OyChicago blog

Oy! Where do I begin?

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I used to think even the most horrific dates were at least worth the story. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I always loved a good, “terrible” story I could write home about—or rather, recall with tears and/or laughter over the telephone with my friends. I’ve begun to grow weary of the bad dates with the funny stories—but I’ll admit that I haven’t completely lost my sense of humor.

I recently went on a tragic date that can best be summarized by a timely (and thus somewhat eerie) Onion article, titled “Horrified Man Looks On Powerlessly As He Ruins Date.” Just as in the article, the date began smoothly, and soon spiraled down a drain so deep, the couple was beyond life preservers.

In said Onion article, the fictitious gentleman on the date named Kevin Parker can’t help himself but to discuss one awkward topic after another for long periods of time, including ramblings about getting his oil changed and paying too much; his parents’ divorcing and his own former bed-wetting troubles, as well as moping about his ex-girlfriend.

“Summoning his strength for one last heroic effort, Parker said he began talking about his dog, found himself unable to discuss anything beyond how the pet had been his only comfort during a break-up last year, and then proceeded to spend five minutes explaining how he was ‘totally over’ his ex-girlfriend now.

“‘There was this loud, disturbing noise, and I realized it was my own voice,’ Parker said. ‘I remember looking around the room thinking, 'For God's sake, somebody do something!' Then I just sort of went numb for a few minutes there as I watched myself talk about my laundry schedule.’”

I recently found myself on a date with a “Parker” who could not stop talking about very awkward subject matters at length. Except, I was the one thinking, “For God’s sake, somebody do something!” or “Come on now, where are hidden cameras? Are they behind the bar?”

We met for casual drinks and the date started on a high note. We joked about politics, the weird people next to us at the bar and other light topics. Conversation flowed, we weren’t drinking heavily to endure the date (yet) and there were a few laughs in between. About 30 minutes in, my “Parker” couldn’t help himself.

He went into a luxurious discussion about his ex-girlfriend. He described her family problems, he mentioned twice how good the sex was with her and how charismatic a person he was with her. Yes, he used the word, “charismatic.”

I sat listening to this nonsense and wondered, “Do I have ‘therapist’ written on my forehead?”

And then I thought, “Bartender?”

And then, “Taxi?”

Somewhere in between his ramblings about where he’d met her and how he’d gone wrong, I went to my happy place and started thinking about Jewess Patti Stanger of the show The Millionaire Matchmaker. Despite her rough demeanor, I love the woman. Stanger gives a pretty spectacular guide of what not to do on the first date: Don’t mention the ex; Don’t discuss God or politics; Don’t use them for therapy; Don’t get wasted; Don’t bring up marriage or kids; Don’t talk dirty; Don’t be rude. My “Parker” broke nearly all of her rules.

I drifted between half-amusement and disdain for this guy until something he said caught my attention. He talked about how his girlfriend became a different person after they’d started dating and, in some ways, he didn’t recognize her anymore. With sadness in his eyes, he described going out with friends of hers and said she didn’t appear to interact with them as they expected. He said they noted that she laughed less.

Because there aren’t enough pop culture references in here, I thought I’d throw in a couple more. After polling friends on Facebook and tasking them to Google search with me extensively, we could not place the exact episode, but there was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (probably in season 5), in which Meredith Grey talks about the fear of chipping away at herself when in a relationship, to the point where she might barely recognize her single self anymore. She describes it as making herself fit as one half of a whole (couple). (Sounds like every episode—right? Well, I am referring to a specific one. Ten points to whoever can pinpoint the right episode!)

I also recalled the pair of series finale episodes in Sex and the City, when Carrie symbolically loses her “Carrie” necklace in the midst of settling into a bad relationship with Aleksandr Petrovsky in Paris. She, too, is losing her identity.

By no means, do I think this tendency to lose oneself in a relationship is reserved for women. However, it appears to be a recurring theme among heroines in the modern TV mellow-drama-comedy. One could argue it’s an old theme. Interestingly, however, it troubles these modern female characters in ways that perhaps, it didn’t 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

I dated a guy a while back who was gluten-intolerant and all I wanted to do when I was around him was eat bread. Perhaps, I too, have concerns about morphing too much for my man.

Back to my “Parker:” He spoke in earnest about how he’d lost the girl he once knew, somewhere in the midst of the relationship. I was touched and a bit saddened for the both of them.

In some ways I share TV character Meredith Grey’s belief that we shift our shape, to fit together with that other person—our missing piece. It’s inevitable. We take on a variation of ourselves even in our friendships.

I discussed this idea with a friend who pointed out that the danger perhaps, arises when we change or even mute ourselves to fit with that significant other. Ideally, she said, we hope to be with someone in which you bring out the best versions of each other. I agree with her theory.

Part of the heartache with break-ups, too, is when we can’t be the person we were trying to be for that new person. We break up, and the relationship leaves us somewhat altered and bewildered versions of ourselves never to completely return to our original states. Some might call this altered state our “baggage” we carry.

Are we meant to return to who we once were? Are we better or worse for those changes?

Each person we meet impacts us and changes us, but hopefully not at the expense of losing ourselves.

Another wise friend of mine pointed out that maybe a nightmare date like the one I had with my “Parker” serves as reminder that when we get into new relationships—ones that start with healthy first dates—that we check in with ourselves once in a while and make sure we still recognize ourselves in the mirror.

If nothing else, I say, know when you’ve met a “Parker” and hail that taxi as quickly as you can.



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Looking for friends in Jewish places photo

When I first started writing about this search in online essays, between the rageful comments from the angry mob came a number of suggestions that I should try religious institutions to find my next best friend. Plenty of people said they made their closest friends in church group. A coworker tells me she met her besties at bible study. A friend of my mother-in-law said that when she first moved to Boston, she found new friends as soon as she joined a temple.

I don’t consider myself especially religious. Though I was raised Jewish, I can’t remember the last time I entered a temple for something other than a wedding or a funeral. But religion is one of the great uniting forces in history, so for me to ignore it altogether during this quest would be a glaring omission.

This Thursday I will attend my first LEADS (Leadership Education and Development Series) meeting, part of the Jewish United Fund’s Young Leadership Division.

I have mixed feelings about it. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m joining under false pretenses. Doesn’t signing up for such a group imply that I’m especially religious? That maybe I’ve celebrated Shabbat more recently than approximately twenty years ago? But then, I’m sure that I’m just the kind of person the group is interested in recruiting. Who knows? After eight weeks I could find a new home in this community. And I was told quite clearly that you don’t need to be ultra-religious. After all, it’s billed as “an introductory exploration of the Jewish community and contemporary issues.” Also, each meeting culminates in a happy hour at a local bar. That sounds pretty universal.

Like every gathering I sign up for (improvvolunteeringMeetUpGrub With Us) my ultimate goal is to leave the group with at least one new potential BFF to ask out. I’m hoping this won’t be too hard, as I’ve become immune to the fear of hitting on potential BFFs (except for at Starbucks, where I’ve been working a lot lately and can’t bring myself to bother any of the nice looking ladies to see if they want to be my best friend forever). So why am I more nervous about this group than most? Partly because I’m not sure what to expect, but also because I’m worried I’m going in at a disadvantage.

One of the results of my not being religious is not knowing very much about my religion, despite the early years of Hebrew School and bat mitzvah studying. When I started my improv class, we were all beginners. None of us knew what we were doing, so the playing field was level. Here, I figure the others who’ve signed up will be more informed and have stronger opinions than I. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just don’t want to be the group laughingstock.

But that’s what this search is about. Going outside the comfort zone and all that good stuff. So Thursday I’ll show up to my LEADS group, on the prowl as usual. Then, of course, I’ll report back.


And we’re back. Six weeks later. When I first submitted this blog post, the Oy! Editors asked that I wait to post it until I had some LEADS feedback, so here it goes.

