OyChicago blog

Holiday Traditions

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Holiday Traditions photo2

I LOVE the holiday season. I love the festive feeling you get when you're making your Thanksgiving menu or listening to holiday music when out running errands. I love the smell of turkey roasting in the oven and of the latkes my dad would fry every year in our garage (because heaven forbid the smell permeates our home - you know that never comes out).

But more important than the presents, the food and the festivities, to me the holidays are a time for family traditions and sharing quality time with loved ones.

While I'm not so newly wed (it's been four years already - where does the time go?), I've found thus far that one of the biggest challenges in relationships is the merging of family traditions, particularly in November and December.

My family makes a huge deal of Thanksgiving - it's always at my parents and every year we gather all of the Friedsons and the Aizens and the Jacobsons around one big table for a dinnertime feast. Even though nearly everyone lives in Cleveland (or did at least - now we have a growing Chicago contingent and a lone New Yorker), it's when we would take the big photo of the grandchildren that would become calendars for our grandparents. My dad cooks the turkey, my mom makes her challah stuffing and mushroom gravy, and Nana always brings the cranberry Jello mold (which sounds disgusting but surprisingly isn't). We sit down around 5:30 for dinner around a big table and stuff ourselves to the point of bursting. It's all very predictable but it's US.

My husband's family traditions are completely different. David's stepmom is one of five sisters, and they all come together at Aunt Amy's house around 1:00 pm, bringing all sorts of yummy treats, which range from honey-baked ham to oyster stuffing to macaroni and cheese. Of course, there's turkey and green beans and pumpkin pie, too. The food is set up buffet style, and everyone hangs out (and pigs out) all afternoon, with the men in the basement watching football, the women upstairs eating and chatting. End result is certainly the same - stuffed to the point of feeling ill (in a good way of course), but totally different.

The December holidays are equally opposite. My family has a low-key Chanukah Party, with latkes and a goofy $10 gift exchange, and that's about it. David's parents have a menorah and a Christmas tree, and both holidays are celebrated in style with lots of presents and huge family get togethers and feasting that rivals the Thanksgiving spread.

The challenge is not so much about different family trends in gift-giving or favorite foods. It's adjusting to the idea that you won't always be with your family on Thanksgiving day - and helping your family adjust to the idea that you won't always be there for every holiday. AND it's getting used to the idea that you ARE with family - they're just not the same family that you were with as a child. Because his family is now your family, too.

Merging holiday traditions is tough. For us, we've come to the agreement of switching back and forth each year.  And for this year, work commitments are keeping us in Chicago for November AND December which meant finding new ways to celebrate instead of visiting family. It meant making friends the new family.

So far, it has been a blast. We feasted on Thanksgiving day with friends, and between four people, we had over a dozen dishes - because of course everyone wanted to share their favorite foods that their families have every year. Who knows what December will bring (besides the inevitable burnout on all things retail and Christmas music related).  Moreover, I know next year will be a whole new different adventure. But the merging of families, favorite foods, fun times and a new future together are what makes the ride worthwhile. 


Do you ever stop looking?

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Rachel Bertsche photo 2

When I was on my full-fledged BFF search, going on 52 dates in 52 weeks, people often asked me if I'd call off the hounds if I found The One. There were a few times when I considered it. I'd meet someone so fantastic and wonderful that I'd want to give up on everyone else and just dedicate all my time to that budding friendship.

And then I'd learn that she planned on moving.

Longtime readers of this blog know that when it comes to friends I believe in quality and quantity. Having one great friend is awesome and certainly a bajillion times better than none, but I wanted a handful. 

Greedy? Maybe. But people move. Or they have babies and are suddenly less available. I really wanted a friendship safety net.

My major year of dating was in 2010. I made a good amount of buddies during those 12 months, and in the 10 months since, I've made another, maybe, five friends. My calendar is blessedly full.

So the question is: Does the time ever come to stop looking?

For me, the answer is no. I've trained myself to be a people-meeter. (I truly believe this. Being friendly and meeting new people is something I was once kind of bad at, and now I rock. Sorry, but I do. If you think you're bad at being outgoing and talking to strangers, just force yourself to do it. Soon it'll become second nature. I promise.) There might still be a lady soul mate out there for me.

But here's a line that comes up a lot: I don't have time for new friends.

Or: I have too many friends as it is.

Or: So, are you done yet?

As if I'm cooking a meatloaf rather than establishing lifelong connections, here.

I get it. Time is precious and people want to use it on their already existing friends. But it would seem so odd to me, at this point, to just be like "Enough! I deem the search over! Class dismissed!"

Have I shared here the story of the British journalist who met a guy with a one-in-one-out friend policy? He maintained only six friends at a time, and one day sent the journalist a note saying he had an opening. Would she be interested in being his friend?

Lovely, right?

In hopes of never becoming that British twit, I'll keep looking, dating, and hanging with my new pals. Viva la amigos! But I'm wondering, have you ever consciously decided to stop looking for new friends? Ever decided your dance card was full?


Happy Thanksgiving

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Happy Thanksgiving photo

With Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow, there's no way I can avoid writing a blog about the holiday of turkeys, cranberries and too many relatives cramped in one space.

I was trying to think of lessons I've learned over the years, and I've come up with three ways to relieve some of the stress that comes along with celebrating Thanksgiving. None of these are particularly innovative or groundbreaking lessons, but nevertheless, I thought I'd share.

1. Remember, there are no such things as carbs, calories, or cholesterol on Thanksgiving (or any major holiday, for that matter). Sure, most of us will eat enough to comfortably hibernate through the winter. Sure, you might feel a button pop off your pants after finishing dessert. So what? You'll work it off next week anyway. You might worry about what and how much you're eating on Thanksgiving, but honestly, I'd rather not stress about it. (Who am I kidding, I am just powerless to resist turkey and cranberry sauce… or dessert.)  Regardless of culture, food has always given people something to bond over and Thanksgiving is the holiday to experience a variety of wonderful culinary treats. Plus, if your grandma catches you avoiding certain dishes, she'll just pile them on your plate anyway.

