OyChicago articles

Taste of the Nation

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A Mitzvah for the Taste Buds 


 Ari Moffic-Silver, the "Mitzvah Mixologist"

It’s a rare thing to be able to use your job skills to help people—especially when you’re a professional drink-slinger. So when I heard about an opportunity to participate in Taste of the Nation, the nation’s premier culinary benefit dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America, I could not resist. I was eager not only to showcase my mixology skills and rub shoulders with some of the top mixologists in the city, but also to be part of a great cause.

The three-hour event took place August 11 on the 16th floor of the brand new Trump Tower, overlooking beautiful downtown Chicago. Silent, live auctions took place throughout the evening and proceeds went to causes fighting childhood hunger. One of the charities benefiting from the event was the Chicago Food Depository, an organization my family has donated time and money to in the past, so I felt even more connected to this worthy event.

Dubbing myself the “Mizvah Mixologist,” I set out early that morning to the supermarket to decide how to spice up an already fabulous cocktail: the Caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink, made from a special Brazillian rum called Cachaca (pronounced ka-sha-sa), lime juice and sugar. It was as if lightning struck me right there in the produce section! I found these ripe, gorgeous Chilean clementines—they are seasonal and have a wonderful color and sweetness that I knew would fit perfectly into my cocktail and turn some heads at the same time!

When making a fabulous cocktail, it is sometimes best to keep it simple. In this case, the recipe seems straightforward, but the drink is about execution and presentation. Traditionally, each drink must be made fresh to order—no batching allowed! Batching is when you premix your ingredients and only need to shake and strain before serving.

For presentation and decorative purposes, I quartered the limes and my special twist – Chilean clementines – so they looked like mini pizza wedges and fit nicely into the small plastic cups we were given to serve our cocktails. Because of the quantity or drinks I’d be making, I chose to shake the drinks in my Boston shaker to speed up the mixing process. In an effort to save time, I also gently stirred the agave nectar and lime juice together to create a homemade lime syrup. That is, until I ran out of agave nectar.

As the night went on, after serving dozens of cocktails, I noticed that I was running dangerously low on my agave nectar, which would close up my station for the rest of the night. Oy Vey! But no worries, like every good mixologist I came prepared with a backup: unrefined demarara sugar, native to Brazil and a fine agave nectar substitute. The only caveat with this change in texture is – you guessed it – muddling! While it became a bit more laborious, it actually allowed me to channel my nervous energy into muddling. It was also an attention-grabber and brought many more people to my station just to watch. It also made it easy to share a few words with each person and get to schmooze them a bit while I worked my magic.


Ari's twist on a traditional cocktail

While I was having a great time mixing cocktails for the masses, I also met lots of great people along the way. For instance, Adam Seger, head bar chef at Nacional 27 at 325 W. Huron, is one of the great mixologists in Chicago. His culinary background serves as an inspirational reference for his crazy cocktails as he breaks barriers and stereotypes that have plagued cocktails for a long time. Here at this event, he was stirring up trouble with his silky smooth Vesper (Gin, Vodka, Lillet Blanc, lemon peel), and even donned a black 1980’s Michael Jackson-type hat to boot!

Mixing right beside him was Lynn House, easily one of the most experienced and talented mixologists around. She runs a superbly chic bar at the Graham Elliot restaurant at 217 W. Huron. My esteemed mentor and friend Charles Joly, who runs the mixology program at the ever-popular Drawing Room at 937 N. Rush, had his Tequila Sunrise tasting like summertime. And of course, the winner of this past season’s Top Chef: Chicago’s own Stephanie Izard, was serving up some tasty dishes at her station alongside season three runner-up Dale Levitski! How cool is that?

Walking out of Trump Tower later that evening with my fellow mixologists, the cool summer night air gently swirling around us, I began to feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment and gratification. I was having an “I just did a mitzvah and boy, it sure feels good,” moment and I was proud to have been a part of such a great event.

Make our own traditional; Caipirinha:
1.5 oz Leblon Cachaca
¼ cup 100% Organic agave nectar
4-5 lime wedges
Ice, small cubes or crushed

Directions: Muddle lime wedges and juice with agave nectar in old-fashioned rocks glass for about 15 seconds, making sure not to damage the rinds of the fruit as they contain bitter flavor. Fill the rocks glass with crushed ice, pour the cachaca over the ice, then gently stir the contents with a bar spoon until syrup is mixed in completely.

The modern method asks one to muddle ingredients in the mixing glass, filling it with ice and pouring in the cachaca, shaking for 10 seconds, then dumping the contents directly into the old-fashioned glass.

Traditionalists and modernists alike garnish with a mini wedge or wheel of lime.



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A flippant Oy!ster makes the connection between cooking and love 


Dana’s daughter is learning how to spot a good apple 

There is evidence to indicate I have no business contributing to anything called Nosh. My college roommate still recalls the time I removed a cold, hard Idaho potato from its produce bag and asked, “So is this a baked potato, or do I need to do something to it?”  Fast forward two college degrees (yes, from accredited universities) and you will witness a similar scene as my husband – in one of his more patient moments – walks me through the complex art of boiling an egg.

Much to his disappointment, I didn’t inherit my Nana’s 36DDs, but I did inherit her inability to kvell over a matzoh ball. Like Nana and my mother before me, I am a Jewish girl who can’t cook. And unfortunately, the trait has gotten progressively worse with each generation.

At least Nana (of blessed memory) had a few dishes that received modest accolades, like rolled meat in cabbage. Her son-in-law makes fun of her liquefied vegetables to this day. Papa, on the other hand, just ate.

As Uncle Eric tells it, Nana spooned out her overcooked meals to Papa day in and day out for over 60 years. On an uncharacteristically solicitous day, Nana asked Papa if he preferred tapioca or rice pudding. “I’ll have rice,” he responded. “I don’t really like tapioca.”  “What?! You don’t like tapioca?! Since 1932, I’ve been serving you tapioca. How come you never told me?”  “You never asked,” he said.

My own mother has an uncanny ability to serve monochrome meals in shades of yellow and orange. Quiche, mac ‘n cheese, frozen corn, cottage cheese. In other words, would you like some cheese with your cheese?

The men in my family aren’t much better. With the precision of a physician shoving a thermometer up a baby’s ass, my dad routinely gauges the temperature of every slab of meat, every hunk of poultry.

With these roots, does it come as a surprise that I would be perfectly happy subsisting on granola and yogurt, turkey sandwiches, and apples?

Cuisanart? Never used it. China and silver? Nowhere to be found on my wedding registry. Salt and pepper shakers? Empty – never been filled. Brisket? Never tasted it – let alone made it. Baster? What the hell is that?

Food lovers of Oy! Please tell me why I should spend hours making a meal that will be devoured in eight minutes flat. Why buy a bouquet of flowers that is just going to wilt? Why dirty a serving dish when it is far more efficient to plop a bag of chips in the middle of the table?  (Or on the floor if the table is too full, as was the case last week.)

I am aware that most Jews equate food with nurturance, ritual and family. As I type this, my husband is upstairs reading a Jewish holiday cookbook to our 5-year old daughter with far more passion than I’ve ever heard him read Goodnight, Moon. He has exclaimed, “Yummy, this is my favorite!” nine times in the past three minutes, and they’ve only finished Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Tu B’Shevat. “Oh ho, look at this chicken. Man, you know what’s inside this? Apples with cinnamon and nuts. Let’s remind savta to make this next time we go to Israel.”

The cookbook was a gift from my mother-in-law, shortly before her poor son married an inept chef. Little did she know he was marrying me and a guy named Joe who would provide many healthy meals for her son. Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, is a guest at most meals at our house. He once said, “In France there isn't all this fuss about pricey, vintage wine. They just pour the stuff and drink it."  Now that is an attitude that I can respect.

Joe is so cool, I also take him to work. The current no-fuss contents of my bottom desk drawer include the makings of a Trader Joe's feast: split pea soup, sardines, rice cakes, organic quinoa, soy milk in a box and dried cranberries. To this, my colleague and fellow Oy-ster Sarah Follmer will tearfully attest.

At Chanukah, if Trader Joe’s runs out of frozen potato pancakes, my family heads to Walker Bros. and if the lines there are too long, we are shit out of luck. Year-round, my freezer remains stocked with frozen brown rice, roasted vegetables with balsamic vinegar, and blueberry waffles. So don’t worry, folks. Joe may be a west coast goy who sold his business to a German conglomerate years ago, but he keeps my family well nourished.

My husband helps, too. Benny grew up frequenting shuks with his mama in northern Israel and prides himself on his ability to pick out the juiciest watermelon, the freshest avocado, the most succulent tomatoes. On multiple occasions, he has tried to show me how to cut a mango. I look the other way, as I did when a former secretary tried to show me how to mail merge. I just don’t want to know.

I am starting to realize it is not that I’ve failed as a cook – I just haven’t tried. With apologies to Nana, I do care if the people I love prefer tapioca pudding or rice pudding. It’s just that such requests usually send me to the store, not the kitchen.

Maybe this will be the generation that knows baked from raw and can boil an egg without incident. My girls, familiar with goodnight cookbooks, accompany their abba on his weekend jaunts to the produce market to smell melons. My 5-year old can already make a mean turkey sandwich. My 4-year old loves flowers, wilted or not.

To Cut Or Not To Cut

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Aptly named Cut, a film searches for the answer 


Cut, learn more at www.cutthefilm.com 

I’m an avoider. My solution to the circumcision question (to cut or not to cut) is: I’ll only have girls. I am sure that this impractical resolution will result in a family of boys.

