OyChicago articles

Serving Their (Other) Country

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Local Jews head to Israel and join the IDF
05/27/2008

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Ian Cooper, expanding his horizons

The majority of Jewish Americans entering their 20s rarely contemplate taking the opportunity to defend their country and serve in the military. Not so for Jewish Israelis, who are required to serve between two and three years in the Israel Defense Forces once they’ve turned 18. For these Chicago Jews, the idea of serving in the IDF was so meaningful that they each found their own unique way of defending the Jewish State.

When Ian Cooper exited the door of the synagogue on Masada after completing his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, he saw a group of Israeli soldiers and experienced a feeling that stays with him to this day.

“They stood there in total silence, in respect to the moment, and when it was over and I came out, they gave me an incredibly warm reception,” Cooper says. “That feeling of brotherhood and warmth was something I never forgot.”

Then, while he was in high school, he spent two months in Israel and made the decision to come back after college to volunteer in the IDF. But after visiting countless college campuses with his twin sister, he realized that his destiny was to go to Israel after high school and go into the IDF at the same age as his Israeli counterparts.

Cooper left for Israel soon after his high school graduation and served for 27 months. Unable to serve in a combat unit due to health issues, he took on the job of a non-commissioned officer in a small education base in Jerusalem’s Old City and ran week-long educational programs on Jerusalem for other soldiers. Not long after being honored as an outstanding soldier, he returned to the United States and began attending Northwestern University.

Cooper attributes his time in the IDF to opening his eyes to issues he’d never before contemplated and exposing him to entirely new experiences.

“I never thought that I would run the equivalent of a marathon with full gear, but it's possible,” he says. “There aren't really any limits to what we can accomplish as human beings as long as we don't restrict ourselves. I never would have had the opportunity to attend a Yemenite Passover Seder, which was way different from what I had experienced growing up. They say the Israeli army is the great equalizer – it brings people from all different religious and ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic classes together and forces them to get along.”

After graduating Northwestern and bouncing around the world for several years, Cooper is back living in Israel. He works full-time as a licensed tour guide, a passion he realized during his time in the IDF.

“[Serving] is something that I can look back on in pride and say that I pitched in to make sure that we Jews have a place to call home – and not let a bunch of other people here take on the burden for me,” he says.

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Stephanie Goldfarb (second from the left) volunteering for the IDF

Extending Birthright

After going on birthright in the summer of 2005, Stephanie Goldfarb extended her stay without much of a thought of what she wanted to do. She had the idea to volunteer for the IDF, and after contacting Sar-El, an Israeli volunteer program, she was handed a uniform and sent off to work.

“Birthright had really solidified my ties to Israel, but once I got into the army, it was a whole different perspective,” Goldfarb says. “It really made me value everything we have in the States—to see so many people my age running around with guns, it made me appreciate more what I have here.”

Goldfarb volunteered with the IDF for a total of three weeks, splitting her time between bases in northern and southern Israel. She did mostly behind-the-scenes work, toiling in warehouses and making packs full of ready-to-eat food, water bottles, clothes and blankets for soldiers who were stationed across the country.

Because she was in Israel during the Gaza disengagement, Goldfarb says that even the sometimes rudimentary work was fulfilling because she knew it was contributing to the overall success of the IDF.

“I felt really proud because I was giving time to the Israeli army during a very sensitive time in history,” she says. “Everyone there had friends who were out there working in the field and in peoples’ homes, and it was exciting to be a part of the whole operation.”

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Mark Furman, serving in Israel

Making Aliyah

Above anything else, Mark Furman attributes a “feeling” to pushing him toward making aliyah and moving permanently to Israel. Serving in the IDF was not a primary reason for his decision to make the move, but his strong desire to defend Israel played a large role in expediting his journey overseas.

“Israel has been on my mind most of my adult life, and I didn’t want to regret not living here,” Furman says. “I knew that if I’d made aliyah after the age of 25, I wouldn’t be required to serve at all, so I moved to Israel a month before my birthday.”

Furman trained in both northern Israel and the Negev during the six-month service that is required for all new immigrants who make aliyah between the ages of 22 and 25. He went through basic training and ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) before receiving more in-depth training on how to operate an M71 cannon, considered the most accurate and reliable in the IDF.

Beyond the obvious lessons—he quips that he doesn’t think his suburban life in Chicago would have taught him how to shoot an 80 pound mortar out of a large cannon —Furman gained the confidence of knowing he could play an active role in defending his country.

“During the Second Lebanon War, when I was packing my things before the aliyah, I heard plenty of young people in the U.S. beating their chests and pledging to defend Israel,” he says. “I felt powerless because I could only hope that everything would be all right. Now, I know that if I’m needed, I’m just a phone call away from doing something real.”

To contact Ian Cooper about touring Israel, e-mail  walkisrael@gmail.com

Bittersweet

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05/27/2008

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Polly, lookin' pretty sweet

People generally have nice things to say about me. They call me sweet and friendly… I’ve even heard “you’re just a doll” more than once, but I didn’t let it go to my head, because that’s not what dolls do.

But suddenly, I just don’t feel like living up to those lofty adjectives. Don’t get me wrong; I like being sweet. Saying thank you to the bus driver or holding the door open for a mom pushing a stroller are, apparently, unusual acts of kindness these days. But, if I’m honest with myself – and if you watch Oprah, you know it’s all about honesty, girl – the adjective that seems to be fitting me like a glove these days is bitter.

I’ve been trying to fight it, but bitterness may be my destiny. See, I’m named after Great-Grandma Pauline: a woman who had a great sense of humor and took it in stride when her sons made moonshine in the bathtub and her daughters let the Shabbat chickens run free. Not a bad lady to be named after, right? Everyone called her Grandma Polly.

So, I’m Polly. The definition of which is bitter. Seriously, look it up.

As a name, Bitter is bad. My sister is Gracious and Merciful, but we just call her Jane. Undeniable proof of blatant favoritism and another reason to be bitter, but not today’s focus.

So, you may ask, “What’s got you so bitter, Bitter?”

Dating.

I know, I know, that sounds frivolous during this time in history. There are so many important issues worthy of our discussion and debate; war, politics, energy prices, poverty, education, global warming… the list is endless. Being bitter about dating seems pretty low on that list of Upsetting Things.

But in reality, a side effect of war and all the other serious issues of our day is that it makes the singles among us feel a little more single. If you’re not married or dating someone, you miss out on those quiet moments spent talking about things that really matter to you, whether they’re on the world stage, or the little things, like when Trader Joe’s was out of my favorite chocolate yogurt. Does anyone care what a bummer that was? No, not even the people at Trader Joe’s, though it’s nice that they pretend to. But a boyfriend or husband will listen… or at least physically be there, so we can talk to a figurative wall instead of a literal one.

Dating is just plain frustrating for every single single person I know, and it’s especially frustrating if you’re looking for someone Jewish, simply because we don’t have numbers on our side. We try to keep our heads held high, but we can’t help it; occasionally we’re hit by a flood of bitterness.

Here’s an example: Whenever I mention to anyone who’s married that dating is frustrating, they say something like this: “You should try Jdate. I hear people meet all the time on Jdate.”

My response: “Really? Cool. Hey, I know! In my essay ‘About Me,’ I’ll say that I’m just as comfortable in jeans as I am dressing up for a night on the town; in ’My ideal relationship,’ I’ll say that I think communication is really, really important for any relationship to work. I’m both brilliant and original! That’s certainly a combination and that any Jewish fellow would be happy to find in a Jewess! Thanks for the advice! See you at my wedding!”

