OyChicago blog

The Story of How I Got Here

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01/30/2015

Paul Wieder photo 2013

I think I can say this now, after 20 years with JUF. It started with being late.

You see, I found out too late that there was a class at my school – Northwestern University – that included a for-profit internship. I only signed up in time for the non-profit one. Also, until that year, the professor had always found internships for his students, but now we were on our own.

I was a college junior in a town that was not mine. Not knowing where else to look, I fell back on my own community – the Jewish community – and contacted JUF. I was told to come down and speak with the head of their communications staff, a man named Hal.

Hal has sadly since passed away, but he was a tall man with an affable way that disguised a keen, wise mind. I also interviewed with Janet (also now gone), a whip-smart woman who was less tolerant of chit-chat. I was “hired,” if that’s the right word for an intern. The interview was – well, that’s another story.

They set me to work proofreading JUF News. Interestingly, I am still doing that. A lot of other things, too, mind you, but still that.

During my internship, I worked directly under another man named Zan. He was as interested as he was interesting, and judicious but never judgmental. These qualities and his restless desire for understanding make him such a great writer (he’s also a playwright). He was my boss, then my mentor, but also became my friend. In fact, he held a chuppah pole at my first wedding.

I finished my internship and graduated in 1992. I got a job in my hometown of Cleveland, which ended, too. But that’s another story.

I decided to make aliyah and work as a writer in Israel. After all, it was a socialist society becoming more capitalistic, and they might need someone with marketing skills. Then I saw the bumper sticker that set me back.

A friend showed me this bumper sticker he had gotten in Israel and asked if I agreed it was funny. It was only two words long, but I did not get the pun. Evidently, my Hebrew was both rusty and, um, more classical than current. To write for an Israeli audience, I was going to need a leg up.

That is how I ended up on an ulpan, or Hebrew-language crash course, on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, south of the Kinneret. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to move irrigation pipes on some days, took Hebrew immersion classes on others, and visited my relatives in Jerusalem for holidays. I also had a freelance job writing greeting cards for American Greetings. I was meeting other olim from all over – the U.S., Europe, Morocco, Australia and New Zealand – getting in shape and enjoying myself before beginning my job search in earnest. I even had a girlfriend.

Then Zan found me. He had called my university, which led him to my parents, who forwarded him to me on my kibbutz. Hal had retired, he said, which had moved him (Zan) up to department head and then someone else had switched over to JUF News. But again, that’s another story.

The bottom line is there was an open slot, and Zan wanted to know if I would apply for it. I did, and I got the job, though you probably figured that part out.

I left the kibbutz, said goodbye to my girlfriend, and spent the fall holidays in Jerusalem with my dad’s cousin. After Simchat Torah services at the Kotel, I came back to my cousin’s house. I told her I was in a hora circle with both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Torah scrolls. “Oy,” she laughed, “Mixed dancing at The Wall.”

I came back to Cleveland, unpacked from Israel, and immediately re-packed for Chicago. I stayed with family friends in Skokie while I apartment-hunted for a week. I signed a lease on a Friday, drove back to Cleveland, and came back to Chicago that Sunday with my parents and my stuff packed in huge truck from my dad’s furniture business.

On October 10, 1994, I started working at JUF, a day after my birthday. Now, 20 years later, here I am. Back at JUF News, even.

What would have happened if I hadn’t been late? If I had signed up in time for that for-profit internship? I guess that would be, well, another story.

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Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta

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01/29/2015

Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta photo 1

This is comfort food. This is fill-your-belly, warm-your-soul, take-a-nap, comfort food.  And no one does comfort food as fancy as the French.

As a culinary student, a majority of my education was based on French cuisine, food history and techniques. I fell in love with French food the first time that I made tomato concassem, which is literally the process of removing the skin and seeds off of a tomato, and then slowly sweating it until it becomes delicate tomato sauce with shallots, garlic and wine. I walked up to the pot frequently and carefully, afraid to disrupt the subtle magic that was on going.  The smell of butter and shallots permeated my nostrils immediately and forever imprinted itself on my culinary mind.

My affair with French food had begun and it was going to be a long one. One of those forever kind of affairs. French food would become my mistress, the kind that I secretly went to when I was in need for some comforting buttery lovin’.

I fell in love with delicious roasts, simple stews and creamy soups. My French chefs always cooked with so much passion and love. It was contagious. They say that doing what you love makes you happy, but watching people excel at doing what they love is true magic.

My chef’s did just that for me. I watched their coordinated hands repeat moves that they had done for so many years before in tiny, romantic Parisian kitchens for sweet romantic people who probably ate for hours and never ran out of charming things to talk about. Or at least that was how it replayed in my mind, and at that moment that’s all that mattered.

They taught us duck confit (duck slowly cooked in its own fat for a long period of time) and pomme frittes (delicious, delicate little shoestring fries) and beautiful handmade rustic apple tarts that we all silently inhaled.

Figure friendly it was not, but this was culinary school and my French chefs said that eating whole fat, buttery food was the way God meant for it to be eaten. To say I was convinced would be a lie, however, this was the one time in my life I would not count any calories, nor think of grams of carbs consumed or grams of fat for that matter. French women were skinny. I would fully invest in their diet and remain pleasant, happy and always full.

Despite how “foofy” we may thing French food is, the best French food, funny enough, was originally peasant food. For instance, seafood was peasant food at one time. People tried to use what was fresh and available to them and, especially in the region of Provence, seafood was readily available. Most of the time peasants did not get the favorable part of an animal and so they had to figure out ways to enjoy it and make it taste really good.

Alas, short ribs enter the picture. At one point, short ribs were ridiculously cheap. Few understood that a tough and typically disposable piece of meat would turn into heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth yum.

For home cooks it was too daunting and restaurant owners were not sure if their clientele was ready for it. It was not until the early ‘90s that a chef by the name of Mario Batali started making fantastic braised short ribs and suddenly short ribs were the new  prime rib.

My short ribs are a classic combination of simple and bold flavors. I wanted to pair them with something that could absorb the sauce, and polenta proved to be perfect. Believe it or not, polenta is actually eaten in Provence as well due to its proximity to Italy right across the Mediterranean.

Sooo, I have a confession: I bought 2 lbs. of boneless short ribs and ACCIDENTALLY grabbed 3 lbs. of regular beef ribs, and I did not realize this until I came home and was about to cook. But nonetheless, I have now learned this is also an excellent way to prepare beef ribs. So there you go!

Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta photo 5

 

Parisienne Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Parmesean Polenta
From Girlandthekitchen.com

Ingredients

For the short ribs:
4-5 pounds short ribs
1 large onion
2 shallots
2 large carrots
5 cloves of garlic
1 sprig of rosemary
4-5 sprigs of parsley
3 cups of good red wine
1 cup of chicken or beef stock
salt and pepper to taste

For the polenta:
3 cups of water
1 cup instant polenta
¾ cup half and half
¼ cup freshly shaved Parmesan

Instructions

1. Heat up the oven to 325-degrees. If you want to use a crock pot for this, you will still sear and sweat all the veggies, and at the point that we put the pot in the oven, that will be the point that you will just cook it in a crock pot. I have done it both ways, however I prefer the oven route, funny enough to me it seems like it requires less babysitting.

2. Warm up some oil in a heavy bottom pan. You want to use a coconut, avocado or any other oil with a high smoke point. Get it nice and hot.

3. Season your short ribs really, really well with salt and pepper. I always use Kosher salt.

4. Place them in one layer in your pot and let them sear. Don't touch for 5 minutes.

5. In the meantime, dice up your onion and shallots. Shallots are just so wonderfully French. I have a pretty nifty tutorial on how to dice up an onion in case you forgot :)

6. You will also want to dice up some carrots.

7. After 5 minutes are up, your flip the meat to the other side and let it go for another 5 minutes.

Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta photo 3

8. Once all the meat is nicely browned, remove it on a plate and turn the heat down to medium.

9. Check your pot, if you have a lot of more oil than about 1 tbsp (accumulated from the meat) then pour it out.

10. Add your onions, shallots, garlic cloves and carrots to the pot and sweat for about 5-7 minutes until aromatic and soft. Toss them in all those glorious pan drippings. Season with salt and pepper.