2. Accept that your crazy relatives will never get any less crazy. When you pack many relatives, young and old, into one room, things are bound to get stressful, especially when you haven't seen some of them since last year's Thanksgiving. There's always a wacky or tactless relative that points out how much weight you've gained since you last saw each other. An older relative, like a grandparent, will probably pester you about finding a nice Jewish man or woman to marry and have children with. Dealing with many family members all at once can be stressful and frustrating, but at the same time, you should know what to expect by now - and be grateful for it. Everyone's family can drive them crazy, especially during the holidays. But if you take into consideration that some people aren't lucky enough to have a family to celebrate with, or that god forbid, someone may not be around for next year's Thanksgiving, you'll have a much different perspective. Take the stress with a grain of salt, and the whole experience becomes more pleasant and memorable.

3. Help clean up after the feast (especially if you didn't cook!) I admit it, I don't cook. But having been raised with a father and grandfather as obsessed with order, organization and cleanliness as Monica Geller on "Friends," I sure know how to clean. And since I don't do much preparing for Thanksgiving outside of setting plates and silverware, my job comes after all the food is gobbled up (clever, right?). If you are a guest at someone's home, cleaning up helps ensure that the hosts don't regret inviting you and might do so again next year. Anyone who has ever had a celebration at their home knows that cleaning up after is enough to make you reconsider ever hosting again. And as silly as it may sound, I like helping my family clean after all the guests have gone home. It makes me realize that no matter how annoying it is to vacuum the dining room carpet or clean the dishes, I'm grateful to have had another memorable Thanksgiving with people I love. And if you're one of those people worried about how much weight you've gained from your Thanksgiving meal, cleaning is a great opportunity to burn off some calories!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


Interview with (almost) lingerie football player Julie Farby

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Recently, I was flipping through my channels and saw a Lingerie Football League game on MTV2 (don't worry I don't frequently watch that channel). Yes, the women are dressed in less than modest attire, but once the whistle is blown they hit hard and bruise just like the men. It dawned on me that I had heard rumors that a former campmate of mine was on the Chicago team. Turns out that wasn't entirely true. Julie Farby, the girl all the guys had crushes on at Camp Ramah, had tried out but unfortunately did not make it. Farby was always an athlete. She was one of the stars of the girls’ basketball and softball team and we were on sports staff together as counselors. Farby took her passion for sports to the field in her tryout and here is her experience.

Interview with (almost) lingerie football photo

1) Tell The Great Rabbino a little bit about yourself. Did you play sports growing up?
I always loved playing sports. You name it, I played it. Basketball, softball, tennis, volleyball, pretty much my entire childhood consisted of me playing some organized sport or another. Sometimes that included me being the only girl on the team, which I didn't really mind— though I'm not sure how the boys felt about it. No one likes being shown up by a girl, but I think once the novelty wore off, they treated me like anyone else on the team.

2) What made you decide to try out for the Lingerie Football League?
I honestly didn't even know the league existed until like a month before the tryouts when I saw a video of one of last year's LFL game online. I was pretty much blown away by the idea that there was actually a league where girls got payed to play real tackle football live on MTV2. It was right up my alley. As a journalist, I was used to skimpy pay; the skimpy uniforms, on the other hand, would take some getting used to. But it looked like so much fun, I couldn't resist.

3) What were tryouts like?
Tryouts were really intense. Athletically, I hadn't done much since playing Lacrosse my freshman year in college, and some intramural softball and basketball leagues after that, so I wasn't sure what to expect. About 160 girls showed up to the tryouts, where we had to run the 40, do a variety of strength, skill and endurance tests, including pass, catch, and tackle drills, and by the end of the day, they had cut all but 35 or so of us. Those who made it past the first round were invited back to an increasingly intense week of mini-camp, where they narrowed the field even more. The remaining 30 of us were invited to come back to an even more grueling training camp, which lasted two more weeks, until they had the 20 players they needed to fill their roster. With a bunch of returning veterans, roster space was unfortunately limited, and as a result, my LFL journey ended after training camp. But for someone who had never played football in their life, wasn't a marathon runner or a fitness instructor, I think I did pretty well. I definitely learned a lot, too. But some skills you can't teach. Like either you are okay with tackling and getting tackled or you're not. I fall into the former. If I see you with the ball, rest assured I'm coming for you, and you're going down one way or another.

4) What was the most surprising thing about your experience?
The most surprising thing about the whole experience was definitely the level of competition. I thought it would maybe be more about looks than anything else, but that simply wasn't the case. These girls are real athletes, some of them have played football before, some haven't, but pretty much everyone was serious about making the team, and it showed. This was not a powder puff league that's for sure. These girls are elite athletes and work as hard as anyone I've seen. The skill level was very impressive. Watch a game and I guarantee you'll agree these girls are the real deal.

5) Do you think Chicago will embrace the team like it has other sports?
Chicago is a great sports town so I can't believe they wouldn't love the Bliss, too. The team's been around for like two or three years and seems to be growing along with the league in general, which is obviously good to see. I mean what more could you want than watching a bunch of beautiful, bad ass, lingerie clad women play real, hard-nose, smash mouth football? At the very least, they sure look a hell of a lot better in spandex than some of the Bears. And have certainly been more competitive than the Cubs these past two years. Haha, just kidding. But I honestly think Chicago is one of the greatest sports cities in the nation. Just ask them, they'll tell you!

