OyChicago blog

My Grandpa’s Jacket

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04/14/2014

My Grandpa’s Jacket photo

Abby, with her afikoman-hiding grandpa.

It was the end of the fourth, and all eyes were on me.  

That's the fourth question, of course. Although the unofficial fifth question (will she find the afikoman?) was on the minds of everyone in the room.  

Most people's unofficial fifth question is “Who will find the afikoman?” But when you're the only child at the Seder year after year, no one wonders who. They only wonder when. Where. How. And in my case, if.  

I admit it, hide and seek was never really my strong suit as a child. I usually preferred to play “hide and then tell me where you are when I become annoyed that I can't find you.” Unfortunately, afikomans (dessert at the seder) can't speak up and tell you where they are. And my grandpa, who always hid the afikoman, wasn't talking either.  

“Come on Grandpa, give me a hint,” I begged. At this point, I had scoured our three-story house approximately 12,000 times. Probably more. I had flipped every cushion, looked under every bed, and triple-checked the inside of every cupboard. Nothing.  

The adults, of course, thought this was hilarious. I shared an eye roll with the dog.  

As I sat back down at the table, defeated, embarrassed, and wondering if I'd still get my $18 Barnes & Noble gift card (the one that was supposed to be guaranteed, since I didn't have any competition), it occurred to me that Grandpa's torso seemed a bit bulkier (and more . . . square . . .) than usual.  

I looked closer.  

It did not appear that Grandpa had worked out anytime during the Seder.  

Being the loving, totally non-sneaky granddaughter I was, I brilliantly decided to go in for a hug. Everyone likes a good Passover hug.  

Hmm. Grandpa felt rather—crumby. Interesting.  

Finally putting the pieces together, I dramatically pulled his suit jacket open, and watched in amazement as the afikoman fell out.  

“Busted!”  

Everyone laughed, and though I was relieved, I was not particularly amused.  

I should've been happy—the precious Barnes & Noble gift card was secured, after all—but frustration lingered long after the dessert had been eaten. I searched high and low, near and far, and in some dark, disturbing places (a kid should never have to look through his/her parent's sock drawer for any reason), and it was in his jacket, at the table, the entire time? Seemed to me like a lot of wasted time and effort.

My mom, picking up on my subtle (okay, fine, not subtle) crankiness in the way that moms do, asked what I was so upset about, and I told her.

“But you found it,” she said. “Who cares where it was or how long it took? You found it.”

She was right. The more I thought about it that night—and additional nights later on—it didn't have to matter how long it had taken me. After all, it had taken the Jews 40 years to find their way out of the desert. While I'm sure they would have liked to skip 39.999 of those years and head right into their new lives as free people, I highly doubt they were moaning and groaning too much when their journey came to an end. They were likely pretty ecstatic to finally make it out of the desert, regardless of the disheartening amount of time it had taken. Also, that lengthy amount of time—in its own mysterious way—had probably made them even more grateful and appreciative when their journey ultimately concluded.

Of course, my afikoman adventure was obviously nowhere near the plight of the Jews in the desert in terms of levels of difficulty and aggravation, but thinking about the Passover story and what they endured helped put things in perspective. Would I have liked the afikoman to be easier to find? Absolutely. Would I have liked my search to take less time? Of course. Was I proud of myself for overcoming Dad's nasty socks and finding it anyway? Heck yes I was.

Passover reminds us to persevere in times of struggle. Whether it's a big wandering-through-the-desert type of struggle, a where-the-heck-is-that-darn-matzoh struggle, or anything in between, we have to trust that we'll eventually find what we're looking for, even if it takes longer than we'd like.

But, word to the wise: Always check your grandpa's jacket first.

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Self Love

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Acharei Mot
April 11-12, 2014
04/11/2014

 

This week’s portion, Acharei Mot, begins by sharing the specific instructions for what the High Priest is meant to do on Yom Kippur (the holiday is introduced as well). We’re told that the High Priest is charged with making atonement for the Israelites and their sins once a year. We also find the fascinating invention of the scapegoat – literally a goat that the High Priest would place the sins of the Israelites on and then send out into the desert. We learn that the average Israelite is no longer permitted to offer up sacrifices / burnt offerings on his/her own, but must utilize the priests (it’s often good to have a monopoly when you’re in charge…). We also are reminded that consuming blood is a no-no, and are provided with a large list of prohibited sexual relationships (sleeping with family members is generally a no, in case you were wondering).