11. Turn up the heat and add in about 3 cups of a nice dry red wine. Scrub the bottom as you do this. Pick up all those nice bits that have caramelized from the bottom.

Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta photo 4

12. Nestle the short ribs back in and add in about 1 cup of chicken or beef stock...it really does not matter which honest. You want the meat about ¾ of the way. Now go ahead and add in one sprig of rosemary and the parsley sprigs.

13. Now just close the lid. Place it in the oven and let it roll for 1 hour. After the 1st hour, remove from the oven and turn the short ribs over to the other side. Place back into the oven for another hour.

14. For the crock pot, let it cook on low for 4-5 hours.

15. If at any point your liquid boils out, pour some more stock in or water. Check the meat after the next hour and ensure that it is fall apart tender. By the end most of your liquids will have reduced significantly and you will have something that looks like this. Well without the fresh parsley on top of course.

16. At this point you have 2 options. You can place the pot in the fridge and let it cool overnight so the fat can solidify and remove it then.

Parisienne Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta photo 2

Polenta

1. Start with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Once it boils add 1 cup of polenta and stir.

2. Stir for about 3 minutes, vigorously. You want to remove all the lumps. Then add in about ¾ of a cup of half and half.

3. Stir in the half and half until it is super creamy. Add in loads of freshly shredded Parmesan.

4. Plate the polenta. Place a short rib with some sauce on top and have at it.

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A Language without Words

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01/28/2015

A Language without Words photo 1

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Do you need help with your bags outside?” the clerk at Whole Foods asked routinely, passing my carton of eggs across the conveyor belt.

Caught in a brief moment of daydreaming, I quickly pulled myself together and promptly replied, “Oh, it’s very nice outside! A beautiful day.”

After a moment where everybody shifted around awkwardly, it dawned on me that I had completely misheard the question. The clerk gave me a strange look, and continued checking my items.

I wish I could say that this sort of situation doesn’t happen on a regular basis; unfortunately, it does. I often find myself shaken out of a reverie, stumbling to catch up to my surroundings. On the way, I often mishear, or misread, or misunderstand, what’s being said.

In Argentina, it only got worse. Despite my efforts to finally emerge victorious from my years-long battle with Spanish, there were plenty of times when language got the best of me. I’d be telling a story when a few sentences in I’d be met with puzzled looks. My confidence would drain and the story would trail away as I’d fumble to figure out which words I pillaged.

A Language without Words photo 2

Buenos Aires, Argentina

My Spanish-speaking friends fared no better. Over a dinner of endless steak and unnamable cow parts, my one friend Angie was fretting over an acquaintance of hers.

“And then he didn’t call me the next day!” she fumed. “I’m just so … hungry.

We paused. “Well, then eat something,” my friend Lucas offered, pushing a plate towards her.

Angie frowned. “What? No, I was hungry … at him.”

Even after we figured out that Angie had confused the word “hungry” with “angry,” she wasn’t entirely convinced.

“What do you mean, hungry/angry?” she persisted. “They sound exactly the same!”

And they do. Just as countless Spanish words sounded identical to my non-native ear. And just as it’s hard enough to communicate well in your own language, it’s an entirely different story when you move on to other languages.

One particular irony in my life was that I spent five months studying communications in Israel, a country where I did not speak the official language and essentially could not communicate.

Nonetheless, one of my most special memories was Shabbat dinner with my family, where there was not a single common language floating around the table. Someone would burst out in a story in Hebrew, followed by questions in Russian, and supplemented by rapid translations to English. There was never a moment when everybody at the table fully understood what was being said. Yet, it was undoubtedly one of the happiest times in my life.

My family and I once met a friendly Italian named Ricardo. As he proudly told us about his native Siena, he lovingly dropped in anecdotes about his wife. When I met him, Ricardo’s English was flawless. Yet when he had met his wife several decades ago as a university student, he only spoke Italian. She — a student studying abroad from Wisconsin, casually sipping a coffee on a sidewalk cafe when she first locked eyes with Ricardo — only spoke English. At the time of their marriage, they still couldn’t hold a conversation. Yet years later, they are still happily married.  

Language is tricky. It’s necessary for communication, yet often stands as a hurdle to understanding. The truly tricky part is learning to grasp the meaning of what is being said, regardless of what language is being spoken.

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60 and Chock-Full of Wisdom

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01/27/2015

60 and Chock-Full of Wisdom photo

My dad recently turned 60, and it was a beautiful weekend-long celebration. I could be biased, but his life is one worth celebrating. I’m thankful for my dad for many reasons, one of them being that he’s taught me so much about life. I wrote him the usual birthday card on his big day, but I don’t think even that encompassed how blessed I feel that he’s my dad. So in honor of his 60th, I’m sharing the wisdom he has taught me about life.

1. Slow down

While people are pacing from place to place, my dad is captivated in conversation with an acquaintance. My dad is the busiest person I know, but you would never know that because of the way he embraces people into conversation. I consider him a professional schmoozer. It’s rare for acquaintances that pass on the street to hold a conversation for longer than a “hello.” That’s not the case for my dad. He always asks with genuine interest the details of people’s lives – their children, grandchildren and professions.

2. Never stop learning

The only times my dad watches TV is when I happen to be watching Family Guy, one of our favorite TV shows. He’ll stare at me until I move over. Then, we’ll spend the next 30 minutes in hysteria. Other than that, you’re guaranteed to find him sitting at the kitchen table catching up on a hefty stack of Chicago Tribunes and Wall Street Journals. He has a passion for learning and staying educated on current events. If I ever have a question, he almost always knows the answer. If he doesn’t, his usual response is, “I’m honored you think I know everything, which I usually do.”

3. Family first

I’m inspired by my dad’s love of family. He genuinely wants to hang out with his children, and it’s always a blast when he hangs out with my brothers and me. We’re constantly laughing and learning new things about the world. Someday, I want to be the type of parent he has been to us – always making us laugh, being honest and sharing his wisdom.

I’m always approached by people who tell me my dad is [insert good quality]. I respond with a simple “thank you” along with a smile. I don’t want to kvell – that’s what this post is for – but they’re right. And, I’m the lucky one who gets to call him Dad.

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The Gift of Israel

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01/26/2015

The Gift of Israel photo 1

So majestic and powerful to the point where I am almost blinded by the beauty. A humble graciousness arises. I just landed in Israel and the feeling has no words.

As I touched the ground, the soil, the Holy Land, I felt empowered. There were so few reasons as to why I shouldn’t have done this sooner. My grandmother pushed, and pushed, and I always found a way to get by and say, “Maybe next year, Nonny!”

Why? Why did I wait for such an amazing opportunity? Such a precious gift was upon me, and I was now ready to face it.

Traveling on two planes, being away from home, packing for 10 days, all included in one slightly anxious bound. “I have never done this before” kept running through my mind. Meeting new people is one of my favorite things, but how was I going to meet over 50 people, and not feel overwhelmed?

As I was going around, telling everyone about myself, I noticed similarities, not the stereotypes I had pictured in my head. “Hi, my name is Veronica, and I like to paint, bake, and swim.” I kept it basic; I didn’t know everyone, but I was excited. Never in my life did I think for one moment that I would make such a difference in lives, in Israel, in people that I did not know. Everyone was so welcoming, free-spirited and very understanding.

The Gift of Israel photo 2

Staying at the kibbutz, for three nights was beautiful. It was like living amongst your people, your heritage – and contributing to each other. Everything was communal including where we ate. This is where I got to know everyone. Who knew food would bring us all closer?

The Israeli scenery appeared more gorgeous every single time I looked at it, even in a different perspective. Palm trees, water, even rocks – all stunning. As I looked at the sky over the Western Wall, or even looking at the Dead Sea, I felt surreal; I felt at home.

Every part of Israel had a special story. As hard as it may be to describe the power and empathy I had at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, I felt sad yet curious. How could this happen? Never again. There was no sign of what would or could happen next in those times. Questions arose, people cried – I cried – and I felt like it was okay to cry. It was okay to understand each other, to experience our emotions together as a group and as a family.

I don’t have a favorite part of my trip, I loved every single moment. There are no words to describe how close I felt to Israel and the people. Did I mention the Israelis on our trip? If it weren’t for them, I would not know how to say, “Lama-makara!” also known as, “But why?” Even though they may have taught us some funny phrases, they made the trip. I appreciate every moment I spent with every Israeli because of their enthusiasm and love for Israel.

