OyChicago blog

Interview with Chicagoan and former Royal Tony Cogan

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It's World Series time, so it's time for Jews everywhere to find a connection to the Series. Well, Kevin Pillar is done. Theo Epstein didn't come through. How about we go back in time a little?

Introducing Chicago's own Tony Cogan. Cogan played for the Royals, although is admittedly a Cardinals fan. He recently joined TheGreatRabbino.com Speaker Series. Here is his take on the ups and downs of getting to the Majors and the best pizza in Chicago.

1.Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I live in Chicago with my wife, our young son and our golden retriever. We are expecting our second child in late February. I grew up in the North Suburbs of Chicago and love the city, the Midwest, and its people. I have a passion for the outdoors -- fishing is on top of the list. I am actively involved with the Scleroderma Foundation of Greater Chicago.

2. You pitched at Highland Park High School. Ever go back to catch a Giants game?

I have been to one or two since graduating, but most of my time was spent away from home. I spent the majority of my off-seasons training with other ball players in northern California, close to school. I did, however, give private lessons in HP for a number of years following retiring from baseball.

3. Was it hard to jump from college (Stanford) to the minor leagues? What is the biggest difference?

Actually, it was surprisingly not that tough of a jump. The big jump was minors to majors. When I got to the minors out of college, I was frothing at the mouth to pitch to wood bats! I felt like the edge was tilted in favor of pitchers because most of the guys were coming out of college or high school and had to make an adjustment to using wood bats. That actually gave me a fair amount of confidence going into my first pro season. The playing field leveled as I moved up the ladder.

4. What was it finally like getting to the majors?

It was an incredible experience. I made the team out of spring training after only two minor league seasons -- so it was quite a surprise. I was not really expecting to be invited to major league spring training let alone making the team. On the last day of spring, the team was making final cuts and a few guys were still hanging out, waiting to talk to management. I was on pins and needles and one of the other players, Chris Wilson, pulled me aside and forced me to sit down and play cards with him to calm my nerves. When I finally got in the office, I had a good feeling, but still wasn't sure. Then, Tony Muser (the manager of the Royals at the time) sat me down and told me that I was going to be on a plane to New York to face the defending champion Yankees on opening day. I will quote him … "you did a nice job in spring training, now don't get all poopy pants on me!" Three days later I was in Yankee Stadium!

5. When did you know it was time to finish your career?

That is a very tough question. A lot of thought and consideration went into the decision. I was still physically able to play when I ultimately hung 'em up. I can't say that "I knew" it was time, but it felt like the right time for me.

6. What have you been up to since baseball?

I am now an investment adviser. I work with a great team in the Private Wealth Management division at William Blair and Company in Chicago. I am a husband, a father of a 2-year-old boy, and have one on the way.

7. You played for the Royals. Are you a Royals fan? Do you have them winning it all?

I am a fan, but it's more about the current team and less about the fact that I played for them. Technically, I am a Cardinals fan, but mostly I am a fan of the game and good baseball. I like the Royals' chances in '15, but if they lose and this is printed after the fact you can strike my prediction from the record.

8. Since you are a Chicagoan. Where is your favorite place to grab pizza?

Great questions -- there are so many great places to eat pizza in Chicago. I am not much of a deep dish fan (blasphemy!) My current favorite would have to be Piece Pizza in Wicker Park. I am drooling just thinking about it.


The Original Birthright Trip

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The Original Birthright Trip photo

"Mom? Dad? Remember how you wanted me to love Israel and it was really important to you that I go there? Well, now that I'm here, I do love Israel. In fact, I'm not coming home. I'm staying here."

That's what I told my parents at the ripe age of 16 halfway through my summer youth trip to Israel. And though not every Jewish youth has such an extreme response to their first experience in the Jewish homeland, we all become impassioned in some way. Some of us come back wanting to learn Hebrew. Some want to learn more about Jewish history. Some people are compelled to explore their Judaism more seriously, and others just feel a stronger sense of Jewish identity. This phenomenon is so profound that millions of dollars have been put into getting Jewish youth to encounter Israel.

There's something special that happens to the Jewish soul when it comes in contact with Israel. Yes, the falafel on Ben Yehuda is phenomenal, and the shawarma is shwooper shwrumptious, but is that all that's happening? We're reuniting with our ancient genetic Mideast taste buds? There's gotta be something more.

