OyChicago articles

8 Questions for Todd Kessler, Folk singer/songwriter, teacher, former ‘The Voice’ contestant

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Todd Kessler photo

Reality TV singing competitions are raining from the skies these days, so you might’ve missed Chicago’s Todd Kessler on Season 3 of NBC’s The Voice, which aired last fall. Fair enough; even if you’re an addict of the show, you might not remember his lone performance with Team Cee Lo, facing off against eventual third-place finisher (and now friend) Nicholas David.

But Kessler’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame aren’t up by any means. The 31-year-old Northbrook native and University of Illinois alum has parlayed his national TV spotlight into a prolific performing career in the city, both as a solo artist and as front man of the multi-piece band The New Folk, who just released their debut album, Sea Fever, now on iTunes.

Even if you’ve encountered Todd’s moving vocals before at Lincoln Hall, Millennium Park, the Double Door or elsewhere, you might not know that he loves to teach. He has been teaching Jewish music at Chicago Sinai Congregation for the last four years and also gives guitar lessons.

Kessler is definitely A Jew You Should Know, so why not get started tomorrow, May 29, by seeing him perform a solo acoustic set at Lincoln Hall (2424 N. Lincoln Ave.) at 8 p.m.? Or, you can see him with the band this Sunday, June 2, at Martyr’s (3855 N. Lincoln Ave.) at 7 p.m.

1. What makes your and The New Folk’s music something Chicagoans should be listening to?
Our music is a new take on Folk music that brings all kinds of influences to the mix to make a sound that is fresh. I call it Alternative/Folk/Pop, or Paul Simon meets Wilco meets Mumford and Sons.

2. How has being on The Voice changed you personally and professionally? (And are you still tight with Cee Lo?)
I have not seen Cee Lo since October when we were doing a show in Las Vegas, but working with him was a fantastic experience. Being on the show changed my life greatly both personally and professionally. I’ve met artists from all over the country, many of whom I have collaborated with on tour, and some of whom I have created life-long friendships with. Professionally, I’ve been getting better gigs since my time on the show and my fan base has really expanded.

3. What are the biggest differences between working as a solo artist and being part of a larger band/ensemble?
Working with a band is kind of like working in an office, except with your friends. When you show up to work you do what needs to be done, but after we get to go to the bar and grab a drink. It’s extremely rewarding working with musicians that understand each other and genuinely love playing music together, but it is a lot of work to coordinate six schedules to find time to play gigs and rehearse. When I play gigs as a solo artist I only have myself to rely on so it is less stress in a way, but a bit lonely in another way. Nothing compares to sharing a stage with my friends and creating music.

4. If you could choose a popular artist to do a cover of one of your songs, who would it be and which song?
I think I would have Glen Hansard (of Swell Season fame) cover my song “Hallelujah.” I am so inspired by how he performs and I think I could learn a lot by hearing his take of that song. The song itself is an emotional one and he is an incredibly emotional performer.

5. If you could put on your dream concert, what would it look like and who might it benefit? 
My dream concert would be at my favorite venue in Chicago, The Vic Theater, and it would be a huge jam session with all of my favorite artists: Paul Simon, Wilco, Glen Hansard, David Gray, Ryan Adams, M. Ward and Jenny Lewis, and some friends from the local scene as well thrown in the mix. We would choose for it to benefit an organization that would promote music and arts education in schools.

6. What do you love most about what you do?
When it comes down to it, my favorite thing about playing music is the opportunity to connect with people. Whether it’s with the musicians I’m playing with on stage or the fans in the audience, being able to share stories and experiences is so rewarding. Music constantly reminds me that we are all connected.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn’t be a musician, what would you do?
Easy, I’d be a Fromager (cheesemonger). Cheese is my favorite food and if I could be surrounded by it all day, I’d be a very happy man.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?
I love participating in musical Shabbat services. For the past few years I have been playing in a Shabbat band at my home synagogue (Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook) called “Shabbatone” and more recently have created my own trio to do more intimate Shabbat services. It’s a really nice way to connect with people in a truly meaningful way. 

