OyChicago blog

Birthright Israel Survival Guide

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Tips to prepare you for Birthright

Birthright Israel Survival Guide photo

'Tis the season for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. For those of you who were accepted on the Birthright summer program, you are about to have one of the most incredible experiences of your life. Soon you'll be sharing your camel-riding, Masada-climbing, Dead Sea-floating photos all over Facebook. 

To those of you who've already gone, you know the high you have while in Israel and the low you feel when you're no longer surrounded by the 50 or so people who became your best friends in just a few days. 

I definitely felt prepared before I went to Israel because of the suggested packing list from my trip organizer. But, now that I've gone through the incredible experience that is Birthright, I can share, with expert knowledge, how to best prepare for this trip you'll never want to come home from. Yes, Birthright is that amazing. 

So, I've provided you with a short list of suggestions and items you most definitely want to carry with you during your travels through the Promised Land. 

Less is more
Men don't usually have an issue with over packing, so this tip is really for my ladies. Don't pack five pairs of leggings, three pairs of jeans, and two pairs of heels for the two nights you go out. I survived on, wait for it, one pair of leggings, one pair of jeans, and I didn't even bring heels. The people you meet on your trip become your best friends, and they don't care about how you look. They care only about the person you are. Focus less on your outfits and more on the unforgettable experiences you'll be having.   

Be a walking Walgreens
Do pack cough drops, Advil, bandages, sunblock, and allergy medicine. Since your days are jam packed with unforgettable activities and nights consisting of four hours of sleep on average, it doesn't hurt to be prepared in case you start feeling under the weather. In addition, drink an excessive amount of water all day, every day because you don't want all of the amazing hiking, sight-seeing and socializing to catch up to you. 

Bring out your inner photographer
I took a ton of photos and am really happy I did. I packed a journal thinking I would have time at the end of each day to write about the activities I did and the funny and memorable moments. I was completely wrong. You have basically no time to yourself, so take plenty of photos so you can look back and remember all of the amazing moments you had and people you met.  

It's all about the Benjamins … or shekels
There are Birthright programs that suggest bringing $200 to $300 that you later exchange for Israeli currency. You could very likely spend more than that. I did. Your suitcase will start overflowing with gifts for your family, like chamsah necklaces for your bubbe and mom; a yarmulke of your dad's alma mater; many shot glasses for friends and siblings; and, of course, an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt, t-shirt and muscle tee.

Finally, don't forget to be open to every experience your trip has to offer and relish every moment because your time in Israel days will go by too fast.


The Ultimate Potato Salad

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The Ultimate Potato Salad photo 1

Does anything spell American BBQ more than potato salad? I think not.

There was a time when I could not stomach potato salad. Not one bit. I could not fathom cold, mayonnaise-drenched potatoes being appealing to me.

That all changed one day when I was working in a super busy cafeteria that serviced 3,000 people a day and it just so happened to be picnic season. During this season we made batches upon batches of potato salad. Huge 5-gallon vats of potato salad would disappear in a day's time. I even packaged it up and sold the stuff by the pound as most grocery stores did.  

Watching and serving the salad all day long made it even more unappealing to me.

But one day, I was the only chef manager in the kitchen and one of my favorite cooks Teresa came looking for me to taste the batch of potato salad.

"No gracias, Teresa. Seguro esta bien," I said. "No thanks Teresa, I'm sure it's good."

She waved her head, dunked a plastic spoon into the gooey mixture and said, "Here!" I had a feeling she was not going to take no for an answer. I had to taste it. It would be wrong and a bad example if I didn't, right?  So I sucked it up and tasted it …Teresa watched me with her usual cheery smile on her face. And then the unbelievable happened.

I accidentally breathed. You see, I was holding my breath hoping to not taste anything … I know, I know and I call myself a chef!  But people, I have a wretchedly evil gag reflex!

When I breathed, I was surprised to find that what was being passed around in my mouth was surprisingly delicious. It was creamy, but not in the gross way I had imagined. It had all the texture and mouth feel that I expected it to have… but those textures were not gross at all! They were delectable.

"MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM es muy delicioso, Teresa," I said. She smiled, thanked me and began placing them in huge Tupperware containers to be used later on that day. And I continued eating the salad.

