OyChicago blog

The Single One in the Brunch

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Feeling out of place among my closest friends

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For my friends -- and most 30-something women -- brunch is a ritual. Plans are made weeks in advance, restaurant recommendations are vetted and you know to block out two hours or more in order to properly catch up on the status of everyone's busy lives.

This past Sunday we celebrated one girlfriend's engagement, got the details about another's three-week honeymoon in Thailand and heard the latest in the never-ending parenting adventures of my two other girlfriends and their kids. (There are five between the two of them.)

As for me? I filled everyone in on the new dating apps I downloaded over the weekend.

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The brunch group

In my 30s and newly single after ending a long-term relationship, I recently found myself navigating unchartered territory with my best friends. These are girls I have known for years, who are like sisters to me and have been there for me through the best and also worst moments in my life. How was it that I suddenly felt like I didn't fit in? There was a time when text messages between my girlfriends and I centered on what bar we were going to that night, the drunken texts we had mistakenly sent to that ex-boyfriend, or who had the worst hangover. These days, our texts read a bit more like the "Real Housewives of Chicago."

After we ordered cocktails, the conversation immediately turned to my girlfriend's recent engagement. We heard all about the proposal, learned about the venue she had just booked and were informed that she would not be having bridesmaids (phew). My other married girlfriends chimed in to give advice or recommendations for hair, make-up, wedding planners and everything in between. Meanwhile, I quietly sipped water from one of the pink-striped straws with a cut-out diamond on it that someone brought to brunch as a party favor.

Truthfully, all the wedding talk had me feeling a bit anxious. I was incredibly happy for my newly engaged and recently married friends, but being two months out of a relationship, I felt slightly discouraged. I was starting back at square one -- they were settling into the rest of their lives.

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Friendships change when your friends get engaged or married, and it doesn't make it any less difficult to adjust when you're the only single gal in the group. You're busy swiping left or right while they are busy wiping their kids up and down -- or tracking down a Lanvin dress for their wedding. How can they possibly relate to the bad date you just went on while they are planning Disney World vacations with their husband and kids?

Meanwhile, your calendar fills to the brim with engagement parties, wedding showers, and children's birthdays that the best excuse in the world couldn't get you out of, yet when you try and plan a night out to celebrate your recent single status, no one can find babysitters, dinner reservations at Next can't be rescheduled and staying out past 10 p.m. is a thing of the past.

After wedding-planning discussion, ogling my girlfriends' engagement ring and hearing hilarious mommy-disasters, I did, however, find that my "single girl" stories were their own source of entertainment for the group. I talked about my solo post-breakup trip to New York City to see friends, shop and have some much-needed fun, and they couldn't have been more encouraging when I mentioned the date I had gone on with a very cute, successful guy I had met through one of my numerous dating apps. They also didn't fail to mention that they never liked my recent ex and were very happy I had moved on.

It was then I realized that although I was in a totally different place in my life than my friends, it didn't stop them from caring about me. They might not be clued in to the newest dating app nor I to the latest Disney phenomenon, but true friendship never changes. At times, it can be challenging to accept all those differences, but that doesn't mean you are inadequate or don't fit in with your friends anymore -- your journey might just be a little different than theirs. If you are lucky enough to have great friends (as I certainly do), it shouldn't matter if you are single, married or divorced -- your friends will love and support you no matter what.

Most importantly, they'll be there when you dust yourself off and get yourself back out there to find your Prince Charming -- or at least someone who won't make you split the check on the first date.

Jennifer Rottner is 34, lives in Old Town and works in Communications for the City of Chicago. She hates cilantro, loves Dateline and would love to meet a nice Jewish boy.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.


My Religious High-Wire Act

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Keeping my balance as a Jewish single since becoming more observant

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I'll never forget my first Shabbat at home after spending five months in Jerusalem studying Judaism at the Pardes Institute. I had spent my entire life in the northern suburb of Deerfield before going away to college, yet I came back feeling like a stranger in my home town.

I picked a synagogue within walking distance of my house, one with a parking lot full of cars and a microphone on the bimah (stage). These things never fazed me the last 22 years of my existence, but they weren't what I had been used to in Jerusalem. There was a big difference walking past buildings made of golden Jerusalem stone to get to shul each week, compared to navigating around Lexuses and Land Rovers.

Clearly I was not prepared for just how difficult my first Shabbat as an observant Jew would be.

