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Chicago filmmaker Harold Ramis to discuss Jewish identity and film comedy repertoire for ADL this Thursday
Director Harold Ramis on the set of Columbia Pictures comedy "Year One." Photo credit: Suzanne Hanover. 2009 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group. All Rights Reserved.
Chicago Jewish filmmaker Harold Ramis’s filmography reads like an encyclopedia of great comic movies of the last 30 years. He is the brains—either writer/director or both—behind some of the most often quoted and referred-to film comedies of recent decades like “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Ghostbusters,” Groundhog Day,” and “Analyze This.” A Chicago native and a Chicago’s “Second City” alum, Ramis returned to the Windy City years ago from Hollywood to live closer to his parents, and now lives in Glencoe.
His newest comedy, “Year One,” hits theaters June 19. The movie follows Jack Black and Michael Cera as lazy tribesmen—with contemporary sensibilities—who are banished from their primitive village and embark on an adventure through the ancient world, running into Biblical heavyweights like Abraham, Isaac, and Cain and Abel along the way.
Jack Black, left, and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures "Year One." Photo credit: Suzanne Hanover. 2009 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group. All Rights Reserved.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), through the support of Steve Miller, will feature “An Evening with Harold Ramis” this Thursday, May 28, at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema in Chicago. Ramis will discuss how his Jewish identity has influenced his work in Hollywood and will also present clips of his new film.
Oy!Chicago’s Cindy Sher recently did a phone interview with Ramis, who reveals the meaning behind some of his most memorable comedies and how his Jewish identity has informed his professional career.
Oh, and for all you “Ghostbusters” fans out there, Ramis, who starred in and co-wrote the original films, is in the early stages of discussing another “Ghostbusters” sequel. Ramis, a.k.a Dr. Egon Spengler, adds that they’ll only make the sequel “if it’s funny.”
Oy!Chicago: Your movies are constant pop culture references. How does it make you feel to know that so many of your films have made it into the cultural fabric of society?
Harold Ramis: Everyone starts out with big dreams, particularly people who want to be artists or have careers in entertainment. Then, when it happens, you dream about it, you picture it, you imagine what it’s going to be like, and then it’s so weird when it actually happens. You learn that it’s great on so many levels and in such a big way, it doesn’t change anything. You’re still who you are, you still have the same problems and issues and same insecurities, and the same responsibilities. I’m really glad people like these films and that a couple of them have lasted so long and I love doing what I’m doing, but I try not to be grandiose about it or be even more narcissistic than I already am.
Q. You don’t sound too narcissistic to me. Why did you choose a life in Chicago instead of Hollywood?
A. My wife grew up in L.A. and her father was a film director. We liked it out there. We weren’t really refugees to Chicago from there. I came back to Chicago to be near my parents, who were getting too old to travel. My mother passed away and my father is still around. He lives in Northbrook and is 94 years old. I wanted them to know my second family. I’d been married before and had been away all those years and thought this was a chance to reunite my family.
Q. Your movies have so much heart. Is there a common thread that all your movies share?
A. I’ve looked at the first few films I did and thought we were working off a kind of late 60s anti-establishment posture that came out of being in college, a kind of us versus them, the hipsters against the squares, the rebels against the institution. That was “Animal House,” “Stripes,” and “Meatballs.”
Having worked through that, I started looking at other concerns I have, like the movie “Vacation” was about what it was to be a good father and a good husband, two very difficult things to do in life.
Then I made three films—“Groundhog Day,” “Multiplicity,” and “Bedazzled”—about what it really is to be a good person in general. “Groundhog Day” is about how we use our time and priorities, losing our narcissism and vanity, taking a good look at others, and being in the moment. Then “Multiplicity” is about the divided self, the things that pull us in different directions and how can we integrate ourselves and be one person. “Bedazzled” is about the things we wish for that we think will make us happy, like money, fame, success, power, sex, good looks—all those things that we think are the keys to happiness and of course the film ends up saying that’s not where happiness comes from. They’re all about navigating in the midst of this great existential despair we’re all born into.
Q. “Groundhog Day” is probably referred to in conversation by my peers about once a week. I read that you said that that was the movie that got you to make “comedies that meant something.” Did you go on to follow that path?
A. I was always looking for meaning in the things I was doing, no matter how broad or silly or gross or crude they seem. To me, the [movies] meant something. “Groundhog Day” was the first film that was overtly about life and how we live it, and the response was so great. It was such a satisfying thing to invest a comedy with your real feelings about the most important issues in life. It made me want to do that again.
Q. What inspired your new movie, “Year One?”
A. “Year One” is a big, broad comedy that really is laced with spiritual content. As I got older, I became more interested in religion. Then, after 9/11, those issues of the competing orthodoxies and fundamentalisms in the world seem to be dragging us deeper into conflict and doing exactly the opposite of what religion is supposed to do, which would be to get people to look inward, to act with compassion in the world, to recognize the humanity in others. That’s the stated goal of every religion, and yet Jews, Muslims, and Christians were going to war with each other, as if the Crusades were happening again. I wanted to talk about that in some way and it seemed like the easiest, least offensive way to talk about it was to go way back, go pre-Christian, pre-Hebrew, pre-Muslim, and set something in the ancient world. On the other hand, I always loved the comic edge of Mel Brooks’s “2000 Year Old Man” or Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” I like the idea of putting characters with a contemporary consciousness in an ancient setting.
