OyChicago articles

Grandpa’s got game

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Jewish filmmaker and Chicago native ‘plays the game’ in his new movie about dating at any age 

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Chicago native and filmmaker Marc Fienberg at the movies

Marc Fienberg always had a close friendship with his grandpa Joe.

Years after Joe lost his wife—Marc’s grandmother—of 54 years, Joe came to his grandson for advice on how to start dating again. Both men were living in Chicago at the time, Marc in Lincoln Park and his grandfather in a nearby retirement community. They would hang out with the ladies at Joe’s complex and Marc would offer his grandpa pointers.

Then, Marc’s advice paid off. “I kissed a woman last week,” Joe confided to his grandson. “Watching an 89-year-old man experience all the uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurity of a young schoolboy—when to call her, what to say, whether to ask her out—was moving and uplifting,” Marc recalls.

Grandpa Joe passed away three years ago, but Marc—a Jewish filmmaker originally from the Chicago area—keeps his memory alive in his new film, “Play The Game,” (Story Films) which hits Chicago-area theaters on Friday, Aug. 28. Written, directed, and produced by Marc, the movie is his first feature film, although he has produced short films in the past. Loosely based on Marc’s grandfather, the movie tells the story of David (Paul Campbell), who teaches his dating tricks to his lonely widowed grandfather Joe, played by Andy Griffith, who was Marc’s grandfather’s favorite actor.

At the same time, David tries to “play the game” and use his own dating techniques to attract Julie (Marla Sokoloff), the woman of his dreams. For David, the dating game fails, but the same tricks transform Grandpa Joe into the Don Juan of his retirement community. The movie also stars two famous TV moms, Doris Roberts, from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and Liz Sheridan, from “Seinfeld.”

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Chicago native and filmmaker Marc Fienberg at the movies

Marc—who grew up in Lincolnwood and Skokie and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children all under age five—wasn’t always planning on a film career. In fact, he worked in the business world, most recently at an Internet start-up company in Los Angeles until two years ago. Then, he took what he recognizes as a risky leap into filmmaking. At the same time, he exercised his business acumen and connections from his business school, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, to raise money for the movie, which proved no easy task.

In addition to his business network, Marc used his connections in the Jewish world to get the film off the ground. He traveled around the country lecturing to Jewish organizations to spread the word about his film. The movie has, in particular, resonated with seniors. One such Florida senior, a 75-year-old woman named Florence, embraced the film so much that she spent three weeks visiting temples, retirement communities, and condos drumming up support for it. Marc credits Florence with drawing more than 3,000 people into theaters to see the film!

Returning home to Chicago in July to promote his movie, Marc spoke with Oy!Chicago about his grandpa Joe, switching careers, and playing the dating game.

In what way is Grandpa Joe in the movie based on your grandfather?
Some of the best lines and scenes [in the movie] came straight out of his mouth and life. He was living in Florida with my grandma and my grandmother died. Then, he came to Chicago so we could take care of him. For four years, he was down in the dumps, and then, overnight, he turned around and met a woman. He whispered to me, “I met a woman.” He started telling me the details. At first, I was a little bit “TMI.” But then I realized this was so nice to hear that an 89-year-old-guy can get back into it and can find literally a purpose for waking up in the morning. Think about it—you go from your only friend, your best friend, your wife—for 54 years and then overnight she’s gone and he realizes he doesn’t really have that many other friends, so you go from everything to nothing, and I could see how it sucks the life out of you. And then he had a reason to get back into it.

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Paul Campbell (David) and Andy Griffith (Grandpa Joe) in “Play the Game”

How much of David, the ladies’ man in the movie, is based on you?
I would love to say, “I’m as suave and debonair as this ladies’ man.” The reality of it—as you can ask several women in the Chicagoland area that know me from my single days—is I was not as suave and debonair. I think the character is based more on the guy I hoped I could be one day. No, I was not quite the ladies’ man, but my friends and I did try all those tricks. They worked for my friends, just not for me.
There was a woman I dated in college that broke up with me, who I never stopped thinking about. I would constantly call her. Four years later, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I would come up with excuses to go meet her. I would make up stories why I ran into her and it never worked out. Finally, seven years later, I called her out of the blue and put it all on the line. I said I’m still thinking about you and I’m not making up excuses to see you. Let’s date again and, sure enough, that’s when it happened. We got engaged and married and have four kids now. I took one of the messages of the movie and it worked for me in my own life.