I’m particularly intrigued by the order given in the Torah as it relates to the High Priest’s atonement efforts on Yom Kippur. We learn that the High Priest is instructed to make expiation (1) for himself, (2) for his household, and then (3) for the nation as a whole.

Why this order? Aren’t the priest’s actions really about the nation as a whole? Don’t we often say that we want our leaders to be selfless, putting the needs of the nation ahead of their own? Why wouldn’t the High Priest atone on behalf of the entire nation first, and only worry about himself later?

Practically speaking, there’s an argument to be made that one needs to have atoned oneself in order to have obtained the state of heightened purity necessary to be in a position to atone for others.

But in a more meta way, I think our major takeaway point needs to be that before we can go out and take care of others, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. Are we exercising regularly and eating healthily? Are we getting enough sleep? Are we forgiving ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings as we walk through the world?

Are we recognizing that sometimes those we hold up as leaders also need private time on their own and with their families?

By taking care of ourselves (and recognizing that we all need to do so), we truly become capable of taking care of others.

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Carb-Cramming before Passover

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A guide to getting your gluten fix in Chicago before the matzo meal begins
04/10/2014

If you’re at all like me, one of your favorite things to do in Chicago is go out to eat. With a plethora of delicious restaurants, Chicago has a great food scene. I love trying out new places and, of course, returning to all of the establishments that I adore. Living in a Midwest metropolis means that many of the best places have amazing carbohydrate-filled delicacies—foods that are huge no-nos during Passover. 

If you’re trying to plan how to fit in some great meals before your eight-day abstinence from bread, pasta, pizza, etc., you are in luck. Here are my recommendations of some of the best places to feed your carb cravings before Pesach begins.

Pizza

Carb-Cramming before Passover photo 1

Pizza topped with French fries, cheddar cheese, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing at Dimo's Pizza.

Pizza is, hands down, the greatest food ever created, right? Of course. For a casual meal in a relaxed, but fun atmosphere, I suggest going to Homeslice. It’s gotten to the point where I go to Homeslice at least once a month because it is that delicious. They offer individual pizzas, sell pitchers of great beer, and have a patio that I plan on utilizing as much as possible over the summer. I recommend ordering the breadsticks and goat cheese. You can even skip the breadsticks and just dip your crust in the sauce (thanks friends for thinking of this brilliant idea!) “The Big Teve” on whole wheat crust is also a must-have. This pizza includes spinach, roasted red peppers, red onions, mushrooms, oregano, feta, parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, garlic and olive oil. Need I say more? 

I also have a soft spot for Dimo’s Pizza. Although I didn’t go to University of Wisconsin, I spent enough time there that sometimes I feel like I could convince people that I did. One of the best places in Madison, Wisc. is Ian’s Pizza, where you can line up into the wee hours of the morning to get your slice of mac and cheese pizza (yes you read that correctly and it is heavenly). When I found out Ian’s operates as Dimo’s in Wrigleyville, and now Wicker Park, I was thrilled. Sometimes at 2 a.m. on a weekend night, you just need a slice of pizza. Also, sometimes you might want one mid-day—what? Anyhow, Dimo’s has amazing varieties of pizza offered by the slice including the infamous “The Mac” topped with macaroni noodles and cheddar cheese on a homemade crème fraiche base. My other favorite pizza there is the “High Fry” or any variation of this slice that is available that day which includes hand-cut French fries with mozzarella and BBQ sauce on a creamy bleu cheese or preferably ranch sauce base, topped with cheddar cheese and fresh parsley. 

Beyond that, the classic deep dish pizzas at Lou Malnati’s, Pequod’s, and Giordano's are worthy options, although I think they are worth saving for a celebratory feast once Passover is complete.

