OyChicago blog

A kvetch about kitsch

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01/31/2012

Is enough enough yet?

We have seen booksmoviessongs (this one's NSFW, but it was the first one that came up)… magazinesT-shirtspuppets… even plays.

There is nothing wrong with kitsch. In spoonfuls of sugar. It's when kitsch becomes the meal that I have an issue. It's when Judaism itself is so medicinal it takes, well, this to get it down.

Jewish kitsch has been around for a very, very, very long time. And as you can see by these links, it has mostly been expressed by music.

But today, you can go through the entire year of Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, with kitsch. You can celebrate every part of the Jewish life-cycle with kitsch. It can even be there before a Jewish life has begun (these last two are seriously NSFW).

So when I see that certain Jews relate to their faith, tradition, and people primarily through kitsch, parody, and pop culture, I worry. I worry that some people are using joking-about-Judaism as their main way of identifying as Jewish. As being Jewish.

There is nothing wrong with a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. The problem is when you see certain things as "medicine" when they are really the "sugar."

Judaism is not medicine. It is not an unappealing-but-necessary thing. I don't "take" Judaism because I'm sick and it will help me get better. It's not even an apple to help me keep the doctor away.

Judaism is not the medicineit's the sugar. I don't feel that I'm put-upon because have to be Jewish. I'm lucky because I get to be Jewish.

I get to have a holiday almost every month, plus one every week. I get to have a role in of one of the longest-running shows in human existence. I get to claim the Torah. I get to claim several wonderful languages and musics and literary traditions and cuisines and yes, comedians. Plus a very special slice of the Earth that everybody else wants, just because we said it was special.

As I said, there is nothing wrong with poking fun at Judaism. We Jews have a very good sense of humor about ourselves. In fact, we're sorta famous for it.

But when we predominantly see Judaism through the lenses of humor and parody, it becomes hard to take it seriously at all. And when Jewish jokes become Judaism, I'm afraid that the joke will be on us.

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100 more reasons to live

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01/30/2012

100more

Andy in 2004, March 2011 and Jan. 2012 

Pull out your driver's license and look at what you listed as your weight. Mine says 175. I got that license about 5 years ago. Never in my adult life has my scale read the number on my license. That is until the beginning of this year when I passed an important milestone. I actually weighed what my license said I weighed. In fact, as I write this post, I am actually four and a half pounds under that number.

Two years ago, I wrote a post called, "100 Reasons to Live," where I publically acknowledged my addiction to food and my hopes of beating it. It took some time to do the work and build up the courage to face my anxieties and fears and issues with food. I even gained some more pounds back after writing that piece. At the same time, I never gave up and the response I received from telling that story, continued to inspire me. In March of 2011, with the support of my wife, I went for more help re-joining a Weight Watchers Program. The scale began to dial back again.

Over the last year, I have lost over 50 pounds. Around 10 more pounds from here, and I will be within the recommended range for Body Mass Index of 25. I will have made the journey from just over 300 pounds in 2004, to just over 160, eight years later. For the first time in my life, I won't be considered medically overweight. For the first time ever, I won't be fat. It feels liberating to be relieved of all of that physical and emotional baggage.

The cat litter we usually buy (the kind in the large plastic buckets) weighs around 25 pounds. Imagine carrying one of those in each hand, all day, every day. That is what it means to be 50 pounds overweight. A window air-conditioning unit weighs around 50 pounds. Try taking two air-conditioning units out of your window and carrying one on each shoulder. Can you imagine how you would feel at the end of just one day? Imagine the extra strain on the joints, the muscles, and the heart. Now imagine that feeling every day, all day, all of your life. That is the feeling of being crushed by 100 pounds of extra weight.

Someone recently asked me if I feel like a whole new person from all this weight loss? You lose a lot with 100 pounds or 50 pounds or any pounds of weight loss for that matter, and in the process you gain perspective. My relationship to food, to my body and to others has forever been changed. Maybe I really am a whole new person. At the very least, I definitely lost the equivalent weight of one person.

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My two-and-a-half-year-old celebrity

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01/27/2012

My two-and-a-half-year-old celebrity photo

We walk into the dining room, and heads turn. Diners stop eating and point. Faces light up. The wait staff, recognizing our arrival, scurries to the kitchen for the appropriate supplies. Ben, my two-and-a-half-year-old celebrity, leads me to an open table, stopping every so often to slap someone five or accept a small gift, usually a bag of oyster crackers. The scenario replays every week, sometimes twice a week, each time we visit my grandmothers at their respective independent living facilities.

Once we are settled at the table, the visitors trickle over to ruffle Ben’s hair, ask him how old he is, and compliment his excellent behavior. They shake his hand, ask him if his food is good, and sneak him cookies when they think I’m not looking. Always eager to please, Ben explains to his fans that he is two, that he is always a good boy, and that there are eggs and fruit on his plate. Sometimes he even grants hugs and kisses, if he’s in a particularly good mood.

My two-and-a-half-year-old celebrity photo 2

After each person says goodbye, Ben will ask, “Why was he in a chair?” or “What was in her nose?” and I try to explain the inevitable deterioration of the human body in a way that a toddler can understand. I also breathe a sigh of relief that he somehow knows to hold his questions until after they are out of earshot.

Ben’s biggest fan is Wanda. Several months ago, much like the other admirers, Wanda began appearing at our table with presents. But Wanda, unlike the other admirers, gifted Matchbox cars and toy planes. She would pick up a trinket during the week and carry it around with her all day, every day, until she was able to give it to Ben.

My grandma told me that Wanda has great-grandchildren of her own but doesn’t see them often, and that she gets such pleasure just seeing Ben around. As a thank you for all of her generous gifts, Ben drew a Happy Holidays picture for her, which she told me she framed and hung on her wall.

I marvel at the amount of joy this child brings to Wanda and the rest of the residents, and am grateful that we have the opportunity to do a mitzvah simply by visiting my grandmothers. Ben happily doles out hugs, with no understanding that his is the only hug some of these people will get for awhile. The thought makes me want to hug him extra tight, and try to impress upon him the importance of these small acts of human kindness.

After one recent lunch, as we were walking out of the dining room, one of the ladies grabbed my arm and said, “I watched your son the whole time I was here, and I want you to know he made my day.”

Even if Ben is too young now to understand the power he has to do good, I will make sure to tell him about this lady, and about Wanda and all his other fans, in the hope that he makes the conscious choice throughout his life to continue performing these small acts of kindness.

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A History of a Campus Coffee Shop

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01/26/2012

A History of a Campus Coffee Shop photo_th

Yesterday, for whatever reason, my order at Argo Tea was taking longer than expected. "No worries," I said to the girl behind the counter. "I was a coffee shop wench for four years. I understand."

"Coffee shop wench" wasn't my official title, but I do have a pretty outsized fondness for the time I spent behind the counter at Ex Libris, the subterranean pit stop in the basement of the Regenstein Library, which I used to call "the tomb with coolers." Ex Libris (the eX, more properly) has been on my mind lately. An article recently crossed my path showing off the new location: above ground, and full of natural light. Now the employees are "student baristas."

I'm torn between envy and old-timer rage, a position shared by my fellow alums—as it should be. My "coffee shop wenching" was the one constant throughout my four years of college, more so than friendships, coursework, extracurriculars, life plans and living situations. When I started, I was carting my music with me in a huge CD folder; Ex Libris was the first place I saw iPods in wide use. It was also the first place I saw people using Facebook. When I think about it, a lot happened in the world while I was descending those stairs for twenty hours or so per week.

I found out there were still openings for coveted student-run coffee shop jobs the second week of my first quarter at school, Fall 2002. I had never had a job before, but I desperately wanted to not rely on my parents for disposable income. I came to my interview dressed like I was up for an office job; Sue, the general manager at the time, was six feet tall with heavy eye makeup, tons of silver jewelry and long black hair. She kind of terrified me, but I got the job; later, we bonded over our love of Moby-dick and all things Melville. Turns out I was well suited to the work. I liked interacting with people, and once I got comfortable with things like stocking shelves and making coffee, a few broken carafes aside, I was happy there.