It was not all creamy; there was some crunch to it and even some tanginess.  And it was just what this girl's appetite wanted. Not needed, wanted. No one actually NEEDS potato salad, let's be honest.

The next day, I stood by Teresa and watched her make it. Such simple ingredients came together to make the ultimate classic potato salad.  She made it with such knowing hands and such precision, never measuring anything but consistently getting the same result. That, ladies and gents, is a pro.

And so I pass on her delicious recipe to you. I promise THIS will be the only recipe for potato salad you will ever need!  I brought this over to a BBQ I attended and it was gobbled up instantly.

I will say; I prefer making it the night before and letting the flavors marry a bit. It's a lot yummier that way.

The Ultimate Potato Salad photo 2

The Ultimate Potato Salad
From www.girlandthekitchen.com


5 pounds of red potatoes
5 hardboiled eggs
1 bunch of scallions finely chopped
3 stalks of celery, finely diced
¾ cup of sour cream
¾ cup of mayonnaise
4 tbsp dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste


1. First wash up your potatoes. I like to use classic small red potatoes. Cut them up in quarters if they are small, or in eights if they are the larger ones.

2. Place them in a pot with a few pinches of salt and bring to a boil.

3. While you are at it, grab some eggs and hard boil them. I got a nifty tutorial for you on how to make the easiest and most perfect hard boiled eggs every time.

4. While that's working for you, finely dice some celery.

5. When your potatoes are juuuuuust fork tender, dump them into a colander and let them cool. In fact you can always do this the night before as well.

6. Place the potatoes in a bowl and crumble up your eggs right on top of there. I just mushed the eggs with my hand, but feel free to do this with your fork if you would like.

7. Chop up a bunch of scallions (about ¾ of a cup) ... I like it really scalliony because I feel it really brings out the flavor in the potatoes. Add the scallions to the heap as well.

8. Now add ¾ cup of sour cream, ¾ cup of mayo, ¼ cup of dijon mustard and salt and pepper. (If you're forgoing the sour cream for a kosher BBQ, add a squeeze of lemon for some tanginess.) Mix everything with a big spatula or your hands. I prefer to use my hands because you get the "dressing" distributed a bit more evenly this way. Check for seasonings and see if you need it zestier, saltier or if it's just right!

9. Garnish with scallions and enjoy!


Pickled Okra Memories

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Pickled Okra Memories photo2

My favorite thing about food, other than how most of it tastes amazing, is how it's bonded to memory. What's your favorite thing to eat? Think about that food right now. Where are you? You're probably far, far away. Maybe you're a kid. Whenever it is, chances are you're happy. I love the instant time-traveling aspect of food memories. It's magical.

One of my most favorite foods is pickled okra. I wish I were surrounded by it this very moment. Okra is maybe a weird food to talk about if you're not from the South, but stay with me.

Whenever I think of pickled okra I am instantly seven years old and I'm at the salad bar of a restaurant in my hometown with my mom. She used to sneak me extra pieces of okra from the salad bar because she knew I loved it. Those little okra presents felt like our little secret.

When I think of those trips to the salad bar, I instantly see a giant canister of pickled okra and so clearly that I can almost reach out and touch it. Just about every time I eat pickled okra I have this little fragment of a memory. When the memory pops up I am filled with warm happy thoughts. I am filled with love, love for my Mom and love for pickled okra. 

I was at a fancy specialty grocery store recently and happened upon a selection of pickled okra. I know -- can you believe it? How random. There was more than one brand and several different flavors. I didn't even have to taste the okra; I was instantly seven and standing in front of that same old salad bar in my hometown with my mom. I love that feeling and I adore that weird little flash back. 

I don't run across pickled okra very often these days, but I decided that maybe I should start making it at home so I can have my little okra memories whenever I want. How revolutionary! Until I saw the okra at the store it never even occurred to me that it could be anywhere other than that salad bar from long ago. It's time to fix that. Maybe you're not in love with okra -- maybe it's chocolate cake or humus or homemade ice cream. It can be any number of things. I think you should find a recipe for your favorite food and make it tonight. You won't be disappointed I promise.


