OyChicago blog

Adam’s Amazing Appendectomy Adventure

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Adam’s Amazing Appendectomy Adventure photo 1

I am alive to write this thanks to my hypochondria. Remember my hypochondria? Of course you do. I talked about it so much that one time. See my hypochondria led to me successfully realize I had a ticking time bomb in my abdomen. That ticking time bomb was appendicitis and I was going to have to have surgery. I have to tell you, this whole experience was actually fun. Yes, fun. I know, fun is not usually a word most people associate with surgery, but I’m not most people. I’m mostly a person. A person named Adam. Adam Daniel Miller. Hence my name after the title. Moving on. 

What’s amazing is that even given my hypochondria, it took me almost 24 hours to do something about the oddity in my abdomen. At first, what I felt was only really obnoxious stomach discomfort. I initially thought it really bad gas. I didn’t think much of it because that happens to me all the time.

Really wish I didn’t tell you that.

Anyway, I thought it would pass, but it just became worse. It even prompted me to take some Tums. You know, for my tummy. Get it? Next morning, the pain was still there. But I had to go to work, and we all know my work doesn’t do itself. Even though I do work as an automatic pilot, but that’s not the point. (That joke could have also worked with me saying that I am a janitor for self-cleaning ovens, so you take your pick.) 

Where was I? Ah yes, at work. Well, the pain was getting strange and focused on my right side so I decided to look up my symptoms on Web MD, as I honestly thought it might be my appendix. Low and behold, my symptoms suggested that appendicitis was a strong possibility. I went straight to the hospital, got myself a CT scan, and yup, appendicitis. Lesson to be learned: Web MD plus hypochondria saves lives! 

In a way, I was relieved. Mainly because if it wasn’t my appendix that was acting up, well, then it might have literally been a ticking time bomb. I was actually quite calm throughout the whole experience. At this point I was just in minor discomfort and no pain. I was in a hospital bed and gown for the majority of my stay and that made me a bit too comfortable. Seriously, all it takes is me not wearing pants to make me happy. The surgery went easy as can be. My last thought I remember, when I was drugged up a little, was lying on the operating table with the oxygen mask on my face, feeling like I was Darth Vader. Had I not passed out two seconds later, I probably would have pointed to the anesthesiologist and exclaimed, “No! I am your father!”

Adam’s Amazing Appendectomy Adventure photo 2

This was only the second time I had been put under for anything, (I had all four wisdom teeth removed, which explains a lot of my ignorance) and it’s fascinating how it felt like not even a moment had passed when I was being wheeled out of surgery. The first thing the doctor said asked was, “How are you doing?” I promptly responded, half in a daze, “Fantastic. How are you doing?” That’s the epitome of my time in the hospital. I was enjoying every moment I could. I even wanted to Live Tweet when I was in surgery, but there’s no cell phones allowed in the operating room. That’s the only reason I didn’t Live Tweet the operation where I was unconscious. 

The first night of recovery was also fun. Of course it did help that I had my parents with me. I had my hour long surgery at about 10:30 at night so I knew sleep really wasn’t really a possibility for me. I was too excited from having just had surgery. But what’s really strange is that when you get put under, it’s like literally shutting down your system so I was currently rebooting. My saliva didn’t work at first and you really don’t realize how much work your saliva does until it’s not functioning. What was fun for me, among so many things, was that the nurse told me I had to try and pee. She gave me four hours to make something happen. I passed with flying colors. Seriously, I was very concerned because I’m not used to that variation of colors. But then after that, my favorite part was when the nurse explicitly told me “Okay, now I want you to please try and fart.” Heh heh. 

Now, when it was time to leave, I had no choice in the matter. My parents took me hostage. But out of love, so I allowed it. Once at my parents house, I became so stiff and sore that I didn’t move from the couch for the entirety of my stay. Although I did end up setting my own personal record of not wearing pants for four days. I’m quite proud of myself. Although that means I also didn’t take a shower for four days. 

Really wish I didn’t tell you that. 

But here’s the most honest part about what I loved from this experience. From the second it was known I was in the hospital, I received so much love and support from family and friends. In this day and age, it’s an entirely different experience because I have Facebook and a Smartphone. I tend to be a little silly on social media and I was joking but also being serious about my appendectomy. It got to the point where people weren’t sure if I was serious or not and I found a lot of humor in the fact that I had to make a blunt, direct post about my situation. My cousin came straight to the hospital to be with me until my parents got there, which was a soon as they could. I heard from both my siblings almost immediately. 

Once I was home, I kept getting phone calls and visits from people who love and care about me. I heard that friends of my parents were saying the Mi Shebeirach so that I would have a speedy recovery. It felt incredible. And then my Bubbie and Zaydie wouldn’t leave me alone, which is quite possibly the best thing ever. Being immobile and recovering from surgery allowed my Bubbie to do what she does best, make me a steaming hot batch of Jewish penicillin. I believe you might call it homemade chicken noodle soup. Don’t get me started on her cooking. That’s a whole other post. 

I found this experience to be quite an amazing adventure. Remember the title? I probably had much more fun than most people rightfully should. The only real tough part was sleeping at first while I was still incredibly stiff, but other than that, it really wasn’t so bad. See, I really try to find the humor in every situation and this case was no different. In fact, one of my favorite aspects of this whole experience was that even though my appendix only weighed about two ounces, I still lost some weight. It’s also nice to know I’ll never have to worry about this again for the rest of my life. Unless that was just my baby appendix and it was going to fall out at some point anyway. Oh boy. Is that a thing? I gotta go check Web MD.


In the midst of Hurricane Sandy, in Brooklyn

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In the midst of Hurricane Sandy, in Brooklyn photo

In the midst of Hurricane Sandy, in Brooklyn
It is, of course, true
that we, humble and powerful, witty and nimble,
are servants to nature,
must bow at its beck and call,
must recognize that it rises against us.
Within our four walls, we house ourselves,
but it is always nature that looks on in,
and blows our skirt to the right or left,
or downs our power.
Who needs nature, we laugh, as the reports come in: Big hurricane, headed your way,
and we know exactly when it will strike and we have no need for fear.
Until the moment comes closer, we sit, more seriously now, aware that this could be it.
As the winds howl louder and louder,
our minds get more focused, we sit together closer, we talk quietly,
and recognize in the bizarre calm of the moment, how united we actually are,
how close we actually are.
All of those anxieties, those stresses, those deadlines,
where did they go?
We cannot remember for the life of us, as we ponder the life of us,
why that seemed so important to us
as if those things were more powerful than "Nature," than "Us."
Our minds find unexpected comic relief in finally feeling focused, as the lights flicker, teasingly.
With one thought, our brains unite: Save us now, save us. We will do anything. We are but flesh and blood. And spirit.
As we acknowledge, at last, the nature that hangs over us, we call out to that which gives nature its naughty and merciful power.
Save us now.
One mind, one heart,
At last.


The magical world of LeakyCon

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The magical world of LeakyCon photo 1

When I walked into the lobby and saw house elves, my interest was piqued, but it wasn't until I saw wands and potions for sale and Snape looming that I truly felt at home. No, this wasn't Hogwarts, this was LeakyCon. Recently I had the pleasure of attending this Harry Potter conference named for the series' fictional bar the Leaky Cauldron. Hosted this year at the Hilton Chicago, LeakyCon is an homage to everything Potter and even encompasses the broader YA, fantasy, and sci-fi genres. The conference had its largest showing yet in its third year with about 4,000 participants made up mostly of pre-teen and teen fans. Costumes, hair dye, and general flamboyance are the norm at LeakyCon, which promises programming stretching from panels and discussions to musical events and pajama parties. Having read, seen, and lived the Potter phenomenon is insufficient at an event where terms like "Team Starkid" and "Nerdfighter" are enough to make even a Hogwarts educated man like myself feel like a Muggle.