Jack Black stars in Columbia Pictures' comedy "Year One," also starring Michael Cera. Photo credit: Suzanne Hanover. 2009 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group. All Rights Reserved.
Q. How does your Jewish identity influence your work?
A. I use Passover as the central story of Judaism because, for me, it results in two concepts driving it. One is the concept of freedom, personal liberation, and political liberation. The other is the concept of justice—Moses receiving the law. For me, this fits perfectly with my own political liberalism and my yearning for social justice in the world. That’s where my Judaism connects with all my work and with this film in particular. I also wanted to say in this film that regardless of what anyone believes—creation, myths, or what God is or isn’t—the burden is still on us to act responsibly in the world.
Q. What sort of Jewish upbringing in Chicago did you have?
A. I had a Polish grandfather, a Jewish immigrant, who went to an old synagogue on the West Side. I went to another Orthodox Hebrew school… I [later] went to a yeshiva…The moment I was bar mitzvahed, I took that as the signal that I no longer had to do anything.
Q. Do you feel a responsibility as a Jewish role model?
A. Yes, I feel that every Jew represents all Jews in the world…I have associations in Winnetka and Wilmette, not traditional Jewish territory. Sometimes I find myself in country clubs that were restricted or in settings where very few Jews are or have been. In places like that, I get even more Jewish than I am. I start speaking Yiddish and I just feel the need to represent. As an example to Jewish kids, I don’t push religion but I push integrity. I have incorporated a lot of Buddhism into my Jewish thinking too, which a lot of Jews have done. That kind of works for me because the [two religions] are similar. As a Jew and a Buddhist, I try to express a creed that is inclusive and focuses on personal responsibility.
Q. Is life as funny as your movies portray it to be or are your movies an escape from a world that isn’t really funny?
A. Someone once said that when we recognize that the world is insane, we have choices—we can see it as tragedy or we can see it as comedy. Everything can be funny, but not everything is funny. There are horrors and tragedies in life that I would not want to joke about or hear anyone else joke about it. Yet, conceptually, everything seems like fair game. I mourn any person’s death, but death as a concept is valid territory for comedy.
Q. What’s the secret to writing good comedy?
A. It’s all point of view. What fails in most comedy is not that the writers aren’t smart, but that [a lot of comedy] is like other things we’ve seen. To be funny, you need to be original. It’s like the kid who wants to play peek-a-boo. The first couple times it’s funny; the 400th time it’s not that funny…the kind of comedy that really scores is where you reveal or expose something that is deeply embarrassing or deeply shocking or deeply offensive in some way and put it out there in a clever, original way and allow people to process something that they haven’t been able to deal with or express in another way. That’s why there’s so much comedy about sexuality, because the funniest stuff is the stuff we’re most afraid of.
Q. I know you have been asked this a thousand times, but what’s your favorite film and why?
A. I never answer that question because I just love making films and every film I’ve made has been a great experience and I find it almost impossible to separate the results from the process…I love them all.
Photo credit Tiffany O'Neill Photography
Ah, summer. Finally. After all the months of winter when you think the sun will never shine again, and the spring, which is mostly cold and rainy, we can settle into summer and all of its promise. Flip flops and tank tops, hanging at the beach or the pool, all the restaurants putting out tables on the patio, street fairs and festivals.
Most of us don’t technically barbecue, which requires long, slow cooking and smoking of meats, utilizing skills and equipment only the true devotees possess. What we do at our “barbecue” parties is grill. I can’t barbecue to save my life, but I’m pretty handy at the grill. And all summer long at the family weekend place, if we’re not eating out, dinner is coming off the grill. Grilled food is the very essence of summer, and while I’m a huge fan of a perfect mahogany-skinned Vienna dog, or a half-pound medium rare Angus burger, eventually you want food that doesn’t require a bun. And if your friends are anything like my friends, you are about to receive scads of invitations to backyard parties where the invite requests you to “bring a dish to share.”
So I thought I’d give you some of my favorite go-to grilling recipes, both for jazzing up a random Tuesday dinner, and for bringing something special to the next potluck.
It is never a bad idea to surprise yourself or your family, so think outside the box. Some of my go-to grilling items:
Boneless chicken thighs, with or without skin, are a great and more forgiving alternative to breasts. The slightly higher natural fat content prevents them from drying out on the grill, and the high heat of the grill helps to render that fat out so that they aren’t that much different in calories from breast meat. Plus the leftovers make the best chicken salad ever.
Skirt steaks and flank steaks are two of my favorite cuts of beef, and much more cost-effective for a party than the usual rib eye or strip steaks. Both do well in marinades, can be made into creative sandwiches, and are very adaptable to different ethic cuisine—Latin and Asian flavors especially.