Pickled Okra


10 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups white vinegar
6 teaspoons kosher salt
Several sprigs of fresh dill
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns (if you have 'em)


In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil, reduce the heat so the water simmers and add the garlic. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and salt, raise the heat and bring to a boil, stirring until the salt dissolves. Remove from the heat.  

In 2 clear 1-quart jars, place a few sprigs of dill. Divide the seeds and peppercorns between the jars. Using tongs, remove the garlic from the brine and place 5 cloves in each jar. Then pack the jars full of cucumbers, carrots, scallions or green beans, cauliflower and chiles. You want them to be tightly stuffed.  

Bring the brine back to a boil, pour it over the vegetables to cover completely, let cool, then cover and refrigerate. The pickles will taste good in just a few hours, better after a couple of days. And they'll keep for about 3 months.  


Grading the Bulls

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Grading the Bulls photo

This is becoming a familiar feeling -- the Bulls' season cut short by LeBron James.  

I've thought about this a lot over the last week or so once I saw the writing on the wall that this team just didn't have what it would take to get past James and company, yet again.  

As much as we love the Bulls and as much as they have improved the roster -- probably the best roster they've had in the Tom Thibodeau era -- they never found an identity this season. They were never able to identify a true leader on the court, and they struggled pairing Thibodeau's defensive mind-set with a focus on making the Bulls a better offensive team.  

Their skill on the roster and on the bench got them as far as they could possibly go, but it was clear to me that this team was floating more often than not. Not only did they struggle to score at times, but they looked completely lost on offense for entire quarters.  

Here are my grades for each player this season. It will be interesting to see which, if any, pieces get moved around in the off-season.  

Pau Gasol -- Gasol was the Bulls' most consistent player this season, leading the league in double-doubles and earning his first appearance as an All-Star starter. Once seen as an off-season consolation prize in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes, Gasol gave the Bulls more than anyone expected. He was great in the pick-and-roll game and was the low-post scorer the Bulls have been looking for. His defensive lapses were often made up for by his shot-blocking ability. Although the veteran missed time when it really mattered in the playoffs, he was healthy for nearly the entire regular season. --  A  

Mike Dunleavy --  I really liked what I saw from Dunleavy this season. He gave the Bulls solid wing minutes, played good defense and hit threes coming off of screens as well as spotting up. Injury kept him out about 20 games this year, but he was a good veteran presence who wasn't afraid to play a little nasty on a team that lacked toughness at times. I would have liked to see him used more but that wasn't his fault. He may be the odd man out with his contract up after this season, but I think he would be a good asset to have if they can figure out a way to get him back. --  B  

Joakim Noah --  This year's Joakim Noah was not the Joakim Noah we've been accustomed to seeing. Maybe it was injuries, maybe it was difficulty fitting into the offense or with Pau Gasol, but Noah never really found his groove this season. His production dropped in every statistical category and just didn't have the emotional flair he had when he was All-NBA First Team last season. -- C-    

Jimmy Butler --  The NBA's Most Improved Player established himself this season as one of the league's best two-way players. He averaged 20 points and attempted a team best seven free throws per game. Butler bet on himself turning down the Bulls' pre-season contract offer and it looks like it is going to pay off. -- A  

Derrick Rose --  It was unclear at the start of the season which Derrick Rose we would see, if we would see him at all. Despite missing some time with a meniscus injury, Rose certainly showed signs of his former self. Prior to the injury he depended too heavily on the three-point shot (and was 28 percent from long-range), but in the second half of the season began to attack the basket again and played much more efficiently. Playing 51 regular season games and every game of the playoffs earns Rose a good grade alone for this season, but his inconsistent shooting and knack for turning the ball over drops him a bit. -- B+  

Taj Gibson --  I feel like I've been saying every year is going to be Gibson's break out year, but this might be his ceiling. After getting rid of Carlos Boozer, the starting power forward position was supposed to be Gibson's, but signing Pau Gasol and bringing over Nikola Mirotic changed that and Gibson struggled to find his role on this team. He looks to be the Bulls' most attractive trade bait this off-season as the odd man out in a crowded front court. -- C  

