OyChicago blog

My Grandma’s Super Sweet 90th Birthday Bat Mitzvah Bash

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08/29/2014

My Grandma’s Super Sweet 90th Birthday Bat Mitzvah Bash photo 1

A few weeks ago, my wonderful, hilarious, sassy grandma reached the incredible milestone of 90. Nonee Ethel has always been an integral part in all of our lives, “our” referring to my sprawling extended family. Like most grandmas, she is infinitely special to us. As spring turned to summer and August 13 rapidly approached, the family got to planning a surprise birthday party no one would soon forget.

It started a few weeks after my sister returned from Birthright Israel. Regaling my grandmother with her experience of being bat mitzvah-ed on Masada, Nonee waxed poetic: she would have loved to both visit the Jewish homeland and to formally become a bat mitzvah, but didn’t have the chance in her nearly 90 years. One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had a birthday theme.

Shortly, a family email chain of epic proportions began, and what started off as a funny idea tossed out as a possible party theme took on a life of its own.

A myriad of ideas were discussed, responsibilities delegated and pictures for a very special bat mitzvah montage were shared. Not only would there be a montage, but there would be a “trip to Israel,” complete with “The Wailing Wall” (a display of the great-grandchildren’s building blocks), “Masada” (a poster of the Birthright highlight placed fittingly atop a flight of stairs) and other little touches. We crafted the perfect candle-lighting ceremony, complete with speeches, and set up a little bimah to make it all “official.” Everyone took to the project with so much creativity and love.

The day of, all of my aunts and cousins feverishly decorated the party house, making sure all of the creations and little touches were just so. We had some pretty fun birthday ideas to live up to from the past, after all. For example, we celebrated Nonee’s 85th by renting a party van and transporting the crew to Superdawg, one of our favorite places. Anyway, as the clock struck a quarter to six, we all found a place to hide and prepared to surprise our most favorite 90-year-old lady in the world.

Needless to say, Nonee was incredibly touched by the Israel trip and subsequent bat mitzvah. We gathered together and said the shehecheyanu to really commemorate her special day. I especially enjoyed writing a candle-lighting speech just for her. How often is it that you get to share your feelings in such a way? How do you even begin to say how grateful you are for someone who has been such a big part of your life, a cheerleader present at every concert, play, you-name-it from the time I was born?

Thank you, Nonee. For leading the way, for sharing your love, advice, delicious baked goods and more. I hope you had fun at your 90th birthday and I hope you know just much you are loved and appreciated. Mazel tov!

My Grandma’s Super Sweet 90th Birthday Bat Mitzvah Bash photo 2

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Small Worlds

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08/28/2014

Small Worlds photo

Years ago, I tacked a blank piece of paper onto the wall above my computer at home. Since then, I’ve covered its every inch with names of cities from around the world, cities I chanced upon during mindless hours of Google scrolling.

Mykonos, Rio, Madrid.

Zanzibar, Varanasi, Granada.

All I’ve ever wanted to do was travel.

Currently, I’m not traveling. In fact, I work downtown, in the Aon building. For those of you familiar with Chicago, you’d recognize it as that tremendously tall, glaringly white structure looming over Millennium Park like a pillar in the sky. During lunchtime, people pour out of the front doors in waves. There are at least fifty elevators. It’s enormous.

Every once in a while, from my cubicle facing a wall on the 36th floor, I sneak a glance back to Google. Sometimes it hits me unexpectedly. I’ll be innocently writing up an industry update when — before I know it — I’m Googling South American hostels on the Pacific coastline with vacancies for unpaid North American receptionists.

But, putting aside dreams of glittering beaches or windswept desert sands for a moment, what is it exactly about travel that is just so addictive? Sure, it’s a break in the monotonous cycle of waking and working. It’s a way to learn a new language, or try an exotic food directly from its source. It provides a new perspective, the ability to switch out the customary lens that filters and fogs our experiences, in exchange for a new — and potentially higher — vantage point.

