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JEW-PERMAN? An interview with author Larry Tye

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JEW-PERMAN? An interview with author Larry Tye photo

Larry Tye is the author of a new biography of the first great superhero, Superman: The High-flying Story of America's Most Enduring Hero. He has also written Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora. Recently, he flew through Chicago to discuss his new Superman book at both comic-book stores… and also congregations, as much of the book discusses the Jewishness of its super subject.

Aside from loving comics, what is your background? 
I was a journalist for 20 years, 15 of them as a medical and environmental writer at the Boston Globe. I won most every award there was in journalism for series on everything from the environmental nightmare the Soviets left behind to the end of privacy.

Did you grow up with comics or is this a recent interest?
 [I] grew up a Superman fan— in comics, TV and movies— but never an over-the-top one. I was interested in Superman for what he tells us about our love of heroes, since he's our longest-lasting hero of the last century. I also wanted to be 10 again, and I was during the two years I was writing this book. 

What about Judaism? What has been your experience?
I grew up in a Jewish family that was one of the most active in the Boston area, and my second book was a look at the thriving Jewish diaspora, a story I told through the stories of seven Jewish communities worldwide and that I spoke about at a dozen venues in and around Chicago. I remain a committed Jew— culturally, religiously and spiritually.

What made you first see the Jewish/Superman connections? What are some of these?
I read about it, then researched it, then couldn't resist writing about it. Here are a few:

Superman's creators were Jews (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). So were his publishers, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. So were many of his best writers and artists and editors over the years.

Smart Jewish kids like Jerry and Joe got into comics partly because anti-Semitism closed off other, more lucrative and esteemed writing jobs at ad agencies, magazines and elsewhere.

But my favorite connection is the fact that Superman himself was a Jew. We can see the evidence in his name on Krypton, Kal-El, which roughly translates into vessel of God. Another hint: his parents saved him by floating him in outer space, then watching him be adopted by two gentiles… who raised him as their own and discovered he was a very special boy (if that's not the Moses/Exodus story than I don't know what is).

There's lots more— from the watchwords of the Mishnah, truth, justice, peace, being nearly identical to Superman's "Truth, justice and the American Way"— to his home planet exploding at the same time Jerry and Joe's familial world in Eastern Europe was exploding at the hands of the Nazis.

Last hint: any name ending in 'MAN' is a superhero, a Jew… or, in this case, both.

Which other superheroes do you see as particularly influenced by Jewish ideas?
Batman was created by Jews, too, as were Spiderman and most of the other early comic superheroes. Many, like Stanley Lieber, saved their real name for the great American novel they dreamed of writing. In the meantime, he decided to make a living writing a few comics that happened to hit pay dirt (his pen name was Stan Lee, his heroes ranging from Spiderman to others of Marvel's best). 

They all drew about what they knew, which was things Jewish, which is why their heroes are fraught (Spiderman), driven (Batman), and, to a man, intent on repairing the world.

When you speak in non-Jewish settings, like comics stores or conventions, about Superman, do you focus on the Jewish aspects of his story?
I do, always, although it's not necessarily the opening of my talk there. It's mainly a matter of emphasis and tone, but the substance is nearly identical everywhere since it's the centerpiece of the Superman story and the part most people don't know.

Of all the many, many TV and movie portrayals of Superman, which is your favorite? Which do you think is the most "Jewish"?
I'm a sucker for George Reeves, the Superman of the original Adventures of Superman TV series. That's mainly because I grew up with him. The most Jewish, to me, was Christopher Reeve, because his Clark Kent was so awkward but the Superman inside him was so convincing. He was, like me, a schlub on the outside hoping that everyone— especially the pretty girls— were smart enough to see beyond my awkward exterior.

Which Jewish actor, living or dead, would you have picked to play Superman?
Paul Newman, assuming you count him as Jewish. His dad was and he called himself a Jew. He had the strength and elegance and presence to be a very convincing superhero.

Do you have other books? What about?
Please have a look at my website to see my five other published books and the one I am working on now, which is a bio of Robert Kennedy.

Dipped in honey

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Dipped in honey photo

Rosh Hashanah is my favorite holiday for so many reasons. Each year for the holidays families and friends often gather together to share meals.

After the candles are lit and blessing are recited we enjoy a beautiful service called Yehi Ratzon, which means "May it be Your Will." This service is one of the most special parts of the holiday for me. Most of prayers during the holidays take place in the synagogue. This symbolic and fun service takes place in the home, around the table with family and friends.