The Gift of Israel photo 3

As our tour guide, Yossi took us everywhere: upside-down, sideways and anywhere else he could think of to open our minds through Israel. He knew how to create a social atmosphere that connected all of us and our differences. I will never, ever forget him and how he made my trip, just like the Israelis and the group did.

My trip on bus 217 was the most amazing decision I have made in my life. I miss everyone, and even though most of the group surrounds me in Chicago, I really miss being together, especially singing our morning song every day. In the song, when we got to, “the dew falls away,” that’s how we all knew we were awake and having fun.

This trip – this gift – changed my life as a Jewish woman in America. All of the news in the U.S., all of the things people say may be true, but once you are in Israel, and once you see it for yourself, you understand the feeling that everyone has been talking about, and you tend to gather your own opinion.

Israel changed my life, and my heart. I have a new passion and love for a country, history, people, heritage and more. I fell in love and never want to break that bond. With that said, Israel, you may have challenged me, but I will always love you.

Veronica Korengold recently returned from her Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim-JUF Chicago Community trip in December, a life-changing trip for Jewish 18-26 year olds that also provides participants with an incredible network and connection to the Jewish community in Chicago upon returning home. This summer, all Chicago community trip flights will be departing from Chicago, making it easier, cheaper, and more convenient than ever to get to Israel for free from Chicago. Shorashim is the only Taglit-Birthright Israel trip provider with flights leaving from Chicago, so make sure to tell your friends and family to register for a community trip!

Registration opens for new applicants on Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 9 a.m. CST and for returning applicants on Monday, Feb. 2 at 11 a.m. CST at israelwithisraelis.com. With many trip dates and trip options, it's easy to find the trip that is the best fit for you! Questions? Contact Shorashim at info@shorashim.org or (312) 267-0677.

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The coffee-shop-first-meeting dance

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01/23/2015

The coffee-shop-first-meeting dance photo

There are few things more awkward in this wide world of ours than having a meeting with a new person in a coffee shop.

Yes, it’s great to meet in neutral territory — otherwise, one of you would have to be behind your desk, with your silver name plate and family photos establishing that you are the king of this meeting — but logistically, it’s challenging.

As my fiance and I jump into the wedding planning process, we’ve had some wonderful meetings with photographers, videographers, and coordinators in coffee shops — but the few minutes before the meetings begin, I feel uneasy and stressed. Why? Because I don’t really know what this unknown person looks like. Here’s the process.

Pre-meeting stalking. If possible, I try to look up my meeting-mate in advance on Facebook, Google, or their website. Often, this is helpful, giving me a general idea of whether it’s a man or a woman and generally the shape of his or her head. However, these pictures are often five-year-old pictures that were professionally taken, and this person has recently cut her hair or is wearing a different outfit — how dare she! Plus, in these winter months, no one looks like their beautiful picture on Facebook or their website — everyone in Chicago looks like an Eskimo. I rely on the fact that thanks to this blog, my open-to-all Facebook profile, and various websites I own, my picture is all over the internet, so hopefully they’ve stalked me, too.

Reserving a table. I’ve been trying to arrive at these meetings early, often killing time by working on my grad school thesis paper — or, let’s be honest, looking at wedding bouquets on Pinterest. When I get there early, I try to save a table that can fit three of us, but then I become that horrible person who’s hogging the community table all by her lonesome. I spread out backpacks and scarves and paperwork to make it look like something very serious is about to happen, but inside, I feel like a one-woman army trying to protect my table from siege — and my only weapon is my adorable, apologetic smile.

Saying hi to everyone who walks in the door. I’m early, but chances are that our would-be vendor will want to impress us by being early, too. So for the half hour leading up to our meeting, there I am, flashing that smile at everyone who walks in the door. I pretend to be busy on my laptop, but not too busy. As people walk in, I try to catch their eye — if they just go straight to the counter, they’re probably not my person. But if they look around the room, I wonder, could it be her? Is this our wedding photographer? Do I feel a magical vibe from inside my soul, whispering that she’s “the one”? Nope, it’s just a college student doing homework, sorry.

Describing myself. Once or twice, I’ve said, “I’ll be near a red laptop and wearing a purple coat, and my fiancé has curly red hair.” I feel like I’m writing a “Missed Connections” ad: “I was holding my grande drink. You wore white earmuffs. You said to the barista, ‘Only three pumps of peppermint, please.’ Are you my [wedding videography] soul mate?” Often I wonder if I should put out a sign with their name, like at the airport. Dorky? Or brilliant?

Who’s buying? Okay, we’ve finally identified each other through one of these means, we’ve pulled two tables together, and our Eskimo coats are off. It’s time for the coffee dance. “I’m going to get a coffee — would you like anything?” Does that mean you’re buying? Or should I pay you back? Can’t we each just go up to the line separately? But then does that mean we have to chit chat about how much we do or do not like seasonal pumpkin-flavored drinks? In this department, I usually buy my chai tea latte well in advance of their arrival, or just say I’m not thirsty. Not worth starting out our meeting with the dance.

You know what? I think the next time I meet with a vendor, I’m going to ask if I can just meet at their office. Sorry, Starbucks.

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Foodspiration for the New Year

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01/22/2015

Foodspiration for the New Year photo

Jewish people love two things above all else: guilt and food. I tend to pay homage to both of these cultural pillars simultaneously—particularly around the new year.

My day job revolves entirely around food, food writing and the sampling of food-related products. In my free time, I’m always thinking about food, whether I’m looking for my next restaurant adventure, surfing/posting food photos on Instagram, or browsing my Facebook feed for recipe ideas. It is thus with great hubris that I declared in December that I would give up both refined sugar and Diet Coke simultaneously in the new year. Last year, I cut sugar out of my diet for a solid six months, before I dipped my toe into the culinary infidelity pond. This year, I’ve been struggling with a one-day-at-a-time tug of war between the great forces of my sugar and Diet Coke dependencies and my will power since New Year’s Day.

I have a caffeine problem, and I’m the first to admit it. I need a couple of cups of steaming coffee in the morning to jumpstart my day, and I normally rely on a refreshing, cold can of Diet Coke in the afternoon to pick me back up. This regime is mostly one I follow at work, as I tend to actually sleep enough on the weekends to cut my caffeine intake. I’ve now been living in a Diet-Coke-less world, in which the feint echoes of a crisp, cold can opening ring through my head, as I drowsily fight that “2 o’clock feeling” each weekday afternoon. With great determination, I’ve replaced that afternoon Coke with more water, and sometimes caffeinated tea or an extra cup of coffee. I’m not reducing my caffeine intake, per se, but I am trying to cut out Diet Coke, which is reportedly toxic for many reasons.

I’ve been less strict with my sugar intake since January 1, namely because I’ve justified a chocolate nosh here and there as part of my self-care regime during a flu-ridden month. In between battling my sugar/caffeine demons, I’ve had the respiratory flu bug that everyone seems to have and can’t shake. Knocked down twice by this sucker and still coughing a month later, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time locked in my apartment, slurping down chicken soup—a.k.a. Jewish penicillin. For a majority of the month, I’ve been living on chicken soup, chocolate, and orange juice—otherwise known as my “Jewish diet.”

My first bout of the flu hit me around Hannukah/Christmas time, when like most Jews, I was thinking of nothing but Chinese food. At the time, I happened upon what is now one of my favorite Jewish food blogs, WhatJewWannaEat.com. Blogger Amy Kritzer is my Jewish food hero. I love her blog so much, I’m actually angry I didn’t think of it first. Not only is the blog name genius, but her playful and creative content makes Jewish food exciting and fresh for younger audiences, including both holiday and everyday fare. With a nod to Jewish food’s longtime tie to “the old world,” her blog tagline is “This ain’t yo bubbe’s blog,” which is painted across a unicorn logo. One of the first recipes I noted on her blog at the time, was a reimagined chicken soup recipe for Egg Drop Matzo Ball Soup. With this single recipe, Kritzer stole my heart, combining my great loves: Chinese food and Jewish comfort food. Little did I know at the time, her blog was filled with these hybrid treasures, including Chai Tea Challah Bread, Mexican Chocolate Latkes with Cinnamon Whipped Cream, Beer Battered Deep Fried Brisket Fritters with Horseradish Ailoi and so many more… Kritzer’s blog is truly a Jewish foodie’s paradise.