It was a good place to be a misfit: we played that up—why else would we spend so many of our extracurricular hours in a lightless sub-basement of a massive concrete Brutalist library? I used to blast Bjork, Tibetan monks and ear-shattering Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tracks on our three-foot speakers in protest of the constant rotation of Bon Jovi, System of a Down and Guns'n'Roses. (Music was a huge deal; I learned more about music and musical discoveries there than just about anywhere else.) I also once accidentally "berated" Sara Tanaka (Margaret Yang from Rushmore) for taking the wrong size coffee cup. (I didn't know who she was, and she paid for a medium and took a large or something—I just pointed out the mediums, and after she'd left, Rebecca asked me why I chased her away. "Now she'll never come back!") We often cast each other in movies or TV shows on the big chalkboard next to the counter; once I came in to find that in our Godfather lineup, I was Luca Brasi, he who wishes for masculine children and sleeps with the fishes.

Ex Libris taught me a lot about human nature: about people spilling whole gallons of milk and walking away hoping no one would notice; about customers constantly asking if we had milk or honey or sugar or spoons or microwaves, despite the huge signs and humming coolers indicating just that; about students who hadn't seen sunlight in two days emerging from the A-Level to demand coffee; about handling outside vendors with their own ideas about food delivery. There were the creepy customers, who braved keeping lines behind them to chat us up whenever and for however long they could, and there were awesome customers, who bantered with me for four years despite my never learning their names. And there were my coworkers, who embraced the make-it-yourself ethic in everything from gaming centers to get-togethers, to say the least.

As much as I'm cherry-picking the good parts, part of me is sad that no one else will have that experience. The new Ex Libris is going to be its own creature, which it should be, and of course, there are other student-run coffee shops on campus with a similar ethos to ours (though I'm obligated to dispute that they'll ever be a sufficient facsimile). Being an alumna hardly dictates that my way is the best way or that my experience is somehow no longer valid.

And let's be fair: for all that we did with that fluorescent-lit, cooler-humming, milk-spilled, cramped, decorated-by-collage, pumping-with-strange-music space—and what we did was mighty—I can't put down wanting access to sunlight.

Best of luck to the new iteration, Ex Libris. Have fun becoming what you'll be next.

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…And Into the Fire

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Part 2

01/25/2012

Into the Woods photo

Day one of cancer camp:

(For part one, click here.)

I remember standing around the BBQ supervising the cooking of dinner. I cleared a small corner for my tofu. "What is that?!" I seized on the opportunity to educate and attempt to convert the impressionable youths to vegetarianism. They were game to taste, but I think it's safe to say tofu has never converted a carnivore. The conversation drifted in and out of various topics – had I ever eaten bacon? How many years had they been coming to camp? How old was I? Did they have siblings? Had I had cancer? I stopped smiling. I felt fear and shame in answering, "No. No, I have never had cancer."

We encircled the campfire that night warmed by the orange firelight, bathed in bug spray, laughing and leaning into one another with a familiarity that is seldom ever achieved in just a day. The details of that first day – the activities, how our food tasted, if we swam – I can't remember any of that. But the feeling I had, the feeling of belonging, that feeling I can recall as if it is happening to me right now. It's that glorious feeling of being invited in, embraced and welcomed. A place where laughter comes easily and silliness is required, and kids can genuinely become best friends in a day because they share the battle wounds and the battle won with cancer. And it's the place where I stumbled upon my second family.

I have met some of the most amazing and courageous kids at camp – athletes, scholars, musicians, artists, dancers, writers and more – all with big dreams and ambitious plans for their future. And as incredible as they all are, they are also just like every other teen I've ever met – angsty, hormonal, dramatic – and I love that. I love that cancer, as insidious and devastating as it can be – cannot take that away. These kids are normal. They are superheroes. They are survivors.

After a few years at camp, my husband and I started a family. This kept me from returning for several summers. I ached to smell like campfire smoke and defend a meaningful life without bacon. The second that last kid was off my boob, I raced back to camp while my husband stayed back with our young brood of three. Although the faces around the campfire had changed, the feeling, the magic, the family, it had all just extended itself. The connections, the mighty connections that humans need in order to have meaning in life are for me, in the very soul of One Step at a Time Camp.

I have experienced the greatest love I have ever felt outside of my own children at camp. At camp, I have fallen deeply in love with wonderful kids, and sometimes, I have lost them. When that happens, a little part of me dies too. It's frightening to be reminded of the unfairness and fragility of life. To know it has nothing to do with goodness or big dreams, fairness, age or hope is an impossible thing to accept. At camp, devastating loss is a possibility. However, at camp, no one holds back for fear of losing. If anything, it creates a sense of urgency to open up more quickly. Love more easily. And let the bullshit slide because it's just not that important.

Being welcomed and embraced into this wonderful and wacky world of kid camp characters has brightened me. I have felt love and loss and laughter all at once. It has made me a better person. To those who I miss, I will never forget. And I am forever grateful for having had the gift of watching firelight dance in your eyes.

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‘MWF Seeking BFF’

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What one Chicago Jewish transplant’s learned from her ‘year of friending’

01/23/2012

Rachel Bertsche photo 2

It's been about two years since I launched my BFF search. As you know, I spent 2010 furiously dating. 2011 was about keeping up those new friendships, and turning "just friends" into "good friends." Now that more time has passed, and some friendships have faded and others have stood the (short) test of time, I have a better perspective with which to look back and see what this search has really taught me.

Fifty-one women—and one fabulous gay man—later, I've learned some things. Some of my learnings suprised me, others not so much (spoiler alert! Don't interrupt other people with stories about yourself!) But to save you the work of weekly friend dates (though I'd highly recommend trying them monthly. It's so friendly!), I present to you the three things I know now:

1. Your husband and your best friend should be two different people.  As soon as I found local friends with whom to go to dinner and share girl talk, fights with my husband suddenly stopped. I realized over the year that I'd been trying to get out of Matt what I needed from a BFF—time to analyze an issue-of-the-week, and then rehash it twice more. With Matt, those conversations might quickly turn into a fight—I usually uttered something along the lines of, "If you loved me you'd keep talking about this!" I wanted to talk and talk and talk, while he was exhausted, being forced to say the same thing over and over. Men and women have different relationship needs, and trying to force one person to be everything is a recipe for disaster. As one new friend told me when we discussed how our partners weren't enough: "He can't be my girlfriend, he's my boyfriend.

2. In order to make new friends, you must be comfortable being alone.  I used to find activities that seemed fun and think, "I'd sign up if only had a friend to join me." Now I think, "I should sign up for that, maybe I'll meet someone." It's easy to stay on your couch when you don't have a nearby pal with whom to go out and conquer the world, but I learned the hard way that new friends don't just show up in your living room. If you're too nervous or embarrassed to go places by yourself, force yourself to do it anyway, at least once. People who share your interests might just turn out to be your new BFF.

3. People think friends should "just happen." They're wrong.  I can't count the number of people who, sure that they knew "The Secret of Friendship," told me, "You can't go looking for friends. They just happen." According to their friendship bible, trying to kick-start a relationship was horrible wrong. Sometimes friendship does just happen—you meet someone in line at the grocery store, you get to talking, and 10 years later you're still meeting at Nookies every Sunday morning. And those times are great. But you can't count on that. It's like romance. When meeting the love of your life just happens, that's fantastic. But sometimes you have to go on Match.com. Or get set-up. It takes some effort. And there's nothing wrong with that. 

Two years later (I did my Year of Friending in 2010) I've written my first book, MWF Seeking BFF, to document my search.

‘MWF Seeking BFF’ photo

But more importantly, I have a slew of new local friends. I've got a cooking club and two book clubs. I've befriended my LEADS leader and one of my closest pals is the girl who brought me—finally!—to The Weiner's Circle after our first meeting.

As it turns out, those rumors about Chicago being a friendly place? All true.

Rachel Bertsche is a journalist living in Chicago. 'MWF Seeking BFF' is her first book. Read her blog at www.mwfseekingbff.com.