Chelsea Clinton talks ‘The Power of Caring,’ shares personal stories

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Chelsea Clinton photo 1

Chelsea Clinton, the only child of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a powerhouse in her own right. The world saw her grow up as "first daughter" in the White House; today Chelsea is harnessing her own power to mend a broken world.

She currently is pursuing a doctorate at Oxford University, reporting for NBC News, and working with her father at the Clinton Foundation. The organization seeks to improve global health; strengthen economies; promote healthier childhoods; and protect the environment by fostering partnerships among governments, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and private citizens.

Chelsea proved an inspirational guest speaker for more than 1,000 women attending the Jewish United Fund Women's Division Spring Event luncheon, a JUF campaign event held three days before Mother's Day. The theme of the luncheon, "The Power of Caring," emphasized that for the more than 1,000 women in attendance, there are 1,000 different ways to care, 1,000 ways to give back.

The power of caring

During the luncheon, several women—all Jewish leaders in the community—spoke about the power of caring in their lives, and why they give to the Jewish United Fund.

Chelsea Clinton photo 2

Among the handful of speakers was Olga Abezgauz, who immigrated to Chicago with her family from the Soviet Union just after the fall of Communism in 1992. A host of Jewish organizations supported by JUF/JF—including HIAS, JCFS, JVS, ORT, and the JCC-helped Abezgauz's family adjust to life in the Windy City.

Agnes Schwartz, a hidden child during the Holocaust, spoke about her struggles with her husband's mental illness, and how the Jewish Vocational Service helped her find employment and the Jewish Children's Bureau counseled her kids.
Chelsea told the audience how moved she was by these women, especially Schwartz, who reminded Chelsea of her maternal grandmother.

"I'm so grateful to hear from someone [like Schwartz] who is many generations wiser and a couple generations older than I am," Chelsea said. "That, in some ways, captures the mystery of caring. We never know what we give to the world—whether it's our stories, our dollars, our power, our energy—we never know what those gifts will yield in other people's lives."

Then, Chelsea shared with the women the story of her late maternal grandmother, Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham, who passed away 18 months ago.

Born in Chicago to teenagers aged 15 and 17, Dorothy was abandoned twice by her own family before she was eight. She and her two-year-old sister were put on a train from Chicago to go live in Los Angeles with their grandparents, who told Dorothy she'd have to earn her keep.

She worked in the orange groves with immigrant children until, at 13, her grandparents kicked her out of their house. She moved in with a family where she cared for children in exchange for room and board. Dorothy earned straight A's in school and later returned to Chicago to study at the University of Chicago. Back in Chicago, she eventually put herself through secretary school, where she met her future husband, Chelsea's grandfather.

Her grandma thrived, Chelsea said, because certain teachers and other role models outside the home believed in her. In the home she and her husband built, she nurtured her children, including her daughter Hillary Rodham Clinton, to be anything they wanted to be.

"Who would have ever known that her [mentors'] gift of faith in [my grandma] would manifest in my mother who would one day run for president?" Clinton said. "…That is the power of caring…we have no idea what gifts we give to the world will have for future generations. I find that mystical and magical and really from the hand of God."

On the other side of the family tree, Chelsea's father was raised in a "dirt poor" home by his single mother, the late Virginia Clinton Kelley, who believed in her son and spent what little money she could on him. Besides "putting food in his belly—and he ate a lot back then," Chelsea said, her grandma would give him books to read. "That investment by her," Chelsea said, "…would one day help him grow up to be president."

The power of Chelsea

After Chelsea spoke, Helene Diamond, president of the Young Women's Board, asked her questions from the audience.

Chelsea Clinton photo 3

Chelsea was asked what Jewish traditions she shares with Marc Mezvinsky, her Jewish husband of three years. "We're developing our own family traditions," she said. Chelsea also told the women how much she loves sharing Passover seders with him. In fact, she had planned to travel to Israel with him this past Passover, but canceled her trip after her mother became ill late last year. She said she hopes to travel to Israel someday.

She also spoke about her work at the Clinton Foundation, which tackles problems including childhood obesity and lowering the price of HIV/AIDS drugs around the world. She currently is trying to educate mothers about childhood diarrhea, which she said "unconscionably" kills a million children around the world each year.