Foods consumed with the Yehi Ratzons vary depending on the community. Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed beans, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud. Pomegranates are used in many traditions. The use of apples and honey is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. It is traditional to dip apples or challah in honey to symbolize a sweet new year. As apples can be somewhat sour, they symbolically signify the times that Jewish people had to endure bitterness, and dipping them in honey symbolizes a hope that the bitter will become sweet. Honey also represents Israel, "the land of milk and honey."

Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish is commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

During this service you truly are what you eat. The food in combination with the prayer brings all of our senses to our hopes for the New Year and in a sense you are eating your hopes and intentions for the coming year.

Shana tova u'metuka!

Apple dipped in honey
... that you renew us for a good and sweet year!

Gourds (e.g., pumpkin or squash) (Aramaic: kara, meaning 'to proclaim' or 'tear')
... that our merits be proclaimed before You, and our sentences be torn up!

Mini Pumpkin Muffins

2 ¾ cups sugar
4 whole large eggs
2 cups pumpkin puree
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Spray mini muffin cups with non-stick spray.

3. Whip eggs and sugar together until light, fluffy, and forms a ribbon. Add the pumpkin puree and vanilla and mix to combine.

4. Fold in dry ingredients making sure they are well blended and no lumps of flour remain.

5. Divide the batter between the cups and bake for 8- 10 minutes or until center of cake springs back when pressed.

Black-eyed peas (Aramaic: rubia sounding like yirbu, meaning 'to increase')
... may our merits increase before You!

Serves 6

2 cups dried Black-Eyed peas or canned

For the vinaigrette

¼ cup pomegranate molasses
¼ cup apple cider
2 tablespoons honey
¾ cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the salad

2 beets, roasted, peeled and diced
2 shallots, minced
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup pomegranate arils (seeds)

1. Sort the Black-Eyed Peas and remove any debris. Soak the peas in cold water in the refrigerator overnight.

2. Drain the water and boil the peas for 1 ½ hours until they are cooked through and have a creamy center. Drain the peas and cool them.

3. Whisk together the vinaigrette and toss the peas and remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Chill before serving.

Leeks (Aramaic: karasai sounding like kares, meaning 'to cut off' or 'destroy')
... may our enemies be destroyed!

Karti (Leek Patties)

3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, diced small
Extra virgin olive oil
3 large eggs
¼ cup bread crumbs
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

1. Sweat the leeks in a small sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium-low heat until the leeks are very soft but not browned at all.

2. Transfer the leeks to a mixing bowl and add remaining ingredients. Form the mixture into loose patties.

3. Fry the patties in a sauté pan, lightly coated with olive, over medium heat until they are browned on both sides.

4. Serve at room temperature.

Beets (Aramaic: silka sounding like siluk, meaning 'to remove')
... may our adversaries be removed!

Roasted Beets

1 large red beet
1 large golden beet
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Wrap the beets in foil and roast in the oven until easily pierced with a knife (about 1 hour). This can be done several days ahead of serving.

3. Drizzle the beets with olive oil and salt and pepper. Serve chilled with chopped mint leaves.

Dates (Aramaic: tamrai sounding like sheyitamu, meaning 'that they be consumed')
... may our enemies be consumed!

We love to eat our dates dipped in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon.

Carrots (Yiddish: mehren meaning 'increase'. Hebrew: gezer, meaning 'decree')
... may our merits increase before You!
... may the evil decree be removed.

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups shredded carrots
½ cup golden raisins

Whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette and toss with the carrots and raisins.

... that our merits be as numerous as [the seeds of] a pomegranate!

Chef's hint: gather the pomegranate arils (seeds) by putting a cut pomegranate in a bowl of water. Pick the seeds out while in the water and you can avoid pomegranate juice spattering your clothing, cabinets, walls, household pets etc…

Fish and Fish Heads
... that we be fruitful and multiply like fish!
... that we be like a head, and not like a tail!

Fish Tagine

Moroccan spice mix

Two 2-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chili flakes
½ teaspoon ground turmeric 
½ teaspoon ground ginger 
½ teaspoon anise seeds
Seeds from 1 cardamom pod

Place the cinnamon, coriander, cumin, chili flakes, turmeric, anise, and cardamom seeds in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and process until completely ground. Store in a tightly-covered container, away from light, for up to 3 months.

For the fish

Extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 red pepper, julienne
2 medium carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 medium fresh-ripe tomatoes with their juices, grated on a box grater
2 tablespoons Moroccan spice mix
¼ cup golden raisins
½ cup water
1 1 ½-pound snapper or striped bass, head on and scaled and dressed

1. Sauté the onion, pepper and carrots, in a large sauté pan, lightly coated with extra virgin olive oil, over medium heat, until the vegetables are soft and lightly caramelized (about 5-7 minutes). Add the garlic and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 2 minutes until the garlic has softened.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the vegetables. Add the grated tomatoes and their juices, spice mix, raisins and water.