I would never even have been thinking about this question had it not been for Chicagoan Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s film,  Cut . And he would never have been thinking about this issue if not for the time, at 15-years-old, he served as the Sandek, the person who holds the baby during the ritual, for his cousin’s bris in Jerusalem. He was appalled when the Mohel leaned over the baby and came up with blood on his beard. The image stuck with him and today, with Cut, he addresses the issue of whether or not to circumcise religiously, scientifically, ethically, sexually, straightforwardly and graphically through interviews with people from every perspective.

I admit I had to cover my eyes at a few points during the film. I had never seen a circumcision up close before. I had never even thought about it for more than five seconds before watching the film, but my screening prompted a long discussion among friends afterward–which, it turns out falls nicely in line with Ungar-Sargon’s goal of prompting conversation on the subject.

He judges the film’s success not on the number of minds he changes or how many viewers come away agreeing with him, but rather on the dialogues that viewers have after watching. He says this questioning and wrestling with ideas is really what being Jewish is about. After a screening, most stick around for an hour and a half or so discussion. After hearing lots of new information on a taboo topic, it’s only natural that people have questions as they’re processing the information.

Another documentary about circumcision was made in 1995 – Whose Body, Whose Rights – but it was clearly an anti-circumcision film. Ungar-Sargon wanted to make a documentary about his personal experience and viewpoints, while also including the perspectives of others. He tried to portray, “people who vehemently disagree with me in the most flattering light.” He also recognizes that the choice of whether or not to circumcise your sons is a very personal decision.

Ungar-Sargon’s interest in both film and circumcision began as a teenager, but these subjects didn’t come together in the form of Cut until years later. “The first time I saw film as more than just entertainment was in high school in Jerusalem, when I took a film appreciation class because I thought it would be an easy credit,” he says with a smile – it obviously became much more than that. But first he attended medical school for 3 years in England until he decided to venture out to pursue his true passion – film. When he applied to the Art Institute of Chicago, he says he had “never done anything artistic in my life, but I knew how to take pictures.”


Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon “cuts” right to the chase with his film on circumcision

Being raised in an Orthodox home, he DID have a lot of experience with traditional Jewish ideas and how they sometimes conflicted with modern society. One example marking clear conflict between Jewish and secular views is the role of women in traditional Judaism. There is much discussion on this topic and feminism in general, but with circumcision there is almost no discussion. People get uncomfortable questioning something that they perceive as being central or fundamental to being Jewish.

That perception is precisely what Ungar-Sargon wanted to focus on. Cut began in his documentary film class, and expanded into a feature film after he graduated. He and his wife, the co-producer, are now independently distributing the film.

Before starting work on the film, and before his experience as a Sandek, he wasn’t aware of all three steps of a traditional Orthodox Bris. Neither was I. Here’s how he explained it to me.

1. Milah – cutting of the foreskin
2. Pri’ah – removing of the translucent membrane
3. Metzitzah – suction of blood. Usually a sterilized glass tube is used for this step, but historically, and in more traditional movements, oral suction is performed. I won’t get into the controversy surrounding this step – that would have to be a whole separate story.

So the bris is a tradition going back thousands of years, but what about the non-religious reasons for circumcision? Here in the Midwest, 70% of men are circumcised, the highest rate in the United States. I recently heard a story on the radio talking about how circumcision can help prevent HIV/AIDS. Is that true? Ungar-Sargon’s research shows that these types of statements – circumcision can prevent _____(fill in the blank) - have been loosely related to the scariest diseases of the times. In the 19th century, circumcision was supposed to prevent epilepsy and masturbation (apparently considered a disease back in the day). In the 20th century it was linked to syphilis. During World War II, everyone entering the military had to be circumcised for sanitary purposes. Post WWII, it was supposed to prevent cancers, urinary tract infections, and now HIV. Over the years, scientific studies have disproved these connections each time.

That said, the film is not anti-circumcision and Ungar-Sargon doesn’t characterize himself as an anti-circumcision person (those who do prefer to be known as intactivists). The film offers every opinion from those of intactivists to those of a Rabbi who says it is an obligation. After a screening, some people leave no longer wanting to circumcise their sons while others leave with renewed conviction about the practice. Armed with new information, everyone develops her own personal decision.

Ungar-Sargon will continue in his goal to raise awareness and instigate conversation on difficult topics through film. Production of his next feature-length film documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict begins this November.

More information about Cut, screenings, and the DVD can be found at  www.cutthefilm.com . Ungar-Sargon is also a guest lecturer in editing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches two classes – Masterpiece Cinema and Holy Athiesm – both available as podcasts on his site,  www.eliungar.com . 

8 Questions for Rachel Massey, Event Planner, Back Bender, Stevie Nicks Fan

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Rachel Massey will make your day

Rachel Massey’s planner is always full.  The master organizer plans weddings, meetings and events of all sorts—she’s also a sometimes-yoga instructor. After six years working for hotels including the House of Blues and the InterContinental, she’s gone out on her own. When she’s not in event mode, you’ll find Rachel on a yoga mat or hanging at home with her husband Jeff and their animals—a giant Golden Retriever named Chuck and two cats, Lovie (yup, that Lovie) and Sammy.

So whether you have a big event coming up and need help from a pro, you enjoy yoga or long for travel without airplanes, Rachel Massey is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a psychologist, I was always the one in my group of friends who was trying to save the world and solve everyone’s problems. I always took in strays—people not animals—and tried to help them. Then, after I went to college and studied psychology, I found I wanted to skip to the part where people lie on the couch and I have a nice office. The end result sounded awesome but the rest of it wasn’t for me.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love the flexibility and the variety—each day is different, each event is different and I feel like I have tempered my career with my passion for practicing and teaching yoga. Yoga used to be on the backburner and now I get to make it a bigger part of my life.

3. What are you reading?
I am re-reading Until I Find You by John Irving, he’s my favorite author and I was inspired to re-read it on a recent trip to Europe, because the book is based there. I’m also reading  The Historian .

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
This one is hard – Thai Village is an all-around winner and, in years of going there, has never disappointed. Magnolia for a fancier night out, I love it there. And I have to say that Mas, which closed down, was one of my favorite places. They were always so busy; I just don’t get it! I’m also looking for recommendations in Oak Park if anyone has any, we just moved there.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
As an ex-smoker, I’d love to invent a cigarette that would never kill you, cause any health problems, give you wrinkles or make you smell bad. And, I’d also love some kind of transport device that would make flying places on planes unnecessary.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Fly of course, so I wouldn’t have to take planes!

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Lots of Stevie Nicks, I’m a really big fan. Particularly the song “Night Bird."

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
In my family, we have what we call the Shabbos Shot. When my parents are in town, or we’re visiting them, we kick off Friday night with a shot of tequila. I also try to host a holiday least one once a year—I’m not religious about which holiday—but I try to host a dinner or party for a group of friends who are not predominantly Jewish.

Getting married? Freaking out? Rachel can help! E-mail her at: Rachel@blushandbashfulevents.com 

Mark Bazer: An Angry Man

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“The Incredible Mark Bazer”

My father waited 34 years to tell me the news.

"Bazer," the surname he passed down to me, and which I've long cherished for its uniqueness, its slight air of mystery and its "Z," is, it turns out, hardly innocuous, and even less mysterious.

Dad: Son, I have something to tell you about your name.
Me: OK.
Dad: It means 'angry person' in Yiddish. I wanted to tell you now so that ... son, what are you doing? I'm just telling you the truth. Put me down. Please! Stop! No!!!!!!!!!!!!


Alas, my father, may his soul eternally burn in hell, was right.

A quick Web search revealed, according to the Family Education Network, that "Bazer" is a variant of "Beiser," which is a "nickname for a wicked or aggressive person, from Yiddish beyzer  (meaning) 'wicked,' 'severe,' 'bad,' 'angry,' 'fierce.'"

What was going on that day in my ancestors' village, or shtetl, when the names were being handed out? When everyone else took on titles befitting their professions, what kind of raving, unemployable lunatic must the original Bazer have been? My word, what possibly could he have done to be given such a name? Murder the fiddler on the roof?

Being saddled with the knowledge that your last name could quite simply mean "bad" is hard enough to take. But then there's the matter of my first name: Mark, which — let's go to the Family Education Network again — means "warring," "warlike" or the much more peaceful "hammer."

So, "Mark Bazer" means "Warlike Angry Person." In other words, it's the most violent, despicable name a human being could have. (Actually, check that. Had my parents gone with "Marc," it'd be worse: "Warlike Angry French Person.")

The question I now face is where to go from here. Once word of the meaning of my name spreads, will my colleagues and friends finally begin to fear me for the power and cruelty they know I can unleash? And do I have to start lifting weights?

Armed with this new knowledge, I've also begun to ponder how much more powerful, how much more evil, some of the greatest villains or all-around angry characters could have been had they benefited from a simple name change.

Would Marvel Comics genius Stan Lee have had more success if he'd discarded the name "Hulk" and gone with "The Incredible Mark Bazer"? Should we now have "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Bazer"? Is it too late to change the White House stationery to read Vice President Mark Bazer?

On the flip side, I wonder if instead of reveling in my newfound badness, I should now be doing everything in my power to distance myself from my name. Should I devote the rest of my days to walking the earth renouncing cruelty wherever I go? To toiling for peace at every opportunity? Or would this tack end horribly wrong, with my birth name ultimately overpowering me and an entire village of kittens slaughtered?

You people, with your names like "Hope" and "Faith" and "Sunday Rose Kidman Urban," can never understand the inner turmoil that I now must face each and every day.

