OyChicago blog

Pride and Perspective

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My journey through the Holy Land with A Wider Bridge
07/02/2015

Pride and Perspective photo

As an out Jewish lesbian educator -- and the Executive Director of Gesher Chicago, a local LGBT organization -- I traveled to Israel in June with a delegation assembled by A Wider Bridge to better understand the country through the eyes of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities.

Founded in 2010, AWB connects LGBT communities in the U.S. to those in Israel through year-round programming, online resources, and by sending LGBT delegates from the U.S. to Israel on trips like mine; AWB recently received a grant from JUF's Breakthrough Fund.

It was the personal stories of those we met that impacted me most. There was Yiscah Sara Smith, a transgender Jewish educator and author born a male. She struggled with her identity into her 60s before finding a community that accepted her and her transition as she accept herself.

This resonated with the theme of a Shabbat service I later attended in Jaffa co-led by a trans Reform rabbi. Rabbi Sholom of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem explained that the Reform seminary was seeing an increase in LGBT candidates, as it was the only seminary in Israel that would ordain them.

Acceptance was epitomized at the Jerusalem Open House, a struggling grassroots LGBT activist community center in Jerusalem. The House has organized a Jerusalem Pride Parade every year since 2005 and even hosted World Pride in 2006, but has only received government funding in the last year or so. There, I met Daniel and Ariel, a couple of 57 years who never officially came out but made a life for themselves in Jerusalem. They belonged to each other as much as they belonged to the city.

Our trip to the West Bank was eye-opening. Our Palestinian tour guide, Tamer, was a former social worker who had worked with LGBT clients, and now is a PR consultant for the Palestinian government. Tamer took us to the Security Barrier, a refugee camp, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Jordan River and Ramallah. He said, "It is hard to be gay in Palestine." We learned that while areas home to Palestinians, along with some neighboring countries, do not openly ban homosexuality, Israel is still the only country in the region that offers any form of comprehensive legal protections to the homosexual community.

On our way to Tel Aviv, we visited Hannaton, a Kibbutz with a growing LGBT community -- in this case, five families … up from zero five years ago.

The highlight of our trip was Tel Aviv. There, we attended a three-day leadership conference marking the 40th anniversary of Tel Aviv Pride. Along with more than 100 LGBT delegates from around the world, we attended panels on issues concerning the Israeli and global LGBT community. These ranged from the relentless persecution of closeted Arab youths to the controversy of "pink washing."

On the second day of the conference, we attended the inaugural session of the Knesset's LGBT Forum, where they proposed a law to define crimes against trans individuals as hate crimes. Although the measure ultimately failed to pass several days later, those who sat in that room sensed that equity for all was on the horizon.

We didn't miss the opportunity to experience Tel Aviv's nightlife either, taking in the bars and the myriad of parties celebrating Pride. I attended Arisa-- named for an exotic spice-- which catered especially to Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. I danced with 1,000 Israelis while Yekutiel, a popular drag performer, sang (OK, lip-synced) her greatest hits.

Finally, there was the Pride Parade, which began at the Gay Center of Tel Aviv. No floats, only people marching. No designated numbers or a preset order, either -- everyone just picked up their banners and began to walk forward. Drag queens, families, and activists all marched as one. The parade ended at a huge outdoor concert featuring Eurovision's bearded winner Conchita Wurst where over 200,000 Israelis and world travelers gathered to celebrate.

I am still mentally unpacking all my experience in Israel. A Wider Bridge exposed me to a variety of people and viewpoints that laid the foundation for me to define my own personal views.

Israel is a safe place for those that identity as LGBT, but battles with the government and the rabbinate are far from over. Israel is a complicated place, complicated further with each person you speak to, but that doesn't mean you should stop speaking to people or remove yourself from the conversation.

"Gesher" means "bridge" in Hebrew. Our mission is, we say, to "bridge the gap between Pride and Tribe." I fully plan to make Israel and all its complexities a part of that bridge.  