I am not the group laughingstock…except when we play charades and I part my hair down the middle and try to look serious to represent Moses. My group is a mixture of all types of Jews. From me, the almost borderline non-practicer, to Sarah*, the not-so-religious but works in a Jewish day school, to Jenna* the uber-Jew. What brought us together is not so much our religion as our desire to meet new people.

LEADS hasn’t changed any of my religious beliefs per say, but that isn’t its intention. It has introduced me to a Jewish community, which is its goal, and has connected me with a few friends who will be around for a while. Which was my goal.

Everybody wins.

*Names changed to protect identity.

The LEADS program is an 8 session series that runs 3 times a year. The program offers an introductory exploration of the Jewish community and contemporary issues in a relaxed social setting. Groups are formed in several areas of the city and separated by age first and then location. Sessions typically begin at 7:30 p.m., though there will be some variance. Following most of the sessions, groups will meet all together at a bar for a happy hour.  The next session of LEADS will begin this winter/spring.  If you are interested, please email yld@juf.org. LEADS is a great place to get started in YLD!

Read more  about Oy! blogger Rachel’s quest to meet her new BFF.


2010-2011 NCAA Basketball preseason All-TGR team

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With superstars Jon Scheyer and Slyven Landesberg on to bigger and better things, this year we look to some unknowns in NCAA basketball. Last year's senior class was impressive. So who is going to step up and be our next hope at a Jewish NBA star? Well, this year’s All-TGR team does not have a pro prospect for next year. But, it has plenty of talent and is led by a budding star.

Meet the All-TGR team

Dane Diliegro – TGR was a fan of him last year too. Why? Because he produces. He isn't too flashy and might not be an NBA prospect but the 6'9 center can use his body. He pulled down eight boards a game while scoring almost nine. Solid numbers for a solid player.

Zach Rosen – One could easily make the claim that Rosen should be the pre-season player of the year. The Penn guard does a little bit of everything. He dished out 4.4 assists and grabbed 3.3 boards last season. But what he does best is score. He dropped 17.7 points a game last year. Rosen could be the Ivy League MVP.

Jared Mintz – Mintz surprised a lot of people last season. He finished with 5.7 boards and 14.1 points a game last year. He is not a big time program, but his numbers are solid and should only improve.

Bryan Cohen – Cohen plays at Bucknell which hasn't made any noise since 2005. His eight points-per-game is nothing too amazing, but he is only going to be a junior and is returning as the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. Defense wins championships....or so they say.

Michael Atwater – While he hasn't played a game in college basketball yet, this power forward for ASU has a big upside. He was ranked in the top 300 of college basketball recruits. He is entering a major program. He moves well and can board.

Honorable mentions: Bryan Cohen (Bucknell), Josh Elbaum (Vermont), and Chris Wroblewski (Cornell).

Preseason Player of the Year

Jake Cohen – Yes, Rosen scored more points a game. But Cohen's 13.3 points-per-game and 5.11 rebounds-per-game were solid. And he had an awesome offseason. He got rave reviews overseas. He played for the Israel Under 20 team and dominated Europe. I think the style of play overseas will help this skilled big man. He is young, raw, and only getting better. He is our best shot at another NBA player for a little while.

Good luck to all the players this year. For a more complete list check out TGR’s NCAA page.

And Let Us Say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine
For more check out www.TheGreatRabbino.com


A Thanksgiving Survival Guide

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The #1 killer of relationships?  In my opinion, the answer is holidays.  Let’s face it; bringing home your significant other can be very stressful.  Even in the most “normal” (and I use normal here loosely) families, there is always at least one family member who will bring up the most painfully embarrassing moments in your life in front of your s.o., or ask the most inappropriately personal questions.

But do not despair.  With a little humor, a little preparation, and a LOT of alcohol (but not too much of course—you don’t want to make a complete ass of yourself), you CAN make it through the holiday.  And if you are lucky, you’ll have something to laugh about with your s.o. 10 years from now.

Situation #1: You are going to your boyfriend’s house for the holiday, and his/her mother isn’t exactly your biggest fan.

Survival technique: Build an alliance.  Spend your time winning the other family members over with your charm and wit—ideally family members who later contradict her negative opinion of you. 

(On a side note: if your boyfriend doesn’t have a spine where his mother is concerned, you need to do some serious thinking.)

Situation #2: You are bringing your vegetarian boyfriend to your house for Thanksgiving—and tofurkey is definitely NOT on the menu.

Survival technique: Bring provisions.  Make and bring vegetarian side dishes that your entire family can eat—e.g., stuffing without giblets.  Explain to your boyfriend ahead of time that Thanksgiving isn’t the time or place to explain why he is revolted by the turkey carcass on the table.  On the flip side, it would be appropriate to warn your parents in advance that this might be a good time to send the deer head above the mantel out for a good cleaning.

Situation #3: Your “crazy Aunt Sadie” just asked your new boyfriend/girlfriend when you were getting married—pointing out that you certainly aren’t getting younger.

Survival technique: Strike back.  Chances are, this isn’t the first time Aunt Sadie has put you on the spot.  The moment you walk in the door, you should be on the ready with pre-rehearsed retorts designed to shut Aunt Sadie up.  For example, this is the perfect time to inquire how Aunt Sadie’s recent mole-removal surgery went.  She’ll get the picture.  Don’t worry about hurt feelings, this one is war.

Situation #4: Your well-meaning-but-inappropriate Uncle Sonny just pulled your significant other aside and asked him/her about his “intentions.”  

Survival technique: Rescue and recovery.  You need to get your s.o. out of there.  Now.  Enlist backup in the form of your aunt or other family members who know just what might be going down.  As for damage control, don’t explain or elaborate, just say to your sweetie, “Sorry for my crazy family.  I’ll promise I’ll make it up to you later.”  That way, he/she will be thinking about OTHER things on your way home.

Situation #5: You and your non-Jewish significant other are getting serious, and your “I-don’t-care-who-you-marry-so-long-as-he/she’s-Jewish-Bubbe” just asked you both how you intend to raise the children.  And you don’t have an answer to that question yet—or at least, not one she might want to hear.

Survival technique: Temporary deflection.  Try the best you can to change the topic – but be warned, if Bubbe really wants an answer right now, you are in a very tight spot.  You can try humor: “the best we can—of course!  Oh, did you use cinnamon in this pie?” or flattery “however you did – you are such a great mother and grandmother.  By the way, can I get your kugel recipe?”

But hell hath no fury like a Bubbe on a mission.  In reality, what you will really need to do is run like hell, because Thanksgiving probably isn’t the best time to tell Bubbe you will be celebrating Christmas with his family this year.

Situation #6: Your recently-divorced cousin just gave your commitment-phobic boyfriend an earful about the perils of marriage and fatherhood.

Survival technique: Counter couple.  This would be the perfect time to ask to steal your s.o. away and introduce him to your happily married cousins.  Later, you can say: “Hey, sorry you got dumped on.  He’s going through a rough time right now; it’s really cool of you to have listened.  And aren’t Jack and Jill great together? ”

Situation #7: You just left dinner, and feel the need to discuss the status of your relationship with your significant other.

Survival technique: Wait a couple of days.  Sure, you two will need to eventually discuss marriage, kids, religion, and other “values.”  But don’t bring up engagement just because your cousin was flashing her beautiful new ring, or because some family members turned up the volume on your biological clock.  Be sure any conversation you feel you need to have about your “future” is motivated not by the desires of others, but the desires of your own heart, when you are good and ready to deal with them.


Synagogues 2.0

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As a former Hebrew school teacher myself, it seems to me that the survival of the Jewish community is dependent on synagogues modernizing and incorporating technology into the study of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

While in the past synagogues were competing for time with soccer practice and ballet lessons, they now have a more formidable and more permanent “enemy” in the internet.  However, this “enemy” must be acknowledged and embraced to keep Hebrew school education relevant and worthwhile.

