OyChicago blog

In defense of learning

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In defense of learning photo

The night before the first day of school, I’d get butterflies in my stomach and wouldn’t sleep a wink. Ever since I could remember, the idea of learning fascinated me. I was the kid who spent hours curled up on my favorite armchair with a book. I was the kid who threw temper tantrums when my parents would make me go outside—sans book—because I would have rather spent the time reading.

I proudly call myself an intellectual. No, I don’t sit in dusky cafes discussing the philosophical underpinnings of an obscure text. But I have been known to roam the library, to spend hours to find the right word to describe a thought or a thing, and to conduct tricky research just to form my own opinion on something.

My yearning for learning likely is just a mutation in my curiosity gene. And because of that, I’ve become a repository of random trivia—great for bar nights and Trivial Pursuit. But it’s also a way for me to do what Hercule Poirot was fond of suggesting: We have to give our gray matter exercise.

Constantly training my memory, reading new things, participating in discussions, and striving to attain knowledge is the best way I know to stay ahead of the masses. It helps me gain perspective and make my own choices. Asking questions is what our species does (and the best question isn’t what? It’s why? or how?). I’ll know that it’s time to go when I no longer want to know anything, no longer want to strive for something more, no longer want to engage in discussions for the sake of the discussion rather than the subject.

A character in a Russian youth literature book I recently discovered imparted these words of wisdom: “One cannot be too smart, but for some reason everyone just complains about their ability to remember but never about their ability to think.” The same book posed this philosophical axiom: Our civilization can only survive if we live in a world where the intellect is a more prized possession than strength, power, or money.

My goal is to live my life in a way that allows what I believe is the most noble effort—the pursuit of knowledge. The understanding that we constantly need to improve is what separates us from other animals. Well, that, and the opposable-thumbs-for-better-gripping thing. If that makes me obnoxious or makes me sound pretentious, so be it.


Why you should vote on Tuesday

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Why you should vote on Tuesday photo

I majored in political science, interned for a congresswoman, worked for political organizations, volunteered for a presidential candidate and understand the ins and outs of the political process and how important and crucial it is to vote in every election.  And yet, like many of us (I assume) I wish I could sit this one out.

It’s not that I haven’t been following the hoopla—Harry Reid and Susan Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, the tea party and the new elite— it’s all just so noisy and exhausting.  Earlier this week, I counted more than a dozen campaign commercials during Dancing with the Stars and there isn’t even a president election this year!  And all of them, without an exception, spent the entire commercial bashing the other candidate and never said a word about what they were actually going to do for this country.  Depressing, much?

If, like me, you are feeling **election lethargy, don’t give up and skip out on Tuesday— it will only make things worse.  Even through the cacophony of partisanship fighting there are many reasons to make sure your vote gets counted.  Here are a few of them:

Illinois is important.  Maybe it comes with age (I did just turn 27), but I’m not seeing any of our candidates from either political party with the same rose-colored glasses of my “youth.”  Still, this election has a lot on the line, both the house and the senate are up for grabs and the senate race in Illinois could potentially decide if Harry Reid (assuming he sticks around) or Mitch McConnell takes over.  That’s a big deal!  Whether or not you like our candidates as individuals, you have to decide if you want the donkeys or the elephants to be in charge the next two years.

This is our future.  The aftermath of the recession, repealing DADT, Iran, healthcare, education reform, social security, gay marriage, peace in Israel, stem cell research, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reproductive choice— these issues are going to define our generation and affect our lives for the rest of our lives.  It’s times like this when it’s more important than ever to make sure our voices get heard.

Why wouldn’t you?  What do you have to lose?  My dad has sat out more presidential elections than I’ve been alive for, but he’s also never, not once, not showed up to the polls on voting day.  Every election cycle consists of more than just the big stuff.  Did you know that this year there are 24 judge elections and 41 referenda items on the Cook County Ballot?  Even if you can’t bring yourself to vote for the lesser of two evils in some of the bigger elections, there are other races.

Don’t complain when you don’t like what happens.  To quote my friend Mark, “if I don't participate by picking the people that I want to govern me, then I'll only be governed by people I don't like…or worse, people that are completely against my interests.”  ‘Nough said.

We live in a Democracy.  If none of the above makes you want to run out to the polls on Tuesday morning, consider this: voting is a privilege you just shouldn’t waste.  I know it is cheesy, but we are all lucky to live in a Democracy.  We have the freedom to show up at the polls and vote for any candidate we chose with no threat of punishment or negative repercussion.  I travelled abroad this summer and visited a country run by a longstanding dictator.  I had a very negative experience in this country interacting with its residents and left never wanting to return.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later that it dawned on me that the oppression they were living under might have had something to do with morale and why they treated outsiders so wretchedly.  Never before have I valued my freedom more.  While it might not be perfect here, we are lucky to be Americans.

Don’t be lazy.  Finally, if the reasons why you might skip voting on Tuesday have anything to do with not know where your precinct is,  what you need to vote, or when to vote, take a few minutes right now to find out.  I’ve listed some resources below and above that will answer all your questions and if you’re still in doubt just Google it.  Also, if your excuse is that you just won’t have the time Tuesday to make it to the polls, then think again.  Voting early ends today.  There are more than a dozen precincts where you can vote early in Cook County.  I’m heading to the County Clerk’s Main Office at 69 West Washington over lunch today to vote.

I’ll meet you there!

**Election lethargy as defined by me is: One who is sick of and wishes that all these damn politicians and their special interest groups would just shut up, stop fighting and hijacking the election, quit calling each other extremists and actually consider what is best for our country.

For more information on how to vote and to get educated on the candidates, visit  rock the vote .  Visit  VOTE411.org  to see who's on your ballot, choose your candidates and print a copy of your "ballot" to take with you to the polls.


An Interview with Shaun Weiss, a.k.a. “Goldberg” of The Mighty Ducks

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There are few movies that defined the era of my childhood like the Mighty Ducks. Every kid at the time got on their skates or blades and tried the triple deke. Sometimes we pretended to be Banks, sometimes we were Conway, and sometimes to spice it up, we were the goalie Goldberg!!! As a young Jewish kid, to see one of my own win the Minnesota youth hockey championship and a title for Team USA, it was just inspiring. Well, The Great Rabbino caught up with Shaun Weiss, a.k.a. Goldberg for an interview. Great guy. Legendary role. Jewish sports icon!

The Great Rabbino: Hey man, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. You are definitely a Jewish Sports legend. To start off the interview, be honest, what was bigger for your career the Mighty Ducks or the episode of Saved By the Bell: the College Years that you were in? And in a follow up question, is Kelly Kapowski as awesome in real life?
Shaun Weiss: Never met her. I did six episodes of the new class so I got to hang with Screech... zoiks! But her sideburns always bugged me.

What kind of training did you have to do to get ready for your role as Goldberg?
We had three months of hockey camp. Skating didn't come easy for me—I spent the first month on my ass. Never wanted to quit, but I did wish the movie was about the Oregon football team.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received from Coach Bombay and do you think you could kick Charlie Conway’s ass right now?
I assume you mean Emilio, the real guy. Best advice: "If you’re going to hook up with the extras, get their parents to sign a release form." Kick Conway’s ass? What kind of mensch are you, guy?

Since this is a Jewish Sports blog, I was wondering what it was like playing the token Jew in the film. Did it follow your throughout high school? Did you actually grow up in a Jewish home?
Shaun: Token Jew? Hmm... felt more like the token fat kid. The schools I attended were predominantly Jewish, so for a couple years there was a bar/bat mitzvah every weekend, sometimes two. It was fun watching them try to top each other. Kept waiting for Streisand to show up and bust out the Hava Nagila.

