For entrees, I go for the roasted capon, which is chicken to the tenth power, and the lamb blade steak, a great and often overlooked cut. For side dishes, try the cardoons, which taste like the perfect combination of artichoke and celery, and the bitter greens are a bright and fresh accompaniment to the rich meats. Stick to the fruit desserts, I like the apple galette in its own caramel, and the fried sugared figs.
The Cheap and Easy: Inexpensive Dinner
Sometimes you don’t want to dine, you just want to eat. Whether picking up to take back to the hotel, or just grabbing something quick before the theater, you shouldn’t have to end up at some fast food grease palace.
65 4th Ave. between 9th and 10th streets
If you’ve only ever eaten ramen as those salty packaged blocks we all survived on in college, you’ve never really eaten ramen. And frankly, for a good quick meal on the go, a bowl of hearty broth with great noodles and add-ins can’t be beat. I love the Pork Ramen Classic - Shiomaru Moto Sji Ramen with Berkshire pork chashu, cabbage, and scallions. They also have versions with miso broth instead of pork broth, and a vegetable version. Yum.
Grand Central Market
Grand Central Station, Lexington Ave. between 44th and 43rd Sts.
Am I actually recommending you grab dinner in the train station? Hella yeah. Grand Central Station has the best freaking food court and market I’ve seen, and you can get the perfect NY breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. Best of all, you can wander and cobble together a great meal from several different vendors, so if you want famous Junior’s cheesecake after your rotisserie chicken, its right there for you. Dishes, in the Marketplace on the upper level has great prepared foods, and on my last trip, in need of a decent meal I could take back to the hotel, I picked up a rosemary lemon chicken breast, tomato and smoked mozzarella pasta, and a fennel salad. A roll from the nearby bakery, and a piece of fruit from the produce stand, and I could feel sated and healthy, and very deserving of a night in with the Turner Classic Movie channel.
400 W. 23rd St. at 9th Ave.
Classic diner menu, good service, reasonable prices. Eat in or take out. I love the patty melts…but you’ll be fine with any of the basic menu items.
If you have favorite New York haunts, be sure to share with the class.
And don’t worry. If you decide to have your own affair with New York, I promise not to tell Chicago.
NOSH of the week: This is plenty of food, so this week, if you’re tempted to head to NY for a romp and don’t have a couch to crash on, you’ll need to get a decent night’s sleep. I have become very loyal to the Fitzpatrick Hotels. They have one on Lexington between 56th and 57th street, and one on 44th between Lexington and 3rd Ave. A small Irish hotel group, both of these Midtown locations are lovely and with their own unique charm, and both are walking distance to Grand Central Station, which is my best hub for getting around (the Shuttle to Times Square is a godsend). Impeccable friendly service, comfy beds, decent sized-rooms for NY (expect smaller than you are used to by Chicago standards) and very reasonable prices. Not over the top luxury, but for business travel, you’ll find yourself comfortable and well taken care of.
On March 9th, we usher in the holiday of Purim. It's another great example of that ancient wisdom, "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat."
That makes this an opportune time to look back on what we've been doing the past few months and give it a high five. What have I been up to? Traveling around North America telling jokes. I'm not a stand-up comedian. I just play one on book tour.
Truth is, my agenda is much bigger than merely making Jews laugh. I'm celebrating how cool it is to be Jewish and sharing thoughts on what I call the "Jewish Cultural Revival." You might call it, "Showing Judaism a good time."
My book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (Andrews McMeel, September 2008), is a comprehensive, loving and irreverent look at Jewish life. It covers everything from identity, Jewish diversity, cuisine, gear and language to lifecycle events, holidays, and spirituality--what I call "Kabba Lah Lah for Non-Dummies." It's been said Cool Jew does for gefilte fish and matzah balls what The Official Preppy Handbook did for plaid and polo, only with much more chutzpah.
We've had a few events to celebrate. Forty-four to be exact. Soon after Sukkot, I left my home in California for a whirlwind tour that continued through much of January. I could write another book about all that happened. Here are some highlights...