Do you recommend that single people ‘play the game?’
I leave that to the viewer of the movie. It’s definitely not the Hollywood ending that people would expect. It’s a romantic comedy, so you sort of have an idea of who is going to end up with whom, but you’re completely surprised as to how they end up together and what the message of the movie is. It was important for me not to have the typical Hollywood ending that says “Just be honest with one another and good things will happen.” That’s nice but we all know that’s not the way the world works. I wanted to be very true to life in the message and the theme of my movie.

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Marla Sokoloff (Julie) and Paul Campbell (David) in “Play the Game”

Do these rules work on single Jews?
These rules are particularly effective with Jewish women and men because it plays on the stereotypical, but somewhat true Jewish stereotypes: We probably have a little more guilt and a little more neurosis than the average group of people.

How are you raising your children Jewishly?
I had a strong culturally Jewish upbringing. I’m actually raising my four children more religious than I was. They know more much more about Judaism at 5 years old than my wife knows today. We want to send them to a Jewish preschool.

Was making a career switch to showbiz worth it?
I sit in a movie theater with 350 strangers and listen to the first joke and hear exploding laughter and hear them affected by my film. We showed it in a retirement community, and were expecting 200 people, but got 3,500 people instead. Afterwards, a 92-year-old guy comes up to me and says, “This movie could have been made about me. I want to introduce you to my 87-year-old girlfriend. We’ve been dating for seven years. We go out dancing and this movie is about us. This has given me confidence…” That’s why I got into this business, what made it all worth it.

The College Hunt: A mother and daughter perspective

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“Attention shoppers”
A college shopping spree

By Jenna Cohen

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Attention shoppers: our store will close in 15 minutes. Please make your final selections and come check out at the register.
The thing is, I’ve only just begun to review my choices. The cart is filled with so many boxes; I can’t even be sure what’s in each of them.
Do I want the school that’s having a special on foreign study, or the one with the mouth-watering choir that caught my eye?

Attention shoppers: The store is closing in 15 minutes.
Blood pounds in my ears and the aisle begins to close in on me. So many choices, so little time.
How do you choose between peanut butter and chocolate when Reeses isn’t an option?

Attention shoppers: The store is closing in 10 minutes.
Wait; this one could be good. Gosh, I hope I have a coupon for it.
Which will best fit my budget? Or is this line cash only?

Attention Shoppers: 5 minutes, 5 minutes ‘til closing.
Very bad.
Just pick something!
Do I want small liberal arts college with alfredo sauce or big state school with marinara?
This one costs so much more, but it’s exactly what I’m craving.
But, what if it’s too filling? I want to save room for dessert.
Mmmm. Grad school a la mode.

Thank you for shopping with us today. Please remember all sales are final.


“Crap. Where are my tums?”
Or helping your daughter search for the perfect college

By Linda Haase

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On the morning of the SAT, I thought I was going to puke. The thought of the math section alone was enough to give me hives.

Imagine the misery if I were the one who’d actually had to take it.

I’m the mom of a high school senior, which means our household is stuck on the college channel. We get a daily deluge of brochures and e-mails from suitor schools, SAT prep specialists and for-hire college counselors, punctuated by invitations to compete in teen beauty pageants. A well-thumbed copy of Colleges That Change Lives sits on my nightstand, and my refrigerator is festooned with news clippings about financial aid. I have no fewer than six colleges bookmarked on my computer.

I’ve spent exponentially more time planning for Jenna’s college experience than I did for my own, and possibly more time than I actually spent in college.

In a manila file somewhere, I actually have an Excel spread sheet comparing various schools’ attributes: their size, location, ranking in US News & World Report, opportunities for Jewish life, and tuition lined up in neat columns.

I did not give this kind of careful consideration to my husband’s marriage proposal, or to the purchase of our first home.

In my defense, the house didn’t cost as much as this degree will.

The nightmare began in 8th grade, when high school class selections were made. The school district provided comparison charts of differing college admissions requirements along with their high school course catalogue. The message was clear: if I fucked up in selecting my 14-year-old’s science class, I could keep her from getting into Harvard.

I understand that there are worse things than Jenna not getting into the school of her choice. For example, she could get into the college of her dreams and then have them offer her no financial aid whatsoever.

Crap. Where are my Tums?

On the one hand, I want Jenna to have the opportunity to soar, to take a path that is worthy of her incredible spirit and intellect, and I don’t want her impeded by my limitations. Hell, I still want her to believe she could be President.

