OyChicago blog

Sharing Our Religion

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My unique Jewish identity continues to guide me

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.


Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad

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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


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


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.


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.


Grandma’s Three Lessons

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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.


Shakshuka: A Love Story

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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.


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!


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.


Following the Masses

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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.


Dressing for the Date

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Not just the calendar

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!


The Catskills

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This story was performed at "Oy! Let Me Tell You …", a live Jewish storytelling event, on June 3, 2015. Check out a live recording of this story here.

World's Greatest Dad image

I can tell you from personal experience that being a Jewish senior citizen in the summer back in the day was pretty fantastic. And you're probably thinking to yourself, how would a 24-year-old even know what it was like to live like a Jewish senior citizen from firsthand experience? And to that I would say, I'm 30 and thank you.

Let me just say that I am a relic. I am the last of what is known as one of the guests of the Dirty Dancing Kellerman era -- The Catskills -- otherwise known as the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Alps and Solomon County.

The Catskills photo

Some of you may be asking "What is this magical stateside promised land that I mention?"

Well, The Catskills are mountains in Upstate New York with a chain of resorts where mostly New York City Jews -- starting in the 1940s -- would come and vacation during the hot months.

Every summer, my family would pack up the car in Chicago, with my two younger brothers in car seats and a big rack on the roof with our luggage like we were the Griswalds -- without a TV or iPad or any electronic device -- and my dad would drive from Chicago, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and then to finally upstate New York.

At the time, I did not like car rides and usually one of us would get carsick daily. Since this was back in the late 80s/early 90s, my dad had one of the first police radar detectors that was 75% accurate and he still managed to get pulled over for speeding.

Even though these were long car rides, my parents still did their best to make it fun. We would stop along the way and stretch out these car trips to fun places including Mr. Rogers Land at Idlewild Theme Park in Pennsylvania, Sesame Street Place Water Park in Pennsylvania and Hershey, Pennsylvania. So pretty much, it was a long car ride until Pennsylvania but my parents did their best to make it entertaining.

The reason why we went to the Catskills was because of my grandparents -- my mom's parents, otherwise known as my Grandma and Papa. Just picture the ultimate Jewish grandparents and they were it. My papa was a tough man who owned a used truck lot on the south side of Chicago. He worked seven days a week, long hours, until the state made a law that truck lots couldn't operate on Sundays and then Sundays became family days. He was a man's man but had the gentlest way when it came to his family, having raised all daughters with old-fashioned rules on their dating habits, and a huge soft spot for his grandchildren. He only called my grandma "Babe" and my grandma was a blonde beauty who loved to play mahjong and gamble. My grandparents were fun -- in their later years they would drive out to the casino after midnight and come home at all hours of the morning. They were always out on the town on Saturday nights and loved a good, long car ride -- hence the annual drive out to the Catskills.

Growing up, it was Thursday nights with them, Sunday nights with the extended family and then Concord trips in the summer where they would have the room directly across the hall from ours and we would keep our doors open and just run back and forth between the two rooms so that we could model our outfits for them. This was because my mom could dress us all in the same pattern. We have a family portrait of all of us in American Flag attire but it was 1991 and what else do you expect?

So anyway, living like a senior citizen as an old Yid at the Concord was luxurious. We would eat in the dining room where Tony, our waiter, would serve us silver dollar pancakes and grilled cheese at pretty much every meal. We would do water aerobics in the pool or play bingo or watch an artist do a painting, which literally translates to watching paint dry. There was nothing to do but to sit and enjoy and just be old together.

However, I was probably the coolest kid that there ever was because after our dinner with Server Tony, my parents would put my brothers to bed and I would get to go with my parents and my grandparents to the show. Every night, we would head down to the theater that almost looked like a cabaret -- or the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park -- where there were cocktail tables and you would sit and you would watch an act. Sometimes it was a magician (like in Dirty Dancing), sometimes it was a comedian (like in Dirty Dancing) and sometimes they would have really great musicians.

I remember walking through the main foyer where there was a daily polka band playing, and to this day, and I didn't know how but this man walked up to me and asked if I was Jennie Ellman. Now, this was before I knew anything about stranger danger and I was with my family and I answered yes, and he said something like I was selected to receive a gift by that night's guest performer -- Willie Nelson.

Now, I didn't know much about Willie Nelson except that this was a big deal for my mom who loves Willie Nelson, but I still have no idea how I got selected -- as I didn't have to carry a watermelon or anything -- let alone understood why a 5-year-old could win out of the entire resort.

Anyway, that night came and we left my brothers in the room and we went to the theater. I remember watching the first act and getting sleepy and then I remember Willie Nelson coming on stage, but that's pretty much all I remember. All I know is, I woke up the next morning and I had Willie Nelson's Farm Aid bandana that he wore to the Farm Aid benefit concert and it had Willie Nelson's autograph. I did not remember actually getting this, I didn't know how it came about. I was never a big drinker so this is really the only time I've ever really "blacked out" if you will, and I definitely didn't black out in this situation because I probably wasn't even five years old.

Sure enough, we got pictures back and there is my dad, onstage with Willie Nelson, and Willie Nelson was holding his FarmAid bandana and signing it, and there's my dad, onstage -- holding me -- a five-year-old sleeping Jennie. I actually slept through my Willie Nelson moment. So while Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Were Crying In The Rain" -- which is a Willie Nelson song title reference -- these hazel eyes were shut and sound asleep.

I always loved this story, but it wasn't until recently that I started loving it more. I was talking to my dad about this experience and asked him how I really got selected when he told me that he found a roadie crew member and asked him if there was anything that they were giving away that he could give to his daughter. The crew member gave my dad some guitar picks but then said that he may have something else and with that, the man came up to me and asked if I was Jennie (per my dad's information) and told me that I was selected. I had always felt special being randomly selected before in this story, but knowing my dad had his hand in the situation, and then also having those pictures of my dad carrying me while I was sleeping on the stage so that he could get me Willie Nelson's autograph, just proves how much my dad has always gone out of his way for me and has always tried to make me feel special.

So, looking back, these road trips were a strong foundation of what my parents had always tried to teach me, as we know, road trips are a great time to learn the adage of the "it's not just the destination but the journey" and all the spontaneity along the way, take time every day to enjoy the arts, and being together really could be the "time of your life" when you are with the people that are "Always On Your Mind" -- which is also another Willie Nelson song title reference.

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.


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