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8 Questions for David Safran: cult singer-songwriter, wordsmith, literature-lover

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8 Questions for David Safran photo

Attempting to describe David Safran's musical style and influences requires an extensive vocabulary and imagination. His distinct voice has been called "velvety," his catchy tunes deemed "provocative" and his sharp and often ironic lyrics described as "smoke-tinged." One track on his debut album, Delicate Parts, has been hailed "erotic lounge pop at its best," while another is a "country-flavored waltz." Safran's own official Facebook page lists his genre as "stylish chaos."

Safran, 29, grew up with a love of music in the Chicago suburbs, though he majored in English at DePaul University and even planned to move to England to receive an MFA in Restoration Literature. But some of his professors heard his demos and were impressed by his musical talent and lyrical prowess. He decided to pursue music "because I'd never forgive myself for not trying – for ending up a bitter assistant professor teaching Beowulf to college freshman."

For the last seven years, Safran, whose sense of humor is as wry and witty as his music, has earned a certain cult status, amassing a solid local following but also finding surprising success internationally. He was asked to do an Adidas ad campaign in Argentina in Argentina earlier this year because a few of his songs were playing well there. The ad has put him on the larger map, and now, he says, things are getting "bigger … and weirder."

You should probably listen for yourself before coming up with your own compound adjectives, but David Safran is definitely a Jew you should know.

1. Your music draws on so many different styles. What would you describe as your influences and what inspires you as a songwriter?
I've always loved a baffling variety of musical styles. A good tune is a good tune. However, as a songwriter, I'm very rarely inspired – inspiration is a messy, passive, inscrutable thing. My process: I try to read as much as I can, I try to think like a cultured chimpanzee, and I try to write every day. And if I can't write, I just plagiarize.

2. Do you have any Jewish influences or genres that you like to dabble with or listen to (and why or why not)?
I'm buried up to my neck in Jewish influences. I love Judaism even though I disagree with it entirely. It's worth noting that although I was raised in the Midwest, my entire family comes from New York. There's genetic evidence that Safrans have populated Brooklyn for something like 350,000 years. So, I was given a serious Jewish education: Yiddish theatre, Borscht Belt jokes, Galician shtetl history – real Isaac Bashevis Singer stuff – a tiny bit of Hebrew, and an enormous terror of anything that takes places outdoors. My family has personal connections to both Gloria Steinem and Gurrah Shapiro. Feminism and organized crime were also part of my early education.

3. What is it about the Chicago music scene that convinced you to launch your career here?
Profound laziness. I'm from Chicago; the music scene was within easy reach. I'm often asked why I stay in this city – making music in Chicago is a bit like rolling naked in the snow. But I feel a sincere connection to this town. To quote that brilliant line in Sabbath's Theater: "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."

4. If you could choose a popular artist to do a cover of one of your songs, who would it be and which song (and why)?
Great question. I'm very fortunate: my songs seem to attract artists looking for cover material. Usually someone will approach me, but I have openly and passionately wanted Marianne Faithfull to record a David Safran song. Any song would work, but I think a tune called "Adult Things" might be best. Marianne has an astonishing ability to transform every song she touches. She could do "Adult Things" with such vehemence and clarity and experience. I'm certain her version would be un-ignorable – it would knock listeners to the ground. She often works with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Marc heard "Adult Things" at a show we both performed at. He liked the song enough to play it back to me on his guitar. He also informed me that Marianne would "make it completely her own." That's exactly what a great cover should achieve.

5. If you could put on your dream concert, what would it look like and who might it benefit (and why)? 
Difficult to answer. I can't think about anything too dreamy. But, if not exactly a dream concert, a noteworthy show actually just happened: In late July, I supported Keren Ann at City Winery. It was a beautiful night. The audience was warm, receptive and very enthusiastic. I created a flutter in several women over the age of 65. The newest addition to my band, Kate Adams, performed with me. Kate is impossibly glamorous and talented. And, as a result, she knows perfectly well what's going on around her. At one point, I walked to the side of the stage and Kate did a fiery version of my song "Nothing Beyond the Kisses" completely solo. It was an extraordinary version. She created a flutter in a man under 30.