Nikola Miroti --  It was a hot and cold year for the rookie, but I loved the flashes that I saw from Mirotic. His ability as a big man to hit threes, put the ball on the floor and also find the open man put him at the center of some Rooke of the Year talk at points this season. He still has a ways to go on defense, but he definitely has potential to be a very good sixth man on this team for the foreseeable future. Once his confidence grows and he develops more of a low-post game, he can be a very, very dangerous player. -- B  

Aaron Brooks --  In the long line of great off-season point guard pick-ups, Brooks filled the bill. His often stellar scoring ability carried the Bulls a lot of the time when Rose or Hinrich were out. He got into the lane, hit impossible shots and shot well from (and sometimes two feet behind) the three-point line. But Brooks disappeared completely in the playoffs, showing very little ability to score the way he did in the regular season in limited minutes. -- B-  

Tony Snell -- Snell struggled to get into the rotation consistently, but he showed the potential to be the Bulls' next hidden draft find. When he did find his way on the floor, he showed he can hit from long range and also displayed a smooth, quick drive game. With Dunleavy's status in question next year, Snell may be ready to emerge as a potential starting 2 or 3 next to Jimmy Butler. -- C+

Kirk Hinrich --  Captain Kirk has always been someone I have defended when others didn't want to see him on the floor, but he made it awfully difficult to be in his corner even for me this season. Hinrich was always a favorite of Tom Thibodeau so he ended up in games even when he maybe shouldn't have been. He lost a few steps on defense, where he had been reliable in the past. -- D

We did not see much from E'Twaun Moore, Doug McDermott, Nazr Mohammed or Cameron Bairstow this season, but with the need to clear some cap space, we could see more of the first two next year and possibly not see the latter two on the roster at all.

I think it's unlikely that Thibodeau returns next year, and I'm guessing we'll see a few roster changes, but I don't know how much better the Bulls can be with the roster structured the way it is now. With Jimmy Butler likely to receive a max deal and Derrick Rose's max contract still on the books, we'll only see minor moves unless a trade is made.

It should be an exciting offseason full of speculation, but it appears for now that any improvement the Bulls make will have to come from within.


What your selfie stick says about you

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After all this time, I'm sure you're wondering: When will one of the writers at Oy!Chicago tackle the "selfie stick?"

Well, friends, today is your lucky day.

Last week, my fiancé and I got back from a wonderful 12-day trip to Europe, visiting cities in England, Belgium and Holland. We loved seeing the sights, experiencing the culture, and indulging in so, so many waffles. 

But there was one aspect of our trip that seemed to -- well -- stick out.

What your selfie stick says about you photo 1

Selfie stick in St. James's Park in London

What your selfie stick says about you photo 2

Selfie stick in St. James's Park in London

What your selfie stick says about you photo 3

Selfie stick near Kensington Gardens

Presenting the top five things your selfie stick says about you:

1. I am a tourist -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'm definitely, surely not going to even attempt to blend in with my surroundings

2. I love architecture, but I think that famous buildings like Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids, and so many others would look better if my face were in front of it.

3. I'm not interested in talking to strangers -- even the nice, friendly ones who would gladly take my photo and then in exchange I'd take their photo, and then we'd talk about where we're from and think, wow, this little world really ain't so bad.

4. Seriously, I am so uninterested in asking a stranger for help that I would rather carry a metal stick around with me all day.

5. I truly believe that my metal stick and my arm are more capable than you to take this picture.

Although, with all of the European rain, if only we could figure out a way harvest that selfie stick technology and put it onto an umbrella -- then the tourists would really have it made.

And for the record, Adam and I somehow managed to get awesome selfies anyway, sans selfie stick.


Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best?

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Running the 2015 Kenosha Marathon

Yesterday my brother stuck his head through my window in the Hebrew school carpool line and asked if I'm ready to quit. Like the rest of my family, Jeff doesn't approve of my marathon habit, and while he hasn't yet staged a full-blown intervention, he asked me the same question after my first one. And second. And third.

I get it. I used to think people who ran marathons were insane. As recently as last Tuesday, I hated marathons. I approached them with dread. I suffered mentally for 26.2 miles and it was pure stubbornness that kept me going. I even announced my retirement on Facebook -- while still in an active state of bonk -- last October after completing Chicago with a 4:33 personal record.