Okay, I don’t actually say that, but that’s what my bitter mind thinks. The sweet me says, “Yeah. Jdate. Thanks.”

Of course I’ve gone on Jdate! Yes, some guys were nice, some were odd, and some started out as nice until I met them and they morphed into weirdos before my very eyes. Just a tip, guys: Tell a girl that your marriage lasted only two weeks because your wife was a vegan, an alcoholic and not sure of her sexuality before the first date or after the 10th, not on the actual first date. True, if you tell girls before, not as many of them will meet you for coffee, but all you need is the one who does. That’s free advice. You’re welcome.

I tried Jewish speed-dating, too, and was completely nervous before it started. But then I ran into a girl I went to day camp with and hadn’t seen for 25 years, so it started taking on a more adventurous feel. Who else might I meet? Thirty-six possibilities in two hours? Bring it on!

There were actually a few guys I could’ve talked to for a lot longer than the three minutes we were allowed. But with others, it was like being hungry and standing in front of the microwave; as fast as the time goes, it’s just not fast enough.

At the end of the night, though, I was feeling pretty good. I’d written down the names of nine guys I’d be interested in seeing again.

One of the nine put my name down. One. Out. Of. Nine. The friend who I went with had five matches; my camp friend, seven. (And my one put down their names, too… his criteria seemed to be tall, short, blonde, brunette, loves skiing, hates skiing, breathing.)

The question is, how do you meet your beshert? At work? Through friends? Should your parents set you up? Should their friends set you up? Do you meet guys at the grocery store, or running by the lake? Leaving my iPod at home would probably help, but isn’t it possible to have it all: Foo Fighters and a great date?

In an effort to change course, I thought I could start going by my Hebrew name: Miriam. I looked that up, and guess what? “Sea of bitterness.” In Hebrew, my bitterness only grows, and now it’s filling a sea.

So from now on, call me Angelina Jolie Levy… “little angel” and “pretty.” She’s had seems to have some luck. Let’s see what happens.

Polly Levy spent 8 years in Los Angeles where she wrote for Suddenly Susan, and was a Script Coordinator for Frasier, Gilmore Girls and some other TV shows no one has ever heard of.
Now living in Chicago, she is a Senior Content Producer at NogginLabs, where she writes online e-learning courses. In addition, she freelances for the website development company Azavar Technologies.
When not complaining about dating in writing, she can be found complaining about dating at brunch, at the movies, and while shopping. Complaining about dating is off-limits, however, while on actual dates.

8 Questions for Nathan Rabin, head writer for the Onion’s A.V. Club, improvisational Shabbat diner

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05/27/2008

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Nathan, writing something hilarious

When he is busy at work as head writer of The Onion’s A.V Club, Nathan Rabin may or may not be wearing pants. He co-authored the 2002 A.V Club interview collection, Tenacity of the Cockroach , as well as an upcoming book to be published by Scribner, which also will be publishing his solo debut, The Big Rewind: A Pop Culture Memoir, sometime in 2009. Rabin lives in Chicago with two cats.

So if Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure changed your life, you’re an Onion lover or you enjoy ribs, Nathan Rabin is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Like a lot of young people, I cycled through dream job aspirations pretty rapidly, hitting all the usual suspects: baseball player, movie star, FBI agent, cartoonist, robot, dragon, princess, ninja, robot and also Robot Ninja Princess. For a long time I thought I wanted to be either a Senator or a police officer. Then I realized that I hated authority figures, and didn’t really want to become one.

When I was 12-years-old I had a Road to Damascus moment watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I was going through a particularly tumultuous period in my home life, but for two glorious hours all I cared about was the fate of Bill S. Preston Esquire and Theodore Logan. I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a part of anything that could give people so much unfettered joy. In that moment a film critic was born.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
What don’t I love about my job? It’s pretty fucking sweet. I get to talk to famous people, watch ridiculous movies and write about all the weird pop ephemera that obsess me. Also, I don’t have to wear pants for it, which is odd, since I work out of an office.

3. What are you reading?
Sammy Davis Jr’s Yes I Can. It’s best known to my generation as the book that made Krusty The Klown’s rabbi father appreciate the spiritual richness of show business. It’s also quite Jewy in the best possible way.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I appeared on Check, Please a while back, where I raved incoherently about Fat Willy’s having “the best brisket in the world.” That was my sad little catch phrase: “The best brisket in the world!” So, Fat Willy’s. Yeah, that works.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A machine that would allow you to operate a television from several feet away. They haven’t invented that yet, have they? I don’t really keep up with the times. If that doesn’t work how about coffee with the caffeine removed? Or Pepsi you can see through? They’re all fine ideas.

6. Ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
I’m one of those clichéd souls who continually dreams of flight. Also, whenever someone is given the gift of invisibility they invariably turn into a lecherous, greed-ridden monster. So I’m going to have to go with flight.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I am all about a promising young singer/songwriter named T-Pain. You’re probably not familiar with his music—he’s flying low under the radar at this point—but he’s the gentleman who sounds like a robot on top 40 radio. I am not too proud to concede that I have more than one version of “Buy U A Drank” on my iPod and that I listen to them regularly.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in words, how do you Jew?
That is a good question, and one that made me realize just how secular of a Jew I really am. I guess for me the Jewiest place in all of my Chicago is my dad’s apartment, where I go every Friday night for the most half-assed of Shabbat dinners. We’re all about improvising.

For example: one night my dad couldn’t find a yarmulke so he put a paper napkin over his head to light the candles. That quickly went awry when the napkin caught fire and had to be doused with wine. Oh, the hilarity that ensued! So yeah, for me at least my dad’s apartment is the epicenter of the Chicago Jewish community. Definitely, Shabbat dinner with my dad is my favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago.

Finding Her Way Back Home

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Bringing square dancing to an urban audience, a caller recreates the spirit of her family’s legacy.
05/27/2008

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Annie (front and center) shows us it's hip to be square

When Annie Coleman takes the stage in her cowboy boots and bright red lipstick instructing people to form squares for ”Dip the Oyster,” some couples fall right into place, secure in their knowledge that a square is composed of four pairs and that your position at the dance's start is "home." Many of these confident types are rockin' cowboy hats.

The newcomers are wide-eyed, not entirely convinced that spending a Saturday night square dancing with dozens of 20 to 30-something hipsters (and a smattering of hardcore dancers who do-se-do without irony) is a great idea.

Coleman plays guitar and bassoon, sings and calls dances in The Golden Horse Square Dance Band, an ensemble that mixes classic country standards with unique country rebel and has attracted a dedicated set of groupies since its debut seven years ago.

This is no kitsch act. Coleman, a third-generation square dance caller, grew up in Oak Park but spent summers working in her family’s Westfield, Wisconsin resort, The Golden Horse Ranch—so she’s no stranger to leading a crowd of confused city folk.

Once Coleman starts breaking down a dance, even skeptics get caught up in the excitement. The caller is responsible for creating a bond between the musicians and the dancers to build a communal vibe. It’s a big task, but her genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Her ability to work the crowd is hereditary.

Founded by her grandfather Bob Coleman, Sr. in 1949, The Golden Horse Ranch was named after its roaming herd of Palomino horses. Families traveled to Westfield for one-week stays in self-sufficient cabins—that were never outfitted with TVs or telephones—and participated in riding and archery lessons. In the evenings, guests danced, sang by the campfire or took part in a talent show, ala Dirty Dancing. Until it closed in 1998, generations of families relied on the ranch as one place they could count on to remain the same year after year.