When the question of having children inevitably surfaced, Chelsea told the women that "there's no pressure" from her husband's side of the family (he has 10 brothers and sisters and his mother has 18 grandchildren). But she said she's feeling the heat from Bill and Hillary. As anyone who watches TV can glean, "my parents embarrassingly talk about becoming grandparents frequently."

And does Chelsea hold any political aspirations? As a little girl, she said, when her dad was Arkansas governor, she'd be at an "international duck calling contest," for example, and someone would ask her if she, too, wants to be governor one day. Chelsea said she'd think, "I'm 3-years-old. I just want some watermelon."

But as she grew up, and later assisted on her mother's presidential campaign, she became more engaged in politics. Still, she said, politics isn't her calling—at least not yet.

Listen to the podcast interview here.

Let's Bless Them All and Get Vashnigyered!

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9 Sivan 5773 / May 17-18, 2013 



Dan Horwitz Headshot

In this week’s portion, Naso, we find the language Aaron was instructed to use when blessing the Israelite nation: 


יְבָרֶכְךָ  יְהוָה  וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ  

(Y’-va-re-ch’-cha A-do-nai v’-yish-m’-reh-cha) 

May God bless you and guard you;  


יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ 

(Ya-eir A-do-nai pa-nav ei-leh-cha vi-chu-neh-kah) 

May God make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;  


 .יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם 

(Yi-sah A-do-nai pa-nav ei-leh-cha v’-ya-seim l’-cha sha-lom.) 

May God lift up God’s face unto you, and give you peace.   


[Numbers 6:24–26] 


We find this blessing still being used regularly today.  For example, this is the blessing traditionally offered by parents to their children at the Shabbat dinner table on Friday nights.  It is often recited for a bride right before her wedding, and sometimes under the chupah as well for both bride and groom.  It is part of the standard repetition to the Amidah, and thus for many years has been recited (or at least heard) by observant Jews on a daily basis.  

Is the blessing one that is familiar to you?  

If not, what are your initial reactions to it?  

If so, does it hold any meaning or power?   

Perhaps the power of the blessing comes less from the words themselves, and more from the fact that we know Jews have been offering this blessing to one another for over 2,500 years? For me, knowing that the words being offered are the same as those my ancient ancestors used and received is quite moving, even if theologically I’m not quite sure that those are the words I’d come up with if tasked with crafting a blessing to offer to my children in the future.  

What is the value of offering a blessing today?  Do we believe that blessings really contain any sort of power?    

On a metaphysical level, many would argue that a blessing is a form of putting positive energy out into the universe.  

On a more practical level, I know that before I proposed to my fiancée, I made sure to ask her parents for their blessing…  

If asked to compose the words that you would use to bless your children, what would they be and why?  

How do they compare to the blessing we’ve inherited from our ancestors?  

This Shabbat, reflect on the power of blessings – both in form and function.  Be in awe of just how far back in history some of our blessings go.  Resolve to explore meaningful ways to incorporate and when necessary, to create, blessings that speak to you today.  

Call for nominations for Chicago's second annual Jewish 36 under 36 list!

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Double Chai in the Chi logo 2013

We want YOU, the young leaders, humanitarians, educators, social activists, and movers and shakers of Chicago to be part of Double Chai in the Chi: Chicago's second annual Jewish 36 under 36 list.

Presented by YLD and Oy!Chicago, this venture will shine a spotlight on the faces of Chicago's Jewish future and recognize the amazing contributions of our generation.

What we're looking for:

People who are making a difference through their work, who give back in their free time, are entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders within the Jewish community, or just Jews we should know.

Nominate an extraordinary Jew you know to be a part of Chicago's second annual Jewish 36 under 36 list. Winners will be announced and profiled July 16 on Oy!Chicago and highlighted at YLD's WYLD party on August 8.

How to apply:

To submit your nomination, please complete the application form and email it to DoubleChai@oychicago.com by noon on Tuesday, May 28.

For updates and to find out how you can be the first to see who makes the list, sign up to be a JUF Superstar and "like" YLD on Facebook.

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