Upon arriving at LeakyCon, my first stop was a panel called "Girl Books and Boy Books" offered through the LeakyCon Literature Track. Founded by YA author and Potter fan Maureen Johnson for participants who want a more literary focused experience, the Lit Track offers discussion on numerous topics from "How NOT to write a book" to "Help! My Boyfriend is a Vampire." Johnson recruited a slew of YA/fantasy authors to aid in the Lit Track effort. "Girl Books and Boy Books" was paneled by such authors as John Green, Robin Wasserman, and Lev Grossman who along with moderator Johnson feverishly discussed 1) The common belief in elementary teaching circles that boys do not read, and 2) Why girls are encouraged to read "boy books" but boys are often forbidden to read a book considered to be "girly." That this topic even exists seemed to disgust the panel who collectively felt that children should be able to read whatever they please regardless of their gender. As a male blogger who has recently recommended novels by female authors with female protagonists (Hunger Games and Night Circus) I wholeheartedly agree.

The magical world of LeakyCon photo 2

My next stop was the vendor room, where boutique shops and non-profits gather in droves to pedal their goods and their messages to the Potter-ites. Geekbadge offered HP themed magnets and buttons while the Deathly Hallows Shop sold custom souvenirs with the hallows insignia. But these tchotchkes were far less popular than the more magical items like authentic wooden wands, polyjuice potion, and phoenix feather. Delving deeper into the room I found numerous non-profits, the Dumbledore of which is the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that commits itself to "fighting the dark arts in the real world by using parallels from Harry Potter." With such a broad mission the HP Alliance champions several causes in the interest of equality including immigration, the importance of voting, and the popular anti-bullying movement. But my favorite booth in the vendor room was that of the start-up Fandom Dating, which true to the name is a dating website for those looking to find true love in someone who shares their interest in the nerdy, magical, and occult. Needless to say I registered and plan to begin Beta testing the site shortly. I could have stayed in the vendor room forever but had to drag myself home, missing the Guinness book of world records' largest pajama party and a rock concert featuring Harry and the Potters and The Whomping Willows.

The magical world of LeakyCon photo 3

The following day I stopped briefly in a discussion that was meant to discuss the similarities and differences between Harry Potter and Star Wars. This ended up turning into a forum to discuss all fantasy, but was nonetheless entertaining. I was the oldest in the room by at least 10 years which should have, but did not, stop me from energetically participating in the debate. But the best event of the weekend was the LeakyCon lit reception where the few LeakyCon participants over the age of 18 were invited to mingle, drink, and in my case stalk the authors who were in attendance. Being one of the few 'adults' at the party I managed to corner Lev Grossman, author of popular The Magicians series, who declined an Oy! interview but obliged to chatting over a Butterbeer.

After inviting myself to dinner with the authors and being respectfully declined I trudged home sad that the weekend was over but thrilled at having experienced such a unique event. LeakyCon is a place where children and adults can celebrate their love of Harry Potter, but more importantly it has become a comfortable forum for children/teens/adults to feel included in a world where they are often considered outsiders. Next year LeakyCon will have two venues, one in Portland and the other in London. The LeakyCon website proudly proclaims why two events per year are necessary, "LeakyCon creates space where you can be geeky/fannish/nerdy, free of the fear of being shunned or misunderstood." LeakyCon certainly has the right idea. We need more spaces like that. I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree.



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Hallowawkward? photo

This week, I was working in the JCC Camp Chi office helping to jump start registration. This is an annual campaign that camp holds where former staff members come in and help reach out to families about registering for the upcoming summer. During the first night of the campaign, we took a pizza break for dinner and ended up discussing what was on most of our minds: the upcoming festivities surrounding Halloween. The group was a mix between seniors in high school, college students, and those of us who had graduated from college or masters programs within the past few years. For the few of us who graduated from college last year, this weekend will be our first Halloween as adults, our first awkward Halloween as “real people.”

In both high school and college, Halloween was pretty straight forward. I never really had to deliberate about my plans. I dressed up for school in high school and celebrated over the weekend, sometimes even attempting to trick-or-treat. In college, everything seemed planned. You either went to the same 18+ bar that everyone you knew was going to and bought tickets in advance, stopped by one of the many house or apartment parties and fraternity parties happening on campus, went to visit your friends at a different school, or as you got older went on a bar crawl through the city. Although you had to decide which option or options you were going with, there were always clear cut options when planning your itinerary so to speak.

As for costumes, there is a famous scene in Mean Girls where Cady, the main character, is unaware of the Halloween culture in America and comes to a party dressed in a scary costume. She soon learns that rather than dressing up as ghost, most girls live by the mantra that “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girl can say anything about it.” To be fair, this does a great job of summarizing Halloween from a birds-eye view at any university. However, before I continue, I must defend my costume choices, which have 99% been cute, creative, and far from scandalous, ranging from Batman, Luigi, a Pokemon and Chuckie Finster from Rugrats, to Jelly, Spice Girls, and the ever-so memorable experience of being a ballerina with the rest of my pledge sisters freshman year. It is fair to say that many people use Halloween as an opportunity to wear as few clothes as possible. However, once you enter the phase of your life where you are considered an “adult” (and yes this still gives me the chills to even say that), does that fly? What are the social expectations surrounding this holiday?

First off, who do you even dress up with? If you have scattered groups of friends rather than a core group from high school or college, who do you dress up with? What do you wear? Do people dress up? What kinds of costumes are appropriate once you are 22 and older? If you do dress up, do you go to a bar in costume or do you have to find a Halloween themed house party? If you go out, do people dress up at every bar or just places that are having Halloween celebrations? What do you do if you don’t know anyone throwing a party? Do you celebrate over the “Halloweekend” or the night of…or both? Is it going to be awkward? These were all questions that were thrown out as we laughed about the social stipulations, continued to think about our plans for this weekend, and most definitely agreed that it would somehow be considered an awkward celebration.

However, this conversation delves a little deeper than simply considering your Halloween plans and if your life choices correlate with your age. More so, it reminds me that almost every day I find another opportunity to realize that I am still transitioning into the “real world,” rather than flourishing in it. As things change, you can’t expect to have all the answers and sometimes this is awkward and even uncomfortable. If we can’t even figure out our Halloween itineraries, do you really think we know what we want to do with the rest of our lives? Absolutely not. This year, and the few years following college for that matter, is a time for growth, to try out new things, adapt to change, and most certainly make a few awkward mistakes while adjusting to a new aspect of reality. That is all part of the process of growing up, a concept that I am still far from a fan of, but learning to deal with a little more each day.

So, as for Halloween, I decided on dressing up with some of my friends from camp in cute, comfortable, and creative costumes drawn from movies made in the 90s and early 2000s. We’re going with the flow and although we’re lacking a clear-cut plan, we’re hoping for the best, a fitting attitude for this weekend and beyond. I’ll just have to see where things take me without a planned agenda.


Why you should vote on Nov. 6

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 Why you should vote on Tuesday photo

Ok, so the conventions are long over and the debates are finally finished, and your newsfeed is slowly returning to engagement and wedding announcements and baby and pet photos instead of 24/7 election coverage and candidate endorsements and attacks. It’s finally (almost) time to head over to the polls and get to voting and get this election over with already! Right? Well, just in case my beloved Oy!sters need a little urging, here are some of the many reasons to make sure you go and vote in election 2012.