6) What’s next in the athletic career of Julie Farby?
Hopefully, the next step in my athletic career is actually making it on the active roster and onto the football field. The Bliss have had a rough start this year, currently sitting at 0-2 after two tough home losses, something they had never done before. I'd like to think some Julie Farby is just what they need! In the meantime, I've been working hard to get in shape, hone my football skills, and do whatever I can to ensure myself a spot on the squad. I can't do anything about the fact that at 5'4" 115 lbs, I am definitely undersized, even for a league that plays in glorified bikinis. But while I may not be big, I can certainly play big, and that is exactly what I intend to do.

7) Who is your favorite Chicago athlete of all-time?
Wow, that's a hard question because there's so many Chicago athletes I love. I guess I'd have to say Frank Thomas and Ozzie Guillen (as a player) were some of my old-school favorites, along with the obligatory Walter Payton/Michael Jordan answer because seriously how can you leave those two out? Other than that, I am a huge Brian Urlacher and Paul Konerko fan because they've just been quietly awesome for years now. And of course Chicago's own MVP D-Rose. How can you not love the guy? He is so exciting to watch and will hopefully be bringing some titles home- that is if they ever end the lockout and actually play a game. I think Chicago sports in general have some bright days ahead of them, hopefully the Bliss included.

8) What do you do off the field?
When not taking snaps, I write a blog called Democralypse Now which I like to describe as an equal-opportunity satirist exposing stupidity in government and politics, one hilariously scathing post at a time. Like Stephen Colbert…only hotter.

Thank you to Farby for the interview. Best of luck at next year's tryouts. I am sure The Great Rabbino fans will be rooting and watching for you.

And Let Us Say...Amen.


Turn me on/turn me off

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Blair Chavis photo

I had a Blackberry on death row after getting the battery wet and needed a new phone desperately. I'd been waiting for countless months until the new iPhone came out. But, I contemplated buying an iPhone with trepidation, because I've killed nearly every phone I've owned with water, by way of sewer grate, washing machine and the list goes on. My Blackberry went from its normal state of dropping calls, to going midnight black whenever I spoke with someone for more than five minutes. I love to talk and found myself tragically "speechless."

I drank the Apple Kool-Aid after using a Mac laptop at my last job and after observing friends coo over their iPhones. For most of my life I've been a PC girl. But, when I was little, my family had an Apple IIGS. I could play Wheel of Fortune on it, and a very ghetto avatar of Vanna White would clap. At school, I lived out my thrill-seeking elementary school days playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab with classmates. When I was in junior high, I found it mind boggling that I could talk with friends via AOL Instant Messenger on dial-up. In 2011, here I was making my triumphant return to Apple ownership, and in an anticlimactic turn, Apple delivered the 4S iPhone and not the 5 version. The iPhone 5 was rumored to have a 3D pop-out screen and a 3D pop-out light-keyboard.

I got my mitts on the 4S, and Siri and I are quickly falling in love. She's not perfect, but she can read me my text messages and deliver them too. If I tell her, "I love you," she has sarcastic and delightful responses like "Oh, stop," "You are the wind beneath my wings" and "Our love of each other is like two long shadows kissing without hope of reality." She proves that technology can be simultaneously frightening, poetic and wistful. Siri is my sassy robot BFF.

The Blackberry ("Crackberry") and the iPhone have been blamed for people's deteriorating social skills and newfound inability to disconnect from work. Now that I've joined the Apple cult, I can report that the iPhone is both amazing and creepy. Not only can I tell my phone robot what to do, I can choose to never disconnect myself from social media, and my phone can geographically track my every move, including where I am when taking photographs. Perhaps we should start shaking the "Apple" tree to find Big Brother. 

The same week I got the phone, I went on a work trip to Los Angeles to attend a fabulously nerdy blog and technology conference. I found myself surrounded by thousands of "computer geeks" who totally got what I was only beginning to comprehend after emerging from my apparent Blackberry rock. As per usual, attendees sat through sessions like school children in study hall passing notes via Twitter. I've been on "the Twitter," as my Twitter-challenged friends like to call it; I understand its perks. But, who was really listening to the sessions? Who's listening to each other while tweeting at dinner, posting to Facebook while with friends or playing "Angry Birds" at parties?  

Guy Kawasaki, who worked closely with Steve Jobs at Apple, spoke at the conference about how Google+ is the future. It's predicted, he said, that everything we do on the Internet will ultimately converge into one complex, indexed Google identity. To reluctantly quote Melissa Gorga from the Real Housewives of New Jersey, everything we do is literally "on display."

If you've recovered from gagging, think about reality TV's growth alongside the expansion of our capabilities on the Internet and alongside our growing desire to showcase ourselves via social media. Facebook, which started when I was a sophomore or junior in college, is so embedded in our collective culture now; people now want to be stars in their own lives. I think we're increasingly finding ourselves in a voyeuristic feedback loop with little substance. Rarely have people commented on the prevalent social media and reality TV freak shows until Kim Kardashian's wedding-divorce debacle, resulting in the first substantial public outcry I've witnessed. 

I can ask Siri to think for me. I can tell my car to unlock for me. I can tell my TiVo to tape for me. Meanwhile, I can't get my mail courier to drop off my mail when my door label falls off. I think artificial intelligence is making some of us dumber. The pace at which we consume information is making us impatient. The monetary and social capital we afford to those without talent is too great. Our priorities are all off. I love my new phone, but I think it's making me more ADD than my Blackberry did. I am part of a generation with more information at our fingertips than ever before, yet I think many of us are overloaded and lack the drive, and perhaps the mental muscles, for skepticism.

