OyChicago blog

The Current State of Jewish Music (abridged)

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11/30/2009

The Current State of Jewish Music photo

Debbie FriedmanSalamone RossiMax JanowskiBen SteinbergShevaLouis Lewandowski … What do all these names have in common? They all have made a remarkable impact on the music of the synagogue. As a Reform cantor, I have always been most drawn to Judaism by its rich heritage of music, and find that many of my congregants share the same strong connection. Musical tastes may vary all across the board, but it is undeniable that it is often music connecting people to moments of prayer, meditation and majesty.

What is important about the six composers I initially named is that they are all a sign of their times. Whether a composer like Rossi of the Italian Renaissance, Chicago's own Max Janowski, or the renowned folk singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, all of these musicians were and are composing music that reflects the music heard in the secular society of their days. This fact shows that people have continually wanted to have a musical connection to Jewish tradition that is often modern and familiar, and that there is much room for musical change and growth in Judaism. Rossi's music reflected the Italian madrigal style of his day, Janowski's reflects the high art of turn of the century classical composition to the likes of Puccini, and Friedman's music mirrors the simple folk styles of the sixties and seventies. And, while many composers specifically wrote for the synagogue, other music that began for secular use has also made its way into the synagogue. Israeli Rock band Sheva's "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu" is a perfect example of a song that asks for peace between Jews and Muslims, originating on Israeli radio, and now finding a commonplace first in Jewish summer camps and then in many synagogues. It is even printed in the collection of songs in the back of the Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah.

Some music never loses its resonance. There is hardly a synagogue in Chicago which does not incorporate melodies of composer Max Janowski in its High Holy Day services and throughout the year. Janowski was a staple in the local Jewish music scene throughout the sixties and seventies, working in a handful of synagogues, and as the resident music director at KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park for over 50 years. Most would agree with me that a High Holidays without his "Avinu Malkeinu" would be greatly lacking. Although Janowski died in 1991, his spirit is still very much alive, and I often hear vivid tales of his persona from my choir members who sang under his direction.

At the same time today, we have been given a great opportunity. This is the chance to mix up the music we use, and I do this every moment I can. There is such a treasure of music to choose from, with little reason to let any of the great pieces of yesterday go to waste. This also includes not only mixing music of different eras, but also of different cultural backgrounds. How great is it that we can incorporate music in Yiddish and Ladino into our services, next to our standard Hebrew selections, and creative English interpretations?

I take great honor in being a keeper of the great and elaborate musical tradition we have as Jews and Jewish Americans (and furthermore, as Chicagoans!).

Cantor David Reinwald will be joined by Cantor David Serkin-Poole this Sunday, December 6th at 4 pm at Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields for a wonderful afternoon of cantorial and Jewish music benefiting student scholarships for camp and Israel trips. Call 708-748-6010 for more info. Tickets also available at the door.

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My great turkey dilemma

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11/24/2009

My great turkey dilemma photo

In his new book  Eating Animals , Jonathan Safran Foer gives the following advice about having a Thanksgiving holiday that is truly reflective of one’s appreciation for health, happiness and loved ones.  His advice:  DON’T SERVE TURKEY! 

But, wait! I love eating turkey!!  It is so delicious, so juicy and so succulent.  Each bite of that soft and tender turkey meat is pure heaven!  Add to it stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and some cranberry sauce, and what on God’s earth could be better?!!!

Do I feel guilty about eating turkeys?  Mostly, no.  First of all turkeys don’t really look like real birds when you buy them at the supermarket.  How many birds have you seen walking around with a big open cavity to pack with stuffing?  None, I’m sure.  So— the turkey I am about to eat, is not, nor was it ever a real bird, right? By the way, have you ever had to reach your hand into the turkey’s rear-end to clean out all the guts?  I have, and it is disgusting!!  (Where they get all those guts and stuff them to make it seem like what are you cooking was once a living creature, I don’t know.)

Real life turkeys, as opposed to store-bought ones, are cute.  They have cute little gobbles.  They make adorable gobbling noises and they have a special way of waddling around.  Not everyone, however, thinks they’re cute.  When I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, my friend Marc got stuck working the turkey farm.  Each day after work he would tell me about how, “turkeys are the stupidest creatures on the planet.”  In a short time, Marc learned to hate turkeys and to feel GREAT about eating them.  “Turkeys,” he told me are, “so dumb that if they were outdoors and it started to rain, they would all lift up their beaks to the sky to collect rain water in their mouths—causing them to drown instantly and die.”  Once he told me that he got so mad at a turkey that he “punted it like a football.”

Jonathan Safran Foer would not have appreciated my “turkey-punting” friend.  He feels bad for turkeys—especially the 45 million, “unhealthy, unhappy, unloved turkeys” that find their way to our Thanksgiving tables.  As he describes in his book:

“Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include “meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products,” and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far. Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model.  So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animal.  Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans.  In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”

Now, I ask you this—why did he have to go and say all that?  Is Jonathan Safran Foer trying to ruin our Thanksgivings?  I mean, isn’t life is so much more pleasurable when one simply didn’t think about such things?   Can’t we just enjoy our food without thinking about where it comes from?  Why should we care about factory farming which represents 99% of meat sold at supermarkets and restaurants and which carries with it the realities of unspeakable cruelties inflicted upon animals, unfair and unsafe working conditions, and terrible environmental and health problems?  Why should this be our concern?  (And why can’t we think about it AFTER Thanksgiving?)

Interestingly this discussion has already helped me to blunder into arguments with friends I care deeply about.  Apparently the food we eat and the ethics surrounding it are deeply personal and charged issues!  People don’t want to be told what to eat and what not to eat.  Many people would rather not think about it, and simply enjoy their meal.  (If that is you, please stop reading this, so you will still talk with me later.)

For me, however, as a human being who wants to do the right thing in this matter, I can no longer close my eyes to the issue.  As a Jew, this issue is especially relevant, as our tradition, and more specifically God, has always had something to say about the importance of our food choices.  What we eat matters.  So, while I love animals AND I love eating meat, I need to keep thinking about this.  I am not sure what will ultimately end up on my table this Thanksgiving, whether it will be juicy, succulent turkey or not quite as good, ToFurky, but from this point forward, thanks in part to Jonathan Safran Foer, I will consider the food I eat with a new level of mindfulness and a special consideration for the suffering of other creatures.

In the meantime, here are 10 questions for which I am still struggling. I wonder what you think about each.

1. With all of the terrible things happening to humans in the world is this a worthy cause to devote our energy and concern?

2. With so many food options at the supermarket and with each based on different priorities such as organic, hormone-free, free range, cage-free-grass-fed; cholesterol free, local or imported, and fair-trade food, how does one make the best choices about what is the best food that is ethically, spiritually sound and healthy?

3. Since factory farming represents 99% of the meat produced in the country and since it enables many low-income people to eat and not starve, is it reasonable to hope for the end of such practices?  Is it possible for the farm factory to improve?

4. What about all the cheap but unhealthy and fattening processed foods that are contributing to epidemic health problems?

5. Though I personally only eat kosher meat, does having a kosher stamp mean that the food I eat has meet high ethical standards?  (Apparently—not)

6. If I were to only shop at Whole Foods, could I wipe my conscience clean of the issue?  Does this solve the problems?

7. While I applaud the efforts of Rabbi Eric Yoffie  President of the Union for Reform Judaism who chose as his annual Shabbat Sermon to talk about the ethics of eating, as well as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs who protested the conditions at Agriprocessors.  And while I am especially impressed by the Conservative Movement’s  Hechsher Tzedek program, I wonder if these directions go FAR ENOUGH to really challenge the system of factory farmed animals.

8. As a compassionate Jew who loves animals and also loves to eat them, sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense for me to change my eating habits to support the larger organic, ethical meat companies which have a chance to make more of a national and global impact on the meat industry.  (Though I recognize that these products are very limited and expensive.)