Granted, I registered for Kenosha the following week, but not because of adrenaline, masochism, or the need to shave three more minutes off my time. But because I realize I have so much left to learn. With that, I set my next goal. Figure out how to enjoy a marathon.

My original vision entailed a Swiss cheese costume, something so absurdly out of character that it would be a constant reminder not to take myself, the run, or life too seriously. While I can get pretty literal with my symbolism when it comes to holes and imperfection, I couldn't quite figure out the logistics of foam. So, over time, my vision morphed into a glittery, yellow tutu I made myself and a Swiss cheese bow tie. I debated to the very last second whether I'd have the guts to actually wear it.

The Tuesday before the race, I attended my first Jewish meditation sit with Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell at the Center for Jewish Mindfulness at Orot (www.orotcenter.org), who talked about netzach -- endurance.

He said, "For this week, set the intention to endure -- to return with energy and confidence, over and over to your intentions, to that which is important. And, notice if this kind of persistence leads to unnecessary hardening. When this happens try to add a gentle softening, a dose of chesed, lovingkindness."  

I haven't decided if it's the ultimate cliché, or ridiculously timely, but this shifted my mindset. I was no longer dreading a marathon. I was curious if I could experience it as a 26.2 mile meditation -- with the intent to feel blessed that I could run long distances, to enjoy the nature and sense of community, to contemplate netzach rather than negativity, and to be carried along by the energy of the universe.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 1

I set out to run a 10:10 pace in my glittery yellow tutu and a cheesehead bowtie. 10:10 because it's symmetrical and slow; the tutu and bowtie as reminders not take myself too seriously.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 2

In purple Sharpie, I wrote the word chesed (lovingkindness) on my right hand and netzach (endurance) on my left hand.

So was it 26.2 miles of peaceful bliss? Hardly. My legs were heavy from the start. By mile 1, I was hot; at mile 7, I was a few gulps of air away from a full-blown panic attack; at mile 10, I was -- in the words of my dear friend Brian -- six seconds away from shitting in my pants; and at mile 13, I considered dropping out. By mile 16, I'd swallowed enough air to inflate a large inner-tube, and a gigantic bubble formed in my chest. The downward pressure made me nauseous, the upward pressure constricted my breathing, and running became damn near impossible.

But I also had meditative moments and during those moments everything shifted. I heard the sound of the pack, feet hitting pavement, collective inhaling and exhaling, as though the marathon itself was alive and pulsing. Sometimes I looked down at my yellow tutu and smiled in spite of myself. I loved my damn tutu. "Hello, Yellow Tutu Woman," said someone. Sometimes I thought of my daughter Emma who would be starring as Maria in The Sound of Music that night and I borrowed from her brave. On one out-and-back, I passed half a dozen participants in wheelchairs, one after another, many with giant grins, all being being pushed by runners -- and I borrowed from their brave. Sometimes I looked at the Hebrew words in purple Sharpie on the back of my hands, and silenced the voice that was saying, Your time sucks and listened to the voice that was saying, Run your own race, Dana. Don't stop.

That's when I came to terms with everything. On any random spring morning, I'd be all in if someone said, "Want to go for a walk?" To my surprise, Kenosha is far more than a bunch of outlet malls off of I-94. Think miles of lakeshore including a lighthouse, quaint shops, beautiful homes, subtle rolling hills, green fields, and quiet. Everything I'd want in a Saturday morning nature walk, with the added bonus of an occasional stranger offering me a banana and saying, "You're awesome" as I stroll on by. I decided to enjoy that stroll from mile 17ish to the finish and unlike Chicago, there were stretches where there wasn't a soul in sight. I loved it.

So no, my dear brother, I am not quitting. Thanks to netzach (and my friends), I didn't quit at mile 13. And thanks to chesed (and my friends), I enjoyed it. It was 72 minutes slower and 72 times better. I've already registered for Kenosha 2016, which gives me plenty of time to practice breathing with my mouth closed. And this time I learned the following: Sometimes conventional measures of success, like a marathon finishing time (or hitting every note in The Sound of Music) are secondary. Or even inconsequential. And it takes a yellow tutu to remind you of that.