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An exercise in symbiosis

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Project-managing a Russian Jewish funeral

01/20/2012

An exercise in symbiosis photo

In this photo from 1983, my father-in-law wears 30 years' worth of medals from his service in the Soviet military.

My father-in-law died last week. He was 76 and had been suffering from the effects of cancer since August. His doctors had told him he had more than a year, and he was hoping to stick around until after my husband and I had kids.

But the cancer had other plans, and he wasted away in just about three weeks. This story is about what happened after.

The immediacy of their grief transferred some of the need to act onto my shoulders from those of my husband’s mother, brother, aunts, uncle, cousin, and niece.

With a gentleness and attention to detail that is his nature, my husband took care of his father’s final wishes. He contacted a mortuary and arranged a Jewish funeral. Of course, the funeral home—the only Jewish one in Indianapolis where my husband’s family lives—managed the actual service and burial.

(As a side note: Did you know it can cost thousands of dollars for a burial plot and a simple service? I’m even more convinced of the importance of planning for this type of thing.)

I was left with the small details and the need to somehow blend the Russian secular more familiar to the family with Jewish traditions surrounding death.

Here’s a breakdown:

• Jews traditionally don’t have flowers at funerals. Instead, we place small stones when we visit a gravesite. However, Russians are all about flowers. In this case, I learned how to make a funeral wreath with supplies from a craft store and some fresh and silk flowers.

• Jews traditionally don’t have an open casket. In fact, a strict reading of halacha, or Jewish law, forbids an open casket. But Russians tend to want to say goodbye to the person rather than to his casket. And it was important for my mother-in-law to see her husband of 47 years for one last time.

• Like Jews, Russians recognize the person’s life through speeches. In fact, one of my father-in-law’s friends wrote a poem for him that she recited at the funeral home. My husband also gave a brief eulogy for his father. And I translated for the non-Russian-speaking rabbi, who shared the details of my father-in-law’s life and read prayers and psalms.

• For both Jews and secular Russians, time at the cemetery plays an important role for closure. After the funeral service, the entire group took to the cars and drove to the cemetery. It was pouring rain—the kind of weather often used as background for sad events in movies. My husband recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. But instead of clumps of mud (and it was mud because it was pouring cats and dogs the entire day), the family and friends threw flowers onto the casket. That was the invention of the funeral home director, who told the family that the gravediggers would have to wait until the soil dried a bit to actually cover the grave.

• Jews sit the seven-day mourning period of shiva. It’s the furthest away from a celebration. Instead, it’s usually a chance for people to quietly pay their respects to the family of the deceased. Visitors are the ones who bring food to the mourners.

Russians go about it in a whole different way. At a pominki, a remembrance dinner following the funeral, the deceased’s friends and family gather to toast the person’s life and to remember fun times with him. Often, alcohol flows freely at these—perhaps giving rise to the stereotype of the alcoholic Russians.

I had arranged for the food to be delivered to a community center where those who went to the cemetery would join us. Together with a sister-in-law, we arranged tables and chairs and laid out the meal. For the next five or so hours, we played hostess, serving food and drink to about 40 people (mostly my father-in-law’s friends). They chatted with my mother-in-law and toasted her husband.

Though the mood was somber at the beginning, it seemed to change as the evening wore on. People were still conscious of the photo with a black ribbon across it (the traditional Russian way of marking that the person had died). But by hour three the stories had changed in tone somewhat. They were still about my father-in-law, but he was a secondary participant, not the hero of the story now. Still later, the stories, toasts and conversations had but a tangential relationship to the man who had died just two days before. Perhaps, that’s just human nature…

Looking back on last week, I now realize that a more fitting tribute to my father-in-law was the family dinner the next night. My husband and I sat together with his mother, his aunts, uncle, and brother and sister-in-law. We shared some of the hopes for the year, things my father-in-law would have liked to have seen happen.

As the rabbi said, my father-in-law was full of the kind of spirit that the Maccabees had—he persevered in the face of hardship (growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union; fighting cancer and enjoying the ride as much as he could). And we’re the keepers of that spirit. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether his funeral or burial were Russian-Jewish or just Jewish or just Russian. The most fitting tribute is continuing on the path he started for us.

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The Great Rabbino’s Jewish NFL player of the year

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01/19/2012

The Great Rabbino’s Jewish NFL player of the year photo

Often we ask people to vote on the awards and sometimes we decide them ourselves. This year it seems to be a clear cut decision that the The Great Rabbino 2011/12 NFL Player of the Year is our very own Chicago Bear, Adam Podlesh.

The Bears punter was really the only Jewish NFL player to put up any significant stats. His season long was 70 yards, 21 inside the 20, an average of 43.9 which is a yard over his career average. He also had four touchbacks and a net of 40.4. Check out his website HERE.

All the other Jewish players we considered were offensive linemen who also deserve some praise. They are Kyle Kosier of the Dallas Cowboys and Brian De La Puente of the New Orleans Saints. Erik Lorig and Julian Edleman need to continue to re-establish themselves and should reach their potential in years to come.

Update: With a second round win by the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints and Brian De La Puente were eliminated from the playoffs. The New England Patriot's Julian Edelman is the sole remaining football player with a Jewish parent. The Patriots destroyed Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos and will play the Ravens this coming weekend.

Congrats to Podlesh!

And Let Us Say...Amen.

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2012: What’s the progress on your New Year’s resolutions?

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01/18/2012

2012: What’s the progress photo

Right before the end of the year, I wrote a blog post for JUF News in which I reminisced about 2011 and shared my personal aspirations for 2012.

Like many people, one of my New Year's resolutions was to get in shape, although I purposely avoided using those words. Instead, I wrote that I wished to "commit myself to a yoga practice." (I've found that it's easier to achieve a goal when it's specific rather than global and abstract. What does "get in shape" even mean? Being fit enough to run a marathon? Running several miles every morning? Taking the stairs instead of the elevator?)

Like many people with full-time jobs, I had gotten lazy over recent months. I would come home from work and think, 'Oh, I'm tired, I worked today, and I don't have energy to exercise.' And then I'd eat pasta and all sorts of yummy carbs that nourished my palate but certainly didn't diminish my waistline.

By the time December '11 came around, I was certainly at the heaviest I'd ever been, and I wanted to make a change. So I wrote that I wished to "commit myself to a yoga practice." But here's the only problem:

I was too out of shape to commit myself to the yoga practice that I wanted! (I'd love to go to Core Power Yoga several times a week, but the introductory class was so brutal that I almost passed out.) So a consistent, challenging yoga practice was out of the question for now.

So I decided that I'd work out at least three times a week, not so much with a weight-loss goal as much of a fat-loss goal and the desire to change my attitude about fitness and health.

With some Googling, I found a training-only gym where you get one of three different trainers at every session, including a former NFL player. I've been going for over two weeks now, three times a week, and have already lost over 2% body fat.

It's too early for a pat on the back, but I'd have to say I'm proud of myself for choosing a realistic goal and sticking to it. My diet's still not perfect, but pasta is certainly no longer included in it. 

It feels good to stick to a goal, work hard and see progress. I wish all of you the best of luck in achieving your own New Year's resolutions. If they're really important, perhaps they should be life goals… not just yearly ones.

P.S. Who doesn't love a corny stock photo?

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Dos and don’ts of first dates from folks in the field

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01/17/2012

Dos and don’ts of first dates photo

A friend-of-a-friend came late to the Golden Globes party I attended this past Sunday. She'd booked a first date for the night and joined us afterwards. Even though many of us at the party didn't know her well, we, of course, all jumped on her for details as soon as she walked in the door movie stars just weren't holding our attention at that point in the evening. Like many first dates, hers was a bit of a disaster.

She told usI'm paraphrasing here that the guy couldn't make conversation, it was awkward and un-fun and only 30 minutes into the date he asked her for plans the next night. Overall, let's just say she couldn't wait to leave and get to the party. We all strongly agreed with her that you should NEVER ask someone for a second date 30 minutes into the first date (especially for the next night!) because it reeks of desperation. This launched us into a conversation about the dos and don'ts of first dates. It was enlightening for this wanna-be matchmaker (who hasn't been on a first date in over half a decade) so I decided to spend part of Monday asking others for their take. The results were fascinating.