9. Apparently being a vegetarian who eats eggs and milk does not mean one’s hands are clean.  There is also extreme cruelty to animals associated with the production of these products.  But being a vegan seems so far out.  The only reason I can imagine becoming a vegan is to score a date with Natalie Portman.

10. Lastly, doesn’t it seem that almost EVERYTHING we do in our modern world, even writing or reading this blog (which consumes energy and puts more carbon in the air) is destructive?  Being a living being on the planet means consumption and waste, death and destruction.  At what point does one say, this is way too much and just do the best you can?

Well, however you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, and whatever you choose to eat… May this holiday be for you one filled with joy, gratitude and the love of family and friends.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

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Monster-in-Law

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11/23/2009

Monster-in-Law photo

On Thanksgiving Day, before the turkey has even hit the table, I will probably have consumed six glasses of wine, wondering how the hell I will not only make it through the day, but an entire weekend with the in-laws without any mother-in-law (MIL) drama.

Sound familiar?

I know that I’m just one of the 99.8% of women that have MIL drama.  Remember Monster-in-law where Jane Fonda’s character, Viola, manipulates and terrorizes her soon-to-be daughter -in-law?  I WISH my MIL was that easy!

Ok, ok, I’m exaggerating.  In all fairness, my MIL is really nothing like Viola.  But she has reduced me to tears more than once.  Like when my husband and I were planning our wedding and she pushed for ours to be a backyard barbeque affair in order to make a statement about how she thinks Jewish weddings have become—and I quote—“too ostentatious”.

To clarify: this was not a cute little “outdoor wedding” idea.  This was a Frank Hill, don ‘ur BBQ apron, get out the fiddle and fire up the grill, heee haaw we gonna have us a hoo down—kind of BBQ.

The first Thanksgiving I spent with my MIL was especially dreadful–she spent the ENTIRE day giving me the silent treatment because she thought I wanted to spend all her unborn grandchildren’s inheritance on throwing an elaborate wedding.  That Thanksgiving I learned a valuable lesson:  it is far, far, far better to be judged for a perceived alcohol problem–drowning your ire in wine—than it is to tell your future mother-in-law where she can stick the BBQ fork.

But, I am happy to report that despite its rocky start, I have been able to forge a good relationship with my MIL.  (And we did wind up with a respectable wedding that was far from showy.)  It took time, tears, and many, many, many conversations to get to arrive at the place we are now: two women with different views of the world but have learned to respect each other’s boundaries and views.   And when we do conflict, we both try to understand—if not agree with—each other’s viewpoint.

It helps that we genuinely wanted to have a good relationship.  That is key– we didn’t want to become a negative stereotype of women involved in some sort of clichéd power-struggle for the son/husband’s love and attention.  And it also helps that I produced the first—and only grandchild.  But what really helped is that my husband has always had my back and has stood up to his mother when it was necessary.  I have friends whose would never dare to confront Mommy—it’s an ugly position to be in and I don’t think you can have a decent MIL relationship without it.

That’s not to say that we don’t sometimes still sulk or clash over things said or done.  It’s a relationship that needs constant tending to, and I am very careful about what I say, avoiding potential conversational landmines that could cause drama.  And, yes, sometimes I can’t help but step right on one and later regretted it.

But no matter how tense things become with my MIL at times, I take some sick and twisted comfort that my MIL stories pale in comparison to some of my friend’s stores—friends who will undoubtedly call me on Thanksgiving Day to vent their own rage at their MILs.  I’m pretty sure that I will seriously utter at least once to one of my friends: “Don’t do it—she’s not worth the jail time.”

One of my favorite MIL stories belongs to my friend Stephanie.  My stories pale in comparison to hers which include tales of her in-laws staying for weeks on end (yes, in her house) with no known departure date, and her MIL screaming the night before her wedding “I loved him first!”

But spending time with the family is one of the joys of the holidays- right?  HA!  For me, Thanksgiving is only the start of the season of family drama—next month, we head to my side of the family—a family so rife with dysfunction that it makes the Jackson family look like the happiest family on earth.

Oy. I’m going to need a lot of wine.

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THE COSTCO SYNDROME

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11/19/2009

THE COSTCO SYNDROME photo

What is it with Jews and Costco?

Apparently there is a tenet of Jewish law, well-known to everyone but me, declaring that thou shalt love Costco and spend thy Sundays patrolling its aisles. Most Jews I know speak of visiting this shoppers’ paradise as if it were a pilgrimage to our ancient homeland. Now comes news that the mega-discount store will sell an illustrated edition of the Torah, specially published for Costco customers.

I know I shouldn’t be, but I am mortified by this evidence that Costco and the Jewish community have a mutual admiration society. If the retailer were not a discount store—or were, better yet, a bookseller—this relationship wouldn’t bother me in the least. However, ever-sensitive to the stereotype of Jews as acquisitive bargain-hunters, I am embarrassed by Jewish America’s love affair with Costco.

Full disclosure: I have shopped at Costco twice. Each time, I bounced like a pinball between boxes of junk food bigger than my head, became mesmerized by row after row of shiny electronics, and got lost in aisles stacked with cases of paper products more spacious than my first apartment. On this last trip, I went in with the intent of buying cases of chicken broth, Diet Coke and tomato paste, but found myself thinking that I really needed new throw pillows, could definitely use a set of perfectly-matching cookware, and that now was as good a time as any to buy Jenna a small refrigerator for college. While I was at it, why not buy one for the upstairs or the basement, or maybe both? And at these prices, how could I not afford to buy my husband a beautiful Movado watch?

Problem was, that watch still cost as much as my monthly mortgage. What’s more, I didn’t actually need new throw pillows or cookware. And there is no earthly reason why I should have a ‘fridge on every floor.

I have read accounts of new immigrants who were utterly overwhelmed by their first trip to a U.S. grocery store.  The sheer bounty proved too much for them to absorb. It was painful for them to see row after row of shelves bursting with food, when not so long ago they had battled starvation. One would think our collective memory of experiencing such profound want would instill respectful restraint rather than gleeful gluttony in our community at large.

Jewish values teach us to be content with what we have. We are encouraged to use our good fortune to give tzedekah rather than to amass more and more worldly goods. But after 30 minutes in Costco, I felt greedy. Which usually isn’t like me. I try to avoid people and places that bring out the worst in me, so I knew I needed to leave. As I weaved my way to the exit, I was nearly trampled by a stampede of patrons racing for free pizza samples. Which probably isn’t what they’re usually like, either. I call it the Costco syndrome.

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Abby’s Holiday Gift Guide

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11/18/2009

It’s that time of the year again! It’s time for the malls to roll out the red carpets and cinnamon spice air fragrances, it’s time for the trees to be covered in pretty lights, it’s time to enjoy your favorite limited edition holiday beverages at Starbucks, and it’s time for us Jews to bitch about the miniscule amount of recognition paid to Hanukkah (while secretly enjoying the Christmas lights and music). It’s also that time of the year where people begin to stress about all of the gifts that must be purchased… Well, spin the dreidel and call me Hanukkah Harry because as a present to you, I plan on eliminating some of your holiday stress by providing you with eight unique and recession-friendly Hanukkah gift ideas!

For the health nut: This year, buy a bag of personalized granola for the health nut on your shopping list! At Mixmygranola.com, you can create the perfect mix for any “granola breath”. MixMyGranola lets you choose from five different flavors of granola, twenty different kinds of dried or dehydrated fruits, seventeen different kinds of nuts and seeds, twenty-four “extras” (such as chocolates and candy), and seventeen enhancers (such as flavors, protein powder, antioxidant powder, and even caffeine). You can add as many ingredient as you’d like to your granola, and MixMyGranola will create your perfect blend. You can name and personalize your granola, making it perfect for gift-giving, and MixMyGranola will ship your granola to the recipient in a personalized tube, complete with nutritional information for your specific blend. The granola starts at $4.99, and the cost goes up for each ingredient that you add. I made my own tube of granola containing 100% organic muesli, banana slices, organic dates, dried blueberries, roasted almonds, and organic acai powder, for $11.44. And it was delicious! Sign up for their email list and receive 10% off your order!