This is our future. The recession, Obamacare, a nuclear Iran, education reform, the future of social security, gay marriage, peace in Israel, stem cell research, the conflicts in the Middle East, 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. Even if you can’t bring yourself to vote in the big elections, or feel like your vote won’t matter, there are other races and other candidates even at the very local level, who need your vote.

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. You can go vote any day between now and the election on November 6. 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.

Educate yourself. Time and time again I hear from my friends that they aren’t going to vote in an election because they don’t feel like they know enough about the candidates. I don’t know when this became a valid excuse to not vote, but I’m sick of hearing it. Visit the different candidate’s websites, or Facebook pages or Twitter Feeds and read about where they stand on the issues—you can learn a lot in just five minutes. Don’t be afraid to use the internet. Obviously, the internet has a lot of biased and untrue information out there on each candidate, but it’s still a great research tool. And don’t forget about newspapers. Both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune run extensive stories and op-eds on all the candidates leading up to the elections.

If that still sounds like too much work, then there is a great new website called isidewith that will do the heavy lifting for you. Just take their presidential election quiz and they will tell you which candidate most lines up with your beliefs.
We live in a Democracy. If none of the above makes you want to run out to the polls, 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. Value your freedom. While it might not be perfect here, we are lucky to be Americans.

Finally, if you don’t vote, then you can’t complain when you don’t like what happens. And what Jew wants their right to complain taken away?

For more information on how to vote and to get educated on the candidates, visit rock the vote. Visit http://www.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. 


Maccabi Haifa plays in the states

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Maccabi Haifa plays in the states photo

On Saturday, October 13th around 10:45a.m., congregants at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota might have noticed something a little different about their pulpit. Their rabbis passed the sermon this week to Maccabi Haifa head basketball coach Brad Greenberg.

Maccabi Haifa was in town to play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, October 16th, at 7:00p.m. They came from the West Coast having just lost an exhibition game to the Golden State Warriors 108-100. Leading up to the game, Coach Greenberg and the Maccabi Haifa team participated in community wide events, promoting Israel and their charity Haifa Hoops for Kids (helping underprivileged children in Israel have access to basketball and athletics).

Greenberg’s sermon was a big success. He got everyone talking and excited about the upcoming game. Greenberg himself has an interesting story on both the professional and collegiate basketball levels. Most recently Coach Greenberg was leading the Radford University Highlanders. Before that he was the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and was responsible for drafting Allen Iverson.

Greenberg shared a moving story about when he got let go by the 76ers and how it was a tough time in his life. As a member of Har Zion synagogue in Philadelphia, he deeply regretted not reaching out to then Rabbi Gerald Wolpe. He had fond memories of Rabbi Wolpe, specifically a sermon he gave about Kobe Bryant’s decision to forgo college and head to the NBA.

Greenberg also talked about his time in Israel, and his decision to move there in the first place. He has been grateful for the opportunity and the eye opening experience. He spoke about Israel’s tremendous strength and resilience day-to-day, and how his American friends are learning, through him, the incredible pride and happiness Israelis display for their country.

Temple of Aaron thanked Coach Greenberg with some parting gifts and told the coach that they would be bringing a nice constituency to the game Tuesday night. Unfortunately, after only being down three points at half time the Timberwolves went on to destroy Maccabi 114-81.

Maccabi stayed and signed autographs for kids and Cory Carr even threw his jersey into the crowd. It was a great event and a nice showing by the Minnesota community.

And Let Us Say…Amen.



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 Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation photo

Book cover design by Alyssa Zeller.

Have you read the new Jewish anthology actress and author Mayim Bialik calls "the definitive 'Who am I? and why am I?' book for Jews of our generation"?

Edited by Stefanie Pervos Bregman, associate editor of JUF News, Oy!Chicago blogger-in-chief, and JUF's manager of digital communications, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation (Academic Studies Press), is a collection of personal essays and memoirs from Jewish 20- and 30-somethings from across the country. This book tackles hot button issues of Jewish identity, connection to Israel, and what it means to be a young Jew in today's world. 

Each contributor brings a unique perspective as they tell their self-defining Jewish story. In his essay, "Shomer Negiah in the City," Matthue Roth tackles the conflicted and sometimes hypocritical nature of the modern Orthodox dating world. In "To Be a Jew in the world" Stacey Ballis makes the Passover Seder her own. "My (Jewish-Interfaith-Lesbian) wedding," by Chai Wolfman explores the challenges of same-sex and interfaith relationships today. Other essay topics include JDate, connection—or lack thereof—to Israel, issues surrounding conversion, and the seemingly impossible task of defining what it means to be a young Jew in America today.

The book is available in paperback and hardcover on Amazon.com and from other book retailers. For more information about where to buy the book, the contributors, and how you can share your Jewish story, visit www.livingjewishlybook.com or at www.facebook.com/livingjewishlybook .

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As a Jewish blogger and editor, I always say that the period leading up to Jewish Book Month is one of my favorite times of the year. So many books come across my desk for review—I only wish I had the time to read them all. Each author, each new book, is not just a potential article for my magazine or blog post. To me, every author—whether they write fiction or non-fiction—is a storyteller, adding their own piece to our collective Jewish story.

This year the tables have turned, and I'm the one hoping and wishing that Jewish editors and writers will choose my book from among the great pile for review—the thought makes me feel proud, humble, and frightened all at once. 

In putting together my new anthology, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I hoped to be a storyteller as well. In the Jewish world, engaging 20- and 30-somethings is a hot button issue—questions like 'How do we get young Jews to feel connected to Israel? To affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions? To care about Jewish continuity, ritual, and tradition?' float around waiting to be answered.

As a member of this elusive generation myself, I live and breathe these questions in my personal life and as a Jewish professional. As I recently completed my master's degree in Jewish professional studies, I became determined to tell the story of my generation.  

To get started, I sent out a call for stories to my peers:

Are you a Jewish 20- or 30-something with a story to tell? Do you want to be part of a collection of voices that together tell the unique story of our generation?

Within hours, my email box was flooded. I received close to 50 submissions-all remarkable, rich, and more diverse than I could have ever imagined.

In Living Jewishly, I put these essays together to create a window into our Jewish lives and identities. Each essay is beautiful, unique, brutally honest, and revealing. In truth, it is my contributors who are the real storytellers—without them, the story, the picture, would not be complete.

I often think about what it means to really be a storyteller. To me, this is not a title to be taken lightly. With it comes certain responsibility, not just to inform, but to do so artfully, shedding light on topics that may otherwise have been left untold. 

While I don't think I've solved the mystery of my generation, I do have some insights into the types of stories we want to tell. However it is that we express ourselves Jewishly, I'm certain that every Jewish 20- or 30-something has an interesting story to tell-and maybe all we need is the opportunity to tell it.

This article first appeared as a part of the Jewish Book Council (www.jewishbookcouncil.org) and MyJewishLearning's (www.myjewishlearning.com) guest blogging series, Visiting Scribes.


The Frashley Chronicles, Part 5

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Ashley Kolpak photo

Here's a little background about me. I spent the 2010-2011 school year teaching English in Grenoble, France. Before that, I spent a year working in the heart of Chicago in the Jewish non-profit community. When I was abroad, my eyes were opened to the everyday experience of the Jewish community in my town and in the country at large. I experienced what it meant to me to be not only Jewish in France, but a Jewish, young, female, American in France. It was a ridiculously fun, thought-provoking and thrilling seven months and I'm excited to share these stories. By the way, all thoughts and opinions are purely my own…I take full responsibility for any sweeping generalizations.