Many synagogues are slow to adapt technology because many of the educators are unfamiliar with it. It’s understandable, considering that the average 11-year-old can send 10 texts by the time a teacher gets through writing the Hebrew Alphabet on a white board. And these days, synagogues are strapped for cash and may not have the resources to invest in new technologies.

However, to stay relevant, I believe synagogues must find a way to transform the way they teach, closing the ever-growing gap between student and educator.

This doesn’t mean that teachers are replaceable. You can’t mechanize relationships and you can’t replace charisma and good examples. However, what can be changed is how people teach.

One basic example is learning Hebrew. There are numerous programs that can assist in language acquisition to help students become Hebrew speakers, not just Hebrew readers. New programs make it possible for bar and bat mitzvah students to scroll over a word and hear the trope so the learner acquires the skill to read any Torah portion and not just memorize their own. Eventually, there could be online synagogues where students can sign up for Hebrew school from the comfort of their home.

Additionally, technology can help teach Jewish values and tradition. For example, studying the Holocaust from a text is less impactful than hearing the stories of survivors online through the Yad V’shem website.

To maintain and grow community, a synagogue must know how to incorporate learning through technology. And the argument that the Torah is thousands of years old and the web is only 20 does not hold water. Judaism has survived because it has adapted to modern concerns and needs. The necessity of incorporating technology is no different than the development of local synagogues because Jews were far away from the Temple, or to the writing down of the oral law so it would be codified.

Although this task is important, it isn’t an easy one. It is going to take forward-thinking congregants and lay leaders to prioritize the acquisition and use of new technologies and Rabbis and teachers to be willing to be trained in them. I am one of those teachers—are you?


Counting our blessings

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Cindy Sher photo 2

My family rang in the Jewish new year at a friend’s home. After we chanted the blessings and before we sat down to eat our meal, the host asked each of the guests to take turns saying what we were most thankful for in the past year.

Giving thanks is something we don’t do enough. We spend a lot of time complaining over the course of the year—and often rightfully so—with our over-scheduled lives, a bad economy, and hatred and tragedy plaguing the world, often specifically targeting the Jewish people.  

Sometimes the bad overshadows the overwhelming good in our lives. But now, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s an ideal time to stop and count our blessings.

Giving thanks is core to Judaism. In fact, it’s the first thing we’re instructed to do each morning before we get out of bed. The very first prayer that Jews recite upon waking is Modeh Ani, “I give thanks,” thanking God for protection.

Self-help author Melody Beattie emphasizes the importance and the creativity of being grateful. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more,” she said. “It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

I am thankful for many blessings in my life. To name a few:

I’m grateful for being an American Jewish woman, endowed with the freedom to be anything in life that I want to be, no matter my religion or gender. 

I’m thankful to my parents for raising me in a loving, compassionate, and haimish Jewish home and for serving as models of love to emulate in my own life.

I’m blessed to have had three of my grandparents live to see me grow up. Throughout my childhood, I would weave together the fabric of my family history as they’d transmit to me bits and pieces of our shared story, over a game of gin rummy or while filling in a crossword puzzle with me. Three Passovers ago, my maternal grandmother died at the advanced age of 93; but I still visit my father’s parents in Long Island often.

I’m thankful for attending excellent schools in a safe learning environment with extraordinary teachers, who nourished my potential. This fall, I watched the new documentary film Waiting for Superman, which examines the failures of American public education, following five students through the fraught school system. The students were forced to leave their education to fate, a lottery dictating whether they would attend the higher-quality charter school in their area. Witnessing their struggle, I realized how much I’d taken my own education for granted.

And I’m thankful for being a member of a committed, caring, and vibrant Jewish community here in Chicago. Our community strives to repair the world each day, lending a hand to Jews and non-Jews in the Chicago area and to Jews in need around the world.

I hope you’ll count the blessings in your own life—not just on Thanksgiving—but every morning before you get out of bed.

What are you most thankful for this year? Comment below:


Scavenger Extraordinaire

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Last Saturday, I competed with my friends in our third annual Scavenger Hunt Day. Every year, two people from our group make up a list, we form teams of 3-5 people, and then become far too competitive.

Scavenger Hunt Day is seriously the most fun day of the year. If you can get enough people to participate, I really recommend you organize one for your friends. We always meet at Keenan O’Reilly’s, affectionately known to us as, “Dad’s Basement” beforehand so we can drink some Bloody Marys, get the scavenger hunt lists, clarify questions with the judges, and talk trash to the other teams. Most everything on the list is something you have to get a photo of, and there are a few that you have to bring back with you.

The rules:
• Your camera’s memory card has to be empty before the hunt begins and only one camera can be used for your team.
• Your team must stay together for the entire hunt. No splitting up.
• You can only use public transportation.
• You have 3 hours to hunt. It begins at 2:15. At 5:15 you have to take a photo of a public clock displaying the time.
• Team must be back at Dad’s by 5:45 or you’re disqualified.

A sampling from the list:
• Celebrity look-a-likes
• Dance with a stranger
• High five a cop

Scavenger Extraordinaire photo 2

• Graffiti
• Do exactly what a sign says
• Team jumping in the air, all feet must be off the ground

Scavenger Extraordinaire photo 1

• Things that begin with Q
• Ginger kids
• Entire team in a bathroom stall
• Ugg boots, extra points if paired with a North Face
• Playing an instrument
• Team member on sports equipment
• Round of shots, must have receipt as proof, extra points if it’s a round of beers
• Two team members switch clothes
• Team member comes back to the Dad’s wearing edible underwear
• Bring back the weirdest thing you can find, weirdest out of every team gets extra points (the winner of this was “Team Ask Us How To Scare Bees” by bringing back a bag of human hair…)

My team, “Team You’re Out For A Walk Then BAM We F**k Your S**t,” won. Duh. In the end it came down to a 3-point difference between first and second place. What if we hadn’t seen that old man at a diner who looked like “Old Man” Marley from Home Alone? We could’ve lost the whole thing.

Scavenger Extraordinaire photo 3

Every person who plays is asked to make a donation to a charity the winning team picks. Run around the city and take shots for charity? Will do. We also won this sweet blow up doll. Saturday was truly terrific. BAM!

Scavenger Extraordinaire photo 5


For a deeper connection to spirituality, click here…

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For a deeper connection to spirituality, click here photo

One of the joys of being a rabbi is the opportunity to sit and talk with people who come to me ready to take charge of their religious and spiritual lives.  They are people who want to know more about Judaism and they are seekers searching for meaning, purpose, God, community and an increased sense of connectedness.  Each seeker comes to me with a story.  Sometimes a spiritual journey is initiated after a person experiences a death of someone close, or an illness, a loss of a job or some other hardship.  Other times a person tells me that he or she has been on a spiritual journey for years and has tried just about everything, but for whatever reason, nothing, so far, has really ever clicked.  They come hoping that Judaism will have answers to their many questions.  What they often find through study and practice are both answers to their existing questions as well as new and even more challenging questions to consider.

Hearing a person’s story helps me to suggest a course of action.  In some cases, a person looking for meaning and purpose is not looking for a deeper study of Judaism at all, but rather is searching for pastoral or secular counseling, and the warmth and comfort offered by a deeper connection to God and a caring community.  In cases such as these, I have a completely different conversation than I would with someone who is looking to learn more about Judaism.

But for those who are looking to deepen their connection to Judaism, I then ask what about Judaism is appealing to them and I ask what are they interested in learning and doing?  And then I ask them to imagine looking at their lives down the road—once they’ve found what they are looking for—what would their lives look like?  From there, I try to cater an individualized study and action program that includes suggestions for classes to take, worship services, lectures, and Jewish programs to attend, people to meet, organizations to join, social action projects to try, music to hear, books to read, and movies to see.  (BTW: One book I totally recommend is God Was Not in the Fire by Daniel Gordis).