Oh, what could my parents, who back then still remembered their fair share of Yiddish and must have known what my first name meant, been thinking? "Why, pray tell, did you name me Mark Bazer?" I asked my mom this morning.

Alas, it was hard to make out what she was saying from the inside of my trunk.

Mark Bazer can be reached at  mebazer@gmail.com or at  www.markbazer.com . He hosts The Interview Show the first Friday of every month at The Hideout ( www.hideoutchicago.com ). His next show, Sept. 5, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., will feature hip-hop poet Kevin Coval, jazz artist Frank Catalano and Blewt! Productions creative director Steve Gadlin.

(c) 2008, Mark Bazer. Distributed by Tribune Media Services. Originally published in Chicago in RedEye.

At Bay

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A sister’s immersion in San Francisco art and a brother’s life 


My brother taking a picture of the Contemporary Jewish Museum

My three days in the Bay Area deviated slightly from the Hemispheres magazine recommended itinerary. No dim sum in Chinatown, no inline skating through the Golden Gate Park. I headed west last month for one reason: to connect with my big brother.

The last time I tried to enter his world, I encountered wizards, orcs and half-elves. Turns out, Dungeons and Dragons was not my thing and I quickly retreated to a more familiar landscape which included cherry Blow Pops, gossip and The Love Boat. That was in 1981.


Me with my brother, wishing he was into The Love Boat

These days, he is a freelance photographer who still orbits his own planet. And I am still the little sister with hopelessly mundane interests—and an interest in whatever planet my brother happens to be on.

He has the entire Bay area arts and culture calendar committed to memory. I know next to nothing about art. I don’t like museums. And I especially don’t like art museums.

But this trip, my brother is my tour guide so I follow him.

From the photo exhibition in the basement of City Hall to the Diego Rivera mural at the Art Institute to the observation tower at the de Young Museum, I try to keep up. We crisscross the city by bus, BART, MUNI, and cable car to the Yerba Buena Cultural Center, the Legion of Honor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and little galleries in alleys with no names.

Day 1
I glance (barely) at framed things hanging on walls and take a mental inventory of our differences. I have a 9 to 5 job, a hair stylist named Jerli, manners (sorta), a working stove, a credit card, the ability to maneuver around light posts and other inanimate objects, a spouse, two kids and a god-blessed picket fence. My brother has none of the above.

When he slows down to eat pad Thai, I ask about his love life, his job search, his access to laundry facilities and his long-term plans. I get short answers and a few glares.

Day 2
We take a 45-minute bus ride to a palace of fine arts by the ocean. I can barely contain my lack of excitement at the prospect of seeing Women Impressionists, or in my mind, blurry old paintings of French women sitting by the pond wearing big skirts. And true, the art does not move me, but the curator’s words on the wall tell a story, four stories, in fact of four women painters -- Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eve Gonzales, and Marie Bracquemond -- who were marginalized due to strict social rules and gender discrimination. On a trip when social norms are anything but normal, I take note.


Flocking to Frida at the SFMOMA

We head to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it draws lines that rival those at the opening night of Sex in the City. My brother’s SFMOMA membership serves as a fast pass up the back elevator and I am soon sucked into room after room of intense color, intense pain and raw self-expression. It is Frida’s story of polio, politics, stormy love, ethnic influences, infertility, infidelity, physical anguish and emotional despair. Frida was part-Jewish, my brother comments. I watch him take pictures of people taking pictures of Frida’s pictures. The security guard says nothing.

Over fish tacos, I ask my brother if he is happy. Yes, he responds. I ask him what he would do if money were no object. Take pictures, he responds. And there you have it, I can fly home.


Bay area art as viewed through my brother's lens

Day 3
The new Contemporary Jewish Museum opened last June in a converted power station with a dramatic addition that stops everyone in their tracks. I do not know how many people pay the $10 admission to actually walk through the doors, but a hell of a lot of people pause to take a picture of the massive, blue steel cubes balancing on their tips. Architect Daniel Libeskind’s bold, angular design was inspired by the Hebrew letters chet-yud (i.e., chai, l’chaim, to life).


My brother with his trademark curls and overflowing bag

If you’re looking for dusty old Torah scrolls, oodles of silver Judaica, or a Holocaust memorial of some sort, don’t bother stopping at the CJM. Connecting art, people, and ideas is the marketing tag. The museum has no permanent collection. Temporary exhibits are presented in its three galleries, one of which is too cockeyed to even hang art on its walls. This space currently houses an auditory exhibit.

My brother and I agree that our favorite of the three exhibits is “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” I read him one of the Steig quotes out loud: I often ask myself, “What would be an ideal life?” I think an ideal life would be just drawing. Maybe my brother, the photographer who takes pictures but has no working stove, let alone a picket fence, is living his ideal life.

On a bus through the Presidio, I ever-so-astutely observe, “Behind the art, there is an artist. And behind the artist, there is a story. Kinda like writing.” He seems to agree.

If we were art, the curator might write: Two out of sync siblings bond, to the best of their ability. And off we go to the next exhibit, so this culturally-deprived jackass can learn another thing or two about art and maybe, if she’s lucky, a little about her brother.

8 Questions for Mark Bazer, columnist, talk show host, all-around funnyman

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Mark Bazer will have you laughing in his column featured in next week’s issue of Oy!

Mark Bazer is a syndicated humor columnist for Tribune Media Services and his column—which covers everything from current events to what to talk about with your hair stylist—appears every other Thursday in RedEye and on ChicagoTribune.com. He is also the host of The Interview Show, a live talk show that runs the first Friday of every month at The Hideout and features guests like Bibla Golic, the “Maria Sharapova of Table Tennis” and Doug Sohn, President of Hot Doug’s Encased Meat Emporium, along with artists, musicians and authors. His next show, Friday Sept. 5, will feature Savoy jazz saxophonist Frank Catalano, hip hop poet Kevin Coval and Steve Gadlin, creative director of Blewt! Productions' "Impress These Apes!"

So whether you love reading his column in the RedEye, find Christina Aguilera empowering or just want to have a good laugh, Mark Bazer is a Jew You Should Know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
The American boy cliche: a professional baseball player. But the difference is I wanted to be the bullpen catcher. Many of the perks of being in the Major Leagues but considerably less pressure.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
The deadlines. Really. I like being able to be done with something -- and having to be done with it -- and then go onto the next thing.

3. What are you reading?
"Then We Came to the End" by Joshua Ferris. It's a novel about an advertising agency in Chicago. It's really funny. It's the kind of novel where, during the days you're reading it, you start almost thinking in the mode of the novel, if that makes any sense.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Sultan's Market in Wicker Park. My wife and I used to live across the street, and it was my first falafel experience. Now, I am inevitably disappointed by any other falafel I have. And I should also probably mention Manny's.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
Something that people can use to easily get from one place to another with such ease, comfort and style that it would literally change the world. I'd call it a Segway.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Fly. I feel like if you were invisible, people would be bumping into you all the time.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Christina Aguilera. But is that guilty? She's really good. And she empowers me.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
Having the occasional Shabbat dinner with my in-laws, my wife and my 3-year-old son at my in-laws' downtown apartment. I like watching my 3-year-old try to sing along. Maybe he'd actually learn the words if we didn't do it so occasionally.

Look for one of Mark’s columns in the Living Jewishly section of next week’s issue of Oy!

My Dad the Jew … Gets Baptized

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Heather's dad Joe beams with pride at her graduation

My father's last memory of his father Aaron was in 1937, dad was five. Aaron's car was parked and running outside of the house. In the front seat was my grandfather's new bride, Bessie. My father came running outside of the house to the car. Aaron crouched down to my father, gave him a five dollar bill and said, "Sonny, someday you'll understand." Aaron drove away and my father never saw or heard from him again.

My father, Joseph Hyman Zagrabelsky, didn't understand then and never will.

In 1917 my father's parents emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine to the U.S. miraculously escaping the pogroms of 1919. Aaron, my grandfather, was an Orthodox Rabbi and his wife, Bluma, a homemaker. Dad was the youngest of five. Early in their lives as Americans, the family made a tour of sorts of U.S. synagogues. Apparently, Aaron liked his lady congregants a little too much and was forced to leave several temples. No matter though, the family just moved from one state to another, starting in Maryland and ending up in Los Angeles where Aaron eventually found a suitable young lady to leave his family for.

His father’s departure was a traumatic event that loomed large in Joe's life. At 19 he hitchhiked from LA to New York to pursue his dream of acting. On the way he stopped in Memphis where he knew his father to be living. He looked him up and made a call. Bessie answered the phone and informed Joe that his father had died three months earlier of a heart attack and couldn't he please send some money for a head stone.

But dad made it. He landed in New York where he worked as an actor for many years, even understudying the lead role Come Blow Your Horn on Broadway. Eventually, in the late 1960s, he met Paul Sills, founder of Compass Players and Second City, moved to Chicago and joined his improvisation group.

The rest of the family wasn’t faring quite as well. Dad’s oldest brother Bernie had become a bonafide hermit, relocating to New Hampshire from LA, and eventually kidnapping my sick grandmother. His brother Nathaniel had committed suicide. His sister Diana was living in Nevada with her gentile husband and his brother closest in age, Hershey, became a Jew for Jesus, married and had a mess o' babies. Can you imagine?? Performing must have been, among other things, a welcome respite and distraction from his painful past.

