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8 Questions for Amanda Rockman, pastry chef, sugar pusher, former ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’ contestant

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If you’re a big fan of the last course (of the meal, that is), then you need to know Amanda Rockman. A former contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts Season 2, Rockman has become one of Chicago’s most-watched pastry chefs.

As such, Rockman made waves a few months ago when she left her long-held post as executive pastry chef of The Bristol and Balena to take a job with Lettuce Entertain You. She made the change hoping that working with a larger company will supply her with many more resources to learn from.

Rockman has already learned from some of the best. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she’s worked with the likes of Emily Luchetti, Gale Gand and Celine Plano. (If you’re not a dessert foodie, just know that you should be impressed.)

A self-proclaimed sugar-pusher, Rockman says she blames her mother for her career path, since she was such an amazing baker. Sounds like a good Jewish daughter—and A Jew You Should Know.

1. They say you’re one of Chicago’s top pastry chefs. That’s pretty cool! What do you think have been the keys to your success so far in terms of both how you approach your career and how you approach dessert?
I chose who I wanted to work for early on—strong pastry chefs that could teach me about great technique and flavor profiles. You learn their styles and eventually through time develop your own. I was incredibly lucky to have great mentors early on.

2. There are lots of great cities where exciting culinary things are happening, many of them more exotic than Chicago. What is it about this community and restaurant scene that has kept you here?
Chicago is an amazing city—it’s also more manageable than most of the larger cities. I've worked in Chicago most of my career. People I used to cook with 10 years ago are owners and chefs. You build a community and closeness that is hard to walk away from. Also, gotta love those winters...

3. For the bakers at home, what are some quick tips, secret ingredient weapons or perhaps local places to get ingredients that you can share to help us up our game?
Amazon.com is the best. Like, the best. You can order any ingredient off of there from your computer while wearing your PJs on the couch. Secret ingredient? Salt.

4. What’s your most significant Jewish food memory and do you have a favorite Jewish dessert to make?
Coconut macaroons—can’t get enough. My love of coconut started from these little gems. I recall trying to shove as many as I could in my mouth as a kid for fear that they would all be eaten. I try not to do that as an adult.

5. If and when you were to start your own pastry venture, what would be your concept and which of your recipes would be a staple of the menu?
I would love to have a bakery that offered breakfast pastries, miniature cakes, gelato to go, awesome sandwiches—with a kitchen store attached. Basque cake would be a staple, for sure.

6. What do you love most about what you do (and why)?
I love pastries. I just do. I can't image a world without it. Being able to create things for people to consume just brings me joy—nothing is better when someone tells you they really enjoyed your dessert. It's about making people happy.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn’t make amazing desserts, what would you do (and why)?
I would be a writer. I had a blog called Bitter Chick Bakery for a few years but I’m on a break due to my crazy schedule. But I would love to pick it back up.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago (and why)?
My favorite is randomly meeting other Jews in passing in my industry. It's almost like a club. This is how it always goes:

Question: "you part of the tribe?"
Response: "oh yes"

Then you’re friends. Love that. 

Double Chai Check-In: What’s new with Benjamin Singer, political change advocate and organizer

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When 2012 Double Chai in the Chi honoree Benjamin Singer wrote to us about where he saw himself in 10 years, he didn’t realize how much of that he would accomplish in the first lap.

“I'd like to manage an organization that works with business, political, and grassroots leaders to advocate for improved ways to run our elections,” he wrote last summer.

Well, he’s not running the ship just yet, but in his work with the national nonprofit advocacy organization Common Cause, which among other issues advocates for holding elected officials accountable, he has helped Illinois become a leader in the area of campaign finance reform.

May 31 ended Common Cause’s successful five-month campaign to get the Illinois legislature to pass a resolution calling for a national amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision. The 2010 ruling gave first-amendment protections to corporations wishing to spend unlimited money on election campaigns. In a bipartisan action, Illinois became the 14th state to call for an amendment.

Singer said he was in Springfield at least once a week working with legislators on both sides of aisle to gain sponsorship in the Illinois House and Senate, and also mobilized grassroots constituents all across to the state to talk to their legislators.

“The victory wasn’t just that we called for this constitutional amendment, but that we did it with bipartisan support,” he said.

Singer was also rewarded in the past year for his previous work as Media and Communications Manager for A Safe Haven, an organization that works with the homeless. His magazine-style annual report received an award from the Publicity Club of Chicago. Singer will participate again this year in A Safe Haven’s RUN! To End Homelessness on July 14.

Also on his 10-year to-do list, Singer said he still wanted to be with his girlfriend, Beth Horwitz. The couple took their first step to making that happen by getting engaged in December while in Panama. The wedding will be “sometime next year when it’s nice,” he said. “Right now we’re just enjoying being engaged and taking it easy.”

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One way they’ve already done that is through bride and groom classes at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel Congregation, which they participated in with fellow 36 under 36 honoree Jenna Benn and her now-husband.