Kritzer is not the first to conjure up new visions of Jewish cuisine. In fact, in a May 2014 New York Times article titled “Everything New Is Old Again,” writer Julia Moskin claims that Jewish food is seeing a reinvention revival.

“Artisanal gefilte fish. Slow-fermented bagels. Organic chopped liver. Sustainable schmaltz. These aren’t punch lines to a fresh crop of Jewish jokes,” Moskin said. “They are real foods that recently arrived on New York City’s food scene. And they are proof of a sudden and strong movement among young cooks, mostly Jewish-Americans, to embrace and redeem the foods of their forebears.”

Similarly, there are a crop of young food bloggers who are reinventing/reviving the Jewish palette.

While the new year might be a time when many of us are trying to temper our over-indulgent tendencies, it’s also a fabulous time to explore new foods and experiences. In the spirit of culinary exploration, I wanted to share some of my favorite Jewish food blogs to sample in the new year.

12 Jewish-Themed Food Blogs to Sample This Year:

1. WhatJewWannatEat

2. JewHungry

3. SmittenKitchen (not officially a Jewish blog, but blogger Deb Perelman includes many Jewish recipes)

4. The Shiksa in the Kitchen (A Jewish convert and blogger, Tori Avery explores Jewish food with a fresh perspective)

5. The Jew & The Carrot

6. Kosher Camembert

7. Sephardic Food

8. Kosher in the Kitch

9. Itsy Bitsy Balebusta

10. Joy of Kosher

11. Not Derby Pie

12. This American Bite  

Ess gesunt! - Eat in good health!

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Breakfast is hard

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01/21/2015

Breakfast is hard photo

Breakfast is apparently the most important meal of the day. Everyone loves to say that. I’m not sure who decided breakfast was the most important, and I don’t know if it’s a true statement. I do hear about it a lot, though. “You can’t skip breakfast; it’s the most important meal of your day.” “You’re eating THAT for breakfast? …you know breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Everyone has an opinion on breakfast, and I sometimes have to remind the breakfast police that being Jewish means that each and every meal I get to have is the most important meal of the day.

I am not a morning person. I set my alarm early enough so that I can grab a giant bucket of coffee and sit quietly on my couch and stare at the walls. After a few minutes I slowly start to become human and move on to reading the newspaper (i.e. Facebook). Most mornings my Internet time goes on far too long and then I’m running around getting ready and rushing out the door as fast as I can. What this means is that breakfast usually takes a backseat.

Some mornings I can get myself together enough for yogurt and granola, but usually a Kind Bar is as about as exciting as breakfast gets for me. Breakfast is hard! During the week, breakfast might be the only time of day where eating is not my first priority. I’ve never understood how someone can wake up, prepare an actual meal and also arrive at work on time with matching shoes. I’m not fully functional until about 10 am, and only if I’ve had copious amounts of coffee.

I am excited to report that I may have found an answer to my morning breakfast troubles. Over winter-break I visited a friend in South Carolina. It’s a little known fact that Southerners are food experts. To my delight, my friend made slow-cooker oatmeal one morning. I felt like I was witnessing food magic. You just throw a bunch of healthy food into a crockpot before you go to bed and wake up to a morning miracle. Who knew breakfast could be this easy? We’ll see if I can remember to actually put this together before bed. 

Slow-Cooker Oatmeal

Ingredients 

Unsalted butter
8 ½ cups water
2 cups steel-cut oats
1 (14 oz) can unsweetened coconut milk or 1 ¾ cups whole milk
¼ cup packaged light brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Coat the insert of the slow cooker with a thin layer of butter. Add the water, oats, coconut or whole milk, brown sugar, and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low until the oats are cooked through and creamy, about 7 to 8 hours. Stir in the vanilla and serve immediately.

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Listen up, Bulls fans

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01/20/2015

Listen up, Bulls fans photo

This is a public service announcement to Bulls fans everywhere. In the words of Aaron Rogers: “R-E-L-A-X”

Okay, maybe quoting the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback to address the Bulls’ current struggles seems a bit unconventional. Sinful, perhaps. But it worked for them so why not us, right? For one simple reason – this Bulls team is very good, and it is normal for good teams to struggle in the regular season. To help support my point, let’s look back on the last couple seasons at times when the fan bases of other teams prematurely panicked.

Last season’s NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs. The team we should have learned to never count out and yet we continue to when they don’t just roll through the regular season. But last year, on their way to an NBA championship and an amazing 62-20 record, the Spurs went through a stretch in January that was quite unkind. They lost to two other Western Conference contenders, the Trail Blazers and the Thunder and went on a three game losing streak (their longest of the season). In February, they lost to bad/middle-of-the-road teams Detroit, Brooklyn and Phoenix during a streak where they lost five of seven games. How did they respond? With a 19-game winning streak in March on their way to the title.

In the year before, the Miami Heat started January by losing four of six games, with losses to contenders like the Bulls and Pacers, but also losses to the Jazz, Bucks and Pistons at the end of December and beginning of January. How did they respond? With a 27-game win streak in February-March, which was very memorably broken by the Bulls.

Great teams know that championships are not won during the regular season. And the veteran teams and players know that in order to be ready to peak in May and June, you need to pace yourself in January and February. They know that losing to a bad team every now and then or losing a series to a conference rival means nothing when the playoffs begin. Look at the Miami Heat. During their championship seasons, the Bulls had their regular season number. And with every regular season win, Bulls fans went nuts, excited that we were better than Miami. But what happened with the playoffs came around? The better team won.

So should we worry about losing to teams like the Jazz, Celtics and Magic? Should we worry about losing two straight to a conference rival like the Wizards? Maybe, but not right now. The ONLY thing we need to worry about is staying healthy. The Bulls need their complete team ready and healthy when the playoffs begin. The loss of just one of any of the Bulls’ core players could be enough to remove them from contention. This is a team built to win as a team. They do not have any one player who can carry them on their backs. The success of each player depends on the success of the others, and the biggest issue so far to me has been that they have just not gelled as a complete unit yet. Jimmy will play a great game, but Rose will be out. Pau will play well, but Noah will struggle. There is no LeBron, no Durant, no Melo on this team. They need to succeed as a group. So far, they have struggled to do that consistently.

Yes, I’m tired of watching the Bulls lose at home, I’m tired of them losing to teams they should beat and I’m tired of the musical chairs they have had to play with their starting lineup. I’m worried some about their struggles on defense so far. But – the Bulls have the best defensive coach and two of the best defensive players in the NBA. This is no longer the young, up-and-coming try-hard bunch we’ve seen over the last few years. The adjustments they need to make to turn some of these losses into wins are minor. This is a legit NBA championship contender. So, as long as they can all stay healthy, I still believe the Bulls could be the best team in the NBA.

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All About the Bugs

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01/19/2015

About Bugs

When insects are discussed in the Torah, they are usually portrayed negatively. In Parshat Bo, we learn that locusts were one of the ten plagues brought upon Egypt. During the eighth plague, locusts descended on Egypt, devouring all the crops, destroying all the vegetation and literally casting a shadow over the land as they swarmed the sky. Later on in Parshat Shemini, we learn that almost all bugs are not kosher, as they are viewed to be dirty and unclean.

I am one of those weird people who has always loved bugs. Not only can bugs be pretty cute, but they’re also really important. Bees, for example, pollinate flowers and give us honey, while other insects have powerful venoms that have been known to cure different ailments. We also have microorganisms, or tiny insects, living on or in us every day. So why do most people think bugs are gross when in reality they could actually be our secret wonder drug?

Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” And he wasn’t really exaggerating: we depend on the flowers and plants that bees pollinate to survive, and bee honey is said to have the ability to heal wounds, kill bacteria, and cure colds. Recently Washington University in St. Louis did a study on bee venom and HIV patients. The bee venom was able to kill the HIV virus without harming the surrounding cells. Bees and other insects might be the cures for many of the common diseases that scientists have been overlooking.