Eventually, my dad met and married my mother, Hope, a granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants, whom he met in one of Viola Spolin's famous improvisation classes. They raised my older brother and I, baptizing us at the local Presbyterian church. Every Sunday, we dutifully went to Sunday School. My father would drop us off and say, "Tell Jesus I said hello. Ask him, can't I get into heaven by association?" We loved that one. But as time went on, I found that I did have to ask my father's question in earnest to those who taught me Christian doctrine. Would my dad go to hell? I posed this question to any poor schmo with a divinity degree. Some said it was up to God's discretion, but most said yes. I was disturbed by this. It took many years of interrogating clergy of all stripes before I settled on, no.


Heather and her dad, a couple of hams

I've always felt a kinship with my father. Perhaps it's because I have his dark hair and sallow skin, or maybe it's just the typical father-daughter bond. Whatever it is, I feel Jewish and have since I was a child. Currently, I am in the midst of the conversion process, a topic of conversation that I have found does not bring out the best in people. Some say, "Why does it matter? Why do you want religion?" My mother is nonplussed, my orthodox friends will never consider me a real Jew, and my father says, "Why do you want to be a Jew? People are always trying to kill us!" It's not that I want to be Jewish, or wish I was Jewish. I simply feel that I am and want to make it official. More than that, my desire to do so is not so much a measured cognitive process as it is a biological urge, like the urge to have children or go to sleep.

After twenty-four years together, my parents called it quits. Dad was single for a while, renting a small apartment and living in typical bachelor squalor. Some years later he married a nice Catholic lady named Jean. Hers, I thought, is a deep but personal faith; one I can tolerate, admire even. They quickly moved to a quiet neighborhood in Northwest Indiana to be near Jean's family. Later, I came to find out that many of Jean's family members are Evangelical Christians. Oy.

Now, I am not familiar with all of Indiana, or with all evangelicals, but where my dad lives they actually believe that Obama is a Muslim, and they’d have a problem with it if he was. They must have been salivating as his car pulled up, seeing the passenger as someone who desperately needed saving. Eventually Dad and Jean moved in with Jean's son's family, wonderful people who happen to display their faith in a way I find nauseating. But how could I complain? They love my dad and take wonderful care of him. Sure, when I told them my husband was going into environmental law they told me that environmentalists love trees more than people, but so what, right?

Dad will turn seventy-six this month. Who can blame him for wanting some measure of spirituality in his life? A tried and true hypochondriac—he once called to inform me that he had a new condition, and drove home the severity of the situation with the dramatic pause he had perfected on stage: “Heather,” he said, “I have conjunctivitis.” Yes, my dad had pink eye. And yes, he pulled through. I do kid him for his constant assumption that death is imminent, but getting older and seeing friends die must really reinforce his fears. It makes sense that he might want to chat with his maker.

Knowing Jean’s family’s evangelical bent, I guess I should have seen it coming. But when my dad called announcing that he was to be baptized, I was dumbfounded. Actually, devastated is more like it. Did I mention the baptism was to take place one day before a scheduled surgery? Dad thinks he'll die during routine teeth cleanings! The man was covering his bases. I sobbed. And sobbed. I tried everything. I made an impromptu visit to Indiana, speeding down the Dan Ryan toward the Skyway begging him to rethink his decision. I even took him to see a rabbi in Munster.

The rabbi respectfully inquired into his line of thinking. My dad replied that he now lives with Christians and added, "When in Rome..." Oh well. "What? It's just some water on my head," he barked in a perfect New York Jew accent. "I'm a Jew, Jesus was a Jew, period." When I asked if he believed that Jesus died for his sins and will come back to judge the living and the dead—payback for years of Sunday school I guess—he replied, "What the hell are you talking about?" Sigh...I had to laugh even through my tears. At least the trip wasn't a total loss. It was beautiful to see my father lay tefillin for the first time in more than fifty-five years. He still knew the Hebrew by heart.

A few days after my visit to Indiana, Dad landed in the emergency room (he is fine). Jean left me a voice mail saying, should my father die; it's my fault, just so I know. Nice. What could I do? He is my only link to Judaism and without that link, I felt very alone. How can I feel Jewish if he ceases to be a Jew? Can I still convert? I realized that my tears were in large part for myself and what I thought I had lost.

Two weeks after we visited the rabbi, he was baptized. I wasn't there.

How is a Jew whose entire family abandoned Judaism long ago and who lives amongst so many Christians to keep his faith? It would be difficult even for the most observant amongst us. Dad didn't stand a chance.

I think that truth be told, Dad’s baptism mattered more to me than it did to him. I can’t say for sure whether he was covering bases, or agreeing to the ceremony to provide some kind of comfort for the woman he loves. Maybe he doesn’t even see it as getting in the way of his view of his Jewish self, or suddenly at 75, he found Jesus—and I guess it doesn’t matter.

No matter what my dad believes, I am Jewish because of him. Now it’s up to me to figure out how to be the Jew I want to be, that I feel I am.

Inked: A Jew and his Tattoos

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Josh Rosenberg, a walking canvas of Jewish pride

We’ve all met Jews with tattoos—people of the Hebrew persuasion who see no conflict between their heritage and their body art. But how about Jews who consider their tattoos to be an expression of their Judaism? Meet Josh Rosenberg, a 28-year-old union pipefitter who wears his heart on his sleeve and his religion just underneath it.

Josh’s left wrist is encircled with tattooed Hebrew script that says: “Ben Yisrael”—son of Israel—and his left elbow is ringed by an enormous Star of David, a twin tribute and statement of loyalty to his parents. “I don’t know the ethnicity of my blood parents, but as far as I am concerned, I am my [adoptive] parents’ son—and they are Jewish,” Josh says.  That lineage is intense. His great-aunt, a Holocaust survivor, was among many members of his family who emigrated to Israel after WWII, and her testimony helped convict the notorious Adolph Eichmann of war crimes.

How could the descendent of Holocaust survivors in particular choose to get tattoos? “I think a lot of people these days are embarrassed of being Jewish,” Rosenberg says. “Not too long ago, Jews even had to hide their identity. This is my way of saying I am proud of it.”

Rosenberg’s pride is apparent both coming and going. Just below the nape of his neck is another Jewish tattoo, a colorful lotus flower in full bloom, with a Jewish Star at its heart. “The lotus flower grows in stagnant water,” Rosenberg explains. “Who could believe that something so beautiful grows in something so stagnant, that such beauty grows out of shit?”


Josh’s lotus flower tattoo with a star of David, such beauty growing out of such shit

Speaking of shit—how much does Rosenberg get about his Jewish body art? “I asked my rabbi if it was true that a Jew with tattoos couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” Rosenberg says. “He told me: ‘There are 613 laws, and one of them [also] is not to lie, but if every liar couldn’t be buried [in a Jewish cemetery], there would be no one buried there. Live your life.’”

Rosenberg definitely is a man who does just that. The inside of his right forearm is emblazoned with a dramatic image of Miriam the prophet. “The only problem I have ever had with the Old Testament is women aren’t represented,” Rosenberg says. “The only woman who always stood strong was Miriam. She was amazing. She kept the Jewish people together in the desert, where [a well of] water followed her. Without her, there would be nothing.”

Below the tribute to Miriam is a tribute that is more personal: The monogram “MAM” is emblazoned on his right wrist, a permanent memorial to Rosenberg’s beloved friend, Matthew Aaron Morrison, who died two years ago. “I have known Matt since I was 5,” Rosenberg says, speaking at a party marking what would have been Matt’s 28th birthday. “He was my brother, and I lost him. We were inseparable. Now he is dead and I am not.”  The tattoo, he says, is a way of keeping Morrison’s memory with him always.

Rosenberg’s most recent tattoo, inked on his left inside forearm, is less bittersweet,  It is a quote from the Torah that declares: “Any place a man turns his eyes to heaven is the holiest of holies.” “It has a lot of relevance in my life today,” says Josh. “The whole reason to have tattoos as a Jew—the whole irony—is that you don’t need a synagogue or a structure to find God or praise God. There is another way.”

With ink.

My Dinner with Ilyas: Why Concept is King

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739 N. Clark St.
(312) 266-6691

Rating: Three Stars

StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey


Stacey's dining companion wants to live here

Zed is the British/French pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet. 451 is the number of degrees (in Fahrenheit) needed for fire to ignite. So, one would imagine that somehow the creators of this new restaurant are implying that their concept is a culminating point, the end all be all, the point of combustion.

Instead, what works best about this spacious and comfortable space is that ultimately, it is basic--it celebrates the beginning of things and is the starting place. At a time in dining where American Chefs are borrowing the best ideas from other cultures and claiming them as our own, it should be no surprise that the marketing of Zed451 doesn’t ever invoke Italian antipasto, Spanish Tapas, Greek Mezes, or Argentinean churrascuro, (the traditional steakhouse format that has become popularized here with places like Fogo De Chao).  And yet, it is the intersection of those dining formats, simply a large salad bar and starter tables followed by an all-you-can-eat festival of meats, grilled on large skewers, and carved tableside, that the team at Zed is doing.

But if the devil is in the details, so is the divine.

My date for the evening is a goddess with a biblical name, who has given me the ultimate gift, a brilliantly blonde and blue-eyed porcelain-skinned goddaughter, who has a 30-something’s vocabulary at the age of three and is dutifully learning the Four Questions for next year’s Passover Seder. She greets me when I visit with a hug and the phrase, “Can I get you a glass of wine or something?” Rachel is a props master and set dresser with impeccable taste, so when she meets me at the expansive central bar and says, “I want to live here” I know that architect Chris Smith, in his first Chicago project, has been extraordinarily successful in creating a comfortable and attractive place, not easy to do in a cavernous space such as this.