Drawn by more than horses and archery, guests returned because of the atmosphere. “The ranch was so open and warm,” says Coleman. “My grandma was [warm and welcoming]; it wasn’t like the resorts you think of today. Families shared tables and got to know each other; we took the chance out of meeting new people.” It’s that sense of community that Coleman is recreating in today’s urban bar scene when she encourages squares to get to know each other and swap members for each dance.

Revisiting her roots wasn’t something Coleman planned to do professionally. This whole thing started simply because she missed square dancing. So, on her 28th birthday, she decided to break out her old records and call for her party.

Calling for her friends, Coleman had one of those realizations you get when you’ve seen a movie as a kid and then watched it again as an adult. “I’d been calling since I was 13 and I never realized how sexual the songs are until I called with beer, surrounded by my friends. First, they all looked at me like, ‘Hey, you can call square dancing!’ and then like ‘Oooohhhhh, that’s kinda dirty.’ One of my favorite lines is from ‘Head Two Gents.’ “If I had a girl and she wouldn’t dance, I’d buy her a boat and send her afloat and paddle my own canoe.’”

News of Annie’s birthday bash traveled, and her friend Anthony Burton (pictured above in the white Good Guy hat) wanted to plan an official dance. Within a few weeks they had a band together and a gig. The original members of the band got together and learned the songs by listening to her scratchy old records.

That first public gig at Chicago’s Open End Gallery was going to be their last. They expected about sixty people—instead a couple hundred showed up. Since then, the Golden Horse Square Dance Band has hosted hootenannies at a number of Chicago bars and festivals, including Summer Dance in Grant Park and The Hideout Block Party; the Open End Barn Dance celebrated its seventh annual show last March.

Coleman has theories about why social dancing is so contagious. It’s less about the dancing and more about human connection. “It’s so easy to close yourself off in the city, to look at people and make snap judgments about who they are and who you’ll get along with. Square Dancing breaks down barriers and gets people talking; and, it’s less intimidating than some dancing because though there is a couple-y thing about it, it’s not one-on-one. You end up partners with everyone in the square,” she says.

Coleman’s biggest goal is to make people comfortable by creating a sense of community. “We’re all just humans and if you break down barriers you’ll meet people you’d never know you had anything in common with. I knew that from the ranch and have been searching for that feeling since the ranch closed.”

“The connections between what we’re doing and the ranch seem so obvious now but I didn’t realize it until it was all happening. We’re recreating that open spirit away from the ranch. After that first gig, I felt more open; I got so many hugs that night. It was just pure-ass uninhibited fun, people connecting with each other and having a good time.”

The most liberating thing about square dancing is that it’s not about getting the steps down perfectly or about being the best. As Coleman reminds us from the stage, it’s not even about doing the steps right—it’s about having a good time. She employs a casual style throughout the show, offering this constant reassurance to the rhythmically challenged: “If your square messes up, don’t worry about it, just find your way back home.” She knows the approach works—it’s exactly what she has done herself.

Today, Annie is taking her community-building skills off the dance floor and into the actual community with her newest venture, Living Room Realty.

Catch the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band’s Kids show June 7th in Millennium Park Sat. and see them again July 18th as part of the Great Chicago Performers of Illinois, also in Millennium Park.

People of the Book

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Local author brings writers together 
05/20/2008

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Amy Guth brings bibliophiles together May 22-25

Inspiration struck Chicago novelist Amy Guth while she was touring the country to promote her first novel, Three Fallen Women. Encouraged by the camaraderie she found at various small-press literary and book festivals and readings nationwide, she wanted to create a similar experience for writers in Chicago. “My experience with literary festivals has been so positive,” she says. “Writing is such a solitary thing to do. It’s easy to forget that there are other people out there working and hoping for the same things.”  The Pilcrow Lit fest was born.

Writing might be a solitary occupation, but the growing, nationwide buzz surrounding Pilcrow (named for the symbol used to note the start of a paragraph) is promising to unite a multitude of bibliophiles—writers, readers and publishers alike. Guth originally hoped to find 20 participants to fill the roster. At last count, 80 writers, publishers, and booksellers have signed on, traveling from across the country and as far as Switzerland to discuss current trends, present their work, and moderate conversations on topics on everything from social media to poetry.

One of the most provocative hours on the agenda is The God Language Panel, a moderated discussion between several authors who write about what Guth calls the new taboo. “I think people can talk openly about something if they are either very, very certain or very, very disconnected,” she says. “Maybe that’s more a cultural commentary, really. We know our celebrities’ mental health status, grooming habits, love lives…but somehow God and religion can still make people start squirming. Perhaps the art of friendly debate is a thing lost, and the lines between discussion and argument are gone.”

This polarity is something that Pilcrow is designed to avoid. All participants are given an equal forum—there are no headliners. While some books and authors might be better known or more widely read, the emphasis at this four-day festival is on the writing community at large.

And for Guth, sharing the words of others connects back to her commitment to Judaism. “I think Tikkun Olam is one of the things I like most about Judaism,” she says. “I really, truly, deep-down believe we have an obligation to help and share when opportunities present themselves.”

“I don’t draw a lot of lines, really, about what is a “Jewish thing.”  Things just are. Everything has a sacred aspect—it’s all in mindfulness and approach. After I’ve had a really productive day of writing, I feel great, I feel like I’ve done well, and done something I find a great deal of meaning in. I think that’s another lovely aspect of Judaism. We don’t talk a ton about what we are or are not believing, but far more about what we are and are not doing.”

Amy Guth is certainly doing something, and through Pilcrow Lit Fest, the entire community stands to benefit.

Check out the Pilcrow Lit Fest May 22-25.

Taking Faith

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05/20/2008

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Jessica, figuring out how to 'just have faith'

I’ve known people who can boil something huge down to a single, explicit moment: The moment they realized what they wanted. The moment they fell in love. The moment they knew they believed in something. The moment that changed life as they knew it.

Those moments have always eluded me. My questions about the details, need for tangible answers and tendency to over-think turn my moments into series’ of complicated hours.

I’ve known people who can find answers by “just having faith” and that’s another one I’ve never been very good at.

I’ve often wondered how much of that has to do with the fact that I grew up without religion.

I used to wonder if I was starving my spirit by not feeding on religion, but whenever I set foot in a church, I was distinctly uncomfortable. I couldn’t wrap my head around having faith in something that just didn’t make sense to me.

In college, I briefly thought I’d “found it.” I attended a Baptist Church. I didn’t much follow the whole religious thing, but when the congregation erupted in song, my stomach fluttered and I felt goosebumps. Every time. And when, after services, we’d gather to share a great big lunch, I felt something. I was part of a community. But I winced when the discussion turned to God and faith. I swallowed my questions and focused on how good it felt for all of us to sit in the sun together, eating from the same giant bowls of Jello.

But my questions about the details piled up, I couldn’t make myself believe in the answers, and, ultimately, the music and lunches weren’t enough to keep me glued to the community.

I didn’t think about religion again for a long time. Not even when I took a job at The Jewish Federation in Chicago. I offered myself up as a non-religious outsider, who might bring a fresh eye to the communications department. My approach to learning about Judaism was analytical; I was rooted in a need to understand this religion I knew nothing about so that I could do a job.

During those three years on the job, colleagues and friends lined up, tirelessly, to answer my never-ending questions. Eventually, I collected a string of moments that made me determine I’d “found”—or at least come to understand—religion: The moment a precious 13-year-old, preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, told her mother I had a Jewish soul. The moment I attended my first Seder. The moment I attended my first Jewish wedding. And an entire week of moments I experienced while visiting Israel.