But I think that underneath it all, the real reason we travel is to meet other people. Even the most stalwart introvert would be pretty disappointed if she crossed the globe and never spoke to anybody but her flight attendant. Talking to people from around the world, with experiences entirely different than our own, is what makes travel great. You gain a better sense of the world through empathy, and return home with a newer understanding of everything that’s always been around you.

Before this article begins to sound like the prelude to a travel blog, I’d like to point out — you don’t always need to hop on the plane to have the same experiences. Becoming more empathetic can be as easy as taking a closer look at the people around you.

Anyone who has seen Spike Jonze’s futuristic, computer/human romance Her, might recall a few quotes about empathy. In one scene, the mopey Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix with an impressive mustache) meanders through a crowded carnival recounting the people who pass by to Samantha, his personal operating system. A young boy vigorously munches on popcorn next to his brooding grandpa. A quiet, elderly gentleman sits alone on a bench. A nervous-looking man is introduced to his lovely girlfriend’s children.

“Sometimes,” Theodore admits quietly, “I look at people and try to make myself try to feel them as more than just a random person walking by. I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love. How much heartbreak they’ve all been through.”

Theodore is a little fixated on love, but he still has a pretty good point — what if during our busy days of shuffling through our commute, we paused to actually take a look at the people around us?

Each day that I walk downtown muddled in a swarm of urbanites, I rarely take a moment to consider who’s beside me. The woman who’s chattering away on her phone to my left? She’s likely experienced heartbreak, loss, moments of enlightenment. An epic story line.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that claims, “We live in a world full of small worlds.” We each have our own stories, red herrings, and central characters in the plots that fill up a lifetime. Of course, traveling is an excellent way to learn about other people. But exploring other “small worlds” could be as close as the person you sit next to on the train.

At this particular moment, the person sitting next to me on the train is a bulky, middle-aged man, with short-trimmed brown hair, pink skin and a plastic cup of wine in his hand, which he’s sipping at through a narrow black coffee straw. It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, so I suppose that’s understandable. Are any of these houses that blur past us on our commute his? Does he have children, maybe a pair of kids toddling by the front door, eagerly awaiting their dad’s arrival? A frail, elderly aunt whom he works overtime for in order to support?

I’ll never know. Maybe one day our small worlds will gently tap each other again, or I’ll meet someone else whose small world will merge into my own. Either way, glimpsing another person’s reality is the beauty of travel, whether or not a physical distance is crossed. In the meantime though, I’ll keep sneaking peeks back at Google Maps.

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Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken

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08/27/2014

Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken photo 1x

One Friday a few weeks ago, hubs called me with a long, breathy sigh … it had been a bad day. A very bad, horrible, day. And on those days I know my hubby needs comfort food. 

For him that is anything crispy and savory. So off to the fridge I went to grab some freshly butchered chicken cutlets and some lemons. And as my little toddler whipped circles around me chasing the tortured cat, I went on a scavenger hunt in my pantry trying to find the perfect crust for my cutlets. But my pantry had failed me. I had no breadcrumbs. And it hurts me to say it, but I only had a few tablespoons of flour. It was a sad, sad day in this girl’s house. And then I saw a container that looked somewhat promising to me. It was from the last time I made matzo balls.

Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken photo 2

Classic Manischewitz matzo meal! And right there on the box was golden fried beautiful chicken cutlets! How have I been so clueless all this time! OF COURSE this would work! To hell with breadcrumbs! I’m using matzo meal! So I chopped up some parsley, scraped off some lemon zest and went to work. About 25 minutes and several beautifully crisp chicken cutlets later, I was pleased.

Hubs walked in right when I had placed my finishing touches on the platter of beauties. And I plated him one with a simple side dish of our favorite Avocado and Feta salad.

He sat and chewed the crunchy chicken and let out a sigh of relief. The munchkin sat right next to him in her high chair happily gobbling up every last crumb. Licking her fingers and making a satisfying “mmmmmmm” sound with each bite. I swear no one enjoys food more than this munchkin. Look at those food smears on the side of her mouth! Such a ham! She is smiling that big because she just ate an entire chicken cutlet.

Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken photo 3

For the first time in the past hour, hubs let out a loud laugh as the little munchkin burped unexpectedly and then pointed to the cat in blame. This one will be trouble.

His so called very bad day … not so bad anymore. With a few pieces of his favorite chicken and some much needed comic relief from the munchkin, hubs was once again my happy love bunny. And my Friday was complete.

Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken photo 4

Crispy Matzo Lemon Chicken
from girlandthekitchen.com

Ingredients

2 cups matzo meal 
2 pounds chicken cutlets 
4 egg whites 
zest of one lemon 
3 tbsp of chopped parsley plus more for garnish 
1 lemon sliced thinly 
2 tbsp garlic powder 
1 tbsp paprika 
salt and pepper to taste 

Instructions

1. Measure out about 2 cups of matzo meal. Add in salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika and lemon zest.

2. Then whip up 4 egg whites and add the Italian parsley.

3. Set up an assembly line. Egg white plate, matzo meal plate and an empty plate.

4. Dip the chicken cutlets into the egg white mixture first. Making sure to cover both sides. Do this with your LEFT hand.

5. Then with your RIGHT hand dip into the matzo meal mixture. You want to do this with different hands or else you will have what I call mummy hands.

6. Place about 2 tbsp of butter in a large pan over medium high heat and let it come to a sizzle. 

7. Cook it on one side for 3-4 minutes until nice and golden brown. Then flip it and cook it for another 3 minutes until crispy and golden brown.

8. Lay them on paper towels so they drain any access butter that may be on them. Also, feel free to change the oil/butter out with each batch if you have too many burnt bits in the pan.

9. Garnish with a few lemon slices and some parsley. Dive in! 

Notes

If you are using this for the Jewish holidays, you can use coconut oil or olive oil to make it truly Kosher.  

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Spare the Maxi Dress!

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08/26/2014

Spare the Maxi Dress! photo

Almighty benevolent God in heaven, if there is such a god, and if there is such a place, I have one small request. One simple favor for which I pray. On behalf of all humanity, to you I reach out today.

Please, God, let maxi dresses stay in style for at least one more year.

I’m not normally one who is current on the latest fashion trends. I remember distinctly in middle school thinking that capri pants were ugly and I’d never wear them — but sure enough, a few years later, there I was, sporting the three-quarter-length pants. I was all about the glitter on my eyes and the butterfly clips in my hair, but not until the popular girls did it first. And I wore my jean jacket long enough past middle school that it almost stretched to its comeback last year.

The fads come and go — which is unfortunate for my wallet — but usually I quickly get over their loss and move on to the next fashion trend. But if maxi dresses are out of style next year — one short year after I purchased five long, beautiful, flowy maxi dresses and skirts — then I’m not sure why it’s worth even attempting to believe in You.

These dresses look great on everyone — they make the tall look taller and the short look slightly less short. Maxi dress wearers need not worry about shaving their legs, or, in my case, showing the world their ghostly white legs. They pair well with the aforementioned jean jacket, a sweater, or even just a beaded necklace. They are casual and comfortable, both for walking and for sitting cross-legged on the floor.

My beloved maxi dresses have this uncanny way of filling a social ambiguity, when you’re wondering if you should dress up, dress down, wear nice pants, wear jeans and heels, or just skip the event altogether because you’re completely clueless on what to wear. What do you wear? You wear a maxi dress.

Ruler of the Universe, I just started appreciating these maxi dresses recently. If this becomes one of those fashions — the fad that just fades — I won’t know what to do with myself. Now that I’ve lived in a world where I can go from a street festival to an engagement party to a religious service without changing clothes, I just don’t think I could bear to go back to how it was before.

I need more time. It doesn’t have to be forever. Of course, that would be great, but I don’t want to be a greedy devotee. All I ask is for at least one more year of maxi trendiness, and then maybe two to three subsequent years of everyone understanding that the trend is on its way out but is still tolerated.