I wore my tallit out of the synagogue one humid summer afternoon and walked down the shoulder of a major road. Instead of the typical "Shabbat shalom" greeting I'd get walking the streets in Jerusalem, drivers pointed and stared at me with looks of confusion and amusement as they drove by. The whole walk back I wondered what the hell I was thinking when I made this permanent change in my life.

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A family visit during my time living in Jerusalem

When I was getting ready to leave Israel, a friend suggested I pick up Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith, a book about the struggle that comes with trying to be a spiritual person in a physical society. Needless to say, the book has been apropos of the last five years of my life, and today that struggle includes not only my relationship with myself, but also those around me.

When you're studying in Israel, you spend your day learning about the laws and customs and reading commentaries on the Torah until you feel like your eyes will fall out. It results in an infatuation with what you're learning, and as part of that natural progression, you often become more religious. But that didn't prepare me for what I would call the "wear and tear" of my observance.

On a spiritual level, there were many times when my life in Chicago's Jewish community felt like my walks to and from the synagogue in Deerfield -- lonely and full of doubt.

At first, I thought I could gracefully say goodbye to Chipotle veggie bowls, pray on a daily basis and wear a kippah at all times. And there were times I could. But over the years, the sailing of observance has proven anything but smooth.

There is no law in Jewish texts, for example, explaining what to do when your company orders lunch for the office every day and the only kosher option available has lousy service. Nor does it tell you what to do when asked why you can't break Shabbat, no matter what it is you're missing out on. I wasn't prepared for attracting unwanted attention, or offending those who matter most to me, so I punted on the aspects of Judaism that I knew I'd want to take on eventually, but couldn't presently do on my own. Instead of working on my growth, my priorities shifted to doing what was convenient and keeping my ambition under wraps.

A lot of this had to do with the reality I faced in terms of dating. The already small Jewish dating pool was even smaller now. Despite moving into the city to be part of a more religious community and improve my odds, it felt like within a few months I had I met every single Shomer Shabbat Jewish girl in Lakeview. When I started to put myself out there, the "non-negotiables" I promised to look for on dates suddenly became flexible.

Worse, I often had to defend myself for believing what I believe. When out on a date or meeting someone new, I often said I went to dinner at a friend's on Friday night and hung out with friends on Saturday, instead of just mentioning Shabbat. Although it was an accurate description, it felt inauthentic to the meaning behind what I was doing. Spending Shabbat afternoon eating lunch, playing board games and going on walks is more meaningful than just hanging out. It's immersing yourself in an entire community for 25 hours in a shared spiritual experience that is incomparable to anything else.

And now I find myself in New York, a city where I can practice however I want without feeling guilty about it, or lonely.

I have been here just a couple short months, but there's already been a big difference. When my company learned about my Shabbat observance, the CEO followed up and asked me about my level of kashrut so that the company could accommodate me during company meals. I've never heard such a nuanced question from a non-Jewish person I've worked for. Overall, non-Jews have a better understanding of Judaism in New York than Chicago, but it wasn't until I saw this for myself that I fully realized the difference.

You would think this would make the transition to taking the next step easy, but it's not. While physically I live in New York, in my mind, I'm still in Chicago. Five years of a certain feeling or experience do not go away just because you change your home address.

It took me about a month before I was fully able to utter the phrase Shomer Shabbat, even to other people who are equally or more religious than me -- even in New York. While it's technically easier to be religious here, a part of me still feels tepid about it. The line I walk might no longer from the high wire-act I used to perform, but the muscle memory from that act is still there. Over time, I hope it is easier to balance.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.


Set Up By Grandpa

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Because it's more romantic than by a computer, right?

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Every few weeks, I go with my grandfather to visit his best friend. We see each other every other week; sometimes he treats me to dinner at Taboun in Skokie, and other times I visit him at home. But my favorite visits take place at Irving's retirement home. 

At 95 years old, my grandfather spends much of his time at home, except for the three or more times a week that he and my grandmother go to visit Irving. My grandfather and Irving exchange newspapers in big piles that I swear neither of them reads. In fact, I'm pretty sure they've been passing the same papers back and forth for years. Sometimes they argue over politics, and other times they binge-watch Fox News. When I come along, it's not uncommon for me to ask Irving a question only to have my grandfather spout the answer for him (or vice-versa). Despite the fact that both of them seem to be losing their hearing, they never have trouble hearing what the other is saying.