It was after that trip to Israel, while hanging my first Mezuzah, that I realized my professional mission of reaching out to young, unaffiliated Jews and emphasizing the importance of continuity was no longer strictly business.

I’d developed a personal connection to Judaism and the result was goosebumps all over my spirit and my brain.

It was that spiritual understanding with an intellectual anchor that taught me what it means to “just have faith.”

But conversion? Doesn’t that require a single “moment” when you know you’re sure? Don’t you need a solid religious stance to convert from? And don’t you have to be done asking questions first?

Conversion means change. Transformation. Becoming someone new. It’s disruption. It’s controversy. It’s complicated.

Was there a moment? Absolutely not. I thought about it for years. But at some point along the way, my questions moved from skeptical and analytical to hopeful and personal. The more I rolled the idea around, the scarier it felt. Without memories of my Bat Mitzvah or family kugel recipes to pass down, won’t I always be considered a fake? Will I have something to hide?

And what happens to the me that I am now? Do I have to bury her? Do I have to abandon my family and the non-religious traditions we share? Do I have to sign something that says I’ll stop listening to Cyndi Lauper’s twist on Christmas carols? Do I have to learn to curl my lip in disgust when someone orders shellfish in a restaurant, or can I confess my true feelings for all-you-can-eat shrimp cocktail?

Does conversion mean I have to stop questioning? Does it mean I’m expected to know all the answers?
 
The closest thing I ever had to a “moment” was when I realized these two things: I didn’t have to have answers for every question in order to start my conversion. And if I stop asking questions, I’ll likely never finish.

Every day brings new questions.

Some have been relatively small: While others prepared for family reunions and familiarity during Passover, I felt college-like, pre-test stress over all the details, trying to memorize every last one: Do’s, Don’ts, rules, rituals, how to set the table, how to run a Seder. 

Some have been bigger: Where, how, and how much of my conversion will I share along the way? What elements will remain entirely private? Which ones will only be shared with my inner-most circle? And at some point, will I have a template for what to share with everyone else, or will I continue to wrestle over if, what, and how to share during first dates and cocktail parties?

And some, quite honestly, have been mind-rocking. Those are the heart of this experience. They’re big questions with answers I can only find by just having faith. And I do.

8 Questions for Ari Lehman, a Slash from the Past

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05/20/2008

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Ari Lehman, scaring you since 1980

Ari Lehman scared the hell out of you back when you were a kid. After sneaking into a film audition, he landed the role of Jason Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th movie way back in 1980. The musically inclined scary guy from Connecticut relocated to Chicago in 2002 and formed a Jewish-tinged reggae-rock band called the Ari Ben Moses Band. His horror fans took notice and he unleashed upon them… FIRSTJASON! Today, his monster-metal band plays horror conventions worldwide.

So whether you’re a fan of scary movies, into punk rock or have, yourself, acted in Fiddler On the Roof, Ari Lehman is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always wanted to be a singer and an actor. When I was around ten years old, went to an intercommunity camp in Westport, Connecticut, and got cast as Tevye in their production of Fiddler On the Roof even though I was half the height of most of the girls playing my daughters!

My entire family came out to see it, even my Nana and Papa from Brooklyn. It was an amazing moment. I brought the house down with "If I Were a Rich Man!” I have played in stadiums all over the world, but I doubt I will ever top that performance…

2. What do you love about what you do today?
Currently, I lead my monster-metal band, FIRST JASON, act in independent horror movies, compose and perform soundtracks for various film projects, and attend conventions to sign autographs for the fans of Jason Voorhees. The best part is the interaction with these dedicated fans.

3. What are you reading?
Hidden Faces, a novel by Salvador Dali, Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan and Brando, a biography by Peter Manso

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Chicago DinerAnte Prima and Tel Aviv Pizza

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
An electromagnetic personal shield that rendered all firearms ineffective.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
To Fly, to fly!

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
“Big Take Over,” Bad Brains and “The Brews,” NOFX.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
I love to shop on Devon at the Jewish bakery and grocery store. I once found some kosher for Passover wine from France that was AMAZING there!

Visiting Israel On Its 60th Birthday

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Going to a country built by bravery, it took me a while to build my own courage.
05/20/2008

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Stefanie 'fearlessly' riding a camel in Israel

I’ll be honest—when I first found out I would be going as a reporter on JUF’s Israel @ 60 Mission my first reaction was ‘wow, my job is awesome.’ My second reaction was a panic attack.

Here I was, being offered an unbelievably incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in Israel during its 60th anniversary, and I was totally, utterly freaked out. At the time, the trip seemed far enough into the future that I could safely say, “of course” and “thank you for the opportunity” and “I’m so excited,” pushing the fear, and the reality that I would eventually have to face that fear, far into the depths of the back of my mind. And it worked. Even in the weeks prior to the trip as I went through all the preparations, I felt excited, anxious maybe, but not afraid. It hit me when I started to pack.

 As images of suicide bombers and Qassam rockets filled my head, I tried to remind myself that I had been to Israel once before and felt totally safe—it didn’t help. Then I tried telling myself that more people have died in car accidents than terror attacks in Israel—it was no use.  Stef, I told myself, you know several people who live there every single day and people travel back and forth all the time. You just have a skewed perspective because you follow Israeli news so closely at work. Okay, I nodded to myself in understanding, but still I did not feel any better. 

 But somehow, fears, irrational thoughts and all, I packed my suitcase, grabbed my notepad and laptop and boarded the plane.

 As soon as I stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, I started to feel a little calmer. ‘See Stef, you can do this.’

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Mission participants stepping off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport

That night, Erev Yom HaZikaron, at a special ceremony at the Golani Junction—home to the Golani Brigade Museum, which commemorates the brigade which has earned reputation for its die-hard soldiers—we heard the biographies of the selfless Golani soldiers whose lives had been cut short while serving their country. The next morning at the Kinneret Cemetery, Joel Goldman introduced us to three pioneers of early Zionism who gave up everything, including their families in some cases, to come live on the land that called out to them. Suddenly, all my fears just seemed silly, selfish, unfounded in comparison.

But it wasn’t until the final night of the mission, as I stood at a concert among the thousands of soldiers in uniform at the Tse’elim IDF base that I finally understood.

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Omri and Ivri, two brave soldiers at the Tse'elim base

These soldiers, most of them not even 20 years old, sang and swayed and danced together like they hadn’t a care in the world, when in reality, their responsibility to their country would likely bring them to a war zone in Gaza within weeks. Some had already suffered bullet wounds and injuries and would still have to return. Weren’t they totally, utterly freaked out?

Maybe. But they didn’t show it and they certainly weren’t going to let the fear stop them.

And that’s when I realized what Israel is all about—and it’s not Qassam rockets or suicide bombers. Where would we be if the Golani soldiers were too afraid to fight in the war of Independence, or the Six Day War? Or if the early Zionists had said, I’m too scared to leave the familiarity of home?

And where will we be if we let fear stop us from visiting our homeland, from feeling a part of the miracle that is Israel?

Want to know more about the trip? Check out my blog.

Let Them Eat Tuna

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Kosher eating in the loop
05/13/2008

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Soup's on in the loop

Maybe you keep kosher, or your coworkers do, or your best friend does. Maybe you'd like to grab a bite to eat before a show, or invite that cute guy in the adjacent cubicle out for dinner—or just eat lunch. 

Like many of you, we work in the loop, and like many of you, we often spend our lunch breaks meeting friends or schmoozing with co-workers. While neither of us keeps kosher, some of our favorite people do, and we’ve spent quite a few mornings looking for restaurants that will accommodate the frum and frei alike.

Have you ever done a quick Google search for kosher restaurants in the loop? The results are…underwhelming.