To understand it, we have to go back to the first Birthright Israel trip ever, which actually took place over 3,500 years ago. There were no applications available online at the time, only a prophetic message sent via Divine Cloud (great app) to the one applicant who put his name in the Divine auction to win a trip to Canaan Land. The one applicant was none other than our great-great-grandfather, Abraham. The acceptance letter read: "Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house…" That's a lot of places to leave! Why so many?

There are three things that naturally provide a person with a sense of who they are. Family is the most basic. Whether as a result or reaction to our family, it is a major player in making us who we are. The next level of influence comes from our friends, especially the people we grew up with. We've been through it all together, and we impact each other through our interactions. The level beyond that is the community. When we are in a foreign country and we find someone from the same country, state or city that we're from, there's a feeling of association, of closeness. We may never have met before, but the fact you are also from Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Florida or Minneapolis connects us and we share a commonality.

The director of the first Birthright trip (i.e. the Almighty) told Abraham to leave all three of these impressions before coming to Israel. Why? He was going to discover something precious in Israel. No, not the beaches of Netanya (though they are beautiful) -- he was going to discover himself. The divine words saying to "go" in the Hebrew are, "Lech lecha," which literally translates to, "Go … to you."

There's a "you" that will only be found in Israel. Until you get there, you will not fully be "you." And in order to truly see and become the "you" that you can be, you have to rid yourself of any preconditioned notions of who you are. Drop all those external impressions of yourself; come to a new reality of your core as a Jew in your homeland and experience the true "you."

When young Jews go to Israel, they find a new self-definition. When they're open to the experience, they can find out just how beautiful and precious their heritage truly is. I know that I did. We see ourselves and our Judaism in a new light. It's a homecoming. Going to Israel is not just coming to our homeland and people, but also coming to the home within ourselves.


The Making of A Personal Statement

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The Making of A Personal Statement photo

This past weekend, I ventured down to my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and for 36 hours clumsily made my best attempt at re-living my college days. In the 10 years since I first stepped onto campus, so much has changed, yet so much remains the same. While I might not be able to party as hard as used to, getting to enjoy Champaign in the fall was just as much a treat as ever.

The weekend was an ideal mix of visiting with old friends and revisiting our treasured old haunts. You know what I mean. That college experience. Making my way back brought to mind an interesting thought: No matter how uncertain I was when I was applying to schools, I am so glad to have made my way there. I wasn't sure about my choice from the start, but my heart is filled with unforgettable memories and a warm nostalgia that will last for many years to come.

A few weeks ago I assisted a group of high school students in a college essay-writing workshop. I poured over the tips and tricks to get in the mode of cobbling together this most daunting of missives. When I arrived at the tutoring center, I was greeted by students with a range of strengths and experiences. I let my inner English professor take over as we chatted about which schools they wanted to attend and any colleges they visited while I prepped my pen (black, not red) to comb through their essay draft.

I tried my best to impart any wisdom I had. My own pass at the college essay process was half-hearted at best. I knew I loved to write. I knew my grades were passable. I participated in extra-curricular activities. My ACT was relatively up to snuff. My stumbling block? I didn't know how to write about myself.

I also didn't want to write about myself. I was terrified. I've been enamored of writing, stories and language since I can remember. Shaking in my proverbial 17-year-old boots, I had not a clue where to begin.

How do you distinguish yourself in a meaningful way, to share a unique perspective or experience? Those weren't the tenets of the English classes I'd absorbed. Answer the question. Follow the rules. Keep your head down. Work hard. Not, "What value can you add? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?" Confidence was difficult to come by when I stared at the blank page.

It wasn't until I feverishly penned my essay, anxiously awaited my acceptance, went to college, lived a little more life in Chicago and abroad that I became more patient with myself. That patience has also encouraged me to continually deepen my effort to help others go through what I've already tackled.

Ten years later, I don't have the answers. But now, after two and half decades of voracious reading, writing and editing, my eye is trained and ready to peel through layers of a given document to get at the heart of what it's trying to say. My favorite part of working with these high school seniors is unearthing the core of what makes their own journey unique. How their personal experiences, described with their own narrative flair, fit into the framework of a personal mission statement is gratifying to reshape and define as a team. No one needs to write alone. But as I've learned the hard way, the most difficult and most crucial step is asking for help.