Burgers

Keeping kosher makes going out for burgers kind of monotonous at times. I get sick of eating the same boring veggie burgers that I pretend taste as good as hamburgers, when, in fact, they usually do not come close. This is one of the many reasons that I love DMK Burger Bar. Beyond their amazing milkshakes (half peanut butter, half chocolate is my favorite) and crispy fries, which you can get for free before 7 p.m. if you check in on Foursquare, DMK has one of the best salmon burgers that I have ever tasted. The fresh salmon is seasoned with ginger, topped with scallions, and includes Asian slaw and spicy, red Thai curry sauce. 

When I am in the mood for a real burger, nothing is better than Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed. Everything on this menu is incredible and even if you aren’t in the mood for a burger, you can always treat yourself to their smoked brisket sandwich that is out of this world.

Brunch

Carb-Cramming before Passover photo 2

Bananamisu Pancakes at Bongo Room

Like most 20-somethings, I am obsessed with brunch. Not much is better than waking up on your day off and treating yourself to an extensive, delicious meal. The best brunch in Chicago is hands-down at Bongo Room. Although I have only been a few times, their sweet pancakes and French toast options are incredible. One of the options that they have available right now is Bananamisu Pancakes, a breakfast friendly spin on the classic Italian dessert topped with fresh bananas. Everything on their menu sounds like one of the best foods ever created. Although there is usually a pretty decent wait time to get in, it is completely worth it. I also love Hash House A Go Go, mainly because they have homemade flakey biscuits. Who can say no to that?

Desserts

Carb-Cramming before Passover photo 3

Birch & Marshmallows, Banana French Toast, and Chocomole ice cream at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

As always, save (one of) the best for last. I have a huge sweet tooth and my favorite places to nurture that sweet tooth are Sweet Mandy B’s and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Besides the fact that Sweet Mandy B’s is one the cutest bakeries in the world, their buttercream frosting is absolutely perfect, especially on top of their homemade sugar cookies and homemade rice krispie treats. If those don’t float your boat, they have many varieties of cakes and cupcakes, including snickerdoodle cake, which I have yet to try, but I might just need to before Pesach. 

As a Michigan Fan since before birth (probably), loving something that came out of Columbus, Ohio seem wrong. However, when it comes to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, it has to be right. Jeni’s has some of the best ice cream that I have ever tasted. Their flavors are creative, dynamic, and extremely tasty. Some of my favorites that are available at their scoop shop right now are Banana French Toast (bananas and honey ice cream with homemade French toast gravel and hints of pecan, cinnamon, coffee, and maple syrup), Bangkok Peanut (roasted peanuts, honey, coconut, and cayenne pepper), and Dark Chocolate, which has the richness of fudge in every bite. Depending on how strictly you keep Passover, some of their varieties may be okay to nosh on during your eight-day hiatus from bread, but even so, it would be wrong to not stop in for a little taste.

If you say you aren’t sufficiently hungry after reading this, I don’t believe you. Enjoy some treats before it’s time for matzah, macaroons and Manischewitz. Happy Passover!

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The Pursuit of My Afikoman

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04/09/2014

Around the beginning of spring every year, or as Chicagoans call it, “three quarters of the way through winter,” lots of us are having fun-filled family functions where searching is the primary activity. Some search for matzo. Some search for eggs. I search for egg matzos. It gives it some extra panache. 

That’s right my ever faithful, incredibly attractive and – did you lose some weight? – Oy! readers, it is Passover time at last, one of my favorite holidays of the year. Number 3 in fact.

One thing I’ve always liked about the holiday is the search for the Afikoman. Or in English: the search for dessert. I suppose, in that case, every meal for me ends with the search for the Afikoman. But I digress. Or should I say, digest? No. No I shouldn’t. But as I’ve grown older, my search for the Afikoman has no longer been in the traditional sense, but rather in the much grander sense that is life. Big metaphor, I know. What I mean to say is, the way I view the search for the Afikoman equates to the pursuit for what it is that I can be doing every day to be as happy as possible. And yes, hopefully there’s money at the end of that pursuit.