Chinese medicine uses all types of insects just as it uses herbs. Centipedes, earthworms, and scorpions are just a few types of insects used as Chinese medicinals. They are used for problems following a stroke, help to treat bell’s palsy, kidney stones, and reduce the numbness and tingling from diabetes. However, almost all of the bugs being used in Chinese medicinals are for serious conditions, so if you tell your practitioner that you keep kosher, they will make sure not to put them in your formula. Insects and their venoms have helped people in China with life-threatening conditions for years, and more research might need to be done to see what else they can cure.

Microorganisms are also vital to our health. We will never see them or feel them, but we need them. A lot of the microorganisms are destroyed by the food we eat and others are flushed out by antibiotics. This destroys our gut flora (the collection of these microorganisms in our digestive tracts) and leaves us with ailments such as stomachaches, colds and candida.

To ensure that we stay healthy, we need to take probiotics. Probiotics are bacteria and fungi that help repopulate your gut flora, which makes you happy and strengthens your immune system. I recommend probiotics to all of my patients, no matter what their condition is. We have all eaten something in our lives that we wish we hadn’t and probiotics will protect our stomachs from our mistakes.

So, while the Torah may not have too many positive things to say about bugs, we know they are essential to our health, environment and the advancement of science. Consider taking a probiotic every day, and the next time you see you a creepy crawler or a bumblebee buzzing by, contemplate the health benefits this insect can and is providing us.

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Just Chill Out

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01/15/2015

In With the New photo 400

As I think about how I started anew this year by applying the lesson I learned, I’m trying to figure out the words to say. I wonder if I should write about my trip to Israel, getting a job, or even dating. What angle should I write from? Will I tell a story? My mind becomes consumed with the possibilities. Turns out the lesson I am going to write about is the exact same lesson I need reminding of at this exact indecisive moment:

“Shaily, just chill out.” Everything will be alright.

After having a relationship where all I did was overthink, I realized I needed to switch the way I thought about dating and life, really. That’s where “just chill out” came in.

When I stressed about finding the husband that my dad has been demanding for me for years, all I really needed to hear was “chill out.” When I did not have a job right out of college, I could have panicked, but I chilled out. When I arrived in Israel last year without a program to attend or a real plan, I did not scramble – I chilled out.

This year, I started dating differently. I used to date with the “end game” in mind because of constant pressure from my family. Mind you, I am 23, but this started when I was 17. At every wedding my family went to, the little old ladies with their thick Persian accents would come up and say, “I vish da next vuhn vill be you.”

For my dad and his community, marriage is everything, so I internalized all of this and it showed. I was extremely anxious whenever I dated someone. Even a random dance partner at the Matzo Bash a little over a year ago lead me to overthink where it was going when all I should have done – in the words of Lady Gaga – was “Just Dance.”

When I decided to chill out, dating changed drastically. The guys I was meeting were looking for a partner. I ended up seeing these dates as a fun way to relax with someone new. When I looked at these people, I didn’t see someone whom I needed to determine if I could spend my life with; I saw someone sitting with me in a Julius Meinl having a laid back conversation, nothing more. I enjoyed every moment of every date this past year by trying to never think of a date as more than what it was on the surface.

After graduation, I finished my program by student teaching in Melbourne, Australia. It was quite the summer. But then the fear came in as I neared my first year in “The Real World,” something my friends had warned me about. Would I get the job in New York or D.C. or would I have to use my connections and work in Chicago? I put so much effort (and stress) into cover letters and resumes for only two jobs that I didn’t end up getting. I was devastated. What would I do when I got back to Chicago? August 2013 was the first time I did not have to go to school since I was born. That thought was daunting.

But in the end, everything turned okay. I could finally let my breath out when two – later three – of the most incredible Jewish schools hired me to teach Hebrew. Now, when I look for work, I take it easy. I keep my eyes peeled for the work that most inspires me.

Getting to Israel this past summer was a fight against fear itself. I quit all the amazing institutions I was working for with the hope that Israel would nourish my soul. Before the first leg of my trip in June, I applied to infinite programs and scholarships that would get me to Israel for a minimal cost. After rejection upon rejection, a small miracle happened. When I was not even trying, I won a flight from Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Just Chill Out photo 3

Shaily with medical trainee soldiers volunteering for Sar-El to make and take apart packages of medical supplies.

But that was just getting there. On the second leg of my trip starting this past October, I knew I wanted to do Sar-El - Volunteers for Israel. The plan was to start volunteering soon after the holidays in hopes that would also work for the organization. When the timeline did not work, I did not panic, I adventured around Jerusalem. In the end, I realized everything happens for a reason and it was going to be alright. I don’t regret anything from this trip; being chill and open was half the reason I got to explore the unexpected.

Although I still need reminders from the people I’m closest with to “chill out,” I have been growing to internalize this notion for over a year now. I just returned from Israel after the most chill of conclusions. Last weekend I went to Tzfat, the epicenter of Kabbalah and religious “highs,” to unwind and enjoy the special air of the city. In addition to the stunning views, my Shabbaton rabbi told a story that reinforced everything I learned this year.

Just Chill Out photo 2 Just Chill Out photo 1

Shaily in Tzfat this past weekend and in 2013

He was traveling in India and had taken buses to get around. He had planned to spend Shabbat in a Jewish area and planned the trip there so he would have just enough time to make it before Shabbat began. Friday morning he goes and waits for the 8 a.m. bus for the upcoming 10-hour drive, but a man there says it doesn't exist; he would need to wait two more hours. He worried that he wouldn't get there before Shabbat. But then, an unexpected bus showed up and managed to take him there. Everything was okay. No need to stress.

 

I took from it that I need to put in my good for the world, not worry about every detail. I know will work out one way or another, and I can proudly say I am enjoying my journey one chilled out step at a time.

To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.

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Never Stop Running

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Maintaining 100 Reasons to Win

01/14/2015

In With the New photo 400

It was one of those spring days in Chicago that reminds you why you put up with so much winter for so very long. It was that first day after the snow had completely melted away. The sun was shining over the lake, and the lakefront path was packed with runners. I was in my car on my way home from work and all I wanted to do was pull over, abandon my car, and start down the path on foot. That was the moment I realized I was becoming a runner.

This new “runner” identity came with so many descriptors that had never previously applied to me: athletic, courageous and determined. It came with abilities such as perseverance and going the distance. It would push me to tackle six long-distance races over the course of that year, including my first full marathon.

But rewind to six years before that moment near the lake, long before I ever crossed a single starting line, when I weighed over 300 pounds and would have lost my breath trying to run across the room. When I look back at that time in my life, I see descriptors such as disgusting, weak and miserable. My abilities? Stuffing emotions down my throat with food.

I have previously written on Oy!Chicago about how I sought support from coaches and Weight Watchers and the process I undertook to lose over 100 pounds (Read 100 Reasons to Live and 100 More Reasons to Live). What I haven’t quite written about is what inspired me to start running, and consequently, my success.

Never Stop Running photo 2

Then and now

Reading the book Ultramarathon Man, Confessions of an All Night Runner, by Dean Karnazes was one of the biggest reasons I started running in the first place. Dean describes himself as an “ultrarunner,” someone who regularly races at distances beyond human comprehension. His book chronicled some of his most difficult races from finishing more than 100 miles of desert heat in Death Valley to running a full marathon to the South Pole. He also described in detail the 226-mile trek he made for a charity run, without stopping. That is 48 straight hours of running.  

I got to thinking that if he could run 226 miles without stopping, maybe I could at least make it to the end of the block, so I started running. At first, I could barely run for minute before I had to stop and catch my breath. It was a slow process of trying to get to the next milestone: five minutes without stopping, five blocks without stopping, five kilometers without stopping, and so on. The more I ran, the farther I was able to go. The farther I went, the more I changed.

As I began to change, I found that it had a strong impact on my identity. Because my journey to lose weight took several years, I was in a constant state of change and my identity had become fluid; change was my new normal and I had grown accustomed to it. Then I had that moment along the lakefront and I realized that the change had essentially taken place. I was no longer “becoming” a runner – I was one.

One of the greatest challenges of stepping into this new identity was accepting I had become what I had sought to become, and to feel comfortable being the same for a while. To force monumental change and turn my life around was one thing; to stay that way was another matter entirely. That is not to say that one was necessarily harder than the other, it was just different. Regardless, something felt off about this newfound identity: the guy who is a runner versus the guy becoming one.