One of the conditions of my host stay was seemingly simple: only kosher food allowed in the house. Easy enough, right? However, France is a land filled with delicious traif and endless combinations of milk and meat, and to be honest, I'd never kept kosher before. Of course I knew the basic tenets: no milk and meat, no pork, no shellfish. But from zero experience to a household with two separate dishwashers, I had quite a bit to learn.

I was an eager student, thanks to the enthusiasm of my host mom Daniele. When the only food I brought home from the grocery store was yogurt, she sensed my uneasiness. Sitting at the kitchen table and enjoying a cup of afternoon tea, she described that she hadn't always followed kosher laws, that she hadn't even kept kosher until she met her husband. I let out a sigh of relief. It was obvious, yes, that I wasn't quite sure what I was doing. But at one point, neither did she.

We soon wandered over to her cabinets, filled with troves of food. It was a varied mix of French supermarket staples, products with Hebrew labels on them and a few Manischewitz items thrown in for good measure. The B. family has plenty of relatives in Israel, who from time to time bring over goodies from the homeland. But almost all of the sundries, she said, came both from everyday shopping at French chains and trips to the kosher market, the Makolette. Never one to turn down a trip to a Jewish deli, I was delighted when she asked me to join her on her next visit.

I couldn't help but notice the funny juxtaposition of the tiny, nearly hidden-away Makolette being just down the street from a huge, beacon-like McDonald's. We hopped out of the car, driving back into the city after dropping off her son for a day of med school classes. During my first couple weeks in Grenoble, I must have passed this market a few times, but like most Jewish buildings in this town, it was understated, barely marked and easy to miss.

Walking in, the joint was a little sparser than I expected. To my grave disappointment, there were no bagels to be found. Strangely enough, the food I missed most in France was a hearty bagel and shmear…you can take the girl out of Chicago, but you surely can't take the Chicago out of the girl. The floor plan was pretty open, with lightly stocked shelves and a butcher off to the right, chatting rapidly with his guests. It was quiet on a weekday afternoon. I wandered around, noticing cans of gefilte fish, Israeli imports and more. As Daniele did her shopping, I settled on a pack of pita chips and some tried-and-true Sabra hummus. Pretty soon, we were out the door. I would venture back to the Makolette on other various occasions, most notably to pick up ingredients for my first-ever homemade latkes.

At home, Daniele gave me a thick packet, its contents listing every item in every major French grocery store that was certified kosher. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

But I was fascinated. Admittedly, I was hesitant…I wanted to experience all of the culinary delicacies the country had to offer! And while outside of the house I explored French cuisine to the hilt, when I went grocery shopping, I looked forward to poring over my reference book. To my delight, my very favorite French cookies, PIMs, are certified kosher...what a relief! As I flipped through the pages and my knowledge grew, I experienced the culinary life in France from a completely new and enlightening perspective.


Jewish movies for... Halloween?

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 Jewish movies for... Halloween? photo

No, it's a not a Jewish holiday by any stretch. But at this point, regardless of its origins, do you know anyone who celebrates Halloween as a religious holiday?

As it happens, a surprising number of horror movies from both America and Europe turn out to have Jewish connections. The new film The Possession is about being possessed by a dybbuk, or poltergeist. Reggae-rapper Matisyahu plays the rabbi who performs the exorcism.

Stories of this spirit have been around for a long time. In the 1914 play by Yiddish writer S. Ansky, it is a bride who is possessed. This plot was turned into a film (1937), an opera (1933, debuted 1951),… and a 1974 ballet by the West Side Story team of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, both Jewish. Its first TV appearance was directed by Sidney Lumet, and now it is a play again, by Tony Kushner… also both Jewish. (The funniest movie to feature possessions has got to be Ghost Busters, directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis.)

Another Yiddish horror tale revolving around a thwarted wedding is Corpse Bride, made into a movie by Tim Burton as a sort-of follow up to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jewish actress (and Burton's own bride) Helena Bonham Carter stars, and Danny Elfman did the score.

One of the mainstays of horror is Frankenstein's monster. While Mary Shelley's original novel is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," she admitted that the monster also had Jewish origins—in the Golem. This Medieval clay automaton is said to be first animated in Prague to protect the Jews from pogroms. The Golem has inspired plays as early as 1908, novels going back to 1914, an I.B. Singer book, operas… and lots of TV, including episodes of The X-Files and The Simpsons (whose Golems were voiced by Fran Drescher and Richard Lewis!).

There are Golem characters in the Dungeons and Dragons game, comic books, even Pokemon. Israel had some early computers named after the Golem. And Golem is the name of a great, fun punk-klezmer band. Some even feel that J.R.R. Tolkien's mysterious Gollum owes his name to this Hebraic hulk. 

Some horror creators have been Jewish, too. R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series, is. In the movies, Sam Raimi directed The Evil Dead (and then the Spider-Man trilogy). And Eli Roth is a writer/actor/director/producer in that genre.

 Jamie Lee Curtis's turn in the Halloween movies was just the first in a line of Jewish "scream queens" including Danielle Harris, who was in the Halloween reboots and the Hatchet series… Neve Campbell of the Scream series… and Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar. In fact, about half the Buffy TV cast was Jewish: Alyson Hannigan (Willow), Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn), Amber Benson (Tara), Danny Strong (Jonathan), Juliet Landau (Drusilla), Seth Green (Oz)... and Armin Shimerman (their principal). 

Oz, of course, was a werewolf, and there is a surprisingly strong affinity for these shapeshifters among Jewish creative types. John Landis directed American Werewolf in London, in which the title character has nightmares of Nazi werewolves, leading some to speculate he was himself Jewish. But first, Jewish songwriter Warren Zevon wrote the song "Werewolves of London," inspired by the very first werewolf movie ever, made back in 1935. Jewish director Mike Nichols directed Jack Nicholson as a werewolf in Wolf; Corey Haim, who starred in Silver Bullet as a werewolf-slayer, was Jewish, as was Michael Landon, star of I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Two Jewish screenwriters wrote the Michael J. Fox remake of that one, simply titled Teen Wolf.

This link is not working anymore— horrormovies.org— but it was the source of this list of still  more horror movies with Jewish themes and/or characters. I have taken out the ones already mentioned above: All Good Things; The Devil's Advocate (with Al Pacino); Disciple of Death; The Lowborn; My Wife is a Vampire; Night of the Living Jews (a short about accursed matzah); and Santa's Slay (Santa is played by Jewish pro-wrestling champ Goldberg). 

For more on Jewish monsters and the Jewish participation in the horror genre, here’s what else I… dug up! (insert Crypt Keeper cackle here):

“Possession” and the Tradition of Jewish Horror Films

Halloween and Judaism (video)

And for something truly frightening: ‘Baby Rabbi’ Tops Worst Halloween Costume List.


A Balancing Act

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Social Media— A Mechanism to Effectuate Real and Meaningful Change photo

A year ago today I was fragile but hopeful.

I had been out of the hospital for only 4.5 months and was slowly starting to regain my footing.

My appetite had started to come back, my hair was starting to grow in, but I continuously struggled to feel comfortable in the outside world.

The trauma was still front and center, cancer continued to monopolize conversations, and my relationships were noticeably strained.

For the first time in months, I was able to step outside of my own personal experience with this disease and recognize how it affected those around me.

It was no longer I had cancer but We had cancer.