Sometimes when I present such a list of activities the person looks at me like I am crazy.  Who these days, has time to do all that?  It is usually at this point that I ask if the person has an iPod, iPad, iTouch, or iPhone, or for that matter a computer with internet.  As the answer these days is increasingly “yes,” I then give suggestions of some of my favorite resources that I downloaded on my iPod which have informed and inspired my own spiritual journey.

Since you are reading this now, I would be happy to share with you some of my suggestions.  Though please note these suggestions do not replace the personalized conversations and the guidance you would get from a rabbi or other spiritual advisor.  I would be happy to meet with you, if you don’t have one already!

This being said, here are a few of my favorites findings on iTunes as well as Jewish books I have downloaded from www.audible.com:
iTunes Podcasts:  Go to iTunes and in the search, type in the following names, sign up for their free podcasts, and hit “get all” for all of the episodes or select from a list the ones that sound most interesting to you.

Rabbi David Wolpe:  Recognized by Newsweek as one of the most influential Rabbis in the country, his sermons are among the best I have ever heard.

Being:  A podcast recording of the weekly NPR show “Being.”  It was formally called “Speaking of Faith.”  It is so good!!  A few of my favorite episodes are the interviews with Dr. Naomi Remen (11/26/2008, 7/29.2010) Days of Awe (9/2/2010), Eli Wiesel (7/13/2006) and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (11/11/2010), see also: http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical.aspx?id=1552.  SO GOOD!!

Pardes from Jerusalem:  A weekly lecture on the Torah portion of the week, taught by the various brilliant scholars of that incredible learning center.

92nd Street Y:  Recorded interviews and conversations with some of the greatest thinkers and entertainers of our day.

Union of Reform JudaismTen Minutes of Torah.  This is not found on iTunes, but can be downloaded onto an mp3 player: http://media.urj.org/torah/hashavua.mp3 The content is excellent and worth listening to, however I think the narrator is the same robo-woman who is featured on my car’s GPS!

www.audible.com :  This is a clearinghouse for audio books that can be downloaded onto your iPod.  It requires a subscription, but I think it is totally worth it.  A few of the many Jewish-themed books I have really liked are:   The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, Eyes Remade for Wonder by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm by Harold Kushner, and The year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.

Well, I hope this list is helpful.  Of course, it is just a start.  The opportunities to explore and experience Judaism are limitless and Jewish study is meant to be a lifelong endeavor.  Please feel free to tell me which teachings you liked most and if you know of other examples of great downloadable learning, please share!


Talking Turkey

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The first ever kosher turkey talk

Talking Turkey photo

I love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of all holidays. As a Jew, I especially love the holiday—it’s the only time where I can eat a big fancy dinner, pile into the car and go visit friends or just drive around and look at the holiday lights. I can run to the store and pick up forgotten items and I can use the internet to check out pie recipes. On Jewish holidays, this would not be possible. Thanksgiving levels the playing field for Jews and makes you feel just like every other American.

We have a ritual in our house on Thanksgiving. I get up early, brew a huge pot of coffee, pull out the BIRD to warm it up to room temperature and cozy up on the couch and watch the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade. I love the excitement, the floats, the marching bands and the whole hoopla.

When I had my restaurant in New York I watched the floats being inflated at 2am in Central Park. It was amazing. I also had the thrill of watching the parade right there in Columbus Circle. It was great.

What I love the most are the flashes to the Butterball Turkey hotline room. There, turkey experts are gathered around phones excited and waiting to answer home cooks turkey challenges. I can see the intensity in the faces as they struggle to land the plane over the phone.

Turkey Talk is important. Most folks only cook a whole turkey once a year. A whole turkey can be a vexing thing. It is a big bird and it doesn’t exactly tell you when it is done, or to stuff or not to stuff, or how much meat per person. I remember, as a child, my father pulling out the electric knife and hacking at the bird. Maybe that’s why I cook for living?

This year Empire Poultry has joined forces with the ladies at Koshereye.com and myself to bring you KOSHER TURKEY TALK online. Finally—my childhood fantasy come true. Please contact KosherEye with your turkey questions and check out the festive recipes that I have written just for you.

Here’s some more info about Kosher Turkey Talk!:

Let’s talk kosher turkey—finally! For the first time ever, kosher consumers will have a Thanksgiving resource especially for them! Starting the first week of November, through November 22,  www.koshereye.com will provide advice, tips, assistance and recipes to help kosher Americans prepare a spectacular and kosher Thanksgiving meal for their families.

KosherEye.com is partnering with the knowledgeable staff at Empire Kosher Poultry and the renowned author, Chef Laura Frankel. Now kosher consumers will find a useful online resource especially for them on how to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. These kosher turkey experts will be available to answer online turkey talk questions. And, as a special holiday bonus, consumers may enter the Empire/KosherEye random giveaway for a free kosher turkey delivered directly to them! (10 will be given away) To enter, consumers just complete the sentence…”I am thankful for _______” and submit to  www.koshereye.com .


Cheers! Chicago: Gobble Gobble! Edition

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Cheers! Chicago: Gobble Gobble! Edition photo

As the weather outside changes from warm and sunny to brisk and cool, autumn also ushers in a feeling of warmth and coziness. Now, while some people cringe at the feeling of that cold Chicago wind whipping at you from all sides, I look forward to that feeling. The colder it is, the happier I seem to be. Whether it’s super strong winds or endless snowstorms, I become absolutely enraptured with the terrestrial orchestra that is autumn and winter weather. The changing of the colors of the leaves are awe-inspiring and show that even in the cold and barren weather there are some things that remain and even become more beautiful and breathtaking than before. That is why I look forward to the fall season each and every year.

As we near Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think about all of the wonderful things that come with it: turkey and stuffing, hot apple cider, and family. Now, while this is not a Jewish holiday, I think there are still several themes to take away from this holiday of thanks and of giving. For me, Thanksgiving reinforces the everlasting mitzvah of helping those in need, of giving thanks for all the things I take for granted and hold dear, and of reflecting on a year of great successes as well as areas for improvement in my life.

This year I have so much to be thankful for. I am especially blessed to celebrate this national turkey day with both my family in Chicago and my girlfriend’s in Naples, Florida. My accomplishments and successes in recent months are due in large part to the support, encouragement and love from my family and from my girlfriend. I was blessed with a caring, loving and supporting family. I am also very lucky to have someone so special in my life right now that cares about me and my happiness, that exposes my flaws and shortcomings out of love and care, and that stands by me no matter what I choose to do or be. Without her, achieving all these things would have appeared to be out of reach. So to her I say thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

But the blessings and good news does not stop there! After working in the restaurant business for the past four years, I discovered that my true passion lies in the education field and not in making cocktails for bar and restaurant-goers. Earlier this month, I was ecstatic to find out that I was accepted into a highly accredited graduate school program in pursuance of an elementary education certification. Now, more than ever before, I can begin the journey to realizing my true dream of teaching young children—Jewish, of course—as well as serve my community by becoming a mentor and a positive role model.

How did I know that teaching was going to be it for me? Funny you should ask! Just a couple weeks ago I was offered (and I accepted) a position replacing an outgoing religious school teacher at a Conservative synagogue teaching 4th graders. I can’t begin to tell you how honored and humbled I felt when I was approached by the religious school principal as a potential teacher and was told that I was not only qualified but extremely capable. Once the initial shock subsided, I realized that this was something that I have wanted for a long time and could not contain my excitement. The turning point for me was when I learned that the children wanted me to be their teacher, too! They all voted on the different potential teachers and I came up as the unanimous favorite! I don’t want to sound egotistical or self-centered here, it’s just such a wonderful and engulfing feeling to know that you are wanted and can seize the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better and make a difference. I’ll never forget that feeling, and I remind myself of it each time I step into that classroom and see those wide eyes and smiles staring back at me.