I grew up with the weekly observance of Shabbat in my home and Friday night dinners were a break from the week's distractions, when my family and I could enjoy a long meal together with real conversation. Now, I don't often observe the Sabbath unless I'm visiting my family or attending a Jewish event. However, my roommate, with a modern Orthodox background, has sought out new ways to observe. She has stayed overnight with either a rabbi's family or an Orthodox family for Shabbat, after connections she made through a Jewish educational group. Recently, she went to the family's house and spent the night with other guests to observe the Sabbath. She and the guests didn't necessarily know each other or the hosts very well. In observance of the Sabbath, my roommate reported that she and others "unplugged"-they had a 24-hour break from cell phones and computers. My roommate said staying with these families provided a meaningful connection; she spent time with their children and enjoyed a meal that lasted several hours with rich conversation. She described it as becoming part of the family, relaxing and escaping from technology. She said "unplugging" helped her to feel engaged and connected.  

It's scarcely fathomable for many of us to put our phones in "airplane mode" while flying, let alone unplug completely. My roommate placed herself in a situation where she didn't know the hosts and guests, and let herself get to know them without Google stalking, Facebook stalking, Twitter and the like. Perhaps it's archaic by modern standards, but people have been getting to know each other in real life ("IRL" for you acronym geeks) for centuries. Our online personas sometimes create an artificial blockade and we can't just talk without researching each other first.

I'm not shaking my finger at technology or social media. The out-pouring of emotion and sentiments after Steve Jobs' passing speaks to a global desire to stay "connected." And, Siri might take over the world someday, after all. (Don't anger the robots.) However, I miss some of what makes us human, too.


Are Americans over medicated?

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One of my favorite shows on TV is House, MD. I find entertainment and comfort in its formulaic medical mystery plot which includes a side story that reveals a personal side to one or more of the characters. My boyfriend ridicules the show and says that anyone could make five guesses as how to treat someone medically, and eventually get it right.

Dr. House treats without waiting or even testing for medical problems. He and his team listen to a list of symptoms and then diagnose and treat some obscure illness before another symptom emerges that refutes the previous theory. Dr. House himself is a recovering addict and demonstrates sociopathic behaviors.

I thought of Dr. House when the Wall Street Journal published a report about the pretty drastic spread of Americans taking psychiatric drugs including a sharp rise in antipsychotics and ADHD medications.

If the laws of supply and demand apply to psychiatric medication, the increase would be due to the medication being helpful. You wouldn’t take ibuprofen unless it helped your pain. The same would seem to be true for psychiatric medication.

But here is the question that is harder to answer.

Why are Americans so depressed? Why are we obsese? Why are we anxious? Why are we OCD? Are these issues more prevalent today than ever in history, and what happens when these medications, as they may, stop working?

Previous generations had to deal with their siblings dying from the flu and childbirth. They starved during the Great Depression. They were drafted into foreign wars.

They didn’t have TIVO.

Our lives are considerably easier, yet overall we are more depressed and anxious.

Perhaps unlike our great or great-great grandparents, our expectations for life are just too high. They rejoiced in penicillin and a good meal. According to Buddhism, the extinction of desire is Nirvana. If we want less would we eat less, obsess less, be less disappointed?

I know it’s not so simple. The brain is a complicated place. It just scares me that we focus so much on the cure when our understanding of the causes is so much less certain.

It’s like Dr. House is treating us for psychiatric problems, and if you’ve ever watched the show, that can’t be good public policy.



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Perspective photo 

I’m stressed that I didn’t complete everything on my to-do list at work yesterday, and I didn’t have time to pick up my dry cleaning, so I have to fit that in today. I also have a date tonight—what am I going to wear? …

These sorts of thoughts occupy our minds daily, the minutia of day-to-day life. It all seems so important in the moment, like life would end without completing that to-do list. Even though really, life as we know it will likely continue, regardless of what gets crossed off. But, what if it didn’t?

In my prior job, I worked with a sweet, generous and hard-working woman who managed our office. One day, as we were about to leave the office, she got a phone call, on her cell, from her doctor. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her life changed in a matter of seconds and her previous stresses, like her to-do list and errands, became abstract and lost the type of significance they held in her life just moments before. She focused more on family, her treatment, and getting enough rest. The to-do list and errands later took on meaning, not because they seemed important the way they did before, but because they sometimes helped her feel healthy and fulfilled, distracting her from fear and pain. Her view on life and priorities shifted, and at that time I truly learned about our mortality, and my view on life started to shift, too.

A couple weeks ago I went shoe shopping at Nordstrom. Although I went for brown leather riding boots, I got side-tracked by a pair of plush moccasin boots. I didn’t purchase the boots because they didn’t seem too practical for trudging through the Chicago snow. This was kind of a dilemma, because they were so cute, but I couldn’t justify the expense if I couldn’t get through the snow in them. The other day, while driving back into the city from the burbs, my mind somehow fell on these boots again and eventually my mind wandered to, “But what if I couldn’t trudge through the snow? What if, physically, I couldn’t navigate the snow?” Now this would be a legitimate dilemma. I brought myself back to earth, criticizing myself for fixating on such a silly material possession …

About four years ago, a dear friend of mine stumbled upon an ill-marked construction site and fell several feet. Due to serious spinal cord injuries, he now will rely on a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Recently, I had a conversation with him and he told me that now, his life is all about “perspective.” He no longer stresses over the little things and allows himself to appreciate what brings him happiness, even if it’s just short-term gratification. Life’s too short to worry about every little thing and it’s also too short to disregard what’s going to bring us pleasure. I think we forget that, and I think those of us who are lucky, and I mean really lucky enough to have our health and physical capabilities, too easily forget that in our daily lives.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my health and loved ones, but I’d also like to thank those who have touched me and taught me strength by example. I’m thankful for the perspective they have given me and how they have reminded me to enjoy the pleasures in life that often go un-noticed due to the minor stresses and concerns running through our brains like a ticker tape. This holiday season, as we’re reminded about all we should be thankful for, let’s also try to remember not to sweat the small stuff.


