OyChicago articles

A Theatre of Our Own

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Pegasus Players presents a Jewish show to its diverse community
06/03/2008

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Janet Ulrich Brooks, playing Golda

On January 2, 1948, Golda Meir stood, unexpected, before Chicago’s Council of Jewish Federations to appeal for the financial support necessary to arm the Jewish forces fighting for an Israeli state.

Today, actress Janet Ulrich Brooks stands on the stage of Pegasus Players’ production of  Golda’s Balcony , reenacting this pivotal moment in Israel’s history. “I have no speech,” she says, giving voice to Meir’s historic words. “I’ll tell you what’s in my heart.”

Pegasus Players is the theatrical heart of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and it too has a passionate appeal and an ambitious mission: “To produce the highest quality artistic work and to provide exemplary theatre, entertainment and arts education at no charge to people who have little or no access to the arts.”  While this mission has taken the company on two theatrical tours in the Middle East, Pegasus remains strongly grounded in its local community, providing creative opportunities for young playwrights, school children, and underserved populations.

Artistic Director Alex Levy has worked with Pegasus Players for nine years, winning numerous awards and citations, and championing the unique community that both supports and benefits from this theatre’s socially progressive objectives. He chose Golda’s Balcony to close this season.

Golda’s Balcony is a challenging play, and I wondered how the overt politics of this decidedly Jewish work would be received in such a diverse community. According to the 2000 census, Uptown is home to about 27,000 white residents, 14,000 African American residents, 13,000 Hispanic/Latino residents, and 5,500 Asian residents. To me, this show seemed a brave, and risky, choice. Levy responded with confident nonchalance, “We very rarely play ourselves on stage. Theatre companies start to reflect their community. Presenting this work to an audience whose life is very different is actually a wonderful thing.”

The production, wonderful as it is, left me troubled. Chicago, with a Jewish population of over 270,000, has the fifth largest concentration of Jews in the United States. With over 200 theatre companies, Chicago’s theatre scene can cater to the individual needs of specific communities. Theatres such as Black Ensemble Theater and Teatro Vista explore the work and histories of their own ethnicities. Teatro LunaStockyards Theatre Project, and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble celebrate women theatre artists. About Face Theatre creates work that addresses the concerns of the LBGT community. Other companies are dedicated to children and family programmingstage combat and movement, even culinary entertainment. Why then has our Jewish community, a community that comprises almost ten percent of Chicago’s population, not been able to consistently support a single Jewish theatre? 

 “The push [for a Jewish Theatre] needs to come from the community,” Levy explains, acknowledging that Chicago’s theatrical community consistently produces work by Jewish artists and writers. “Other theatres can pick up the slack, but there isn’t a central home.” 

When theatres presenting Jewish works are not situated within the Jewish community, hard questions can go unasked and stereotypes go unquestioned. “There is a lack of historical memory. Events are not understood in a historical context.”  But Levy also acknowledges the temptation to present work that celebrates a culture without also exploring the problems and challenges that culture faces. Theatre allows a community to examine itself critically, creating a dialogue for change—which is why I think the absence of a Jewish theatre, despite the wealth of Jewish shows being performed, is important.

Jewish stories and themes are part of the cultural dialogue of Chicago, and Uptown, with its rich artistic heritage, is a neighborhood well-known for challenging convention. Golda’s Balcony rises to the challenge. Harsh, unyielding, and undeniably honest, this production successfully celebrates a woman and a nation, but never once shies from the harsh realities of this history. To speak one’s heart is a dangerous thing. Fortunately, Pegasus Players is lending its voice.

Golda’s Balcony runs through June 29 at Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson. Discounted tickets are available by using the promotional code FriendsofJUF.

Loving Kindness … and Cheesecake

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06/03/2008

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An Israeli-style Shavuot party at Galit's (center) kindergarten

Unlike most Jewish holidays with their “must do or not do”  restrictions, and themes of being hated, slaughtered or narrowly escaping, Shavuot has some bright features: It's the day that the Torah was given to us, it marks the beginning of the summer, it’s an agricultural holiday that celebrates the harvest—we get to eat delicious dairy food and indulge ourselves with cheesecakes and quiches. And, with the beautiful story of Megilat Ruth (Ruth’s scroll) setting the theme of loving kindness, it’s a pretty great holiday.