So, as we all sit down to our Thanksgiving tables and enjoy the wonderfully prepared food and the great company, let’s all remember that just because we ask for forgiveness on the High Holidays doesn’t necessarily mean that we forget how to be thankful for what we do have come November. We all have hardships in our lives, but we also have such wonderful blessings to both cherish and create. Let’s all take the opportunity to be thankful for everything that we hold dear, to be genuine and good to yourself and others, to appreciate our lives and look forward to enriching it that much more.



Defiant Jews and Good Germans: The Last Decade in Holocaust Films

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Fade to black hats photo 2

The first decade of this millennium saw a spate of Holocaust movies. The first hit Holocaust film of the 2000s was certainly The Pianist, which came out in 2002. For his performance as a concert pianist hiding from the Nazis, Adrien Brody won an Oscar— setting the record for youngest Best Actor and becoming the first to beat out four previous Oscar winners nominated alongside him.

Then, in 2008 alone, there were The Reader— which won Kate Winslet an Oscar— DefianceValkyrie, and England’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, plus the lesser-known films Good [http://goodthemovie.com] and Adam Resurrected. The next year, we had Inglourious Basterds, nominated in 8 categories for the 2010 Academy Awards.

That’s seven Holocaust movies in just two years, making the 2000’s the most Holocaust-movie saturated decade ever, with 14 movies on the subject in just 10 years. (The 1990s had eight and the 1980s twelve; all figures include foreign-language films with major US releases).

Without trying to guess the reason for so many of Holocaust movies being released in such a short time, we can break them into two categories. Two general assumptions around the Holocaust have been that all Germans were willing accomplices of the Nazis, and that Jews went “like sheep to the slaughter.” These movies confront those ideas.

Many of these films— especially the ones of 2008-9— serve to rehabilitate the image of the average German as going along with the Nazis by asserting that many Germans rebelled, assisted Jews, were ignorant of the ascending Nazi furor/Fuhrer… or were forced into complicity as much as the Jews were forced into victimization.

Valkyrie tells the true story of a Nazi officer who conspired (and, sadly, failed) to assassinate Hitler. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas asserts that at least those who were children during the Nazi era should be considered clean of its stain. And Good examines the lives of average Germans during Hitler’s rise to power, bewildered as to how to react.

Meanwhile, Defiance and Basterds each tell a story of Jews who defy the Nazis. In the historical Defiance, they mostly rebel against the Nazis by simply surviving on their own. In Basterds, as befits a Tarantino revenge fantasy, they rebel through violence.

The Holocaust films of 2008-9 are not the first to explore these lines. 2001 gave us The Grey Zone, in which death-camp inmates who run a crematorium plot to blow it up… and Invincible, Werner Herzog’s movie about a Jewish blacksmith who learns of the Final Solution and intends to form an armed resistance.

Also in 2001, was Taking Sides, about a real-life A-list conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, who chose to remain in Germany. A US Army officer is charged with deciding if the conductor was loyal only to his music and musicians… or also to the Third Reich.

Another theme, one could say, is movies about Jewish individuals who found ways to survive. In 2008, the Best Foreign-Language Film winner was Austria’s The Counterfeiters, the true tale of a Jew allowed to live— as long as he helped the Nazis counterfeit British currency. The Pianist and Defiance were, on some level, about rebelling against the Nazis simply be refusing to be captured, and so was Nowhere in Africa, a lyrical film (Best Foreign Film of 2003) about a Jewish girl hiding out from the Holocaust on her family’s African plantation.

The Holocaust films of the 1990s did have Jews in rebellion against the Nazis, but mostly by using imagination and the arts: Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, Comedian Harmonists, Swing Kids. That decade also brought Schindler’s List, which started the not-all-Germans-were-bad trend.

Coming in 2011 is The Nazi Officer’s Wife, based on a documentary about a Jewish woman who became exactly that. Seventy years after 1940’s The Great Dictator, Hollywood isn’t done with the Holocaust quite yet.

The generation that experienced the Holocaust is fading. The group of artists making Holocaust films will soon contain no people with a memory of that time. Not long after that, there will be no survivors left for Hollywood to even consult in crafting such stories and images.

All they will have to work with will be material produced during the Holocaust and in the decades after, the time in which survivors themselves could have some input. The last pieces of which are being filmed… well, now.

For another take on Holocaust films, see author Cynthia Ozick’s analysis in a recent issue of Newsweek. 


Past to present

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Past to present photo

My college reunion. I really had to work to get there. The reunion conflicted with a Bar Mitzvah extravaganza. But I was determined to go. I left the Saturday morning service early to hop on a plane that got into Boston at 4:17 p.m. My return flight? Sunday morning 6:55 a.m. to make the Bar Mitzvah party at noon. I was nervous. I over-packed. When I landed in Boston, I snuck into the handicapped accessible bathroom with my suitcase and hanging bag (Larry David would have given me props) and awkwardly changed my outfit. Twice.

As I neared the campus, I was sure I needed make-up. I KNEW I needed deodorant. My anxiety level was high. I hadn't seen many of these people in 17 years. What did they remember about me? Did they remember the me when I first arrived with a bun in my hair, blasting classical music trying to appear scholarly? Did they remember me the next day when I was showering with all my clothes on because a two-liter bottle of purple passion told me to do so? Did they remember when I went on spring break to Florida and came back so painfully burned my eyes had swollen shut with orange ooze? Did they remember my black and white poster of Bo Bice?

Post reunion, I have no idea if anyone remembers any of these things. We didn't talk about that. It was all smiles and hugs, laughter and music. Even a little late night pizza and pumpkin beer. And I'm left wondering why I was so freaked out and why do so many of us fret so much about reunions? Why do we worry what "Joe" is going to think about the wrinkles we've acquired since the last time he sat behind us in class? Or fret over what to wear? Or wax our lip when a fuzzy one seemed to serve our significant others just fine? Or suddenly start working out in a panic to hide well-established love handles? All this time has gone by. And in this time, significant life events that have propelled us from our past and into our present. We have left high school and college far behind—and yet there is this stranglehold of time so many of us feel when an innocent piece of paper arrives in the mail, excitedly encouraging us to attend our reunions.

What is it about the past? Is it shame about who we used to be? About who we are now? About who we loudly and publically swore we would or would not become before graduating into the world of possibilities? Or is it that who we were—jock, cheerleader, nerd, outcast etc.—isn't who we are anymore and we're out to rewrite or relive who we used to be? Well, maybe. For me, when I saw people, actually saw them face-to-face, surprisingly, I wasn't thinking about who they used to be. I fell into a pace of who they are presently. And they with me. I realized all the fretting, the worry and the waxing was unnecessary (the first outfit would have been fine!) And although I reserve the possibility that I will relapse with terrible anxiety come the next reunion opportunity because of how my body, my brain or my life has changed, change is the theme to all reunions. If we stayed the same, we'd never agree to go back.


Napping and ice cream

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Napping and ice cream photo

I’m at a party and my friend tells me her boyfriend works out seven days a week.  I give him a high five.  But, I added, take a day off.  We all need a day off.  And stay with me, I’ll get to the ice cream.

When you work out, you are breaking down muscle fibers.  The idea is, muscle fibers build back up stronger and bigger after you workout, but you must rest for them to heal.  Many power lifters take a week off and come back to break plateaus because they let all their micro-tears heal.  I’m not suggesting you should take a week off, but we all need rest.

One of the best things you can do to lose weight and gain muscle is sleep.  I wish I could tell you an energy drink, coffee, or a supplement will help you make up for sleep but it won’t.  Caffeine can give you a little pick-me-up but it’s not a permanent solution and it won’t help muscles heal.  I won’t bore you with all the benefits of sleep but here’s an important one: sleep helps regulate hormones that affect and control your appetite.

