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8 Questions for Ethan Michaeli, investigative journalist, supporter of social justice, new daddy

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09/16/2008

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Ethan Michaeli, fighting injustice in Chicago since 1991

Ethan Michaeli was inspired to work in social justice by his parents, Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Israel in 1949 and came to the U.S. before he was born. Originally from Rochester, NY, Michaeli graduated from the University of Chicago in 1989 and two years later began working for the  Chicago Defender, a 100-year-old, African American-owned daily newspaper where he did investigative reporting on the homeless, environmental racism and police brutality. In 1996, he launched  Residents' Journal , an independent news magazine written for and by tenants of Chicago's low-income public housing developments. In 2000, Michaeli created We The People Media, a not-for-profit organization, to save Residents' Journal after government funding was cut. Ethan's work at Residents' Journal has been the subject of front-page articles in The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine as well as feature segments in the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, among other media.

Michaeli serves as vice president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs; he and his wife Kimiyo Naka live with their six-month-old son in Chicago. So whether you are passionate about justice, think that cockroaches will eventually take over the planet or you too love to sing and dance to the “Time Warp,” Ethan Michaeli is a Jew You Should Know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 years old.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love it when we publish a story that makes the political establishment in this town blink. Chicago is a great city, but there are great injustices here with respect to how the poor are treated. I live for those all-too-rare occasions when we win one. I’m equally thrilled watching the development of the young people we’ve trained as citizen journalists. We’ve had a youth journalism program for more than a decade, and some of our youth reporters have become working journalists. Others have gone on to be carpenters, actors and medical students. They all know how to speak up for themselves, their neighbors and their communities.

3. What are you reading?
I rarely read fewer than three books at a time, making slow and unsteady progress with each. For my book club, I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s  Midnight’s Children , his novel of the birth of India and Pakistan. I’ve almost finished  Imperium , Ryszard Kapuscinski’s non-fiction narrative of his encounters with the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia over a period of six decades. I’m also in the middle of  Justinian’s Flea , William Rosen’s account of how the Bubonic Plague wrecked the Byzantine Empire.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I’ve been going to  El Nandu , an Argentinian restaurant in Logan Square, for so long that its grass-fed steaks and empanadas are comfort food. If I crave sushi, I go to  Ginza , a not-so-elegant looking place on the ground floor of the Tokyo Hotel that nevertheless has fish so fresh that I swear little old ladies on the red-eye from Japan bring it in ice-filled suitcases.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I’d invent a time machine, so I could visit 9th century Spain, the fabled Andalusia in which Jews, Muslims and Christians all lived in relative harmony. I’d also check out the Mayan Empire at its height and have dinner with Genghis Khan in his palace. I might visit the future also, to see if I’m right that giant cockroaches will take over the planet once we ruin it.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would rather be able to fly. I have a six-month-old son who loves it when we pick him up and carry him around. He thinks he’s flying already. I would love to be able to carry him to exotic locales. It also would be grand to zoom up to a high altitude to get some perspective on those frequent occasions that I need it.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I don’t own an iPod, but if you’re asking for music I’m embarrassed for other people to know I listen to, it would be the album from the  Rocky Horror Picture Show . It takes me back to high school, and the first time I made out with a girl. I also listen to Hadag Nachash, an Israeli hip hop group that my friends who are hip hop aficionados think sounds like it was made with a music machine bought at Toys R Us.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
I am a vice president of the board of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a 44-year-old social justice organization. JCUA, founded by Rabbi Robert Marx, a veteran of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement, sends organizers to work at neighborhood groups, stands up for progressive issues, and educates Jews about the realities of racism and poverty in Chicago. I’m not religious but otherwise very serious about my Judaism, so JCUA is my synagogue.

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