Groups gather in Zed's cozy nooks

But cozy nooks abound, the seating at the bar is comfortable enough that you can imagine lingering, and natural touches like warm woods, leather and stone are very welcoming.  There is a focus on the ‘fresh’ here, which is highlighted everywhere including on the drinks menu.  We start with the bartender’s recommendation, the cucumber sage martini.  A blend of freshly muddled cucumber with lemon simple syrup, sage, and Hendrick’s gin, this martini tasted neither of cucumber nor of sage, but was still yummy...slightly sweet and lemony, but not overpowering the smooth piney gin.

We moved to the dining room, a bright and airy space with a round central set of serving tables hugging the circular fire pit, banquettes and tables radiating out from it like a starfish. A small candle, a tiny nosegay of blissfully scentless flowers, a flat-brushed aluminum disc containing two agate river stones rest atop the simple table. We are immediately attended to by Ilyas, a genial gent of Moroccan origin, who indicates that he is there to “explain the experience.”

Again deftly avoiding the use of the words “salad bar” and “Argentinean Steakhouse,” Ilyas explains, (as a fresh set of warm three-cheese biscuits arrive in a cast iron pan with an accompaniment of  tangerine butter), that we will begin at the “Harvest Tables,” the circular set of tables we passed en route to our seats. These have soups, charcuterie and cheeses, and prepared salads that we should ‘enjoy to our hearts content’ (read: all you can eat).  Once we decide to move on to the entrée portion of the evening, we should move our stones from the metal disc onto the corner of the table, which will indicate to the numerous chefs that we are ready to begin sampling their fares. When we want to take a breather, we should simply move the stones back to their home base, and we will be left to eat in peace until we choose to re-start.


Hot buns! The delightful three-cheese biscuits

Neither Rachel or I are exactly fans of the general idea of a salad bar, associating them with sneeze guards, badly parented children fondling the beets, inexplicable chocolate pudding and big bowls of lettuce swimming in pools of tepid water. But we were pleasantly surprised to find that the Harvest Tables banished those fears. Laid out more like an expansive antipasto bar, the simple white rectangular plates hold interesting options that feel more like serve-it-yourself tapas. The simple cheese platter is nothing new, the charcuterie consists of spicy sopressatta, smooth mortadella, and meaty guianciale, and all are highlighted by house-cured bread-and-butter pickles and fresh baby artichokes, as well as grilled vegetables.

Rachel samples a roasted eggplant soup, adding feta cheese and toasted pine nuts to garnish, which she declares to be like a velvet hug. Some other highlights include a tiny wedge salad, boson lettuce topped with diced tomatoes, a blue cheese dressing, and garlic chips; a salad of roasted peaches with new potatoes, grilled red onion and blanched green beans; vanilla poached baby carrots with honey yogurt; and fresh pineapple with Madagascar vanilla and pepper, which I could probably eat forty-two portions of if no one stopped me. And frankly, at Zed, no one will stop you.


"Fresh" is the main ingredient

There are some misses here as well, a bland cheese ravioli where the filling is so flavorless that it is literally indistinguishable from the pasta that contains it. An uninspired tri-color pasta salad with creamy Italian dressing, while a slightly upscale version of what you see in your local deli case, nevertheless adds nothing of interest.  And the genius of poaching carrots in vanilla is not so genius when used on green beans.


There's something for everyone at the non-salad bar

The wine list here has some good choices, although Ilyas was hesitant to make specific recommendations and it was clear that if you want to do any kind of wine pairings, you are on your own.  For the Harvest Tables, we ordered Sofia Coppola’s take on champagne, which adorably comes in little pink cans, although we opted out of the included tiny straws, and asked for flutes because Rachel sees enough juice-boxes with a three-year old at home, and I think that champagne thru a plastic straw is about as appealing as beer in a funnel.

The amuse bouche of the night was a shot of chilled yellow pepper soup with lemongrass and chive oil, a nice and refreshing mouthful that was balanced and flavorful. We were clearly the only guests who had thought to request that the parade of skewered proteins we were about to receive begin with seafood and poultry and then move to game and red meats. (It is a touch I might recommend as a standard practice, since it helps with wine ordering, and also preps the palate.)  They were happy to accommodate us, and we ordered a glass of buttery Bouterra Viognier  and one of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, a fruity white from New Zealand, both of which would stand up well to both fish and poultry. Ilyas placed our stones on the corner of the table, and let us know that “With the rocks out, you’re rockin’!” and reminded us that the chefs are there to please and serve, and special requests are encouraged.

The true genius of Zed451 is its fixed price. If you went to any decent restaurant and ordered a starter, a salad, an entrée and side dishes, you would easily spend more than the $50 per person cost here. And if you ordered wrong, you’d be stuck with your choices. Even at a tapas bar, you pay for every decision, and if you have a budget, it can limit your willingness to taste and try. But with this concept in place, you enjoy your fill of any and all offerings; be adventurous, if something doesn’t satisfy, push it aside and wait for the next morsel.

That was a plan that turned out to be necessary. Some of the food that came to us was absolutely fantastic.  A citrus-crusted salmon was Rachel’s favorite thing of the evening, while I was torn between the succulent rib eye and the glorious rump roast, both perfectly seasoned top quality beef, cooked to buttery perfection. Other delights were a seared tuna loin with a citrus soy sauce, pistachio crusted duck breast, (marred only minimally by the use of canned mandarin oranges on top), a sweet and smoky spare rib, spicy Portuguese linguica sausage, juicy and fragrant, and a lovely little lamb chop with herbed goat cheese butter and crisp bread crumb crust.

There were however, some problem dishes as well. What would have been a great tempura mahi mahi was sauced well before it came to the table, and while the fish within was flaky and flavorful, the desired balancing crispiness of the batter was absent, having gotten soggy on the way to the table. Both chicken offerings, an herbed breast and roasted leg, were lackluster, the leg under-seasoned, and the breast both over-marinated and overcooked, way too dry to even bother with. Likewise, pork loin with parmesan had all the moistness cooked out of it, rendering it the texture of pressed wood, and the cheese was an off-putting pairing for what should have been sweet and tender meat. The leg of lamb had also suffered from over-marinating, penetrating so far into the meat so that it lost all of its wonderful soft gaminess and tasted only of salt.

The Oregon Pinot Noir and Beaulieu Reserve Red we ordered were both delicious, and necessary on the one hand to enhance the taste of some dishes, and sadly, occasionally to eliminate the flavor of  others.  Sides too, were somewhat inconsistent.  The mashed potato gratin was passable but boring, the butter in the dish leached out into greasiness in the re-baking, but the ratatouille, with chunks of fresh zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, onions and peppers, was light and tasted of summer, and went well with most of the meat offerings. The desserts were hit or miss as well. The highly recommended butterscotch bread pudding tasted mostly of the synthetic butterscotch-flavored chips scattered throughout, and we ended up scraping the delicious house-made toasted marshmallow off the top and abandoning the rest. But the cherry cobbler with cheesecake ice cream had a great base of sweet-tart cherries in an unctuous sauce, which was taken to a whole new level with the rich creamy ice cream, but the cobbles were more like bricks, too thick and with too much cinnamon, so again, we pushed them aside.  Our neighbors had the lemon tart, which they raved about, and we saw the chocolate trio walk by and it looked promising.

But ultimately, the inconsistency doesn’t really matter that much here.  The price is reasonable, the food that works is better than good, it is delicious, which more than makes up for the missteps.  And more importantly, the staff is impeccable.  They were present but not obtrusive, accommodating without being obsequious.  When we expressed a desire for fresh plates, they arrived in a flash. And even better, with Ilyas guiding our meal and attending to the details, we also got to meet a large cadre of personable chefs, who were uniformly passionate about the food they were bringing us, eager to tempt us with their particular offerings, and desirous of enriching our experience by offering to personally craft off-menu items at our will.

When Rachel jokingly wondered how they might get her scrambled eggs on a skewer, she was asked if she liked her eggs dry or runny and if she would like bacon as well. We both believe that if she had been serious, scrambled eggs would have indeed been forthcoming.  Don’t like a seasoning or sauce?  Ask for a different one.  Want something to have a Middle Eastern or Indian flair? Just let them know. The group is mostly current culinary school students or recent grads, and they truly do want you to challenge them to cook specifically for you and your palate.

For whatever occasional flaws appear on the plates, Corporate Chef John Radcliff, (who checked in periodically with all diners during their meals to ensure that everyone was happy) in his Chicago debut, has put together a wonderful team, and I am sure that as they all find their way, the overall food quality will go nowhere but up. In the meantime, it is a place worth visiting and a fun dining experience, especially for groups. The spectacular roof deck is already part of the see-and-be-seen scene here in Chicago, and was packed to the gills when we visited, but it is a really lovely space, so I’d get there early and snag a table.

And for all you single 20-something gals, be sure to ask for Jory Zimmerman, one of the wandering chefs. He’s a recent culinary school grad who is looking for a nice Jewish girl to cook for.

Yours in good taste,


NOSH of the week:  We are in the height of summer, so be sure to support your local farmer’s markets!  Some good ones:  Green City Market 1750 N. Clark at Stockton, W/SA. 7-1:30, Lincoln Park, 2001 N Orchard in the LPHS parking lot, SA. 7-2, City Farm, 1240 N Clybourn, TU/TH/SA 3-6, Daley Plaza TH 7-3, Logan Square 3107 W. Logan Blvd. SU 10-3, Conuco 2800 W. Division, SA 9-2, Lawndale 3555 W. Ogden Ave. W 7-2  And many more….if you love the one near you, be sure to post the details below for the rest of us!