Veggies are great on the grill. I toss them in olive oil with salt and pepper, maybe a squeeze of lemon, sometimes some herbs or spices (fresh thyme is terrific, and dried Herbes de Provence goes with just about everything) and throw them right on the grill. Everyone does peppers and onions and Portobello mushrooms, but get creative. Some particular favorites of mine are asparagus, zucchini, carrots (cut into planks), and cauliflower. And for a real unexpected treat, try a grilled Caesar salad…cut Romaine hearts in half, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill for 1-2 minutes per side. Do the same with some thin slices of French bread. Place on a platter, drizzle with your favorite Caesar salad dressing, top with the grilled croutons and shaved Parmesan, and serve with lemon wedges.
Make desserts easy—It’s summer. It’s hot. You don’t really want to steam up your kitchen by baking. And as much as I love pastries, in the summer, what I crave is fruit, and things that are refreshing. There is no easier dessert than grilled fruit served with ice cream or sorbet. I do pineapple all the time, but peaches, nectarines, figs and plums are all improved by some time over the coals. Toss fruit halves or thick slices in a light flavorless oil like canola, and grill a couple of minutes per side. For a special occasion, after the first turn, sprinkle the tops with brown sugar or sugar in the raw, and some herb or spice (black pepper, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cinnamon, ground coriander, cumin, and thyme are all great with fruit) and then close the lid of the grill for a minute to caramelize.
Photo credit Tiffany O'Neill Photography
Here are some of my favorite recipes; all can be multiplied up easily:
All Purpose Marinade
This stuff works with anything….chicken, pork, lamb, beef, even heartier fish like swordfish or tuna (but be careful with fish, as the acid in the marinade will start to cook it…no more than 15 minutes!). One of my favorite applications is to use this on a butterflied leg of lamb, it is always an unexpected treat, and absolutely delicious.
Juice and zest of one lemon
½ c olive oil
2 T Dijon mustard
1 T minced fresh garlic
4 T fresh rosemary leaves
1 T soy sauce
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T red wine vinegar
1 t kosher salt
½ t ground black pepper
Mix all ingredients in Ziploc bag, and add meat of your choosing. Marinate 30 minutes to four hours in refrigerator, depending on thickness of meat. Bring meat to room temp in marinade before grilling. (Discard marinade after you remove meat, do not use as basting sauce.)
Orechiette with Peas and Feta
1 lb orechiette pasta (or other small shape, like ditalini)
8 oz crumbled feta (reduced fat works fine here, but don’t use fat free)
8 oz frozen peas, petite or baby if you can find them, thawed
1 c celery, diced about ¼ inch
¼ c red wine vinegar
½ c extra virgin olive oil
2 T dried oregano
1 T salt
½ t ground black pepper
Cook pasta to al dente, and drain, run under cold water till cooled but not cold. In large bowl, toss pasta with feta, celery and peas, and dressing. Refrigerate until half hour before you want to serve, this salad is better closer to room temp. Taste for seasoning before serving.
Cucumber and Rice Salad with Parsley and Lime
2 c cooked long-grain white rice
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 bunch scallions, chopped, including a bit of the green
1/2 c (at least) chopped parsley (mint and dill work well too)
1/4 c olive oil
1/2 c freshly squeezed lime juice
a splash of white wine vinegar
1/3 c plain yogurt, preferably Greek
salt and freshly ground pepper (be generous with the salt)
Prepare and combine all of the ingredients while rice is cooking in large bowl. Add the still-warm rice to the cucumber mix and gently combine. Refrigerate salad until ready to serve. Before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. It may need another squeeze of lime after sitting.
Perfect Backyard Potato Salad
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into large chunks
1 red onion, diced as fine as you can
1/3 c rice wine vinegar
½ c canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch chives, chopped fine
Boil potatoes in salted water till fork tender…do not overcook or they will get waterlogged. Soak onions in vinegar. Drain potatoes thoroughly, and pour over vinegar/onion mixture and oil, and mix gently, trying not to break up potatoes. Let sit at room temperature, tossing occasionally until cooled. Taste for salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped chives. This salad is better if it never gets refrigerated, and there is nothing in it to go bad or get rancid, so it is the perfect thing to bring to an outdoor party where food is likely to sit out.
Greek Burgers with Feta and Tzatziki
3 pounds ground lamb
1 slice white bread, stale
3 T milk
2 medium yellow onions, grated
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 T kosher salt
1 t ground black pepper
2 t cumin
1 T flat leaf parsley, minced fine
1 t dried mint
1 c greek yogurt
½ seedless cucumber, grated and squeezed dry in towel to remove excess water
½ small yellow onion, grated
1 t kosher salt
1 clove garlic, grated
1 t lemon juice
1 T olive oil
6 large pita breads for main course or 18 mini pitas for sliders
1 tomato, sliced thin (or cherry tomatoes for sliders)
1 small sweet onion, sliced thin (or shallots for sliders)
Optional: 1 c crumbled feta
Remove crust from bread and soak in milk for 10 minutes. Mix all ingredients except meat in large bowl until well blended. Add meat and mix lightly with tips of fingers until onion mixture is full incorporated into the meat, try not to over mix. Form into 6 equal patties for main course, or 18 sliders for appetizers. Chill. Mix all tzatziki ingredients in bowl until well blended. Chill.