When I lived in Israel, Shavuot was always one of my favorite holidays. Growing up in an Orthodox family, my dad used to go to shul after dinner and return at 6 a.m. after studying all night with his friends as part of the "Tikun Leyl Shavuot" custom.

When I got older, I wanted to be a part of those all-night study sessions. In Tel Aviv, I found Alma, an alternative center for Hebrew Culture. My studies there offered me a variety of classes and different interpretations to the classic traditional studies. Going there on Shavuot night became a habit for me and my friends, and it also seemed to represent a shift in the city, which is mostly secular. 

Now living in Chicago, I wonder why Shavuot has been relegated to redheaded stepchild status, its importance falling behind Chanukah and the High Holidays and Sukkot in many Jewish communities. Maybe its primary message about the covenant at Sinai is too scholarly. Maybe its secondary message is less relevant to the daily lives of Jews here—how many among us are farmers? Maybe modern American Jews don’t have enough in them to celebrate two harvest-themed holidays and the excitement of building a hut trumps Shavout. Or, in my opinion, maybe we all need a reminder of the story of Ruth to see where one measure of the holiday’s beauty lies.

I spoke with Rabbi Asher Lopatin from the Modern Orthodox congregation Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel in Lakeview to find out why he thinks Shavuot is so un-hyped—and to talk about the holiday’s relevance for modern American Jews. He agreed that the farming aspect might be an obstacle.

“The holiday focuses on agriculture in Israel which is the same idea as Sukkot and frankly is also not popular,” he says. “(Historically,) Shavuot is the harvest time, so here it’s more challenging for us. We are not farmers,” he says.

But, he says, as Jewish traditions grow in the U.S., there might be a resurgence of interest in the holiday. “In the last 10-20 years all of the movements (including Reform and Conservative) started talking [more] about Torah and Sinai, about learning Torah; and there is more interest in all the movements in Torah and in Tikun Leyl Shavuot. So there is growing interest in the holiday”.

There is also interest in the issue of conversion—a hot topic among many Jews living in Chicago and the U.S.  In short, the story of Ruth is a conversion story—one of love and acceptance that remains relevant today.

During the time of the harvest in Bethlehem, there was a famine. The family of Elimelech, the Prince of Judah, decided to move to Moab and, not long after the move, the sons met two Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah—and married them. When tragedy struck and the men of the family died, Naomi, the matriarch, told her daughters-in-law to return to their families and remarry. Orpah did but Ruth insisted to Naomi: " Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God." Since that day, Ruth has been considered to be Jewish. She met Boaz, married him and their great grandchild was King David.  

I couldn't help wondering what would happen to Ruth today. Those few sentences sound so simple compared to today’s conversions. I asked the rabbi if Ruth’s quick and easy conversion would fly in today’s Jewish world.

“When Ruth said, ‘Your people will be my people,’ she was accepting Mitzvot and the destiny of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Lopatin. “Ruth had every reason not to convert, Judaism was not a popular religion. Today, we are more reluctant [in general] and hesitate when things are good. Conversion could take today a few minutes today too, but we need to know that people are committed.”

The main message from Megilat Ruth, Rabbi Lopatin says, is courage and chesed, loving kindness. Even though we love big dramas and heroic tales like those of Exodus and Purim, maybe we should celebrate the “simple” but profound story about chesed, loyalty and devotion.

8 Questions for Stacey Ballis, author, foodie, secret Xanadu fan

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06/03/2008

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Author Stacey Ballis, the newest member of the Oy! team

If not for a life-altering epiphany in Kenya, Stacey Ballis might be a very rich lawyer—she might never have taught in a Chicago public high school or worked as the Director of Education and Community Programs at the Goodman Theatre or most recently, written four novels including, Inappropriate Men and The Spinster Sisters. Her fifth book will be released next spring—and her newest writing project will be as a contributor to Oy!Chicago’s new department, Nosh.