You are definitely a movie star to all of my friends and we love your ESPN commercial, so what else have you been up to recently?
I'm a stand-up comedian and have been studying the screenwriting craft for a decade.

Lastly, the question that I think is on all of our minds. Have you ever tried a triple deke and does it actually work?
Never tried the triple deke. Of course it works, didn't you see the movie? :)

Big thanks to Shaun Weiss/Goldberg. Huge fan of the Ducks movies.

And Let Us Say...Amen.



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Addiction photo

My son's life as we knew it came to a crashing halt on October 8, 2009. 

Fortunately (and coincidentally), he was given a second chance at living an honest, fulfilling, clean life, which began on October 9, 2009, his 26th birthday.  You see, my son is an addict.

As we bury another young Jewish man in Chicago today, my heart aches for his family and friends, as well as his young children who will never know their father.  It was his decision alone to shoot heroin just one more time; however, this tragedy might have been avoided.  So long as we choose to judge those addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, pills - whatever their poison of choice - and assume that these are signs of poor character, such tragedies will continue.  The stigma of addiction must be lifted if we are to give our children a future.  Until we realize and accept that addiction is a psychiatric illness, not a moral choice, and that Jews ARE susceptible, we will endure the pain of senseless loss.  We may avert our eyes and pretend that "Jews don't do that", but we are only fooling ourselves, at a tremendous cost.

I am proud of my son, a non-substance abusing compulsive gambler.  After years of living lies, stealing from friends, family and his employer, I am grateful he chose recovery, rehabilitation and life.  He once asked me "Why do they tell kids not to drink or do drugs, but they never tell you what internet gambling can do to your life?”  With the help of a supportive community and qualified, straightforward professionals at Beit T'Shuvah in L.A., he is working on reconnecting with his soul.  He is determined to be of service to others, right the wrongs he has committed, and help others out of their deep dark holes.  Is this not a basic tenet of Judaism?

The work is not easy, the burden tremendous, and is accomplished one day at a time; but he keeps his eye on the end result.  The losses have been great.  He lost his wife, his friends, his job, and his home almost instantly.  Despite being a first time, non-violent offender, he is spending 8 months in state prison, where he "celebrated" not only the high holidays, but his 1st clean birthday and his 27th biological birthday.  He continues to be an inspiration to others, though he lives in humility and is grateful for the people that continue to play an integral role in his life.  His future is bright, with a job and home awaiting him and a clear conscience.

I urge each of you to recognize the signs of addiction and take action now.  Tomorrow may be too late.

For more information about addiction and how you can take action or get help, contact the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago at  http://www.jcfs.org/p_program.cfm?cat=jhn&id=41



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Bullies photo

After the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student whose sexual encounter with another male student was filmed and broadcast without his knowledge, the public wanted the heads of the roommate who recorded Clementi, and the roommate’s friend who was perceived as an accomplice of some sort. Both of these people were vilified in the media as bullies and Clementi’s death launched a set of public service announcements by Ellen DeGeneresHillary ClintonSarah Silverman and more.

While the message of the PSAs is undeniably important, I also discussed the tragedy with colleagues and students as a way to explore how the roommate alone was not to blame. What about the people who watched the recording, and read the roommate’s tweet, and saw the Facebook suicide note? Did they not have an ethical responsibility to act on Clementi’s behalf?

What’s more, it’s difficult to hold college students up to a higher standard than professional videographers and producers at an international cable network. If anyone should be clearly punished, or at least vilified, it should be the MTV staff in the room while Amber Portwood hit, slapped and punched her boyfriend in front of their two year old daughter, Leah, during the September 28th episode of the MTV Reality Show “Teen Mom.”

The MTV staff is there to get raw footage that will generate ratings, but at some point, as individuals their conscience should have clicked in to gear and they should have stopped the fight or removed the child from the room. True, it’s not their job to do so. Their job is to record “reality.” But sometimes your job is not more important than being a human being. Even though Portwood’s baby’s father is much larger than she is, no person ever deserves to be beaten by another person, period. They could have filmed one punch, and then broken it up and separated the two. I’m sure the ratings would have been the same.

In addition, that fight could cause irreparable emotional damage to little Leah, who didn’t get to choose who her parents are or whether or not she would be on reality TV.

However, the MTV staff had a choice, and they made the wrong one. Under Indiana law they could be held accountable for not reporting child abuse, as domestic abuse in front of a young minor is paramount to child abuse.

To read more about the effects of domestic violence on children: http://www.acadv.org/children.html

Shalva offers 24-hour help for local Jewish families dealing with domestic abuse: http://www.shalvaonline.org/about-us.aspx

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline is here: http://www.thehotline.org/


America’s gone ‘Mad’

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America’s gone ‘Mad’ photo 4

America’s gone mad for Mad Men. I admit that I, too, have gone mad. My madness for the show has been one of anger, love, resignation and finally—ambivalence, and love, still. The show leaves me with more questions than answers, and somewhat ambivalent, because I think the show echoes and mirrors back to us much of the “post-feminist” era ambivalence our generation faces today. The show, which some dub as a period piece, subtly and not-so-subtly hits on many gender issues that are not yet resolved, both for the 1950s-60s characters working on Madison Avenue in New York, and for us all.

On the very surface, Mad Men watchers are, at the very least, nostalgically obsessed with the show’s aesthetic. While our parents are probably scarcely fazed by the sharp suits and sheath dresses with cigarettes dangling from the characters’ mouths, we young people cannot get enough—evidenced by entire racks in costume shops devoted to Mad Men dresses for Halloween this year. I too, have succumbed to the 1950s and 1960s glamour featured in the show, and only last weekend I found myself ogling similar trends in vintage shops in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

For argument’s sake, let’s say people are not merely nostalgic and fascinated by a period show. Let’s say, there’s something a bit deeper that lures and holds the attention of such a large audience of men and women.

For a year, I refused to even touch the show, and only recently have been catching up on the series. My hesitance came after having long talks with a co-worker and fan (holding the same position as mine at work), who would complain he wished he could smoke in the office and get a secretary to do his grunt work. I thought, If this is the influence the show is having on guys today, no thanks. While he was likely kidding, other males with whom I’ve spoke have similar iconic associations with Don Draper, as if Draper were the modern Super Man.

However, I would argue that while Draper has a shiny and unquestionably handsome veneer, he more closely resembles the doomed protagonists from Greek tragedies. I might similarly describe the women who touch his life. Draper, who out of tragic childhood, rose above by reinventing himself, can’t quite figure out who that “self” is, and plows through a failing marriage with countless extra-marital affairs and with a closed-off disregard for anyone whom he encounters. One might say he’s dead inside. What an icon for modern men.

Betty, his wife, begins the series also with a beautiful veneer, and desperation to leave the shiny bubble in which she lives as a housewife, knowing that Don is continually cheating on her.

Interestingly, one of the first female characters with whom Don can truly connect and be honest with about his past is the Jewish character Rachel Menken, the head of Menken’s, a Jewish department store in New York. While there is a sense of discomfort and otherness surrounding Jews in the show and her family in particular, Don and Rachel somehow bridge the gap. When Don’s firm wants to schedule an appointment with Rachel regarding advertising for her store, they search out a random Jewish person from the company who can attend the meeting to make her feel more comfortable. However upon meeting her, Rachel’s frankness and ability to cut through Don’s bull puts him at ease in a manner that Betty cannot. Betty, who takes on a child-like demeanor early in the series, is protected from the serious issues of Don’s past.

On two separate occasions I discussed Rachel’s character with my father and a friend my age, and both times I was offered the joke about the Jewish boy who came home from school and told his mother he got a part in the school play. She asked him what part and he replied, “The Jewish father.” To which she answered, “Go back to the school and ask for a speaking role.”