Heat half grill to high, or pile coals on one side.
Lightly oil both sides of patties and sear on both sides over direct heat. Move to unheated side of grill and close cover. Finish to medium rare towards medium. Remove to plate, cover with foil, and let rest 5 minutes.
Slice a 1 inch strip off one side of each pita bread, for ease of opening. Brush pita breads with olive oil and grill 1 minute per side until soft. Carefully open pitas and insert burgers. Dress with tzatziki, tomato, onion, and shredded lettuce, and feta cheese if desired.
Serves 6 as main course, or 18 for appetizers
NOSH of the week: If you’re hosting a party, remember that in the heat, people need to hydrate, and beer and wine, while delicious, do not take care of this basic need. Try making large pitchers of flavored waters, they are refreshing and healthy, with just enough flavor to make your guests want to drink them. In a large pitcher of ice water, put any of the following: one sliced English cucumber, ½ lb halved strawberries, two small sliced apples. You can combine any two of these easily. Let steep for at least two hours to overnight.
NOSH food read of the week: A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
This book the best of all possible worlds, a memoir that reads like a wonderful novel, characters you fall in love with and root for, gorgeous descriptions of meals and celebrations, wonderful and cookable recipes, and a sense of possibility and joy that will brighten your day immeasurably. Be careful, once you start you won’t want to put it down…I devoured it in one indulgent, delicious sitting.
Oy!’s Stefanie Pervos chats with the young author about being labeled a Jewish writer, her aversion to Jewish institutions and tackling the subject of death in fiction.
I stumbled upon Elisa Albert’s
The Book of Dahlia
at Borders one day, looking for some light reading to bring on a girls’ weekend to Vegas. And while I didn’t get light reading by any stretch of the imagination, I did get hooked–on Albert’s dark, witty prose and the bizarre way she managed to turn life—and death—on its head. The book’s main character, Dahlia, is a brash, uninspired, bitter, underachieving 29-year-old when she finds out she has terminal brain cancer. As I read, following Dahlia as she hurled toward death, I found myself snickering at parts—it seemed at once both the wrong and right thing to do—and crying at others.
When I finished, I wanted more. So I picked up Albert’s first book, a collection of short stories titled
How This Night is Different
, which follows several young Jews as they struggle to find their place in this world and a place for Judaism in their conflicted lives.
In addition to her two books, Albert’s work has also appeared in journals and anthologies including Tin House, Nextbook, Lilith, Post Road, Washington Square, Body Outlaws, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt and How to Spell Chanukah. She is a founding editor of Jewcy and an adjunct creative writing professor at Columbia University—all this and she’s barely 30!
Just as I finished her short story collection, through a stroke of luck and good timing I discovered that Albert would be visiting Chicago in May. Jumping at the opportunity to pick her brain, in a recent phone interview I questioned Albert about everything from her aversion to Jewish institutions to the challenges of writing a fictional account of death to her involvement with the founding of Jewcy:
Stefanie Pervos: How would you describe your style of writing?
Elisa Albert: I don’t know that fiction writers can accurately describe themselves. I feel like I’m kind of a little bit of a blank-slate and other people kind of project onto me and anything that somebody wants to take away form my work can be true or wrong. I don’t write with an agenda in mind and I think in fiction you’re freer to let the chips fall where they may.
When did you know you would become a writer?
I was a really big reader growing up and books were always kind of my favorite thing. I didn’t have the temerity to think that I could be a writer at any point, I just really loved reading. When I got to college I sort of lucked [my way] in to a really great creative writing program. I went to Brandies and there were some really wonderful writers teaching there, so it was kind of a happy accident.
How would you describe your Jewish background and your Jewish identity today?
I grew up in a Reform/Conservative house. My parents were pretty secular until at a certain point they became more religious—my mom especially. I went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp and I went to Hebrew school all the way through the 12th grade, so I was pretty steeped in Conservative Jewish identity growing up. Today, I would say I’m kind of struggling to find ways to reconcile that identity with my intellectual social identity, which is not one that I would call Jewish really. I think I’m sort of incidentally Jewish at this point in my life, but I expect that to evolve—I think its something that keeps evolving if you’re engaged with it.
I’ve heard you say that you think labeling authors as Jewish writers, or their work as Jewish fiction, is kind of stupid—more just a statement of fact. Are you adverse to this label?
I’m Jewish and I’m writer, so I’m therefore a Jewish writer, but most of the time when I am called a quote-on-quote “Jewish writer” it seems to be kind of in the spirit of an easy categorization or a dismissiveness—it’s a way to engage on a more superficial level with what is actually happening in my fiction. And so, that’s sort of where I bristle against it and I think it’s lacking.
You have such a strong sense of voice as a writer, like you can read your work and just know, that’s so Elisa Albert—How did you find that voice?
I think it’s something that’s just kind of there—voice is one of those things that people struggle with—it’s not something that can be taught or learned. I try not to think about it too much when I’m writing and hope that it is there.
Though you say your fiction is not autobiographical, how much of you is reflected in your writing?