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Sharing Our Religion

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My unique Jewish identity continues to guide me
07/01/2015

Ashley Kolpak photo

At a recent event I came across a vibrant, expressive man in the midst of a "mid-life opportunity," surely not be confounded with a "mid-life crisis." Ears perked, I asked him directly what brought him to this event. His eyes were perfectly still and fixated on mine as the words left his mouth." After spending my whole life in the church, I'm leaving. I left. I'm making a clean break."

Up until this point, church was a daily part of his life. He was a graduate of primary and secondary religious schooling followed by an undergraduate degree in theology from seminary. As a gay man, he felt the right thing to do was pursue a different path.  

While religion, as it existed for him in the past, no longer appealed to him, he made another very interesting point. He said regardless of belief, he sees faith as a foundation for a moral compass. For him, this was a choice arrived at with major difficulty.

Naturally, this opened up a discussion of how others approach faith and their own personal experiences. It was clear that religion, in its many varieties, denominations and levels of observation, affected everyone in a deeply personal way.

I didn't grow up in a synagogue, not really anyway. I went to Hebrew school for a few years, learned about religion, culture, Hebrew and all that jazz. I don't keep kosher and I'm not observant. I connect to Judaism in my own way and that's what matters most to me. I like to look at my Jewish life as a carefully crafted mosaic, filled in with colorful moments that might seem disparate at the time, but when looked at from afar, are all connected to illustrate the larger picture.

Moments like my dad explaining the story of Anne Frank to me when I was very young; the countless hours spent learning the rudiments of my first second language at Hebrew school; my time in Israel on Birthright; my first Mourner's Kaddish for a family member; my eighth grade turn as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof at a the local children's community theater; the fun, funny, frivolity of "bar and bat mitzvah season;" taking part in traditions that were passed down to my family from generations ago; and sharing those traditions with those closest to me and starting new ones.

Some fleeting and some enduring, these moments come together as my perfectly imperfect Jewish identity. They have and will continue to shape me and how I find my way in the world.

Sharing concerns and experiences surrounding religion can bring about a quiet, overwhelming empathy. While I may not pray every day, when I see a post from one of my favorite lifestyle bloggers concerned for the medical condition of her young child asking for prayers, it's only natural to oblige. To make someone feel better in even the tiniest of ways, thousands of miles away, for someone who believes in a far different way than I do, is always worth it.

Thinking along these lines draws me back to my absolute favorite storyline from this season of Orange is the New Black. (Spoiler alert ahead, sorry!) Basically, for the uninitiated, many of the inmates figured out a loophole to get the best food in prison: asking for a kosher meal. Eventually, the administration got wise and cracked down on those deemed "non-observant". One of the inmates, even though turned away, embraced Judaism as her own in a very real way and gave an incredibly touching speech in the finale episode. I may or may not have teared up a bit? She found her people. And isn't that what it's all about? In the end, it's compassion that rules.

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Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad

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06/30/2015

Last summer I decided to make a few changes in my life. I decided to eat super clean. And I realized that I am sick of being hungry. Anyone else?

I was constantly feeling guilty about eating too much, or too wrong or too many carbs or too much fat. It's enough!

I decided to make a permanent change. No more quick fixes. No more fad diets. No more pills! But most importantly, no more starvation.

The irony is that, I coach people on how to lose weight. And I am told I do a great job at it. And people get results! But somehow, for myself I feel I need to starve in order to look thin.

One day, while sitting through another mind-numbing meeting, I started scrolling through my Instagram account. And pictures of food after food after food started popping up in my scroll. And then I saw this.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 1

It was one of those moments where I felt myself awaken. This quote was so very simple. My greatest fears had been summed up into just a few words.

And as I pondered over my fear of failure, I found myself clicking on this person's profile and I was instantly enthralled.