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My grandfather and his wife, Judy, who I consider my grandmother.

But our conversation usually starts with my grandfather asking me, "Have you met a nice Jewish man yet?"

I laugh and tease back. "I thought you were going to find me someone, Grandpa," I say.

For the next 10 minutes, I absentmindedly leaf through the piles of ignored papers while my grandfather threatens to start taking out advertisements in local Jewish newspapers to find my beshert. Then someone, usually my grandmother, gracefully manages to change the subject, and Irving and my grandfather retreat into their comfortable silence.

That's usually how it goes, except for this one time, when a few days after our visit, I got a text from from my grandmother, who -- at my grandfather's request -- sent an email to a friend asking if she knew of a potential match for me.

Apparently, my lack of a love life at the old age of 27 was such cause for concern that my grandfather felt he needed to intervene. I was torn between sighing and laughing.

To be fair, it's not like my attempts at dating on my own have produced stellar results. My close-knit group of friends makes it difficult to meet anyone new, and my attempts at online dating resulted in dates with men such as the one who was only using dating sites as a tool to find a job. I suppose I could use all the help I can get, so what was wrong with being set up by my grandfather?

In past generations, it was commonplace for relatives to introduce young Jews. And in a way, it felt more romantic in my mind to be able to say my future partner and I were matched by relatives instead of a computer.

So after the original humiliation waned, I was weirdly excited about the idea. I wanted to be set up by my grandfather.

Judaism speaks to me through traditions. I didn't grow up in a kosher home or go to synagogue every Shabbat, but the memories that revolve around Jewish customs -- throwing plastic bugs at the Passover Seder, or watching my 85-year-old grandmother become a bat mitzvah -- those are some of my favorites. Only recently did I become interested in learning more about the Jewish values and history behind the traditions I adore. I'm slowly starting to bring more of these practices into my daily life, so it felt fitting that I take a path to finding a life partner with more traditional roots.

I didn't hear back from my grandparents for a couple months, so I tried my hand at online dating again. After one eventful date with a gentleman who thought it appropriate to spew racist and obscene jokes the entire time, I pretty much resigned myself to being a spinster.

Then one day I received a call from an unknown number. I promptly let it go to voicemail, of course, but it turns it was from a nice young Jewish man, Alex, whose aunt was friends with my grandfather's friend, the one my grandmother had emailed. He was interested in meeting me.

I spent a good day trying to decide if I should call him back. After all, he must be a bit odd if he was willing to be set up on a blind date by a relative. Then again, so was I.

I boldly called Alex back (after spending a long time trying to plan out what I would say). Our phone conversation was quick and casual. He claimed to know of the best local sushi place, and intrigued by such a bold statement about one of my favorite foods, we made a date for later that week.

The afternoon of our date, I ran home from work and felt butterflies as I tried to decide what was appropriate to wear on a blind date set up by my grandfather. I decided on an outfit I felt comfortable and confident wearing. I felt good. Instead of my usual anxious nerves, I experienced more of a joyful nervous feeling.

Alex met me at the door to the restaurant. My first impression was relief; he was reasonably dressed, taller than me and fairly attractive with strong bone structure and dark hair, on top of which he kept a well-worn kippah. It was actually refreshing to see -- it suggested a comfort and pride in his religion, which I appreciated. So far, so good, Grandpa.

Figuring out what sushi to order made for an easy conversation starter, and while I usually stick to the rolls that have ingredients I can pronounce, Alex was a bit more knowledgeable and able to recommend some nigiri to go with my standard roll.

The food arrived on long, elegant rectangular trays. In between bites of salmon-topped California rolls and tuna-covered spicy vegetable rolls, I learned that we both enjoyed books that have elements of fantasy and science-fiction. I also learned he was a creative professional, but when I asked his career and plans, he became a bit distant.

Alex said his family frowned upon his current profession. He explained that he went to an Orthodox Jewish day school growing up where he felt his talents in the arts were stifled, and where men were discouraged from creative pursuits.

I tried to interject, my hand fiddling idly with the paper used to wrap napkins, but he was talking so passionately that I felt compelled to listen. He then concluded that all this had disenchanted him with Jewish culture.

Having grown up in a community that valued and supported all art forms (and all genders in the arts), I couldn't imagine how difficult this must have been. I was upset for him.