It’s Turkey Talk Time

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Come to me with your Kosher cooking conundrums 


Talking Turkey photo 

This is my second year as the Turkey Talk expert and I could not be more excited. I have to admit that after the glamour of last year’s Turkey Talk (I had solved all of last year’s frenzy of turkey troubles), I went through a period of withdrawal. I waited for more emails, I hoped for phone calls, I even prompted strangers in the grocery store to tell me their kitchen enigmas. I was ready, willing and able.

For those of you who do not know, here is the skinny. The very popular and informative www.Koshereye.com has teamed up with the folks at David Elliot Poultry Farms, myself and Avrum Wiseman to provide home cooks everywhere with Thanksgiving tips, recipes, advice and expert advice for solving your turkey troubles.

This is the zenith of the year for me. I love Thanksgiving and for most of my life, I have loved helping people prepare fabulous meals. I realized that the turkey presents challenges for most home cooks and I want to help you. Most folks only cook a whole turkey only once a year. The turkey is this large, slippery thing that is finicky to cook, hard to manage, and can somehow end up dry and undercooked all at the same time.

Thanksgiving, while not a Jewish holiday, is an important holiday for American Jews. It is the day when we can celebrate exactly the same as everyone else. We can jump in the car after dinner and visit friends, have the ballgame on in the background and eat much the same menu, with a few tweaks here and there, as any other American. This great country allows us to do all of that and to celebrate our Jewish holidays Jewishly, and I as a patriotic, American-Jew am going to have my turkey and eat it, too.

I hope that if you have turkey troubles, kitchen conundrums and other culinary enigmas, you will tune in to Koshereye and give us a shout out, check out my blog www.cheflauraskosher.com and have a wonderful and thankful Thanksgiving.


Meet health food expert Mama Jess

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I’m always looking for healthy products, something that will give me a bigger bang for my nutritional buck. I took a wild night out recently and strolled the aisles of Whole Foods, and found a litany of items I’ve never seen before. My main objective was to buy some milk, but I made a few other purchases. One of which was a cool product I saw online called, Garden Good, from Mama Jess. It’s a pasta sauce that has carrots and sweet potato listed as ingredients—being a nutrition geek, I thought that was awesome. We made some quinoa pasta, tossed the sauce on top, and really enjoyed it! The next step was to interview Mama Jess, a local health food expert. Our short phone call ran long and I learned a ton!

Mama Jess logo 

Tell us about your background: 
I come from a food science background. I worked in food development, brokerage, and with ingredients. I developed a lot of food products, but never got to launch my own brand. My past experience was a big help. I always wanted to lunch my own product. 

Meet health food expert Mama Jess photo 

What was your inspiration for Garden Good and Bean Good? 
My children were my inspiration, hands down. When my son suddenly stopped eating carrots and sweet potatoes. I worked on recipes to get more vegetables into both my sons’ diets. Garden Good was a family favorite. My husband once joked, you should sell this, and here we are.  

I created Bean Good because I love beans. They are a great source of protein and fiber. And, most kids do not like beans so this is an easy way to get them into their diets.

This sounds a little like Jessica Seinfeld—did she influence you? 
I really like what Jessica is doing. People often think that I’m her because of my products and first name, but these are all my recipes, and my ideas. I do like her cookbook and have made a few things. I thought it was a little time consuming for the average mom. I wanted a product that was easy for parents and nutritious.

What do you think of all the Fiber One bars and other products with Inulin and Chicory Root? 
Real fiber from fruits, vegetables, and grains fills you up with less. The fiber, in Fiber One bars, is not natural, and I always prefer the natural route.

What about fiber powders? 
I’m not against powders and fiber supplements; I prefer to get my fiber from food. There’s a connection when you chew your food that sends a message to your brain that you are getting full. It’s also important to read the labels and make sure you aren’t getting fillers or artificial ingredients added to your supplement.  

What’s the biggest problem for children: portion control, food choices, or something else? 
Hands down, the number one problem is advertising of junk food. With the dyes, artificial everything, they pull in children and it starts at a very early age. It is going to take years to change this, along with legislation. And it will be a very expensive battle. Everything falls on parents, and it’s hard when [advertisers have] basically brainwashed our children. 

The number two issue is vegetables. Only four percent of kids are eating enough veggies. It’s one of the reasons I created my two current products.

The organic movement is gaining more and more steam, more products, like yours, are organic. Do we need all organic diets? 
I don’t think everything needs to be organic, but I recommend using the dirty dozen list and buying those products organic. The only argument against organics is cost but for your family it might be worth it. There’s a study I recently read, where they gave children non-organic food, then all organic diets for a week, tested their urine, and after a week of organic eating, there were no pesticides in their urine.  

Right now everyone has some vitamin-filled product. What’s your feeling on that? 
In the industry, we refer to that, as “fairy dust.” It’s all marketing. Some companies use such a small amount that it really has no effect. It’s much better to eat whole foods and vegetables. You get much more out of it than a drink or even a smoothie.

If you did the Oprah favorite things episode, what foods would you list?

1. GoodBelly: Digestive health is very important and GoodBelly has great products that contain probiotics, which aid in digestion. If you are going to give your children a yogurt product, they have a great selection. During cold and flu season I make sure we eat more probiotics. I like their juice drink and their GoodBelly Shots.

2. Z-Bars: I buy these bars for my kids. My favorite flavor is the s’mores. These are great because they have no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. And actually taste really good.

3. Lara Bars: They make my favorite granola bars. They are all natural and taste great.

4. Tinkyada Rice Pasta: I love their penne pasta. It has a great pasta taste and it fills you up a lot better than regular pasta. It’s also good for those with gluten allergies.

5. Quinoa: I love quinoa. I’ve been eating it for a while, and it’s great to see more people talking about it and using it.