Here was a woman who had transformed her body. In her before pictures she looked seemingly ordinary, but her story painted a different picture. She was so much like me. A girl who looked healthy and young on the outside but on the inside she was constantly worrying about every calorie, every morsel, every sit-up. Consumed with worry and fueled by her obsession to be skinny she turned to every fad including starvation and over-exercising.

Until one day she just got tired and stopped. She found a coach and he helped her change her life. Her after photo was beautiful. She was lean, strong and most importantly she looked to be genuinely happy.

I wanted to be genuinely happy too.

And so I spent the rest of the day emailing this girl back and forth. We understood each other. She told me her coach's name. Three hours later, I signed up with him and embarked on a journey that I hope can change my life for the better.

Being the loving and supportive husband that my hubs is, he bought me really cute workout pants and then said, "Now go and get fit!"

And I started running. Every day after work. I. Am. Not. A. Runner. I literally cheated every mile I ever had to run in high school. I hated it. But I followed my quote. I had nothing to lose, except fat.

So I turned on my Pandora, bought a Polar monitor, got a training app for running and I ran.

I walked a lot. I wheezed. I talked myself into it every minute. And I made myself a believer. Three weeks later I can run a lot longer than before. And I feel empowered. I feel strong. I lift weights too, heavier than ever. It felt fantastic.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 2

After years of working out, dieting, calorie counting and eventually going back to my normal ways, I feel uplifted and positive. I feel like I can and will succeed. And this is not a race. It's a marathon. And there will be set backs and road blocks. But we are human. We overcome, we power through and we achieve.

Feel ready to battle the world?! How about at least dinner?

As a chef, it's tough not to put butter in everything, but this is just the uphill portion of my marathon. Once I am running full speed ahead I can start getting back to my beloved butter. For now, we are just going to set it to the side.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 3

Doesn't this just look gorgeous? Like confetti in a bowl! Vibrant, fresh and clean flavors make this salad one of my go-tos for a healthy side dish.You have healthy fats in your avocado, nice sweet carby corn and loads of cilantro and lime. It comes together in minutes and is a real crowd pleaser.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad
From girlandthekitchen.com

Ingredients

2 corn on the cobb
1 large ripe avocado, diced
½ a red onion, diced
3 tbsp of cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced
salt and pepper

Instructions

1. First you need some roasted corn. I always soak mine in water right in the husk for about 30 minutes. Then I throw it onto a grill preheated to medium high and cook for about 20 minutes. Making sure to rotate every 5 minutes. Let it cool.

2. While the corn is cooling, dice up your avocado. While you are at it, dice your onion as well.

3. Chop up some cilantro as well. Roughly. There is no need for precision with that.

4. When the corn is cool, remove the husk and stand it upright and start slicing the corn off the husk with a nice sharp knife.

5. Place the kernels into a bowl with the avocado, cilantro and onions. Toss everything together with a spoon and season with salt, black pepper and juice of half a lemon.

Notes

You can also use frozen corn for this recipe. Just toast them up in a frying pan for a few minutes to get them charred a bit. Or throw them onto a sheet pan into a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes until golden brown.

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Grandma’s Three Lessons

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06/25/2015

Grandma's Three Lessons photo 1

Father's Day marked one month since my grandma's funeral. Her passing was the first loss of a close relative that I have experienced.  

Rabbi Steven Mason, the outgoing senior rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, explained to my family while we were preparing for my grandma's funeral that a person's emotions during a time of grieving can be like a roller coaster -- one moment you're crying and the next you're laughing at a memory of your loved one.  

He was right. I went through bouts of tears knowing that the Sunday morning brunches I frequently spent at Country Kitchen in Highland Park with my grandma, her caretaker, Elizabeth, and my father were now only memories. Then I would laugh at a memory of Elizabeth not being able to remember something, to which my grandma's response was, "join the club."  

My grandma was an incredible woman. Through her actions, she taught me how to be the best possible version of myself. So I want to share three lessons I learned from her.