If you are having a trouble sleeping, workout harder.  Kidding, but working out does help you sleep.  Other sleep aids:

•         Creating a night time ritual
•         Reading in bed
•         Writing down your thoughts prior to bed
•         Running a noise machine (i.e. rain, white noise, beach)
•         Eat a big bowl of ice cream

Ice cream will probably not help you sleep, but it can help you stay on the healthy train.  Whether your weaknesses are cookies, brownies, cupcakes (they are everywhere), ice cream, enjoy!  Pick one day a week and splurge.  I’m not saying, eat an entire cookie cake, but have a cookie, eat a burger and enjoy.  If your diet consists of burgers and fries, then this will be a huge upgrade.  However, this tip works best when you work in an office like I do.  On most days my office looks like Halloween, minus the outfits.  Candy and baked goods are a little too abundant.  By having a cheat day you can avoid the urge to grab a mini Snickers (which ends up being two mini Snickers and one peanut butter cup) and wait till your cheat day.  My sister once told me, I need a little something sweet each day.  For those of you like my sister, find food items that are sweet and satisfying but without all the sugar, fat and calories.  Here are a few suggestions:

• Fruit
• Dried fruit (check out the sugar, make sure they have some fiber.  I like apricots)
• Sweet potato
• Greek yogurt with honey
• 70% Cacao dark chocolate

When I cheat, I skip the veggie burger and go with a cheeseburger and a chocolate chip cookie (not in the same meal).  What’s your cheat food?


I completely improvised this blog post

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I have been performing most of my life.  There are few things I won’t do to get a chance at holding the microphone and having a moment in the spotlight.  For the last four years I have been a part of an Improv Comedy Team in Chicago.  A group of us put together a team as we were finishing classes together at IO Chicago.  Calling ourselves Franken Reagan, we set about getting a coach, rehearsing, and booking shows at bars and small venues around town.  We eventually set up a website, www.frankenreagan.com.  None of us were ever looking to get famous.  We just wanted to try and put on a good show and have fun doing it—most of the time we made people laugh.

Franken Reagan photo

Today, the six current members of Franken Reagan perform together at a regular weekly showcase at Mullen’s Bar and Grill in Wrigleyville.  Mondays are show days, so it makes for a long day.  I am up at 6am to get ready for work and home after 11 from a night that includes two hours of rehearsal and two hours of the show.  But for me, it’s one of the most important parts of my week, so it’s worth being tired at work on Tuesday mornings.

Only two of us still remain on the team from the original rehearsal, four years ago this month.  Over 20 people have been a part of Franken Reagan over the last four years, including the current cast of six.  I would bet that if you interviewed all of us, you would find that everyone had his/her own motivations for working on the team.  For me, there are three things that keep me coming back for more:

1. Team Work

Franken Reagan has been rehearsing as a team almost every week since we started.   I know what you are thinking, how do you rehearse if your show is supposed to be improvised?   It is the most important thing we do.  We develop ideas for our form that acts as the framework for our shows, we run drills to keep our minds and bodies sharp, and most importantly, we learn how to work and play together on stage.  We are no different than any sports team.  Our playing field is the stage, and if we don’t practice, we look sloppy and the fans don’t let us forget it.

No matter what motivates us, the group comes together each week to play hard as a team and hopefully get some laughs in the process.  I love the camaraderie.  It takes a lot of guts to go out on stage in front of an audience, but it takes a lot of trust to do it with a group.  The friendship I have with my team is special.  I even asked the group to play a role in my wedding ceremony, as yichud guards.  I knew they wouldn’t let me down, and they showed up to the wedding in costumes.

2. It helps me perform better at my day job.

I work in international business development, supporting Israeli companies that want to export to the Midwest.  I basically improvise all day long at work.   I work on a team there too.   Improvising has made me a more confident speaker, a more social networker, a quicker thinker, and a more supportive team-player.  I know how to look good and make others look good while doing it.  That’s the essence of my show each week, and that is the essence of the job I actually get paid to do.

3. It’s one of the hardest things I do, and I love it when I get it right.

Improv Comedy is hard.  For me, it’s one of the hardest things that I do in my life.  That helps make the rest of my daily life seem easier.  I know I can get through a lot more after the things I have had to do in front of audiences.

My team has had its share of failures on stage.  We haven’t always come out on top, killed it or put up a quality show.  For me, it’s all worth it because it gets me closer to that perfect show.  There are moments on stage where everything is going perfectly.  Where you know you are doing things right.  When you are in the moment.  Not everyone does Imrpov, but everyone has probably had this feeling at one time or another.  Maybe it was during a presentation, a job interview, an exam, a football game, a race, a date… it was one of those moments where you felt you could say and do no wrong and it was clear by the reaction you were getting that you were probably right on target for success.

That’s what it feels like to have a great moment in a show.  Those are the moments that I live for as a performer.  Those are the moments that get me to show up every week, even if the previous week was a complete bomb.

I could go on for pages about the merits of Improv Comedy.  I really believe it can help a lot of people and can do a lot for just about anyone.  There are a lot of places to take classes around town.  You don’t have to be funny to get something out of Improv Comedy.  In fact, if you are trying to be funny, you probably missed the point.  You just have to be open and committed to learning something new and getting out of your comfort zone.  Trust me, it’s worth the risk.  By the way, if you are not doing anything on Monday night, check out www.frankenreagan.com to see if we have a show.  It’s free, and most nights we make people laugh.


Thanksgiving insanity

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Thanksgiving insanity photo

I have been battling mini-panic attacks at least once a day for the last month.  I’ll be sitting at my desk at work, or watching my son toss food at the dog, and all of a sudden, the evil thoughts creep into my head.

Don’t forget to bring in the guy to calibrate the oven… Do I actually need to touch the giblets?… Are three desserts enough?… What if I mess up the turkey?… Am I crazy for hosting this outrageously overwhelming holiday?

Deep breaths, and sometimes a glass of wine (not at work, of course) can typically fend off the mounting meltdown.  At least until the next “what if?” sneaks in.

For me, Thanksgiving is the be-all, end-all of holidays.  Growing up, it was the one holiday a year that both sides of my family celebrated together, and it was always at our house.  I eagerly anticipated spending the day with both sets of grandparents, cousins from as close as Highland Park and as far as Louisville, friends that were more like family and, of course, my mom, dad and three little brothers. 

We built forts out of sheets and blankets in the basement, and showed off our new toys, and got into silly fights over said toys, while picking at the appetizers and waiting impatiently for dinner to be ready. 

Our Thanksgivings weren’t fancy affairs.  No china or crystal or silver graced the tables.  My mom, who spent the previous week (if not more) in the kitchen, probably figured that her children were not going to line up and help with the dishes after all was said and done, so we were a paper and plastic kind of family. 

I’m sure the food was delicious.  To be honest, I don’t even remember.  What mattered to me was that everyone I loved was at my house, and for just one day, everything was perfect.

My own memories of perfect Thanksgivings past are going to give me a heart attack.  I am driven to re-create the perfect day so that my child will have the same experience I did, even though that child is 15 months old and can’t even say “turkey,” much less remember anything other than when his next bottle is coming.

No matter.  I’ve been consuming old holiday editions of Bon Appetit for months.  I’ve collected turkey placemats, pumpkin pie-shaped dishes, Thanksgiving-colored candles and baskets of gourds.  I’ve come up with a creative way for all of us to share what we’re thankful for.  I have dived fully into Thanksgiving insanity.

After my parents got divorced, our perfect family Thanksgivings came to an end.  We still had delicious dinners, but only with one side of the family, and with re-marriages, that family included a lot of new faces.  It was good, but it wasn’t the same.