As I started to empathize with my family and closest friends, I quickly realized that the process of healing, rebuilding and coping was happening in different ways and at different paces.

Cancer may have left my body but it did not leave my life.

The hopeful fragility I embodied last year perhaps remains true today.

I may be more comfortable in the outside world, but I still have moments of displacement.

I may be no longer tiptoeing into the sunlight, but I still have moments of caution.

I may not think about cancer on a daily basis, but her memories are beautifully detailed into the scars that lie beneath—and will forever be a part of me.

Perhaps balancing fear with hope, fragility with strength, illness with health is what life is and should be all about.

This balancing act, this juxtaposition. this existence somewhere in between what was and what is, is exactly where I am supposed to be.

A place of gratitude, a place of uncertainty, a place of hope.

Here is to another year filled with remarkable moments.

To those that stood by me throughout this journey—thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Must See TV

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The leaves are falling, the sukkahs have come down, and TV's fall lineup is in full swing. Today, housewives, matchmakers, and weight-loss contests dominate the airwaves, with just a few scripted shows sprinkled in between, but that's not how it used to be.

Back in the ol' days when I was a kid—you know, pre-smartphones—I used to love to watch the new fall shows, especially the situation comedies. Born in between Generations X and Y, I grew up on a steady viewing diet of Keatons, Huxtables, and the barflies at Cheers. I've always loved sitcoms because they make us laugh and allow us an escape, for at least 22 minutes, from the ups and downs of our crazy lives.

We Jews have a great sense of humor. After all, with everything we've been through, a strong funny bone helps. So I thought this month we could grab some popcorn, kick back in our La-Z-Boys, and point the clicker at my top picks—in no particular order—of funny Jewish characters that have graced the small screen. My criteria hinge upon a certain lovability each of these characters possess and in what sort of light they present their Jewishness. Oh, and they gotta be funny too. 

Must See TV photo 1 

Grace Adler
Will & Grace marked a lot of sitcom firsts. It was not only the first prime-time TV show to portray openly-gay main characters, but it also was one of the first shows to feature a Jewish lead female character. The show chronicles best friends and roommates Will, a gay lawyer, and Grace, a straight Jewish interior designer, and their wacky friends, Karen and Jack. Grace, played by Debra Messing, is a redhead, dubbed a modern-day Lucille Ball. Grace, who has a pervasive Jewish sensibility, peppers her dialogue with funny Yiddish words and references to Jewish camp and her bat mitzvah. Later in the series, she marries Leo, a Southern Jewish doctor, played by Harry Connick Jr. Here's another first: Whereas most sitcoms center around interfaith relationships between Jews and non-Jews, the union between Grace and Leo is the first prime-time sitcom ever to feature a wedding between two Jews.

Alan Silver
If you blinked, you might have missed the show Brooklyn Bridge—which only aired from 1991 to 1993—but those of us who were lucky caught this fleeting gem. Alan Silver (Danny Gerard), a pre-teen Jewish boy, lives in a Brooklyn walk-up in the mid-1950s surrounded by his parents, little brother, and grandparents, including his grandma played by Marion Ross of Happy Days fame.

Molly Goldberg
The Goldbergs, created by Gertrude Berg, was way before my time, but I mention it for historical context because the show portrays the first Jewish characters on what is now considered the modern-day sitcom. The Goldbergs originally aired as a radio broadcast and then was adapted into a TV show, which ran from 1949 to 1956. The show features the home life a Jewish family in the Bronx, with Molly Goldberg (played by Berg), a warm, meddlesome Jewish matriarch at its helm. The Goldbergs, beloved by viewers, were the first Jews many Americans had ever seen—on or off screen.

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Ross Geller
Half of the "friends" on the hit show Friends were members of the tribe—Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courtney Cox), and her brother Ross Geller (David Schwimmer). I picked Ross, the thrice-divorced paleontologist, because on one memorable episode he attempts to teach his half-Jewish son, Ben, about the meaning of Chanukah. Discouraged by Ben's fascination with Christmas, Ross goes to great lengths to tell his son about the great miracle that happened there. He even dresses in a Chanukah "armadillo" costume to counteract the ubiquity of Santa suits in December.

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Charlotte York Goldenblatt & Harry Goldenblatt
When news spread that Sex and the City was adding a Jewish character to the ensemble, I got a little nervous. I'm protective of my people and worried the show would play off the ugly "rich Jew" stereotype because the show focuses on themes of wealth and materialism. But thank goodness, I was wrong. Instead, we're introduced to Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler), the sweet, bald, and uncouth divorce lawyer, who Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) meets while divorcing her first husband. Charlotte, formerly an Episcopalian, converts to Judaism after learning that Harry had made a promise to his mom on her deathbed that he would marry a Jew. Charlotte undergoes the whole conversion process, culminating with submerging herself in the mikvah (ritual bath). Soon after, she and Harry marry under the chuppah and live happily ever after.

Rhoda Morgenstern
I wanted to be Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary's Jewish neighbor and best friend on Mary Tyler Moore. Of course, the TV series, which aired in the 1970s, ended its first-run episodes the year I was born, but that's what Me-TV is for. A transplant to Minneapolis, Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, is a single, working woman who talks with a thick Bronx accent and dresses in hippy clothes. Following Mary Tyler Moore, Harper reprised her role on Rhoda, one of the most successful spinoffs of all time. Rhoda tells it like it is and we loved her for that.

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Jerry Seinfeld
Did you think I forgot him? I don't think it's legal to compile a list of top Jewish sitcom characters without mentioning the king of `em all—Jerry Seinfeld. Contrary to popular belief, the other three principal characters on the show were not supposed to be Jewish. With all the hateful antics they carried out on the show, I don't mind not claiming them as our own. Most of you could—yada yada yada—recite lines from every episode of Seinfeld, but I thought I'd draw your attention to one of my favorite plotlines. Do you remember, and I know you do, when Jerry's dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley, converts to Judaism, and immediately starts cracking Jewish jokes? He figures now that he's a member of the tribe, he had license to tell our people's jokes. But Jerry's bothered—in typical Seinfeldian fashion—that his dentist had converted purely for the jokes. "And this offends you as a Jewish person?" Jerry is asked. "No," he replies, "it offends me as a comedian."

For a comprehensive list of Jewish TV characters, visit  www.juf.org/tweens/celebrities.aspx.


Forecast of Impermanence

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Forecast of Impermanence photo

On the first day of our family vacation, we woke up early and headed out—not to Door County where we had been planning to go—but to the emergency room with two lethargic, dehydrated two-year-olds.

We were way overdue for some quiet time under the stars; unfortunately, the universe had other plans for us: another night in the hospital where I spent a week after having pre-term labor, the place our girls were born, and the home of the NICU where they spent their first month of life. Even though we hadn’t been there for two and a half years, it felt oddly familiar when we walked in, and not in a comforting way.

While our daughters were resting and getting hydrated, I tossed and turned on the fold-out bed. On top of being worried about them, I was having flashbacks to the day they were born and the turbulent weeks that followed. Logically, I knew they were in the right place and getting what they needed, but it was not an easy place for me to rest.

These past six months have been a restless whirlwind of uncertainty for our family, building momentum and crashing forward to its peak—our lost vacation. Starting with iron deficiency, tantrums, and insomnia in addition to the hospital stay, we realized things weren’t working so well and we needed a change. We stripped down all of our assumptions about where our family is going to live, what jobs we’re going to have, what income we need, everything. But when you’re in the middle of the storm, it is full-on survival mode, getting through the days and making sure there are groceries in the refrigerator and toilet paper on the roll. It is responding to the crisis at hand and there is always another popping up. The garage door is broken and no one has a key to the side door. There is a raccoon living between the walls of your apartment. Your toddler is breaking out in hives for no apparent reason (a few hypothetical examples).