Some searches will turn up an impressive list of lunch and dinner options, but upon closer inspection, you'll find these are kosher-style, not certified kosher. While Shalom Deli gets rave reviews on Yelp, that ham and cheese bagel on the menu isn’t going to impress your Orthodox boss.

With a Jewish population of over 270,000, metropolitan Chicago boasts one of the largest in the United States. Jews comprise 9% of Chicago’s population, but the kosher restaurant industry is primarily concentrated in the Northern suburbs.

Chicago's Loop offers only three kosher options.

The Spertus Café is one option, and the location and view provide some much-needed drama to an otherwise lack-luster dining experience. Most of the food is pre-packaged, but there is beer and wine available, and with a little imagination, an omnivore might be able to piece together a satisfying lunch. Vegetarians, on the other hand, may need a second glass of merlot to wash down the muffins and bagels that comprise the bulk of the non-meat selections.

On the afternoon we visited, there were two soups offered, one a thick cinnamon-spiced tomato soup that was not for the faint of heart. Our other options were more mundane—think egg salad sandwiches and iceberg lettuce—and we were disappointed to find that both the online and posted menus listed items that were not available when we visited. Open for much of the day, six days a week, the Spertus Café provides an important service to those of us needing a quick, kosher meal, but the food did little to feed the soul.

If you're in the mood to pick up a sandwich on your way back to the office, Chicago Loop Synagogue offers boxed lunches made fresh everyday at Skokie’s Sandwich Club. Lunches cost $11 and include a sandwich or wrap (usually chicken or turkey), a pickle, a drink, dessert, and homemade potato chips said to be the best in Chicago. While a great option for many, these lunches are not vegetarian-friendly.

In contrast, MetroKlub, the bustling, seen and be-seen certified kosher hot spot in Greektown’s Crown Plaza Hotel, caters to a wide audience and is a popular place for business lunches. Chef Chris Turano’s menu offers a full menu of fresh lunch options from vegetable salads and hamburgers to strip steak and bruschetta. Though fleishig, MetroKlub has enough variety to accommodate even picky eaters like us.

Vegan cooks pay attention: Turano’s artful reimagining of traditional dairy recipes might reinvent the way people think about kosher food. One bite of his parve turtle cheesecake was enough to sway even the most skeptical of our lunch companions.

Unfortunately, if you’re working late you better plan ahead and pack a snack. Once Spertus closes its doors at 7pm, anyone hoping for a kosher meal in the loop is out of luck.

Nice Jewish Girl Seeks…

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What JDate has to offer women seeking women
05/13/2008

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Sarah, lookin' for love in all the J places

I finally broke down and joined JDate. After months of looking at the first page of people who matched my criteria—as many as you can see without joining—I decided to take the next step. I mean, the lady who’d be the horseradish to my gefilte fish could be waiting for me right at the top of page two.

So I joined. And I clicked. And there was no page two.

That’s right. All of the non-smoking women seeking women between the ages of 24 and 35 fit right there on a single page (to be fair, five months later there are now two whole people on the second page). And none of those ladies were quite what I was looking for. Or at least, I don’t think they were; it’s hard to tell when half of them don’t bother to either put up a picture or answer the profile questions.

About six weeks after joining, I discussed my JDate frustrations with a recently-engaged Irish Catholic friend. “Well, are you really surprised?” she asked. “I mean, you’re already throwing out any semblance of tradition or social norms or values by dating women. So it’s a little weird that you’d be so stuck on the more traditional, kind of passé practice of dating only Jews. I’m sure that’s why there aren’t lots of women on JDate.”

Say what?!

Perhaps she misspoke. Perhaps she didn’t mean values. Perhaps I misunderstood what she was saying altogether. Perhaps she was saying that members of the queer community are generally intelligent, open-minded individuals who will live their lives in a way that makes them happy, even if it breaks the mold of what Bubbe, Zayde, and Uncle Milt always pictured for them.

For as much as my friend’s comment upset me, it also got me thinking. Is it important to me that I find a “nice Jewish girl?” Or are “nice” and “girl” enough? Mostly I’d signed up on JDate because I had a bunch of friends who had had some success with it, and I know of a handful of “JDate weddings.” But was there something more subconscious going on there? Did I pick it over, say, match.com, because of the Jewish factor?

I decided to rethink my dream date. I come from an interfaith family, but consider myself Jewish. It is safe to say my brothers and I were the only triple B’nai Mitzvah in Hyde Park in 1995, and I even taught at my childhood synagogue for a number of years. But we also had Easter baskets and a Christmas tree growing up. I never cared about those holidays, though, beyond getting excited that I got to hear pretty music, get a few gifts and eat a big dinner that usually ended with pie.

My parents successfully raised us in one religion while exposing us to another, so why do I need to worry about whether my partner knows the story of Passover without reading the CliffsNotes version of the Hagaddah or the Rugrats’ “Let My Babies Go?” Plus, I didn’t want to offend my father by deciding that people from his faith weren’t somehow good enough for me.

That’s when I joined match.com. I was fed up with the small number of women on JDate, and I’d decided that in choosing a profile worth responding to, someone’s answer to the “what’s the last book you read?” question might be more telling than her religion. As my pool expanded from fewer than 20 to over 200 profiles—way more than one page of results!—I met some great people, and was feeling pretty good about the dating scene.

Then a nice Jewish girl emailed me through match.com, noting that my Judaism was something that drew her to me. We found that we had a lot in common, and could turn a quick call to say “hey” into a three hour conversation that kept this Oy!Chicago sleepyhead up past her 10 o’clock bedtime. One of the things we shared with each other for close to an hour on the phone and in lengthy paragraphs in emails? Passover stories. What our seders were like this year, what we did to break Passover (pizza, both of us), what our families’ holiday traditions are and so much more.

And I loved it. It was fun sharing that part of my life—my own special brand of Judaism—with someone else. I’d hang up the phone or sign out of my email still smiling, knowing that there is someone else who appreciates where I’m coming from, where I hope to go, and what the issues along the way might be for me as a young Jewish lesbian.

I think I understand now why I was drawn to JDate rather than match.com in the first place. Having shared experiences can make the whole dating thing a little easier. It gives you some common ground to start from on a first date; and anyone who says first dates don’t need to be easier is a liar. And I probably owe JDate an apology for badmouthing it to my friends. Sure, it may not have gotten me a date, but it did give me a better understanding of myself.

At this point, I have no idea when the matzah ball to my chicken broth will come rolling along. And I know a Jewish partner will likely come with a Jewish mother-in-law in tow. But if sharing a Jewish life with someone else can make me smile the way I have just by sharing some stories with someone new during the past few weeks, it’s worth the wait. And the in-laws.

8 Questions for Jon Rosenfield, bass player, number cruncher, Passover purist

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05/13/2008

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Pale Jonny can entertain you, but he's not sure he can fix your motorcycle

Jon Rosenfield, AKA "Pale Jonny,” nee "Jonny Motion,” likes to say he’s from Wheeling, the city with feeling. Today, the self-described extremely amateur motorcycle mechanic calls Logan Square home. By day, Jon does accounting and HR work (he’s is partial to the title Controller). In the evenings, you’ll find Pale Jonny playing bass for Pale Gallery—the band heads to London this month for a big show as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.

So, whether you like Pale Gallery, have strong feelings about honesty in the Haggadah or enjoy Neil Diamond, Jon Rosenfield is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was in junior high and LA Law was on, I wanted to be a lawyer. What I wanted to be usually depended on my favorite show at the time, for a while it was CHiPs, then LA Law… then in college I wanted to be a rhetoric or literary studies professor. I’m pretty malleable that way.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
Well. As it relates to the band, I like having a creative outlet and it gives me something to cling to for the prolonged adolescence that I am still maintaining.

