OyChicago articles

Keepin’ it Kosher

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Matisyahu to 'Stir It Up' at Ravinia
06/17/2008

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See Matisyahu at Ravinia, Thursday June 26

Ravinia is about to be blessed with reggae’s most unlikely rising star: an Orthodox Jewish beatboxer who skipped out on his senior year of high school to follow the hippie jam band Phish.

Born Mathew Miller, Matisyahu (the Hebrew version of "Matthew,” and the name he adopted on becoming observant), certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical reggae profile: He passes on the Ganja for the Torah, and forgoes dreadlocks for a traditional Hasidic tall black hat, starched white shirt and black suit.

Who would have thought that the Talmud could meet the likes of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley? While some may dismiss his act as gimmicky, others embrace it as a new genre and he is lauded for carving out his own niche, by blending Orthodox Judaism and classic reggae. Either way, Matisyahu seems to consistently pull it off; his first major label debut, Live at Stubbs, a live concert recording from the famous venue in Austin TX, has sold nearly 700,000 copies.

Ironically, the defining moment for Matisyahu’s career came back in 2005 at Bonnaroo, when he appeared on stage with former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Although Matisyahu had released his 2004 debut, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” on JDub Records, a non-profit for innovative Jewish music, this event was his ticket to being discovered, by thousands of fans and a major label.

While Matisyahu puts religion first (he won’t perform on Friday nights in observance of Shabbat, with the exception of his performance in Fairbanks, Alaska, a gig which was allowed because the sun didn’t go down until 2 a.m. local time), it certainly hasn’t impacted his touring schedule or performances. And his religious beliefs don’t deter his rowdier female fans, but they shouldn’t expect so much as a high-five, or even handshake from the thickly bearded artist who was raised in a traditional Jewish household; Orthodox Jewish law prohibits it.

Currently, Matisyahu is busy at work recording a new full-length album, scheduled for release in late 2008. He’s working alongside producer David Kahne (Sublime, Paul McCartney and 311), and says this album is going to be different than the previous releases. “It’s not sticking to any one form of music,” he says. “People will really be able to relate to the lyrics. It’s for people who are searching, looking for inner growth—to expand and to find truth within themselves; within the world.”

While Matisyahu might not have envisioned he’d become an icon or a spiritual leader of sorts to droves of youth, he feels strongly about the personal journey and spirituality, and says he can relate to those who continue to search. “I didn’t get there. It’s a lifelong process of getting there,” Matisyahu says. “When a person thinks they’ve gotten there, it’s a sign they haven’t.” But, he says, “It’s a lifetime of moments; every experience gets you somewhere.”

Matisyahu performs at 8 p.m. on June 26 at Ravinia (847) 266-5100, or www.ravinia.org; $40 reserved, $20 lawn.

The Beshert My Grandmother Would Have Loved

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06/17/2008

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These two M.O.T's will tie the knot this August

My grandmother always had an uncanny way with words, but even I was not anticipating her remark after shuffling through my high school prom pictures.

“You look beautiful, honey, but he doesn’t look very Jewish.”

I always knew there was an expectation that I was going to marry someone Jewish. But 18-year-old me neither agreed with those expectations nor had ever contemplated that my boyfriend at the time, whose last name was Nguyen, would not look Jewish enough in pictures.

I don’t know why my family made it such a point to make it known to me throughout my years that I would marry Jewish. Maybe it was that I grew up in a community with a relatively small Jewish population and they felt the need to overcome all the intermarriage surrounding me. Maybe they figured I would live up to their expectations if only to avoid another issue about which to feel Jewish guilt.

Either way, their efforts didn’t work. I told them I would stop dating non-Jews when I went away to college, but that was more to quell the nagging than anything else.  I knew I wanted my children to be raised Jewish, but in my mind, an open-minded, non-Jewish husband would work out just fine.

I was used to my high school days of attending Christmas dinner and filling up on mashed potatoes and green bean casserole because everything else looked like ham. I had become accustomed to limiting my use of Yiddish and dumbing down words as simple as kvetch and mensch to avoid needing to explain time and time again what they meant.  And, when my high school boyfriend and I didn’t actually end our relationship when I left for college, I became fairly adept at omitting any mention of him to my family.

Then, during my sophomore year in college, I happened to meet a nice Jewish boy. We began dating, and I began realizing for myself that there really is something to staying within the faith.

All of a sudden, I was getting sent Passover cookies from my new boyfriend’s mom. We started making plans to spend Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah with my family in Delaware and Day 2 with his family in New Jersey. Best of all, I had become a Jewish social climber – a mere Israelite dating a Cohen.