NOSH food read of the week:   The Soul of a Chef  by Michael Ruhlman (also The Making of a Chef, and The Reach of a Chef, and pretty much anything Mr. Ruhlman writes….check out his blog at www.ruhlman.com )

A Natural Woman

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Local sculptor turns biology into art

It’s 9:30 p.m. on a sticky July evening and I’m standing outside Lillstreet Art Studio in Ravenswood. I’ve parked the Prius I’m borrowing from a friend and I’ve used my iPhone to call local artist (and old friend) Rebecca Zemans and let her know I have arrived.

It’s a fitting, if not ironic, start to the rest of my evening, which will be spent in Rebecca’s studio learning about her current body of work, “a critique on our culture and how it has progressed in its evolution, specifically with technology and nature.”

Thinking about that dichotomy that has kept Rebecca busy this past year, during which time she served as Artist-in-Residence in metalsmithing at Lillstreet. Her artistic goal during that time, when she had the luxury of time to focus solely on her work was “to connect the idea of technology in the cell and technology in our outer, larger, macroscopic world, comparing and contrasting the two.” The residency culminates this month with Natural Progressions, a show of original work by Rebecca and the other resident artists.


Rebecca and her heavy metal

With a BA in anthropology and a BFA in metalsmithing, both from the University of Michigan, Rebecca considers herself a current, contemporary anthropologist. “[I’ve got] that archaeology thing going on in the back of my mind,” she says. She uses ancient techniques for clay-work and metalwork to try to figure out how machines have affected us as a society and how we are evolving along with them.

“These original art forms–clay, metal–these materials found in our environment have progressed to allow us to have computers and TVs and telephones. They’re all made of metal, essentially, and you need copper wires and steel wires to transmit information.”

In addition to gaining inspiration from nature and man-made machines, for the last few years Rebecca has been flirting with the idea of the cell as a major theme of both her sculpture and her jewelry. “The biological cell is this fundamental building block that I believe works like a machine. It is the most efficient machine possible. It creates human beings.”

Much of her recent work, including the piece below entitled Vat in the Brain, Rebecca notes is “modern but ancient; it has plastic.” She says this particular piece satisfies her need to create. “I’m going to put a circuit board in as the nucleus, because that’s what a nucleus is; it runs the show. It’s a play on the question of are we machines? Do we really run ourselves? Or is someone else controlling us?”


Vat in the Brain

Just as the materials she uses have evolved in their use, so has Rebecca’s artistic process and focus. Her previous body of work used the same materials–ceramic, metal, rubber, and concrete materials–but was more allegorically themed and centered around things found in the natural world, like flowers, figures and animals.

The Cycle was inspired by Rebecca’s birthright trip to Israel, and incorporates found materials from her time there. She was there when the war broke out in July 2006 and having decided to extend her trip beyond the 10 days, she “pretty much spent the next two weeks hiding out in Herzliya.” She brought home ball bearings she picked up off the ground and integrated them into her design.


The Cycle

Of course, not everyone sees what Rebecca sees when they look at her work. And she’s okay with that.

“For me it’s my own psychological sublimation,” she says. “I look at the news and I get really upset… the process of making [art] helps me to deal with that. But I’m very grateful that other people get lots of different things out of it.  One of my friends says ‘you always make ovum. That’s all you do.’ I guess that’s right, I do! I’m a woman artist! And a lot of people see sea creatures, I don’t know if that’s subconsciously because I’m a Pisces… But I’m just glad that they like it!”


After the JCC where she was working received a donated Torah, Rebecca was commissioned to create this ner tamid -- which she calls Burning Bush -- for above the ark 

In addition to being a woman artist and a Pisces, Rebecca’s Judaism also very much informs her work. She believes part of the reason she is drawn to the abstract, organic shapes she often creates is because of the Jewish idea that we are not supposed to recreate the human form.

Moving forward, Rebecca will continue teaching art classes, which has been her main source of income for the last several years. For her next projects, she hopes to hone in on the concepts of networks and mapping and the transference of information. She is particularly interested in nerve cells and skin cells, because “those two types of cells are related to sense and instinct, and processing information.” She has also started her own line of retail jewelry, still playing off the cell and the nucleus. “But it’s all ovum, too. Women like circles.”


A sample of Rebecca's jewelry

I drive Rebecca home in the futuristic hybrid push-button car while listening to a band from the past. We reminisce about growing up in Hyde Park and I admit how big a crush I had on her brother while we laugh about how not my type he is now. Plenty has changed since we were elementary school kids playing four square and watching episodes of 90210 during her parents’ annual Rosh Hashanah party. Rebecca has evolved from an all-star volleyball player to an accomplished artist. Natural progression? Not necessarily. Good fortune for those of us who get to see the fruits of her labor? Definitely.

Natural Progressions runs at the  Lillstreet Art Center  through August 28, 2008. Samples of Rebecca’s work and her contact information can be found on her website,  www.rebeccazemans.com .

8 Questions for Josie A.G. Shapiro, Laundry Hater, Professional Jew, Celebrated Chef

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Josie is always cooking up new recipes for Jewish life in Chicago 

A Bay Area transplant, Josie A.G. Shapiro spends her days as the Membership and Program Director at Temple Sholom of Chicago.  She helps members connect to the things that interest them, whether that might be spiritual discussions with rabbis or social gatherings like sushi Shabbat. Her goal is to make sure newcomers—40% of new members are in the 20s and 30s— feel comfortable calling Sholom Chicago home.

So whether you like fish on Fridays, remember all the words to your camp songs or enjoy entering contests, Josie A.G. Shapiro is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was really shy and my teacher nicknamed me Miss Mousey. I had a fantasy of growing up to be a clown because they make people happy—well, not everyone. Some people are scared of them. But I took some clowning classes and wasn’t physically coordinated enough. Since then, I have wanted to own my own B+B— a Bed + Bistro. Breakfast is too early and dinner is more fun anyway.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
In terms of my professional life, I have way outgrown Miss Mousey! I do a lot of schmoozing and I enjoy meeting new people talking to them about what makes them tick in terms of their Jewish identity. My job is all about building connections for people, helping them find what they are looking for.

I also love making up recipes and entering contests that have a restrictions of some kind, like you have to use a certain brand of products or meet a time constraint. I like figuring out ways to move within the rules and come up with something unique and original.

3. What are you reading?
I’m reading everything by Geraldine Brooks. Right now I’m reading  The People of the Book . I’m also reading Anne-Marie McDonalds— The Way the Crow Flies . It is deliciously dark and takes place in a 1960s Air force base in Canada. I read  Fall On Your Knees  about a month ago. She has a real sense of humanity. It’s that moment when you’re reading and you’re like, “Yes I know that feeling! Yes I know that one too!"

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I am a food fanatic, so I love food adventures! My friends and I took the Amtrak to Kansas City for BBQ weekend and ate BBQ three times a day. In Chicago, I love Marigold, an upscale Indian place with a great wine list. And I really like Demera, an Ethiopian place across the street from Marigold. Basically, I like any restaurant I can walk to.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
If money was no object I probably should want to invent something that could help do good in the world, but all I can think about is how much I hate to fold laundry and how much clean laundry is piled up at home, and how neat it would be if there was a dryer that sorted and folded clothes after they were clean.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Invisible. The mouse in me likes to be silent and observe.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
I don’t own an iPod… I know, I Know. I like singing old camp songs, I just unleashed my whole repertoire on the husband on a car trip;. He turned off his iPod and listened graciously.

8.What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
Since I work in a synagogue and I am a professional Jew, you can find me at temple on most Friday nights. My favorite Jewish phenomenon is when I see people from Sholom’s Jewish community when I’m out walking around the neighborhood. It makes me feel like I’m in a small little shtetl and like I know people in the city, which is pretty cool for someone, who has only been here for four years.

Triple Threat

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Three’s company in the Follmer household

“Why are you writing about that? People always think being a triplet is interesting and cool. But it’s not.”

That encouraging morsel of cheer came from my brother Daniel when I called to ask whether I was allowed to use his real name in this article. “I concur,” echoed my brother Max a few minutes later.

For much of our lives, my brothers and I have gone to great lengths to avoid being known as “one of the triplets.” We’d cringe when referred to collectively as “the Follmer triplets.” You’d have thought the single pet hermit crab John Stern had given us for our fourth birthday (seriously, we have to share one damned hermit crab?) had crawled out of its shell and bitten our big toes off.

It was tedious to constantly hear, “Oh, you’re a triplet? That’s so cool! What’s that like?” because we didn’t think it was that cool. And we couldn’t say what being a triplet was like because we didn’t know what not being a triplet was like. To this day, I can’t see the difference between my having Max and Daniel around and my friend Katie having three sisters of different ages. Built-in playmate? Check. Someone else to blame when you take the liberty of taping the Miss Teen USA Pageant over Mom’s Dallas episodes? Double check.


Once, twice, three times the babies!

Blaming each other was an art we perfected very early in life. Once we mastered shouting, “Max did it” whenever our parents would call out to us from another room, we moved onto more advanced methods. All kids draw on the walls with crayons, right? But how many are sly enough to sign their siblings’ names underneath? Casual observers might have thought we had the next Picasso in the house with all of “Max’s” drawings on the walls. Poor Max was always the scapegoat.