In the past few years, I’ve grown a little older, a little wiser and a lot more mature. (I’m almost 27! That’s a chai and a half!) Through that time, I’ve taken a few good long looks at myself in the mirror and really tried to figure out, what is that growth on my shoulder? Once I cleared up that mystery (shirt fuzzy) I discovered that I measure success differently than I used to. That’s probably because outside of having lots and lots of money, I wasn’t exactly sure how I measured success. I know it may sound terribly cliché, but I feel success is doing what I love every day. If I am truly lucky, then maybe, some day, I’d even get paid to do what I love.

Based on this criterion of success, I can say that I’ve had it, just not as often and as consistently as I’d like. I very much like my day job, but there is a lot I would rather doevery single day than go to my day job. However, my success criterion has the unfortunate blockade of adulthood. Adulthood is why I used the word blockade. As I often like to state, I am an adult. At least I’ve been trying to convince myself as much for some time now. (Thosesome times can be found here and here for your convenience.) There are many adult shenanigans that contribute and also anti-contribute to my overall ability for success.

My recent discovery – my personal Afikoman – is a relatively new find, yet it has always been there. At heart, I am a performer, or as I like to put it – a humorist of sorts. Always have been, always will be. In college, I was even doing standup comedy for a bit and for a less of a bit I was even getting paid $25 bucks a week and free beer. Greatest hourly wage I’ve ever had. However, it does qualify me to say I was a professional standup comedian for while. Heh heh. So I’m working toward the being happy doing what I want to be doing on a daily basis thing. The problem is that day in and day out, I’m not doing exactly what I want to be doing on a daily basis.

The real thing I want to do is to make the funny voices and sounds that got me in trouble in 7th grade (and still sometimes today). See, I consider myself a voiceover enthusiast, and that’s my ideal Afikoman: using my voice to make a living. My neighbors have to be frightened that it sounds like more than 100 people live in my apartment. And they are all VERY loud.

With all that in mind, I keep considering the possibility of pursuing voice acting, which I have actually been doing subconsciously for quite some time. And if I pursued it every day, that’d be me pursuing my Afikoman. Some days I pursue it, some days I don’t. Perhaps during this Passover, once again being in the presence of the annual search for the Afikoman, my urge for the daily pursuit of my own Afikoman will take full flight. The main thing I need to overcome is that I’m lazy, but more so that I’m frightened to go after my dreams and fail, to pursue my Afikoman and not find it. But is it really better to try and fail then to never try at all?

Yes. Yes it is. Future Adam will be disappointed if I don’t ever actually try and I know I can’t let future Adam down because he has a lot more stuff than I do right now and that makes him really cool. So grab some egg matzo, warm up that voice and let’s find us an Afikoman. Allons-y!

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It’s gotta be spring somewhere

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Welcoming the season and Passover
04/08/2014

Laura Frankel photo 2

Polar vortexes and mountains of snow be damned, full speed ahead to spring and the holiday!

We Chicagoans have been through a lot and we deserve a delicious and full flavored Passover.

My theme for all the food this year is CLEAN recipes. No hidden ingredients and no faux or ersatz substitutes. Just pure, scrumptious flavors.

I get depressed when I see the piles of mixes and boxed Passover foods lining the shelves. I am not sure what those mixes have to do with Passover, but I know they are not good. I prefer to eat with whole and unprocessed ingredients. Passover should be is a feast for the senses that will nourish mind, body, and soul. I don’t see boxed and nutritionally empty foods as a part of that sensibility. I want to emerge from “Mitzrayim” (Egypt) and the holiday renewed physically and mentally.

I attended the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association, both hosted in Chicago this year. The lectures I attended at both events were remarkable similar. The topic of discussion was regarding the health of the nation and why no one cooks at home? The only way for our families to get healthy is if we spend more time cooking at home and eating wholesome homemade meals. I was saddened to hear that the First Lady of the United States and Private Chef for the First Family both said the reason people don’t cook at home is not due to time constraints or even economics; it is due to the simple fact that they don’t know how!

As a chef, it is my mission to share recipes, techniques, and any tricks I have up my sleeve to get people in the kitchen and cooking. I think one of the first steps to that end of cooking at home from fresh whole ingredients, is to skip the box of chemicals and gunk and go for the fresh and whole foods.