What’s the future of Mama Jess? 
Brown rice, snap, crackle, pop! I’ve been experimenting to try and get that same taste and sound, from brown rice cereal as Rice Crispy cereal. When something is fun to eat, kids like it, and that noise is definitely fun. The problem is that cereal turns right into sugar and your children get no nutrition. That might be my next product. You could also use it to make Rice Crispy Treats.

Even with a quick game of word association, Jess is a complex carb girl:
Cookie: Kashi makes my favorite
Tomato: Sauce
Carbs: Whole grain
Treadmill: The gym


The scars that lie beneath

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Jenna Benn photo 

As I had the scar removed that held the memories of the last 10 months, I came to the realization that it’s the scars that lie beneath the skin that cut the deepest and are the hardest to repair.

The surgeon did his best to slowly and methodically cut me open, and attempt to rewrite history—however my gaping wound instead revealed the heartache and pain that swells beneath the skin.

As I was sliced open and re-stitched, it became clear that my fight, my battle, my journey continues—this time with new challenges, surprises, and also blessings.

Last night I was informed that the chemotherapy regimen that saved my life has also attempted to rob me of my ability to have children.
The damage to my ovaries is extensive.
The outcome is not favorable.
I am now 30 years old and in menopause.

I have decided to write about this candidly because I don’t think there is enough awareness about the fertility risks associated with chemotherapy. Treating the entire person rather than only targeting the cancer is critical to the way a survivor fights, and the way a survivor rebuilds after treatment. The silence makes us feel ashamed when we have nothing to be ashamed of.

There is a common misconception that when a cancer survivor’s treatment ends their life can then restart. Unfortunately, this journey does not stop and start from diagnosis to remission, but rather is continuous.

It’s not about winning or losing, succeeding or failing but rather the challenge is to find meaning in the suffering.

I have had my fertility taken, but I am not less of a woman.
I have been robbed repeatedly, but I am not damaged.
I have been tested and challenged, but I am not defeated.

Instead I believe that from tragedy comes great opportunity, and from suffering comes profound clarity.

While my ovaries may have been abruptly taken, I refuse to allow this disease, this experience, to rob me of becoming a mother.

As cancer continues to throw punches, I choose to fight harder.
As cancer attempts to break me, I choose to rise above her.

My decision to go through fertility treatments shaped the way I fought against this disease and continues to provide me with hope that I will one day be the parent who is able to impart what it means to live a life full of gratitude.

I have been blessed with a set of parents whose hearts are filled with love, whose support is all encompassing, and who have set an example of how to manage the most difficult of circumstances. I hope to one day lead by their example.

Until then,
I will continue to pick myself up, push back, fight harder—and twist in spite of cancer.


Read this not that: my take on classic children’s books

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Read this not that photo 

Aside from having read children’s books to my younger sister and cousins, and then my own kids, I actually took a class in children’s literature in college, much to my parents’ joy. Also, there are tons of lists about which books to read to your kids, but no lists of the ones not to. I know for many of you Oy!sters, I’m probably ripping on some of your favorite childhood stories, but try to bear with me—I mean this all in good fun.

1. “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown 

It starts off fine, with a list of things in a child’s room. Although, why a “great green room”? Aren’t kids’ bedrooms small and cozy? And is no one upset at the “mouse” loose in a baby’s room? If it’s a pet, why isn’t it caged? Anyway, the book has a simple task— relist all of these things and say goodnight to them to help a child ease from wakefulness to slumber. But it fails in this task. It adds things that were not listed at first: light, clocks, socks, stars, air, the Moon itself. It leaves out the telephone, the very first thing mentioned. It rhymes “Moon” with… “Moon.” It adds “Good night, nobody”— a blank page!— when there is not “nobody” there. In fact, there is a lady whispering “Hush,” who is then acknowledged. And why is there a “bowl of mush” in the bedroom? How many times do I have to say it: No food in the bedroom!  

A better choice? “Goodnight, Gorilla,” by Peggy Rathmann

This adorable, mostly wordless book showcases a clever gorilla child who figures out how to sleep in a nice cozy human bed instead of his cage. It’s a good metaphor for kids who want to sleep in their parents’ bed, gently explaining they have beds of their own where they belong.

2. “Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown 

This time, she gives us a baby bunny who is trying to individuate and declare a sense of self, imagining himself running away. The mother bunny will not allow this liberty, even in the abstract. He is not even allowed to entertain the notion of freedom. No matter what form he changes himself into, she will change form to suit, in a way that captures him and brings him back. She does not say, “When you turn into a fish, where will you swim? What places do you want to see?” She says, “I will turn into a fisherman and catch you.” This fear/hatred of her child’s freedom is more than Big Brother-ish, which would imply endless watchfulness. No, this reminds me of the quote: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever.” Which is about The Terminator.

A better choice? “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey

A mother and daughter go blueberry picking on a lovely day. Also, a mother bear and her cub. The children end up getting separated, with each unwittingly following the wrong parent. The resolution is handled with care, and children learn not to stray… but that if they do, their parents will find them.

3. “Guess How Much I Love You?” by Sam McBratney 

More parent-child bunny dysfunctionality. This time Little Nutbrown Hare (is “nutbrown” even a color?) declares his love for Big Nutbrown Hare with expressions like, “I love you how high I can jump!” Does the parent hare say, “Aww, how sweet! Thank you, baby!” Or “What a clever way to say how much you love me! I love you, too.” Nope! He says “I love you how high I can jump!” Which, as is he is Big, is much, much higher. In fact, the entire book consists of the adult one-upping the child with his superior, adult-level size, strength, and wit. But why the competition? Why insist that his child fall short, and must love him less, simply because he is smaller? Can’t a Little creature love as largely as a Big one? And wouldn’t that be a better book— “I can love you, Parent, just as much as you love me… even though I am not as big!”