Then Alex navigated his feelings into a conversation around non-traditional gender roles in comics and film, and halfway through my nigiri, I realized I hadn't spoken more than a word at a time since we had ordered. I tried to chip in during one of his lectures about a movie series, but I got maybe four words in before my comments were refuted and forgotten.

After some perfect mango mochi, Alex walked me to my car and we made tentative plans to meet again, but our date left me kind of stunned. I wish I had gotten the chance to really introduce myself.

For days I played it all over in my head. Did he really talk so much or was I just exaggerating it in my mind? I talk a lot when I'm nervous, so that's what he's doing? I should give him another chance.

But I didn't. Not because of his relentless chatter, but because our lives seemed to be in very different stages. Alex was looking into possible new careers; I was just settling into my job of choice. I was just starting to feel the attraction of Jewish culture and tradition; he was pushing it away.

Harder than making that decision, however, would be telling my grandpa that all of his hard work and effort didn't pay off. Standing in his kitchen as my grandmother made us matzah brie, I told him about the date he had set up. Halfway into the story, my grandpa interrupted. "Wait a while," he said. "I have to put my ears in -- I can't hear what we are talking about."

After I told the whole story again, he smiled. "Oh well, there are still hundreds of grandparents at the nursing home; I'm sure one of them has a good match for my granddaughter. I'll keep asking."

Perhaps my grandfather's scheme didn't pan out (at least not yet -- I did get a new email from my grandmother just last week … ), but he did help me realize something extremely important. I do want a future life-partner with whom I can explore our Jewish identities. And more than that, I want my beshert to be someone like, well, Irving -- someone I can sit in a room with, week after week, whether in conversation or in complete silence, and never tire of their company.

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Danielle Borher is young Jewish woman in Chicago juggling a career in healthcare while exploring her Jewish identity. When not being set up on blind dates by her grandfather, she occupies her single-dom by performing on stage, taking long walks with her crazy dog, Kayla, and competing in Karate.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.

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30 and Widowed in Chicago

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Starting over in the city where we were supposed to spend the rest of our lives

Once upon a time, I was lucky in love.

Nathan and I hit it off at his 20th birthday party at Washington University in St. Louis. We became fast friends between the kisses, parties and laughs.

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Several months after we started dating, I joined his intermural Ultimate Frisbee team and sprained my ankle colliding with a teammate. After the game, Nathan helped me up the stairs to my apartment and fetched me an ice pack. It was the first time someone wanted to take care of me -- and make out with me. Isn't that all anyone ever wants?

Throughout the next several years, Nathan helped me understand sports and politics. He was brilliant, humble and hilarious. He could kick most people's butts in racquetball. He loved to travel and explore restaurants with me. Somehow I had found an amazing man -- I always told him how lucky we were.

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It wasn't all peaches and sparkles all the time, though. After our first year of dating, we did the long distance thing when I took a job in Indiana and he had a year left of school. When it was over, I didn't hesitate to join him in Milwaukee as he began medical school. Three years later, my job ran out of funding, but I got an offer in Chicago -- the city where Nathan was hoping to match for his residency; the city where we were both born and had family. Doing long distance again after more than four years together was not ideal, but we knew it would be temporary.

Then came Match Day, and Nathan matched in Milwaukee. He was upset. He was looking forward to a change of scenery, and he wouldn't get it for another few years at least. I cried about it, but knew it would be harder for both of us if we weren't together. Things were better for both of us when the other person was around.

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A month later, Nathan proposed at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the pinnacle to a wonderful, nearly two-week adventure. "Ilana, I love you. I want to do it all with you. Will you marry me?" It was the happiest day of my life until the day we got married.

I came back from our trip and started looking for jobs in Milwaukee again (while wedding planning), hoping to find something before my lease in Chicago ended. When I came up empty, I moved in with his parents in the suburbs to at least shorten the distance between Milwaukee and Chicago. By December, I quit my job and moved back to Milwaukee without anything lined up. Again. For him -- for us. We were married in May.

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Ilana and Nathan on their wedding day.

It was just a year ago January that I remember sharing with Nathan some amusing anecdote about a colleague's dating misadventures. We both chuckled, glad that we didn't have to date as adults. I told him it sounded hard, exhausting and frustrating. How lucky we were, nearly nine years after our first kiss, to only have to date each other.

And then, one month later, Nathan died unexpectedly. Needless to say, I didn't feel so lucky anymore. I was a widow at 29 years old.