I think the holiday is a chance to break away from our usual work-day routines and eating habits and start the season clean and fresh, just like our freshly scrubbed kitchens and homes. And yet, more than any other time of the year, I see store shelves and shopping carts full of boxed, prepared foods that bear no resemblance to real food.

After the winter we have had, I am cooking up a holiday full of bright, fresh and clean flavors. Here’s to a holiday of home cooked and fresh meals of Clean Food. Chag Kasher v’ Sameach Pesach!

Standing Rib Roast with Smashed New Potatoes

Cooking a large piece of meat to the perfect juiciness starts with bringing the meat to room temperature before cooking.

The center/eye of the meat should be at room temperature or it will be undercooked with the outer layers being overcooked. Your goal is a large medium rare EYE of the meat with a thin browned layer on the outside.

Take the time to allow the meat to come to room temperature which should be about 1 hour or so.

I scatter the bottom of my roasting pan with small onions, baby potatoes, and whole heads of garlic. I use cipollini onions, which are small and sweet. They cook to a delicious caramel-gooey texture and make a great schmear for the meat. Divine! 

Serves 8-10

6 rosemary sprigs, leaves stripped and chopped
8 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly cracked pepper 
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 8-81/2-pound bone-in rib roast
2 cups small onions (such as pearl onions or cipollini), peeled
2 pounds new potatoes
2 whole heads of garlic

1. Place the rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a food processor and pulse until the mixture forms a paste

2. Schmear the paste, generously, on the roast and allow the roast to stand at room temperature for an hour or refrigerate overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place the meat in a roasting pan, meat facing up, and roast for 30 minutes. Decrease the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and cook, occasionally spooning the juices over the meat, until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers about 125 degrees F (about 1 ½ hours) for medium rare. (I go a little under to account for carry over cooking, so I prefer to pull the meat at 115 degrees F.)

4. Allow the meat to rest for about 15 minutes before cutting the meat off the bone and slicing.

5. Skim the fat off the pan juices and serve.

6. Squeeze the cooked garlic out of the bulb and mash in a bowl.

7. Smash the potatoes with the back of a small pan and toss with the garlic and salt and pepper

8. Place a pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium heat and cook the potatoes until the edges are crispy and browned.

9. Serve the potatoes on a platter with the sliced meat and top with the browned onions and pan juices.

Roasted Carrots

When spring has sprung so has one of the simplest and most underrated vegetables, baby carrots. I am not talking about the carrots that are machine cut and in a bag in the produce department. I am talking about the carrots that are purchased with their tops still on and are miniature gorgeous orange, yellow and burgundy sweet root vegetables loaded with earthy flavor.

These beauties don’t need much fussing. Just a quick rinse and scrub (I don’t even peel mine) and then a good toss with good EVOO and some salt and pepper.

Simple is sometimes the best way of showing off color and flavor.

2 bunches of baby carrots with tops (carrots with tops are a good indicator of freshness. If the tops don’t look fresh and vibrant, the carrots are not fresh), tops cut off with an inch left attached to the carrot for a rustic look
EVOO
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

1. Toss the carrots with olive oil, salt and pepper and place the lined baking pan. Don’t overcrowd the carrots or they won’t brown evenly.

2. Roast the carrots about 15-20 minutes until they are light toasty brown but still show their gorgeous color. You should be able to pierce the carrot with a fork and have a little resistance.

3. Toss the carrots with crispy shallots.

Crispy Shallots

Crispy shallots are a professional chef’s best friend. We use them whenever we need a tasty crunchy garnish.

The secret to crispy shallots is to cook over medium low heat and in plenty of oil. Don’t worry, the oil can be used to sauté in…bonus!

4 large shallots, peeled and sliced very thinly on a mandolin or with a knife

Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Line baking sheet with paper towels

1. Place a 9-10 inch sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add about ½ inch of oil. Cook the shallots very slowly until they turn golden brown. Be patient! This could take 15 minutes. Transfer the shallots to the lined pan and season with salt and pepper.