Can a Personal Worst Be a Personal Best? photo 3

It takes truly dedicated friends to wake up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, schlep you across the state line to run excessive distances, pop up at various points (4.5, 13, 18, 22 and 26) across bumblefuck (albeit beautiful) southern Wisconsin for five-plus (+++) hours, and haul your stinky, nauseous ass back home. And offer to do it again next year. Thanks, Sarah and Pat.  


Arrive at Their Place

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The advantages of vantage points in relationships

Arrive at Their Place photo

Relationships are the backbone of our emotional health, yet they are also the source of our emotional aches. So often the people we love and find comfort in are the cause for our distress, and it usually comes from a communication we had with them that went awry.

Wouldn't it be nice to just feel a strong bond and closeness constantly with everyone we're near to? Would you think this blog post is the start of a cheesy fake commercial if I told you that you can?

Let's take a look at a rather typical argument between a young couple that had a moment of conflict when they rendezvoused for lunch and he arrived late:

She says, "We said we'd meet for lunch at noon. It's almost 12:30! You're almost a half hour late."

He says, "I'm sorry for being late, and it's only 12:19. I assumed you realized it was going to be hard for me to get out to the suburbs from the city on a weekday from work."

She responds, "Well, if you couldn't come here on time, than you should've told me so I wouldn't have messed up my whole day!"

He responds, "Fine! Then I just won't even try to come out here to meet you next time!"

She replies, "I'm sorry for yelling. I just wish you wouldn't make promises you can't keep. It really messes up my schedule!"

And he replies, "I'm leaving!"

What went wrong here? Who messed up? Was it his fault for arriving late? Was it her fault for not forgiving or being appreciative that he made the effort to get there? Could either of them have said something to the other that could've fixed the situation?

She could've been more accepting about his tardiness, and he could've accepted her apology and offered to try to be more on time next time, but I don't think they are capable, not yet.

Let's try to understand what's really happening between them. He arrived late. What does that really mean to her? Well, it might feel as if he doesn't care about her or prioritize her in his busy life. In couples therapy, we call that a feeling of abandonment. Because she appraises his behavior that way, she's feeling really hurt and sad. And it's coming out at him as anger.

On the other side, he's experiencing her anger. He doesn't have a clue about her interpretation of his behavior and the profound sadness it evokes. It was hard for him to take the time off work to meet for lunch, and all he sees in response is that she's very upset with him. His appraisal of her criticism and anger is that he messed up and he can't ever seem to get it right. In therapeutic terms, we would say he's feeling unappreciated, even unloved. His feelings cause him to respond by pulling away from her. She then appraises his distancing to mean she's even less important and a priority to him. The abandonment feelings get stronger, the anger comes out harsher, and the nasty cycle spirals onward.

All relationships with our loved ones -- parents, friends, spouses, and children -- have patterns, and sometimes these patterns can get ugly. How can they see the depth of what's really going on underneath the external behaviors that are so triggering?

Hillel, a great sage of the Talmud almost 2,000 years ago, addressed this exact topic. He said, "Do not judge your friend until you have arrived at his place." Hillel is addressing the question, "What goes wrong in relationships?" And he answers, "You are 'judging' it from the wrong vantage point!" If you want to truly appraise the situation, you must look at it from the other person's perspective. Once you can see it from their paradigm, then you can truly judge the situation properly.

If he would step into her place and view the situation from her vantage point before making a judgment, he would see how hurt she is feeling from his late arrival. When he see how much it impacts her, he can better address those feelings and also understand why she's so upset. And if she would step into his place before making any judgment, she would see how important it is to him that she recognizes his efforts to meet her there. She would see how important it is to him to feel her appreciation and love for his effort and understand why he's distancing because of them.

We can truly take to heart the advice of Hillel and not judge our loved ones until we have fully arrived and put ourselves in their place. Then, from that vantage point, with the understanding of what's really happening, we can stay close to the ones we love.

Joshua Marder is a Rabbi & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist.  Josh is the director of Chicago YJP, a Division of the Lois & Wilfred Lefkovich Chicago Torah Network.


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