Often, women are perceived as the dominant figure in the household—but that’s just it, in the household. Rachel’s character was more of an outlier, if one subscribes to that stereotype, as she was college educated, came from a family of money and ran her family’s business—a seemingly rare feat in the 1950s. Very rarely, does one see a woman being pitched to in the board room on Mad Men. My father said back in the 1950s and 1960s Jewish women were known to help run and even take over family businesses, and culturally it was more acceptable.

The show is complex, as are the characters, whom we see grow from season to season. For instance, Betty finally divorces Don. Other characters such as Peggy forego the traditional female route, as she gave up her baby to follow her career aspirations. There is also the character of Joan, who is like the red-headed Marilyn Monroe of the show, with a curvaceous figure and careful, yet strong demeanor. As the show’s resident sex icon, she also becomes the victim of a rape. The instance reminded me of Sex and the City’s treatment of the character Samantha, who late in the series got breast cancer—which doctors partially blamed on her not having children—linked to her promiscuous lifestyle.

While the show is complex, I worry that it also glamorizes patriarchy, remorseless extra-marital affairs and a male population that largely disregards the women surrounding it. Similarly, I am uncomfortable with on-camera females who struggle with child-like, gender roles that are in some ways generations behind us—perhaps not as much as we’d hope. Perhaps my discomfort with these characters is healthy and expected as part of a modern audience. But, I wonder, does it make the male viewers uncomfortable? I fear not.

When I sat down to write this article, I began by perusing the  Mad Men Web site . I found on the site a link: “Mad Men Yourself Avatar.” I couldn’t help myself. I clicked and—accompanied by jazzy cocktail music—began the process of Man Men-ifying myself (reminiscent of the time I South Park’ed myself in college and plastered it on Facebook). For those who are curious—yes, I was a blonde then.

America’s gone ‘Mad’ photo 2

I began the process of creating my avatar, and was surprisingly disturbed by my options. While the avatar program loaded, only a male physique was portrayed, phasing in and out of forms, with different clothes and a brief case. Only when the program was loaded, was I given the option of male or female, indicated by “suit” or “skirt” respectively. I thought to myself, “Some women wore suits back then!? Already, I’m having a wardrobe malfunction.”

After resigning to “skirt,” I proceeded to click through screens, selecting my body type (skinny, busty or chubby); skin color; head shape; hair style and color (with or without a hat); eyes with or with out glasses; eyebrows; nose; lips; clothing and accessories, finally ending with my setting or “scene.” There were so many issues along the way—where do I begin? I wasn’t busty enough for the busty prototype, and I was too curvy for the rail thin one, but I took that one because I do not measure up to the character Joan’s chest—for whom that busty prototype was probably modeled. None of the hair styles accounted truly for my Jewish curls. When I got to the clothing portion, I could spin a clothing wrack and pick from any number of dresses, with only two suit options—both were hideous by the way. I went with a power-red sheath dress and a black clutch. These were items I could live with, and even wear today. Accessory options included anything from a shotgun and accordion, to purses, jewelry, alcoholic drinks and a newspaper. I chose the newspaper: My avatar doppelganger was also to be a newswoman—or at least well-read.

America’s gone ‘Mad’ photo 1

Out of curiosity, I started again from the beginning and made a man of myself. This time, I had endless suit options, with various physiques to choose from, etc. I chose a Don Draper-like body (Who wouldn’t?), and again had difficulty with my male self’s hair. I chose wavy. When it came to accessories, again, I had options including a gun and accordion, as well as various briefcases, ties and beverages. The process, interestingly, went much quicker. I was surprised, however, to find that my scene or setting options were the same between men and women. They included the board room, the bedroom, the pool, a hotel room, a shrink’s couch, etc.

America’s gone ‘Mad’ photo 3

What’s the point? I found it very difficult to fit my modern perceptions into these narrow categories to develop my iconic avatar. Many of the characters on the show face the very same struggle. Mad Men straddles a world of traditional gender roles and rules, and a changing world in which those rules are constantly broken—true to the eras it portrays in the 1950s and 1960s. The show is made more complex by the fact that it self-consciously presents itself to a modern audience, and is most obviously written by writers with a modern view point. That gray matter, the ambiguity and the struggle are what make the show raw, fascinating and addictive.

However, the gray matter, the ambiguity and the struggle are also what make this show disturbing in its appeal. Rarely, does one find a night melodrama that manages to widely attract both men and women. Simply put: all men want to be lead character Don Draper; and all women want to have Don Draper. Similarly, I believe the male audience admires the sharp suits with a cigarette in one hand and a whisky in the other; the slickness with which men slip into inter-office affairs; and the authority men hold over women. Women, admire the feminine vintage styles; the nostalgic domesticity; and meanwhile, identify with the women’s struggle to breach an ever-towering glass ceiling.

I wonder what the appeal and influence of this show really is. In some ways, I think it puts order back into a world that is now somewhat disenfranchised when it comes to gender roles; at the same time, it calls into question the same question we are asking ourselves: “Am I a suit or a skirt?” and “What does that mean?”

It’s easy to blame feminism and the sexual revolution for a bewildered generation, but rather, I think we are still sifting through the revolution’s rubble and trying to make sense of the pieces. Instead of having nostalgia for an era that in some ways, I’d like to put behind us, I wish we were focusing more on how to rebuild. We can’t see through the ash because we’re facing some of the same problems.

Perhaps, the most revealing part about my avatar quest is that the image wound up looking more like old photographs of my mother at my age, than like me in the present day.

What would Freud say?

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”


A Gay Man Knows My Zip Code

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A Gay Man Knows My Zip Code photo

Libby and Sam on the way to junior prom (and yes, Libby knows she has a serious Liza Minnelli thing happening).

When I was in high school, some friends and I piled into my best friend Sam’s mom’s minivan and drove from Oak Park to Chicago. Unlike previous trips to go to a show at the Metro or have coffee at Scenes, this time we were headed to a meeting for LBGT and questioning teens. And we were lost.

We pulled over to a pay phone to call for directions to Horizons. The man who answered the call was very nice, and as I was getting ready to hang up, he asked for my zip code. I gave it to him and then promptly lost my shit. I jumped back into the van and gasped, “You guys!!! A gay man knows my zip code!”

Saying my zip code out loud (which looking back seems like the least personal bit of information ever) reminded me that we could run into people from school, a fear I expressed and that Sam squashed with his usual good sense and quick wit.

Me: What if we see people we know?!
Sam: Remember when you were a kid and your mom would make you go shopping at Venture*? And, like, seeing someone from school was the worst thing ever?”
Me: Uh huh.
Sam: It’s like that—they’re at Venture too! So fuck it, who cares?

I have been thinking about high school a lot lately. It seems like you hear a new story every week about a gay kid being bullied and committing suicide. And with every story I get more pissed and more sad and more grateful.

What’s amazing about my story isn’t that life got better, it’s that high school life was pretty good. As a teenager in a typical suburban public school, I had a group of gay/supportive/bi/questioning friends with whom to leave our zip code and find the gays.

I can’t say where I would have been without them. I don’t think I would have been as hopeless as the kids we hear about in the news, seemingly, every day. I had liberal parents (but what teenager wants to talk to them?), grew up in a pretty open-minded community and had the benefit of being a girl.

I don’t know what the answer is for the kids who are suffering today. I’m sure that It Gets Better and Give a Damn and the Trevor Project are making an impact, and I’m so glad they are getting lots of press. And the wearing purple yesterday thing was cool, but I don’t know. I guess I just feel like what mattered the most for me was spending every day with a supportive, loving, crazy group of people—and as much as I wish you could, you can’t duplicate that online.