3. What are you reading?
Hell’s Angles by Hunter S. Thompson and Achewood.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I would say that I consistently enjoy Feast. For carryout, I want to make a point to pour out some beer for Manee Thai on Pulaski. We’ve always gotten take out from them and it’s always good. A fire gutted the building last week, RIP, Manee Thai.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
For the last couple of years, I have been very insistent that time travel is impossible. I mean, come on, you can’t travel in time. It’s a one-way ticket. So I guess I would invent time travel; why not prove myself wrong.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I think that I would have to fly because I don’t think I could hold myself to using the invisibility for good. And flying would be cool.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
“Practically Newborn” by Neil Diamond, that shit is sweet. It’s a cool, weird song from the album Velvet Gloves and Spit. It’s pretty awesome.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
I’m gonna bend the rules on this question. Even if you’re writing a Haggadah for children, you can’t not call the matzah the bread of affliction—that’s what it is and you can’t call it something else. And you can’t gloss over drowning the enemies in the sea—because that’s what happens. I was reading from a Haggadah for children this Passover, and these things weren’t in it and I was very unsatisfied. That’s what I was told as a kid and I didn’t become a violent person.

The Haggadah’s were cute and everything, but I’m sorry, it’s the bread of affliction. The Old Testament is eye for an eye: You part the Red Sea and you smite the enemies. That’s how it works; you can’t candy coat it.

Why’s a nice Jewish girl telling jokes like that?

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05/13/2008

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Jena, morbidly quirky in pink

On a typical weekend, almost-famous Chicago Jewish comedian Jena Friedman races by bike from gig to gig, performing standup all over the city.

Playing three shows in two days is typical for Friedman, a quarter-lifer, who lives in Lakeview. But recently, the comic experienced a weekend that she’ll never forget. In May, she opened three shows for Chicago native and manic comic genius Robin Williams, who made surprise appearances at comedy shows at Lakeshore Theater and Town Hall Pub, to the excitement of three unsuspecting crowds.

At the end of the weekend, Williams appeared at “Entertaining Julia: Comedy, Music, and Fun,” a variety show hosted by Friedman every Sunday night at Town Hall Pub, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood bar in Boystwon where everybody knows your name. Her show offers comedians and musicians a chance to showcase their talents and test out new material, all the while trying to entertain Friedman’s friend/bartender Julia, who runs the pub. ”It was a magical night,” says Friedman. “I love the fact that people who have been doing this for so long—like Williams—can stop in and have a place that takes them back to where they started.”

Friedman, who works as a copywriter, just started performing standup two years ago, and it’s a path she never planned to pursue. In fact, she stumbled into comedy back in 2000 while studying anthropology at Northwestern University, writing her 50-page senior thesis—an undertaking not usually known for its laughs.

In researching her thesis on female comedians in Chicago’s improv scene which--eventually morphed into a paper on minority men and women in improv—she turned to Improv Olympics for help. The improvisational comedy theater recommended that she, herself, take classes to get a feel for the art form. So she signed up and spent a year living and breathing comedy, working behind-the-scenes, meeting people, learning improv and performing.

After graduating from her comic schooling—which included training at The Second City and Annoyance Theatre in Chicago—Friedman was hooked and has been cultivating her dark routine ever since. In addition to standup, in the summer of 2007 she wrote, directed and produced “The Refugee Girls Revue,” a parody on American Girl dolls as refugees.

A critic from ComedyNet said the following of Friedman’s act: “If an Edward Gorey line-drawing came to life, donned blue jeans and performed stand-up comedy, it might resemble the eerily dry and morbidly quirky Jena Friedman."

Though she always felt well adjusted growing up in New Jersey—“I was the captain of the tennis team”—Friedman had a dark side even then. “I was very into weird, dark cult stuff,” she recalls. She loved artist/writer Gorey’s morbid sketches and early on she’d read about vampire bats in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The first adult chapter book she read was the biography of Vernon Wayne Howell, also known as David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect.

In addition to her quirky taste, she had a strong Jewish upbringing, raised in a Conservative Jewish home, celebrating her bat mitzvah and attending Hebrew school through the 10th grade. Though she still embraces a strong Jewish identity, she says she feels a little disconnected from her Judaism right now, a disconnect she feels is “age-appropriate.”

Friedman is a Jewish, female comedian, yet her material tends to skip the parts about being Jewish and female. Every so often, she’ll pepper her act with Jewish references like a joke on “Chanukkah carols,” but usually she veers away from Jewish jokes because she feels so many talented Jewish comedians who came before her have already done the material. “There’s such a cool lineage of Jewish comics,” she says, “so that character is so trodden on.”

And she doesn’t dwell on girl jokes either. Friedman is warm and dons a disarming smile. Yet her jokes don’t match her outward, feminine appearance, and she rarely discusses her dating life or other typical female staples.

A recent 7-minute set for Friedman ran the gamut of her “cringe-inducing,”—as her jokes have been called—morbid ponderings on date rapists, the Streetwise sellers, provocative photos of Disney teen pop star Miley Cyrus (“Chill-lax, Disney; I heart Annie Leibovitz” says Friedman) and the contrasts between black and white Chicago neighborhoods.

Though Friedman pushes the envelope in her comedy—which has been compared to fellow New Jersey Jewish comic Sarah Silverman—Friedman says she isn’t trying to offend people. Rather, from time to time, she uses her anthropological background to comment through her jokes on the social ills in society, such as racism. “I will do my jokes one night in a predominantly black room and people will be laughing before I even get to the punch line,” said Friedman. “You can’t pretend that we don’t have racism built into our society. If people think [my jokes] are racist, then they just don’t get it.”

Friedman plans to keep honing her routine. Who knows? Maybe some day, like Robin Williams she’ll be the surprise comedian at the end of the night and make a young comedian’s weekend.

No matter what her future in the spotlight holds, she recognizes that her material will transform through the years. “I have no idea how my stuff will evolve,” she said. “The voice I have now might not be the voice I have in five years. So anything that’s been captured on YouTube can totally be used as blackmail.”

I Have No Other Country

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An Israeli meditation on Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day)
05/09/2008

 

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Galit, standing

I was standing at noon exactly. It was 8 p.m. in Israel. No one was there to stand with me. It was the loneliest and the weirdest “standing” I have ever experienced. The siren didn’t come from somewhere close. It wasn’t from the synagogue close by. I could control its volume by adjusting it on my computer. It felt weird.

Yael, my friend, wrote me a few minutes before: “Let’s stand together,” and so we did. She stood in Ramat Hasharon and I stood in Chicago. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, remembering what day it is, and where I am. It was hard to differentiate between my sorrow for being so alone at such a moment and the seasonal grief as I call it – in the days post Pesach in Israel. Technology did its part again and I could “enjoy” my childhood tune that was heard twice a year.

There is nothing harder then being an Israeli who misses her country on a day like this. I can fake it on other holidays pretty easily. I create this pseudo holiday bubble and let 'Universal Judaism' dictate the atmosphere. I can transform myself pretty easily and feel like I’m celebrating “Israeli style."

There is one time in the year that I cannot fake it, even to myself, and this is Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). No one who’s not Israeli can understand these days, not even a committed Jew who has been to Israel a few times and donates on a regular basis.

Yesterday I taught my 5th grade class about the meaning of these days. Like always, I tried to connect them by asking what Memorial Day means to them, desperate or foolish enough to find a link from my heritage to theirs.