I'm not going to lie, there were some differences of opinion, not just between the sexes, and one person I polled responded with, "My advice is don't worry about dos and don'ts," which I also think is a valid point. But while I agree dating games are bad, some general rules are ok especially for the dating clueless, aka the guy above.  

So compiled below in no particular order are the results of my research. I'm not going to give details and examples for eachthere are too many but I did add my own commentary in italics (couldn't help myself) when I thought it was particularly apropos. Also just because it is listed here doesn't mean I entirely agree with it. Feel free to add your advice and comments at the end.

- Good night kiss is fine, but not required. Obviously nothing more than this is Ok. 
- Play conversation "ping-pong." Take turns talking to each other; make the conversation go back and forth.
- Don't drink too much. Stick to wine and beer or just one hard liquor drink. No shots. 
- Don't come off as desperate.
- Don't dominate the conversation.
- Don't talk politics.
- Do bring something nice like flowers. Maybe save this for a second or third date, but flowers go far. 
- Don't duck on the bill if you suggested the venue. Also don't say, "You can get the next one." Especially when you don't mean it. Don't pretend to offer to pay.
- Have manners and respect for each other. A friend recently went on a four+ hour dinner date with a guy. They bantered all night, made out and she left feeling fantastic. He never called. That's rude. If you go on a date and have a great time but later decide you are not interested, have the courtesy to let someone know. It's called karma folks. 
- Do stick to American cuisine. My friend's date once got sick at an Indian restaurant a la Along Cam Polly, so I have to agree this is a good idea. 
- Don't not ask questions.
- Don't go somewhere too loud that's not conducive to talking.
- Guys should compliment a girl right away. This should go both ways. Who doesn't like a compliment? 
- Do check for allergies.
- Don't pick somewhere super expensive.
- Don't wear too high of heels.
- Do wear skirts and dresses.
- Do get your nails done.
- Don't wear anything too crazy.
- Don't not wear makeup, but don't wear too much makeup.
- If the guy decides to go somewhere that is BYOB, the girl can offer to bring wine/beer. I think this is better for a second or third date. 
- Don't mention exes.
- Don't ask the other person what they are doing the next day a half hour into the date.
- Don't go to Boston market. This is a true story. My friend once had a date at Boston Market. To make matters worse, he didn't even offer to buy her a side of mashed potatoes or a coke. They just loitered in the back of the restaurant. And believe it or not, this guy had the chutzpah to ask her out a second time after this date! 
- Don't complain about your job.
- Do be interested in talking about your job.
- Do meet the girl there.
- Do always open door for girl and lead her to the table.
- Do let the girl order first.
- Don't be rude to the wait staff.
- Do tip well.
- Don't text before a first date. Always call to set up plans. 
- Don't use your cell phone on a first date.

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Just give

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01/16/2012

Just give photo

A couple of years ago I read the book 29 Gifts and I still think about the book to this day.

It's the true story of Cami Walker, a 30-something newlywed, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, who was feeling sorry for herself. Amidst Walker's depression, a medicine woman recommends that Walker give away a gift each day for a month as a way to get outside of her own headspace. "By giving," the woman tells Walker, "you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting more abundance into your life."

Now that Chanukah is over, and the gift exchanging is too, it seems like the right time to "invite more abundance into your life" by finding ways to give back to the community. No matter what you give—a meal, a dollar, a smile, your time—there's someone out there who needs it more than you. Here's a list of nine ways to give back—in keeping with the Chanukah theme, that's one for every candle on the menorah—primarily through the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's network. How you choose to give is up to you; there's something for everyone on the list. Whatever you do, just give.

Serve a meal. 
The JUF's Uptown Cafe is classified as an anti-hunger program, but it looks like a neighborhood restaurant. Whatever you call it, don't call it a soup kitchen. The Uptown Cafe, the first large-scale kosher meal program of its kind, serves Jews and non-Jews alike three nights a week and brunch on Sundays. More than 8,500 volunteers have served up more than 135,000 meals plus community, respect, and dignity to people in need since the Cafe opened in doors in 1998. Housed in the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, the Cafe is sponsored and funded by JUF/JF and administered by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC). Volunteers ages 12 and over are welcome. For more information, call JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network at (312) 357-4762 or e-mail: TOV@juf.org.

Give a can. 
The holidays are over, but people need basic items all year round. TOV runs ongoing collection drives for The ARK, Jewish Child and Family Services, the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center, SHALVA, and CJE SeniorLife. Items needed include non-perishable food, toiletries, winter clothing, and toys. For specifics, visit www.juf.org/tov.

Talk to The Greatest Generation. 
The Greatest Generation, a label coined by journalist Tom Brokaw, describes the heroic generation that grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II. They're incredible people with many years of wisdom and experience under their belts. My grandparents, who live in New York, and I have a phone date once a week to chat. There are also older folks right here in Chicago that you can visit and learn from. CJE SeniorLife, a JUF agency, assists older adults and their family members through healthcare, housing, community service, and education. For more information on volunteering with CJE SeniorLife, e-mail Anne Schuman at anne.schuman@cje.net.

Drop off a phone. 
Donate your old and used cell phones to someone affected by domestic violence. In conjunction with Winter Mitzvah Mania, TOV is collecting phones now through the end of February to donate to SHALVA, the oldest, independent Jewish domestic abuse agency in the United States, and a beneficiary of JUF. Since its founding in 1986, SHALVA has worked with more than 4,000 clients from every denomination of Judaism who seek assistance for domestic abuse, and the agency has helped debunk the stereotype that abuse doesn't happen in the Jewish community. For more information, visit www.shalvaonline.org. (Even if you miss TOV's collection drive, SHALVA collects phones on an ongoing basis.)

Play a game with an athlete. 
Work one-on-one with an athlete at a KEEN sports session this winter. KEEN is a national, non-profit organization offering recreational opportunities for children and young adults with mental and physical disabilities at no cost to the families or caregivers. KEEN aims to build self-esteem, confidence, skills, and talents to athletes through non-competitive activities. Volunteers must be age 12 or older. For more information, visit www.keenchicago.org/.

Use your skills. 
Use your skills from your day job to help people in need. For instance, makeup artist Eric Holt, featured in this month's issue of JUF News, teamed up this winter with TOV through American Cancer Society's "Look Good, Feel Better" program to do makeovers on Mount Sinai Hospital patients with cancer. (See p. 49 for full story.) For more information, call Yael Brunwasser at (312) 357-4978.

Take on a case. 
Are you a lawyer? If so, volunteer with JUF's Community Legal Services (JCLS). This program offers assistance to individuals and families in need of legal services with access to free and much needed help navigating the legal system. JCLS is staffed entirely by volunteer attorneys who generously donate hours of their time each year. The program provides legal assistance in civil law matters. Attorneys of all practice areas are encouraged to volunteer as Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) will provide training and backup as appropriate. For more information, call Lindsay Yaffa at (312) 444-2833.

Give a smile. 
There was once this guy in Australia who gave out hugs to strangers at the mall to promote random acts of kindness. I don't recommend doing that because it could get you into trouble in all sorts of ways, but there are other random acts of kindness you can do to make someone's day. When Chicagoans walk around outside in the winter, they tend to look down at the sidewalk, walk fast, cover their eyes with their hats, and block out their surrounding senses with their smartphones. I get it—it's cold and we've got places to go, people to see. But, every once in a while, make eye contact with the people you're encountering on the streets or at the checkout of the grocery store. Maybe smile at the homeless man on the corner or, if you have an extra minute to spare, buy him a hot chocolate to warm him up.

Give through JUF. 
The JUF Annual Campaign serves the humanitarian needs of more than 300,000 Chicagoans of all faiths and two million Jews worldwide. Your gift means food on the table, jobs, emergency cash, medicine, and crisis counseling for tens of thousands of people in these hard, economic times. The 2011 JUF Annual Campaign closes on Tuesday, Jan. 17, so there's still time to make a difference in someone's life. To make your gift, call (312) 357-4805 or visit www.juf.org/donate.

For many more ways to give back this winter and all year round, visit JUF's website at www.juf.org and JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network atwww.juf.org/tov.