6. What do you love most about what you do?
Occasionally I make a virtue of my deficiencies.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn't be a musician, what would you do (and why)?
Many people have suggested I already live in an alternate universe. I also don't consider myself a musician. I'm more like a fraudulent journalist. But I should answer this question correctly: I had a college girlfriend who repaired rare books in the library's Special Collections & Archives department. She found the work tedious, but I thought it was perfect. In an alternate universe, I'd love that job – just a man in a well-tailored suit restoring old books in the back of a library.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?
What's my favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? Complain that no one in Chicago listens to my music. 

Interview with Michigan QB Alex Swieca

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Interview with Michigan QB Alex Swieca photo

We heard about this story a while back. “Jewish kid makes Michigan football team.” But Alex Swieca’s story is much more than being a great athlete. He was in Israel playing flag football before making it onto the Wolverine squad and no less as a quarterback. (Did I mention he went to an Orthodox high school?) Thank you to Yoni Labow, son of fencer Howard Labow, for putting Alex and I in touch. The fact is Alex's story is awesome; a story Jews should be talking about everywhere. So I caught up with Alex to learn more – and get his NYC Kosher restaurant pick of course.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Alex Swieca. I am 21 years old and grew up in New York City. I attended the Ramaz School until eighth grade and attended The Frisch School for high school. I took a year off to attend young Judea's Year Course and spent a year in Israel where I got the opportunity to play football, take classes, do three months of army basic training, and immerse myself in the Israeli culture.

2. After going to an Orthodox high school, what got you so involved in football?
I have always been involved in football. My love for the game started when I was very young. I started playing organized FLAG football when I was in the third grade. I also attended some tackle football camps in the summer time just to get the experience.

3. What were your main sports in high school? Where did you shine?
I wrestled for 4 years in high school. This really helped my growth as an athlete as wrestling is a very physically demanding sport. I won two Wittenberg Championships and was a captain my senior year.

4. What was your Israel experience like? Was it hard to stay in shape while learning?
My experience in Israel was amazing. It will definitely go down as one of the best years (maybe THE best) of my life. I learned so much about myself and people. I was there on the Young Judea program where I spent three months in Jerusalem, three months in Bat Yam, and three months in Arad doing army basic training. I really didn't get into serious shape until I came to Michigan where I learned the HARD way!

5. Has your community back home been supportive?
Yeah I would say my community has been supportive. Obviously the Orthodox community cannot be FULLY supportive, but I do my best to do my tefilin every day and eat kosher. And, for example, I will not be at a game this year because of Yom Kippur.

6. What’s your favorite kosher restaurant in New York?
My favorite kosher restaurant in NY has to be Le Marais and Prime Ko.

7. What was it like learning from Denard Robinson? Are you two close? Was he a good teammate?
Me and Denard are close and we developed a great relationship while on the team together. He's a great guy and I really respected the way he handled himself when he was "THE GUY." He's very humble in many ways and he's fun to be around. Watching him run was truly amazing.

8. What is in store for you this season? Do the Wolverines have a shot at the Big Ten title?
This is a very exciting year for Michigan Football. We have a lot of young talent and a great staff. We have the Michigan way! This year we expect to win the Big 10 championship absolutely!

9. Did you support the basketball team through the tournament? Is there added pressure on the football program now?
I definitely supported the basketball team. We all did. Both teams have each other's back and we know that we want to bring the spotlight and greatness to Michigan as the basketball team did.

10. What does life look like after college football?
Life after school and football is still up in the air. I am definitely learning a lot of valuable life lessons here during my time as a Wolverine. Whatever I do, I want to love my job. I have a very entrepreneurial side to me so well where that goes!