I admire the dedication it took these students to wake up early on a Saturday morning to work on this difficult piece of writing with a tutor they've never met. That takes guts, especially with a weekday schedule packed with hours of homework and activities.

I left these sessions with a few lessons bubbling to the surface, that hopefully we all learned together. When it comes to personal essay writing, don't be afraid to think of yourself in the most positive light possible. The longer you wade into the academic waters (and beyond), knowing the power you hold as your own advocate will be your guide. Don't censor yourself (within reason). Get someone else to read your writing.

For everyone, from the most ambitious Harvard-bound student to the most tepid and apprehensive, I wish them all the luck in the world in landing in a place -- and it definitely does not need to be four-year university -- where you feel contented, at home and ready to grow into the person you wish to become.


Bulls 2015-16 Season Preview

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Bulls 2015-16 Season Preview photo

Jimmy Butler and Fred Hoiberg

The 2015-16 NBA season tips off this week, and when the Chicago Bulls face off against the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, they'll be sending out a lot of familiar faces. Except of course, for one.

The Coach

After five seasons as head coach, the Bulls parted ways with Tom Thibodeau. In so many ways, Thibodeau's time in Chicago was a success. His 255-139 regular season record is the second best in team history behind only Phil Jackson, but his teams -- once at the top of the league in most defensive categories -- were beginning to tune him out. Talk of championships turned to questions about playing time and injury management. Add a rift with the front office and a .451 winning percentage in the playoffs and his fate in Chicago was sealed. Thibodeau was as good a coach as there was in the NBA in terms of Xs and Os, but his shortcomings began to become glaring as the current roster's window of opportunity began to close.

So at the end of last season, the Bulls parted ways with Thibodeau and hired Iowa State coach (and former Chicago Bull) Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg brings with him an approach that features a spread, high-paced offense, which should fit the myriad of wing shooters Gar Forman and John Paxson have assembled.

The roster from last season is almost entirely intact, giving Hoiberg a playoff-ready, experienced group hoping to achieve what they couldn't under Thibodeau.

The Backcourt

For the past four seasons the big story has been the health of Derrick Rose, and after his first healthy off-season in recent memory, it appeared they were going to avoid that this time around. Not so fast. Rose suffered an orbital fracture in practice about a month ago, but as it stands now, appears on track to play in the season opener.

But this isn't Rose's team anymore. This team is now led by Jimmy Butler, who cemented leadership status and his future with the Bulls when he signed a five-year, $95 million contract at the end of last season. Last year's Most Improved Player has seen growth in his game every season and now with the spotlight and the big contract he is looking to take his game to the next level and be the star the Bulls have been looking for to take them all the way.

Behind the starting backcourt of Rose and Butler is a familiar group. Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and E'twaun Moore return to back up and act as a three-man insurance policy for Rose. Brooks seems the best fit in Hoiberg's offense for his scoring ability, but Moore saw extended minutes in the pre-season and could see time if the Bulls use smaller lineups.

Moore or even Hinrich could see time at two guard, where the Bulls are a bit thin. Tony Snell is primed for a breakout season, but it remains to be seen whether he'll start at small forward or come off the bench to back up Butler. Either way, Snell will play a major role on this team as a guy who can not only score, but can also take some of the pressure off of Butler in guarding the other team's best perimeter players.

The Bulls' starting small forward, Mike Dunleavy, will start the season on the injured list after undergoing a low back microdiscectomy to address some issues he was having in the off-season.

With Dunleavy likely missing at least the first 4-6 weeks, this is an opportunity for last year's lottery pick, Doug McDermott, to emerge. McDermott, who essentially served a "red shirt" season in his first under Thibodeau, is a perfect fit for Hoiberg's offense, which relies heavily on the three-pointer. In the preseason, the Bulls averaged about 30 3-pointers per game, nearly eight more than last season's average, and McDermott has not only made more than anyone in the league, he's shooting it at 43 percent. While McDermott will likely start the year coming off the bench, Hoiberg has said he likes the scoring spark he brings to the second unit. He has an opportunity to really develop in this new system.

The Frontcourt

Chicago's crowded frontcourt is the big story heading into the season, returning Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic and adding talented rookie Bobby Portis. While Noah and Gasol may be the obvious choice given they started together last season, they also never quite found chemistry when they were on the court at the same time.