*For those who didn’t grow up with Venture, it’s like K-Mart but even dorkier. For example, you might want a Cabbage Patch Kid. You could go to Venture for a Turnip Child instead.


Twitter 101

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Twitter 101 photo

You’ve probably heard about Twitter, but may be afraid to ask exactly what it is and why anyone would use it. True, tweeting is in some ways just another internet vehicle to waste an inordinate amount of time, but it’s also a way to be more engaged in the Jewish community without leaving your laptop. (But don’t be a loser, leave your laptop).

First, some vocabulary.

Twitter: the company that runs the service in which users blog in 140 letters or less: twitter.com

Tweet: the 140 letter or less microblog that often includes links to a longer blog, video clips, photos or articles

Tweeter: one who tweets.

Name: name on twitter

Twitter Feed: Tweets that you see because you subscribe to their Tweeter

Follower: someone who subscribes to another person’s tweets

RT: when you retweet someone else’s tweet. You give the original person credit by putting the RT next to the username. Example: RT @OyChicago

TweetUp: a meeting between two or more tweeters in person.

Twitterverse: All the people who tweet. Stupid term used by classical media often said, “So Jerry, what is the twitterverse saying.”

Trending topics: topics that many Tweeters are talking about demarcated by a hashtag #. Example #Cutler was sacked again.

Twitter Platform: Companies that run the Twitter Service. The best analogy is you have a gmail account but check your email through Microsoft office.

There’s more to know, believe it or not, but this will get you started. Now, how can twitter make you a more engaged Jew? Jewish organizations, professionals and just members of the tribe often tweet Jewishly. They tweet about Israel, Judaism, Jewish conferences, Jewish events, anti-Semitism, Jewish food, etc. Although there is a time-suck element, I have learned a tremendous amount from Twitter and have been exposed to ideas and opinions that I would never have come across through my other virtual and live networks.

While twitter has not made me an entirely better person (I also follow some celebrities and cartoon characters) it has served to develop me as Jewish professional and member of the Jewish community. To see who I follow in the Jewish community, click here: http://twitter.com/#!/scarpetablog/jewy and to see what Oy!Chicago is up to on Twitter, click here: http://twitter.com/#!/OyChicago

Now it’s your turn. Tweet away!


Cheers! Chicago: Trick or Treat edition

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Cheers Chicago: Trick or Treat edition photo

Ah, the fall season—leaves changing to colors of the rainbow, the air getting brisk and windy—and, of course, Halloween! There is no other national holiday where adults and children can dress up for one day and just have fun. Of course, we Jews have Purim in the spring, filled with delicious hamentaschen, noisy graggers and of course, killer royalty costumes. So, in the spirit of the ghoulish holiday, I thought I’d reminisce on some of my fondest memories trick or treating and share some special moments I had with my two younger siblings.

As early as I can remember, I have dressed up for Halloween. I know this because my own mother won’t let me forget it, having photo albums detailing all of the awesome and decorative costumes my brother, sister and I used to wear. Lucky for us, despite growing up in the city, we lived in a condo building as well as on a block that was very kid-friendly for trick or treating, but it was not until my brother and I were around 10 that we were allowed to venture off on our own—together, of course—and see what trouble we could cause. Because my brother Jesse and I were so close in age, a lot of our costumes would either match or complement each other. For example, one year my brother and I had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles body suits / pajamas with masks and turtle shell candy bags. I was blue-colored Leonardo, the leader with the katana, my brother was yellow-colored Michelangelo with the nun chucks.

Back then, my sister was too young to go out with us, so while we went out candy-hunting she would help my parents pass out candy to other trick or treaters. Another year I dressed as Dick Tracy, to the nines! I donned the yellow suit, threw on the fedora cap, and wielded the toughest looking plastic tommy gun anyone could imagine. Pretty soon, my brother and I were the talk of the condo, setting the Halloween trends and always garnering the most attention, and therefore the most candy. Rain or snow, windy or cold, my brother and I braved the elements and triumphed like pirates after a hearty pillage. In the later years, our little sister Hayley would join us, inevitably in some royal or fairy type costume, on our annual candy hunt. It really was a great way for all three of us to grow closer and share an activity that all of us enjoyed.

After we’d return from our expeditions, Jesse and I would come back to the dining room table and dump everything out, immediately scoping out our favorites. Since we knew each other so well and which particular candies and sweets we each liked, we began the process of dividing everything up. I scrambled to snatch up all the Dots, Reese’s and Krackel/Hershey I could get my hands on, while Jesse went straight for the Pixie sticks, Gummy worms and Smarties. On occasion, we would come across a candy we’d never seen or heard of before (most likely from one of the houses that might be a little too old to know what treats young children like, if you catch my drift). When that would happen, guess where it went? Our little sister Hayley’s pile. This way, we never seemed neglectful or dismissive of our youngest sibling, and the candy we didn’t want was technically not going to waste (right?). After what seemed like hours of sorting, we finally had our candies all organized and lined up on the tabletop, which of course was followed by ravenous devouring and then extreme aching of the stomach.

As we got older, we still found ways to stay involved in the trick or treating festivities and dress up in something cool. I happened to find my way to the University of Wisconsin where Halloween was a sacred and timeless celebration amongst the students. While those parties were fun and festive (and a little out of control), I will always remember the good times I had trick or treating back home, from sloshing around in the rain in my ninja costume to divvying up the candy with my siblings. I will always have fond memories and hope to make more each and every October.

Speaking of having fun for Halloween, this year, if you are looking to have some fun and celebrate Halloween with a multitude of young, energetic Jewish partygoers, my close friends Brad and Brandon of Juicebox Promotions are throwing their annual shindig at Enclave. Tickets are cheap now so grab them and secure your night of fun and costume mayhem now: http://enclavechicago.com/horror/ These guys also throw other fun and festive seasonal bashes that do attract a large and rather young Jewish crowd, so don’t be shy and mingle and schmooze the night away this coming Halloween.

So, what are you going to be for Halloween?? I hope to see many of you out there in your costumes, or better yet, send Oy!Chicago some pictures of your wacky adventures and we will see who has the best costume!




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Attention home cooks: This is for you!


I went to help a friend make Roasted Butternut Squash Soup last week. She is always saying how much she loves the soup, but can’t seem to make it without all sorts of battle wounds and horror stories.

I walked into her gorgeous industrial quality kitchen and found an enormous pile of butternut squash. I asked for some sheet pans, cutting boards and a knife. She produced the sheet pans and cutting board and then this pathetic little knife. It was maybe four inches long, serrated, and with a chipped cheaply riveted handle. OY VEY!

How can anyone cut these rock-hard vegetables with this cheap little knife? She mentioned her fear of cutting her hand off (a reasonable fear) and how the little knife was easier. She also mentioned how she really hated cutting vegetables and usually just bought them pre-cut. OY VEY!

I launched into my speech about proper knives and how to use them, then I ran to my car and grabbed my knives (most chefs carry knives around with them) and a short time later had the squash under control and soup on the way.

Here is the abridged version of the knife lecture:

• Most people hate cutting/cooking because they do not like to struggle with food. Usually their knives are the culprit. A good knife will make cutting easier, safer and faster.

• A good knife will last a lifetime— I always say that your children will fight over the knives after you are long gone.

• A good knife is not cheap. A cheap knife is not a good knife.

• You do not need to buy a “knife set”. Most sets are priced attractively and include one or two great knives and then a bunch of knives that are odd sized and not very useful (thus the attractive price).

• Most homes only need a chef’s knife and a paring knife. With kosher kitchens, that makes two chef’s knives and two paring knives. If you are a die-hard home cook, then you can add boning knives, cleavers etc…P.S. a well-constructed knife can be kashered for Passover.