Their answers pointed to the highlights of their day:“The date the pools are open,” “shopping,” “food.” Maybe parades. They didn’t have more answers to share with me.

When I understood that my method had failed, I had to find a new way to reach the kids. I talked about the IDF and the mandatory law to serve your country. “But what if we would get killed?” a girl screamed.

I wanted to shout back at her. “Israelis get killed all the time to protect the Jews all over the world!”

I wanted to tell her that while she is concerned about her summer vacation, my family and friends have to struggle every day. But what sense does it makes to explain? The kids were horrified by the fact we have to serve the country and not run off to college.

They didn’t understand what an honor it is to serve your country. An honor that becomes more doubtful from generation to generation. Even Israel is tired. We would prefer to see our amazing youth develop themselves like other kids their age.

And still, I’m standing there when the siren came from the laptop, crying for the almost 23,000 fallen soldiers and for the fact that I cannot be on the same bloody ground they are buried in.

No one can describe the “togetherness” of all the Israelis this day. Everyone is going with their head bent to the ground. No one screams or pushes. We are all quiet this day and embarrassed to raise our voices. We can’t even laugh or act like we are enjoying ourselves. It’s the mothers of consensus.

Everyone knows someone who died to protect Israel, or died from a terror attack.  My grandparent’s brother Yochanan died as a young solider after coming from Poland; a friend lost her brother; a friend of a friend died in a horrible helicopters disaster. We all know someone, and go to commemorate them in 43 IDF graveyards, at ceremonies, and by watching movies about our heroes who were harvested before they bloomed.

No happy songs are sung, no restaurants or theaters are open. We are all mourning for the people that commanded life for us with their death.

There is almost something addictive about this day. My sister just told me yesterday that she loves this day, and she’s not alone. It’s part of our culture, and there to stay. Post-modernism didn’t touch it yet and hopefully never will, unless peace will come.

One cannot be sarcastic on a day like that. Even when you are shouting,"no more war, no more bloodshed” you find yourself wordless in front of bereaved parents.

Amichai’s and Alterman’s songs, Chaim Guri and Chaim Chefer mixed with emotional music, the amazing soundtrack of Yom Hazikaron presents songs that talk about friendships, about love ones, about people who had plans for life.

Today Yom Ha'atzmaut will start when Yom Hazikaron will end. Only one minute separates the two days. A thin line between grief and happiness. And tonight, all my people will go and celebrate our 60th Independence Day. The sad documentaries will transform to happy “Burekas” movies, the world bible quiz will be heard from many television sets, the smell of mangals will fill the air, no matter where you are.

No matter what we have been through and where we are standing today, we still have the koach, the strength, to celebrate our miracle. Even though my pain is huge and the loneliness and the alienation here is so big, I still have something to dream about—to go home.

Galit Greenfield is from Tel Aviv, Israel and currently lives in Chicago and works as a program director at Mosaic: Jewish Arts in the Loop at Hillels Around Chicago.

Whole Hog

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When I became a vegetarian, I started to understand a bit about keeping kosher.
05/06/2008

LibbyGrillHat

Ghosts of barbeques past...

My sometimes-combative relationship with food started during The Great Squash-Off of 1985. I was eight, my friend Bevin was over for dinner, and we were told we had to try to the squash. This was the first time in my life my dad insisted I eat something I didn’t want.

Bevin smashed her squash into her potatoes and encouraged me to do the same—she was always a bit more diplomatic than I. We were about to miss The Cosby Show and Family Ties and it was, after all, only one bite. But I knew. If I tried it, I would be taking bites of things I didn’t want for the rest of my life. Eggs, sloppy Joes, kitten toes…

My dad held his ground. Bevin was driven home, I missed my TV shows and I sat there looking at the cold lump of squash until bedtime. But I won and was never again asked to take a bite of something I didn’t want.

Since that fateful Thursday in the 80s, I have maintained self-imposed dietary restrictions, mostly involving condiments, foods that are white and foods that are not clearly a liquid or a solid. And recently I made the transition from picky eater to picky vegetarian.

It’s been interesting trying to explain my decision, and it’s gotten me thinking about people who keep kosher. People get that keeping kosher is about religion and tradition, so not many people ask why when someone says they follow a kosher diet. However, I’m someone who was spotted at a fourth of July pig roast just last summer eating directly from the pig’s body—so I understand where they’re coming from when people ask why.

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Yes, that's THE whole hog

Despite my not-so-distant past as a bacon-lover—and my hesitation to talk about them at the risk of sounding preachy—I do have strong beliefs: I think that the way most animals being raised for food are treated is terrible. The meat production industry is repulsive. The toll of meat production on the environment scares me. And the older I get, the more trouble I have with the idea of eating something that once was alive.

Unlike people who keep kosher, my beliefs have nothing to do with religion or with tradition. They are personal and political and have more to do with how I’m becoming the person I want to be. But, for the first time, I understand a little more about what it means to keep kosher; not just the logistics, but the feeling you get from choosing to live a certain way, even when it’s difficult, because you believe in something.

A few weeks ago, I went to my first Cubs game of the year. I used to love (and honestly, I still love them, but now from afar) hot dogs and looked forward to my first ballpark dog each season. But this year, sitting in my little green seat with a pretzel that managed to have the consistency of both sawdust and paste, I was envious—at a very base level—of the kosher diet, which allows for all the Vienna beef you want.

But I get it now, I think, the difference between being a picky, stubborn squash-hater and choosing not to eat something I like because of what I believe in. So until Wrigley steps up with a veggie dog, I’ll have to be content with my pretzel.

Documenting the Pretty-Gritty

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05/06/2008

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Joey Garfield and his muse, the hip hop pigeon

Joey Garfield says he thinks in pictures. And lucky for us, he makes a living sharing those images with the world through his documentary films. “I’m a visual guy. That’s how I express myself best,” he says.

After directing Style Wars Revisited, a documentary on graffiti art, Garfield realized he could make films about stuff he actually liked. Like beatboxing. His feature film,  Breath Control : History of the Human Beatbox, chronicles the history of the art form through the eyes of the masters, including Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and Rahzel. Garfield also introduces some fresh talent, showing that beatboxing is still thriving on the city streets.

Anyone can make beats. It is a universal language that crosses cultural divides and neighborhood borders. Joey Garfield’s love of beatboxing began in the halls of Evanston Township High School in the ‘80s, when the hip hop wave came crashing across the country. Making beats, break dancing and graffiti art were THE things to do, and anyone could do them—you didn’t need tools, gear or instruments. You just needed yourself and your creativity.

“I love stuff that feels real,” Garfield says. And he transfers that love along with the energy of the artists themselves into the film and onto the audience. Watching the beatboxers in Breath Control literally makes your jaw drop. How can they be creating the sounds of an entire drum set AND a bass line all at the same time using only their voice? There must be a catch.

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Yuri Lane and Joey Garfield fight for their right ... to the mic

At a recent screening, local human beatboxer Yuri Lane was on hand to prove that these guys don’t have pockets full of tiny drums. He demonstrated how beatboxing can fill an auditorium and wowed the crowd with his unique blend of harmonica and beatbox. The energy was contagious and while everyone was cheering, a three-year-old in the audience got inspired and started trilling her lips together.

I was inspired too, but not to start making beats. As an artist, I was curious what advice Garfield had for others trying to make a career out of what they love to do. His response was quick: Know business; know what you’re good at and do that. Following his own advice has paid off. He has been recognized with several awards—most recently Fuel TV’s Emerging Filmmaker award—for doing what he does best and knowing what he loves to do.