Double Chai Check-In: Lizzi Heydemann and Mishkan keep growing

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Double Chai Check-In: Lizzi Heydemann photo

Rabbi Lizzi Jill Honeyrose Heydemann really wants to play kickball.

As the spiritual leader, organizer and visionary of the spiritual community Mishkan Chicago, Heydemann often finds her time in demand between leading services, teaching, coffee shop one-on-ones and life cycle events, but as Mishkan continues to grow rapidly, she’s been able to both hire and inspire more leadership and create more time for her other favorite things, like lakefront runs, spending time with friends and – maybe one day soon – kickball.

Mishkan formed in September 2011 in hopes of bringing together all perspectives and movements of Judaism to create “inspired, down-to-earth Judaism,” and less than a year after, Heydemann was named one of Chicago’s 36 Under 36 inspiring young Jewish adults.

It’s now another year later and Mishkan is thriving, enough so that Heydemann has transitioned completely out of working part time at Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living and moved full time into Mishkan.

“(The move to full time) was a leap of faith,” she said, “even though I wouldn’t have described myself as an entrepreneur at any point in my life.”

Heydemann describes Mishkan’s mission as “to engage, educate, connect and inspire people in Chicago through dynamic experience of prayer, study and community-building.”

Friday night services are held twice a month on the North Side: second Fridays at the Bodhi Spiritual Center (2746 N. Magnolia Avenue) and fourth Fridays at Anshe Emet Synagogue (3751 N. Broadway Street). In addition to services for most holidays throughout the year, Mishkan offers a variety of classes during the week, including a weekly Talmud class taught by Rabbi Benay Lappe of SVARA, the “traditionally radical yeshiva,” and others through collaborations with organizations such as Moishe House and the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.

Up until this past year, Mishkan’s growth has largely been organic, but with increased donor support, strategic planning has become part of the process. Mishkan recently hired its first executive director, Jaré Akchin, formerly the Director of Annual Giving for JCC Chicago, to take on some of the logistical responsibilities.

“I realize now that I don’t any longer have a total handle of everything going on in the organization at all times,” Heydemann said. “There was a time where I could tell you where every dollar came from ... I had my hands in everything and now I’m specializing more into the role that I actually want to play.”

Heydemann said Mishkan’s growth has also come with its challenges. With a community largely comprising young adults, Mishkan has been a very fluid, ever-changing group of lay leaders.

“Part of the dynamism of the community is a constantly shifting constellation of leadership,” she said. “This is not a stable group of adults with kids who aren’t moving. These are people who are moving every year, every other year, different neighborhoods different cities; the complexion of community is changing.”

In terms of participation, however, Heydemann says older adults, seniors and young families have also become increasingly interested in what Mishkan has to offer. She officiated three weddings and a few baby namings this summer.

“Many people look at our community and want in,” she said. “The learning, spirituality, music, community – they want to support that and be a part of it.”

Heydemann said she hopes that education for young children will become a bigger component of Mishkan in the coming years, and that in an ideal situation, she would be able to hire a full-time community organizer to reach into smaller Jewish communities in the city and help people find points of connection to Mishkan or other Jewish experiences that would be best for them.

“There’s actually an immense diversity of things that one can hook into,” Heydemann said. “Kickball is one of them; learning about prayer is one of them; philanthropy is another one of them. Spirituality is what we’re providing.”

Mishkan is offering High Holiday services and programming again this year. To find out more and get tickets, go here.

My journey through Jewish Morocco

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My journey through Jewish Morocco photo 1

The author in the northern city of Tangier, standing in front of a hotel with the Moroccan and American flags above the door.

Last spring, I attended a Havdalah service in Rabat, Morocco. The synagogue, tucked away in the second floor of a business building, was completely hidden from any and all passersby and, on the night I went, had more empty seats than occupied ones.