In New York, an unprecedented line-up of talented Heebsters (my term for cool Jews) came out to celebrate the launch of my book at an "Extreme Book Signing" with an artists showcase at the JCC of Manhattan. On the bill: stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell, performance poet Matthue Roth, Ladino chanteuse Sarah Aroeste, actor Franny Silverman of Storahtelling, singer/songwriters Michelle Citrin, Naomi Less of Jewish Chicks Rock, Dov Rosenblatt and Avi Hoffman of Blue Fringe, Chana Rothman and Rav Shmuel. Two hundred people packed a lobby filled with authentic, vintage Jewish signage collected by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld. It was, as my father would say, a grosse mechaiyah.
And who knew Torontonians were so menschlich? Helpful strangers gave me a subway token, carried my things through the turnstile, and even walked me through the Yorkdale Mall to the door of Indigo bookstore. There, another stranger introduced herself to me as "Lisa Klug" -- her real name. The next evening, the Koffler Centre of the Arts served adorable blue and white "Cool Jew" cookies and gingerbread Yidden with tallit stripes of white icing at the first ever "Cool Jew Cabaret." (The good folks at the Koffler have since instituted the event, so has music impressario Craig Taubman of Los Angeles.) And the local Costco stocked Cool Jew, reportedly next to a stack of Art Scroll prayerbooks, which my book jacket spoofs. Now that's divine providence!
Because I keep kosher, friends had warned me, "You're going to starve." Are you kidding me? This was a Jewish book tour. With a dessert bar that kept appearing nearly everywhere I did. I ate gingerbread in Toronto, brownies in Kansas City, chocolate fondue in Scottsdale and cotton candy in San Francisco. I gained 10 pounds. (The curse of the "Book Tour Ten.")
When I wasn't busy snacking, people asked me all kinds of questions like, "Do you have a day job?" Yes, of course. I'm a stay at home mom. But without the husband and kids. Actually, I'm a freelance journalist. In other words, my day job requires another day job. Do you need any one-liners in your office?
Being on tour is its own "Twilight Zone." You visit so many places (and eat so much sugar) in such a short period of time that some days you wake up forgetting you're in foreign country. You know how it goes. You're walking down the street and things feel familiar but suddenly you're really tripping because those red hexagonal signs you've read all your life as S-T-O-P suddenly say "Arret."
Once I realized I was in that one part of North America known as "Kabeck," I figured I'd play along. I started reading all the signs as if I were Lumiere. You know, that talking candelabra from "Beauty and the Beast?" It was fun. "Park Olympique. Jardin Botanique. Irrigation Colonique." Those French know how to make anything sound good.
As the tour continued, people started calling me cool Jew. It's been kind of uncomfortable. I'm not that cool. I'm the dork who wrote the book. But that hasn't stopped people from asking me to evaluate their coolness. They say things like, "Lisa, my name is Mordechai Lefkowitz. Does that make me a cool Jew? Lisa, I'm Morrocan and I speak Yiddish. Am I a cool Jew? Lisa, I'm a shiksa and I love knishes. Does that count?"
Eventually, the questions turned to theology. During a live interview on an Alabama radio station, the middle-aged host asked me to resolve a question he'd been struggling with since college: "Do Jews believe in heaven and hell?" Then he announced, "We'll be right back for Lisa's answer after this traffic report." I had 30 seconds to come up with an intelligible answer.
When we were back on air, I told him the truth. "Jews do believe in heaven and hell. Heaven is a Sabbath dinner Friday night with family and friends. Heaven is falafel in a lafa on the streets of Jerusalem. Heaven is lox and bagels Sunday morning with all the fixings. And hell is a diet."
My labor of love has done all right. In June, Cool Jew won Honorable Mention in the New York Book Festival. In October/November, I was named Erma Bombeck Humor Writer of the Month. Just weeks ago, Cool Jew was also named a finalist in the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life. It appears to be the first humor/pop culture title honored in the 50-year history of the awards. And in late February, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco debuted an installation I created called "Matzo Ball Disco" that incorporates light, music, and holograms of flying Jewish stars. It's my Heebster interpretation of a seder plate.