That perspective changed last spring when I had the chance to meet Dean, my hero and inspiration. A friend invited me to help his promotional company with a public event that offered free workouts with some of the world’s most elite and extreme athletes. Dean was one of the athletes, and my friend made sure that I got to meet him face to face.

Never Stop Running photo 1

Andy with his hero and inspiration, Dean Karnazes

I thanked Dean for inspiring me and shared how without running, I would never have lost the weight. He graciously sent the love back to me and thanked me for sharing my story with him. It was an experience straight from the movies. I was sharing my story with the individual whose own story inspired me to just get to the end of the block at a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I could make it out the door. Naturally, I had my copy of Ultramarathon Man with me and asked for an autograph. On the title page he wrote,

             Andy,
             You are an inspiration!
             Please, never stop…
             Best always,
             Dean Karnazes
             2014
 

That inscription brought it home for me. Where I was in the process of changing into a runner didn’t matter as long as I kept running. Runners have various experience levels and capabilities, but essentially it’s the same exercise of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. If becoming a runner was instrumental in losing all of that weight in the past, then staying a runner was the key to maintaining it now and in the future. Running is no longer the vehicle for creating change in my life – it’s the activity that helps define who I am today.

Why do I run? I run to remind myself that I can. Every time that I run, I prove to myself that I can do anything I want as long as I find the inspiration to get off the couch and get started. Running reminds me that any part of me or my life can change over time. A while back, I ran my second marathon in Chicago, finishing in just over four hours. Ten years ago, when I eclipsed 300 pounds, I couldn’t spend four hours on much of anything; now I inspire myself and others to never stop.

To learn more about Andy, his story and how he inspires others visit www.100reasonstowin.com

To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.

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Where will your shoes take you?

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01/13/2015

In With the New photo 400

I was in DSW with a friend when I spotted a pair of brown lace-up “dressy” sneakers on sale. I was 25 and about to leave for my second summer working at URJ Camp Harlam. At the time, I wanted to work in Jewish informal education, so Jewish summer camp seemed like a good place to make connections. That was as much of my life as I’d figured out. But as my wise mom always reminds me – life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

I bought the shoes having no idea where I would actually end up wearing them after the summer was over. Would I work for a synagogue? Another Jewish nonprofit? Somewhere else entirely? They seemed like comfortable, practical shoes that I could wear just about anywhere. Where I ended up wearing them, however, turned out to be so much better than I could have ever imagined.

Here’s what you should know about me at 25: four years before that, at 21, I had elective back surgery that hadn’t exactly gone “according to plan.” There was a second, very much unplanned and unexpected surgery, and the three-month recovery I was initially promised turned into multiple agonizing years. Consequently, I missed my senior year of college.

My peers went on to graduate with their degrees and set about starting their careers. At 25, I was doing much better physically, but mentally and emotionally I was still struggling to get unstuck. I didn’t know where I wanted to go next, how to get there, who I wanted to be … okay, so maybe I wasn’t so different from my peers. At the time, though, I felt horribly inadequate and very far behind the plans I’d had for my life.

It’s hard to put into words what finding myself meant at the time. Major surgery is never easy, but I was completely unprepared for something to go wrong, for the years recovery would take, for the senior year of college I would never get back. I couldn’t make peace for those difficult years with the feeling that there were two of me: the “me” who was still in control and had been able to live the life I’d intended back at college with my friends, classes, clubs, and so on, and the “other me” – in a tailspin, in pain, stuck at home, shut out of it all.

I went to work at Camp Harlam in 2007 because it seemed like the place I needed to be just then. Set in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains with its own small lake, Camp Harlam is a special place tucked away from the world. Working on a staff with friends from high school as well as my 20s, it was like going back in time a bit, a way to pause, reflect and begin looking forward.

Where will your shoes take you photo 1

Celebrating Shabbat at Camp Harlam

Another special part of working at Harlam those summers was the amazing international staff that comes each year, among them some Israelis whom I’d gotten to know well last year. One night toward the end of the summer, staying up at 2 a.m. to hang out with my Israeli friends, I had the completely crazy idea that would redefine my life. What if I moved to Israel for a year?

I have relatives in Israel whom I visited when I was 15, and I’d gone on a Birthright Israel trip just a couple years before, when I was 23. During that trip, I had a ring made that said refuah shlema (a complete healing of body and spirit) that I’ve worn on my middle finger every day since, and I also promised myself I’d go back and actually live there for an extended period of time. That summer I wasn’t dating anyone, I had no lease or mortgage, and all of my belongings were at my parents’ house. (Later, I would jokingly add that “I had no children… that I knew of.”) It seemed like the perfect time to go.

I decided to sleep on the idea. I wasn’t sure if it was just the result of delirium caused by sleep deprivation. I figured that if I still thought it was a good idea in the morning, I would pursue it further. Before I went to bed, I texted a friend, “I think I might move to Israel in the fall!” Her response was logical: “What will you do there?” Almost instantly, I replied, “Study. Work. Find myself.”

I woke up the next morning – and spoiler alert – it still seemed like a good idea. I came home in early September and began to research programs and scholarships.

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In Eilat, Israel

My Israeli friends were very enthusiastic about this plan, naturally, but my grandparents, not so much. My grandmother famously thought I was about to tell her I was pregnant – single, unmarried me with no job and no apartment. When I told her no, I was moving to Israel for a year instead, she mumbled under her breath disappointedly, “Oh, a baby would have been better.”

She eventually came around, and a few whirlwind weeks later, on October 15th, 2007, I landed in Tel Aviv to begin my WUJS Arad – Peace & Social Justice Program internship.

I was able to participate in several amazing social justice projects that year, but one of the most rewarding was volunteering with Holocaust survivors at Cafe Europa. Each week, several participants on various year-long programs joined with local high school students to make and serve tea sandwiches, tea and coffee for the seniors as part of an afternoon of line dancing and socializing.

One day, I asked one of the women how it is that she was so happy while others stayed quite understandably stuck in the agony of their past. She shared with me what many survivors know: “If you let them take your happiness from you in the present as well as the past, they win twice.” I decided to reclaim my own happiness from then on.

A few months into my time in Israel, I looked down and noticed my brown shoes walking down Dizengoff Street and along the many roads of Tel Aviv. I had found myself living in one of my favorite cities by the Mediterranean Sea where the sunshine and the water helped me heal the emotional scars that physical therapy had never quite managed to soothe.

Without entirely realizing exactly what I was doing at the time, I had done it – I had taken control of my destiny. Looking back, a post from my Israel blog in 2008 says it best:

“From the sunny ride into Tel Aviv the day we moved here, I have been in love and exuberantly joyful in a way I haven't felt in a long time. I remember looking out the window and thinking (totally amazed) ‘I did this! I made this happen! I made my own dream come true!’ A momentous feeling to be sure! Our lives take so many unexpected twists and turns, it's fantastic to be able to change your own life. Who knew? Then I thought, I should remember to dream big. Who knows what else I can dream up and make happen!

My WUJS program made way for a nonprofit placement through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in Washington, D.C. when I returned to the States, which led me on the path to where I am today, six plus years in D.C. working in the nonprofit field. It’s not the path I had planned for myself, but it’s absolutely perfect for me. I’m in the best possible place, working on issues I care deeply about.

My family and friends who knew me when I left for Israel can tell you I came back a different person. I came back happier and with an inner peace and self-assurance that life would work out as it was meant to – plans or no plans. This had not been my outlook in October 2007. I came back healed and ready for whatever came next. And yes, those shoes carried me every step of the journey, and I still have them today!

Jane Yamaykin lives in Takoma Park, Maryland and is passionate about Judaism, social justice, and food. She has worked for nonprofit organizations for nearly 10 years and stays actively involved in community organizing and direct-service volunteer opportunities. She loves to relax by cooking with farmers market finds and inviting friends over to share the meal. 

To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.