2. Store the shallots in a container with a tight fitting lid at room temperature for up to 3 days.

3. Save the tasty oil for sautéing, or drizzling on matzo in the refrigerator. YUM!

Meyer Lemon Sponge Cake

Sponge cakes are boring and ho-hum unless you kick them up a bit.

My sponge cake gets added oomph from Meyer lemons. Meyer lemons are cross between a tangerine and lemon. The fruit is fragrant and lively with the perfume of tangerine.

I also use vanilla bean in my cake. The essence from the vanilla bean adds an elegant flavor and aroma.

I bake my sponge in individual cake pans and add Meyer lemon curd as a filling between the layers. The curd is tart and refreshing.

You can also bake the sponge cake in a bundt style pan and place a dollop of the delicious curd right on top of the cake.

1 cup matzo cake meal
6 tablespoons potato starch
½ teaspoon sea salt
7 large eggs, separated
1 ½ cups granulated sugar, divided
1 ½ tablespoons grated Meyer lemon zest
½ cup Meyer lemon juice
½ Tahitian vanilla bean, scraped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. 

1. Mix the flour, potato starch, and salt into a bowl and set it aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and 1 cup of the sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for 5 minutes, scraping down the bowl once. Mixture should be thick and light. Mix in the lemon zest, juice, and vanilla on low speed just until blended. Set aside.

2. In another large mixing bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until the whites are thick and quite foamy. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar while beating the egg whites on high speed until they are stiff and glossy, about 7 minutes.

3. Fold in 1/3 of matzo mixture using a rubber spatula into the beaten egg yolks. Fold in another third of the flour mixture along with a third of the beaten egg whites. Then, fold in the remaining flour, then the remaining egg whites, until the batter is completely mixed in. Pour slowly into 9-inch cake pans and smooth the top with a spoon.

4. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean, remove onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Carefully remove cakes from the pans.

5. Spread layers with Meyer lemon curd and finish cake with Meyer lemon glaze.

Meyer Lemon Curd

There is nothing especially Pesadich about this recipe. It is so delicious you can use it year round.

My Meyer lemon curd is a clean recipe. I don’t use margarine as a butter substitute, instead I add rich and delicious olive oil to give the curd extra richness and shine.

The curd is delicious as a cake filling and as a “dip” for berries and other fruit.

2 teaspoons Meyer lemon zest
Juice of 4 Meyer lemons
½ cup granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt

1. Microplane lemons to make 2 teaspoons zest.

2. Whisk together zest, juice, sugar, salt, and eggs in a non-reactive pot. Place over medium-low heat and cook, whisking, until thickened and smooth, about 5 minutes. Strain curd through a fine sieve set into another bowl. 

3. Add the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Chill until ready to add to cake. Cover with plastic before chilling to prevent skin forming.

Meyer Lemon Glaze

The simple glaze adds flavor and finishes the cake beautifully. Be sure to use the glaze quickly before the sugar crystallizes and becomes grainy.

1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice

Mix vigorously to combine. Use immediately.

Visit Chef Laura Frankel’s Facebook page (Chef Laura Frankel) to find out where she is teaching Passover cooking classes around town.
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The power of the jester

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04/07/2014

The power of the jester photo

There's this scene in National Lampoon's Vacation that gets me every time I see it.

Maybe you remember it too. It's the one where the camera pans to the two kids sleeping in the back seat of the Griswold mobile, then to the mom napping on the passenger side, and finally to Clark sleeping peacefully in the driver's seat—the car still in motion. It's just a few seconds long, but it always makes me laugh.

We have Harold Ramis to thank for that funny moment and about a million more like it.

Ramis, the Chicago Jewish filmmaker and a giant in the world of comedy who brought us beloved hits like Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, died in February. At only 69, he left this world way too young.

But what a legacy he leaves behind, a treasure trove of many of the funniest movie classics of the last four decades, movies we'll be laughing at from now until eternity. And with each funny moment, with each belly laugh, he made the world a better place.

"Funny" is underrated. Funny people don't "get no respect," to quote Rodney Dangerfield, another Jewish comedy legend.

But making people laugh, helping them forget their troubles even for a little while, has power. In fact, that's a pretty hefty contribution to society if you ask me.