So, if you enjoy singing along with Olivia Newton-John while cleaning your closet,  you love food or can’t stop watching Law & Order reruns, Stacey Ballis is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
For a period of time, I wanted to be Mrs. Shaun Cassidy.

I really focused mostly on wanting to be a lawyer from the time I was really young, in a really horribly, geeky way. I was the head of the mock trial team at my high school, I was a member of the Illinois Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. But the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent three and a half months in Kenya, teaching and doing community service. I discovered that while I could be a very rich and successful lawyer, I would not be a very happy lawyer.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I get to do it in my pajamas. It happens in my living room, which is comfy. Writing is something I’ve always done since I was very young, and the ability to do that full-time, at least for the moment, is pretty amazing. To a certain extent, what I love is what it has done to my life—[it has given me] the ability to truly spend great time with my family and meaningful time with my friends. It also has gotten me totally caught up on all of my Law & Orders.

3. What are you reading?
I just finished Jennifer Lancaster’s, Such a Pretty Fat, and it is completely amazing and fun, and I don’t say that because I’m in it. Much of it takes place in my living room. I’m at the very beginning of Jodi Picoult’s new book, Change of Heart. I usually have a few going at the same time because I read a lot. It’s kind of ridiculous. I also just finished The Book Thief.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I would say right now one of my favorite places to eat is Chalkboard. It has great food, a great wine list and it’s a beautiful little cozy room. So that’s currently one of my top. The Athenian RoomLulaBuona Terra and Hachi’s Kitchen for Japanese. All of which are right out my back door, which is perfect for when you’re really hungry and really lazy.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A way to sleep more?  At the moment, I would invent a gasoline alternative. I have a Hybrid and I paid $52 for gasoline in McHenry last week. In McHenry!

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

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I have a playlist that I call Untitled so that nobody knows what it is, and it’s the playlist that I play when I need to do something tedious and boring like clean out a closet. It contains such musical gems as, “Xanadu,” “It’s Raining Men” and “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” It’s actually so full of that kind of crap that a girlfriend said to me, “do not let a guy you’re dating hear that, because he’ll break up with you.”

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
Truly there’s meaning, and then there’s fun. One of my favorite ways to Jew is a corned beef sandwich at Manny’s, which I’ve been doing pretty much since I was born. I used to go there with my great-grandfather. That was always a really fun thing, and always felt like a really Jewish thing. On the flip side of that, my dad is on the board of JCFS, and going to those events and doing the good work makes me feel happy.

Catch Stacey at the Printer’s Row Book Fair on Saturday, June 7, at 1:30pm, where she will be moderating a panel discussion on humor and weight issues called, “Through Thick and Thin,” with authors Jennifer Lancaster and Stephanie Klein.

Playing for Our Team

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Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis talks baseball and religion—and clears up an error on his Wikipedia page
06/03/2008

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Jason Marquis, team player

As of last Sunday*, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball. We’ve heard that a lot this week, but somehow it never gets old. Last Friday morning, in the midst of the team’s seven-game stomping of the Colorado Rockies, I arrived at Wrigley Field to talk to Jason Marquis.

The night before, Marquis had pitched. Coincidently, I’d been there with friends sitting behind the much-loathed pole in section 228. The next morning, I had a better view waiting in the dugout for Marquis to arrive. I chatted with some of the media regulars about the previous night’s game. I watched the grounds crew pull the tarp over the field—they were expecting rain and  “tornadic activity.”

When Marquis arrived, we talked a bit about the upcoming game. “The Cubs play 50-something day games and people have jobs—but nearly 40,000 show up for every game. It’s electric every time you step on the field. Look at today. It’s overcast and rainy and there will still be 40,000 fans here and that’s the great thing about this place!”

And the fans that skipped out on work that particular day saw an amazing game. The Cubs came back from an eight-run deficit to win 10-9; there wasn’t any tornadic activity outside of the batter’s box. 

If you’re a fan of the movie Bull Durham, which I totally am, you may have grown up connecting baseball to religion in some far-out, mystical Susan Sarandon kind of way. But, there aren’t that many Jews in baseball and there aren’t too many teams with as much mythical lore as the Cubs. So, does being both a Jew and a Cub make Marquis feel doubly persecuted?