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Hello, My Name is Tova

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01/12/2015

In With the New photo 400

I’ve really always been Tova, even when I wasn’t. It just took the U.S. government 26 years to know what everyone else already did. Most people in my life, when I told them I was changing my name to Tova this year, gave me a puzzled look, and said, “but you are Tova.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I was born in a small town in Upstate New York. When I say Upstate, I don’t mean the Hudson Valley. I don’t mean Albany. I don’t even mean those Finger Lakes with funny names. I mean that catching a baseball game to us meant heading across the border to watch the Montreal Expos, and that most signs in town had French to benefit the Canadians who came down before our Air Force base closed and tanked the economy. Needless to say, though my parents remind me all the time, there wasn’t much of a Jewish community there.

My older brother and sister got vaguely Jewish names, names that could pass for standard American ones no one thought twice about. But when their third and final child was born, my parents decided to really up the Jewish ante.

“Tova,” they told visitors, back in the days when mothers spent a few days in the hospital post-partum. “Toba? Tofa?” they parroted back. They had never heard such a name, never been around such Jewishness, such otherness. As my parents tell it, when I would exasperatedly ask how I ended up with my name, they say they decided it would be “too hard for people.” Instead, they looked up the closest English equivalent. I guess in the 1980s androgynous names were in, as they landed on –Toby.

Toby is not a little girl. Toby is a cartoon mouse with overalls and a red baseball cap. Toby makes me shudder every time I say it, makes me irritated every time I have to reveal it to a new person. Toby is my cheeks flushing red hot the first day of Chemistry when the teacher calls it out and everyone laughs, assuming the teacher made a mistake, until they see my reaction. Toby is the prodding for weeks when they find out about my “little boy name.”

“But “Toby” is cute!” some say when they find out it’s my “real” name. Toby may be cute, but Toby is not me.

I really was Toby until I was 7. Everyone and everything said it. Then my family picked up and moved to Minnesota to a town with a marginally larger Jewish population, and I asked my parents if I could start going by Tova. I somehow always knew I was supposed to be Tova. I knew it was what my parents had meant to name me, and it was always my Jewish name. I remember nervously going up to my second grade teacher, feeling foolish, and asking if she would call me Tova instead.

Tova slowly crept in. I somehow became registered for school as Tova, got my first license and checking account as Tova, bank and DMV lackeys not noticing or not caring. But anything that went with a social security card or birth certificate remained Toby. I traveled internationally as Toby but domestically as Tova. I was Toby to my college but Tova to my grad school and high school. Toby for the SATs but Tova for the W-2. I was somehow both to the IRS. I was in limbo, in these two worlds.

I had always meant to change it legally, but the few times I looked into it, it seemed too daunting. The cost, the time, the legalese was overwhelming. But it always lingered, and when it did come up, I would feel helpless and embarrassed, feeling the need to hide plane tickets and diplomas. I hate—HATE—that my diploma says Toby, and I do not display it proudly.

When I moved to Philadelphia last year, I went to the DMV to get my Pennsylvania license. I handed them my Missouri license, which said Tova, and my supporting documents, which said Toby, and I crossed my fingers, feeling dread creep in as they reviewed my documents. In Missouri, I had tried this at several locations before I got someone who wasn’t paying attention sufficiently and gave me a “Tova” license. In Philly, I was told I could not be given a Tova license with a Toby passport and social security card. They could only give me a Toby license, which was not an option for me, both because of my shame and because my credit cards all said Tova. Someone was finally doing their job, and Toby – that little mouse – had caught up to me. I tried two more locations, but those Penn DOT workers are sharp-eyed. My time for Tova had come.

I asked my parents for the money – more than $900 between the fingerprints, newspaper publications (2), petition to the court, background checks from every state I’d ever lived in, and random “filing fees” that seemed redundant to me. They forked it over, clearly feeling guilty for the decision they made when they put pen to paper in 1988. That didn’t even include the cost of the new license, new social security card, and new passport, or the four days I had to take off from work over three months for various filings that could only happen in this room in City Hall or that room at Family Court. Also not included was my trip to get fingerprinted in a van parked outside INS in North Philly, where they assured me they were legitimate enterprise despite using a bucket for steps and spraying my hands (with what I imagine was windshield cleaner) over an open-air trash can filled with fast food wrappers. What it did include, however, was a consolidation of my identity that had been broken for 26 years. Each piece of red tape I cut felt like a tiny triumph towards something bigger than two letters.

Tova is a name I’m proud to say. Tova is good. Tova is sweet. Tova is happy. I hear Tova in greetings for the New Year, in prayers by those around me. I see a look of recognition from Jews – “you belong” – and a head tilt from non-Jews – “what a pretty name! What does it mean?” Toby didn’t belong in rural New York any more than Tova would, even though I know my parents thought they were trying to protect me.

Hello, My Name is Tova photo

With my dog on my birthday at the restaurant where I had my name change party

When I got the final paperwork in the mail (and paid $46.78 for someone to put a seal on it), I had a name-change party with close friends and family at a little Italian restaurant on the Schuylkill River. My brother-in-law handed out “Hello, my name is …” name tags to the guests. Each had one of my nicknames, one of my identities. Tova, Toby, Toto (to my niece and nephew), Tbaum. But I made sure that I was Tova. Toby? She’s that little mouse over there with the baseball cap.

Tova grew up in New York, Minnesota, and RI (and at OSRUI in Wisconsin) before spending her adulthood in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and St. Louis, and settling into Philadelphia (finally escaping the need to live in the rust belt) last year. She is a social worker housing homeless veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Philadelphia, she likes hiking in the Wissahickon Valley with her whippet mix, Lolly, exploring the local culinary offerings, and hanging out with her twin three-year-old niece and nephew, who she thinks hate her, but she hopes think she's the coolest.

To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.

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Alone At Last: Or Why I Stay through Movie Credits

 Permanent link
01/07/2015

Previously, on Adam Daniel Miller’s Oy!Chicago blog: The Bozo Theory, in which Adam discussed the advantages of waiting until the end and the inspiration for his next post, which you are about to read, skim, or neglect all together. Either way you’re here so thanks for stopping by. To the article!

Alone At Last: Or Why I Stay through Movie Credits photo

Everyone has their own routines when going to the movies. What time they get there, what concessions they get or where they sit. For me, it’s 12-15 minutes before, I never concede and preferably in a seat. But one thing I always do every time I go to the movies – as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, you astute, attractive reader you – is that I will, without question, stay through the entirety of the film’s credits.  

One reason I stay put through the credits – as previously stated in the above linked article (which, hey, look at that, you can also read here) – is to find a delightful extra scene at the end. Marvel Studios has made this a more mainstream practice in recent years with their movies; Disney films have done it for years. I suppose that’s a redundant phrase these days. (I think I heard one person laugh at that joke! Oh, it was me.) But how many of you know that there’s a scene after the credits of Frozen? Huh? Huh!?! I know you want to see for yourself, so I’ll give you a moment to pop in your DVD of Frozen and, ahem – let it go – to the end of the credits. Heh heh.

(Moment)

Welcome back. I missed you.

The art of the post-credits scene originally stuck with me because of the movie Airplane!, a film I inherited a love for because of my Dad. Other movies I love because of my Dad include Brain Donors, Ruthless People and Start The Revolution Without Me. Three incredible comedies I only mention because no one seems to have seen or heard of them and I feel that the world needs to have seen and heard of them.

I’ve learned recently that Airplane! is quite possibly the original movie to do the post-credits scene. And while this is one contributing factor as to why I stay through movie credits, I’ve discovered the major reason is because, well, I’m an introvert. Additional link about being an introvert!

The moment a movie ends, I love the solidarity that comes with the closing credits. There’s often appropriate music to reflect the attitude of the film’s final moments or sometimes simply silence to allow me to absorb the film without distraction, to fully consume everything I have just seen. The fact is I enjoy taking these moments to reflect on the cinematic adventure I was a part of not a moment ago. I won’t rush out of the theater, check my phone or begin talking to my moviegoing companion. Actually, I’m usually by myself at the movies, so asking me how I enjoyed the movie would just be superfluous. That’s a lot more fluous than necessary.

Because I’m someone who stays in the theater longer than most, I’ll never understand those people that walk out of a movie before it’s over. I always say to never judge a movie in its entirety until the end credits roll. And even then, sometimes I need to wait longer. I’ve had movies redeem themselves, or utterly destroy themselves, in the last couple of moments. Not to mention, the greatest feeling I get is once those end credits begin to roll, the theater tends to empty out, giving me the theater entirely to myself – an introvert’s utopia.