The act of cheering someone up is considered a big mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. The Baal Shem Tov, the famed Jewish mystical rabbi, once said, "Whoever lives in joy does the work of the Creator."

There's a story in the Talmud about Rabbi Beroka Hoza'ah who would frequent the town market. On one of his visits, he asks the prophet Elijah if "there is anyone in this market who has a special share in the world to come?" In response, the prophet points to two brothers. So the rabbi approaches the men and asks them their occupation. "We are jesters," they reply. "When we see men who are depressed, we cheer them up…"

Life's tough. There's famine, poverty, disease, hatred, and war. And, on a less global level, in our everyday lives, "it's always something," as another Jewish comedian, Gilda Radner, used to say.

Even if you don't currently have any big complaints, there isn't a Chicagoan out there who didn't need a laugh—and maybe a hug too—this past winter of perpetual polar vortexes.

Throughout history, we Jews certainly have had our share of tsuris (trouble). With everything we've been through, we've got to laugh because otherwise we'd cry. As Sholom Aleichem put it, "The world is in a terrible state, and just on spite we ought not to cry about it. And if you want to know the truth, that's the source of my humor. Just on spite, I'm not going to cry. Just to spite them, there's going to be laughter."

Maybe that's why in last year's Pew study of American Jews, 42 percent of people surveyed listed "humor" as essential to their Jewish identity, which Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein explored in his recent lecture for ELI Talks: Chicago, sponsored by JUF News.

Like so many of the people surveyed, I love to laugh. Happiness studies show that the average adult laughs 17 times a day, but I'm shooting for 20.

Lately, I've been hooked on The Tonight Show ever since the show recently ushered in the talented and adorable Jimmy Fallon, a past YLD Big Event headliner. As Fallon recently remarked to his television audience, "I just want to make you laugh and put a smile on your face" before you go to bed.

And how can you not smile watching Fallon lip sync with Paul Rudd to Tina Turner, or croon alongside the Muppets and Billy Joel?

So thank you, Harold. And thank you, Jimmy.

Thank you to funny people everywhere for repairing the world, one laugh at a time.

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A Case of March Madness

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04/04/2014

A Case of March Madness photo

It might no longer be March, but it’s still Madness.

Ever get that feeling when your heart clenches and you kind of feel like it might burst from beating too quickly? Welcome to March Madness, and if you’re half as big a fan as I am, then you know suffering through a heart attack during the last two minutes of your team’s game is a real feeling.

The strange thing is I feel like I’ve become an infinitely bigger fan of my school’s teams since graduating. That’s not saying I didn’t love sports before, but they were more of a social event. Now I’ve become so neurotic I can barely be around anyone while intensely staring at my TV screen. Please don’t think I’m joking.

This basketball season I watched every game. I know every player. I know who can hit a three, who can play good defense and who scares the crap out of me when they handle the ball. For the games I had to miss, I DVRed them. That’s either true fandom or borderline lunacy.

Why the change from casual sports viewer to crazed fan?

I can’t say I’m the only one. Maybe my sports transformation has been more severe than others, but all my friends who had maybe no interest in collegiate sports (and by that I mean weren’t sure what 1st and 10 meant) suddenly avidly follow our school’s teams as alumni. Maybe once people graduate from college they lose a commonality a little bit. Maybe rooting for your team recovers those feelings even if just for fleeting moments.

But why March?

At the beginning of March you have all of these concrete statistics and predictions by top sports analysts. As someone who has taken a horrifying amount of statistics classes, I know that they usually predict the correct outcome – just look at Moneyball. However, March pretty much has a mind of its own and throws all of those statistics and predictions out the window. Out of 11 million brackets created on ESPN last month, less than 700 predicted the Final Four correctly. Now, I don’t want to badger you with statistics, because March doesn’t. March takes down NCAA giants and builds up Cinderellas. It is the source of devastation and elation, inhales and exhales.

Even if your team didn’t make it to the Final Four this weekend and you experienced that devastation that probably lasted two whole workdays, there is an upside. Because March says peace out to statistics, next year your school has as good of a chance as any to pull off the upset, hit the buzzer beater or cut down the net, because that is the heart-clenching madness of March.

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