“[Being named 36 under 36] was a great experience, particularly to be able to meet and start forming relationships with many of [the other honorees],” Singer said. “I think that’s part of what has made our community so successful is that we are able to form these ties with folks who are involved in so many different things within our society and we’re able to work together across those areas.”

In terms of what he hopes to accomplish going forward, Singer looks forward to working under a new grant from major Chicago foundation to do important organizing around improving the way elections are administered, including access to polls.

As a North Lakeview resident, he also wants to address the growing issue of gang violence in neighboring Uptown. After listening to a February episode of This American Life centered on Chicago’s troubled Harper High School on the South Side, Singer said he’s come to the conclusion that violence is not simply about gun and drug control, but about kids who lack hope and consequently don’t value their lives in the way that people with more opportunities do.

“I’m really interested in ways that we can stop [gang violence],” he said, “because not only should these kids have opportunities to succeed in their lives, but the resulting consequences of them not [having these opportunities] is putting everyone else in danger.”

Living down the street from Anshe Emet Synagogue, he and Beth have gotten involved in the shul’s social action committee, Na’aseh, which is part of the Lakeview Action Coalition, and he hopes that vehicle can be the beginning of greater action.

When he’s not busy advocating for change, Singer has plans to continue pursuing one of his other passions—dance. He recently bought him and his fiancée dance lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Keep up with this past 36 under 36er by checking out his website, www.BenjaminDSinger.com

8 Questions for Asher Perlman: Funnyman, Improv lover, Wisconsin native

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8 Questions for Asher Perlman photo

Comedy fans rejoice! TBS' Just for Laughs begins in Chicago this week. The June 11-16 festival features some big names including Russell Brand, Seth Meyers, Bob Newhart and David Cross among many others, but there are also some Jewish comedians hitting local stages for this year's festival.

Los Angeles stand-up comic Moshe Kasher will be at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.) June 12 and 13 at 7 p.m. Kasher has appeared on a number of late night talk shows and has his own Netflix special, Moshe Kasher: Live in Oakland as well as a memoir entitled Kasher in the Rye.

Locally, however, Chicago is teeming with funny Jews. One of them is Asher Perlman, who performs with Improv Olympic, The Second City Touring Company, and ComedySportz Chicago, and has a side comedy video project with some friends called ATV Comedy.

Perlman, who hails from Wisconsin, will appear in "Alone: Chicago's Best Solo Acts," two shows also at Stage 773 on June 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. presented by The Playground. This showcase will feature 10 short one-person comedy acts from different local talents. Perlman will perform five minutes of original characters.

In addition to belonging to three of Chicago's biggest comedy institutions, Perlman is an IT professional. Not amused? Well, he's also the winner of The Playground's Gimme 5 solo sketch competition. Anyway, if you love to laugh, Perlman's definitely A Jew You Should Know.

1. How did you discover your knack for and love of comedy?
Growing up my dad was a huge fan of old-timey comedy, like the Marx brothers and the Three Stooges. Slapstick, wordplay, that kind of thing. When I was about 7, my brother and I memorized the "who's on first?" bit and then performed that at some youth acting conferences. So that sort of got the bug early there. When I was in high school I started taking improv classes in Madison and that's where I developed my love for improv. After college, then Chicago's the mecca for in a lot of ways comedy, but certainly improv, sot that's what shot me down here.

2. How would you describe your style/sense of humor?
It's hard to describe yourself. What I enjoy watching and what I try to do is a mixture of silliness, really high-energy pieces, but still keeping a human element where people can see themselves or someone they know in that character. Trying to find that balance of something recognizable but just blowing it out into something ridiculous.

3. What does it take to make it in this crowded Chicago improv/comedy scene?
The Chicago comedy scene is the most oversaturated market. It's incredible. The thing I feel like makes performers stand out is, at this point, you have to be easy to work with. I think at one point when there weren't as many people, if you were really funny, you could get away with being kinda rude, possibly. But at this point, if you're even a little bit difficult to work with then there's no chance you're going to survive, because there are people who are really funny and fun to work with. Being easy to work with and super hard-working and dedicated, those are the two controllable factors. The less controllable one is obviously being funny.

4. Got a good Jewish joke for us or maybe a character we might identify with?
I don't have any blatantly Jewish characters. That's an interesting thing. I haven't borrowed much from my cultural upbringing in scenes. There's so much to pull from. I have done a character, I haven't done it recently, of my Hebrew tutor when I was studying for my bar mitzvah, she was a great character. She was just one of a kind. She was so enthusiastic about Hebrew studies, it was amazing. Just the way she spoke was unique. I'm not sure I could do her justice now.