Whatever I’m writing about, I have to be able to put myself in that mind frame. I’m always there, because I’m the only one who can conjure up the things I’m conjuring up. So, in that way it all comes from me.
Basically from the first page of The Book of Dahlia you know the main character is going to die. Did you have any trepidation about tackling death and cancer so directly?
I think we all have sort of the right to tackle whatever we want in our creative endeavors. Cancer is pretty universal. If we haven’t personally struggled with it, most of us have some of it in our family somewhere, so I think we all have the right to think about it. And ditto [with] death. We’re all going to die, so it belongs to all of us that subject. If I was emboldened a little bit, it may have been because my older brother died of cancer, so I felt like, okay, no one can suggest that I don’t have the right to tackle this subject because it’s mine, in some fundamental way. I think that’s true most of the time. It just kind of takes that chutzpah to claim it.
How did you manage to make a book about death, funny?
I think we die the way we live a lot and it didn’t ring true to me to have someone who was really cynical and kind of messed up and really troubled and angry to suddenly do a 180 and become super nice and accepting and sweet and likeable. So if we accept that this character was already pretty fucked up, then it just made perfect sense to me that in dying she would confront that in a really fucked up way. You know from the outset that she’s dying, so for me the interesting part of writing it was in just exploring how and why—what does it look like to go down this road, what does the process of her death look like.
How was it for you to write Dahlia?
It was hard. It was kind of traumatic in a lot of ways. It was a lot of months putting myself in that headspace and being with her, having her with me all the time. And I think that’s part of where the humor comes in, because I wouldn’t have been able to stand her or the book if in the process of writing it if I hadn’t been able to entertain myself with some of the humor. They say that you write the book that you want to read that doesn’t exist, and that certainly [was] what my experience was like with this, and you have to entertain yourself as your writing.
Did you write this book in honor of your brother?
The book is dedicated to my brother, so in a lot of ways it’s for him. I wrote it with him in mind a lot. He was 29 when he died—I was 19—so I wasn’t totally present in an adult way for his illness. As I started to approach the age that he was when he died, I started to understand more about what that actually means to die at 29—to have your life up to that point be it. A lot of that went into Dahlia. My brother was nothing like Dahlia, he was kind of her opposite, which is probably another factor in why she is who she is.
What do you want readers to take away from Dahlia?
I guess it would be that if we limit our empathy to people who are really easy to like then our empathy is not really worth anything.
On the back cover of, How This Night is Different, it says your collection “boldly illuminates an original cross section of disaffected young Jews.” Why is it that your writing has focused on this group? What is it that you’re saying about and to disaffected young Jews?
It’s fiction, so it’s distinct from non-fiction in that its message is totally subjective and it’s not crafted in the way that I’m trying to say something. There are themes that occur and I can see that in my work, but it’s not something that I have in mind when I’m sitting down to write. So, I can’t speak so well to that kind of thing. It’s like an organic evolution.
It also seems from your writing that you’re not the biggest fan of institutionalized Judaism—Why is that and did that influence your involvement in the founding of Jewcy?
I got involved with Jewcy after having lunch with Tahl Raz who is the editor-in-chief. He had read my stories and I guess he found the sensibility in the stories about Judaism and about institutional Judaism to be what he wanted for the tone of Jewcy. It was a nice meeting of the minds. I was blogging a little bit and editing, so it wasn’t the same as what I was doing with stories, but it was a great outlet for me to vent my dissatisfaction with a lot of the institutional Judaism that I’d grown up with and that I saw around and that sort of turned me off from being too observant myself. So it was a really good marriage, I think.
If you too find yourself wanting to know more about Elisa Albert, come hear her speak on a
panel about American Jews detachment from Israel
this Sunday afternoon at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, or attend a
book signing and discussion of The Book of Dahlia
this Monday evening. at the
We’re sure you’ve noticed by now that things look a little different around here. The Oy! Team has been working tirelessly to bring you a new, improved Oy! The team has expanded to include over 20 bloggers who will be writing about everything from fashion to sports to the Russian and LGBT Jewish communities in Chicago—starting today, there’ll be a little something for everyone at Oy! We’ll be updating the site daily, and sending all of you weekly messages alerting you to the most interesting posts from the week. So we invite you to look around, join the conversation by commenting on our posts and come back often!
See yourself in the NEW Oy!Chicago,
The Oy! Team
Three friends create children’s book based on new White House pooch
From left: Lehner, Svetcov, and Bazer, creators of the new children’s book, ‘Now Hiring: White House Dog’
The moment President Obama clinched the election, he made that famous pledge to his two daughters—as well as to billions around the world—to get a puppy for his family’s new home.
Everyone, especially Malia and Sasha, anticipated the puppy’s arrival for months—and finally, this spring, the newest member of the White House, Bo, joined the first family.
The promise of the new dog sparked an idea in San Francisco Jewish literary agent and Northwestern alum Danielle Svetcov. “When Obama was elected and the puppy-adoption drama began, I thought that this was a drama begging for a picture book adaptation.” She called up her two Chicago pals, fellow Jewish Northwestern University alums—Gina Bazer and Renanah Lehner—and invited them to collaborate on a children’s book about the White House dog search.