Tour has changed me, perhaps forever. I've become... emboldened. One night, after a reading in Baltimore, I used lipgloss to sticker my book logo onto a massive sign and the image of a tranquil reader in lotus position. The first full day of the new U.S. president's in office, I slipped Cool Jew into the hands of an Obama puppet at the Washington Monument. I even risked the reprimands of the Secret Service to sneak a giant semblance of my book onto the White House lawn to snap a photo. That's part of the joy of having written this book. Now, nearly every day has the potential to be a little Purim... with a lot more chutzpah.
Lisa Alcalay Klug, the author of Cool Jew: the Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, fantasizes about posting her book logo on the Space Shuttle. Learn more about her adventures at www.cooljewbook.com.
In 2005, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote two articles about being Jewish. One for the San Francisco Chronicle about how cool it is to be a Jew in the Bay Area, and another for The Forward about eight nights of Chanukah kitsch. “These two stories had something essential in common: a pride in being Jewish, an embrace of kitsch and a reverent irreverence—an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish. When I thought of a concept to encapsulate that, the word Heebster lit up in my brain like a neon sign,” Lisa says.
She already had some early ideas for a book mapped out. “But once I came up with the book’s alias, The Heebster Handbook, that idea fueled the project. My non-Jewish editor Christine gets it. She grew up on Long Island.”
Oy! talked with Lisa about cool stuff, Jewish stuff and how her book tour and Barack Obama inspired her new project.
Oy!: What, in your mind, is a cool Jew? Lisa: There is so much that makes Jews cool. Perhaps the most important is knowing where you come from, celebrating being Jewish and taking pride in your identity. When you're a Heebster, you don't have to work hard to be cool. You just got to be Jew!
You have a diverse Jewish background; how does that impact your writing?
My father is an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor from a modern Hasidic, German-speaking Jewish family who lived in Danzig. Before World War II, Danzig was an independent city-state between Germany and Poland. My dad grew up speaking German, Yiddish, Polish and studying Hebrew. After the war, my dad recuperated in France. My mother is from Panama and her Israeli parents descend from Ladino-speaking Jews from the Balkans. She spent part of her childhood in Israel.
My parents met and married in California, where I grew up. We followed most of my father’s minhagim (traditions), and ate a lot of my mother’s favorite tropical fruits. Sometimes my school lunches were wacky combinations, like gefilte fish and coconut.
My parents inspired me to experiment with language, culture, travel and sometimes cuisine. And that has influenced the diversity reflected in the pages of my book. Cool Jew isn’t autobiographical but between the lines, you can see how my roots come into play. My parents had very rich Jewish experiences in other countries and cultures. And my book grew out of all the ways I’ve sought to create meaningful Jewish experiences of my own.
What has surprised you about people’s reactions to the book? The kindness, generosity and heartfelt response of audiences has really surprised me. All around the country, the feedback I receive to my presentations is "inspirational, fun and poignant." Audiences share their own stories with me, in person and in emails, including many converts, and that has been very moving, beautiful and humbling. I've also been delighted to receive several honors. That's been a really fun surprise!
Your new blog, Tolerant Nation, was inspired by what you saw on your book tour. What are some of the things that happened on the tour that made you step back and say, we need this? I am thrilled by the tremendous support and enthusiastic response to Cool Jew. But I was also dismayed by the ignorance and bigotry I sometimes encountered from "shock jocks," radio show hosts during live radio interviews on my tour.
I reported the most offensive of these to the ADL, which followed up with the station directly, but in the weeks preceding the inauguration of President Obama, I wanted to do more. Watching the first person of color ascend to our country's highest office inspired me to create an online forum for cross-cultural dialogue and to increase awareness of multiculturalism.
Tolerant Nation launched the first Erev Shabbat following the inauguration. And each Friday since, I edit and post a piece from a guest blogger that discusses multiculturalism, cross-cultural dialogue and tolerance. It's been a great eye-opening experience and I've learned a lot. We welcome submissions and comments so please get in touch.