Abby’s Holiday Gift Guide photo 1

For the person who has everything/kid at heart/ME: Coolest. Gift. Ever. It’s the Executive Elite Marshmallow Blaster! Exclusive to Neiman Marcus, the Executive Elite Marshmallow Blaster “delivers a soft blow and tons of fun. This clever pump-action single shot device fires standard marshmallows up to 40 feet.” Sounds deliciously dangerous, if you ask me! But then again, who doesn’t like to dabble with danger? The Executive Elite Marshmallow Blaster sells for $55.00 at Neiman Marcus. Enter code 90WRAP for free gift wrap, and NMSHIP for free shipping.

Abby’s Holiday Gift Guide photo 2

For the velour sweat suit inclined friend: Juicy Couture brings something new to the table this holiday season! Treat your Juicy loving friend to something super practical, such as pink furry dog speakers that hook up to her iPod! The Scottie Plush iPod Speakers, made by Juicy Couture, play any princess’ favorite music through frighteningly fuzzy Scottie dog speakers. At just $68 for the set of speakers, you’ll have your favorite Juicy fanatic jumping for joy! Also at Neiman Marcus, this gift qualifies for free shipping and free wrapping (use same codes as above).

Abby’s Holiday Gift Guide photo 3

For the friend who’s always cold: Everyone knows someone like this! He’s the guy with his own heater at his desk, or the girl who wear Uggs in summer (don’t even get me started on that one…) Just think of how thoughtful your cold friend will think you are when you buy him/her the LAP MUG! This cleverly designed mug is slanted on both sides to fit perfectly in one’s lap on a cold winter day. Costing a mere $16.00, you could even throw in a packet of instant hot chocolate for an added surprise!

For the friend who does not keep kosher: Gratefulpalate has many wonderful offerings for your pork loving pals! Some of my favorites were the Bacon Toilet Paper ($9.95), the BLT Candle Set ($33.95), and the Bacon Air Freshener ($4.95). Your piggy pal with squeal with joy now that he or she can carry the smell of bacon wherever they go!

For the pet lover: We all know how difficult it can be to manage our schedules, especially at this time of the year… throw someone else (or an animal) into the mix and it’s easy to imagine how hectic life becomes! Problem solved: Fido’s Files Pet Organizer! Now your pet loving friend can keep track of his or her pet’s very important schedule, doctor’s appointments, shots, and play dates! Fido’s Files Pet Organizer sells for $20.00.

Abby’s Holiday Gift Guide photo 4

For the multi-tasker: Finally, the perfect gift for the friend who needs to be doing two things at once: The Potty Putter! “The Potty Putter golf game allows the avid golfer to practice his putting while in the restroom. The Potty Putter includes a 36"x 30" putting green made from mini-golf course carpeting, a plastic cup and a flag, a special mini-putter and two practice golf balls.” This clever gift also includes a “Do Not Disturb sign for uninterrupted practice”. The Potty Putter sells for just $22.95.

Gift for a “White Elephant”/Secret Santa: One word. SMENCILS! These ridiculously fun pencils come in flavors such as watermelon, cherry, grape, chocolate, and many other delicious flavors! Each Smencil comes in its own tube, and is made of recycled newspaper. Buy a 10 pack of Smencils at Target for one very lucky Secret Santa, or split the pack between several friends so you can share the joy of Smencils with everyone! A 10 pack of Smencils sells for $11.99.

I HO-HO-Hope this gift guide comes in handy as you search for gifts for your loved ones this holiday season!

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Israeli (Jewish) basketball on the rebound

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11/17/2009

In 2005 when Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the Toronto Raptors the world took notice of Israeli basketball. While it might have only been an exhibition game and meaningless to the Raptors, it was enormous for Maccabi Tel Aviv and Israel. At the time Maccabi Tel Aviv was led by Anthony Parker, who got noticed during that game and eventually signed with the Raptors. Although Parker was not Israeli, or even Jewish, his ability to take an Israeli team to the next level has changed the game in our homeland forever.

Parker and Maccabi Tel Aviv won back-to-back Euro-league titles in 2004 and 2005. And since then several well known professional and college players have been migrating to Israel to play ball and get exposure while playing at a high level for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The list includes NBA player Carlos Arroyo, Dee Brown (Illini), Marcus Fizer (Bulls). Other Israeli teams have benefited from this as well landing players such as Roger Mason Jr., Ira Newble, Mississippi State PF Mario Austin, Illini forward Brian Randle, and Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo.

The success of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the influx of former and future NBA players has made basketball a huge success in Israel. Young Israeli children are growing up watching these great athletes and wanting to play the game.

In the past, we have seen great Israeli basketball players like Tal Brody who played for Illinois and was drafted 13th by the Baltimore Bullets in 1965. But Brody decided to move to Israel and play for Maccabi Tel Aviv. In 1984 the Seattle Supersonics in the second round drafted Yotam Halperin. He also opted to play in Israel. Then in 1996 Connecticut great, Doron Sheffer, was drafted 36th by the Los Angeles Clippers, but he went back to Israel and retired suddenly when doctors found a cancerous tumor, ending his NBA career before it started. There have been other attempts to make the NBA by Israeli players, including USC’s David Bluthenthal, but he was unsuccessful in getting a contract.

This year, finally, Omri Casspi was drafted into the NBA and has begun playing for the Sacramento Kings. Casspi is truly an amazing story and provides the Kings with a fast pace enthusiastic style of basketball.

Casspi is not the only Jewish basketball player in the NBA. Jordan Farmar of Los Angeles Lakers joins him, along with coaches Larry Brown (Charlotte Bobcats) and Lawrence Frank (New Jersey Nets).

There are role models in the girl’s game as well. Israeli and former Maryland great Shay Doron was drafted into the WNBA, but left to go back to Israel. Two-time Olympian, NBA Hall of Famer, and former WBNA player and coach Nancy Lieberman might not be Israeli but she was born Jewish. Also, current WNBA All Star Sue Bird is half Jewish (on her father’s side).

The future looks bright for the Jewish game of basketball. There are several college players that are currently playing at major D1 Universities. Yaniv Simpson (Monmouth) and Nimord Tishman (Florida) are both Israelis who are making an impact on the collegiate level. Today the game is also influenced by Jewish college coaches Bruce Pearl (Tennessee), Josh Pastner (Memphis), and Seth Greenberg (Virginia Tech).

I expect the game of basketball to grow in Israel and the Jewish world. In the US, new resources and outlets are being provided for young Jewish basketball players. There is a new Jewish sports overnight camp opening up called 6 Points Sports Academy in North Carolina. There are new high school basketball tournaments for Jewish high schools sprouting up every year, most notably the Red Sarachek tournament at Yeshiva University which features 20 schools throughout the country. And the Maccabi games, both for young athletes and adults, continues to grow and make an impact.

Although Maccabi Tel Aviv has not beaten an NBA team since 2005 (they lost to both the Knicks and Clippers this year) I still believe the future looks bright for Jews and Israelis in the NBA. While baseball might be the traditional Jewish sport it looks like basketball will soon give it a run for its money. Maybe we will even get our Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg of the hardwood.

And Let Us Say…Amen.

For more information about Jewish basketball (college and pro) check out www.thegreatrabbino.com.

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WHY SCI-FI?

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11/16/2009

WHY SCI-FI? photo

This is not an article listing all of the Jews involved with writing and acting in Star Wars, Star Trek, or any of the myriad science-fiction “worlds.” It is not an exhaustive history of Jewish science-fiction authors, from Hugo Gernsback through Isaac Asimov up to Neil Gaiman. And it is not about Jewish sci-fi superfans… people like, well, this.