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What do you do after the wedding?

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01/13/2012

What do you do after the wedding? photo

So I’m engaged, and I’m getting all sorts of advice about the wedding. The advice includes:

The food is most important!
The band or D.J. has to be excellent.
Don’t feel like you need to invite anyone you don’t want to be there!
And much, much more.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not so into being a bride or the mandates that go with it. But I have succumbed to tradition and will spend much of the next several months of my life helping to plan one wedding in Israel and one reception in South Bend.

Now I’m not complaining. I feel very lucky to have found love and count my blessings every day. I’m also marrying an extraordinary man who reminds me when I’m stressed out that the wedding isn’t really important, what’s important is that we love each other and want to get married.

But then I started thinking, how the hell does marriage work? While people have not held back their views on wedding cake or my dress, no one really talks about marriage after the wedding.

I started asking for advice via Facebook and my blog and I’ve gotten some really incredible answers (50 so far!) that I will share with you before the big day in March. They have mostly been incredibly thoughtful— especially from the husbands.

But for now, I’m still gathering wisdom.

So tell me (anonymously, if you want), what advice, based on your personal experience, would you give to ensure a happy marriage? Please include how old are you and how long have you been married.

And thank you in advance for helping me write my March blog post and for giving me advice.

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Drive me crazy

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01/12/2012

Blair Chavis photo

I named my car "Lois" when I bought her. The reasons for her naming are two-fold. One, I thought it would be cute to play on the whole Superman (Clark Kent) and Lois Lane idea—a tribute to my childhood love of Superman movies—because I've been working as reporter for a majority of the time I've lived in Chicago. Two, I happen to be a huge fan of the TV series, Family Guy.

Sadly, my car excursions have not matched the adventures Lois Lane had in the movies; ironically, I've developed a love-hate with Lois, my car, much akin to the relationship Family Guy character Stewie Griffin has with his mother, Lois.

As of recent, I've been hating on Lois because she has not been cooperating. Lois doesn't have many years on her and her mileage isn't terribly high for her age, but for the last couple months she's been nothing but trouble. Her temper flared up in October when she needed a grocery list of maintenance work, followed by engine trouble in December and more engine trouble this week. Not to mention, I got rear-ended by a sketchy fellow in December who no longer has a working phone. I don't think Lois is a lemon, but she's got issues.

I usually have fewer grievances with Lois, and more complaints about the road, itself. In the spirit of Family Guy, I must say, commuting really "grinds my gears." Everyone has a repertoire of commuter horror stories and rants. Just ask anyone what it's like for them to get to work, and they can't stop talking. I am one of those people. When I first moved back to Chicago after college I was a slave to the not-so-glorious Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and could be found stomping my feet at the bus stop as full buses passed by during rush hour in the cold. Or, I might have been spotted pulling my hair out on a broken-down bus on Lake Shore Drive (and I wasn't even one of the Snow-pocalypse 2011 victims). With public transit cuts during the past few years, I can only imagine how fun it must be for commuters now. The people watching opportunities, however, made riding the CTA somewhat worthwhile.

I bought Lois when I started reporting in the suburbs. I only had to be in the office a few days a week, and could work in the field or at home the other days. I had my share of I-290 trips—a.k.a. the "death trap"—which included the "strangler" exit near Harlem Avenue. I also had to report in suburbs spanning Skokie to Gurnee. I had my share of driving and Lois generally had a daily workout, but she was a champ.

I'm now at a job in the suburbs, in which I follow the same commute every day. One would think Lois now breathes easy and I know what to expect every morning. However, my commute on I-94/U.S. Route 41 has proven to be the most treacherous of all. I drive through familiar territory, as I grew up in the northern suburbs. However, the traffic is preposterous. I travel a distance of about 22 miles from home to work and it takes about an hour and 30 minutes on average each way during rush hour. I spend three hours a day in my car to drive 44 miles. If we work 261 days out of the year, not counting holidays, for me that means 783 hours a year spent in my car, give or take a Thanksgiving or Yom Kippur. When did I have time to calculate all of this? In my car, of course.

I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to public spaces. I love air travel because I enjoy people watching in airports and examining people on airplanes. I was a bit like that on public transit, too. I miss the days, when I could sit sleepily on the bus and watch people play with their phones, complain about their boyfriends and pretend to read magazines while inching away from their seatmates. On public transit, you're not alone, but you try your best to pretend you are and get a sneak peek into others' lives.

In my car, I'm yelling at traffic (but really to myself), on a road filled with people with big attitudes and small clutches. Other drivers are more in your business than the half-naked trench coat guy sitting next to you on the El.

My morning commute sets the tone for my entire day. My alarm goes off, I grab the remote and flip on the local news for a traffic report. If there is a fleck of snow on the ground, I know there will be an overturned truck, several lanes blocked and no end in sight.

We all have our Zen moments during the commute when we've blissfully passed the split, strangler or accident that was holding us up. I can gauge my entire commute, for instance, on what time I pass through the I-90-94 split. If radio personalities Eric and Kathy on WTMX are already announcing their "Mix Morning Mind Bender," I'm in big trouble.

I also find inner peace while traveling with Lois, singing at the top of my lungs to Adele, rock-a-cappella mix CDS and… (I've shared too much).

My friend at work pointed out that there are some days when you can tell the world is downright angry. Drivers tail your bumper, beep, cut you off, pass you shaking their fists, forget to signal and flip you off. You would think they had no regard for whether their car survived the morning commute, let alone another human being. This is all before I've had my morning coffee and I don't know what to do with these people and their a.m. rage—perhaps, it stems from them not yet having their coffee either. Perhaps, too, toll booths in Illinois should include coffee fill-ups and refills—we're certainly paying enough. We need our fuel too, Illinois. If Lois gets a drink, so do I.

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Animal instinct

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01/11/2012

Animal instinct photo

Have you ever thought about what type of animal you would be? Not in terms of similarity in appearance, but in terms of behavior and personality? I really had never given much thought to this, but my boyfriend recently asked me this question as we were strolling through the Shedd Aquarium. I had to give it some thought, and a few minutes later, I decided on a Cheetah because they’re swift and seemingly graceful animals. I associated with the cheetah because I feel like I can address issues quickly, and move on through my life gracefully. Plus, the cheetah has a beautiful fur coat. We chatted about my new animal persona for a minute, had a few laughs, and then moved on to the penguins and belugas.

As random as the question may have sounded at the time, I’ve continued to consider my answer over these past few weeks, and the whole idea of “which animal would you be” has caused me to start considering my personality and behavior more deeply. In preparing to write to you Oy!sters today, I did some research on cheetahs, and realized that in many ways, I’m actually opposite of a cheetah. You see, although beautiful and fast, cheetahs are only fast (the fastest animal in the world) for short distances, and are not built for long distance running. I happened to run distance track and cross-country in high school and appreciate the ability to build up that type of stamina and endurance. In distance running, I actually developed a deeper relationship with myself, as I learned my potential and limits. Also, cheetahs do not easily adapt to new environments and female cheetahs are isolationists; they live alone and avoid each other. I, on the other hand, LOVE change and value my ability to adapt to different situations. I am also very social and love spending time with my girlfriends. I would go crazy with all of that alone time.

So, now I’m back to the drawing board to come up with my animal alter ego. I know this may sound silly, like who cares? But in fact, this little project my boyfriend gave me has helped me to think about myself in a deeper way than I do on a regular basis— something I appreciate and am enjoying.

What animal would you be?

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Hopes and dreams and everything in between

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01/10/2012

Jenna Benn photo

In 2010 and 2011 when I was fighting cancer, I made a list of hopes and dreams that I hoped to achieve after I completed treatment and started to rebuild my life.

With 2012 just beginning, I am again reminded of the importance of evaluating where I was, where I am, and where I would like to be.