When I was writing my book, it was very important that it reflect that we are a diverse people. As a result, Cool Jew includes tons of information about Jewish multiculturalism, an entire chapter about Jewish languages and another chapter about Jewish diversity. This includes what we share with other people: Japanese, Hawaiians, rappers... Cool Jew highlights various Sephardic customs, foods and other references and it also encourages involvement in Tikkun Olam, social justice. So, in all these ways, Tolerant Nation is an extension of my book.
What's next for you?
I really miss Israel so hopefully a good long stay in Jerusalem. Before that can happen, I have speaking gigs at colleges, shuls and Hillels around the country. I'm continuing writing freelance pieces and helping others with their projects as a writing coach. And I'm working on my next book, a sequel of sorts. Stay tuned!
Kompel hiking with Isaac (a member of the Abayudaya) in Sipi Falls
My day starts at 5:30 a.m., sipping a much-needed cup of coffee while putting on my hand wraps and waiting for my personal trainer to arrive for my daily kickboxing lesson. After an hour workout, I watch the news over a leisurely breakfast, take a hot shower and get ready for work. After a short walk in the blazing sun, I greet the security guard, turn on the computers, make some more coffee and read the paper for an hour before the others arrive. Another perfect morning in Uganda, unlike any back home in Chicago, yet completely different from what I had anticipated when I prepared for my volunteer posting in Africa.
I made the decision to volunteer overseas with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) last June. AJWS Volunteer Corps places professional Jewish men and women on volunteer assignments for two to 12 months with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries. I knew I would be going through a career transition and decided to take advantage of this window of time to pursue my passion for economic development. When I found out three weeks before my scheduled departure that I would be heading to Uganda, and realized that everything I knew about the country was based on the movies Operation Thunderbolt and The Last King of Scotland, I admit I got a little nervous.
What struck me the most during my first week in Kampala, the capital city, was just how much I stood out. There were many other white people living in Kampala, but at any given moment I seemed to be the only one. It was disconcerting to be the minority—stared at, and laughed at, losing my individual identity and being called Muzungu, “white person.” I never did get used to that, but after a while, the things that seemed so strange in the beginning—boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) speeding down the bumpy roads, carrying mothers riding sideways with babies on their backs; the smell of burning garbage; hunched women sweeping dust-covered streets; complete chaos in the markets, “short calls” (quick stops to pee out in the open beside the bus); and flashing (calling and hanging up on the recipient so they call back and pay the charges)—all these became merely part of everyday life.
Having traveled through South Africa and other developing countries, I was excited to experience Uganda as a resident rather than a tourist, immerse myself in a new culture and learn about the trials of living in a poor country. I had gone to Uganda expecting to learn from these differences, but I had never put any real thought into what I would take away from the similarities. Living in Kampala, there were many similarities to America—fancy restaurants, hotels and bars, a mall and movie theater, fitness clubs, golf courses, and many others. I learned just how easy it is to make new, lifelong friends and how quickly one can change every aspect of her life if she chooses. I learned that I like being able to more fully participate in Jewish services and I reveled in being called to the Torah for the first time on Rosh Hashanah at the Abayudaya (a unique and welcoming Jewish community of approximately 800 Ugandans in the eastern part of the country).
Moses Synagogue in Nabugoye, the largest shul in Mbale
From Thanksgiving and U.S. election night to Uganda Independence Day and Eid (the festival that marks the end of Ramadan), every event brought my new mix of Ugandan, European and American friends together to celebrate. I was truly inspired by the many volunteers, expatriates and locals I met overseas. Most of my favorite people I met completely by chance. At home they would have simply come in and out of my life without further thought, as I would have been too busy to give the relationships time to develop. My fellow AJWS volunteers Laurie and Dan were newlyweds who decided to start out their life together by giving back and sharing a unique adventure. Myriam, a doctor from New York, finished residency and gave up a full-time offer to volunteer in a rural hospital for six months. Becca, an expat from Wisconsin, is working through “MBAs Without Borders” to effect positive change in East Africa. Tony, a Ugandan entrepreneur with a small but successful tour company, rescued me when I got stranded in the middle of nowhere and became a good friend, encouraging me to start my own company upon return to the States.