It is about why such articles are so possible, even common. What is it about science fiction, as a genre, that draws so many Jewish acolytes? Why not Victorian fiction, or Cold-War spy novels, or Greek mythology?

In the spirit of science, I hereby put forth several theories. Remember, these are just theories, not facts, (you know, like the ones in display here), about why Jews are drawn to science fiction:

1. Sci-fi is new.
American Jews were shut out of many professions  when we first came to this country. So we excelled in other fields: the movies, stand-up comedy, comic books, and others. One of these was science fiction, which was not just a new genre… but about creating new worlds.

We were promised a new world when we came to the New World. Instead, we got more doors slammed in our faces. But we are writers by tradition, so it is no wonder we turned to imagining other “strange, new worlds,” to create “new life” that doesn’t know anything about us, and so cannot prejudge us. It’s a wide-open genre, with few claims staked by those evil alien interlopers, the DWEMs.

If you really want to see a strange world filled with strange creatures, just pop into a sci-fi convention. It’s come-as-you-wish-you-were.

2. Sci-fi is fantastical.
Planets and stars formed by a super-powerful being. A talking snake-creature. A boat that holds all of life. The destruction of a world by globe-encompassing floods. A tower that reaches to the heavens. Whatever the heck “nephilim” are. The Torah, especially the part we hear as children, is full of such otherworldly imagery.

Then we grow into a world full of amazing technologies. That let us talk in New York and be heard in New Mexico, or plop remote-control robots down on Mars, or make glow-in-the-dark bunnies. We naturally conflate the two, using the imaginations that were nurtured in us by our parents and teachers to envision even newer inventions, beings, and worlds.

3. Sci-fi is complex…
A recent article on Star Wars continuity refers to the task of tracking all the plotlines put forth in franchise’s the endless stream of movies, books, animations, comics, and video games as requiring “Talmudic charts and documents.”

When searching for an adjective to describe something as complex as a sci-fi universe, the author  unsurprisingly turned to a Jewish reference. We Jews have trained our brains over millennia for the keeping of large volumes of material from many sources neatly categorized and cross-referenced. (This also likely explains why there are so many Jewish baseball fans and Deadheads.)

Jane Austen wrote just five novels. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories fit in one volume. No one plot thread winds through all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventures. It takes something the vastness of a space-time continuum to excite a brain used to dealing with the interconnectedness of the Mishna, Gemorra, and their orbiting hypertexts of commentary.

4. … and it’s debatable.
But it’s about more than the having of the information. It’s the arguing about it. The Talmud is an intellectual battlefield. Geniuses hurtle proofs and rebuttals from Babylonia to Bilbao, across centuries.

Enter any yeshiva today, and you’ll see nice, bright people yelling their heads off about how the other person can’t possibly be right, and here’s why. Just like in a sci-fi chatroom. Both are arenas where the heavyweight champ can be, in reality, a 98-pound weakling. But if your arguments are good and your proofs are provable, you can David their Goliath.

5. Sci-fi is sexy.
Unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism has never been prudish. We gave the world Dr. Sigmund, Dr. Ruth, and even Rabbi Shmuley. And while other genres are swathed in layers of Victorian modesty or girded in chainmail, sci-fi wears its spandex on its sleeve… and everywhere else.

This is a list of “The Top 50 Hottest Sci-Fi Girls.” Try to think of an equivalent— and equally long— list from another genre. Oh, and the other thing you will see if you go to a sci-fi convention is a lot of… well, just do a search for “Comic Con” in Google Images. But not at work.

6. Sci-fi is accepting.
Sci-fi imagines another Earth, a universe of other Earths.. Places where logic and reason have done away with prejudice and bigotry. It’s a place where differences are seen not as dangerous, but intriguing, even magnificent. Aliens land on Earth and are accepted. Earthlings show up on foreign worlds and are welcomed. In sci-fi’s ultimate alternate reality, the more of an outsider you are— and Jews are the ultimate outsiders— the more insider-y you become.

Science fiction is a realm where geeks are gods. Where your merit is measured in how much you know and your power in how largely you can imagine. It’s not the guilt-gluttony of Woody Allen and Philip Roth, the mothballed mythology of I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow, or the assimilation anxiety of Chaim Potok and Bernard Malamud. Sci-fi is a brave, truly new world… as infinite as, well, infinity itself.

So if you change channels by shooting your TV with your phaser remote, while having R2D2 pour you a Romulan ale, boldy go ahead. Let your geek flag fly, and your fellow Jews will likely salute you like a priest from the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Or a Vulcan… same diff.

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Cheers! Chicago: Confessions of a Bartender-Say It Ain’t So, O!

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11/13/2009

Hello, all! Rather than talk about what’s hot and fresh in the mixology and cocktail world, I decided to take a step back and delve deeper into the hospitality industry’s ongoing struggle with gratuity from the perspective of a confessing bartender.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but times are tough. The economy has suffered in more ways than many of us predicted and has affected many sectors of the business world, including the hospitality and restaurant industry. Because of the tough times, more and more people are becoming more cognizant of how they spend their hard-earned money. Everything, from gas to groceries to dining out, has been reevaluated and financially reallocated by the average American, and it shows. Believe me, I know.

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing around Facebook, seeing what my friends are reading online these days, when I noticed something unusual. A few of my bartending cohorts were joining this Facebook group I had never seen before, affectionately titled “1 million servers strong against Oprah’s comments.” At first, I thought to myself, “Can this be true? Did Oprah really say these things?” Then I thought, “Was this assumption reaction a bit premature?” Probably. So I did a bit more research to confirm or deny these allegations towards one of America’s biggest benefactors and philanthropists. It’s not that I’m immediately jumping to her defense, I just find it hard to believe that someone that has stood for so much good and change would be telling people to flat out tip no more than 10% to their servers as a way to save money. So, snopes.com did the job for me.

Turns out,  my friends and colleagues were off base. But the discussion illuminated their feelings about  how terribly tipped most of them are, particularly at a time when people are pinching their pennies.

As a bartender and restaurant worker, I experience the direct repercussions of people’s opinions on this subject. Like everyone else not on management salary, I work to make money from the tips. I go out of my way to provide a stellar experience with a smile and a cheery attitude – no matter what mood you may be in . If you feel that your service was substandard, by all means the best way to make your point is to shorten your tip. Servers learn quickly that shorter tips usually mean poor service, but after a while they may stop trying to improve  if people continue to be universally stingy. To be honest, most of us expect around 15% as a standard for tipping, while we have more modest expectations with single orders of cocktails or non-alcoholic beverages.

If you think about it, tipping well does so many things that are right and good; rather than thinking of it as a bigger financial expense, try to see it as part of a chain reaction of positive energy and emotions that directly translate to increased performance, attitude and aptitude, which in turn directly affects service and the overall experience for both parties.

So next time you’re thinking of pulling out the calculator, just do what I do when I am out and about: take your total, move the decimal over one place, double the number, and add that additional gratuity if service was above average or stellar. Trust me, it goes a long way for your conscience and for your server’s bottom line.

I hope that the next time any of you venture out and enjoy a nice time out, just remember those that work hard to make your time enjoyable. I welcome any thoughts, comments, and experiences any of you may have had, good or bad.

L’Chaim!

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Moving Pains

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11/12/2009

Moving Pains photo

This month I’m stepping outside my fitness expertise to discuss a wonderful yet painful process—buying a condo. By describing the buying and moving process I hope to entertain and offer some helpful insight.