Growing up there were so many funny Jewish people in my life. Our rabbi, when we were backing out of the synagogue parking lot, our rabbi was walking behind the car, and right as we were backing up we heard a thump, we looked back and we saw our rabbi holding his foot as if we'd run over his foot. We stopped the car and it turned out he hit the truck with his hand and pretended we hit his foot. Also, I was born in Seattle, I was there for the first 12 years of my life, and our rabbi there was a huge Mariners fan. I was friends with his son so we would go over there on Saturdays sometimes and they were observant so they didn't turn on the lights or anything like that, but he had his TV on a timer just to play the Mariners games so he could watch them on Shabbat. It was really funny.

5. If you could tour with anyone famous, who would it be?
Bill Murray. To do a comedy show with Bill Murray would be a dream come true.

6. What do you love most about what you do?
The thing I love the most in Chicago is the community of people. It's such an amazing culture of supportive, engaging, interested people who love what they're doing and love supporting each other, which is so difficult to find after college, to find a group of people who are really enthusiastic, supportive, intelligent and entertaining. Comedy in general, it sounds silly to say it, but just that buzz you get from making people happy, when you get that immediate feedback from the audience, that's just unbeatable. That's just such an amazing feeling.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn't be doing comedy, what would you do?
My honest answer is I would probably go back to school, get a PhD, and try to become a college professor. I studied political science in college and had one professor in particular who was really inspiring for me and I could see myself following in those footsteps and having a really good time.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?
My favorite thing, and this has been my favorite Jewish activity since I can remember, is Shabbat dinner on Friday. It's just such a fun way to unwind after a week and you can pull in your secular friends, your family, anyone. I just feel like an excuse to have a nice big dinner together and just settle after a week is just amazing. I still have Shabbat dinners sometimes and I always treasure them.

‘Hava Nagila: The Movie’ at Spertus

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‘Hava Nagila: The Movie’ at Spertus photo

Jenny Jimenez/Courtesy of Katahdin Productions. 

What do Harry Belafonte (a Caribbean-American guy from Harlem, NY) and Connie Francis (an Italian-American gal from Newark, NJ) have in common with Glen Campbell (a Scottish-American guy from Pike County, Arkansas)? Like dozens of well-known performers, they have all recorded covers of "Hava Nagila," in Hebrew yet!

In her delightful new documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie, director Roberta Grossman and her key collaborators tell the story of this simcha staple (Bar Mitzvahs! Weddings!! Declarations of Independence!!!) in the form of a biography, with giddy inter-titles like "When Hava Met Hora." It would all be way too much, if it weren't so well-done and thoroughly enjoyable.

Hava Nagila: The Movie is a masterful synthesis of scholarship and chutzpah, with just the right combination of history, politics, and religion. Grossman's team (including writer Sophie Sartain and editor Chris Callister) has assembled a treasure trove of films clips which they stitch together with dazzling dexterity. There is literally never a dull moment; even when the clips are black and white, they're still amazingly colorful.

The song "Hava Nagila" was born in Ukraine, nurtured in Israel, and came to full force in America, which then sent it back out into the world. As the scholars in Hava Nagila: The Movie explain, the original tune started life as a Hasidic niggun (a wordless prayer like the "biddy biddy bums" and "daidle deedle dums" that Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof). Most of the people who left the Pale of Settlement to become pioneers ("halutzim") in British Palestine ("the Yishuv") at the turn of the 20th Century were fervent secularists. They turned their back on religion, rejected Yiddish, and built a modern language based on Biblical Hebrew. But when the children in the kindergarten needed new songs, old melodies bubbled forth. And then Hava met Hora, and here we are.

Of course all Jewish stories, even joyous ones, must have some tzuris, and in this case rival families stake their claim, eager to persuade Grossman that it was their ancestor-and he alone-who wrote the familiar lyrics. But Grossman makes it clear that no one really owns cultural property like "Hava Nagila;" "Hava Nagila" belongs to the people and each generation must find new ways to cherish it.

Growing up in the 60s, I well remember how tickled I was by "Harvey & Sheila," the giddy version on Allan Sherman's 1963 LP My Son, The Celebrity. With brilliant lines like "Harvey's a CPA. He works for IBM. He went to MIT and got his PhD," Sherman told the history of Jewish America in less than 3 minutes. Decades later, Regina Spektor, born in Moscow, raised in the Bronx, and best-known for her album Soviet Kitsch, now performs "Hava Nagila" in her Indie Pop concerts.

Grossman's travels take her to Eastern Europe, Israel, and across the USA. Talking heads include scholars such as Henry Sapoznik (from NPR's Yiddish Radio Project) and Josh Kun (director of The Popular Music Project at the University of Southern California), religious figures such as Chazzan Danny Maseng and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and culture icons like Leonard Nimoy. Modern Jewish History has rarely been taught with such ebullience.

Hava Nagila: The Movie screens at Spertus Institute (610 S. Michigan Ave.) on June 6 at 7 p.m.

Go to YouTube and watch Danny Kaye's "Hava Nagila" duet with Harry Belafonte from 1966, and I guarantee you'll head to the theater for more!

Jan Lisa Huttner (aka Tzivi) contributes occasional features and monthly blog posts under the header "Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight."

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