The day after I finished sitting shiva for Nathan, I told my boss that I wanted to move back to Chicago. I felt a strong need to continue cultivating my relationship with my in-laws, and brothers-in-law. I spent the last nine Thanksgivings with them, including this past one, the first without Nathan. They were my family. I wanted access to a vibrant city, where I could run into old classmates at events or on the street. I needed to be in a city where people knew me before I was a part of "IlaNathan."

Of course, I also knew I needed to be in a city where there were other Jewish unmarried 20- and 30-somethings, people with whom I could learn, laugh, explore and hopefully -- one day -- love. In Milwaukee, my friends were almost entirely couples getting ready to start families; the Jewish life there was stifling and devoid of ample age-appropriate single, Jewish men.

For months and months after Nathan died, my heart wasn't open to letting another man in, yet my fingers were going through withdrawal without Nathan on the receiving end of my texts. Maybe I wasn't ready for love, but I needed something -- someone -- to fill this tremendous void, someone to check in on me, flirt with me, admire me, and, yes -- send me thoughtful emojis.

I asked other young widows what was appropriate. It turns out, there's no Emily Post to guide you through the dos and don'ts of widowhood. They said anything that made the days more manageable -- that made me feel less sad in the moment -- was the right thing to do. "You do you," is a common mantra among this peer group.

Regardless, friends were surprised when I went on my first first date in nearly a decade. Friends judged. Friends were in disbelief that I was moving forward, and that I was no longer part of the couple they had admired for so long.

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Ilana (bottom right) with Nathan's brothers and their significant others.

I judged too. I too was in disbelief. On my second date, I left and cried the entire car ride home. Is this my new life? Going out with guys who live in apartments that smell like a locker room? Guys with makeshift coffee tables made out of plastic hampers, littered with papers and unidentifiable sticky substances everywhere? Guys who need convincing that an eight-hour first date is a bad idea? Having to explain to these guys what happened to the one I was with for nine years?

Apparently, this is my new life.

At first, I was upfront about being a widow. I included a line about it on my dating profiles. I didn't want to waste my time with someone who wasn't emotionally mature enough to handle my loss. But as time went on, I decided that wasn't fair. Most people don't include their dating history on their profile -- why should I?

Eventually, the "W" I felt emblazoned on my chest faded. My coping mechanism of choice has been to schedule myself stupid. I am determined to continue putting myself out there, to meet people who can introduce me to more people, to cast as wide of a net as possible.

So far, I have met people at happy hours, alumni events, Shabbat gatherings, speed-dating events, and a ton of other young professional programs. I smiled. I drank. And I told my story.

I joined a book club and told them about Nathan. I opened up to my colleagues about why I quit my last job and moved to Chicago. I'm sure I have made a lot of people uncomfortable -- but I'm not sure I care.

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Ilana (right) at a Jewish young adult event.

And I've continued to date, mostly through the online dating platforms I never thought I'd have to use. And it is exhausting, frustrating and hard. I've been on maybe two or three dozen dates since Nathan died. I've cried after some, and harder after others.

But I'm opting to spend much of my time offline, because it only takes a few minutes of talking to someone to know if there's potential for romance, or to find out that they're younger than 26. Of course there isn't anything inherently wrong with being in your early or mid-20s, but I know in my heart of hearts that as a now 30-year-old widow who at one very recent point in time had baby names picked out with her husband, men of a certain (younger) age simply aren't going to get me.

The loneliness can be consuming, but I know I'm not alone in my quest to find another Jewish partner. I know I'm not even alone in knowing what I'm looking for, though I don't know that I'll be able to recognize it in a package that's not Nathan. I know there are others my age (and older) craving events that offer a better chance of developing more meaningful connections.

So I continue to look for my next beshert, sometimes with a slightly jaded outlook after now being alone for a year -- sometimes with a more hopeful outlook when I meet someone inspiring, someone who makes me laugh and is able to teach me about something I wouldn't have otherwise known.

There's still so much I don't know, but one thing I do know is that as sad as I am and as unlucky as I feel, I'm lucky to have known Nathan. I only hope that one day, someone else feels as lucky to know me.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.

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A Whale of a Truth

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Seeking answers in the 'Blackfish' controversy.

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After taking my kids to pet the dolphins, kiss the sea lions and watch the killer whales at a marine mammal theme park in Florida, I was told I have to see the documentary Blackfish.