Now, more than four years later, we’re planning our wedding together, and I don’t need to explain to him what a chuppah is. We toiled around Devon and Dempster in an attempt to find a ketubah, only to end up on e-ketubah.com, marveling at the site’s mini Hebrew keyboard that popped up to allow us to enter our Hebrew names. We’re getting married on a Sunday, and neither one of us ever contemplated having it any other way. We’re trying to convince my mom that the horah doesn’t need to be played for 30 minutes, and I guess we’ll find out how successful we’ve been come the big day.

While my grandmother has since passed, I know she would have no qualms with our engagement pictures, where both of our noses definitively indicate that we are members of the same tribe.

8 Questions for Leigh Fagin, art lover, “Time Warp” dancer, knife wielder

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06/17/2008

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Leigh knows where the art is at

When Leigh Fagin relocated from New York to Chicago for grad school, she had no idea she’d find herself planting Midwestern roots in our city’s art scene.  Four years later, Leigh is the Collaborative Programs Coordinator for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs where she plans city-wide arts programs, including Chicago Artists Month every October. You can also find Leigh volunteering on the junior board of the Heartland Alliance or perfecting her knife skills at Whole Foods culinary classes.

So whether want an introduction to an emerging artist, enjoy capturing Chicago on film and video or appreciate a well-diced onion, Leigh Fagin is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was young, living out my dreams on the stage, I had no doubt that I would be a high school drama teacher to bring the wealth of possibilities to future generations. My years in theater contained some of the most inspiring, engaging, life changing moments of my youth. Through those experiences, I made my first true friends and met the teachers that would influence the way I approach every job I have ever had. My love of the arts was something that I felt could be contagious through teaching—and I wanted to open doors for my students to see the world in different ways through art.
 
2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love that I can provide opportunities, networks and resources to those in my field that can actually help people reach their goals. I love that I am constantly in the know about what is happening in the city and that I am surrounded by people who share my desire to engage in the events I’m most excited about. I'm thrilled that my professional life and personal life are so gracefully connected on a daily basis. I love that I can take part in the cultural life in this city in a way that allows me to continuously give back—working on programs that are free and open to the public throughout the year.
 
3. What are you reading?
I’m currently reading the novels of Murakami (The Wind-up Bird ChronicleKafka on the Shore and his short stories). Murakami has the sensibility of someone who has latched onto the innate spirituality of everyday things and the mysterious ways fate can function. I’ve been enjoying his imagination, his vision of the world if you suspend disbelief and allow yourself to engage with superstition in new ways. Although, I have been having funny dreams related to talking cats and water wells, but it’s also part of the fun!
 
4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I think my favorite place to eat/drink/read and be in Chicago is the Bourgeois Pig. Not only does it have the beauty of an old grey stone, classical music playing at the right volume, no internet access to distract me from good conversation or books, but they bake a mean chocolate chip muffin. And I once met a man there who has changed my life forever, so being there reminds me of that day.
 
5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
With the time and support, I would invent a way to redistribute wealth and resources throughout the globe to those in need.
 
6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I think I would want to be invisible so that I could basically "audit" classes in universities all over the world, gaining access to knowledge that is usually super exclusive, as well as view performances that I normally can’t afford to attend.
 
7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Rocky Horror Picture Show’s "Time Warp,” once performed by my best friend and myself at my Bat Mitzvah.
 
8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
I like to participate in the Itza Mitzvah group. It’s a place for me to reflect with open-minded individuals of my generation who relate in very different ways to Jewish traditions, holidays, and concerns. Also, working with Heartland Alliance is a way of giving back to my community that feels "Jewish,” and a way of remembering the generosity of my grandparents. Lastly, I am currently working with a friend on a video/internet project to help preserve the Yiddish language for generations to come. Does anyone know any bubbes we can interview?

The Business of Non-Profits

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Meet three young Jews in the business of making Chicago a better place.
06/17/2008

One-on-One Cancer Support

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The angelic Jonny Imerman

Jonny Imerman was your typical college graduate. By day he worked in commercial real estate and at night attended classes for his M.B.A. In his free time, Jonny played basketball, went to the gym and hung out with friends.

And then his life changed. At 26, Jonny was diagnosed with testicular cancer requiring surgery and 5 months of chemotherapy treatments. But, Jonny says, he was lucky, because he had his family and friends to support him through the treatments.

“Many people fighting cancer are by themselves, disconnected from anything, from family, from loved ones, from positive energy around them that could motivate them to get through the cancer,” he says. 