Kompel Standing with coworkers on the equator on our way to see the mountain gorillas in Bwindi
Before I went to Uganda, I was unsure of how much of an impact I could have in a few short months. Looking back, I implemented a financial system for an NGO that otherwise would have continued operating without one, and that is now in a position to raise larger funds more quickly to support its cause and country. I also developed strong relationships and presented myself as an American and a Jew in hopes of leaving a positive impression. At my farewell team lunch, Prossy, my good friend and counterpart, gave the most remarkable speech about what I had given to her and to the organization. In that instant, I knew that volunteering had been the right choice and that I would return to the developing world to work on sustainable economic development.
As I think about my time in Uganda and share stories of my life there, I may not mention using pit latrines, tearing my hair out on long, uncomfortable bus rides, having to look down as I walked so I wouldn’t fall into an enormous pothole, and seeing malnourished kids begging in the streets daily. It’s not that I have simply forgotten or that these things weren’t part of my reality or experience in Uganda, but mostly because that is what people expect to hear about life in Africa, and it is not the complete picture. The images that we see of Africa in the news inspire me to want to work in the global arena, but it was both the similarities and the differences that led to my own transformations. One of my first journal entries in Uganda included my frustration with how slowly people seemed to move. Walking to work on my last day, it struck me that I was the one being passed up by others taking the same route.
Kompel on safari in Murchison Falls
Rivka Kompel is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management MBA program and the President of Verity Solutions Group, a services company focused on providing management, back office operations, and due diligence support for small to mid-sized companies. The company specializes in the real estate and non-profit industries.
Every day, Dr. Jeremy Weisz collects quotes and keeps track of his favorites. The latest one at the bottom of all his emails reads: "Excellence can be attained if you Care more than others think is wise, Risk more than others think is safe, Dream more than others think is practical, and Expect more than others think is possible." (Author Unknown)
A Deerfield native, Jeremy now lives in the city and is having a great year. At his wedding last fall, he and his wife performed a swing dance for their first song—complete with costume changes—then honeymooned in the Dominican Republic. Just last month he moved his chiropractic office to a brand new, custom designed space in Roscoe Village. He’s now looking forward to the May re-opening of Mario’s Italian Ice near UIC; a place he has raved about for years.
So whether you love Mario’s Italian ice, go swing dancing, collect quotes, or need a good chiropractor, Dr. Jeremy Weisz is a Jew you should know!
1. What is your favorite blog or website? Of course one of my favorite websites is my own: www.drweisz.com. It really gives people a glimpse into what we do and what we are about, especially the "Mission and Values” page where I really took a lot of time to think through what we are all about. We take a lot of pride in it.
The other website I like is JDate as that is where I met my wife so I gotta love it!
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel? I would travel to Italy in the Tuscan region as it is such a relaxing, laid back place. The food is grown fresh, I love Italian food and it is such a joyful and serene place to be.
I would also go to Australia because I have never been there and my wife really wants to go; of course she is the boss. I have heard the weather is nice and the people are friendly.
3. If a movie were made about your life, who would play you?
Probably Ben Afleck, or if it were a comedy, Ben Stiller.
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve? I would have a meal with Victor Frankel as I love his book, Man's Search for Meaning and would love to chat about anything and everything with him. I would also invite Thomas Edison, one of the greatest innovators and inventors ever, as it is amazing what he has done. I would pick his brain about anything and everything. I think I would serve a huge pot of chicken soup, delicious beef brisket, several Italian dishes and lots of desserts to keep us chatting through the night.