My wife, Erika, and I purchased a wonderful place we like to call, “The Money Pit.” After a year of living in a one bedroom, six hundred square foot condo, we decided it was time to upgrade. As we searched, my criterion was: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, open kitchen, and located in a fun area of town. Erika’s wish list was a little longer than mine:

  • One flight of stairs or elevator (I’m a trainer, the more stairs the more calories burned)
  • One form of public transportation to work (I agree)
  • Three beds-two baths
  • Safe (obvious, but somehow I missed it)
  • Double vanity in master bath (this has changed our life)
  • Hardwood floors

Our real estate agent, Rusty, did a great job of carting us all around town. Despite Erika’s longer wish list, I think I was pickier. My expectations slightly exceeded my pocket book, but I saw the place for us, 1W. Rusty agreed with me, he made himself comfy on their couch and said, “This is the place I can see you guys living.” I wanted to make an offer for it right away. No other place we’d seen had spoken to me like this one, but the process was just beginning, we couldn’t have found the “one” already. A week or so later, while driving from one average condo to the next, I suggested we go back to 1W. Rusty took out his cell phone and dialed.

My dream house crush ended with one call, “So they’ve already accepted another offer? If anything changes, call me.” I felt like I had just been dumped by Heidi Klum, and we’d never even slept together.  Metaphors aside, I was pissed. I wanted to make an offer the moment we walked onto the cherry wood floors.

We soldiered on and found a new place, but not really. We negotiated for two days. I felt like I accepted a new job but we couldn’t agree on a salary. Finally we both caved and signed an agreement. Suddenly, I forgot about 1W and got excited. This place had two indoor parking spots, a large cooking area, and was in walking distance from a gym (always a trainer).

Before we hired a moving company, the deal fell through. The real estate agent said someone else had made an offer. Since the homeowners had not returned the contract, technically they could weasel out, and they did. We were back at step one!

The second round of searching turned me into a bitter mom, nothing was good enough. The commute was too far, the El was too close, one place smelled, one agent smelled and we had had enough. Then our luck turned around—1W was back on the market!

Without going back to 1W for a second look, we made an offer and agreed on a price. Things were starting to look up. Then we had the inspection and the soap opera continued. The inspector we hired had already inspected 1W a week ago. He did not want to come back, OMG! Not a good sign. To make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the inspector came back anyway. He told us, “Get this roof fixed, then move in.” And that’s exactly what we did.

Moving day actually wasn’t so bad for me. That might have had something to do with the fact that Erika did all the packing and dealing with the movers while I worked. Don’t think I’m a horrible husband. I moved our entire jam packed storage unit with the help of a friend (thanks, David).  I also would have helped packing more, but I spent one day and night at 1W, while we had some flooding issues. My dream house became a money pit, before we even moved in. Oh, the joys of adulthood.

Flooding, noise, and water damage are just some of the downsides of  of homeownership. Of course, there have been several up sides:

  • We can both use the bathroom at the same time
  • When someone snores lightly the other can go in another bedroom
  • The bus stop, across the street, takes us a block from our office
  • We actually have a kitchen big enough to start using fun wedding gifts

Also, we still have a lot of furniture to buy, so if you came here looking for fitness tips, hire me!

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100 Reasons to Live

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11/10/2009
Fat Andy Skinny Andy

Andy, then and now

Remember Super Size Me—you know, the movie about the man who ate McDonald’s every day, three meals a day, for 30 days straight?  And after you saw it, you were sure to say “I’m never going to be able to eat at a fast food restaurant again!”  When it came out on DVD, I rented it.  I saw the bits on how this man’s fat levels skyrocketed.  I witnessed the scene where he eats a double quarter pounder and vomits.  I observed all the processed craziness that was ground up to make a chicken McNugget.  I finished the movie and all I could think about was, man I could really go for a Big Mac right now.  You see back then and still to this day, I’m addicted to food.

I could spend pages writing about what drove me to food addiction.  How my parents got divorced, how I didn’t fit in at school, but that doesn’t matter.  What I have come to realize is that I grew up in an environment where I felt out of control.  I felt deprived of love, warmth, and all things good.  Inside of me was a deep empty hole, so I spent 25 years stuffing that hole with food.

At my bar mitzvah I became a man and had put on the weight to back it up.  By age thirteen I weighed 150 pounds and my weight consumed my identity.  The nicknames I encouraged at school included “the Fat Guy” and “Big A.”  Once in class a girl asked me if I was wearing a bra because my chest was bigger than hers. Even though I had a growth spurt and actually thinned out some in high school I couldn’t tell the difference.  Every time I looked in the mirror I saw the same 13-year-old kid that got stuck blocking for the quarterback in neighborhood football games. 

In college, food made up for everything I was missing:  good grades, relationships, athletic talent, money.  Forget the freshman 15, I managed to put on a full freshman 50.  I had gained 100 pounds since my bar mitzvah. By my 21st birthday I weighed 250 pounds. I stopped weighing myself after that but was reminded constantly of my weight gain as I kept outgrowing my clothes.

At age 26 I peaked at around 300 pounds.  Around the same time I rented Super Size Me and went out for a Big Mac after the movie. 

My moment of reckoning came in July of 2005.  I applied for health insurance, and I was denied.  I was physically too huge a risk for the insurance company.  Then a friend of mine said something simple, but profound, “Andy we all have problems. You just have one everyone can see, so you can’t hide it.  The question is, what are you going to do about it?” 

So I did something about it.  I joined a gym, I joined Weight Watchers, I worked with a personal life coach and I hired a personal fitness trainer.  I started eating less and moving more.  Three years later I celebrated 100 pounds of weight loss and even kept going.  I made it to 180 pounds, just five pounds away from my ideal weight of 175.  I started my own coaching and consulting business and called it 100 Reasons to Live.  Every pound I lost gave me one more reason to continue to live a healthy and fulfilling life.  I blogged about my five keys to losing weight and feeling great.  I hosted a seminar to teach others how to live a healthy lifestyle: mind, body, and spirit.  It was called the 100 Reasons to Live charity event.

As great as all this sounds, there is still one problem.  I am still addicted to food.  It has been one year since the 100 Reasons charity event, and I’m 20 pounds heavier.  But I have made a new commitment to stop gaining and end my addiction to food.

When I reach 175 pounds I want to be able to say that I implemented simple changes each week to rebuild healthier habits. I will have kept the refrigerator stocked with healthier foods. I will have found a class at the gym that I could go to every week. I will have asked myself questions each day such as, “What would a 175 pound man who wants to be a lean, mean, athletic machine, order off of this menu?”  “Is this the choice for someone who truly loves himself, mind, body, and soul?”  “Why?  Why do I want to eat this right now, is it because my body needs nourishment or is it because I am trying to use food as a substitute for love?”
 
Come April I hope I get to say, “For the last six months I have nourished my body with food when it needed it.  When I didn’t need to fill myself with food, I found other ways to fill myself with the love I was missing all along.”    

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Bed Rest Lite

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11/10/2009

Chai working from home

28 weeks and 6 days down, many more to go

It has now been a week and five days since I have worn shoes, gone on a walk, or left the house. I am no longer allowed to do these things until I reach the critical week 32 of my pregnancy. Especially with twins, my doctor says I can’t be too careful. When I found out about being on light bed rest I had trouble telling my colleagues and friends without tearing up. My life was about to change for at least the next five weeks, if not until the babies are born. Their due date is not until January! In this first week I’ve noticed that bed rest isn’t so bad. Here’s the breakdown.

Pro: Sleeping longer because my only commute is from the bedroom to the dining room table where I set up my office space each morning.

Con: Little motivation to shower and change clothes because of said commute. Also, I could really use a haircut. My stylist will come to my house, but isn’t free until after Thanksgiving.

Pro: Making snacks and lunches at any point without having to plan in advance. This also saves money.

Con: Needing to have lots of groceries and planning for snacks and lunches over the weekend when Mandi goes to the store.

Pro: Working next to large southern exposed windows and enjoying the changing leaves and natural light until I have to turn on the light at 3:30pm. This is much improved to my office view of an alley and a parking garage.

Con: It is abundantly clear how the days are shortening and I cannot go outside to enjoy my favorite season. Our back porch offers some fresh air and the lovely scene of (of course) an alley.