If it is chemistry you're looking for, a Gasol/Mirotic or Noah/Gibson combination appear to be the best bet, but there are issues with both. While Gasol and Mirotic will spread the floor and put up a lot of points, they are both defensive liabilities. And while Noah and Gibson will protect the hoop, neither has the ability to create their own shot. It will be something to monitor all season long as Hoiberg gets to know his team better.

And with only 96 total front court minutes to go around, where does Portis fit in? While it is easy to put him behind all four experienced players, Portis made a strong case for himself in the pre-season, averaging 12 points and over 10 rebounds per game. He is not only Hoiberg's first draft choice as head coach, he is another player who has size and can spread the floor. Don't be surprised if you see a mid-season trade involving one of these players, most likely Gibson or Noah, especially if Portis plays well.

In case of injury …

And as is the case every year, the Bulls will be defined by how healthy they are. The end of the Thibodeau era likely means an end to guys playing hurt or too many minutes, but as long as Rose and Noah are on the team, injuries will be a hot topic in Chicago.

If they can stay healthy, this team has a lot of depth. If Hoiberg can find the right combinations and still enforce enough defense to supplement their offensive fire power, the Bulls will be right there in the East come playoff time. This may be the last opportunity to win a title for this group as it is currently composed, but we are beginning to see the core emerge of the next Bulls era, and there is a lot to be excited about.


I Survived Teaching 7th Grade Hebrew School

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Hebrew School Horror Stories photo2

At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. I could easily give up Sunday morning and Thursday evenings. I would be with an experienced co-teacher who could help me with the lesson plans. I had a curriculum and some general support from the administration. Best of all, I got paid. Teaching Hebrew school seemed like a great way to make some easy money.

As we prepared for the year, I was informed that I would be filling an opening in the seventh grade room. These kids had a lot of energy, I was told, but were basically good. Energy is good, I thought. I was excited for how my experience as a speaker, trainer and entertainer was going to be great for these kids. They were going to love me.

Andy Kirschner 3

What I didn't account for was how much they would love to test me. They were bright and involved in sports, drama and other extra-curricular activities, but for some reason, when they walked into our classroom, all of that seemed to go away.

Hebrew school for them was a game of how much they could get away with. How many buttons could they push before I cracked under pressure?

The curriculum contained what I thought were rich discussion questions and interesting pieces to read, but something was lost in the delivery. Large group discussions resulted in contests to see which kid could grab the most attention by saying the most inappropriate things. The kids that actually did want to have meaningful discussion eventually gave up. Those that wouldn't stop talking eventually got sent to the office. 

You can only send so many kids to the office and have so many authority figures (the education director, the Rabbi and so on) intervene before you wonder, who is really at fault? Is it the kids? Is it me?

As teachers, we made our share of mistakes that probably didn't help. One time we started to show them a Holocaust documentary without adequately warning their parents, which was probably not the best idea. The kids turned away at certain scenes and covered their eyes at others, and when we had them reflect in writing, it didn't go over so well. One of the kids wrote about how he was probably going to have nightmares now. Needless to say, we never finished watching the video.

We needed to try something different. Then it occurred to me -- a field trip. I had attended a fundraiser once at an equestrian center that specialized in helping children with disabilities. I found out they took volunteer groups to help clean the stables and help lead the horses around the ring. One of the volunteer coordinators had a connection to our synagogue, so we set up a special outing for our class.

For one thing, it was a relief to start our day without having to be "on" as teachers. We were able to just all relax up front, while the kids socialized.

After a tour of the facility during which the kids actually asked thoughtful questions, it was time to help out, and that's when you could really see the difference outside of the classroom.

One child was asked to lead a horse around the barn while a younger child who was maybe 6 or 7 years old rode the horse. My seventh grader smiled, the child on the horse smiled, and I think even the horse smiled. That much joy never happened back in the classroom.

More noticeably was how the experience impacted the kids who caused us the most grief back in the classroom. One of the volunteer tasks was shoveling the old hay out of the stalls so it could be replaced with fresh hay for the horses. Most of the kids recognized this was not the most glamorous of jobs and found ways to get picked for other assignments. The unlucky four were given shovels and a set of instructions. It wasn't more than a few scoops into their task that three of them stopped shoveling and started chatting. The fourth kid, however, who had behavioral challenges in the classroom all year long, was furiously shoveling hay. He was doubling his efforts to pick up the slack from his peers.