A better choice? “Pat the Bunny” by Dorothy Kunhardt

While the baby interacts with the pages, she also relates to her parents. Daddy has a scratchy face! Mommy’s ring is too big! There is a sense of warmth, closeness, and playfulness. No one is better or worse—everyone does what they can do, and that’s wonderful.

4. “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch   

This one truly makes me ill. A mother holds her baby son and tells him: “I love you forever. I love you for always. As long as you’re living, my baby you’ll be.” Aww! But then she keeps doing this as he grows up. He’s a kid, he’s a teenager, he’s a young adult. Still, she cradles him in his sleep and tells him this. Then he’s a grown man, and he moves into a house across town. So she’s done, right? Nope! She drives over in the middle of the night. She breaks into his house, sits on his bed, cradles him in his sleep, and tells him, “As long as you’re living, my baby you’ll be.” At which point, he wakes up and screams, “Leave me alone, you psycho! Why do you think I moved across town? Why do you think I never got married? Do you know how high my analysis bills are?!” Except… he doesn’t. It is too late for him and he’s doomed. She eventually grows too old for this ritual. So now he drives over to her place in the middle of the night, holds her, and tells her, “As long as you’re living, my mommy you’ll be.” Now just look what you did… you made Dr. Freud cry!

A better choice? “Counting Kisses” by Karen Katz

Books on letters, numbers, colors, shapes, and objects abound. But along with “counting,” this book teaches the members of the family and parts of the body, basic elements of a baby’s world… and ones that are arguably more important than animal sounds. Everyone gets a turn to kiss the baby goodnight until she is all kissed out.

5. “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein 

This should not be read to children. This should be handed out to members of Codependence Anonymous as a case study. It’s about a tree who loves a boy. He eats her apples and plays in her branches. Then he grows up, gets married… and builds a house out of those branches. Then he retires and cuts her down to make a canoe out of her trunk. When he is ready to die, he comes and sits on the stump, which is all she had left. And no matter how much he uses her, how much he takes, how little (actually nothing) he gives back, she loves him! Because that’s who she is. The one thing he’s made from her from the start is a doormat. If this is supposed to be the model for a parent, we’re going to have a whole lot of bratty, take-y kids running around. Oh, wait.

A better choice? Anything else by Shel Silverstein

Silverstein’s books of poetry-plus-cartoons for kids are the best since Dr. Seuss’. It’s just a shame that “Giving Tree” has become so popular, while better storybooks of Shel’s like the “Missing Piece Meets the Big O” and “Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back,” are less well-known.

Year after year, these same books get trotted out as “best for babies.” Yet how many adults have examined them with a critical eye, and noticed what messages we are really sending kids when we read them? Some of the best-loved books of baby-dom are, in fact, teaching our kids all the wrong things.


Timothy O'Toole's: Chicago's sports, comedy, and drinking wonderland

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Kevin Friduss photo 

There’s no better place in Chicago to watch professional sports while sipping unlimited Bloody Mary’s on a Sunday morning than Timothy O’Tooles.  This pub has it all, with a comedy club on Wednesday nights, great daily specials, and some of the most remarkable bar food in the city.

Timothy O’Tooles has two locations, with one in Gurnee near Six Flags Great America, and the other in Streeterville.  In a recent article by Metromix, the pub beat out Joe’s Bar on Weed Street for the title of “Best Bears Bar” and if you can take a hint from that, you would know that it’s a wonderful place to watch any Chicago sports team.  Locals have been flocking to the pub since 1992 and with the magnitude of Irish bars in the city, after 15 years, this one is a keeper.  There really is a flat screen TV everywhere you look.

The list goes on about the daily specials they offer but one of them is to note.  They have an unlimited Bloody Mary and Mimosa bar on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.  They provide you with the vodka, and then you do the rest with choices such as pickles, olives, and more than 40 different hot sauces.  Not only will the drinks flow, but also the Breakfast Nacho’s and Rise & Shine Burger will do the trick to get your day started off right.  If brunch isn’t your thing, then lunch and dinner have the likes of their award winning spicy Buffalo wings, Michigan Avenue salad, and a Pub Fish & Chips, all for reasonable prices.  If you want more expensive, there are options.  If you want cheaper, there are options.  However, if you want crazy, there’s the Big Timmy Challenge.  

The Big Timmy Challenge isn’t as extreme as it might sound, but nonetheless, it’s something to be proud of if you can down it.  For $19.99, you need to consume two-half pound burger patties piled high with toppings served with fries and onion rings.  If you were wondering what you get for finishing it, you get a Timothy O’Tooles t-shirt and a stomachache. 

In Chicago, it’s important that bar owners look out for their patrons and offers the best craft and micro-brews at a reasonable price.  This pub nails down the winner for an all-around venue with its beer choices such as Duvel, Three Floyd’s, a great supply of Goose Island Brews, as well as many other domestic, import and locals, 32 in total.  They also have wonderful specials such as their homemade O’Tooles Famous Holy Water or Roq Candy Martini, which features, Absolut Vodka, Hpnotiq Liqueur, sweet and sour and a splash of pineapple juice.

In their backroom, which features another bar, you can watch comedy on Wednesday nights.  As opposed to going to Second City or Improv Olympics, this show is done by up-and-coming artists like Marty DeRosa and Michael Sanchez, both very funny.  Audience members can have dinner and drinks while watching standup.  Comedians You Should Know is $5 online and $10 at the door.  If comedy isn’t in your taste, then you can jam out with Karaoke on Tuesday nights! 

With all Timothy O’Tooles has to offer, you are covered almost every day of the week.  Check out the menu and events coming up HERE.