Pro: Cuddling with kitties Mr. Pants and Cocoa Bean throughout the day while working at my laptop.

Con: Having to protect all food items and the computer cord from playful yet destructive and endlessly persistent cats. I do not move quickly enough for those two anymore.

Pro: Sweatpants and no bra. Enough said.

Con: Not being presentable for the Fedex guy or the nice neighbor who stops by to say hi.

Pro: Being able to eat lots of delicious food with no guilt. Anyone have a brisket they want to bring over?

Con: Not being able to cook anything that takes more time or effort than boiling some pasta. Relying on others is a learned skill that I’m still learning.

Overall, I feel blessed to have this time to relax and focus on growing two babies. I am so fortunate to be able to work from home and grateful for such supportive colleagues and friends who stop by to hang out. Thank you all!

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Chef Laura Frankel serves up the real deal

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11/10/2009

Laura Frankel photo

I think the concept that best explains how I think about food is the notion of Cucina Povera. This Tuscan concept is one born out of humble and peasant ingredients both afforded in the region of Italy and grown locally. The phrase Cucina Povera means "poor kitchen." The idea is almost more of a technique and way of thinking rather than just a bare cupboard. Leftover bread becomes a thickener and method of stretching soup; yesterday’s pasta becomes today’s soup and so on. Cucina Povera is the way many of our grandparents functioned in their home kitchens and similar to the way many chefs work in professional kitchens.

In the kosher kitchen we only have so many ingredients to work with, both at home and professionally. Many ingredients that most chefs take for granted are not part of my daily repertoire due to kosher restrictions. I have a meat and pareve kitchen and cannot just add cream to a soup or sauce to thicken it. I have to work a bit harder and find other ways that fit into the kosher laws. I do not believe in using faux foods for substitutions and look to natural ingredients that are already kosher and in season. In the spirit of Cucina Povera I embrace my constraints, accept the materials I have to work with and move on. I always say that if a recipe cannot be made without completely mutilating it, then do not make it. I have never put soy crème brulees on my menus and never will. I also do not sell faux crab or mock sour cream. Real sour cream is amazing and who doesn’t love crème brulee? I know I do after a dairy or pareve meal. The artificial stuff doesn’t come close and I have too much respect for my ingredients, clients and family to ever serve ersatz food.

Kashrut is all about making choices—not getting around them with cheap imitations. Do as the Tuscans do and look at what is growing locally and in season. Make the most of it and Buon Appetito!

Here is a delicious seasonal recipe for a killer Tuscan pumpkin soup—enjoy!:

Italian Pumpkin Soup (Crema di Zucca)

There are as many variations of this soup as there are shapes of pasta in Italy. This festive, seasonal soup makes a great alternative to the more common butternut squash soup in a hollowed out pumpkin for a dramatic presentation. Add toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) for a crunchy garnish.

8-10 servings

7 cups plus 1 cup vegetable stock
1 ounce. dried Porcini mushrooms
1 7 pound pumpkin, about 5 cups peeled and diced pumpkin (look for Sugar Pumpkin) or 3 cups canned pumpkin puree
12 Cipollini onions, peeled and cut in quarters
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 medium head Savoy cabbage, very thinly sliced
½ cup heavy cream
Parmesan crisps-see below
½ Amaretti crumbs, (these Italian cookies can be found at most Whole Foods or gourmet stores)

1. Place one cup of vegetable stock in a small saucepan with the dried porcini mushrooms. Bring to simmer. Turn off the heat and set aside.
2. Brown the diced pumpkin if using in batches in a large sauté pan lightly coated with olive oil. Be sure to season each batch with salt and pepper. Transfer the browned pumpkin to a saucepan or stockpot.
3. Add the cipollini onions in the same sauté pan adding more olive oil if necessary. Brown the onions until they are caramelized and golden (about 5 minutes).
4. Add the stock, porcini mushrooms, soaking liquid and nutmeg to the slow cooker. Cover and simmer until the pumpkin is very soft (about 1 hour) or if using canned pumpkin, simmer for 30 minutes. Puree the pumpkin in batches adding more liquid if necessary.
5. Add the cabbage and the cream. Simmer for 30 minutes or until the cabbage is very soft and creamy. Adjust the seasoning. Garnish with parmesan crisps and amaretti crumbs and toasted pumpkin seeds right before serving.

Parmesan Crisps

These salty, nutty crisps can be baked several days ahead of serving and kept at room temperature in an airtight container.

8 crisps

3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees
2. Line a baking sheet with two sheets of of parchment paper. Place 2 tablespoons of grated cheese in mounds on the baking sheet. You should have 8 mounds.
3. Flatten each mound with the back of a spoon and sprinkle them with pepper.
4, Bake for 5-6 minutes until lightly golden. Allow the crisps to cool before handling.

Chef’s tip for holidays and everyday

The task of peeling pearl onions and shallots is enough to make anyone swear off of using these flavor-packed, gorgeous dish embellishments.
A simple chef trick is to blanch them in boiling water first and then their little “jackets” slide right off.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Place the onions, shallots or garlic in a heat proof colander or strainer. Place the strainer in the boiling water. Blanch the vegetables for 2-3 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice water (you want it large enough to accommodate the colander with the onions in it). Remove the colander from the boiling water and place it in the ice water. This process is called “shocking”. It stops the cooking process. Allow the onions to cool completely. Remove the onions from the water. Cut a small end from the tip off and the skin should slip right off.

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I’m Glad I No Longer Wear Dr. Seuss Boxers

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11/09/2009

I’m Glad I No Longer Wear Dr. Seuss Boxers photo

I just came back from a trip down to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I took down 22 high school students with my organization, Jewish Student Union, with the intent of exploring opportunities for Jewish life on a college campus.

U of I also happens to be my alma mater. When I was there this past weekend, I was asked if anything had changed since I left the spacious grounds five years ago to transfer to an East Coast location at Rutgers University. Looking around at fraternity brothers casually tossing a football outside their territory, I drank in the calm but slightly eerie Pleasantville existence where everyone has nice, young legs and shuffles around nonchalantly in cozy, college branded apparel. No, I shook my head amused, not much has changed.  I realized then that though U of I hasn’t changed significantly, I certainly am not the same.

I enjoyed visiting U of I to remember nostalgically a critical transition period of my past. I enjoyed even more, however, the opportunity to feel so acutely the person I have become in the ever unfolding and challenging present.

One of the most external changes in my life in the past 10 years has been my style of dress. If you knew me at Highland Park High School, you would not be surprised to see me walking through the halls in my Dr. Seuss boxer shorts, socks pulled up to my knees, loud mismatched ensembles, tie dyed color robe, and blue face paint on any school spirit day. For our annual Charity Drive, I advertised for Dress Marcy Days, in which people paid me money to dress up in any type of clothing (appropriate enough) they handed me. In one instance, I dressed for an entire day in full Gumby apparel, mask included. I continued these antics in the first couple of years of my college career, sauntering around the Illini quad in assorted regalia, reveling in being alternative.

In hindsight, I believe I made these conscious clothing decisions for an assortment of reasons. I wanted to test my peers for their acceptance—would my friends support my decisions or pretend they didn’t know me? I wanted to test my own strength in defying social norms. I was searching for identity, and if nothing else, I could bank on being known as The Girl Who Dressed Up As Gumby. In a sense, I used my external appearance as a validation for my shakier hold on internal self worth.

Now, if you see me on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park weaving in between black hatters, do not look for boxer shorts. Certainly, I still have an affinity for colors, funk, and short hair cuts. But I also find something comforting on the days when I wear clothing that blends in with the toned down safe colors which often times surround me. This comfort arises from a strikingly similar objective, though diametrically opposed tactic, to my previous elaborate clothing decisions of my youth; I want others to look beyond my façade and see the depth within.