Getting the children to participate in the classroom was beyond pulling teeth, yet the kids who resisted formal learning the most were the most eager to jump in and participate at this barn. It was amazing to see how much had changed after a 45-minute bus ride. The change of scenery, or the fact that there was a clear connection between the work and helping others, made the difference.

The learning opportunities that worked best, it seemed, were the ones when I stopped trying so hard to get them to learn something and just let them discover and experience it for themselves.

Looking back, I learned a lot that year. The obvious lesson was that maybe I wasn't so cut out to teach seventh grade, but more importantly, I learned that training (my expertise) and teaching are different. Teaching involves transferring knowledge and a deeper understanding of what motivates learners to learn and requires more than energy and a sense of humor.

Would I teach Hebrew School again? I think I'll keep focusing on other pursuits that better reflect my talents. And when the time comes to think about my own children's Jewish education, however, I hope that their teachers will have already learned what I did that year.    


This Year

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This Year photo 1

"This supposed to be ya'll year/we ain't get the memo."

This Nicki/Drake collaboration couldn't be more applicable to how and what I feel when I reflect on the happenings of any past year. As I try to avoid sounding like the world's biggest pessimist, I am certain that no one in this world feels like his or her expectations are always met. Things that are meant to happen, that almost feel like they should happen serendipitously, often don't come through. Things fall through the cracks, people (myself included) fail, and events often don't occur in the fashion that any of us hoped for with the outcome that was originally anticipated. The grass is always greener on the other side and "next year" always carries promise to (hopefully) leave behind the trials, tribulations, and shortcomings of the past year, in an attempt to move forward.

Since it's nowhere close to the New Year, you're probably wondering why this rant now. Well, I'm a die-hard sports fan, and it goes beyond the sport itself.

I was crowned -- or cursed, depending how you look at it -- as a Cubs fan before I left the womb. I can't remember my first game or experience at Wrigley Field, but there is plenty that I can recall.

This Year photo 2

Baseball was always on in my house growing up. Some of the first memories I can recall are watching baseball with my dad in our den on our 1980s-style L-couch. As the firstborn of a dedicated sports fan, I think it was also decided that I had to like sports, and luckily for him, it was love at first pitch.

As a Cubs fan, it is clear that I understand disappointment. I understand the feeling of year after year expecting for it to be our year and suddenly it's halfway through the summer (if we're lucky) once we are mathematically out of it and we're already on to thinking about how the next year will be ours.

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I think my life mirrors the Cubs. I joke far too often about being cursed, about setbacks and frustrations, but trek on to the next step and opportunity. As far as people with bad luck go, I hope I fall into the category of being a lovable loser like my all-time favorite team.

With that being said, year after year as baseball season -- the best time of the year, by the way -- rolls around, I hope for the best and expect the worst. Year after year, we experience the high highs and the low lows. From watching the Bartman game in that same den where I watched my first baseball game and feeling the pain in my chest as we realized everything was unraveling, to the time I cried at a fraternity house when the Cubs lost their last postseason game in 2008 (mind you, I think this may have been one of maybe three times I have cried in public about anything besides death).

I've gone through the rocky emotional roller coaster that is being a Cubs fan alongside the best of them. I remember sitting in my apartment senior year watching the MLB '12 commercial, one that fantasized a Cubs World Series win, with tears streaming down my face thinking that it was too good to ever be true. (Disclaimer: I just teared up watching it again, which is mildly embarrassing, but I'm going with it).

Fast forward to now. This year has been different for the Chicago Cubs. For a year that has personally been filled with more downs than ups, it's been a relief that baseball has been a source of positive energy and hope, more so than I can ever remember. This season has been incredible. There has rarely, in my lifetime, been this many plays I have re-watched for positive reasons. I can't remember the last time the team as whole had this much energy, spirit, connection, and drive; I can't remember the last time Wrigley wasn't overflowing with anxiety. Although losing these first two games to New York has my nerves speaking a bit of a different language, it still holds true how special this team is.

This Year photo 3

Coming off of flying to Pittsburgh for the Wild Card game and attending Game 3 and 4 of the NLDS (side note: witnessing the Cubs clinch at Wrigley was one of the top five things I think I have ever experienced), I am hopeful. Although it's been a hard series thus far, I am confident that the next few games will be different at home. I'm not saying this is the year or that this isn't the year (mostly because I am superstitious and also, not a psychic), but what I am saying is that the Cubs are on their way.