Because right now I have a yellow maxi skirt and a blue one, two teal dresses, and a gray one — and I think that I might want to buy a black one. And possibly a purple one.

Thank you for hearing my prayer, O Lord of Fashion. And let us say: Amen.

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Let Them in Your Personal Space

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How to “like” the things people say when you are not on Facebook
08/25/2014

Let Them in Your Personal Space photo

The High Holidays are around the corner, and with them comes an opportunity to share many meals with friends and family. Holidays in general remind me of the importance of taking the relationships that we keep online through social media, offline. We come together face to face and break bread with those that are important in our lives.

The people are a big piece of what makes holiday times special. There is no doubt about it that the food plays a major role in making memories too. I think another more subtle force at play is that, by and large, holiday celebrations take place at someone’s home. When I think of holiday celebrations of the past, I recall the smells, sounds and sights of my Bubbie’s home just as much as I do the taste of her brisket and the faces of those seated at the table.

Judaism considers welcoming guests to be one of the most important mitzvot that we can perform. The custom is said to date back to the time of Abraham, who stood at the entrance of his tent on hot days in the hopes that he might see someone passing by to invite into his home. In today’s world of big city living, I don’t know of many people who would stand on their balconies looking for hungry people to call up to their apartments for lunch, though I have been a part of many communities where organizing meals and potlucks in the homes of friends is the norm.  

Many of us regularly meet friends and loved ones for coffee, drinks, or dinner in public places, but the dynamic changes when we meet in someone’s own personal space. Instead of meeting on neutral ground, we are allowing someone to see us in a more vulnerable and intimate space. This creates a more intimate experience, a deeper conversation and a more authentic sharing of what our lives are really like.

For young adult Jews, organizations such as Moishe House and programs such as Birthright NEXT Shabbat have been helping young Jews come together to share in meals. Local synagogues, JCCs and chavurah communities also provide opportunities to bring people together in this way. In my experience, the magic of inviting others into our personal space to share conversation, ideas, thoughts and feelings is the root of the magic formula that makes these ventures so successful.

This year, I invite you to consider being a host to or allow yourself to be hosted by someone new in your life. It is a practice as old as Abraham for making your relationships deeper than any Facebook post would ever allow. May you have a Happy and Sweet New Year!    

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Tomato Vortex

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08/22/2014

Tomato Vortex photo

The thing I love most about summer is how it’s the opposite of winter. Maybe that’s too basic, but after last winter, can you blame me? I’ve been doing a little happy dance every time I walk outside and see the sun shining and realize that we’re not in a polar vortex.

There are other things I love about this time of year: longer days filled with extra sunshine, beach visits, bare feet and Chicago’s many street fests. Those are all fine and dandy, but I think it’s time we recognize the one true king of summer—the summer tomato.

Sure, tomatoes aren’t all that hard to find any time of the year, but that’s because we’re spoiled brats. We can have any old thing we want to eat any time we want it. We’re lucky to be alive when out-of-season produce can be shipped all over the place. You can have a peach in January or asparagus in November. The old days of only eating foods that are in season are gone.

While that is amazing, we shouldn’t forget that there’s a difference. A tomato is a tomato is a tomato, right? Well, no, not exactly. Nothing can compare to the taste of in-season tomatoes or other produce that didn’t need a passport to get to your grocery store. So, friends, prepare your taste buds, summer tomatoes are coming.

What will you do with this season’s tomato bounty? I’m looking forward to tomato sandwiches, sliced tomato with a sprinkle or two of salt, and caprese salads. While large tomatoes are delicious, we shouldn’t forget grape tomatoes. Those little guys are like nature’s candy. I recently discovered a new way to eat these little mini treats of summer. It’s quickly becoming my most favorite way to enjoy them. You really must give this recipe a try – it’s sure to knock your socks off.