Six months later, the dream of the election—and the book—is a reality. The new children’s book Now Hiring: White House Dog (Walker Books for Young Readers, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing USA; $16.99), written by Bazer and Lehner and illustrated by Andrew Day, is loosely based on the Obama family, classified by Lehner as “historical fiction” for kids. In the story, two young sisters living in the White House audition pooches for the role of top dog. The sisters are inundated with applications for the job, from prancing poodles to shaggy dogs and racing greyhounds. The tryouts coincide with an elegant White House dinner and antics ensue. Told with humor and rhyme, the story emphasizes the importance of substance over style.
The idea for the book resonated with the three friends as mothers to young children, ranging in age from 10 months to three and a half. They thought the puppy search offered a way to introduce the presidency and the new first family to their children without getting too political. “It’s a great way to discuss politics with your children,” says Lehner, a Chicago clinical psychologist. “This is the White House, this is where President Obama lives, and he has two little girls just like the two little girls in the book.”
They tested the books out on their own children. Lehner’s three and a half-year-old-daughter, Hannah, couldn’t get enough. She wanted it read to her at every meal and “on the potty” too. But Saul, Bazer’s son of the same age, isn’t quite as keen yet on the book. ‘Mommy, I don’t like books, remember?’ he would tell her.
Overall, despite Saul’s protests, children in any home, White House or not, can relate to the excitement of getting a dog. “There’s something so quintessential about a father saying we’re going to move, but we’re going to get a dog. Kids don’t really care about politics, but the idea that the dog is coming—children can really get behind that platform,” says Lehner.
In tackling a topic as timely as the dog search, Bazer, Lehner, and Svetcov had no time to waste. “There’s a big market for books spun out of newspaper headlines, but you have to write them very quickly to capitalize,” says Svetcov. If they were to release the book in time to coincide with the arrival of the real White House dog, they needed to finish the book in record time. Illustrator, Day, had only one month to illustrate the book, rather than the many months it typically takes to illustrate a project. Luckily, thought the women, much of the work fell over the Christmas holiday—which was no big deal considering they’re Jewish. “We had nothing else going on in our lives,” jokes Bazer, of Oak Park, who is also an editor for Chicago Home & Garden magazine. They spent many nights on conference calls with one another tinkering with the manuscript, while their three patient husbands took care of their small children.
Back when they themselves were kids, Bazer and Lehner, both Minneapolis natives, attended Hebrew school together. Now, decades later, collaborating on a children’s book has made life come full circle for them. “We would never have imagined when we were kids that we would some day write a children’s book together about a presidential family,” says Bazer. “It’s kind of odd—you never can imagine what’s going to happen.”
The book reminds the writers of the power of children’s literature. “Just as you remember really good teachers in your life, you remember really good books,” says Bazer. “There’s something really exciting about trying to capture a child’s imagination. If you can do that, you feel that you’ve done something great.”
“Now Hiring: White House Dog” will be part of a dog-themed children’s reading on Wed., May 13, at 10:30 am at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park, where President Obama and his family frequent when they are in Chicago. The event is for children of all ages. For more information, call the bookstore at (773) 684-1300.
Birthright alums answer the tough question ‘what was it like?’ through spoken word and hip-hop
I think we all have moments when excitement hits us so hard that we’re rendered speechless, and we can’t synthesize any of the thoughts and feelings running through our heads into coherent responses.
For me, Birthright Israel was precisely one of those experiences. I got home from my 10 days in Israel on Christmas 2007, and was immediately peppered over and over again with the same question: “what was it like?”
I had no answer. I could talk about how pretty Israel is, or show people pictures I took high atop Masada or watching a sunset in Tzfat, but I couldn’t explain what those experiences meant to me. The trip triggered too many new thoughts for me about what it means to be Jewish today and how I fit or don’t fit into a Jewish community.
I still get asked now and again what I thought of my trip, or how it made me feel, and I still cringe at the request. But thankfully, someone else – or 16 someone elses – have answered the question for me. I’m talking about the cast of Birthright Israel NEXT’s
Written by Birthright alumni living in New York and directed by HBO’s Def Poetry Jam alumna Vanessa Hidary (The Hebrew Mamita), Monologues is an evening of solo performances of monologues, spoken word and hip-hop exploring Jewish identity – all inspired by cast members’ Birthright experiences.
During a series of group writing workshops and one-on-one rehearsals with director Vanessa Hidary, the cast wrote their own scripts, and over time the project evolved from a simple expression of what the Birthright experience meant to them, to how that experience has shaped their Jewish identity from that point forward.
The diverse cast closely mirrors the diverse participants of Birthright Israel trips: just under half of the cast members come from interfaith families. Some had very little religious connection to Israel before the trip and are now becoming more observant. One second, Valerie can be performing her piece and struggling to understand why a woman would choose to live a religious lifestyle; and the next, Alison is explaining why she decided to become frum after her Birthright experience. Seth admits he feels more comfortable with the phrase “Google that shit” than the
, and Lindsay opens up about a previous suicide attempt and how her first trip to the Western Wall and hearing from a Holocaust survivor affected her.