Being a Cubs fan is about hope. It's about tradition. It's about loyalty. It's about dedication. It's about trust. It's about family. It's about a connection to a team that goes far beyond what happens on the field.


Terror in Tel Aviv

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Terror in Tel Aviv photo

Magen David Adom paramedics arriving at the scene of an attempted stabbing in the Afula bus station, October 9, 2015. (Magen David Adom)

The first thing they tell you after a terror attack is not to give in to fear. You must continue to live your life as you have always lived it. Keep taking buses, keep going to class, grab that drink after work; don't let anyone know that you are afraid. Don't even admit to yourself that you are afraid. Acknowledge fear and the terrorists win.

Well, sorry to Israel and sorry to the Jewish People at large, but I am a little bit afraid.

There has been a lot of tension in Tel Aviv over the last week as random acts of terror have gotten closer and closer to our doorstep. But the only concrete example I could ever find of this increased wariness was the behavior of individuals riding the public buses. It was the slightest change -- just a few extra pairs of eyes raised from smartphones and newspapers to examine fellow passengers. To an outsider, people-watching on the bus wouldn't raise any alarms, but, to me, those glances said it all: When ordinarily bus-goers are glued to their phones, this tiny change meant that people were taking inventory, that they saw cause to be aware.

On Oct. 8, the city's unspoken concerns were realized. I was grabbing a coffee with some friends during our break from Hebrew class when I saw four or five police vehicles whizz by towards the center of the city. As the sound of the sirens faded, I and everyone around me knew exactly what had happened. There was another attack, but this time it was in Tel Aviv. Playing it cool, my friends and I laughed and made our way back to the yeshiva, walking just a little bit faster than we would usually walk. By the time we made it back to class, our phones were already buzzing with safety alerts.

Now things are quiet, but the widespread sense of concern/frustration is unmistakable. (The latter sentiment not aided by Bibi Netanyahu's increased media presence.) There's not much to do but go about life as usual, and so we will.

But I will not do so pretending that everything is okay. I will be vigilant. I will avoid protests and crowds because I want to be around to experience this great county and to bring my experiences home. I truly believe this is a country worth knowing and fighting for, so I will be careful, in order to be its advocate for years to come.


Moment of Zen

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Moment of Zen photo

The author captured a moment of Zen on Lake Michigan on a recent morning at daybreak.

Over the summer and now into the fall -- and a brand new Jewish year -- I've been waking up early in the morning a few times a week to make it to the lake to watch the sunrise. Blame insomnia for getting me out of bed, but there's a bright side to rising early.

It's a quiet, still, and present moment, in contrast to the rest of the kinetic, noisy day. I call it my "Moment of Zen," coined by Jon Stewart.

Zen, defined in Urban Dictionary as "a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind," is exactly what I feel as I sit on the dock looking out at the horizon.

I'll watch the sun dawn over the shimmering water. Each time, I'm struck by the light and beauty of the sky, a palette of oranges, yellows, and reds dancing together, each sunrise breathtaking and different than the one that came before it. It never gets old, something we all can depend on -- literally like clockwork. The chores and work for the upcoming day seem far off as I'm enveloped by the peaceful majesty of the scene. 

It's something we often taken for granted, but it's comforting to know, that in a world with so much uncertainty, we can depend on the sun rising every day. Can you imagine how relieved early cavemen, who were still learning how the world operated, must have felt every time the sun rose for another day?

For me, watching the sunrise is a spiritual experience. On that dock, my belief in God is reaffirmed. There's a prayer we say thanking God for creating the sun, called the Birkat Hachama, the "Blessing of the Sun," and I think about that blessing in that quiet moment at dawn.

All the bad things happening to good people around the world, and the personal stresses of life -- the deadlines, the bad dates, the flood of demands, worries, disappointments, and all the other tsuris -- seem to melt away in that moment. What remain are serenity, light, hope, and peace. It's oddly reassuring to feel so tiny next to the big sky over that huge body of water. Our perspective shifts.

At a recent Shabbat service, the rabbi asked the crowd to search for the things that bring purpose to our lives. That dock feels like an extension of the synagogue's sanctuary. Out there, I'm inspired to think about what will bring meaning to the day ahead, and maybe even longer term. Our faith may be shaken and tested the day before, but every day is a new day with a clean slate, where our faith can renew itself.