After one trip to our neighborhood farmers market I collapsed into a puddle of tears on our kitchen floor, wondering how on earth I was going to make it through the next four hours before I could lie down again and attempt to sleep. It wasn’t any one circumstance that put me over the edge—it was the whole picture crumbling at my feet. Something meaningful was brewing, something larger than any one day.

Many people I know have been going through major changes this year. Several close friends are breaking up after years of being together. Family members are moving to new cities, changing careers, starting businesses. On Facebook last week, three friends posted obituaries of close relatives. Someone else lost their job. Every day there is more emotional news. Maybe this is what life is like as you get older—more heartbreak, more surprise, more sadness. More change.

I feel the calm after the storm now, where the sky is a clear shade of blue and the wreckage surrounds us, but there is one thing still standing—the gleaming tower of impermanence. Neither the strongest will nor the most powerful wind can knock it down.

Thankfully, the girls’ hospital stay this summer was short and they were able to quickly heal back to their hydrated, hyperactive selves. Being in that hospital again made me realize that the emotions I had when they were born are still close to the surface. During that first hospital stay, we didn’t know how they would be breathing one minute to the next and it was terrifying. In the end, they became healthy and strong and came home—both times. My anxiety-induced insomnia had nothing to do with that outcome; it only took my energy away from having a calmer, more positive perspective at the time. The emotional rollercoaster of the NICU was an impermanent state, too.

When I look at all of the big life changes happening around me, I realize that any one day can be filled with that same state of anxiety. When discussing these thoughts with my grandma, she said simply, “Well, the only certain things in life are change and death.” She is clearly wiser and more concise than I am.

Embracing impermanence in everyday life has been a major challenge for me lately, but the more I do, the more I am able to take everything a bit less seriously and have much more fun in the moment. Our plans may change at the last second when a phone is lost, someone gets sick, or the sky explodes in a rainbow of sparkling flower petals. (Hey, you never know.) I’ve learned that I feel stronger and more in control living with impermanence at the forefront of my thoughts. I know I can handle the changes ahead, whatever the forecast may be.


Pinterest: is it a good thing?

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Creative crock pot recipes. Inspirational quotes and nursery decoration ideas. A window in on what friends have in mind for their weddings. Helpful housekeeping hints, fabulous fashion finds and a hundred of the best ways to hang a photo collage on the wall.

Pinterest has wormed its way into my life, and when I start surfing the postings and pinning, it’s amazing how minutes can turn into hours. Next thing you know, it is way past my bedtime (and yes, I have a bedtime. It’s as early as I can convince myself to fall asleep, so I can be rested if my lovely baby decides to be less lovely than usual and wake up in the middle of the night for God knows what reason).

Inspired by Pinterest, I’ve done so many exciting things. I’ve taught myself how to make a pinwheel mobile. I’ve made chicken fajitas in my crock pot. I covered my head phones like a string bracelet, so they’d stop getting so darn tangled. I’ve made fabulous decorations for my son’s bris and a scarf out of old t-shirts. I have parenting strategies pinned regarding everything from potty training to science projects to healthy snack habits, and my son is not even five months old.

And therein lies the rub. Whether you’re pinning as a new mom, a bride-to-be, a future homeowner or a curious and crafty person, the ideas posted to Pinterest are oftentimes a bit more aspirational than inspirational.

It’s not likely that I’ll ever be lucky enough to have a built-in dog house underneath my staircase in my family home, I’ll probably never have the time to turn my future toddler’s lunch into a bento box art project, and Colin’s first birthday party will probably not look like it belongs in a magazine photo shoot. Most people don’t live their lives dressed like models, in perfectly decorated homes, or eating creative and gourmet-inspired dishes each night. And most moms aren’t crazy enough to take weekly photos of their squirmy babies in front of the same backdrop (although as of week 20, I’m still trying).

Pinterest: is it a good thing? photo

Can’t we just shop at the mall, decorate with whatever cute cheap stuff we can find at IKEA, and be proud of ourselves if we make a home-cooked meal once or twice a week that’s edible and relatively healthy?

Yes, there are great suggestions for simplifying your life on there too, and yes, as a crafty gal myself, I love seeing the fun ideas other people have time and resources to tackle, but oy, is my Pinterest obsession giving me unrealistic expectations of what my real life should look like? In a world with Pinterest and hundreds of blogs that connect to the pins with all sorts of crazy and creative ideas, are our expectations being warped?


Jews say the funniest things

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Ari Moffic Silver photo

In case you were not part of the millions of viewers cracking up at these videos, earlier this year YouTube became flooded with vignettes depicting people’s interpretations of “things people say,” including those about Jewish attitude and behavior in everyday life. Everyone from Jewish girls to Jewish mothers to even things Christians say to Jews, “Do you like bagels? Do you speak Hebrew? Is Tiger Woods Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.”

What makes the clips so comical is not just that they are hilarious and somewhat accurate, but that we are also able to laugh at ourselves and accept who we are. When I watched them for the first time, I couldn’t help but laugh and imagine people I knew that might say or think those very lines. Comedy is not always about truth, but it does build on some truth, making some of these one-line quips quite colorful. They call it “roasting,” but when people make these videos, they are in a sense honoring and acknowledging their heritage in a fun and comical way.

I’ve heard people say that humor is a Jewish coping mechanism, used to defend against harsh stereotypes. Regardless of its origins, Jews seem to have been endowed with a miraculous ability to make others laugh and even respectfully poke fun at themselves. Jews have always been known for their sense of humor in American society, and their infectious comical genius has influenced modern comedy and humor as we know it today.

Humor is a part of our heritage. It’s in our blood. We may not all be Adam Sandlers or Sarah SIlvermans, but we can sure pretend to be—especially with these YouTube videos—and still have a good laugh. Through our humor, each of us is able to express ourselves and discover our own voices. But whether you are Jewish or not, you have got to keep on laughing and cracking jokes because it’s what keeps life fun and interesting, and maybe acts as a tiny distraction from all the chaos that surrounds us.


Thank you Sprout Fitness

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Thank you Sprout Fitness photo

Sprout Fitness started about five years ago when my friend and fellow trainer Kim and I thought it was a good idea to have pre/postnatal fitness classes. We were both certified to work with the populations and our friends were just starting to have babies. We thought we would provide a safe environment for women to workout, teach what they can and cannot do, and help them build muscles to hold the car seat. Trust me folks, it gets real heavy, real fast.

My first pregnant client was my sister. It was a little over 8 years ago. I thought it would be cool to help her out. I concentrated on overall strength and a lot of core work. A strong core is helpful for labor and delivery. When Kim and I started our class we decided to focus on four things:

1) Core (abs, hips, back, and pelvic floor)
2) Endurance
3) Strength training
4) Stretching

We also wanted to educate our clients on things they should avoid, like exercising on their back after the first trimester, and what intensity level to train at. Then it happened, my wife was pregnant and we had this beautiful baby that loved being held. And it suddenly hit me, wow, this gets really heavy.

Suddenly my Sprout classes were a lot harder. I ratcheted up the workouts with more weights. We had clients that told us about how their friends had shoulder and back trouble from holding their baby but until I had my own I had no idea just how bad your posture gets and how heavy a car seat is + 15lbs of baby weight.