Grandma's Three Lessons photo 2

Lesson One: Family is everything   

My grandma's world revolved around her family. She loved nothing more than to spend time with us. Through her genuine love, she's influenced me to spend more time with my family and be grateful for every moment I spend with them.  

Lesson Two: Embrace your femininity and never stop learning   

Even during her later years, my grandma never ceased to astound me with her impeccable sense of style, witty remarks, and thoughtful responses. She not only dressed with style, but she was also humbly brilliant. She's inspired me to be thoughtful in how I dress and act, so I always present the best possible version of myself.  

Lesson Three: Smile and laugh with life  

Every single time I saw my grandma, she was laughing and smiling. She handled with grace the twists and turns of her life. I'm so grateful to have watched this amazing woman face adversity with poise because she taught me that my reaction to life's curveballs is what defines me.

Thank you, Grandma, for being a model of who a woman should be and for teaching me to never stop loving, learning and laughing.

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Shakshuka: A Love Story

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06/24/2015

Shakshuka: A Love Story photo

Shakshuka! Shakshuka! Shakshuka! I bet you can't say it 10 times fast. You probably can't say it very fast more than once. I know it sounds like your new favorite curse word, but it's way more than that.

Shakshuka, if you're not familiar, is a Tunisian dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. If you've never heard of it, mazel, meet your new favorite meal. If you do know shakshuka, welcome back!

I happened upon shakshuka a couple of weeks ago while browsing through cookbooks. A gorgeous picture of eggs in a tomato sauce leapt off of the page and into my heart. It's the perfect breakfast or lunch dish to make to show off for friends. You can serve it with a mountain of challah and/or pita on the side. I've only ever made it for dinner, because I don't want to have to share it with anyone!

There are many reasons to make shaksuka. The absolute number one reason to make it is that it tastes amazing. The second is that it's maybe the easiest recipe you've ever prepared. I've been completely obsessed since I first discovered it just a few weeks ago. Did I mention that it's a one-pot meal? What is better than that?

Congratulations, your life is about to change.

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 jalapeños, seeded, finely chopped
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
2 teaspoons Hungarian sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices reserved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely crumbled feta
8 large eggs
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Warm pita bread

Remember! Cooking is fun and there is more than one way to get something delicious on your plate. If you're not in to jalapenos, maybe substitute green chillies. Don't like chickpeas? How about white beans. Get creative!

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeños; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Add chickpeas, paprika, and cumin and cook for 2 minutes longer.

Add crushed tomatoes and their juices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle feta evenly over sauce.

Crack eggs one at a time and place over sauce, spacing evenly apart. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until whites are just set but yolks are still runny, 5-8 minutes. Garnish with parsley and cilantro. Serve with pita for dipping.

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Following the Masses

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06/23/2015

Following the Masses photo

I am not a big sports fan, partially due to growing up short and slightly overweight and partially due to growing up in a city without any professional sports (Wichita, Kansas). Our entire city pretty much followed college basketball. We did have minor league baseball, hockey and soccer, but Wichita State University's baseball team was the main attraction.

My lack of interest usually comes to the surface during the weekly Kiddush in my synagogue when people start taking about trades, winning streaks and fouls. I usually just nod my head in agreement.

My 15-year-old son, Eli, however, is a fanatic. I keep up with the scores, watch some of the games with him (and let him explain things to me) and try to bond with him. It's important to show interest in what our kids are interested in. I see from friends that there is a special bond between parents and children when it comes to sports. My son has been wise to me since he was 6. He knows that I'm not as into it as other dads, but he's cool with it. He sees that I make the effort and I hope there is something to be said for that.

I do, however, look for opportunities to experience the excitement. Two years ago we went the Blackhawks parade and this year, thanks to a really good friend, we went to the rally at Soldier Field.