But I also want to protect her from this nonsense, from teachers who urged her as a freshman to consider activities that’d “look good” on her college applications, when all she wanted to do was figure out her locker combination; from relatives who ask her about college every time they see her; from neighbors lobbying for her to visit their alma mater.

My finest moment came when I declined to enroll her in a weekly SAT prep class, because I felt she should be spending her junior year in high school being a junior in high school.

I wish I could say that no, ever since then I haven’t been obsessing about whether I did the right thing.

Unveiling my body’s secrets

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Genetic testing makes informed choices easier 


Genetic Counselor Michelle Gilats talks with a participant at a genetic testing session

We are born with secrets. And our bodies are very effective at hiding them from us for generations.

Until April, my body had secrets, too. But thanks to four blood samples, I now know much more about my genes than I ever dreamed about.

Ashkenazi Jews like me might carry genetic mutations that cause everything from Tay-Sachs to cystic fibrosis to the funny-sounding maple syrup urine disease. The fact that no one in my family has manifested any symptoms doesn’t mean that they aren’t carriers. In fact, 11 different disorders are about 20 to 100 times (depending on the mutation) more common among Azhkenazi Jews than the general population. If you are Sephardic, you’re not off the hook just yet: A host of mutations might have found its way into your family, too.

Armed with this knowledge, I signed up for a genetic testing session through the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders. The Center provides testing for mutations leading to nine most common disorders, including ones that cause the lungs to stop functioning (cystic fibrosis) or rapid progressive deterioration of the brain and the nervous system (Tay-Sachs) or a predisposition to cancer (Bloom’s syndrome). Each of us could be a carrier of these and not even know it. And even if both parents are carriers, the chance of having an affected offspring is 25 percent, according to laws of Mendelian inheritance.

“One of the benefits of the testing is that you can be prepared for the risk you might have,” says Rachel Sacks, the community outreach coordinator at the Center. “You can choose different options, be prepared for the birth of an affected child. If you find out that your risk has been greatly reduced, it can be big relief for people as they are deciding when to have children.”

As my husband and I walked into the social hall at Chicago Sinai Congregation in late April, we didn’t know what to expect. We were among the first and so were given an early slot for the consultation with a genetic counselor and the visit to certified nurses from Children’s Memorial, who would be drawing our blood samples. The room slowly filled up: Most attendees were in their twenties and thirties; some were with partners, others had come alone. At our table sat a woman in her late 20s with her non-Jewish fiancé; two lawyers in their late 30s; and two graduate students.

“When the program began in 2002, it was geared toward college students,” Sacks says. “Since then, we’ve found a higher demand among young professionals and have shifted focus. We still welcome college students and have a student rate, though. Most people who attend tend to be about one to five years from having children, and so among students we mostly see graduate students.”

Following dinner, Genetic Counselor Michelle Gilats gave us a mini lesson in genetics, explaining the dominant characteristics of each disease and the process of inheritance. Then, each person or couple briefly met with Michelle or another genetic counselor and walked on to the nurses, who drew four small vials of blood. The blood was sent to a private lab in New York, which works with not-for-profit centers like the ones in Chicago and Arizona. At $90 per person, the screening is heavily subsidized, reducing what could be a $3,000 bill.

After that evening in April, I promptly forgot about the whole thing. Although my husband and I have been married for almost three years, we’ve barely broached the subject of kids. It’s just the two of us – and that’s fine with us for now. Every time our parents ask us about future grandchildren, we tell them ‘we are still practicing.’

For others, genetic testing is an integral part of making reproductive decisions. One result could completely alter a couple’s plan: discovering that they are both carriers of the same mutation.

“Surprisingly, of the couples we’ve screened together, we haven’t had that happen yet,” Sacks says. “Still, with technology we have today, carrier couples have a lot of options.”

These options can range from prenatal and newborn testing to forgoing having biological children to adoption. Another option is preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which was pioneered by Chicago scientist Yury Verlinsky and involves testing embryos.

After not thinking about the whole thing for eight weeks, I got a call in late June from the Center’s genetic counselor telling me that yet another of my body’s little mysteries was solved. Turns out, my husband and I are perfectly compatible—even on the genetic level!

If you want to delve into your genetic mysteries, the Center offers four screenings a year. All slots for the Sept. 1 and Dec. 8 screenings are filled, but the Center will hold more sessions in March and May 2010. Contact Taryn Brickman at the Center at tarynbrickman@juf.org or 312-357-4988 for more info.