Even though the workouts got tougher, there was always one constant. These women like to TALK. Now I know I am a talker but man, these women can easily drown out my orders with prego chat. And I’m actually all for it. My wife explained it best to me, “At work no one wants to hear me complain about being pregnant. People don’t even want to give me a seat on the bus. Sprout is the one place we can talk to people going through the exact same thing.” Knowing that our class is a workout and an outlet, made me feel great. That’s when I decided to make sure to give the chatty Cathy’s time to discuss how they are feeling, what they are going through…of course only at breaks or while we warm up.

I now offer unsolicited parenting advice all the time, although it’s more like, “Your baby will put everything in their mouth. Literally, my son eats dirt. And then he looks up when you say no with a huge dirty grin.”

In five short years my perception of why pre/postnatal fitness is so important has changed again. Yes, I still believe exercising correctly is number one, but a very close number two is community. Our Sprout classes lead to friendships. Many times it’s just through the pregnancy and a few months after but that’s such a crucial time for support and chattiness.

This is not an advertisement for our class, but a suggestion for all you moms and moms to be—join a group, class, event…meet other women going through the same thing you are. And of course, if you are healthy enough to workout, DO IT! Just don’t overdo it : )


REWIND: A thought for Simchat Torah

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REWIND: A thought for Simchat Torah photo

Few things "scroll" anymore, but many things used to.

Take audio recordings. The ones that came with sound already on them were almost always discs: 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs, and the short-lived mini-discs. But if you wanted to record your own sound you had to use a reel-to-reel machine. Recording studios use master tapes. Later, these were reduced in size to 8-tracks, then casettes, which contained minitaure tape reels. Mini-cassettes were used for what voice recorders do now, and for answering machines.

Now, sound recordings— made in studios or downloaded— are digital files with no moving parts involved.

Movies were once on huge reels. These were delivered to theaters, often marked in code so they would not be stolen. Now, even the most picky directors are willing to try digital recordings, which can be e-mailed directly.

The same is true for making home movies. As the movie Super 8 remembers, home cameras once used film that unravelled, captured a split-second of motion, then re-revalled on another spool. To watch them, we had to rewind them and feed them into a projector¸with its own reels. Now, we press a button on our phones.

Then there is watching movies at home. This recently involved a videocasette. Like its audio cousin, it is a rectangle containing two reels. One winds a tape so that the machine can display the image on the TV screen while the other unwinds it. When we were done, we were cajoled by a sticker on the box, we were supposed to "be kind" and "rewind" the tape back to the start for the next viewer.

Computers the size of refrigerators used to fill rooms. Many of these machines had pairs of reels on their faces with a magnetic tape winding between them, recording and reporting data. Today, a drive the size of a thumb contains more memory than dozens of such reels. And we "scroll" on a computer screen only virtually.

In some movies, you can see researchers looking at screens onto which old newspaper pages are projected. Those pages were photographed, and the photos condensed onto microfilm in an early version of scanning. Now, many of these archives have been scanned digitally.

Wherever we turn, things have stopped turning. We still unwind things from spools— everything from thread and tape to paper towels and foil. But we don't "rewind" that much anymore.

So why has the simple parchment-on-poles technology of the Torah scroll outlasted all of these other, more high-tech "scrolls"? Why are we still rolling back this huge scroll so many centuries past the printing press? And why would we not give it up for all the e-readers in the world?

Just something to think about as we finished reading the Torah this week and "rewind" the scroll back to the beginning.


V’zot HaBeracha

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Dan Horwitz photo

We’ve reached the final portion of the Torah – V’zot HaBeracha. On the holiday of Simchat Torah, Monday night and Tuesday, we read this portion, and immediately following, we read a section of the portion of Bereshit – the first portion of the Torah – in order to symbolize the never ending nature of our learning. In V’zot HaBeracha, Moses offers a blessing to the Israelites before his death, as they prepare to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, without him, under the leadership of Joshua.

Upon concluding his blessing, we learn that Moses ascended a mountain, looked out over the Promised Land that he was not permitted to enter, and passed away. The portion tells us that it was God who buried Moses, and that as a result, no one knows exactly where he was buried. We also learn that Moses was 120 years old when he died (one of the reasons it’s customary to shout out ‘ad me’ah v’esrim!’ – until one hundred and twenty!’ at Jewish birthday celebrations). We learn that the Israelites mourned Moses for 30 days, and we find the quote in the header above – that “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses…”

What is it to live 120 years?

Is it quantity or quality that counts?

Many of us have been to a sushi buffet where we remark, “I actually don’t need a buffet – I’d rather have less sushi and have it be of a higher quality.” Even if we don’t say it at the time, a couple hours later we usually get to that point.

How do we live lives of meaning and purpose, regardless of how long we’ll be here for?

I know some people in their late eighties and nineties who are dieting. At some point, doesn’t it become okay to eat cheesecake whenever you want?

Are there Jewish secrets to living a long life?

While our tradition doesn’t necessarily have much to say about Omega-3 fatty acids or Acai berries, the ancient rabbis had much to say about what sorts of foods one might choose to eat in order to live a healthy and long life:

“Leeks are harmful for the teeth and beneficial for the intestines.”
“Cabbage is for sustenance and beets are for healing.”
“Woe to the belly through which turnips pass.”
[Berachot 44b]

Others looked to non-dietary matters as playing a part in living a long life. For example, Rabbi Hillel taught: “One who increases Torah, increases life.” [Avot 2:8]

Similarly, we learn in the Talmud: “Rav Yehuda said: There are three things that if prolonged, prolong the years of a person: one who spends a long time praying, one who spends a long time at his dining room table, and one who spends a long time in the restroom.” [Berachot 54a] (Don’t worry – the ancient rabbis explain these three things in a bit more detail in order to make them seem a bit more holy).

However, it’s not just about quantity. Certainly, quantity is nice and can be a blessing; but I would argue that quality plays an even more essential role. To live a long life, but in doing so, to have never truly LIVED is not in step with our tradition. While we’re taught to remember that even in our moments of greatest joy, there are others who are not as fortunate as we are (e.g. stomping on a glass at the close of a Jewish wedding; putting salt on the challah on Friday night), traditional Jewish wisdom encourages us to live, and to live joyously.

We are instructed to rejoice in the Sabbath. [Isaiah 58:13]

We are instructed to rejoice in our festivals. [Deuteronomy 16:14-15]

We are instructed to be joyous when we pray. [Psalms 100:2]

A huge portion of our tradition deals with the quality and joy we experience in life! To focus solely on longevity and to ignore life’s moments is to ignore the very essence of what it is to live a Jewish life.

Hopefully, we will all warrant long lives, with longevity rivaling Moses’s 120 years. Yet, we must admit, longevity is often out of our control. What we can control is how we fill the days we’re blessed enough to have.

Cherish each day.

Take nothing for granted.

Eat cheesecake.

Strive to make sure that your life is lived with joy, with love, and with purpose.


Kindness and cancer: How you can help

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Kindness and cancer: How you can help photo

Doubtless you’ve noticed all the pink already: National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here. People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent with a family history of cancer need to know about BRCA and hereditary cancer syndromes. I’ve written about these issues for Oy! before, and I hope the articles still prove helpful:

• Do your genes belong to you?: BRCA, Myriad Genetics and the legality of patenting genes
• The Unfunniest Thing in the World: Gilda Radner and ovarian cancer
• More than pink and teal: Knowledge versus awareness

Today I want to talk about something less abstract: how you can help people with cancer and their loved ones.