For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it follows the history of three deaths associated with a captive killer whale named Tilikum, along with the history and context of other captive killer whales. It shows sailors (with big beards and tattoos) crying over how sad it was to take the baby whales (adult whales were too large to transport) from their families in the wild and the mother whales moaning as their babies are taken away from them. There are scenes of whales that have been "raked," or scraped by other whales' teeth, attributed to the animals' aggression due to the confinement of their tanks. It tells stories of these socially advanced marine mammals being isolated from the other whales or in tiny pools.

The filmmakers interview whale trainers who describe their sadness at seeing the treatment of these creatures, and pepper in gut-wrenching facts such as how the life span of killer whales is only half or a third as long in captivity as in the wild.

Needless to say, I had a newfound dismay with our innocent trip to see these sea creatures.

But I decided to continue my explorations beyond the documentary; I believe in trying to judge everyone favorably, and I felt the least I could do was give my childhood-idealized theme parks a chance to defend themselves. I soon found major research-based responses to practically everything I found so disturbing in the documentary.

For example, killer whales have not been taken from the wild since the '70s. Raking happens in the wild too. Parks with tiny pools are no longer active and often whales are separated to protect them when being attacked by their "comrades." There is a multitude of trainers who vehemently disagree with the film's depictions, including some of the people interviewed in the film claiming their words were taken out of context. The "baby whales" were only taken from their mothers after many years fully grown with babies of their own, which were actually transferred with them. And many of the "facts" about moaning, expected lifespan, and even accusations of these creatures being traumatized to the point of becoming psychotic murderous creatures were speculations and unfounded in research or facts.

So now what do I do with all this? Well, as a rabbi, I see truth. No, I don't see any truth in how to decipher which side to believe. I don't think most of us will really know a full truth about orcas in captivity, and I have no personal claim in any direction on the topic.

However, there is an important truth that I do claim we can learn from the two sides presented here in understanding the human psyche: We are inclined to believe what we hear and see.;

When something is presented to us, especially when presented emotionally and with conviction, we are inclined to believe it. And then we become impassioned about it. We'll even start to take action based on the passions we now feel. Sadly, we often skip the integral step of asking ourselves a simple question -- "Is that really true?" Is the perception I am being fed the actual truth of what happened?

It can be slightly daunting to tell our kindled emotions to slow down for a minute as we intellectually process the validity to what is being presented. If asked, we would all claim to be truth-seekers, but in order to truly seek truth, we have to sometimes give truth-seeking credence even beyond our emotions.

Part of the prayer the Shema includes a perplexing passage that says, "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes as they lead you astray." One could ask, if we can't trust our hearts and our eyes, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is that we have to think. Our hearts become impassioned by what is seen long before we have contemplated validity and truth to it. The Torah teaches us time and time again the importance of thinking for ourselves. Sometimes the supremacy of using our mind has to come before our heart's first impulse and even over our eyes' first impression.

I don't know how to feel when I think about the orcas still in captivity, but I do know that I've got a new understanding of the phrase, "Think twice before you act."


The Five Books that Changed My Life

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I'd like to use this space to share with you the five books that have changed my life. Please let me know if these books have changed your life, too; and feel free to comment with books that have changed your life!

I'll share these in the order by which they changed my life.


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1. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

It's possible that The Tipping Point was the first real non-fiction book I willingly read. The book teaches us how small changes can make a big difference. One of my favorite takeaways from the book is the idea of a "connector." If you're planning an event, you don't need to make 100 phone calls to invite people; instead, call the five "connectors," the people who have a million friends, and they'll bring their networks. I use these concepts every day in my work life, volunteer life and social life, and I'm grateful to this book for piquing my interest in marketing and communications.

You should read this book if … you're looking for easy fixes to increase your success with friends, business, or volunteering.


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2. Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey with Michele Bender

Curly girls, make some noise! Throw away your hair straighteners! Let your curls shine! Curly Girl: The Handbook is a curly manifesto, encouraging girls (and boys!) with curly hair to wear it proud. In another generation, curly hair was considered unprofessional, Lorraine Massey writes, but today it's fun, hip, smart, sexy and appropriate for the office.

This book offers both encouragement for curly girls and step-by-step tips on how to manage, maintain, and enhance curly hair. The advice offered in this book has helped me feel confident with my wavy hair, and since reading the book more than six years ago, I have not once straightened my hair (sorry, Mom!).