We got inside at 8 a.m. and spent two hours just hanging out and walking around. As the stadium quickly filled up there was definitely a feeling of camaraderie as a sea of red spread in every direction. The shared energy was much more tangible at the rally than at the parade. It could be the fact that at the parade you just wait for the players to pass and then go home that the excitement is transient. At the rally you are there before the parade, watch the parade on the jumbotron, watch the players get announced, hear all the thank-yous, lose your voice as 60,000-plus people sing "Chelsea Dagger" (although I prefer their other theme song, "Keys to the City" by Ministry), then you join the flood of people and leave.

It's ironic that as a teenager, I was so against conforming and dressing like the masses. The blatant lack of individuality left a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, these days, I am just as guilty of conformity in dress -- well, in kippah -- as everyone is in my observant sub-culture. That being said, my son and I rocked our red jerseys. We cheered when the players came out and clapped after the speeches.

As I looked around, being part of the collective is what makes the experience something special. Sometimes the group is greater than the individual. It's that way in families, in school, in work, and in the way we connect with our Judaism. The unity among sports fans should be an example of how the diverse Jewish community should ban together for certain causes. Of course, easier said than done, but if you own a red piece of clothing then you're off to a good start.

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Dressing for the Date

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Not just the calendar
06/22/2015

Dressing for the Date photo

My winter coat and my summer dress are besties

A few weeks ago, people yelled at me because of my appearance and clothing choice.

It was Saturday, the 30th day of the month of May, and I was overdressed. In the morning, at synagogue, I wore a light jacket on top of a long-sleeved shirt, a skirt, leggings, and tall boots. In the evening, traveling to a wedding, I decided to go for my ankle-length down North Face "winter" jacket.

It was certainly a lot for May 30, and my friends had no qualms about telling me that.

"How can you be dressing like this? It's practically summer!"

"I can't believe you're wearing leggings and boots. It's May!"

At the wedding, there was a portable coat rack that traveled with us from the ceremony room to the reception room, and the whole night, it was home to a bunch of umbrellas and my ridiculous puffy jacket.

But I think I might have been the happiest person in Chicago that day.

Friends who ridiculed my clothing choice -- you are living in a fantasy world. You are living in a world where May 30 means "warm," where May 30 means "summer," where May 30 means "no jackets, no leggings, and just the warm, humid summer air and a cup of iced tea."

That world may exist somewhere, but it certainly ain't in Chicago in the year 2015.

How I wish I lived with you in this world! I wish I could be that girl who dresses for the date and whose bright yellow and pink outfit just screams summer and freedom and reminds you of that time when you throw your backpacks into your closet and get ready for a summer of stress-free fun in the sun.

But not me. I live in the world of "reality." I live in a world where, despite what the calendar says, Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor and wants to keep us on our toes. I live in a world where we are given tools to help us survive each day -- not just a calendar, but also websites like Weather.com that can magically predict the future and guide our clothing choices.

I live in a world where you're never safe to put your "winter clothes" in the cedar closet for safekeeping from March 1 until December 1 -- I keep my winter clothes hanging right next to my summer clothes, because, hey, with all the back and forth in the Chicago weather, these clothes have become buddies.

Oh, how I wished I lived in a predictable land beneath the equator, where weather was always warm and the attitude was always that of summer. But, living in Chicago, the best city on the planet, you have to deal with the good AND the bad. And, friends, let me tell you -- the bad isn't so bad if, when it's cold, you're wearing a down winter coat.

So if the weather gets chilly again this week, don't be a hero. Whip out your winter clothes. Time to bring back your pretty woolen scarves, your fleece-lined leggings and your funky futuristic gloves with the special fingers that allow you to be warm and cozy while texting on your cell phone.

I once wrote that summer is a state of mind; but that doesn't mean that if summer feels more like Siberia, we can't dress appropriately and be happy.

And hey, come mid-June, let me know if anyone wants to go sledding or have a snowball fight!

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