Here was my hopes and dreams list for 2011 (in no particular order) with status updates.
1. Get into remission- Completed/a constant work in progress
2. Remember what it feels like to be tied up and to eventually become untied- Completed/in progress
3. Run in the middle of a rain storm with all my clothes on- Completed
4. Put my toes in the sand- Completed
5. Drink a glass of wine while watching the sunset over the ocean- Completed
6. Travel with Neely- Pending
7. Train and complete a half marathon- Completed
8. Raise over $18,000 for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society- Completed
9. Meet my Angel Ann in a foreign city- Pending
10. Start my own non-profit- Completed
11. Become a regular contributor for a major publication- Completed
12. Host a dance party for all my family and friends to celebrate life- Completed
13. Travel to Steamboat Colorado and revisit the hikes I struggled to finish when my body was being ravaged by cancer- Completed
14. Eat healthy every day (with some room for mistakes)- In progress
15. Remember how being sick feels- In progress
16. Thank God every day- In progress
17. Express my gratitude frequently and in meaningful ways- In progress
18. Find love again- A constant work in progress
19. Dance every day- In progress
20. Sing every day- In progress
21. Be thankful for waking up- In progress
22. Be thankful for falling asleep- In progress
23. To heal- A constant work in progress

And here is my list of hopes and dreams for 2012 (which also include all the points that are in progress from the list above).
1. To appreciate what it means to wiggle my toes.
2. To feel challenged emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
3. To find new ways to give.
4. To nurture the relationships I have and be open to unexpected new ones.
5. To share what it means to see in hyper-color.
6. To remember life’s fragility and continuously celebrate a life elevated.
7. To take risks, but not act impulsively.
8. To confront my fears head on, and remember that I have a tool kit and a community of cheerleaders that can help navigate future challenges.
9. To capture moments with a lens, but not at the cost of being present.
10. To live mindfully.
11. To find meaning in suffering.
12. To look for opportunities that will continue to add to my feelings of fulfillment.
13. To plan, but not at the cost of spontaneity.
14. To dream big.
15. To love wholeheartedly.
16. To remember that the jitterbug is just as meaningful as a good old fashion slow dance.
17. To remember it’s ok to tiptoe.
18. To remind my family and friends how much they mean to me.
19. To venture outside of my comfort zone.
20. To remember the value of saying, “I am sorry.”
21. To continue to nurture the communication between my mind and body.
22. To learn, accept and celebrate this new body.
23. To remember the power of twisting.

Here’s to a year filled with hopes and dreams and everything in between. Happy New Year. 

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Jewdish

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A unifying flavor of a diverse people

01/09/2012

Jewdish photo

Each year I eagerly anticipate the proclamation of the New Year’s eating trends. This is a big deal for me as I always like to be up on what is going on in the culinary world. And just like anyone looking to purchase new clothing waits to see what the new “black” is this year, I, as a chef, am looking for direction.

I am proud to say that for many years I was already au courrant and perfectly in step. There were also a lot of years where I was “been there, done that” and that is never a good place to be because most people cannot remember what they ate yesterday much less a year ago.

This year’s trends are not very surprising given the economy. It seems as though we will be eating at home more often and craving old fashioned dishes. Dust off your Jello molds folks.

The trend that stuck out the most was the emphasis on ethnic food replacing gourmet food. At first I was thrilled. I love ethnic food and am quite accomplished at many different ethnic cuisines. I can make several different killer moles, tacos and flans. Mexican food— check. I am classically trained in French food and can whip up old school and modern French dishes with flair. French food— check. I am skilled at Asian sauces and can stir-fry and make noodles and dumplings dishes with the best. Asian food— check. The list can go on and on until I get to Jewish food. Then I am stumped. I cannot even name a dish that is quintessentially Jewish.

Ethnic food speaks of local flavor, produce and terrain (European dishes tend to be longer cooking due to heavy amounts of trees and firewood than dishes from less heavily wooded countries where the food is cooked quickly). But, since Jews are spread out all over the world, our food is as diverse as the flavors of hummus at Whole Foods. What is Black Bean Hummus anyway?

While diversity is a good thing in most situations, I would like us to have a cuisine, something we can point to and claim as our own. Often, when discussing what is for dinner, the question goes like this: well, do you want Italian or Mexican? With each option, a flavor and dish comes to mind. No one asks: do you want sushi or Jewish? We have one language that we pray in, but why don’t we have a dish that is ours?

I know we have Kashrut and trust me; it governs my days, home, work and thoughts. I get Kashrut and it makes sense to me, but it is not a dish. It is the rules of the road to make a dish, but it is not a flavor. I also know that we have our share of long cooking Sabbath dishes. From cholent to hamim, we have our specialty meal eaten on one day of the week. But I do not really see this as an ethnic food. Not like a taco or ravioli is.

If you are worried that this would get boring, having only one dish, I think that the variations and other dishes that came from that one would eventually amount to an entire menu of Jewdishes. All we need is one dish to get the ball rolling.

I am going to take a first shot at it. I have ideas:

1. Let’s be honest. Jews like meat. Any dish would have to include meat. I know many vegetarians and love them all dearly, but they are in a vast minority of meat eaters. Sorry!

2. I am voting for meatballs in the dish. Everyone likes meatballs. Meatballs also have a retro feel and old fashioned dishes are in this year as well. Not only are we getting a dish— we are even trendy!

3. I am also voting for turkey as the protein. Beef is not green and the modern, health and planet conscientious Jew would vote for turkey over red meat.

4. To be inclusive of the Sephardic community (Ashkenazim got meatballs) I am adding saffron and some spices in deference to the Jews from sunnier climes.

5. I am adding chick peas as a nod to the Middle East.

6. After careful consideration, I wrote the recipe below. I wrote some ingredients as a “pinch” figuring that everyone could decide how much that is for themselves. I know there are a lot of ingredients, but there are a lot of Jews from a lot of places and this has to reflect all of us. I hope you enjoy this Jewdish.

For the meatballs

1 pound ground turkey
½ cup fresh soft bread crumbs, I use leftover challah and whirr it up in my food processor
3 tablespoons cold water
1 whole egg, whisked
¼ cup chopped fresh mint + additional for garnish
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + additional for garnish
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro + additional for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh savory or fresh oregano
¼ cup chopped scallions
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly cracked Pepper

1. Mix all of the ingredients for the meatballs together in a mixing bowl. Form into meatballs.

2. Heat a large sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium heat. Brown the meatballs in batches. Transfer the meatballs to a Dutch oven or casserole.

For the braising liquid

1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, sliced
3 medium carrots, sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 32-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes and their juices
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup chicken stock
3 teaspoons freshly ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
2 teaspoons freshly ground cinnamon
Pinch freshly ground cardamom
Pinch crushed red chilies
Pinch saffron threads
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 325

1. Add all of the ingredients for the braising liquid to the Dutch oven or casserole with the meatballs. Bake, uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the meatballs are cooked through and the vegetables are tender.

Serve with Israeli couscous— of course.

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How to shake up a kosher cocktail

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01/06/2012

How to shake up a kosher cocktail photo 1

You may not know this, but chances are you’ve had a kosher cocktail at one point or another. I’m serious. No, you did not have a rabbi for a bartender. No, it was not because it was served on Shabbat. And no, your drink was probably not blessed, either.

Believe it or not, kosher cocktails are not as elusive as you think. Mixology, or the art and science of cocktails, has noticed an emerging trend amongst cocktail brewers, particularly those of the Jewish faith. As the industry grows, so does its perception of a quality cocktail, which brings us to the topic of what is a kosher cocktail and where we can find one.

Let me start from the beginning. Before mixology even became a widely accepted term, bartenders were making drinks that satisfied their customers, plain and simple. Either you carried good whiskey or you didn’t. Let’s not forget our cultural association with drinking establishments and libations even had (and in some places still do) racial and stereotypical undertones, even refusing to serve particular people. While those times may not have fully past us as of yet, the majority of the bartending and cocktail world has changed.

The paradigm has dramatically shifted toward a more crafted, focused approach to cocktails that permit anyone that wishes to take advantage of the opportunities to sample a mixologist’s carefully crafted cocktail. Now, mixologists can carve a customized, delicious liquid journey that takes the unexpected guest through, for instance, memories involving the first time they ever had a particular piece of candy.