Around the High Holidays in 2007, my mom began having headaches and needing frequent naps. I was a year out of college, and had just moved back to Chicago in the spring. In March 2008 she had a seizure, and we found out that she had brain tumors—glioblastomas, a particularly aggressive kind of cancer that Ted Kennedy also had. Very shortly after, she had surgery, radiation and chemo. She was part of a clinical trial at Ohio State University for a treatment that was exploring the use of modified viruses to kill any cancer cells left behind.

For three years we were very lucky, and she made an amazing recovery. In the spring of 2011, however, the tumors came back, and they didn’t let up. After exhausting all her options, in May my mom decided to stop treatment. She died on August 24.

We lived with cancer hanging over us for five years. Our friends, our neighbors, our family and our colleagues were incredibly kind. People I hadn’t heard from since childhood came out of the woodwork for us. It was and continues to be a great comfort to me and my family, because the things cancer does to a person are hideous beyond belief, and we needed all the help we could get.

One thing you hear a lot when you’re in this situation is “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” I know that when I’ve said it to others, it’s out of a genuine desire to be useful, but not really knowing how, or not wanting to intrude. It’s hard to gauge how any given day is going to go when you’re dealing with cancer or treatment, or when you’re a caretaker, or when you’re grieving, and in any of these situations you may simply be unable to ask for help.

What we found easiest was when someone contacted us with specifics: “I’m going to be in the area this afternoon and wanted to know if I could stop in for a visit.” “Can we come up on Tuesday and weed your garden?” “Can I give you a ride to and from the airport?” Every situation is different, of course, and it’s always good to gauge the other person’s energy or ability to have visitors. Sometimes someone would come and my mom would only be able to see them for a few minutes. The best thing you can do is to be easygoing and understanding.

That’s not always as simple as it sounds. My mom bitterly resented her loss of independence, and I never knew, from visit to visit, what she would be able to do. Managing expectations is not pleasant for anybody, but at the same time, when I look back, I think that given what we were all capable of, my mom and I got the most out of the time we had left together.

Apparently May is National Brain Tumor Awareness Month. As far as I know, it’s not color-coded. Cancer awareness in itself is not something I want to appear cynical about. It’s important to raise money for research and to talk about knowing symptoms and to feel connected with a community. One hope I cling to is that by her participation in this clinical trial, my mom may be able to help someone else with glioblastomas in the future. But I have not often seen these awareness movements address the day-to-day of coping with grief and supporting those who live with cancer. We have to have that conversation: that’s cancer education too.

I can’t speak to any personal experience of facing cancer. I can’t really speak to being a caretaker either; my dad did that heavy lifting, and there’s little heavier in the world. Others like them have shared their experiences, and we should seek out and honor them by listening. But I want to say one more thing, as someone whose mother has died, and that’s to express thanks to everyone who has offered comfort and cooked dinners and written letters and told stories. Grief is messy, and it comes out in messy ways. For me, it seems to stop up my words, or my ability to do things like return a phone call or respond to an email or a card. If you’re reaching out to someone, and it feels like all you’re getting is radio silence, please don’t be discouraged. At any of these stages, for anyone affected by this disease, what we value—what we are grateful for—is that you stick by us, and keep coming back.  


Yom Kippur reflections: No mirrors necessary

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Adam Daniel Miller photo

The dumbest thing I do every year is to complain about hunger in the immediate hours after the sun goes down on the night of Kol Nidre. For whatever reason, those first hours always seem much tougher than the final ones. I have previously talked about how Yom Kippur is one of the most important Jewish holidays to me. For what are now a multitude of reasons, this holiday in particular has become a very significant day for me. Yes, I’m well aware that it happens to be a fairly important day for most other Jews as well, but for me, it is a day I hold up on a pedestal. Hence why I believe it’s called a High Holiday. I find my focus on the hunger to be displaced and this year, while the hunger can’t help but be persistent, I took it upon myself to truly focus my Yom Kippur on just that, myself.

This Yom Kippur was significant because it was the first one I’ve had since my Shorashim Birthright trip to Israel. It would take me quite a while to explain exactly the full impact of what that means but a large portion of it stems from my experience at the Western Wall. What I did there is very similar to the way I wanted to handle Yom Kippur this year. I talked to myself. Honestly and openly. I do this so rarely and yet, it provides a lot of clarity in times of confusion to truly speak to myself and discover my own thoughts. The experience I had at the Western Wall was truly unforgettable. Funny enough, I don’t remember everything that I said, but I will never forget how I felt. (I sure wish I could have a transcript of my thoughts) Those feelings I had there are still with me today. It’s mostly because the strength of those feelings keeps it prevalent in my mind. It also helps that I have a souvenir refrigerator magnet and snow globe.

So starting this year, and hopefully every year that follows, I plan on treating what I do during Yom Kippur a little differently. This year I treated it as a time to have some much needed self reflection. The moment the sun went down I stared at myself in the mirror for over two hours.

That’s a little joke. I sure hope that doesn’t count as a sin. I just started over.

But I bring up that idea of sins because my fasting has a deeper meaning to me than simply getting rid of them. I use my fasting as a way to draw focus to all that I wanted to cleanse myself or get rid of outside of traditional sins. I use this day as a time to look at how I can improve myself in the coming year. I reflect on what I did that may have not been so great and what I can learn from that. To get this all in motion, I took a very lengthy walk down Lake Shore Drive at one of the most asinine times to do so. Roughly two hours before sundown, I began a walk from Lakeview to River North. By landmarks, roughly Wrigley Field to the John Hancock building. All on 22 hours of an empty stomach. It was the dumbest and best decision I made that day. During this walk I did exactly what I hoped. I spoke to myself. Mostly in my own head but occasionally out loud when no one was around or when I didn’t notice that lady right behind me. It’s astounding the thoughts that come to fruition when given the chance.

As a part of my walk, I took a little break, sat on a bench, whipped out my journal, and wrote a little. Yes I have a journal. Not a diary. A journal. Like the one Doug Funnie had, for those of you who understand that. I’ve titled my journal “My Thoughts Exactly,” because they are just that. Talking to myself is one thing, but writing to myself can be incredibly cathartic. Especially on Yom Kippur. I really can’t tell you anything about what I wrote in there but know it’s the best stuff that’s ever been written by any person in the history of time.

What writing and talking to myself did for me is give me the initial understanding of what goals I have for the year to come. Some are bigger, some are smaller and some are simply practical. Like that I want to make sure I brush my teeth every night before I go to bed. It’s something small yet important that I have neglected for years that I should always be doing. It’s a realistic goal and starting with that should, among other things, give me the momentum needed to accomplish the bigger goals. And this goal is part of the overarching goal I have for myself which is to not be so lazy. In fact my current motto to myself is “No lazy.” I mean for this to be in every aspect of my life, whether it’s walking a little more or getting a few more things accomplished each day. It’s amazing how difficult it is for me to not be lazy sometimes, but pushing myself makes me, sheepishly, a little proud of myself.

My Zadie has always told me that it’s very important to never lose focus of your own picture. Talking and writing to myself on Yom Kippur helps me finish those edges, add those shadows and darken those lines to make the picture complete and clear. At least clearer. If only my picture was as easy as a paint by numbers. That’d be quite nice. Yom Kippur is one of the most special days of the year to me. I don’t look at it so much as a Day of Atonement but more as a day of clarity and understanding. Sure I’m not a fan of fasting but this is one powerful day. A day I hold in the highest regard. I don’t even care this much about my birthday. Other than the fact I get cake. I love cake. Please excuse me while I got get some cake.

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