While receiving treatments in the hospital, Jonny made rounds chatting with the other cancer patients, finding inspiration and guidance from his peers. “Talking to someone my own age that has beaten my cancer who was a survivor who could look me in the eyes and say ‘hey I was in the same shoes a year ago, this is what it feels like, this is what's coming and answer all the little questions you have,” made the biggest impression, he said.

In 2003 Jonny, cancer free, left the business world behind and began Imerman Angels, a not-for-profit organization that connects a person fighting with cancer with someone who has survived and beaten the same type of cancer.

“The beautiful thing about cancer is that it helps you throw inhibitions out the window. It got rid of my fear; I never would have had the courage to start a not-for-profit before.”

In just five years, Imerman Angels has spread nationwide. The not-for-profit has a network of 1,000 cancer survivors and matches people from all over the country. And Jonny has a five-year mission: by 2012, every single American diagnosed with cancer will have free access to a cancer survivor within 24 hours of their diagnosis.

Now 32, Jonny has been cancer free for four years.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the world. This is why I got sick at the age of 26. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me because it’s helped me to make the cancer world a better place.”

Fighting Illiteracy

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Stacy Ratner, spreading the joy of reading throughout Chicago

Stacy Ratner’s love affair with books began at the age of three. In college, she majored in comparative literature preparing for a career as a copyeditor. But a lack of publishing jobs led Stacy down a different route-- she became a lawyer and, as she puts it, a “serial entrepreneur.” At 35, Stacy has successfully launched six businesses.

Two years ago, Stacy realized she wanted books back in her professional life. She began researching literacy rates in Chicago and what she discovered was alarming: Almost 53% of adults living in Chicago have reading difficulties.

“I’ve been a reader all my life; it never occurred to me that so many people in Chicago can’t read a bus schedule, pay their bills or read to their children. I never imagined how limited these people’s lives must be.”

Stacy decided to use her business acumen to create Open Books, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and combating illiteracy throughout Chicago.

“Literacy is fundamentally linked to poverty. It is a self-perpetuated cycle where people are dependent on others to function. The fact that so many in Chicago can’t read was a real wake-up call for me. It was a smack in the face. But, at the same time, illiteracy is not like the war in Iraq or world hunger—it is not an unsolvable problem.”

Stacy, with a staff of five full-time employees, more than 600 volunteers and the support of 20 literacy organizations in the city, is working to solve the problem. Open Books tutors and mentors underserved youth and provides adult education as well as ESL classes. 

In the spring of 2009 the not-for-profit will open a bookstore.  The first floor will house 50,000 books, a café and reading nooks, the second floor will be classrooms and a computer center. 

“Open Books has allowed me to share my love of reading with others—from the parent that can read a nighttime story to their child for the first time, to the elderly American who can read the label on his prescription drug bottle; we want to spread the joy of reading to everybody.”

Be Bright Pink

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Lindsay Avner is the ultimate Bright Pink Girl

Lindsay Avner was 22 years-old when she underwent a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.

With a family history of cancer (her mother is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor and her grandmother and great grandmother both succumbed to breast cancer) Lindsay knew she was at risk. Genetic testing after college confirmed that she had inherited the breast/ovarian cancer gene, so she made the difficult decision to undergo surgery ensuring that she would not be another cancer victim.

“When I decided to come out and talk about my own unique experience, what was amazing was not the amount of press, [including The Today ShowCNNVogue and The Chicago Tribune] but how many young women reached out to the writers and the TV producers to say ‘oh-my-gosh, she is telling my story.’” 

To keep people talking about this important topic, Lindsay began Be Bright Pink, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to providing support to young women who are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  

In less than two years, Be Bright Pink has grown exponentially with chapters in Chicago, New York and Miami and members throughout the country. Be Bright Pink partners with genetic counselors and OBGYN’s to identify girls who are at high risk for breast cancer and offers them, “companionship and empathy during their journey.” 

Lindsay shies away from the traditional support group model; instead Be Bright Pink is designed to support her generation. The organization hosts events that encourage girls to get out and attend yoga classes, to grab cocktails with girlfriends and to gab over cheese and crackers. Lindsay describes a Bright Pink Girl “as a dynamic, amazing person who is going to spend a Saturday socializing at a bar with her girlfriends.”

“This is a non-profit organization that I run as a business. I’m just in the business of reaching people with this amazing message that help change their lives.”

On June 29th Be Bright Pink will host a high tea at the Drake “for the women we love.”

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