Garfield is now documenting his love of other art forms onto film. One of the original Barnstormers , he is currently working on a documentary about how a group of urban artists ended up painting old tobacco farms in rural North Carolina. He also brought performance artist Bill Shannon’s unique dance with crutches to the screen in the music video for RJD2's "Work It Out."

   

In his own way, Garfield is continuing the Jewish tradition of storytelling. He credits his Jewishness with giving him an outside view on life and says that perspective has helped him see situations objectively and in constructive and creative ways—a skill central to the work of a director.

Today he needs a little more gear to document stories on film than he needed in the old days breakdancing and making beats. But he is still working with universal themes of art, music and passion for life. His interests and directing style fall somewhere between the pretty and the gritty of life. “If it’s pretty-gritty or gritty-pretty, I can do that,” he says.

Check out Garfield’s site for current clips and future projects.

8 Questions for Cindy Levine, seller of happy food, people person, cookbook reader

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05/06/2008

SweetMandyB

Oy!'s own Sarah Follmer gets the best assignment ever!

Cindy Levine once was a social worker involved in job placement programs and recruiting—she never expected to use those skills to land herself a new job. Growing up on the east coast, Cindy always dreamed of having a shop. And when she saw old-fashioned bakeries popping up in other cities, but not in Chicago, she knew it was time to trade in her social worker’s hat for a baker’s apron. Six years later, Sweet Mandy B’s—named for her children, Mandy and Brian—is a city-wide favorite, and popular with the celebrity set. Barbra Streisand gave Sweet Mandy B’s cupcakes a shout-out in front of a packed Allstate Arena during a recent tour.

So whether Funny Girl is your favorite movie, you’re a closeted country music fan, or just have a sweet tooth, Cindy Levine is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I actually wanted to be a psychologist, and I have a master’s in social work. Definitely something in social work or counseling.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
The environment. I’m happy selling happy food that makes people walk out with smiles on their faces. I particularly love the kids and their reactions. They just light up. I also love the people I work with. I have wonderful employees and feel fortunate to spend time with them.

3. What are you reading?
I’m always reading cookbooks; that’s my bedtime reading, in a sense. I’m reading the  Girls of Riyadh  right now. A friend recommended it, and I’m enjoying it. But I’m definitely always reading cookbooks. I love to read about food.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
My favorite place… oh boy. I’m partial to little neighborhood Italian places. I’ve been into Riccardo Trattoria recently.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A way not to gain weight!

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Invisible. I’m very curious.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
I get a little embarrassed about some of my country music. Being a city girl, a lot of times people don’t understand my interest in it. They turn it off here at the bakery real quick.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
I’ve recently started lighting candles for Shabbat and having challah. I’ve enjoyed reintroducing myself to that.

2.0 In the 312

 Permanent link
The next generation of the web is being developed right here in Chicago.    
05/06/2008

PlanypusTeam

They used Planypus and all ended up here together

After the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, it became clear that the companies that survived had something in common: websites that were more interactive, collaborative and dynamic than the ones that had collapsed. This survival of the fittest was dubbed Web 2.0. Since then, the term has come to represent everything from social networking sites and wikis to blogs and YouTube. Meet two local Jews, part of the 2.0 explosion, who are finding better ways to work the web.

More like Wevite
When Stan Mazo graduated from college, he realized he no longer lived within five blocks of his entire social network, and his repertoire of frequented bars and restaurants had increased exponentially. His friends were experiencing the same thing, so they put together a tool to simplify the long e-mail chains and back-and-forth text messaging that preceded every outing.  

At first, the online tool used between the group of friends was just that. But as time went on, Mazo and the others began coming home from their day jobs and committing their evenings to tweaking the site. “It became my passion,” Mazo says. “When you love something, you want to evangelize to others.” In 2005, Mazo, Yan Pritzker, Alex Chizhik, Alex Antonov and Anton Mostovoy named the tool Planypus and committed themselves to bringing to the public to what had begun as their own private social planner.

While it might draw an immediate comparison to Evite, Planypus is better thought of as a wiki for your social life. Collaboration is its main feature, as details such as time and location can be voted on and a separate “planspace” is designated for discussion about issues such as where to meet, who can bring wine to the dinner party or who will be on what flight for an upcoming ski trip.

In order to keep track of all the variables, Planypus has a convenient notification system in which you can receive an e-mail or text message when any new plan, comment, announcement or final decision is made. If you’d rather keep your inbox free of constant notifications, settings can be changed so that you only receive them for same-day plans.

Planypus, which was named when one of the founders returned from a trip to Australia and was asked in a start-up meeting whether he had seen a platypus, is also refreshingly free of ads. Mazo and company prefer bringing in revenue through partnering with event-centric websites, which allow them to turn their event listings into interactive destinations.

Planypus becomes embedded into the host site to allow (the host) to build a community around their events and make their event listings more useful and relevant to their users,” Mazo says. Once the embedding occurs, the host site is provided with a statistical analysis of user planning activity, and they can use the information to make their editorial content better fit how people use their site.

Mazo, who recently used Planypus to organize a seder with nearly 30 of his friends, added, “Planypus is sort of a marketplace of events, and it removes the barrier from suggesting an event or voicing your opinion.”

Staying simple
Jason Fried graduated from college in the mid-‘90s with a degree in finance, but he always had an inkling that his career wouldn’t follow a typical path. “I didn’t want to go work in a bank,” he says. “I always wanted to start my own business, and the web was really starting to hit then. No one was an expert in web design at that point, so I picked it up and went with it.”

Fried took a job in San Diego but “realized pretty quickly [he] wasn’t built to work for other people.” After less than a year, he picked up and moved back to Chicago, his hometown and the city where he had the biggest support network to stand by him in his newest undertaking – starting his own web design company.

37SignalsJF

This guy made a successful venture even more successful

He co-founded 37signals, named for the 37 radio telescope signals that are potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence, in 1999. Initially, the company did web design for external clients. As business boomed, Fried and his co-workers decided they needed a better way to manage their client projects.

We looked around the market to see what kind of products were out there, and nothing was ideal at all,” he says. “They were slow and confusing and had too many features, so we decided to build our own.” After receiving positive feedback when clients saw the web-based project management tool, Fried decided the product might be useful to a wider population. He dubbed the tool Basecamp and put it on the market in early 2004.

Within a year, Basecamp was generating more revenue than the web design side of the company, so Fried adapted. Since the release of Basecamp, 37signals has released three main web-based applications: Backpack, a personal information manager and intranet for small businesses; Campfire, a real-time, business-oriented chat service; and Highrise, a contact manager.

In distinguishing 37signals’ products from the competition, Fried, a Wicker Park resident, echoes his company’s focus on simplicity. “The fundamental difference with our products is that they do less than others,” he says. “Most programs go overboard, but we focus on the basics and make sure our products are clear, easy to use and enjoyable.” The formula is one that has proven popular, as 37signals’ revenue has doubled every year since 2004 and Basecamp alone has more than 2 million account holders.

In addition to operating their own successful web applications, one of 37signals’ programmers created the framework that is widely credited as providing the spark for the Web 2.0 revolution. Ruby on Rails, created by David Heinemeier Hansson to build Basecamp, is the web application framework that allows for rapid development of collaborative sites. And while Fried called Web 2.0 a “marketing term,” he went on to say that Basecamp “was the first web-based application in the world that held up as an example that Web 2.0 could actually be successful and generate revenue.”

It’s hard to predict what will be next in the rapidly advancing world of the web, but it’s a fairly safe bet that Mazo and Fried will be two of the people leading the 3.0 revolution.

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