Though it is called Monologues, the name does not do the show justice; rather than being an individual expression of thoughts and feelings, the show tries to initiate dialogue and discussion amongst cast members and the wider community. At turns funny and bittersweet, there is no question that each piece is immensely personal and at the same time highly relatable. The cast discusses issues of identity that are not unique to young Jewish adults, but that resonate with any young person struggling to find their place both in the world they were born into and the world they see evolving around them.
Monologues premiered in New York City in November 2007, and after performances in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Sarasota, is coming to Chicago this Thursday, May 7, 2009 for a show at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts (followed by an after party with the cast and crew at Citizen).
Monologues will run one night only in Chicago on Thursday, May 7, 2009, at the Cabaret Theater at The Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 North Green Street. Doors open at 7pm, and the show starts at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased in advance for $10
, or are available at the door for $15. For more information email
. Previews of Monologues performances can be found on the
Birthright Israel NEXT Web site
A tribute to Jewish mothers
Let’s face it—Jewish mothers can sometimes be a royal pain in the ass. But despite their neurotic, overprotective, passive aggressive tendencies, they are also the most loving, supportive and accomplished women around. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, some of us here at Oy! wanted to share our thoughts, experiences and memories about our real life Jewish moms.
If you have a Jewish mother, we know you can relate. So feel free to laugh, cry, pull out your hair, eat a tub of cookie dough ice cream or however it is you deal—we know just how you feel.
Lessons from a Jewish Mother
Yes Mom, I am listening!
By Stefanie Pervos
Me, Mom and my sister Lonnie—three of the most beautiful, smart and talented women to ever set foot on this planet!
Throughout my life, certain lessons have been instilled in me by my mother, whether it be through her incessant and obsessive nagging (see article: Jewish Coming-of-Neuroses) or just through her living example. I spent this past weekend at home with Mom and Dad, and was inspired to pull together a list of my favorites. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here, without further ado, are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned from my very own, very special Jewish mother:
Lesson 1: Mom is always right—about everything (this applies only to my mother, just to be clear).
Lesson 2: Give and give and give to people until you're exhausted beyond belief and never expect anything in return (although you can complain about it afterward).
Lesson 3: Don't spend beyond your means (unless there’s a great sale at Nordstrom) and be prepared for the future.
Lesson 4: Be patient, be passionate and be persistent and you'll get what you want.
Lesson 5: Never, under any circumstances, eat mayo, whipped cream, custard or anything white, really.
Lesson 6: Clean can always be cleaner and organized can always be neater. And for God's sake clean the hair out of your hairbrush!
Lesson 7: Fight through the pain (but again, feel free to bitch about it).
Lesson 8: Friends are invaluable, so love them, listen to them and never desert them—no matter how crazy they are or unappreciative they may seem.
Lesson 9: My sister and I are the most beautiful, smart and talented women to ever set foot on this planet—and don’t you ever forget that!
And last, but not least...
Lesson 10: Always, always, always, put your children first and work tirelessly (like even stay up all night worrying about something you have no control over) to ensure their every happiness and success (no matter what toll this may take on your own physical and mental health).
So, if you can't tell, I love and admire my mom, a lot—though if you ask her she'd go on and on about how I don’t appreciate how she practically bends over backwards for me and my sister (I can almost guarantee that exact quote). But I do, Mom. And the truth is, though I still have a lot to learn, we're a lot alike—and I think that's pretty awesome.
Oh, and Mom, in an effort to follow your advice about not spending beyond my means (especially after that shopping trip this weekend), this heartfelt piece will also serve as your Mother's Day gift—I love you!
What makes Mama smile
By Jane Charney
Me and Mama on my big day
My mama isn’t what you’d call a typical Jewish mother. She doesn’t call me every day to make sure I’m eating or to ask what I’m doing this very minute. And she asks me for the best Pesach recipes and how to braid a challah, rather than the other way around.
And yet, my mama is the best Jewish mom I could wish for. She personifies the very real – albeit also somewhat stereotypical – value of lifelong learning and the utterly un-Jewish-mother-like ability to adapt quickly.
Back in Moscow, mama had spent two years trying to get into the top teachers college. It wasn’t that her grades were not good enough or she could not show passion for the subject. It was that she was Jewish – her passport clearly said so – and Soviet universities had quotas based on ethnic origin. In the end, she was able to earn a Master’s in secondary education with an emphasis on teaching Spanish. She persevered because her love for knowledge is infinite. As a teacher, she would instruct first graders in the basics of Spanish vocabulary; help sixth graders compose essays about their summer vacations; and practice Lope de Vega lines with tenth graders. Some of her former students still contact her just to say how much her love for Spanish impacted their life path.
Mama’s life changed swiftly when we came to the United States in pursuit of opportunity. Unable to teach school-age students because of a lengthy and expensive teaching licensing process, mama switched to giving Castellano and Russian lessons to adults. Soon, she also landed a job in Spanish-language customer service at a financial services company. She’d complain about long hours hooked to an earphone listening to customers plead for extensions on bills or yell about some issue they had with the company. She persevered here too. She even found things to smile about, like the eternal questions about where she learned to speak Spanish so well and why she’s speaking with a Castellano accent rather than the Latin American tones one would expect here.