Not that our entire childhood was spent plotting each other’s demise. When the three of us found a shared interest, life was a blast. Today I can’t dance to save my life, but the three of us choreographed some great crotch-grabbing dances to Eagles songs. And who can forget the great modeling clay massacre of 1991? I think that without a team of accomplices, most only children wouldn’t think to throw modeling clay onto the dining room ceiling to see how long it will stay, whether red sticks longer than blue or green, or how long it will take before Mom and Dad notice the stains.

It was really the loss of our own individual identities that bothered us most. Being “the Follmer triplets” meant that people didn’t actually have to remember all three of our names (to this day I’m still “Max’s sister” or “one of the Follmers”); that they could just buy three of the same birthday present and call it a day; or that they could just buy one present and make us split it (see: hermit crab).


The smiling Follmer triplets—just don’t make them share one hermit crab

I think it was this forced togetherness and presumed similarity that led us to keep each other at arm’s length. We had to assert ourselves as individuals with distinct styles and personalities, and in order to do that we could not ally ourselves too closely with each other.

Much to the shock of my singlet friends, I would not consider the three of us “close.” I don’t know when one of them is dating someone or when they have the flu. I only found out a few months ago that Daniel is allergic to cats, and other than a gift card to a coffee shop I couldn’t begin to tell you what Max would like for Chanukah.

And yet, we’re always there for each other when it matters. Even as a toddler when I would get upset I’d sob, “I want Max,” and Max would come running to give me a hug. After I ended a three-year relationship, Daniel was there to listen from 1500 miles away, even though he and I had never explicitly discussed the existence of the relationship.

Don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me that nearly every sentence I’ve written thus far has used plural pronouns, or that I’ve been basically speaking for my brothers without giving them a voice. No, I’m not using our triplet ESP to confirm that they feel exactly as I do; I’m simply guessing. But I bet I’m right.

Because yeah, sometimes the similarities in the ways we think are just too hard-wired to ignore. Senior year of high school we all three took the same English class. After reading each of our essays on The Odyssey my mother discovered that, completely coincidentally, we had all three written a nearly identical sentence (never mind that the teacher loved it in Daniel’s paper, thought Max could’ve said it better, and told me it didn’t work at all).

We all scored within ten points of each other on the SAT and were each in the top six of our high school class. We’d likely go Cain and Abel on each other if we found out that one of our siblings had voted for the political party that could have Dumbo as its mascot. We’ve probably all given our mother birthday cards with all manner of animals from Noah’s ark dressed up in tiaras and feather boas. But I’m likely the only one to find myself humming Adon Olam on a random Tuesday morning; though Daniel helped lead Shabbat services during college, I’m not convinced Max has set foot in services since we’ve been old enough to legally drink the Kiddush wine.

So I guess it’s a lie to say that there isn’t anything interesting about being a triplet. But the intrigue and the good times were not a product of my brothers and me being yanked from our mother’s womb in rapid succession on that fateful November morning; you could probably have put me in a room with any two random kids my age and I would have had a fine time. But at the end of the day, I’d still call out “I want Max (and Daniel).” Because for better or for worse, we are the Follmer triplets.

Wait a minute, Mr. Postman

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Filling in the _____ and putting a new spin on the card-sending tradition


Ted Perlstein’s future is in the cards

Last year, Ted Perlstein was having drinks with friends, a couple who had recently tied the knot.

While sipping beer, the newlyweds griped about the chore of writing their wedding thank-you notes. Hearing his friends’ post-nuptial grievances got Perlstein, a Jewish Chicago-based entrepreneur, thinking about the act of sending greeting cards. “This process should be something that you look forward to,” he thought. “It should be fun.”

He did some research and found that the paper greeting card business hasn’t changed in 150 years. Here’s some random trivia for your next cocktail party: According to the Greeting Card Association, 1856 marked the start of the greeting card industry in America. For most of that time, according to Perlstein, cards were serious and pretty; the funny ones, like those ‘Over the Hill’ and couch potato cards, have only been around for a few decades.

Perlstein wanted to put his unique stamp on the industry by adding a different type of card to the mailbox. “Exchanging cards should really be more participatory. [Right now] you buy the card, you send it, and that’s it. It’s very one directional, a monologue,” he says. “On the receiving end, what do you do when you get the card? You smile, you laugh for a second, and then you have a big decision—do you throw it out, put it in a drawer, or hang it on the fridge? The process stops—it hasn’t evolved.”

In setting out to evolve the card business from monologue to dialogue, he dreamed up Fill In The Blank Greetings.

Launched last June, Fill In the Blank facilitates a personalized, playful dialogue between sender and receiver. Each card contains several cut-outs that correspond to blanks inside the card that the recipient is instructed to fill in before opening. For example, he/she might be prompted to write in “something you’d wish from a genie” or “a learned skill from elementary school.” Upon opening the card, the recipient discovers a message created with the help of their personalized responses. Then, the recipient may e-mail the creation back to the sender and family and friends on the company’s website.


Birthday cards

The cards are reminiscent of Mad Libs, the written and sometimes gross-out game—depending on who’s filling in the responses—that Perlstein played as a kid.

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household in Atlanta—in addition to Mad Libs—Perlstein also loved numbers, electronics, and learning how things work. In college, he was pre-med and majored in engineering but, upon graduating he changed his career track. “I had an epiphany that I wanted a personal life.” He and a friend started up an internet travel company, a site they ran for five years. Their business planted the entrepreneurial seed but, at the same time, the travel bug, which he’d been promoting to his clients, also bit Perlstein. So he left the company to travel on a Birthright Israel trip and then backpacked around the world for five months before returning to school to obtain his MBA.

Post-graduation, he settled in Chicago, and again worked for a stint in the travel industry, but again, his entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to go into business for himself. “I like creating things that a lot of people can use and be happy using,” he said.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a lot of work—‘”the adage everything takes longer than you think it will is so true,” says Perlstein—and Fill In the Blank Greetings was born.

Perlstein writes all the copy for the cards himself and works with freelance artists from around the country to design the cards. Currently, he works “25 feet from my bedroom” in River North, but plans to move to a downtown office soon and hire a couple of fulltime employees as well.

“The biggest challenge is creating a card that is conservative and edgy at the same time,” he said. “You don’t just want to be the guy who makes the edgy cards because you’ll alienate a whole slew of people.”

And a slew of people have bought the cards. Since its launch two months ago, the company has sold several million cards. The cards sell for about $3 a piece, but also sell in bulk for about $2.20 a card. People may order the cards online and, eventually, purchase them at retail outlets. The business also has a Facebook group. Card selection ranges from birthday greetings to bar/bat mitzvahs to “A just because card,” Perlstein’s favorite.


Sending a card “just because”

Political junkies can also have some fun filling in the _____ with election cards,” featured on the site. These cards enable people to reach out to friends to influence their vote before the presidential election—and choose Senators McCain and Obama’s favorite TV theme songs.

GreetingCardSample3  GreetingCardSample4

Filling in the ______for president

Perlstein hopes to expand the card selection to include Jewish cards celebrating the holidays, Jewish camping, and quotes from Jewish mothers. He also is working on a line of magnets featuring idioms and recognizable movie quotes like “You had me at _____” and “Go ahead, make my _____.” The idea is for the magnets to hold up take-out menus and invitations to create new quotes. For example, over a Japanese take-out menu, the magnet quote morphs into “Go ahead, make my sushi.”

He has some sage advice for fledgling entrepreneurs: “Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s what stops a lot of people from trying… [After all], last year at this time if you told me that I’d be a CEO of a greeting card company, I would have laughed in your face.”

Two Lights, Camera, Action!

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Two Lights, getting ready to take the stage with their first production at the Neo-Futurarium this weekend

“I believe that theatre is an art unlike any other because it asks for a type of bravery that is scarce in this world,” says Dan Dvorkin, one of the founders of Two Lights Theatre Company.

Named for Five for Fighting’s “Two Lights,” a song that speaks of this type of courage and bravery, Dan and his co-founder, Becky Leifman, are themselves the Two Lights, or two bright ideas, behind the new company.

Buffalo Grove natives, Dan and Becky, met through their high school theatre program, where they made plans to start their own company once they graduated college. But this summer, while on break from school—Becky a junior at Syracuse University in New York and Dan a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago— the pair decided now was as good a time as ever to get started.

“We wrote letters to our friends and family who donated money to our company, and once we had enough to put on a show we knew things would really start to pick up,” says Becky. They also received a scholarship from the Larry Berkowitz Foundation at the Buffalo Grove Park District. Then they held auditions, casting an ensemble of 11 actors ages 18 to 24, five of which they knew from high school. “We also used our resources and friends in other theatre programs to come and help us collaborate on this project with the directing, stage managing and technical directing.”

Their first original production, “Where We Go,” premiers this Friday and plays again Saturday at the Neo-Futurariam, 5133 N. Ashland--home to Chicago’s much-loved, long-running show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. “Where We Go” was inspired by interviews with Chicagoans about their dreams. Becky and Dan used those dreams to develop characters and story lines.

“This play explores what happens when people lose their inhibitions and allow their minds to wander without any boundaries,” says Dan. “It follows the lives of three families who are distant and lost within their reality”

Becky hopes their production will be ‘meaningful theatre,’ and that the audience will learn something after watching the show.

“Most of the shows we hope to do are going to be ensemble-based, meaning that everyone shares an equal role in the creativity and process of the productions we make,” says Dan. “Our projects will ask much of our artists in mental, physical and emotional ways, in the end creating work that speaks a message.”

While they are still in school, the pair says they hope to continue working together in the summers and on school breaks.