This year I made it my mission to bring us back to the Thanksgivings of my childhood.  My parents (Mom, Dad and Step-dad), my in-laws, my brothers and sister-in-law, my grandma and my closest family friends will somehow cram into our home and squeeze around the table.  There will be hot cider, cold beer, football, and probably a food disaster or two. 

Our son, Ben, will most likely scrunch up his face when he tastes stuffing and cranberry sauce, a sign that the food is about to be launched over the high chair tray.  He’ll be overtired and in bed by 7, missing most of the party.

And I will try my hardest to stop fussing with the turkey, and kvetching about people in the kitchen, and fretting about how we’re all going to fit in the dining room, just long enough to take in all the warm, familial goodness and be thankful.


Harriet the Spy rides the Brown Line

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Harriet the Spy rides the Brown Line photo

I sincerely believe that every day on public transit is an adventure. It’s the ultimate people-watcher’s paradise:  there’s always something going on. We all get treated to drama and comedy of epic scope, for the price of admission onto a train or a bus.

Today, for instance, the Brown Line was packed. Usually when I catch the train, things are pretty laid back: there are a few seats open and the platform is fairly empty. But as soon as I saw there was one open seat in the front car, I planted myself in front of the door and made a beeline for it. (Maybe I’m a little aggressive about finding seats on the train. I can’t get hungry for the first hour and a half that I’m awake, but I have fainted enough times on the Brown Line that I don’t trust myself to make the whole trip hot, cramped and without calories. Generally I try to be polite on public transit, but this is one of the things I allow myself, like giving the stinkeye to people who take up two seats or who sit on the aisle and make it hard for others to get in.)

The lady who wound up sitting next to me was a sigher. For whatever reason, she constantly commented on the state of the world with these frantic little sighs. She wore a beautiful ankle-length black wool coat, and by the time I got curious enough to look from the window to my seat-mate, I saw that she had spread out a full array of makeup products on her knees. The eye shadow kit with which she was touching up her gold-and-gunsmoke color scheme had the Chanel logo on the outside and a mirror inside the lid. I was amazed that she had the confidence to put on her face on a bouncing train car, without knocking her elbows into anyone around her.

You can learn a lot by studying a train car on a macro level too. A game I play, because yeah, I am pretty judgmental about how people behave on public transit, is to figure out who is blocking the aisles. It’s the worst when you’re trying to get onto a car, and the area in front of the doors is packed tight as sardines, while other riders are hanging out just fine by the seats. (Pro-tip: Speaking up generally does get people to shuffle in a little and make some room. I’ve found that not letting my grouchiness get in the way will make them more accommodating, and may lead to good-humored mutual complaining about the state of the CTA.) Anyway, your culprit for bottlenecks is not always who you think. They’re usually totally oblivious to their surroundings. They’re also usually hanging off the second-nearest pole like a rhesus monkey, ignoring or not seeing the bar eighteen inches away that will free their fellow riders from a truly special brand of forced socializing. (Moral of the story: Be considerate as much as you can, because I may be watching and blog about you.)

If you’d rather not risk awkward moments of eye contact, I’m also a huge fan of staring out the window. I’ve lived in Chicago for most of the past eight years, and I still automatically sit as close to the window as I can, and on the side with the best view, whether it’s the side of the bus where I can watch the lake or the side of the Brown Line where I can see the horses near the Noble Horse Theater, just past the Sedgwick stop. Even with all that time on the CTA, there are some things that still elude me. Why is the actress in that poster by the Steppenwolf Theater so angry? (Why did they choose that photo to entice us to buy tickets?) Who uses the community garden just past Armitage? What’s with that six-story list of names near the elevated Chicago stop? How long will that early-rising worker stare back at us from her office while we’re waiting for signal clearance?

Like I said, adventure for $2.25 a pop. And all before 8:30 this morning! Catch you on the flip side, Chicago. You’re always fun to watch.


New definitions

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New definitions photo

In 1710, Queen Anne told Sir Christopher Wren— one of the greatest architects in history— that his renovation of St. Paul’s Cathedral was “awful, artificial and amusing.” He was thrilled with the compliment; today, she would have said his work was “awesome, artistic, and amazing.”

The meanings of words change. And the definitions we give to Jewish terms need to change, too. It seems that every book with a glossary of Jewish terms at the end, even ones published just a year ago, simply recycled it from one written in the 1940s in England. This is true for novels, memoirs, histories, textbooks, even cookbooks.

The message these hoary, cobweb-covered definitions sends to someone learning about Judaism is that our religion is outdated and foreign. That it is unrelatable and irrelevant. Exactly the opposite of the truth, and exactly the opposite of what these books are trying to do, which is speak to today’s readers in today’s terms. To encourage participation in today’s Jewish life by today’s Jews.

Calling Rosh Hashannah “The Jewish New Year,” or Yom Kippur “The Day of Atonement,” is fine, as is calling Chanukah “The Festival of Lights.” All are accurate in both their denotations and connotations. (But we could do without this “Feast of…” business. As if people didn’t already think of Jews as overly food-focused.)

Succot is usually translated as “Tabernacles.” First of all, no one knows what that word means. Why would we explain an unknown word with another unknown word? If someone doesn’t know what an “elephant” is, do we say “a pachyderm”? Second of all, it sounds like a joint disease: “Yup, storm’s a-brewin’… mah tabernacles‘re actin’ up.” The word is Latin for “tents.” But we don’t speak Latin and we don’t build tents on Succot, not in the current sense of a camping tent. In fact, that waterproof kind of tent would be an invalid succah.

Aside from Tabernacles, the holiday is called “The Festival of Booths.” That’s still not good enough. What’s a “booth”? There are no telephone booths in the day of the Blackberry, so we use that word to mean the seating in restaurants comprised of benches instead of chairs. Or a “booth” is a stand at a tradeshow.

The word we want is “hut.” A “hut” is a basic, fragile, unassuming dwelling made of materials at hand, often with a thatched roof. Which is what a succah is. Does the word “hut” sound primitive? Good, it should. It’s supposed to evoke life in the wilderness and fields, where the original succot were built. Why not— “Succot: The Festival of Huts.”

Shavuot is “The Festival of Weeks.” While this is an accurate translation of its name— it comes seven weeks after Passover— it sort of buries the lead. Which is that this is the holiday celebrating the Revelation of God at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the “Ten Commandments” (see below). Now, these are things most people have heard of, and have even seen the movie. If so, why have so few heard of the relevant holiday? It could have something to do with its wishy-washy name. Why not call Shavuot “The Festival of The Revelation,” since that is the headline of the story.

Calling Purim “The Festival of Lots” only prompts the obvious query: “Lots of what?” Well, no… Haman “cast lots” to determine the day on which to commit genocide on the Jews. But that’s such a minor point in the story— why even bother to update that translation to “Festival of Lotteries”? Why not call it “The Festival of Esther,” since she is the focus? Wouldn’t it be cool to be the religion with the party holiday that honors a heroic woman?

And Pesach, of course is “Passover.” Again, a minor plot element in the story becomes the name of the holiday. But in this case, “Passover” has so much name recognition it gets... well, a pass.

But why must we call “matzah” the “unleavened” bread? No one knows what that word means. No one ever uses that word in any other context. Even a kosher-for-Passover cake isn’t called an “unleavened cake.” What about calling matzah “yeast-less bread” or “yeast-free bread,” since that is the point.

On the subject of food, why must “kasha” be “buckwheat groats”? Why make people look up “kasha,” only to have to then look up “groats”? Why not “buckwheat grains,” or simply “buckwheat”? Kashe varnishkes: buckwheat and pasta. Done.

One Jewish food with a confusing definition is “kugel.” Almost unanimously, glossary-makers define this Britishly, as “pudding.” And, equally unanimously, Americans equate the word “pudding” with a custard-like dessert that mostly comes in ice cream-like flavors. I don’t want a Snak-Pak of potato pudding, do you? Or a Jell-O noodle pudding pop? So why do we call a potato kugel a “potato pudding?” A more contemporary definition of “kugel” would be “casserole.” It comes in a 13x9 Pyrex, just like tuna or green bean casserole. And if it must be “pudding,” then we should expand, helpfully: “pudding, as in bread or rice pudding.” Oh, that kind of pudding.