When I asked Marquis, who seems like a very laid back guy, he laughed. “Maybe they negate themselves and cancel each other out! But nah, I feel privileged to be part of both the Jewish religion and part of Chicago Cub history. Being from a Jewish background, my parents always pushed education. But I always had time for extracurricular activities too. Sports suited me the most and got me to the highest levels.”

He adds that while there aren’t a lot of professional Jewish athletes, he hopes that more kids who are interested in sports will follow in his and others’ footsteps so in the future, Jewish athletes won’t be such rarity.

As a New York native, Marquis was a Yankees fan as a kid. And during the off-season, he resides in Staten Island. I wondered if he’s still allowed to be a Yankees fan, which I guess would be better than being a Cardinals fan. (Marquis spent the three seasons with our division rival prior to being signed with the Cubs in the 2006 off-season.)

“I grew up a die-hard Yankees fan, and my friends are still all Yankees fans. Now, more than anything, I’m a fan of the team I play for. But when it comes down to it, I’m a baseball fan. When I’m done with this game, I’ll root for the players that I played with and the players that I like, but mostly I’ll just be a baseball fan.”

Life is awesome for Cubs fans right now, and White Sox fans too for that matter. But I didn’t want to ask Marquis about curses or predictions. I didn’t want to know what he thinks of the 100-year destiny talk or any cloven hoofed goats. Because if I have learned anything as a life-long Cubs fan (not to mention a Bull Durham fan), it’s that you don’t mess with a streak and you try to take it one day at a time.

Still, I couldn’t help asking how it felt to play for the team with the best record in the major league. “Last year was a step in the right direction. We got back to the playoffs, and this year we’re off to a really good start,” Marquis says. “It’s nice and fun to be part of a winning team, but obviously it’s a long season so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.”  

Making the move to Chicago was good for Marquis. He’d grown to love the city on road trips when he was with the Cardinals and, for his two young children, Reese Madison and Andrew, the Cubs’ schedule is pretty close to ideal. There are 81 home games and, Marquis emphasized, about 50 are day games, compared to about 20 for most teams. “I love day games because you get a life outside of baseball.”

That life includes hanging out with his kids and his wife in their Lakeview neighborhood and eating at local hotspots including La Scarola and Joe’s Crab House, but it does not include a stint playing acoustic guitar on the most recent Nada Surf album—as stated on his Wikipedia page. He chuckled at that idea. “Nope, I never did.  Not me, I’m musically challenged. I’ll sing a little karaoke revolution on X-Box every once in a while but even then…. I’m terrible, but I do it for fun and I’ll make a fool of myself,” Marquis says.

Judaism played a big role in Marquis’s upbringing and he credits growing up Jewish for helping him develop his morals and ethics. “I learned how to treat people the right way, and I think whether it’s Judaism, Catholicism, Christianity or whatever, religion is a good way for kids to have a solid background. It gives them something to stand on as they grow up so they’re not out there clueless in the world.”

He credits his wife, Debbie, who is Catholic, with sometimes knowing more than he does about Jewish traditions—she wants to make sure the kids learn about their father’s heritage. And as is true in many families, food is an important part of the process. “My dad makes latkes for Chanukah and my mother will make the beef brisket. My wife and my mom cook together around the holidays,” he says.

Marquis might get the chance to connect his work to his heritage sometime soon. Israel is trying to get together a team to compete in the World Baseball Classic, which would take place right before spring training. “They contacted my agent to see if I would be interested. Obviously I would be, but they have to build a team of players, which I think they will,” he says. “I mean, will we stack up against the Dominicans and the U.S.? Probably not, but it would be fun to represent my heritage and where I came from.”

It would be fun to watch Marquis play for Israel. And now that his heritage includes Chicago too, whatever happens with the rest of the 2008 season, I’ll enjoy watching Marquis play for the home team.

*This piece was originally published in Oy! last June. The Cubs are now headed to the playoffs! Go Cubs!

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