“We are planning some pretty exciting things for next summer,” Becky says, “however nothing is set in stone so I won’t reveal too much.” Her ultimate goal is to eventually be able to turn Two Lights into a full-time career.

But for now, both Becky and Dan will be thrilled to fill the Neo-Futurariam’s 145 seats two nights in a row with eager theatre goers and supporters.

Tickets for “Where We Go” are still available. Email  Two2lights@gmail.com for reservations or for more information.

8 Questions for Lucy Kaplansky, folksinger, pizza lover, small space dweller

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Lucy will sing her way into your heart 

Lucy Kaplansky was barely out of high school when she started singing in Chicago bars. She soon took off for New York, where she became part of a burgeoning singer-songwriter scene, notably in a duo with Shawn Colvin. Then she switched gears, earning a doctorate in psychology and opening a private practice to work with chronically mentally ill adults.

Eventually, her friends, as Al Pacino says, “pulled her back in” to the music business. Shawn Colvin produced Lucy’s 1994 debut album, “The Tide.” She went on to win best pop album from the Association For Independent Music for the third and fourth releases. Today, Lucy continues to record solo albums, backup other artists and sing as a member of the cover trio Cry Cry Cry with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell.

So whether you like folk music, enjoy delis or like political reads, Lucy Kaplansky is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I pretty much always wanted to be a singer.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love connecting with audiences, when it works it's really, really fun.  I love when people come up to me after shows and tell me they were moved by this or that song. And I love to sing, it just makes me feel very alive.  It's a great job.

3. What are you reading?
Imperial Life in the Emerald City , all about our absolutely disastrous, incompetent occupation of Iraq.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Giordano's Pizza

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A recording studio that was so tiny it could fit in my bedroom without taking up any space.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I'd love to be able to fly, especially after a show far away from home, if I could fly home that would be great.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Faith Hill's "Cry."  I love the writing of that song.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
I like to drive by my old synagogue in Hyde Park. I've got a lot of memories there, including learning a lot about music from the young woman who used to play guitar and sing to us. I thought she was really cool--she was a bit of a hippie.

Living Jewishly: Why Bother?

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The (abrupt) end of my Jewish hibernation 


Dana holding up the chuppah during her windy wedding ceremony

It is windy but ass-melting hot the day Benny and I tie the knot under a Kemper Lakes weeping willow. Cantor Jeff sweats buckets as he sings Yhiyeh Tov. Rabbi Eleanor dashes to rescue the ketubah as it blows toward the water. And the chuppah corners fly off the poles nine times during our short ceremony. It’s a metaphor for marriage and for life, the rabbi improvises. There is always a corner flying loose. Benny breaks the glass, I reluctantly dance the horah, and then we take a break.

It is a long break. For four years, we don’t step foot in a synagogue. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur. We barely say bless you after someone sneezes. My Reform Judaism and his secular Israeli Judaism merge and the sum total during the early years of our marriage is a long and lazy Jewish hibernation.  It takes two little girls – along with their music, expectations and tissue paper art – to wake us up.

When the Jewish calendar is your country’s calendar, when Hebrew is your native language and the Homeland is your home, you don’t need to go out of your way to express yourself Jewishly. Au contraire. Benny’s family grills pork chops on Shabbat and drives to neighboring Nazareth in the green, green Galilee to pick up fresh pita during Passover. While the people next door chant Kol Nidre, my in-laws bang their pots and pans, they picnic in the park.

Growing up a card-carrying Reform Jew in the Midwest, my taste buds are also exposed to a pork chop or two. It’s a Jewish smorgasbord – I give up bubble gum for Passover at age six and am careful not to swallow my toothpaste on Yom Kippur at 16. I love Hebrew school. I learn to kiss at Jewish overnight camp. And I spend so much time at our JCC and synagogue, I can lead you to the boiler rooms with a blindfold on.

Judaism isn’t my nationality, but it is my life – so what if the halachic side of things is a bit murky. Off I go at 23 on my first visit to Israel, naively expecting to find natives dancing the horah in green fields. Instead I find dogs pissing in the post office while natives push ahead of me in line. The one I marry doesn’t push.

And then we have kids. Amen.

Together we push Emma Sigal into this world on September 28, 2002. Even though we are in the habit of blowing off all things Jewish at that point, the fact that it is Simchat Torah and Shabbat does not escape us. Nineteen months later, out pops Noa Ariel during Shavuot, on Shabbat, in an elevator (we’ll save that story for another time).

Thank God they are both girls. The prospect of hosting any major event eight days after giving birth holds zero appeal. Suffice it to say, the love is deep, their eyelashes are endless, and they both powerpoop up to their necks whenever we are walking out the door.

While we are spared the whole mohel thing at day eight, twelve weeks later we drop off baby Emma at JCC day care, marking the beginning of the end of our Jewish hiatus.

At 18 months, Emma starts singing Passover songs before the snow has melted. That year, we have a seder – one punctuated by her random, ruthless dayeinus which are sweet enough to kill me. At two, Emma’s tekiahs mark the new year. Benny, who hasn’t been to services in 24 years, suggests we go for the High Holidays. Whether Emma is leading him by the hand or the heart, I do not know.

Next comes the endless stream of Jewish art projects, all of which deserve to be put to good use. Plastic kiddush cups with jewels and tissue paper squares lovingly glued on, seder plates, rowdy gregors, menorahs with nine nuts in a row, shoebox Shabbat boxes, cinnamon spice boxes and glitter-covered tzedakah boxes.


Our priceless collection of pre-school Judaica

It’s the tzedakah thing which really hooks me. For years, my daughters call all coins “tzedakah.” They have no other vocabulary for money – not penny or nickel or dime.  They watch us record their good deeds on a leaf for the mitzvah trees on their classroom walls. When the girls start reciting the lyrics of every theme song on the Disney Channel, we unplug the TV on Shabbat and start doing family mitzvah projects instead. When it is time to say good-bye to pacifier, we make a special pacifier tzedakah box which my daughter proudly “donates” to the infant/toddler room. (Okay, so all hell breaks loose that night, but it was nice in theory.)

Next come the tough questions. Some from the girls and some of my own. Does God have a birthday? We’ll have to ask the rabbi, sweetheart. Is the rabbi God? No. Is the bathtub connected to the floor? Yes, sweetheart. Is that the way God made it?

How do we answer that? As a preschooler in the cornfields of Iowa, I thought Santa Claus was God. And it progressed from there. God is a cloud painter in the sky. He wears a mint green beret.  A She, not a He. God to G-d to god to a word I won’t say at all. In English. Unless it is followed by dammit. Except on highly turbulent flights.

Benny believes in God. My little girls believe in everything. I believe in a big, fat question mark on my good days. Am I a complete hypocrite? Is it okay to do Judaism as it suits us?

We ask questions and help each other find answers. They have expectations. We try not to crush them. Emma plants parsley with Grandpa for Tu B’shvat. Noa insists her Princess Barbie goblets are Kiddush cups – no ifs, ands or buts. When they are clever enough to notice, we expand our Passover observance to include bread and cereal. We finally join a synagogue.

I realize Judaism is our rhythm, a way to mark the seasons, a shared history and culture, a starting point for forming values, a community to celebrate with and a support system on days we don’t want to be alone. Shabbat is family time – a value we embrace. We light the candles. We eat pork kabobs. And we dance.

Olympic-sized dreams and genes

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Local Judo expert an alternate for Olympic team 


Aaron puts the Ju-wish in Judo

For the Cohen family of Buffalo Grove, athletic ability of Olympic proportions runs in the family.

Aaron Cohen, first alternate on this year’s Olympic Judo team set to compete in Beijing this month, follows in the footsteps of his father, Irwin Cohen, who competed in Judo in the 1972 Olympics, and his uncle, Steve Cohen who competed in the 1988 Games.

“I always wanted to be an Olympian because of my father,” says Cohen, who found himself as an alternate for the third time after losing in the finals of the Olympic trials due to what he describes as a controversial call. “It’s heartbreaking to come so close.”

Despite the close call, Cohen has had much success in his Judo career, and currently stands as the 2008 USA Judo Senior National Champion. When he is not traveling and competing, Cohen teaches at the Cohen's Judo Club with his dad, uncle and brother R.J., and is also the assistant wrestling coach at Deerfield High School.


Aaron, getting ready to toss you over his shoulder

“It’s not just the competing,” Cohen says of his love for his sport. “It’s a lot of dedication and hard work. I love that I get to travel the world and see a lot of stuff. The coolest thing is that I meet friends from all over the world.”

In fact, he will soon be traveling to Israel for the wedding of Arik Zeevi, a close friend and Judo expert, who Cohen says is a “superstar” in Israel.

“Judo is the second-most practiced sport in the world. It’s small in the U.S., but it’s a world power in other countries like Israel, Japan and Lithuania,” he says. Athletes like Zeevi, he says, are like celebrities in their respective countries.

Since visiting Israel himself last year, Cohen says his Jewish identity and connection to the homeland is much stronger, but Judaism and Judo, though they share a common syllable, are separate passions in his life.

“I love being Jewish and I love being an athlete—though I’m not sure how they relate,” he says.

But whenever he travels for competitions, Cohen is certain to bring his good-luck charm—a mezuzah. “It was good luck when I brought it on my first trip so now I bring it everywhere I go,” he says.

Though he is the first alternate, Cohen says unless one of the eight-team members gets injured before the Olympics, there is not much chance he’ll travel to China, because there is only one day of competition in Beijing.

But we haven’t seen the last of Cohen.

“I will try again for the 2012 Games in London,” he says. “And if the Olympics are in Chicago, I might stick around for those too.”

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