But not every cocktail out there can be kosher. In my experience as a mixologist and a Jew, I made two major discoveries about kashrut and its relation to mixology and the beverage crafting world. The first has to do with how we define and apply the concept of kosher in everyday life. The second one refers to how the actual application of kosher concepts and principles are already being used in bars and restaurants all over the country.

Most people have had a kosher cocktail without realizing it. How is this possible, you ask? Well, let’s take a look at what makes a cocktail kosher. Sure, you need to use alcohol that has been “Star-K approved” or has a kosher designation to it, and you also need to be careful which liqueurs—sweeteners like triple sec and vermouth, you use, since the majority are not kosher.

As Jews, we know that tradition tells us God intended us to procure the first fruits of our harvest for Him as a way to give thanks and show appreciation for giving us the Promised Land. If we look at kosher in this way, it no longer holds the one-dimensional perception of food and beverage consumption and preparation laws, but a way of living and respecting the land and fruits and harvests that bear from them. If we treat our cocktail ingredients in the same fashion God commanded us to do all those year ago, each of us can enjoy the finest and freshest fruits of the harvest, too. Along these lines, we can now look at cocktails and the emerging sustainability trend and find a lot of common ground.

For instance, mixologists that tend to use handcrafted distilleries for liquor and local, as well as tap sustainable farm resources and carefully select ingredients for their drinks can create an experience unlike any other. Furthermore, many mixologists are taking this idea to the next level by employing sustainable products like herbs and fresh produce. When I see the similarities between kosher and sustainability, how applicable it is to nearly any well-organized bar or restaurant, I see a growing potential for kosher cocktails to become more widely accepted amongst the masses. As long as the bar has the proper ingredients and the bartender or mixologist has the knowledge, a kosher cocktail will not be far behind.

So the next time you attend an establishment that has an acclaimed bar program, or if you’re in the mood to whip up your own at home, always know that the taste of a kosher cocktail is within your reach. Here are two recipes to get your started. Keep raising those glasses!

L’Chaim!

How to shake up a kosher cocktail photo 2

The Kosher Kosmopolitan

Those that like fruity cocktails will enjoy the kosher approach to this classy and classic cocktail, called the Cosmopolitan. Can we make it kosher and add a little Jewish twist? You bet! Check out the ingredients...you know pomegranate is considered to be the fruit Eve bit from the Tree of Knowledge?

1 ¼ oz Absolut or SKYY Citrus/Lemon vodka (certified kosher)
¾ oz Leroux (kosher) triple sec 
½ to  oz fresh squeezed lime juice
¼ oz fresh Pomegranate juice (POM Wonderful is kosher!)
Lemon Twist (garnish)
Pomegranate seeds (optional – for garnish)

Place all ingredients (except for seeds) into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously for a few seconds until well chilled. Drop pomegranate seeds into the bottom of the martini glass. Strain (lime and pomegranate juice pulp), garnish and serve.

How to shake up a kosher cocktail photo 3

The Sufganiyah

A fried, jelly filled doughnut (symbolic of the holiday’s oily theme), topped with powdered sugar, was the inspiration for this Chanukah cocktail. Its name comes from the Hebrew word for “sponge” because of the treat’s spongy texture. This was my first crack at kosher cocktail creation, way back when I was a rookie bartender! This was conceived to be a delicate and well balanced dessert cocktail that reminded me of the sweet memories of Hannukah. All the ingredients can be made kosher or are already certified kosher, and yes, Frangelico—a hazelnut liqueur—is permitted!

1 oz SKYY Infusions Raspberry Vodka
1 oz SKYY Infusions Grape Vodka
¾ oz Chamboard
½ oz simple syrup
1 oz heavy cream (can substitute 1%; skim or soy not recommended)
Splash of fresh cranberry juice
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Powdered sugar
4-6 drops Frangelico
Pinch of nutmeg

Add ingredients to shaker half filled with ice. Shake vigorously and continuously for 30 seconds, or until shaker is extremely cold. Rim cocktail glass with powdered sugar. Pour, float Frangelico on top, and garnish with pinch of nutmeg.

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The truth about six packs

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01/05/2012

The truth about six packs photo

"Pot bellies are sexy," was a line from Pulp Fiction, and I'm not sure how many of us would agree with that statement. I have never had a client request a pot belly, unless they were talking about the cookies from Potbelly's (which are unhealthy and amazing). Everyone wants a flat stomach and why not shoot for the ultimate health magazine cover, a six pack. The chiseled look of a cover model is attainable, but not easy. 

We all have rectus abdominals (the six pack muscles), except most of us have a layer of skin and fat over those muscles. Functionally speaking, those muscles aren't the most important abdominal muscles, but we want them to show. The main purpose of those muscles is to flex the spine, but if you're reading this article, you're probably more interested in how to look good at the beach. Let's get right into the best way to have a lean mid-section.

The genetically gifted

As the old Maybelline ad said, "…Maybe she's born with it." The easiest way to a six pack—good genetics. The best abs I've seen on anyone was an eight pack. I was a lifeguard at the time, and this 12 year old African American girl was ripped. Do you think she worked out all the time? No. Sure, she was active but she was genetically gifted. Depending on your build, an eight, six or even a four pack might be extremely difficult to maintain. However, having a flat stomach is something we can all obtain.

Since most of us are not born with it, we have to work extremely hard to stay in shape and crunches alone are not going to get you those abs.

Crunches will not give you cover-model abs (and might hurt you)

The newest, bad exercise is the crunch. It happens every so often, the so-called fitness experts say, "STOP…" and everyone does. With that said, I'm not a huge fan of crunches. If you look at how we all sit, and watch our shoulders slump forward, we only make that posture worse when we crunch. Additionally, repeatedly bending at the spine is asking for a repetitive motion injury. I'm not saying don't crunch, but it's not the best abdominal exercise. I prefer the following:

- Planks
- Side Planks
- Wood Choppers
- Reverse Wood Choppers
- Push ups
- Slow Mountain Climbers

However, those exercises, as well as crunches, will not get you a six pack. You need to strengthen your abs with those exercises, but that's only a small part of the awesome ab equation. The trick to having your abs stick out like a "True Blood" cast member is having low body fat. And there are two ways to trim the fat:

- Diet
- Exercise

Burn it

The reason most basketball players have great abs is that they burn a ton of calories. Sprinting up and down the court is a great way to burn calories. You can do the same thing on a treadmill, bike, rowing machine, outdoor path, swimming, circuit training… Are you following my lead?

The new buzz in the fitness industry is metabolic training. Metabolic training, to most trainers, is simply circuit training. Usually the workout is really hard exercises followed by a short period of rest and then it picks up again. Although this paragraph might make me seem, anti-metabolic training, I really like training people this way. I just don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all workout. For many people a circuit will be a great way to get in shape, but some people might be better served with another routine.

Sample Circuit:

30 jumping jacks

As many pushups as you can do (in good form) in 30 seconds

20 walking lunges

8-12 repetitions of a rowing exercise

15 squat jumps

45 seconds in a plank position

1 minute jumping rope

This is a basic routine that you can repeat 3-4 times and burn a ton of calories with little equipment. If you have knee or shoulder issues, you might have to cut out the jumping and pushups.

The D word

When I say diet I don't mean fat flush or South Beach, and definitely not Nutri-system (super high sodium). I mean how you eat every single day. You do not have to starve yourself to get a flat stomach. Many body builders don't even have great abs until a month or two before their competition. The reason for thatthey eat very carefully. Their diet is actually extremely unhealthy. They drastically cut carbs, and even dehydrate themselves to look leaner. I'm not encouraging starvation and dehydration; I want people to understand that a certain look is very difficult to obtain, let alone maintain.

Eating healthy is easy. Avoiding sugar and empty calories, is hard. If you really want a great mid-section, cut down on the calories. There are many ways to do that. In my opinion, the two best ways to cut calorie are:

1. Portion control
2. Eat less refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white pasta, white potatoes, sugary treats)

Learning the proper portion and sticking by that is not easy. If you eat food that is high in natural fiber, that helps to keep you full longer. A portion of cookies might taste great, but because of the way the simple sugar is absorbed in your body, you will be hungry faster than if you ate a handful of almonds. Here are some ideas for snacks:

- One handful of nuts
- Almond butter on an apple
- Sweet potato
- Cottage cheese and pineapple
- String cheese
- Broccoli with melted cheese

Most of those snacks combine protein, fiber and fat, which help keep you full longer. Your meals should be similarly planned. If you are really confused, or have food allergies a consultation with a nutritionist can be a big help.