Notes from Jewish South America, Part II

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Notes from Argentina…

South America has a rich Jewish history, one that most Jews outside of Latin America know little about. This spring, I traveled to South America to learn about the Jewish communities of two countries, Uruguay and Argentina, on a media mission organized by ORT America.

 In addition to making some new Jewish friends in Uruguay and Argentina, I got to eat some world-famous Argentine (kosher) steak, take in a Tango show, and brush up on my college Spanish…Salud!

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Pictured is Cindy Russo (right), a 16-year-old student at an ORT technical high school’s Belgrano campus in Buenos Aires, with her best friend, Michelle, taken on their recent March of the Living trip to Israel.

Cindy Russo, age 16, attends ORT’s Belgrano campus, one of the two ORT technical high schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Students choose a concentration after three years of school, with choices from mass media to electronics to music. Russo--one of more than 4,000 students who attend the schools--has selected the management track and is interested in furthering her studies in business when she graduates next year. She loves the combination of choosing an area of interest and simultaneously getting a strong Jewish education. Russo recently returned from Israel, earning the trip as part of an incentive program for students with high grades.

Buenos Aires is home to 180,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. The country has a tumultuous Jewish history. Back when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they began settling and assimilating into Argentina during the first wave of Jewish immigration to the country. Centuries later, after World War II, President Juan Peron rose to power and allowed the country to become a haven for Nazi war criminals.

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It takes two to tango at Buenos Aires dance club, Madero Tango.

In the 1990s, Argentina’s Jewish community suffered twin terrorist attacks. First, in 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed, killing 32 people. Then, two years later, the Jewish community headquarters—the AMIA building—was bombed, killing 85 people and wounding several hundred others in the deadliest bombing in Argentina’s history. Authorities have yet to solve either bombing case but, three years ago, Argentine prosecutors formerly accused the government of Iran of orchestrating the AMIA bombing through the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah.

Then, in 2001, Argentina’s economy collapsed, devastating the Jewish community’s strong middle class, plunging many Jews into poverty for the first time. Argentina’s economy had since somewhat rebounded in recent years, but then declined again in this past year’s global economic crisis.

Guillermo Borger is the president of AMIA, which offers the largest job-finding network in Argentina, aiding both Jews and non-Jews alike. He said that AMIA strove to help the decimated middle class during the economic collapse.

“It was hard to find the people [who needed our help] because they were ashamed,” he explained. “They were people who didn’t previously have needs.”

On our tour, we visited the AMIA building, which was reconstructed after the bombing. Today, the building has tight security and features a memorial to the many bombing victims in its entrance. “[We knew] life would come again, so we decided to rebuild,” said Aldo Donzis, president of DAIA, the political representation of the Argentine Jewish community, which represents 15 Jewish institutions, tracks anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, and is housed in the AMIA building.

Jewish representatives in Argentina, as well as across Latin America, fear the growing ties between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The friendship between the two anti-Semitic leaders has helped Iran and Muslim fundamentalists penetrate Latin America in recent years.

“This relationship has created more insecurity, not just in Argentina but in all of South America,” said Donzis. “Chavez opened the door in Latin America so that they can come here without being investigated.”

Anti-Semitism strikes in the daily lives of Argentine Jews, according to Donzis, but DAIA strives to combat it. He referred to a recent soccer game in Argentina, where the crowd sang a chant against Jews; the soccer referee didn’t understand why the chant was inappropriate. DAIA later signed an agreement with the Argentine Soccer Association to teach against the evils of anti-Semitism during referee training.

While the Jewish community of Argentina faces challenges each day, 16-year-old Russo explains what she loves about being a Jewish Argentine teenager.

“Luckily, in Buenos Aires, we have a pretty big community which includes many Jewish schools, clubs, and many many synagogues,” she said. “Actually it is really good because at all these places, you end up knowing almost the whole community, because you have a cousin in common, or just friends in common. It makes me proud to know that I am part of the Jewish minority in my country.”

ORT was founded in Tzarist Russia in 1880 to teach impoverished Jewish Russians skills needed at that time. Today, ORT students are trained in technical skills such as computers, telecommunications, robotics, and nanotechnology at technical schools around the world. ORT America will host a solidarity mission to Argentina and Uruguay from Nov. 9-15.Visit  www.ortamerica.org/missions or call 1-(800)-519-2678, ext. 360.

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