Tomato Shortcakes

Ingredients

1 can of biscuits (I use a Southern-style)
1 small container of soft herbed spreadable cheese

Tomato Salad

1 tablespoon olive oil (I use garlic infused oil to add a little zip)
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
pinch of sugar
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound grape tomatoes (mixed colors, if you can find them)

Directions

Prepare the biscuits according to the directions on the package.

For the tomato salad, whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, sugar, and freshly ground black pepper in the bottom of a bowl. Quarter the tomatoes lengthwise and add them to the bowl with the dressing, tossing them together gently.

To assemble the shortcakes, split each warm biscuit in half. Smear a bit of the cheese on to the biscuit halves. Generously spoon each half with the tomato salad and its dressing. Eat!!

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One Mom, Four Kids, Five Days

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08/21/2014

One Mom, Four Kids, Five Days photo

Annice and her kids in Seattle (after being “rescued” by her husband).

I’ve had a lot of help in my life. I have a very dependable husband who fills in my various deficiencies quite nicely. I have a wonderful family and friends that pinch hit for me when I’m late, lost and overwhelmed. I have kids who intuit my (in)capacities and forgive my imperfections. When you’re surrounded by a net, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to stand alone.

Every summer we take a family trip with my parents. They rent a house; we beach it every day, head out to a county fair or two, cook, play board games and watch movies. It’s an easy week of four kids to four adults where we just show up and enjoy. And every winter, my mother-in-law takes us somewhere warm and exotic that leaves no time for complaining and insists my husband and I take a few nights to ourselves while she manages four kids with room service and a smile. I have been very, very lucky.

I have also been very, very clueless. This is the only way I can explain my decision to fly to Oregon and vacation with my four kids for five days with no additional help. It seemed manageable; my hubby would be waiting for us afterward in Seattle, where we would stay for a week as one incredibly well-adjusted (ahem) dual-parented family.

Well, kinda.

The day my solo journey began, I somehow forgot some things. Like, my hairbrush, my shampoo and conditioner and oh, anything whatsoever to entertain/feed my kids on the plane. Part of that I will blame on a 6:00 a.m. flight that required a 5:00 a.m. arrival and a 4:00 a.m. wake up. The second we sat down it was a cacophony of:

“I’m hungry!”

“I’m bored!”

“Is there a movie?”

“She’s/he’s touching me!”

“Are we there yet?”

I will admit my family is given a lot of leeway from strangers. They dig/are horrified by the mohawks and are curious as to Fray’s origin and are amused by her moxie with her three brothers. I cash in on that a lot. This plane ride was no exception. I got away with “feeding” them gum and renting portable movie players (for an outlandish fee) while passengers smiled sympathetically at the frazzled, clueless mother travelling with her mini gang of thugs and a princess. This graciousness allowed me to pass out for a few hours and dream that I was Martha Stewart (and her only child is grown, right?)

The first serious hitch in our trip beyond the immediate Maslow hierarchy of needs came when our rental car pick-up turned out to be downtown and not at the airport as I had thought. Having to negotiate four kids, two suitcases and two backpacks onto a train in a strange city made me tear up a little – not gonna lie – but the tears of terror turned to joyful ones when we successfully hit that Hertz counter and nothing and no one got left on the train.

I don’t want to mislead you. This baby bird didn’t jump out of the nest and fearlessly freefall. I have family in Oregon (plus “Shark Week” babysat a few hours every night) and I had help with city navigation from my cousin until she left and Google maps took over. But I did successfully pick activities, outings and food that were well-received. The hardest part for me was serving as 24-hour negotiator of disagreements/driving/navigation and as WWF referee without having the company of another adult for sanity check-in. (“The kid’s being an asshole, right? It’s not just me, right?”)

So? Would I do it again? Yup – in a heartbeat. Next summer? New Mexico! (Locals, consider this ample warning!) As my kids get older it’s easier all around to do things (and they actually remember all the stuff you drag them to.) I like that I had the opportunity to show them a part of the country that was new to them. I tell my kids all the time the world is a big place and I’m happy to be their (albeit neurotic) escort as they realize – at least on occasion – mom might be right.

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