For me, the last seven years since high school have been a dramatic paradigm shift, into attempting to keep what is within me, within. Is this related to my spiritual journey since I left home? Absolutely. Jewish laws have quite a lot to say about ideas of self respect through utilizing the external as a way of housing the internal soul. Nowadays, I only wear skirts to my knees, shirts to my elbows and high necklines.

Has U of I changed in the five years since I had the privilege of paying in state public school tuition?

Not in a way that I care to find significant.

Have I changed? 

I feel in some ways that I am a revamped purified city, constantly breaking new ground to construct a stronger, more elaborate, intimate home within.

I am glad I no longer wear Dr. Seuss boxers.

I love who I was, but I love even more who I am becoming.

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SNL’s Andy Samberg comes to Chicago for one hilarious “Lazy Sunday”

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11/06/2009

Andy Samberg

He’s cute, he’s funny, he brought us gems like “Dick in a Box” and “I’m on a boat” and… he’s Jewish!

Known for creating and starring in such comic and raunchy music videos as “Motherlover,” “Dick in a Box” and “Lazy Sunday,” Andy Samberg’s videos appear as SNL digital shorts and then rocket their way to YouTube fame.

In addition to seeing Samberg on SNL and on YouTube, you can see him live at the JUF’s Young Leadership Division’s (YLD) second annual Big Event on Sunday, Nov. 15.

The comedian’s videos have garnered several Emmy nominations and awards and broken records on YouTube. For instance, “Lazy  Sunday,” collaborated with SNL alum Chris Parnell, marked Samberg’s breakthrough performance on the sketch comedy show. Then, the video became an Internet phenomenon with more than five million hits on YouTube within a few days of the video airing on television.

A Berkeley native, Samberg recently starred opposite actors Paul Rudd and Jason Segal in the movie “I Love You, Man” about a groom’s search for bromance and a best man for his wedding. And, this fall, Samberg’s voice was showcased in the animated feature film “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

Samberg, alongside his comedy troupe Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, released their album “Incredibad” earlier this year, the first full-length album to reach the number one spot on iTunes. The comedian also recently hosted the 2009 MTV Movie Awards and started his fifth season on SNL this fall.

The second annual Big Event, held on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 6:00 pm at the Swissotel Chicago, will launch YLD’s 2010 Annual Campaign. Tickets, $75 per person, will include hors d’ Oeuvres, open bar, and dessert reception and after-party, and require a gift to the 2010 JUF Annual Campaign. The minimum requirement is a match or increase to your previous JUF gift. If you have not given to JUF in the past, you are required to make a gift. For more information, contact the YLD office at (312) 357-4880 or visit  www.yldchicago.org .

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

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11/05/2009

You hear the interviewer ask you this question and your mind turns blank.  All the well-rehearsed answers you’ve worked on disappear as visions fill your head.  Dreams of what life could be like in five years.  You’ll be rich, married, and successful at your job—and most certainly not job searching.  The endless cover letter writing, resume updating, phone and in-person interviews will have come to an end.  You’ll finally have established yourself in your field (or fields as in my case) and won’t have to go through the painful process of starting off your professional career.

This question can make your palms sweat and a lump form in your throat.  As you look at the interviewer, you feel fear.  Not the fear of impressing your future employer and making sure you’re selling yourself the best you can.  No, this is a different kind of fear, the fear of the unknown.  Where will you be in five years?  Will things be different?  The same?  Is it really possible to predict what you’ll want in the future?

It’s a difficult question for a recent grad to answer.  Often we will stumble inadvertently upon something we enjoy.  One position will lead to another, and we will end up in a place we could never have predicted.  There’s no certainty of what will happen, and most likely our dreams won’t come close to the reality.

Of course your interviewer does not want to hear that you hope in five years you’ll be able to go on that exotic vacation with your cute Jewish boyfriend soaking in the ocean breeze, drinking fruity cocktails, and relaxing without work on the mind.  They want to hear your commitment to their organization, how you’re going to work hard to be successful at your job and move up in the organization while making the company look good and be glad they decided to hire you.

But you need to answer this question for yourself.  So, to re-phrase the question and answer it for myself…

What do I want to have in 5 years?

  1. To have a successful job that provides an income that will keep me comfortable and not always stressing about a budget
  2. To have traveled more (particularly to Australia, New Zealand, and the parts of the UK and Europe I have not been to yet)
  3. To be surrounded by loving friends and family
  4. To be healthy and able to do all that I want to do
  5. To be happy and not just content

These five goals are pretty basic, and I’m sure shared by most people.  These are five wishes I have for the next year, five years, ten, and so on.  But overall, the main thing I worry about in the future is being myself.  Now you’re probably thinking, what the heck does that mean?  Well, I want to make sure that through any job changes or detours on my career path I still retain who I am.  We all know that Americans overwork themselves.  In our minds, working longer means working harder which means working our way up the corporate ladder, and I’m really no different in thinking the same thing.  I’m very driven and competitive, and I often lose myself in my work.  I define myself by my successes and failures.

But, if we define ourselves by our jobs, we could lose sight of what makes us, us.  For example, when you’re at a party, do you go around introducing yourself as a twenty-something year old Jew who likes to write, drink coffee, and take long walks on the beach?  No, you say something more like, “Hi, my name is Deborah and I’m a writer.  I write for Oy!Chicago and…”  And what if you could no longer be a writer or a lawyer or a doctor?  Would you fall apart in some sort of existential crisis?  That’s why it’s important to me to connect to other Jews and keep up with my other interests.  Being Jewish and belonging to a synagogue provides a community that is there no matter what your occupation and it’s my hobbies and quirks that make me different from all the other people who will have the same job as me.

I may not know where my career path will lead me over the next five years, but I know one thing for sure—I’ll still be me.  As for what I will be doing, ask me again in five years.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?

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11/04/2009

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas photo

This Sunday marked the end of daylight savings time, the first day of November, the first day after Halloween (a tough one for many of us), and… the first Christmas commercial.  Ugh.

There I was, curled up in bed hoping to enjoy a lazy Sunday of Food Network, football and grocery shopping, and lo and behold, the first commercial to interrupt Sandra’s Money Saving Meals was for Crayola’s new products – “the perfect gift this season”.  All I was trying to do was relax and learn to make Chicken Scaloppine, not start my Christmas shopping list.  I don’t even have a Christmas shopping list!

Being a Jew on Christmas can be quite the challenge – especially when the Christmas season seems to get longer and longer every year.  I remember the days when the commercials started on the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas lights didn’t twinkle until New Years was only about 35 days away, and the store decorations were debuted on Black Friday – the biggest shopping day of the year.

As a sophomore in high school, I had the incredibly cool opportunity to experience decorating for Christmas first-hand, and for a good cause.  My BBG chapter volunteered at Nordstrom on Thanksgiving night – late night – to hang all of the glamorous, glitter-coated decorations.

It was the ultimate fundraiser:  not only did the store donate our “salaries” to the chapter, but a dozen Jewish girls and their moms got a behind-the-scenes look into the back rooms of Nordstrom and had the chance to experience the time-honored tradition of decorating a Christmas tree.

Who knew that Nordstrom and every other retail establishment in the world (or at least our country) would gradually push up their timeline to the point that the seasonal aisle at Walgreens is crowded with leftover costumes and Christmas wreathes?

The irony is that for a card carrying super Jew (ok, minor exaggeration), I love Christmas.  Jelly doughnuts cannot compare to the hundreds of different kinds of decadent Christmas cookies.  The Dreidel Song doesn’t stand a chance to the dozens of beautiful Christmas carols that I’ve been singing since choir concerts began in the fifth grade.  Hell, I think I know more of the words to those songs than many of my Christian pals.  While Hanukkah reminds us of the miracles Jews faced long, long ago, you can’t wear the symbols of the season to an ugly sweater party… or can you?  Probably not, but maybe I’ll try it this year.