• Do not buy knives from cute college kids selling them during the summer. They are not good knives. Instead, buy a good knife and buy the scissors or steak knives that the cute college kid is selling. The scissors are OK.

How to hold your knife properly:

• Grip the kitchen knife with the last three fingers of your dominant hand. Slide your hand upwards towards the blade. Grasp the bolster of the blade with your thumb and forefinger. The bolster is the balance point and finger guard on the actual blade. Your thumb should rest on the bolster on one side, while your index finger holds it firm on the other side. Rest your last three fingers comfortably on the kitchen knife handle. Let your index finger and thumb control the knife. Hold the item to be cut in your other hand, curling your fingers under themselves and advancing the item with your thumb. Rest the blade against your fingers and chop.

• Take good care your knife and keep it sharp.

• The basic rule on which knife to use is: if you are cutting a large item, use a large knife and vice versa.

Places to buy knives in Chicago:

• Shop where the chefs shop. My favorite place to buy knives is Northwestern Cutlery. They have an amazing selection and will offer advice. They also sharpen knives while you wait.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

People get rhapsodic about this soup with its beautiful golden orange color and decadent creamy consistency. But, I know very few people who actually will make it for themselves at home. Have no fear. With the right tools for the job, this soup and most other heavy duty knife work recipes are a snap.

Frozen squash is fine for some soups and recipes but will not work for this soup. Roasting the squash gives the vegetables a deep nutty-sweet flavor and caramelization that cannot be achieved with frozen pieces. Some grocery stores offer pre-cut squash and that is a fine alternative to cutting your own. You still need to buy a decent knife though— you can thank me later.

Preheat oven to 350

2 medium whole butternut squash, cut in half and seeded *
1 large Spanish onion, cut into small dice
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs of celery, stringed and diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 pears, peeled and diced
Bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, parsley stems, 1 bay leaf
½ cup sherry
5 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock if making this soup dairy
½ cup cream (if making this soup dairy)
Salt and Pepper

1. Rub the cut side of the squash with olive oil and salt and pepper. Place the squash cut side down on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes or until the squash is easily pieced with a paring knife. Allow to cool.

2. Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil. Sweat the onion, carrots, celery, and pears until they are soft and very fragrant. Scoop the squash from the skin and add it to the pot with the vegetables and pears. Add the bouquet garni.

3. Add the sherry and stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes.

4. Remove the bouquet garni and puree the soup with an immersion blender.

5. Adjust the seasoning and garnish with toasted pumpkin or squash seeds, drizzled pumpkin seed oil, crème fraiche for dairy, curried shredded chicken, roasted pears or apples etc…. HAVE FUN WITH IT

*cutting vegetables that are odd shaped and roly-poly presents a culinary challenge-unless you have a good knife.

To cut butternut squash safely:

Cut off a think slice about ½ inch thick from each end of the top and bottom of the squash. This will make it the squash easier to stand up with out chasing it around the cutting board while it rolls away. It will also make it easier to cut straight down to the bulbous end by making the top more level and flat.


Why there is a kernel of Russianness in me that just won’t go away

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Why there is a kernel of Russianness in me photo

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, a massive effort by the North American Jewish community to rescue and resettle more than 1 million Soviet Jews. Chicago welcomed more than 30,000 Russian-speakers.

You might wonder why a person named Jane Charney—such an American name—would be telling you about all the wonderful opportunities that Federation provides for the next generation of Russian-American Jews in Chicago.

In fact, I wasn’t always Jane Charney. When my family moved to the United States from Moscow nearly 14 years ago, we quickly adjusted our names to more English-friendly ones. Let’s face it, Yevgeniya Leonidovna Charnaya is a bit of a tongue-twister.
Although my family came to America after the major wave of immigration of the early 1990s, we experienced the impact of Operation Exodus firsthand. The community opened its arms to us and made us feel welcome. My sister and I enrolled in Jewish Sunday School. Our synagogue paired us with a Russian-speaking family that had lived in the States since 1989.

Once I got to Indiana University, I actively participated in Hillel, where I chaired the communications group and helped create IU’s first-ever Israel-palooza—a celebration of all things Israel in the middle of campus. From Friday night services to late-night study sessions to Israel advocacy, Hillel inspired a deeper connection to Jewish life in me.

After college, that connection translated into working in the Jewish Federation world. That’s one of the ways I can give back to a community that already has given me so much.

As American as I feel at times, there’s a kernel of Russianness in me that just won’t go away. I’ve turned it into an advantage: Over the past several years, I’ve put together workshops on identity and Russianness. I also led a trip for Russian-speakers to discover Jewish heritage in Spain.

Whether it’s been five or 15 years since immigrating to the States, many of my fellow Russian-speaking Jews also cherish some aspect of our Russianness—the language or the culture or the sheer wealth of jokes that simply do not translate well into English. At the same time, we live in the United States, we speak English with our friends, and our attitudes borrow from both our American education and our Russian-Jewish souls.

My peers want to find more ways to feel Jewish, to live Jewishly and to create Jewish connections. That’s where community institutions like Russian Hillel and the Federation’s Russian Jewish Leadership Forum come in.

I was part of a core group of nine Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals who formed RJLF about a year and a half ago. We recognized the need for a post-college bridge to the Jewish community that had a specifically Russian taste. Since then, together with JUF staff the nine of us have been creating events that bring together 20- and 30-something Russian-speaking Jews from around Chicago.

We’ve sponsored holiday celebrations with the Russian Senior Center at the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi Purpose Center, served meals at the Uptown Cafe, and packed food boxes with Maot Chitim at Passover time.  A group of RJLF leaders met with former Prison of Zion and current Israeli Minister of Public Affairs and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein. We’ve hosted receptions at the Standard Club, listened to Russian classical music at Ravinia, and gathered for professional networking events.

This year, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, my husband and I created and hosted an Exodus Seder for other RJLF participants. Our peers told their own personal stories of exodus. And another Russian Jewish communal worker, a JVS colleague, who had lived in refusal for 12 years, shared his story with the group.

In addition, as a group we have participated in larger community events, like Israel Solidarity Day, campaign phonathons and the Young Leadership Division’s Big Event.

Much like native-born Americans, RJLF participants represent all levels of religious observance and political affiliation. Some are single, some are married, and some have children.

Some participants are graduates of the Hillels Around Chicago’s Russian Hillel program, which was established seven years ago from a Federation-supported priority grant. Russian Hillel aims to connect Russian-speaking Jewish students to their Jewish identity, to the community and to each other.

RJLF was created in part as an outgrowth of this initiative and at the urging of some Russian Hillel graduates who were interested in remaining involved in the organized Jewish community after college. In fact, some of our participants and leaders come from Russian Hillel. But many others came to us through friends or Facebook. Still others found us out of a desire for a Russian Jewish community after they relocated to Chicago.

The response to RJLF has been significant. So much so that we recently decided to expand the leadership opportunities for our activists and develop an RJLF Leadership Council. It will give more participants the chance to take ownership of the group as we connect to our Jewish identity and our Jewish community in Chicago.

On Sept. 15, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky spoke to a crowd of 1,200 at the Federation’s Annual Meeting. He focused on the power of Jewish identity and the notion of peoplehood, a sense of Jewish connectedness. That’s the message we take with us as we move forward and develop our activities for the next generation of Russian-speaking Jews in Chicago.

A muscovite by birth, Jane Charney immigrated to the United States in 1996.