Ironically, I wouldn’t want the theater entirely to myself for the whole movie. I’ve learned this firsthand on two occasions when I was literally the only person in the theater. It was strange. I think that only happened because I saw those movies in Elkhart, Indiana and Jackson, Mississippi. I live in Chicago so you’d think by where I saw these movies that I travel far and wide to be in a theater by myself, but don’t be preposterous. I don’t travel wide. Just far.

One final thing before I go: Why do people sometimes clap at the ends of movies? Who are they clapping for? Do they think the projectionist did a great job? “Hey, Mr. Projectionist guy up there! Great job running the movie!” It’s not like the actors, producers or writers were in the theater. In that case it’d make sense. But when you think about it, clapping after a movie is like clapping after a song on the radio. No one important is going to hear it. (Note to self: stop clapping after songs on the radio. No one important is going to hear it.)

The end.

“Alone At Last: Or Why I Stay through Movie Credits

Conceived, produced and written by Adam Daniel Miller

Jokes by Adam Daniel Miller

Starring Adam Daniel Miller
 

Edited by Steven Chaitman

Executive Produced by Stefanie Pervos Bregman and Oy!Chicago.com

Distributed by Oy!Chicago.com

© 2015 Adam Daniel Miller and Oy!Chicago.com

….

I also love playing Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the movie credits. If you don’t know what that sentence means, you should probably take three minutes to watch this. See!? Staying until the end of the blog paid off! Enjoy!

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Based on a Torah Story

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Biblical tales deserving of the big screen
01/06/2015

Fade to black hats photo 2

So Hollywood went and made the “gritty reboot” of the Moses story after doing one for the Noah story, with mega-budgets, A-list actors, name directors and CGI miracles. Meanwhile, The Red Tent — about Dinah and her female elders — got a TV movie … on cable.

First of all, there are plenty of great stories from the Torah that never seem to make it to the screen. Elijah confronts Jezebel, calls flame down from the sky, and ascends to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire (yes, this is where that other movie got its title), but where’s his green-screen glory?

Based on a Torah Story photo

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Or there’s Jonah, the original whale-rider; Joshua’s demolition-by-shofar; Lot’s hometown Sodom being “turned upside down” while his wife morphs into salt. Then there is Gideon’s war, Phineas’ zealotry and Samuel’s prophecies. Daniel has the writing on the wall and the lion’s den in his story.

Joseph did get a musical, but his big brother Judah has a real arc to his development. Moses gets the spotlight, but Aaron braves Pharaoh’s wrath with him, calls down the first three plagues, makes the Golden Calf, and loses two of his sons while becoming the first High Priest. Both Abraham’s and David’s and Solomon’s lives might require a trilogy each. Saul’s tale of ambition and tragedy is epic. Samson’s story has been told again and again and again, but where’s his gritty reboot?

And all of those aside, what about the women? The Torah has many more women with great stories than could fit in one red tent. Here’s the pitch for these movie-ready matriarchs:

Sarah is the mother to a whole tribe. She rules alongside her husband. Childless her whole life, she finally has Isaac, only to see him bullied by his older half-brother and then taken to be sacrificed. She dies before he returns, unharmed, giving everything for her faith.

Tamar loses one husband. She marries his brother, only to have him die, too. Judah has one more son, but he is too young to marry and even if he weren’t, would Judah allow a third son under her chuppah? Desperate, she takes matters — and some of Judah’s possessions — into her own hands.

Miriam’s side of the Exodus story … why haven’t we seen that? She ensures her baby brother’s survival. She leads the women in song after the Splitting of the Sea. She brings forth a well in the wilderness. She contracts leprosy. She’s one of the major figures in the Torah altogether.

Ruth marries into a Jewish family only to see her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law die. She clings to her mother-in-law through loss, poverty, famine and shame. Then her dedication catches the admiration of a wealthy landowner. Could this be the answer to both their prayers?  

Deborah is a mighty judge and ruler of the whole tribe. Even the general will not go to battle without her. But when the enemy invades, it is up to Yael to use her powers of … persuasion to help her deal the fatal blow and rout the attackers.

Esther is an orphan, raised by her wise, kindly uncle. A series of events having nothing to do with her suddenly thrust her into the heart of palace intrigue and she must face a capricious emperor and his venomous vizier — and her only weapon is the truth. (Yes, this was a recent movie, but have you ever heard of it?)

Basemat and Taphat, daughters of Solomon, were princesses! And princess movies sell tickets. It’s the law.

Before we get yet another Exodus or Flood story, can we please consider making new movies about these other great Torah figures? One of these stories has to appeal to Christopher Nolan, right? Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Kenneth Branagh, Ang Lee? Or even (dare we think it) Scorsese?            

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Bridges

 Permanent link
01/05/2015

Bridges photo

Entrance to the "RACE: Are We So Different?" exhibit now showing at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. Photo credit: Ron Gould Studios

It's a new year, full of hopes and dreams—dreams like the one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about all those years ago.

In the last two months, one thing we've learned is that we have a long way to go before we shall overcome. No matter what happened in the moments leading up to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, their tragic losses have re-opened our eyes to the difficult, polarizing way our nation wrestles with issues of race.

At the same time, we should take pride in our progress. Our country has elected its first black president, an event our grandparents never thought they'd live to see. And the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial now graces the Mall of Washington.  

Yet the racial prejudice and injustice that haunt our history persists, confronting us with a new paradox. More than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, even as Barack Obama has occupied the highest office in the land for almost six years, racism—we know—pervades.

Two recent polls—commissioned by the Associated Press—suggest that racism has gotten worse in this country since Obama entered office. The surveys find that the number of Americans who harbor "explicit anti-black attitudes" rose to 51 percent in 2012 from 48 percent in 2008, while implicit anti-black attitudes increased from 49 to 56 percent.

In terms of black/Jewish relations, we sometimes forget the common ground our communities share. Dating back to slavery in the United States, African Americans drew inspiration from the Jewish exodus to freedom, and our two peoples share long histories of oppression as well as achievements, and important partnerships. 

In the 1900s, Jewish and African-American leaders worked together to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Later, during the Civil Rights Movement, Jews marched alongside their black brethren. Heroes like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both Jewish, and James Early Chaney, an African American, were killed during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 trying to help African Americans register to vote. 

Today, the Jewish community carries on the legacy of facilitating conversation between our two communities. JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council strengthens ties with other groups in Chicago, including the African-American, Latino, and other faith communities through programming and meaningful individual and institutional relationships.

With the hot topic of race front and center in the news, I recently visited the "Race: Are We So Different?" exhibit, currently showing at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (IHMEC) in Skokie. 

The exhibit confronts race and racism and tells the story of race from a biological, cultural, and historical point of view.

It's fitting that the exhibit is running at the IHMEC because the Holocaust is the ultimate example of what can go terribly wrong when people start to use their differences to justify hate against one another.

 The exhibit explores race as a social construct, and conveys a sense that white people, even if not "racist," have benefited from a racist system in this country that offers privileges to white people. 

In a video interview at the exhibit, an interracial couple—a black woman and a white man—talk about their marriage, how they are viewed from the outside, and what it's like to raise a biracial daughter, who doesn't fit neatly into one box on the U.S. Census form. In the video, the woman says that racism will only start to melt away as people of different backgrounds "get to know each other," she said. "That's the bridge." 

God knows we have a long way to go to combat racism and other forms of bigotry. But we as individuals can do our part in baby steps. As we pay tribute to Dr. King's legacy this month, and honor our shared history and sacrifice in the pursuit of justice for all, let's build bridges and get to know people from different backgrounds. 

Only then will we discover how much we are alike. 

Come celebrate Dr. King's legacy on Jan.19, at 10:30 a.m. as JUF joins with Stone Temple Baptist Church, The Firehouse Community Arts Center, Sinai Health System and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society to reflect on Dr. King's legacy and the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities. The celebration will be held at Stone Temple Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Boulevard, Chicago, IL 60623 and transportation will be provided from the JUF Building, 30. S. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60606. For more information and to register, contact JCRC1@juf.org or (312) 357-4770.

The "Race: Are We So Different?" exhibit runs at the IHMEC through Jan. 25. For more information, visit www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/exhibitions/special-exhibitions. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is a special grantee of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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