Halfway through the service, a cacophonous chorus of Muslim call to prayers went off, radiating from the loudspeakers on surrounding mosques and penetrating the sanctuary walls. The medium-pitched male voices reciting Arabic nearly drowned out the Hebrew prayers, as they do every Saturday. But the congregants, too deep in worship to notice, confidently carried on with the service.

During my time studying abroad in Morocco last year, I undertook a project that led me to immerse myself in the Moroccan Jewish way of life. I was unaware of Morocco's rich, deep-seated history of Judaism before going; this is a history that reaches back centuries, well before the wave of Islam swept North Africa in the seventh century.

At its peak in the 1940s, Jews in Morocco numbered 300,000, roughly 10 percent of the country's population (and more than any other Muslim country). Today, that figure has sunk to around 3,000, as many left to start new lives in Israel, Europe and North America, and that number is dwindling still. But after spending time with Moroccan Jews, observing their daily practices, visiting synagogues, and attending Shabbat services, Jewish concerts and a Passover seder, I found this small community to be very much alive.

My journey through Jewish Morocco photo 3

Dates, fish and jam make up the recipe for Mimouna, an end-of-Passover feast unique to Morocco.

To get some background for my project, I spoke with a number of elderly Jewish Moroccans, listening to their stories about what it's like living in a Muslim country. One man told me that his best friend growing up was Muslim, and that they each participated in one another's religious practices, including helping prepare kosher food for holidays. A Jewish couple, though, said they experienced heavy anti-Semitism around the time of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars when tensions reverberated throughout the Muslim world and when many Jews left Morocco. Soldiers were sent to patrol the Jewish quarter where they lived and the couple nearly lost their jobs.

This got me thinking: why did some Jews stay when many of their friends and neighbors left? Again, the answers were all across the board. Some remained because of work, others because they couldn't afford the costs of travel, and others still because they felt a deep, personal tie to Morocco, their home. And because they chose to stay, I found, these people have no reason not to go about their lives as other Moroccans would. They work—as lawyers, teachers, politicians—maintain friendships with both Jews and Muslims and keep traditions. For the most part, they live happily.

My journey through Jewish Morocco photo 2

A view inside the empty Benarroche Synagogue in Casablanca, just minutes before congregants make their way through its doors to pray.

But during a Moroccan Jewish concert in Casablanca, I caught wind of a trend that threatened to say otherwise. A Jewish high school student, who happened to be performing that evening, approached me and we got to talking. I remember him leaning in close, nearly whispering to me that he wants to leave for France when he finishes school, attend college there, and never return to Morocco. I asked why and he told me that there are hardly any Jews in Morocco so he has no reason to stay. Others confirmed what he said: Jewish youth are increasingly studying and living abroad, a trend that, coupled with the elderly passing away, could threaten the future of Judaism in Morocco.

Spending more time with Jewish Moroccans, I continued to sense the strength of their religious community but came to realize that, yes, it is in danger. What's worrisome is that Morocco is becoming like other Muslim countries, on the verge of losing evidence of its history of Judaism, of religious and cultural diversity. Unlike in the 40s and before, most Moroccans today don't know Jews simply because they don't come into contact with them.

My journey through Jewish Morocco photo 4

This personal prayer book was handwritten by a cantor in the 1920s. It now belongs to a scholar. 

In the final few weeks of my program, I visited the Museum for Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca (unique to the Muslim world), as well as a museum in Fes, adjacent to an enormous Jewish cemetery. Both were stuffed with artifacts, clothing, photographs. These spaces reassured me that memories of Moroccan Judaism will remain for those who seek them out.

Just as it did for centuries, Judaism can and does exist in this country where Jews are a severe minority. After acquainting myself with the community, I hope it continues to exist.

Nathan Evans is a senior at Illinois Wesleyan University majoring in international studies and religion. A 2012 Lewis Summer Intern with JUF News, he currently works at the Kindling Group, a documentary film company in Uptown.

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