5. What's your idea of the perfect day? Tough question. If it were within the realm of my normal day or a fantasy day? For normal day...have a delicious breakfast with eggs and pancakes with my wife and then go on a long walk and possibly some biking or sports in the middle of the day. Go to a Cubs game with a bunch of friends and family then go out to a nice dinner with everyone and come back to the apartment and just have dessert and wine with my wife and relax by the fireplace.
6. What do you love about what you do?
I work in an amazing environment surrounded by relaxing music, ocean sounds, and friendly faces. We are really privileged to be able to help people everyday. People come in with low back pain, neck pain, headaches and all sorts of aches and pains and we are really able to help people decrease pain which really helps their quality of life. We help people with Chiropractic care for spinal alignment and Massage therapists who help relax tight muscles for patients. It is rewarding to see people come in with a frown and leave with more of a smile on their face.
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now? Growing up I always wanted to play baseball for the Cubs ...so I would be the bullpen catcher for the Cubs.
8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
I love going to the Friday night service before Martin Luther King Day where they have the Gospel Choir come in and perform throughout the entire service. It is an amazing experience; I go every year.
Aaron Nunez-Gross is a Jewish Mexican-American man; he’s a city boy, yet was raised in the country too. He’s a about to graduate college, still finding his way in the world, but he’s also a guardian to his 17-year-old younger brother and a role model to other young people. He dances Flamenco and listens to Sephardic music; and he’s passionate about so much—about science, theology, politics, and peace in Israel.
As we sit down at a Hyde Park Greek diner on a cold February morning, the gregarious Nunez-Gross, 24, banters with the waitress in Spanish like they’re old friends. He’s been frequenting the diner for many years—as long as he’s lived in the neighborhood. He orders scrambled eggs, skirt steak and hash browns—his usual—and then begins to share with me his unique Jewish story.
Nunez-Gross was born in Mexico City in the mid-1980s and then came with his family to the States at the age of three. His father, a neuro-anesthesiologist, and his mother, a neurobiologist, previously had been on sabbatical from Duke University in Mexico, where his dad was born and raised. His father believes his family dates back to the Marranos, Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity to escape persecution, but practiced their Judaism in secret. Nunez-Gross’s family settled in Hyde Park, after his father was offered a position as a medical resident at the University of Chicago.
Though his family wasn’t traditionally observant—his mother served her kids BLTs in bed on their birthdays growing up—Nunez-Gross had a formal Jewish upbringing, including celebrating his bar mitzvah, lighting candles with his family on Friday nights, and attending Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School on Chicago’s South Side. Post-eighth-grade graduation, Nunez-Gross spent the summer in Mexico with his grandmother and his half brother and half sister (from his father’s first marriage). He came home to Hyde Park at the end of summer, ready to start high school.
But his parents threw a monkey-wrench into his plan. “Guess what?” his folks sprang on their son. “We bought a dairy farm in Indiana.”
“I was furious,” says Nunez-Gross. “I had school and friends and my classes all picked out at the Chicago Lab School.” Yet his parents insisted. After all, they weren’t fans of city living even though they had spent many years in Hyde Park. They were country people—his father had grown up on the Mexican countryside in the southern town of Oaxaca, while his mother was raised on the countryside of England. Growing up, Nunez-Gross recalls his mother often criticizing Chicago and city life, which was a big part of why she wanted to relocate. “I remember once going with my mom downtown. She was carrying my younger brother (a baby at the time) and running to the car when she tripped and fell,” he says. “No one helped her up.”
Aaron visiting an elementary school in Israel, where the kids were studying the seasons, specifically winter in America vs. Israel. He taught them the song “Singin’ in the Rain” with full choreography.
So they were off to live life on the farm in the small town of Knox, Ind. “It was culture shock to say the least,” recalls Nunez-Gross. “You look at the Hyde Park community, a completely culturally heterogeneous area with, on average, a high level of education. I went from going to Akiba-Schechter in Chicago to a public high school out in burning brimstone fundamentalist Protestant USA. It was very, very strange.” On top of the culture shock, as soon as they moved to the farm, his mother cut the cords to the television. So, instead of watching TV, he would spend hours memorizing Shakespeare.