Why I hate The Biggest Loser

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Why I hate The Biggest Loser photo

Unrealistic expectations kill more diets than Häagen-Dazs.  People watch the show “The Biggest Loser” (TBL) and want to drop some serious pounds yesterday.  I’m all for jump starting your fitness plan but the show is ridiculous.  Most of the contestants gain either part, or all the weight back.  I’m not saying the show doesn’t change people’s lives, because it does. It does an incredible job educating people and the trainers beat the contestants as if they’re preparing a montage for a new Rocky movie.

As you sit on your couch and watch for two hours as obese contestants drop up to 30 lbs in one week, remember its television.  Dropping 30 lbs in one week is not normal or healthy.  Most nutritionists and weight loss experts will tell you that losing 1-2 lbs per week is the healthiest way to drop weight and keep it off. A few basic reasons that slow and steady wins the race:

• If you lose the weight too quickly, there’s a greater chance you’ll gain it back
• Slow and subtle changes are easier to maintain than drastic changes
• For the most part, your skin can adjust and you’ll have less extra skin

More importantly, who can exercise for 6-8 hours a day? Unless you’re a professional athlete or have no job most of us have maybe an hour a day—and if you have children, even that’s a stretch.  And they have personal trainers, every day! And who has money for that? (If you can afford to have a trainer for several hours a day, please call me and we’ll set up a consult ASAP.)

Another thing that really bothers me—these workouts are incredibly intense, at least what they show on TBL. Going from inactive to Mike “the Situation” type workouts is not healthy.  The chance for injury is extremely high with jumping, kettle bells, and running. I’m not saying you need to do chair aerobics, but first master good form, improve your posture, and then we can kick it up TBL style.

Intense working out is only part of the equation. The other crucial side of weight loss is eating a healthy diet.  On TBL they have chefs cooking up meals for each contestant.  Based on tests and doctors, these people are eating the foods that will help them burn calories and digest food best.

Who does that for you?  I’m my wife’s personal chef, but that’s only good for 2-3 meals a week (and she doesn’t like leftovers).  I don’t have time to make us every meal and no one is about to turn down a business dinner at N9ne for my chicken, broccoli and sweet potatoes.  As healthy as you try to eat, these reality show contestants are probably eating healthier. When they go home, the story changes—they have to start thinking about cooking, spices, fats, oils…

The show would be a lot more realistic if the contestants were not away from home. It’s like the Bachelor—who doesn’t find love on a private Island, but they all come home and suddenly the wedding is off.  Reading this, you might think, wow, Ron watches a lot of reality television, which is partially true. The moral of the article? Set realistic goals, and make small changes that are easy to keep.  Send me your easy healthy tips, here are a few of mine:

• Avoid processed meats
• Drink a glass of water before each meal
• Take the steps/the long way/the farthest parking spot
• Pack healthy snacks with you (an apple and some nuts)
• Pop Chips instead of potato chips
• Have vegetables and protein with each meal
• Eat fruit when you are craving something sweet


Finding community

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I went to D.C. to learn Jewishly, and left with a new group of friends 

Finding community photo 1

New friends, about to go on a midnight boat cruise on the Potomac River

At the end of August, I went on a five-day, all expenses paid trip to Reston, Virginia. I stayed at a very nice Hyatt, hung out with over 100 other college students/recent graduates, ate a ton of delicious food, and…

Wait. I know I did something else. What was it?

Oh yeah. I attended classes and lectures and discussions on different aspects of being Jewish.

You see, I was attending the fifth annual Sinai Scholars Retreat, as a part of the National Jewish Retreat. I had taken the Sinai Scholars class during the school year at Northwestern’s Chabad house, where we delved deep into each of the Ten Commandments every week. It was really interesting, and helped to relate the Commandments to my life in a modern way, which I had never really thought was possible before. So when I was accepted to go on the retreat, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Yes, I knew there would be classes about Jewish things…but that’s really all I knew going in. I had no idea what kinds of classes would be offered, what they would be about, what I would be doing in the five days that I would be there. I was blindly boarding an airplane by myself, with no expectations. So I buckled up, put my seat and tray table in their upright positions, and took a deep breath.

And I am so glad I did. The next five days were a whirlwind of amazing people, subjects, and food.

Oh the food. I could write a full post on just the food! There was a 24-hour buffet of delicious snacks and desserts in the lobby, there were pretty much four huge meals everyday, different themed dinners…I was in food heaven! But I digress.

Finding community photo 3

The girls on Shabbat

As for the classes, we were given a program in the beginning of the retreat with our choices of what we could attend. For each time slot, there were about 3-5 different discussions, lectures, workshops, and classes to choose from. The choices ranged from the Iranian Nuclear Threat, to Quantum Physics of the Torah, to one of my personal favorites, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. There were classes on love, humor, history, and even yoga! There were workshops where you could bake challah, make your own shofar, write your Hebrew name on parchment like real scribes do. Sometimes I had trouble choosing just one class to go to. But then, other times, like at nine in the morning, the quantum physics of the Torah was only just defeated by the idea of an extra hour and fifteen minutes of sleep.

That’s right. I am freely admitting that in the face of all this culture and learning, a few times I chose to skip a class and sleep. Not just in the morning, too. I also skipped a class time and napped during the middle of the first full day. I was so tired from my flight the day before, and I was still getting over a nasty little virus that had been plaguing my immune system for a while. So yes, I feel no shame in confessing that I played hooky to get some well-needed shut-eye.

And you know what? I honestly don’t think I “didn’t get the most out of my weekend” like the Rabbis and their wives stressed the first day during orientation when they told us to attend EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. OFFERED. I could have either sat through a lecture that I would fall asleep in anyways, thereby offending the guest lecturer, or I could really enjoy my weekend to the best of my ability. And that’s exactly what I did. Because even though I didn’t attend EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. OFFERED…I did find my own Jewish community.

I met a great group of people around my age from colleges all over the country. We became super close, and even took off during Saturday to spend a few hours roaming around (aka trying to find where we parked our car) in downtown D.C. We hung out at night together after dinner, and by the end of the trip we were all promising to visit each others’ respective schools/hometowns.

Finding community photo 2

Our group out and about in DC for the day

This experience really cemented my theory that being around Jewish people, regardless of if what you are doing together is religious in any way, reinforces your own Jewish-ness. Just by forming your own little Jewish community, you are tied that much closer to your religion.

So while I could write an entire post on the classes I attended, and all the new ideas that were presented to me (like I had originally planned for this post), I realized along the way that the most important thing to take away from this retreat is that by surrounding yourself with a solid group of Jewish friends, you are that much closer to your religion. And really, that is what matters most.


How to play “Bubbie BINGO”

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How to play “Bubbie BINGO” photo

My wife, Elisheva, and I were on our way to stay with my folks for Rosh Hashannah. It’s a six-hour drive from Chicago to Cleveland, but we knew it would take longer this time because we were bringing our newborn and our puppy.

The other thing that would be different this time is that both of my grandmothers, now widowed, would also be staying with my parents.

So my wife, who was driving, expressed her concern to me that this holiday would be nothing but a stream of criticism aimed at her. She listed the topics she was sure she would be criticized about.

Maybe it was being on the road, but I flashed on the idea of Car BINGO. You know, the game to keep kids busy in the back seat before they had individual DVD players for them built into the car. Car BINGO is played by the kids looking out the windows and checking off, on a card, things they might see— a cow, an oil truck, a campground billboard— instead of a caller yelling out “N-34!” First one to fill their card and yell “BINGO!” wins.

So I said, “Why don’t we make a game out of this criticism thing? Every time you get criticized on one of these areas, we’ll call out the corresponding letter. First one to BINGO wins.” Here’s what we came up with:

B was for Baby. When a grandmother criticized Elisheva for how she cared for the baby, we would each try to be the first to call out “B!”