In conclusion, a lean mid-section is very attainable, but it takes time and hard work. The boring truth, consistently exercise and eat healthy and it will happen. 

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Into the Woods

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Part 1

01/04/2012

Into the Woods photo

“Sure. I’ll do it.” Sometimes that’s all you need to say to open yourself to a whole new perspective. At least that’s what happened to me. I was in a staff meeting summer of 1998. I loved my job. I was hanging out with teenagers, teaching them about the ways of the world. I was going into classrooms and helping kids dialogue about things they cared about. I got to wear overalls and jeans to work every day. Kids thought I was cool. I thought I was cool. I was a newlywed. I had a house. I had a dog. Life was good. I knew what I knew and I was content with that.

A co-worker came into the staff room meeting all breathless with excitement announcing she had had the most amazing week of her life. I didn’t really know this woman, but I paid attention because she had entered so dramatically. “I went to this camp,” she said. “It’s a camp for kids with cancer and they’re looking for volunteers for next summer. Anyone interested?” The room was dead silent. I don’t know if it was the word “cancer” or the word “volunteer” that muted the place, but there were no bites. Except for me, as I heard myself saying, “sure. I’ll do it.” And that next summer, my life truly changed.

The camp was divided by age groups. I took on the 13-16 year olds in a camping program. We were to cook our own food, put up and sleep in our own tents and use the bathroom in the woods. (Or a porta potty, but given the choice, who the hell would do that?) I had no formal outdoor camping experience except for a little excursion in Israel— where I peed on my shoes regularly— and don’t recall any tents being involved for shelter. Oh. And one other time where I camped with some hard core camping friends who made fun of me for shaving my legs each day and bringing a magnifying mirror and tweezers to shape my brows. So, obviously, this was an odd choice for me. Luckily my tent mate was my co-worker, who, now a year later, I knew well, and she came with a queen size air mattress. Yesssssssss!

I hadn’t thought too much about the cancer part of things. I was just excited to be doing something different. But when I told people what I had volunteered for, they were very taken aback. Faces got all squished up with concern. People would suddenly turn somber and ask me how I was going to, “deal with that?” I had no answer. I had no reference point. I had never, to my knowledge, met a kid with cancer. I started to wonder how these kids were going to be different than my kids that I worked with on a daily basis. Then I started to fret that maybe due to my lack of experience with this particular population, I wouldn’t be affective. Doubt crept into my mind. The drive to Lake Geneva went too quickly. I was there before I knew it. And I couldn’t turn back. I stepped out of the car both frightened and excited. And I was 100% naive as to how meeting and falling in love with these kids, was going to change my life forever…

(For part two, click here.)

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For this, I got ordained?

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Rabbis on film 

01/03/2012

Fade to black hats photo 2

Some claim to have had spiritual experiences at movies, but I doubt that anyone with a spiritual crisis would seek advice from a film director rather than a rabbi. Still, rabbis have had rough going at the cinema, with screenwriters and film-makers often taking rabbis to task for being hypocritical, mean, or just plain useless. Here is a recent history of rabbis on film: 

The Frisco Kid (1979)

In this comedy, Gene Wilder plays a rabbi from a Polish shtetl who is sent to be the new spiritual leader of a new congregation in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. After landing in New York, he finds he has to make the cross-country trip on land. He finds a surprising guide in the form of a train robber played by Harrison Ford (in between his Han Solo and Indy roles). This is one of the last times a rabbi is sympathetically portrayed in an American film, and even here Rabbi Avram is a naïve, spineless rube for the first three-quarters of the film.

The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick (1988)

Talk about plans backfiring... Max wants a bike for his bar mitzvah; his helicopter parents get him a piano instead. But his fellow piano student is a cute Christian girl. D'oh! Max turns for guidance to his rabbi, played by Saul Rubinek (now Artie on Warehouse 13). Just this once, we have a rabbi who uses humor- and respect for his charge- to steer a young Jewish man on his way. Oh, did I mention this is a Canadian film?

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

A classic of cynicism, this Woody Allen work is about a man who does something bad, then considers doing something worse to cover it up. Much of the cast (Martin Landau, Claire Bloom, Joanna Gleason, Jerry Orbach) and most of the characters are Jewish. But all you need to know about the rabbi in this movie is that he's blind.

Pi (1998)

Darren Aronofsky, who would go on to direct The Wrestler and The Black Swan, first directed this thriller about, well, math. Our hero cobbles together a supercomputer in his apartment to calculate pi to the last digit. We expect rapacious stock-market players to pounce on him, to learn the algorithm of making fast fortunes. But equally ravenous kabbalistic rabbis also descend on him, desperate to know the secrets of the universe. One even tells him: "Who do you think you are? You are only a vessel from our God. You are carrying a delivery that was meant for us!"

Keeping the Faith (2000)

Ben Stiller plays Rabbi Jake, and Ed Norton plays Father Brian- and both are in love with their childhood friend, Anna, played by Jenna Elfman. Now, Brian can't have her because, well, he's a priest and he can't have anyone. But Jake can't, either, because she's not Jewish. And how would that look, the congregation's young hip rabbi dating a non-Jewish woman? In the end Anna and Jake fall in love and he finds out that she had been taking conversion classes all along.

The Holy Land (2001)

In this Israeli piece, a young yeshiva student is having a, well, hard time focusing on his studies due to his rampaging adolescent hormones. So what does his rabbi tell him to do? To get it out of his system, of course, by visiting a prostitute. We can just imagine the student's next letter home: "Dear folks, I love school and I am learning a lot! Please send more money for my extracurricular activities fee."

Stolen Summer (2002)

A Catholic boy decides to amend his errant ways and prove himself to his priest by bringing another kid to Jesus. To make his challenge extra-worthy, he sets his sights on a terminally ill rabbi's son. When the rabbi, played by Kevin Pollak, finds out about his son's new friend, he is unable at first to rebuff the friend's influence on his own kid. For instance, when his son crosses himself and says Grace at the dinner table, the rabbi-father does not explain why Jews don't do that and remind him of the "HaMotzi." No, he simply tells his son, basically, to "cut that out." Another teaching moment down the drain.

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

A mistaken-identity caper, in which a man is unwittingly caught between two crime bosses. One of whom, played by Ben Kingsley, is called… "The Rabbi." Why? Because he's a rabbi. Now, while we all know that some mobsters were Jews (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky), how many were rabbis? Yet, this is a rabbi who finds nothing amiss about ordering a sandwich from the kosher deli while also ordering executions.

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers revisit the world of their childhoods in this story of a studious professor, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who lets everyone walk all over him- his kids, his boss, his students, his wife, her boyfriend… He realizes he needs spiritual guidance. So he turns to one rabbi and another, each of whom is only capable of ladling out anecdotes and platitudes. Eventually, one rabbi is able to actually connect with the professor's pothead son… and does it not through Jewish values, parables, or scriptures, but through Jefferson Airplane lyrics. 

The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

This animation is based on a graphic-novel series. In Medieval Algeria, the rabbi's cat swallows his other pet, a parrot, and gains the power of speech. Even coming at an understanding of the universe from the point of view of an animal, the cat is able to debate religion and philosophy with his owner in a way the good-natured scholar cannot always refute.

Religion has usually fared poorly at the hands of movie-makers. But rabbis in particular seem the target of Hollywood, especially in the last decade or so. They are shown as out-of-touch and ineffectual, self-involved and self-righteous. Rabbis seem to need a PR push in Hollywood; maybe they could find some struggling Jewish screenwriter and give him a grant to write about a great rabbi, maybe from the book " The Greatest Rabbis Hall of Fame."

For the future, maybe they need to figure out which kids in their classes are most likely to grow up to be screenwriters and just give them good grades. 

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