That’s the quality I admire most about my mama – her eternal optimism and faith that, eventually, everything will work out! Since moving to Las Vegas from Cincinnati, Ohio, about six months ago, mama has realized a life-long dream: a garden. She joyously told me that the almond and orange trees she planted in her new backyard were blooming in February, making me smile despite the gray Chicago skies overhead. Somehow, she finds time for a job, a hobby and the arduous task of shuttling my almost 17-year-old brother to school, theater workshops, and friends’ houses.
The ultimate multi-tasker – that’s my mama, the best Jewish mother I could ask for!
My mother’s things
In memory of my Ima, the writer, Florence Chanock Cohen
Feb. 14, 1924-Jan. 19, 2003
By Aaron B. Cohen (originally written March 10, 2003)
Sorting through my mother's things
seven weeks after her death
my father, sister, and I approached the task
What of her scent might linger?
and might her spirit hover
amidst shoes, clothes, and jewelry?
She cloaked her life in airs and moods
words, and beautiful clothes
Her world became what she imagined it to be
This was her stage, these were her props
we were her supporting cast
How sad would we be
looking, sorting, sifting?
A pile for charity
a pile to keep
a pile for the trash
I took pair after pair of shoes
from a rack in a recess of the closet
shoes she hadn't worn in decades
comfortable shoes, stylish shoes
which bore the scuffs of an active life
Her mind was so active, so fertile
I had forgotten that she used to walk
was even known to hike
though better yet a cup of coffee
a conversation long into evening
days in front of the typewriter
weaving and spinning tales
wise words carved
with the sharp edge of her emotion
How diminished she became
and how she railed against that
Her mind overwhelmed her body
the vessel of her soul
clothed in colored cloaks
knits and weaves
yarns and threads
tales intricate in design
dyed tapestries of histories
lived and perceived
that sometimes fit
sometimes made us crazy
and sometimes had us
Her soul perhaps has flown away
it was not attached as all that
content to leave limp blouses
folded slacks long unworn
old shoes, soles forlorn
and we who loved her
sorting through her clothes
gently putting them to rest
My Quintessential Jewish Mother:
Why make just brisket?
By Cheryl Jacobs
My mom and I touring a vineyard in San Diego
I’ve already written a lot about my mom (and my dad) on Oy! particularly, describing her as the family matriarch, the glue that holds our family together. But what I haven’t yet mentioned is that my mother personifies the Jewish mother mold—she is the quintessential Jewish mother. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples so you can see what I mean.
Despite the fact that my sisters and I are between the ages of 25 and 40, my mom still insists that we all call her when we are leaving town. Leaving town can mean driving three hours from Chicago to Iowa City to visit my boyfriend’s little sister at college. Come to think of it, making the drive from Highland Park to my apartment in Wicker Park is also leaving town. (In one of my serious acts of rebellion, I refused to contact my parents for the six weeks I studied abroad in Europe during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. My mom wasn’t so much as angry as she was utterly horrified to not know where her daughter was at all times.)
Around the holidays, the Jewish mother appears in full force. My parent’s house is the hot spot for the Jewish holidays. Whether it’s Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah or Passover, the whole extended family shows up my parents’ house ready to eat their way through the holidays. No matter the size of the party, usually somewhere around 35-ish people, including my adorable, but very loud, at-times uncontrollable nieces and nephews, my mother insists on serving a seven or eight course sit-down formal dinner. My mom’s kitchen philosophy is why make just brisket, when you can also serve chicken and fish? The same attitude applies to dessert. At Passover this year, in the category of cakes, there were three of the chocolate variety, one with yellow icing, one with banana filling and one with chocolate icing. Truly, she doesn’t know how to not cook and bake for at least a 100 people.
Fortunately for my mom, she wears the “Jewish mother” crown so endearingly well, that it just makes everyone love her even more. As much as I kid her, she’s always there for all of us. Just this past weekend, my aunt and uncle had a wedding, so my mom and my sister (another Jewish-mom in training) drove down to Urbana-Champaign to attend an honors induction ceremony for my younger cousin. And as I write this my mom texted me to say she’s getting on a flight with my aunt (don’t worry she will let me know when she lands) to go pick up another cousin from college.
I truly aspire to be like my mother, one day far in the future. In the meantime, there can only be one. Happy Mother’s Day to the best mom in the world!
Have a story about your Jewish mother? Send it to us at
or in the comments section below by Friday, May 8 and we’ll post it here just in time for Mother’s Day!
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Go to www.MasaIsrael.org/Intern to see how we can help you find and fund your perfect internship.
Start here. Go further.
Sign up for a JUF Chicago community bus this winter. Taglit-Birthright Israel is a FREE 10-day experience of a lifetime. If you are Jewish, 18-26 years old, and have never been on an organized peer program before - let your journey begin!
With Shorashim you experience the adventure of Israel through the eyes of Israeli peers. Shorashim is the Taglit-Birthright Israel program where all groups travel for 10-days with Israelis your age. Visit http://israelwithisraelis.com for info.