And of course, being Jewish doesn’t exclude me from falling into the traps of excessive materialism that is synonymous with the holiday season.  The parental pitch about “eight days of gifts” never relieved my Christmas morning envy, but it certainly got me and my tribe on board with the extreme gift giving that the end of the calendar year brings.

But whether we’re ready to join the holiday shopping mania or we just want to hide from the season’s festivities until the ball drops to ring in 2010, shouldn’t we be able to enjoy the month of November (or at least the first few weeks of November) without the incessant Christmas jingles from Crayola and every other “perfect gift” distributer?

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Why I never left the Bulls (even after Jordan, Pippen and Jackson did)

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11/03/2009

Why I never left the Bulls photo

Few things in Chicago these days are trendier than proclaiming, “I love the Blackhawks!” It doesn’t matter how much one knows about the game of hockey, either. Many Chicago sports fans who only think a Blue Line is how you get to O’Hare from the Loop in a mere three hours – and sometimes with a fun-filled underground fire! –  have jumped on the Blackhawks bandwagon. I’m a lifelong Chicago sports fan who must have missed the “you must love the Blackhawks” memo. Because while everyone else is pretending to know what the term “original six” means, or making comments like, “you know, that Jonathan Towes can really…um…skate!” my wintertime sports devotion remains where it’s always been. I’m a proud Chicago Bulls fan.

I’m lucky enough to have grown up with Michael Jordan. No, not playing college hoops at North Carolina. I can barely dribble, and own a jump shot that can most accurately be described as “challenged.” I was actually once asked to never again play basketball in my fraternity. (True story.) But Jordan’s rise coincided with a great time for me to be a sports fan. He became legendary when I was in middle school, and the Bulls won their six titles when I was in high school through just after I’d finished college. I must have watched three quarters of every Bulls game during those years. The memories of those titles, and the names of the players who helped bring the team such success remain indelible a stunning eleven years after the won their last championship. B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper… The list goes on and on.

But for me, the list doesn’t end there. I never left the team, no matter how bad they were for the better part of a decade. Names like Dalibor Bagaric, Marcus Fizer, Ron Mercer, and Fred Hoiberg are also burned into my sports memory.  Never heard of these guys? Makes sense; because they were all BRUTAL. And perhaps you didn’t stick with the team once Pippen & Jackson left, and they became endlessly down and out.

Well, I did. Year after year. How many current Blackhawks fans can say that? Most alleged Blackhawks fans couldn’t name one player after the Belfour/Roenick/Chelios trio went their separate ways.  I don’t necessarily blame them for this, either. The Blackhawks were so off the radar in this town that a minor league team began outdrawing them on game nights. That’s a lot like your Sport and Social league softball team outdrawing the White Sox on a beautiful summer night. (On second thought, that’s probably happened. A lot. Usually when the Royals are in town.)

Over the last few years, while the Blackhawks were playing to a small fan base of angry season ticket holders and teenagers from Schaumburg who showed up a night too early for the Taylor Swift concert, the Bulls have been on the rise. Last year’s Bulls/Celtics playoff series, which the Bulls lost in seven games, is already mentioned as one of the most exciting playoff series of all time. (Seven overtimes in one series will do that.) And last year’s number one pick, a Chicago kid named Derrick Rose, has the potential to go down in Bulls history as the best player not named Michael Jordan. (This is not to be confused with former Bull Jalen Rose, who will go down in history as having made more money while a freshman at Michigan than he ever did in the NBA.)

I don’t mean to come across as anti-Blackhawks, which nowadays is held in a similar regard as working for ACORN. I support our city’s NHL franchise. I watched the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field last January, am thrilled they’re back on local television for the first time since the Kennedy/Nixon debates, and wanted to see them crush the Red Wings last spring as much as any good Chicago sports fan who loves watching all Detroit teams get their butts kicked. But I’m hopeful that, as another NBA season begins, all of this strange, overdone Blackhawks fever will subside just enough for Chicago fans to realize there’s another team who shares the United Center, and has actually won something in our lifetime, that shouldn’t be forgotten about. There’s no reason why Blackhawks fans and Bulls fans need be mutually exclusive. Tell you what: I’ll listen to you tell me why Patrick Kane is “so incredibly awesome,” but you have to put up with me comparing Joakim Noah to a young Dennis Rodman; and at least feign interest in the conversation. I know it might be hard to do, but it’s the least someone who’s been a hard-core Blackhawks superfan – for, what – a year and half? – can do.

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Ghouls Gone Wild

 Permanent link
11/02/2009

Take a look at how some of your Oy!sters celebrated Halloween. Send your favorite Halloween pics to info@oychicago.com and we'll post them, too!

Ghouls Gone Wild photo 1

Patty Mayonnaise with Doug

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Ben the dragon on his first Halloween

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Jazz hands are back and scarier than ever

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Tabasco sauce girl 

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Lindsay’s first Halloween, Mommy's little angel

Ghouls Gone Wild photo 6

Chicken and chick-a-dee’s chicken shack waitress

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Hellllloooo Liza 

Ghouls Gone Wild photo 8

Barbie and the rockers

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One Night Stand, Crab(s), Alfalfa

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A cheerleader, the Devil Wears Prada, a pirate, and 
Miss Piggy with swine flu out and about on Halloween

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Book Review: Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith

 Permanent link
11/02/2009

Book Review: Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith photo 1

Mitch Albom has done it again. With his newest book, Have a Little Faith, he has beautifully penned a book that is insightful, touching, and highly memorable. This is the first non-fiction book Albom has written since his, now classic, Tuesdays with Morrie, notably one of my favorite books of all time. Like his earlier book, Have a Little Faith centers on a figure who Albom had a previous connection with in his life, who then plays a later role as a "teacher of life." In Have a Little Faith, that role is played by Rabbi Albert Lewis, Albom's childhood rabbi, and as he explains, the only rabbi he feels he has ever had, even though Mitch moved away from his hometown in New Jersey. 

Book Review: Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith photo 2

This book only exists because Rabbi Lewis asked Albom to write and deliver his eulogy. Lewis is battling a tumor in his lung. Albom feels unready and unprepared for this task at the beginning of his story. He struggles with why he has been personally asked to take on this honor, and feels that he needs to get to know Rabbi Lewis better– he wants to know who he is as a basic human being, beyond his rabbinic persona. As the book takes shape, it becomes clearer that this persona is very much a craft of Albom's earlier memories, and that the rabbi is an amazingly down-to-earth man who has brilliant wisdom from his life experience to share. Mitch Albom's personal encounter with the rabbi proves that there is no age limit to arriving at a point of coming-of-age. We see him grow immensely as he takes on this task, and by the end of the book, it is clear that Albom has been incredibly transformed.

This book differs from Tuesdays with Morrie in that Albom has weaved together not only the rabbi's story, but also many of his own personal reflections on religion and his own upbringing, as well as another full story of a pastor he met in Detroit. The Pastor is Pastor Henry Covington, who has been reformed from a poor childhood and a mix up into a life of drugs and crime toward setting himself back on the right track. Covington is now helping others get their lives back on the road at a small church in Detroit, which barely is getting by. He leads the congregation in an old dilapidated church building often without heating and with a gigantic hole in their roof. Needless to say, Covington recognizes the need of his work, and little will stop him.

Pastor Covington and Rabbi Lewis never crossed paths, but the merging of these two stories introduces many common themes. I will admit that while reading this book, I thought there was going to be an actual intersection of the lives of these two clergy. The fact that there is no crossing of paths actually makes for a more interesting and deeper understanding of what Albom is trying to say in this book.

Have a Little Faith is one of the most refreshing reads I have had this year, and I believe this book will be cherished for many years to come by people of all faiths. I predict that many rabbis will be delivering sermons about this book. Albom is also donating ten percent of the book's profits back to Rabbi Lewis' and Pastor Covington's congregations as well as to his own charitable organization.

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