I was for Injury. My wife had complications from her C-section including a poorly-healing incision, a wrenched shoulder, and nerve damage in her leg. Any criticism on how she was managing the pain, or dealing with doctors on the subject, would result in us calling out “I!”

N was for Nursery. Elisheva works from home but does intensely detailed financial work. She is also on the road several days each month. So she put our two-month-old in day care, which was sure to elicit some “tsk”-ing from my bubbies. Were that to happen… “N!”

G was for Good-for-Nothing— i.e., the dog. Any negative comments on the fact of having a dog, or the danger a dog could pose to the baby, could trigger us racing to call out “G!”

O was for Obesity. My wife gained a perfectly normal, healthy amount of weight during her pregnancy, but was unable to work out to get rid of it— see entry “I” above. Still, she expected to hear about how she had not lost the weight a full two months after the baby was born. If she did… “O!”
We had prizes, too. If she tallied a full BINGO from one grandmother, I was to buy Elisheva any and all snacks she wanted when we went to the roller derby for her upcoming birthday weekend. If she won the coveted “Double-Bubbie BINGO,” and racked up full BINGOs from both grandmothers first, I also had to take her to a movie on her actual birthday.

If I called out a full BINGO first, she was going to bake me cookies for my upcoming birthday. If I “doubled,” then I got a cake.

Both of my grandmothers wear hearing aids, and had no idea we were doing this. My parents never asked about it either, if they even noticed.

As it happened, my grandmothers surprised us and largely kept their opinions to themselves. Yes, we were each able to call out a few letters each for each of them. But not a full BINGO from either.

Elisheva did rack up more letters than I did, so we declared her the winner, and I am still taking her to a movie. Poor me.

Reframing the oncoming criticisms as a game and contest made the whole ordeal much more bearable and even enjoyable. When a sensitive topic came up, instead of bracing for impact and readying our defenses, we instead tensed like game-show contestants clutching our buzzers in eagerness. And instead of cursing under our breaths, we giggled to ourselves.

I highly recommend “Bubbie BINGO” to any and all couples visiting relatives, or having such relatives visit them. It works for in-laws, too, and whether or not you have kids.

Come to think of it, you might even need the game because you have no kids.


The business of marriage

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The business of marriage photo

Back in July 2006, my husband-to-be and I got a lot of advice.  Most was to the tune of, “It takes a lot of hard work to maintain a healthy marriage.”  We scoffed at the cliché.  We were in love, he had cute dimples and I had cute ways of getting him to stop being annoyed with me.  Besides, equating marriage with work made it sound like a business transaction – how unromantic could these people be?

A heated argument four years later about a spoon got me thinking about that old cliché.

Joe and I were going at it about why he was always finding a used spoon on the counter when I realized that my formerly cute feminine wiles were no longer living up to their past glory.  Silliness and charm had gotten me pretty far, but in my quick mental recap of our last few spats, it became clear that it was our combined powers of negotiation and compromise that had gotten us safely to the other side of our arguments.

Negotiation and compromise, though not as much fun as flashing the dimples, require both parties to put forth a certain amount of effort.  From issues as seemingly small as a casual misplacement of a spoon to issues as silly as “should we get the kid a haircut now that people have referred to him as “her?” (I say no, Joe says yes) to issues as serious as whether or not we should buy a house, we have slowly learned about the “business” of marriage.

I’m still not willing to call marriage “work” but I acknowledge now that simply being in love will not get a couple through some of the rough patches.  Luckily, though, those rough patches – and the negotiations, compromises, dimple flashing and feminine wile-ing that go along with them – may be what bring the couple closer together in the long run.

For the record, I have agreed to move the offending spoons to the dishwasher immediately after stirring my coffee.


The Unfunniest Thing in the World

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The Unfunniest Thing photo

I’m going to say it up front: I’ve been wrestling with my Oy! articles lately. My intentions were good. I wanted to highlight two very important health awareness months, both of which have particular resonance in the Jewish community. This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as we know from the flurry of pink everywhere from snack wrappers to football uniforms. September was National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I was going to review Gilda Radner’s autiobiography,  It’s Always Something .

I would hope that everyone knows who Gilda Radner is, but in case you don’t, Gilda was a Not Ready for Prime Time Player, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, along with Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and the rest of the greats. She’s responsible for some of the most classic sketches and characters that have ever aired on TV, including Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa and many others. Some of her SNL highlights are available for free on Hulu. Definitely watch a few of those, because it gives context for the rest of this.

Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer in May 1989. She was 42. Her health had started deteriorating in cyclical, baffling ways in 1985, and she wasn’t diagnosed until October of the following year, when her cancer was already well along. Ovarian cancer is notoriously hard to catch early, and notoriously hard to treat. As she relates the parade of symptoms in her book, I felt myself wanting to scream at her doctors. It’s ovarian cancer! Why can’t you catch it? Why can’t you save her? The symptoms are clear with hindsight, and because it’s my job to talk about these things, I recognize them before she even says the words “ovarian cancer.” But as she tries to figure out why she is in chronic pain, why she is sick all the time, she hears a litany of brush-offs and excuses: it’s female hysteria. It’s the Epstein-Barr virus. It’s a diet issue. The search for answers is stressful just to read about.

Here’s my confession. I couldn’t continue reading. The book is sitting in front of me right now, a flyer stuck about a third of the way in. By this point, Gilda has begun treatment. She describes the indignities of her body betraying her, her personal terrors and rages and despairs, the work of the nurses and physicians and counselors, and the support of her husband, Gene Wilder. And of course, she’s as funny as she is honest. This is Gilda Radner we’re talking about.

Reading this book was hitting me hard, though. Out of the blue, in March 2008, we found out that my mother had brain cancer, and while our family has been lucky, knock on wood, I know there are a lot of things I haven’t confronted or dealt with yet. But even though cancer affects everyone, really, it’s the person who has the cancer who goes through the most. The truth is that I’m ashamed of my inability to keep reading Gilda’s book. I don’t feel like I have the right to put it down.

Today Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a week old. We’re going to continue to see pink, or wear pink, or buy pink. Last month, the Chicago skyline was teal at night, the “ovarian cancer color.” Certainly awareness is a huge step forward. Being able to talk about cancer publically is a new, groundbreaking thing for our society. Ask your parents how often people talked about cancer, or called it by name, even when someone died from it. Given how freely we discuss it today, their answers may shock you.

Color coordinating, however, is only the first step. When we talk about cancer awareness, we need to really talk about it. Ashkenazi Jews are at an increased risk for mutations in their BRCA genes, a topic I’ve touched on before. These mutations can put women at high risk for developing, at a young age, breast or ovarian cancer or both. Learn about the signs. Learn about the symptoms. Learn about breast self-exams and pap smears and mammogram recommendations and family health histories and peer advocacy. Seek out ways to support survivors, previvors and those who are currently fighting. These links are a good place to start for information; for the people in your life who have been affected by cancer, start by asking them what they need and go from there.

Gilda Radner was Jewish. She had painful periods her whole life, as well as cysts in her breasts from a young age. Her family had a history of hereditary cancers. When I read that, I was overwhelmed. Why didn’t anyone tell you? I thought, but of course, it was a different time, and they didn’t know what we know today.

Gilda called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world.” She’s right on the nose about that. We have the opportunity to talk about it. This month, and every month, I hope we do.