You should read this book if … you have curly or wavy hair and need some emotional (or shampooical) support.


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3. The Spirituality of Welcoming by Dr. Ron Wolfson

This book is truly the reason I got into my current line of work -- synagogue membership and community. Dr. Ron Wolfson writes about the power of creating welcoming spaces and friendly communities. Synagogues (and really, any congregation or organization) can't just be about a big beautiful building -- people must feel comfortable and cared for.

Do your synagogues have directional signs? Would a visitor know where to hang her coat? Have visitors' needs been anticipated? After reading this book, I applied to work at Temple Jeremiah as the membership director and have never looked back. (Side note: When I met Dr. Wolfson a few years after reading this book, I was completely star-struck and felt I was meeting my celebrity idol.)

You should read this book if … you're involved with welcoming newcomers (and aren't we all?).


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4. The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman

My husband, Adam, recommended that I read this book when we first started dating. This book discusses five different ways of expressing love, and while this book focuses on romantic love, I think it can be applied to friends, family members, and even co-workers.

People express love differently and it is important to understand how your partner expresses and receives this love, whether it's in the form of words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service (like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes), quality time, or gifts. I found this book to be so eye-opening and a fascinating study on relationships.

You should read this book if … you're in a romantic, friend, work, or family relationship.


The Five Books that Changed My Life photo 5

5. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

This is my new Obsession -- with a capital "O." I never, ever thought that tidying actually mattered all that much; everyone has a room that's off-limits during dinner parties where you throw all of your stuff into, right? But boy, do I think differently now.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , Marie Kondo writes that you should only keep items that bring you joy, and everything else should be thanked and then discarded. Once you're left with only joy-sparking items, every item will have a home and should be returned to its home when you're finished with it.

Since reading this book in November, I've focused on little else other than tidying using Kondo's method. As a result, I've donated a dozen bags of clothes, three bags of books, and two bags of DVDs; thrown away another dozen bags of garbage and papers; bought a scanner so I can aim towards a paperless lifestyle; and given each of my items a home. There's still more work to be done, but our apartment is on its way to being a much happier place.

You should read this book if … your house or apartment isn't what you want it to be (or if you just have too much stuff).


Some ‘Take Out’ Takeaways

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Some 'Take Out' Takeaways photo

A Jewish ethicist, Rabbi Elya Lopian, once commented that the true measurement of a person's middot, or character traits, is how he or she treats those in his or her own home. He observed that often people are much nicer to strangers than to loved ones in their own family. I so relate, because I am generally viewed as a nice person to strangers.

For me, a casual interaction with someone in a store isn't a big deal. It's a once or twice relationship. It's not directly ongoing, nor is there much to be gained from investing time or effort into the person at the cash register. In your family, being nice is a constant challenge. That's why it's more difficult to keep your cool, speak pleasantly, be appreciative and display a level of respect at home.

This is something -- especially in dealing with my kids -- that I am constantly working on. It's a job in the real sense, because effort is involved. There are times that I win and there are times that I slip and lose it. It's less frequent than it was, say, two years ago, but it happens.

Last night, I placed an order for some take out. I went, picked up my order, and came home. When I started unloading the purchased items, I realized that I was missing something. I quickly called the establishment and asked if the item I was "missing" was meant to be included with my order. It was. So I asked if I could come back and pick up the item and, of course, they said yes.

I showed up, explained the situation and they apologized profusely. I told them that it really wasn't a big deal and that I was sure they were just busy when they put the order together.

Then, on my way back, I wondered why I didn't adapt this easygoing attitude at home. Here I was telling them "no big deal," when I had paid for an item and didn't receive it. Yet, I find myself frustrated and impatient when I ask one of my kids to pick up their dirty clothes and they choose not to. It's not like I paid them to actually clean up their clothes; there was no implied exchange for services rendered. There is, however, a relationship built on trust, love, respect and appreciation. That's really the kicker.

When working with any "volunteers" it's imperative to appreciate what they do. I realized that my strategy of working on patience and keeping my cool only really affects how I perceive things, or the input -- not the output.

So, when I came home, I went straight into my son's room and told him that I really appreciate all the effort he puts into studying, and that I understand that after a full day of school he might be too tired to care about the state of his room. I also told him that if he wants help picking up clothes, I'd be happy to assist him.

If I can be nice and understanding to the person behind the counter, then I should be even more so to my own family. Well, at least, that's the plan.

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