As a Jewish Mexican-American teen, Nunez-Gross realized he had little in common with the people in town. For the most part, he said, the people in town were “well-intentioned,” even if many were ignorant, and he managed to make friends there. But even among his friends, he experienced both anti-Semitism and racism. He and some other guys would be hanging out, playing video games when someone would call an African-American person a derogatory name.
There was one time when he was checking out books at the library when he noticed a girl staring at his head, clad in a baseball cap. “Can I see them?” she asked him. “See what?” he wondered. Then it struck him—she wanted to see his horns.
“When it hits that kind of level, you don’t get angry or offended,” he explains. “You don’t want to reciprocate by being patronizing. All you can do is joke.” So he took off his cap and let her touch his head and told her he would answer any of her other questions.
Nunez-Gross spent his high-school years on the farm, where he learned agrarian tasks such as milking cows and birthing calves and lambs. Although he considered himself an atheist at that point in life, he still felt a spiritual connection to the farm. “When you watch the spring lambs jump up and down in the field and everything is alive,” he says, “you can’t help but feel something in your heart, even the most obnoxious of atheists.”
Aaron at the top of Masada
He grew to appreciate his life on the farm in a way he couldn’t back in Chicago. “It really was probably one of the best decisions my parents could have made, because I had been a problem kid in the city, getting into trouble,” he says. “The beautiful thing about going to Indiana was, I was representing two minorities on my shoulders. I wasn’t just one of many, where I could do what I wanted and no one would judge me. I was now the Jewish boy in the country, the Hispanic boy. That forced me to get my [life] together.”
Even though he grew to like life in Indiana, he yearned to return to Hyde Park, so he applied and was accepted at the University of Chicago. He had a hard time keeping up with the rigorous academics of the university at first, but his studies improved and he developed an interest in politics and interned for former U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now President Obama’s chief of staff.
Later in college, Nunez-Gross regained his sense of faith that he had lost on the farm. He was an atheist in high school partly because of his experience with anti-Semitism, partly because he was the son of two scientists who had an “obligation to rationalism,” and partly because he was a teenager who thought he knew all the answers.
Then, one day, while sitting in an astrophysics class called “Evolution of the Solar System,” his professor was lecturing on black holes. The concept of black holes sounded oddly familiar to what Nunez-Gross had read about the creation of the world in the Zohar (considered the most important work of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism) about “a single infinitesimal point of immense density and energy which could not be seen.” He concluded that perhaps science and religion didn’t contradict each other. From that point on, he felt that he had the obligation to explore Judaism and theology in general. Eventually, he switched his major to Jewish Studies and last winter, he traveled to Israel for the first time on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
This month, Nunez-Gross will graduate from the University of Chicago and take a job at the university’s Newberger Hillel, where he will act as an assistant to the director of engagement. He will also lead an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans over spring break, and he will work with students traveling on Birthright Israel programs. He ultimately would like to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel). “I am a ferocious Zionist and love Israel with all my heart. I cannot wait to get my life and some money together and make aliyah,” says Nunez-Gross. “I would love to work on the peace process. Much needs to be done in terms of diplomacy between theological figures. There needs to be increased dialogue between imams and rabbis.” In addition to the peace process, he worries what the legacy of the Holocaust will be in a decade, when most of the survivor generation has perished.
Aaron at a waterfall in a national park near Be’er Sheva, Israel
Last year, he became guardian to his 17-year-old brother. During the presidential election, his family’s Indiana farm town had been fraught with heightened racism, spurring his brother to leave Indiana and move in with his older brother in Chicago. Nunez-Gross is trying to improve his Spanish and his brother is working on his Hebrew, so the two siblings often communicate with one another in the language they need practice in, which “comes out like some freakish form of what was once Ladino.”
Nunez-Gross looks back life on the farm with gratitude and says it helped make him the best person—and Jew—he could be. “Being thrust into that [dual]-minority position,” he recalls, “forced me to get my act together and start taking responsibility for who I am and where I come from.”