From JUF to MOM: leaving one Jewish profession for another

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From JUF to MOM photo 1

Next week I am voluntarily walking away from the most Jewish part of my life – my job as Senior Program Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Never mind that my job title gives little indication of what work I actually do. In this building, there are lots of Jews and a few non-Jews doing good work for people in need of support, basic needs, a Jewish connection. In Chicago, in Israel, around the world. There is a culture of family, where the gossip is based on genuine interest and not malicious rumor. It’s a place where people help lift each other up if you’re having a bad day, bring flowers to the Shiva for your grandfather, and artfully wrap up homemade sweaters for your baby girls. Don’t get me wrong, it is not some idyllic Eden – just a nice place to work. There is still some yelling and frustration and those dramatic people who send beeping emails in large text because it is just so important to know that a meeting you are not attending has been moved from one room to the one next door. You know, the stuff of extra high importance.

Which brings me to the reason I am walking away from all this – the real red exclamation point, highly important, top of the priority list reason: my daughters. I feel lucky to have this once in a lifetime opportunity to spend my days with Violet and Autumn while they are still small, teaching them how to walk, talk, and fall in love with life. I am bursting at the seams to take on this new challenge.

Still, I will miss seeing my brilliant colleagues at the Federation every day. I will miss this built-in Jewish community. Yesterday, on one of my final morning commutes, I realized that I can no longer fall back on my place of employment as my Jewish connection. I have to find it somewhere else, or it will not exist for me, for Mandi, or for our daughters. For the first time in my adult life I am faced with prioritizing, or not prioritizing, my Jewish identity. Where does it fall on the list? There’s only so much time in a day, in a week, in a year. There are so many family members to visit in Wisconsin, so many museums to explore, so many friends to keep up with. Time is marching one foot in front of the other relentlessly, despite my grabbing at its heels and urging it to slow down so I can fit just one more thing into each day. I know that it will feel like suddenly the girls are in school, graduating, having their own children (if they want to, no pressure V and A), just as some days I feel like I have been suddenly launched forward seven years since my first awkward day at the Jewish Federation, into the body of a more confident, more grounded me.

After my last day of work, my Jewish life will consist of excitedly tearing open the monthly PJ Library package and reading Jewish stories before bed each night. We will attend JUF Book Buddies events when it works with the girls’ nap schedule. And we will look into Jewish preschool when that time comes in a very short while. I’m not sure how we will stay in the amorphous “affiliated” category after that, but from my experience here in my Federation community, I find comfort in the fact that there is a strong and welcoming Jewish community in Chicago. Being part of this community working toward a broader mission of tikkun olam is something I’ll bring with me and infuse into my family wherever we end up – in three years, five years, ten years, or tomorrow.


Card carrying member

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Abby Sher photo

I’ve always wanted to belong.

To the Girl Scouts. The band. The cool kids who wore CB ski jackets and made out by the gazebo. In college it was the improv troupe, the choir, sometimes Hillel House. More often, the cool kids who drank wine coolers and espresso and tried to reinvent Plato by the bike racks. After graduation, I joined another theater, got a membership to a gym, my own account at Blockbuster, First Chicago Bank. To this day, I get a thrill from flipping open my wallet to reveal my bright green library card, my insurance card, my ten-cups-of-coffee-and-the-eleventh-is-on-us card. I treasure and maybe idealize the notion that there is a greater whole, a group of doctors or books or cups of coffee that know me, care about me, count me as one of their flock.

So it’s embarrassing to admit that I have not belonged to a temple since 1991. That’s when I moved from Westchester, New York, to start at University of Chicago. We had a family membership at Larchmont Temple, the reform synagogue in my town where my mom helped found the nursery school and I was Bat Mitzvahed. I never made an active choice to apply – I was just brought in and accepted. But once I moved to the Midwest, I became a Jewish drifter. Catching the Shehechyanu here and a Dayeinu there. Every once in a while dropping off some canned yams for a yearly food drive or writing a check for $36 around Rosh Hashanah, but really living and worshipping off the kindness of strangers.

In Hyde Park, I used my student status as an excuse. I went to the campus synagogue now and then, mostly treating it like another language class since the prayer books had a lot more Hebrew than the one I’d grown up with. My first job out of college was up in Evanston, so I snuck into a local shul there and found a new twinge of delight from being completely anonymous. Walking outside on a breezy Yom Kippur afternoon, I remember feeling energized by my solitude, and yet still connected by a minor chord that everyone was singing. Together.

I joined the Second City family in the late 90’s, and the beautiful, generous producer emeritus Joyce Sloane took me under her wing for the High Holidays. She often wears large wool shawls and she literally tucked me in to her warm bosom as we sat next to each other at Anshe Emet in Wrigleyville. She insisted I nap on her day bed before we returned for Neilah services.

I moved back to New York in 2004 just days before my mother died. My father had passed away years before, my siblings had settled in other towns so our family status at Larchmont Temple was extinct. I moved in with my raised-Catholic-but-now-toying-with-atheism boyfriend in Brooklyn, feeling achingly adrift. I joined a yoga studio. I collected more of those coffee cards. I got a monthly metrocard and made sure I used one train for all my commuting needs even if it meant walking a half-hour across town to get to my temp job. I avoided temple for most of the year, then usually found my way to a cousin’s seder or a friend’s break the fast. Whenever I crept into the back row of a new synagogue, I made sure to leave without exchanging any hello’s or making eye contact with the clergy.

Sure there’s been a financial aspect to my drifter status. How can I commit to annual dues when I don’t know how often I’ll get to services and don’t even know what they serve at oneg? There’s also the pull to be anonymous again, to ride of that sea of voices, maybe even allowing me to join in louder because – hey, these people don’t know me. And there’s sheer laziness. Every Rosh Hashanah I slip into a different folding chair and then promise myself this time I’m going to stay. I’m also going to read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem and keep up with the general elections and/or bake chicken on Friday nights. None of which I’ve come close to doing since I left Westchester in 1991.

Which brings me back to Larchmont Temple. This year, the Tuesday before Yom Kippur I emailed my rabbi from childhood. I know it’s last minute, but any chance you’d have an empty seat if I promise to stay awake for the sermon? He wrote back immediately: Of course. Would love to see your punim. Ticket will be by the Willow Street entrance, where you used to creep in late to Hebrew School.

Though the sanctuary has been renovated and most of the members were new to me, I wept gratefully, hearing the familiar chords from the piano, gazing at the white embroidered Torah covers, the sun catching in the same stained glass I’d seen for my first 18 years of life. It was just as warm and soothing as I’d remembered it. I saw many of my parents’ friends, some now toting grandchildren. I tried to pick out who was there from my Hebrew school class and whether they were here just for a visit? To live here more permanently? Or maybe somewhere in between…

My rabbi spoke about Zionism and Judaism and how the newest generation of young adult Jews – the campers and confirmation classes he instructs – have no concept of Israel as their home. I can’t say that I do either. Friedman still sits on my shelf. I catch bits and pieces of the current peace talks in the news and struggle with how to trace it back to Israel’s birth 62 years ago. I listened to my rabbi and now good friend describe essentially me – an adolescent in grown up clothes, still unsure of what and where constitutes my Jewish home.

So this is my New Year’s Resolution numero alef for 5771. I am going to join a congregation this year. It could be Larchmont Temple, though I think the commute from Brooklyn would be hard with two kids in diapers. More likely it will be one of the doors I’ve walked through in Ft. Greene – my neighborhood for the past six and a half years and hopefully for many more. Maybe it will be Union Temple, where Rabbi Goodman’s words have challenged me to think about my role in health care reform. Or the Brooklyn Jews’ congregation led by Marc Katz and Jennifer Gubitz, who’ve welcomed me at Rosh Hashanah in the picnic house at Prospect Park, even inviting me onto the bima to be part of an aliyah for new mothers. Or maybe it will be somewhere I’ve never been to before. Where I am an anonymous voice, singing loudly. And I return. I say hello, and thank you. I commit to sharing in this sacred spiritual practice.

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