3. Stir to combine. Nestle the fish into the vegetables and sauce. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until the fish has cooked through.

4. Serve the fish warm on a platter with vegetables and sauce spooned around. Garnish with cilantro leaves and sliced lemons.

Head of a sheep
... that we be leaders (heads) of nations!

Gaze at the sheep's head while reciting the prayer!

‘…Make me a match!’

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It's another Saturday night in the city. You've got plenty of friends to hang out with-but no date, with no particular prospects on the horizon. So, what's a nice, single Chicago Jew to do? You're mother constantly nags you about the grandchildren she claims she will never see, while you'd just like to find another nice, Jewish single with whom you connect-enough so that maybe, someday, the two of you will smash the glass beneath a chuppah, dance the hora, and start your life together.

"Dating is really hard," said Ammi Dorevitch, a former Chicago single. "I got married at 32. It was the right time for the right one, but I dated for a lot of years. It was a challenge." Dorevitch is among a number of matchmakers working through a newly-launched Jewish dating website, JChicago.com.

‘…Make me a match!’ photo 1

The site is different from other dating services because it's a "modern twist on an old fashioned way of dating." Clients register by filling out an online form, answering questions about their interests, lifestyle, references, religious background, and level of observance and other criteria they might look for in another person. A matchmaker then contacts the clients to establish a personal relationship through phone calls, Skype, emails, and face-to-face interviews.

"We take the time to get to know them," Dorevitch said.

The matchmaker selects profiles of potential matches and gives them to the client for review. In turn, the matchmaker shows the client's profile and photograph to potential matches. Clients accept or decline a potential match through a confidential system. When two clients agree to a match, JChicago forwards their respective contact information so they can arrange a conversation and plan a date. Matchmakers continue screening members, recommending matches and assisting during the dating process. It is up to the client to decide which matches to date and how involved the matchmaker should be.

‘…Make me a match!’ photo 2

"Dating should be fun for people. It shouldn't be so tense," Dorevitch said. "Our hope is that we can make it an easier, more comfortable experience for people."

JChicago is part of a larger network of Jewish matchmaking sites--JRetroMatch.com and SawYouAtSinai.com. JRetroMatch is geared toward Jews of all levels of observance. SawYouAtSinai focuses on but is not limited to helping Traditional, Yeshivish, and Modern Orthodox Jewish singles find an appropriate mate. JChicago and its network serve Jewish singles of numerous lifestyles, including young professionals, single parents, divorcees, and widows.

"The site is for everyone, of all ages," Dorevitch said. "It's really a community initiative."

JChicago is unique from other Jewish dating/matchmaking services because it operates as a community project with support from a number of local partners: Taglit-Birthright Israel Next Chicago (a JUF affiliate), JCC's Sidney N. Shure Kehilla, The Living Room, Anshe Sholom B'Nai Israel, Hillel at Loyola, Club 1948, Chabad on Campus, and Free Synagogue of Chicago.

Dorevitch, a former executive director for Hillels of Illinois, met her husband through a matchmaker. "I know what it's like to go through the dating process and I also worked with matchmakers," she said. Her matchmakers' encouraging words provided the blueprint for her own matchmaking role with JChicago.  

"My work with Hillel was really about Jewish continuity," she said. "Matchmaking is also Jewish continuity. People want to get married. It's very hard to meet people these days.

"People work so much more, so many longer hours than they used to. People are disconnected somewhat," she said. "Chicago has so much going on in terms of Jewish life…it's also intimidating. Bars and clubs are not always the best venues for meeting people."

Other modern complications add to dating difficulties. Younger adults, especially, often lack basic social skills because of their primary communication form is texting or through the Internet. "They don't know how to read body language anymore…For many people, a relationship is what they build on Facebook," Dorevitch said. For other singles, "there was a time when everything was getting put on hold because of societal pressures to build a career first … I think that there's a shift back.

"It's OK to be marriage minded," she said. "People really do want to be married and they really want to be connected … [They're] looking for a partner for life that they can grow with and have a family with and have good communications with … Someone to be their best friend."

Those are high expectations, but JChicago's matchmaking team is ready to meet them for single Jews throughout the area.    

Dorevitch currently lives in Israel with her husband and children. While she will do some of her Chicago matchmaking via phone and Skype, there are local matchmakers ready to help make those face-to-face connections.

"This time of year, during the High Holidays, people are evaluating their goals and thinking about the future. This is a great time to give it a chance, to see if the online dating scene will work for them," she said.

Visit JChicago's website at www.jchicago.com.

Christine Sierocki-Lupella is the senior marketing communications manager for JUF.

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