The most off-putting old definition of a Jewish food is that for kishka (a.k.a. kishke). This was—generations ago, oceans away— made by using a cow’s small intestine as a casing. Not for sausage, but for a seasoned, bready stuffing. Today, in this country, we use plastic or paper casings. In any case, the casing is never eaten anyway. Yet, kishka is always called “stuffed derma,” or “stuffed intestines,” which makes it sound like the Jewish equivalent of haggis. In fact, it is merely— and more accurately— “maztah-meal stuffing.” And if it’s not exactly healthy, it is quite tasty.

Meanwhile, what is “chopped liver,” chopped liver? Yeah, well… why can’t it be the much more sophisticated “paté”?

But perhaps the Jewish word with the most useless traditional definition is “tefillin” (teh-FILL-in). These are small leather boxes worn during morning prayers, held in place with leather straps. The source for this practice is the Torah itself, a passage that is part of the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:8):  “And you shall bind [these words] on your hands, and they shall be amulets between your eyes” (my translation).

Anyway, these things are almost always defined in glossaries as “phylacteries,” a word which nobody even knows how to pronounce, let alone comprehend. Why not save everyone the trouble and define “tefillin” as “leather, parchment-filled boxes worn by Jews during morning prayers.” Yes, that’s a mouthful, but at least that’s what they are, presented in words everyone can comprehend.

Some other ones:
—The word “mitzvah” may mean “good deed” in slang, but literally means “commandment.”

—So yes, “Aseret HaDibrot,” is more accurately rendered not “The Ten Commandments” but “The Ten Declarations.” For those of you who have long held that the first of the Ten is more of a “statement” than a “commandment,” well, sure… Hebrew speakers never called them all “commandments” in the first place!

— Instead of saying that we “chant” the Torah or prayers, can we please say that we “recite” them? “Chanting” sounds savage, witchy, and thudding. But we “recite” poems, and play piano at “recitals,” so that word is much more enlightened and melodic. The prayers are largely Psalms, written by King David and other poets, to be sung by the Levites in the Holy Temple. They are not “chants” grunted by a men’s encounter group in the woods or shouted by angry protesters.

We Jews are a minority, and our ways are esoteric and ancient enough; these archaic definitions create another barrier to those exploring our already-challenging world. Our clinging to outdated definitions is additionally off-putting— intellectually and emotionally— to those who want to know more about Judaism. But with new definitions, we Jews can stop seeming “awful, artificial, and amusing”.... and start coming across as we are— awesome, artistic, and amazing.

The Glossary of Jewish Terms I wrote for JUF’s website, www.juf.org, is here. Last I checked, it was being used by the Federations for 40 US cities, states, and regions, as well as sites based in Canada and the UK. In compiling the Glossary, I strived to make the definitions relevant to today’s speakers and readers. Feel free to let me know how I did.


We’re the book club

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We’re the book club photo

I’m a reader—I always have been.  I grew up thoroughly entrenched in dork-land, not stirring up trouble in standard pre-teen fashion but instead pissing off my parents by staying up into all hours of the night with a flashlight under the covers.

I read every Babysitters Club, every Sweet Valley High and every other fluffy teenage drama.  The only books I avoided were the ones inflicted upon me by my teachers.  The idea of reading a book torturously slowly, chapter by chapter, and discussing it to death made me want to snag a copy of the Cliffs Notes as quickly as possible and space out during class.

In college, the endless stream of political science textbooks and French lit didn't leave any time for pleasure reading, and once I graduated, reading on my morning commute wasn't too successful, given the bumpy and overcrowded nature of the 156 bus.  As a recent grad in a new city, I was looking for new friends and new book recommendations, and so, the book club was born.

It started with four girls (at the time, the only girls in Chicago that I knew) schmoozing about Eat Pray Love at a delicious Thai and sushi dinner at the Indie Cafe in January of 2008.  I was the only one who actually finished the book; Abby was half-way through India, Mara got bored before the end of Italy and Tara never bought the book.  Somehow the conversation drifted from the book of the month to French Women Don't Get Fat to the pros and cons of raw diets to the latest gossip about the boys in our lives.

Several bottles of wine and a shockingly loud pop of a champagne bottle later, we had not gotten very deep into the book (or into it at all—can't ruin the ending for...everyone), but we were fairly drunk and enthused to do it again.

Months and months (well, years…) later, we have grown from four to 20 on the monthly invitation list, and we’ve said farewell to members who have moved away.  We’ve welcomed fresh transplants to the city and made new friends with some locals.  We’ve held potlucks, treated ourselves to dinner and gone on field trips.

The book club has tackled dozens of books—and of course following true book club fashion, we’ve never really discussed any of them in depth.  We've bonded over our failed attempts to critique our literary picks over nearly one hundred bottles of wine.  We've held after-book-club-parties at bars all across Chicago, and inflicted our silliness upon anyone who would listen to our recurring proclamation: "We're the book club!"  (The conversation typically continued as follows: "Really?  What book did you read?" "Um, Rachel - what book was it again?" or "I can't remember what it's called - I haven't finished it yet...")

Every fall, we now take turns offering up book suggestions for the year ahead, and I tend to read almost all of them—not just the 12 we pick for the next 12 months—and as a nerd at heart, I'm usually a book or two ahead of schedule (thank you Kindle!).  Luckily, at least a couple other girls have joined who tend to finish the book fairly regularly, but still, the books are rarely discussed.

Regardless, book club has allowed me to reenter the literary world, while facilitating the formation and strengthening of some special friendships along the way.


To hug or not to hug

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Can we please talk about the most awkward moment of a girl date? Because it’s killing me.

You have a nice dinner, easy chatting, and then, when you part, there’s this moment. Nervous hesitation, shifting from side to side. Uncomfortable energy is in the air… And then you go for it. The hug.

Or you don’t. But if you’re me, you do. And it is just so painfully awkward.

I am not kidding. The to-hug-or-not-to-hug parting moment is the worst. I’m one of those people who will do anything to interrupt an awkward silence. Including calling out the silence itself. “Well this is awkward…” Thus increasing the kill-me-now factor by approximately one thousand percent.

It’s a combo of Monica Geller’s “I’m breezy!” and Chandler Bing’s “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable!”

Take a girl-date I went on a few months back. We had a perfectly nice meal, but when we were leaving there was this strange moment where neither of us knew what to say or do. So just as she started to wave goodbye I actually said aloud “Ok, I’m just going to go for the hug.”

Who says that? The poor girl was like “Um, ok. So we’re doing that.” Those were her actual words.

A similar problem can occur when you run into a sorta friend out of the blue. Do we hug hello? Or just wave?

This happened to me twice—twice!—yesterday. First I ran into an old coworker, and for reasons I cannot explain I hugged him. I should not have been hugging him. We were not close. It was weird. I was just so taken aback by seeing him out of context that I went for it. And then I was totally embarrassed for the duration of the conversation and for a good seven minutes afterwards.

Then, because apparently that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, I ran into a girl who works at my company at a bar last night. And I hugged her hello. I mean seriously. What is wrong with me? Again, embarrassed. Less so, because I bet she’s a hugger, but still. I hardly know her. We work in the same company, not the same department. It was not the time.

All this to say, if you run into me on the street, and you see me start to lift my arms, you have two options: Embrace it, or run.

Does anyone out there even know what I’m talking about? Have you experienced this awkward girl-date moment? Or am I just a total weirdo? Don’t feel bad, you won't be telling me anything I don’t already know…

Read more  about new Oy! blogger Rachel’s quest to meet her new BFF.

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