Jews subscribe to the concept of free will; in fact, I believe each of us plays a role in shaping our own destiny. At the same time, at certain powerful moments in our lives, I find comfort in knowing, hoping, and keeping faith that some of the choices we make and that which is b'shert (destined), work in harmony. Perhaps some steps along our life's journey--what we're meant to do, who we're meant to meet, and who we're meant to become-are out of our hands, shaped by a force bigger than all of us.

When I watch a sunrise, I think about the things I can create and shape in life but, just as much, I think about the things I can't control. And that's kind of liberating.

So maybe you're not an insomnia-prone early riser. Maybe you relish as many minutes of zzz's as you can get before the alarm clock sounds. No problem. For one thing, there will be another spectacle in the sky later in the day -- called the sunset. Really, we're each in search for our own moments of Zen-and your moments may not include a sunrise or sunset. No two moments of Zen look exactly alike.

So many of our moments -- in contrast to watching a sunrise in solitude -- are less about the time or place, and more about the good people we surround ourselves with, the people we love most. Think back to a Moment of Zen you had recently with people you love. If you're lucky, you can count a lot of those moments in your memory.  

And you know what? They rarely cost a penny.


Contain Yourself

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The inner meaning of Jewish things


Contain Yourself photo

Yad (Torah pointer)

While they may look very different at first, most Jewish sacred or ritual items have something in common: They are containers. 

Many are receptacles for food or drink: a seder plate, a Kiddush cup, a challah board, a Rosh Hashanah honey pot. A tzedakah box is a receptacle for, well, tzedakah. And a hand-washing cup, naturally, holds water.

Some are containers for light, like candlesticks or a menorah or a Havdalah-candle holder. Some are containers for words, like a mezuzah or tefillin. Some are even containers for sounds, like a hollow shofar… or for scents, like a spice box.

Some objects are receptacles for our bodies, such as a kipah or tallit. And then we just "put our whole selves in" a sukkah. That's what's it's all about, after all.

A few Jewish accessories, granted, do not fit this paradigm. A dreidel doesn't hold anything, nor does a yad (Torah pointer) -- you hold them. And while you may have a woven holder for the lulav, a palm frond itself is not a container. But even in these cases, Jewish ritual objects are not just for looking at. They are for interacting with.

Still, most Jewish objects are containers. The need for physical interaction with these objects is a metaphor for the emotional investment required for a spiritual experience to occur.

In other words: In order for this Jewish thing to work, you're going to have to put something into it.


Fall Nosh with a Jewish Twist

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Fall Nosh with a Jewish Twist photo

Sandwiched between a shvitz and a shiver, fall is the perfect season. Not only do I love fall weather, which is often breezy and cool, I cannot get enough of the beautiful fall leaves and tasty treats that arrive with the season.

As fall blows through Chicago and knocks all of the leaves off of the trees, I can't help but to crave cinnamon, pumpkin, apple and pecan.

I have a few recipes from family and friends to help ring in the season. These warm, spiced treats are sure to be crowd-pleasers at any fall gathering or occasion:


Kathleen's Hot Mulled Apple Cider
Courtesy of Kathleen Royston


2 quarts apple cider (very good quality cider makes a huge difference!)
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 sweet orange, thinly sliced and peeled
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice


1. Combine ingredients in a large boiler or slow cooker and heat at low temperature for about 3 hours.

2. Serve hot.


Momma Chavis' Cinnamon Mandel Breit
Courtesy of Harriet Chavis


4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cups vegetable oil
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cup chopped walnuts (more can be added, to taste)
1 cup raisins or coconut (optional)
1 lemon grated
At least 4 teaspoons cinnamon (lots)
1 teaspoon nutmeg


1. Beat eggs vigorously.

2. Add sugar and vanilla and continue mixing. Then, add oil and lemon.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to flour mixture.

4. Add flour mixture to egg mixture. Add nuts (raisins, coconut).

5. Let it all rest for some time.

6. Grease an 11x16x1-inch pan with oil. Spoon out mixture and spread out with fingers.  Make flat.

7. Bake 30-45 minutes at 375 degrees F.

8. When baked batter turns lightly brown, slice down and across the pan into long cookies.

9. Turn each cookie on its side, sprinkle with lots more cinnamon and sugar, and bake until medium brown and crunchy-hard. 

10. Cool on rack.


Perfect Pumpkin Bread
Courtesy of Kathleen Royston


3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Butter and flour two 9x93-inch loaf pans.

3. Beat sugar and oil in a large bowl to blend.

4. Mix in eggs and pumpkin.

5. Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl.

6. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions.

7. Mix in pecans, if desired.

8. Divide batter equally between prepared pans.

9. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes.

10. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes.

11. Using a sharp knife, cut around edge of loaves.

12. Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

Note: This is wonderful spread with cream cheese. Also freezes well.


Extra noshing inspiration:

Back in January, I offered Oy! readers some awesome Jewish food bloggers to follow in the new year. With help from those talented, Jewish bloggers, here are some additional tasty, fall selections:

Carrot Sweet Potato Cake from WhatJewWannaEat.com

Pumpkin Butter and Caramelized Fig Rugelach from WhatJewWannaEat.com

Cranberry Pie with Thick Pecan Crumble from SmittenKitchen.com

Apple and Honey Challah from SmittenKitchen.com

Balsamic Apple Cheddar Scones from JewHungry

Life Changing Pumpkin Cheesecake from JewHungry


Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew

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Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 1

I grew up in Russia (technically Moldova, but we will leave the technicalities be for now). The winters were frigid -- and sometimes a bit depressing, as winters tend to be. Food was used to comfort the grumbling bellies and laughter was used to warm up from the inside out.

In Chi-Town our winters have always reminded me of Russia. Lots of snowy days with frosted windows and red noses. One day last year as I walked down my driveway and the snow crunched under my feet, I was reminded of cold winters as a little girl. I was always comforted by the savory scents of a stew slowly cooking away on the stove top as I ran into the house after playing all day in the snow. My mom, made the best stews and pot roasts. She used fresh ingredients and simple flavors. And was always, she was able to make an amazing dish out of practically nothing.

On one of these very snowy days last year during a very long and dreary winter, hubs decided to give me the task of a mushroom stew. I just so happened to have bought some really nice mushrooms that I had no plans for. I went out and bought my favorite piece of beef cut -- a nice cut of chuck that has lots of marbling -- and went to work.

The result was an incredibly comforting stew with layers of simple flavors. I served it over my skinny smashers and felt a little better about my indulgence. At the end of a few days, when I still had some of the stew left, I placed it in a ziplock bag and froze it for another day.

This stew recipe is not really a recipe but more of a technique. Once mastered, this typical braising technique can be used in hundreds of different recipes.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 2

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew
(from girlandthekitchen.com)


2 pounds of chuck, cut up into bite size cubes
1 large onion
1 pound of a variety of mushrooms
1 bay leaf
5 cloves of garlic
6 sprigs of thyme
1 cup Cognac
vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
about 2 quarts beef stock


1. We begin by cutting up our meat into medium bite-sized cubes and seasoning well with salt and pepper on both sides. Preheat a Dutch oven or a thick-bottomed pot with vegetable oil until it starts to smoke.

2. While you are at it, preheat the oven to 325-degrees.

3. Place the beef into the pot, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Allow to brown on all sides.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 3

4. In the meantime, wash and roughly chop your mushrooms. I used button, cremini, shitake and oyster mushrooms in this dish. If you use shitake mushrooms, make sure you remove and discard the stems as they are very woodsy and tough.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 4

5. Dice up an onion while you are at it as well.

6. Check on the meat and remove once nice and brown. Set aside. You will have some fat and yummy bits on the bottom of the pot. Let it be. This is your flavor.

7. Add in the onions, a few cloves of garlic, a few stems of thyme, a bay leaf and mushrooms and toss to cover with the fat in the pot. Sautee for about 10 minutes.

8. Add the meat back into the pot and sprinkle evenly with one tablespoon of flour. Mix to combine until none of the flour remains.

9. Take about 1 cup of cognac and pour into a cup and then into the pot. NEVER POUR OUT OF THE BOTTLE! A flame can catch onto the bottle while pouring and the bottle will explode. (I have seen this happen, it's not a pretty sight.) Pour into a cup first then pour into the pot. You can either let it cook out or light the cognac on fire with a long match, or if the pot is shallow enough, tilt it toward the flame so it will catch on fire. Flaming it is a neat party trick :) This is also called deglazing.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 5

10. Once all the alcohol has cooked out, about 3 minutes, you will be left with a beautiful glazed meat.

11. After 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 275-degrees and allow to cook for another 90 minutes or until meat is nice and tender.

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