A kid of courage

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A kid of courage photo 2

I labeled my second child an anxious baby. My background is in psychology and I get it. I know what labels can do to people. So, I of course had consciously decided when I became a mom, I was going to try very hard not to label my children. However good my intentions were, my follow through on the notion was eh. I have a variety of different labels for each kid depending on the day. Some labels, which would be used on a good day, would indicate their talent, particular interest area or my feelings of specific, individual, affection towards them. Other labels are a little less flattering. And, of course, in my mind they are secret labels. My kids don’t outwardly know that I think this way. But I am aware that sometimes it seeps into their consciousness and some of the roles/risks and approaches they take in life mirror this. Whether I like it or not.

I couldn’t leave the house much because he refused a bottle. If we left him with a sitter or good intentioned friends, we would never see the sitter again and would have to pay friends. In all fairness, he was just a baby. But in truth, he was incredibly difficult to soothe. He slept terribly. I slept in his rocking chair more than I slept in my bed. After two years of this, I was ready to die. Someone suggested he was lonely. We moved him and his crib in with his big brother. Upon arrival, he declared, “I want to be a BIG boy!” So we broke down the crib and put him in a twin bed with rails. This is the part where the kid realizes he is no longer behind bars and begins a two year ritual of running into his parents room four to five times a night screaming, yelling, crying about one thing or another. In turn, I screamed, cried and yelled a lot myself. It was a special time. Hallmark moments all around.

As he got older, my son started talking about being afraid. Afraid of people, dogs, monsters, dying—you name it, he worried about it. His eyes would fill with tears at the prospect of going to the circus because he had never been before. Going to a play with Grandma was nerve racking. No sleepovers. New situations brought about fantasies of how totally terrible he JUST KNEW fill-in-the-blank would be. A trip we talked about taking as a whole family back to his sister’s birthplace in Ethiopia was a no-go for him because he was terrified of all the shots. We came to expect and deal with resistance around just about any new situation. He was the one we had to coax. He was our frightened child.

We were always quick to reassure him. Make phone calls ahead to make people aware that he was nervous/sensitive/scared. We did our best to cushion the big, bad world for him. I invented pixie dust—my MAC eye glitter that I put in a small crystal heart-shaped ring holder. I told him it was magic. I told him it would give him sweet dreams. I would put a tiny bit on his forehead every night. Some mornings he would come down to breakfast and it would be obvious that he had gotten out of bed after I kissed him goodnight because his entire face would be dusted in glimmer. I spent a great deal of time fearing anxiety was going to swallow him up. That fear would rule his life. And then suddenly, right under my nose, he morphed into a kid of courage.

It didn’t happen all at once. It was gradual. And completely initiated in his own time. But I realize as he was changing I was hanging on to who I had decided he was. If he demonstrated bravery, I was surprised. And looking back I realize he showed courage often, but I wasn’t bringing that into the definition of him. I thought of it as a moment. A fluke. The latest came when my son managed (cause “unknown”) to cut the tip of his tongue with a scissors. The blood was unbelievable. My oldest near fainted and threw towels at me while gagging and covering his eyes. My youngest boy exclaimed, “He cut off his tongue?!” But my frightened kid? Cool as a cucumber. As we rode to the ER in the rain, he bled into towel after towel asking level headed questions. He took the shot in his tongue, in his arm and the stitches that followed without flinching. It was unbelievable. And that was my frightened son.

So I’ve been contemplating. How many more lessons do I need in order to learn that holding on to my preconceived notions of how I see my children only limits my ability to experience the here and now? They are growing, changing, emerging right under my nose. If I spend too much time trying to anticipate what’s going to happen or who they are going to become, I think I might just miss out on who they are in this very moment, who, for all intents and purposes is who they are. And today—today, my son says he wants to go to Ethiopia.


DC vs. Chicago (an un-OY-fficial match-up)

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DC vs. Chicago photo

Earlier this year, my wife got a “too good to pass up” job offer outside of our nation’s capital.  She arrived in April to start work, and I figured it would be reasonably good form for our new marriage if we lived together, so I quit my job in Chicago and headed for the East Coast.  Now that I have been living here for six months, I thought I would do a head-to-head comparison. 

DC vs. Chicago:  Which city is better? (an un-OY-ficial match-up)

Chicago:  Founded around the turn of the 19th century from a muddy swamp on the shores of Lake Michigan.
DC :  Also founded around that time, also in a swamp along the banks of the Potomac.
Winner:  DRAW (pretty much the same start)

Chicago:  Native American name for a smelly wild onion that grew in the area. 
DC:  Named for George Washington, our nation’s first President.
Winner:  DC (Smelly Onion? Really?)

Most Recognizable Politician
Chicago:  President Barack Obama 
DC:  President Barack Obama
Winner:  Draw (I have now seen the motorcade block miles of traffic in both cities!)

Chicago:  Famous Chicago Deep Dish and Stuffed Crust Pizzas began here!  Uno’s, Giordano’s, Lou’s, Gino’s, just to name a few. 
DC:  A lot of specialty pizza places like Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza.  That’s New Haven, Connecticut, so it’s not really a DC original.  There’s also Amy’s Neapolitan Pizza.  Again, this is an imported style and isn’t Neapolitan a flavor of ice cream?
Winner:  Chicago (No contest!  Chicago has the best pizza!)

Chicago:  The Shedd Aquarium is the second largest aquarium in the country and the Art Institute has the second largest French Impressionist collection.  Most of the museums have occasional free days.
DC:  Home of the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian, with 19 museums and galleries, nine research centers and the National Zoo (with pandas).  Did I mention they are all free, all the time, every day!
Winner:  DC (It’s hard to beat FREE!)

Most Visited Tourist Attraction
Chicago:  Navy Pier, visited by 8.6 million people every year.  Navy Pier has shops, the Shakespeare Theater, an indoor botanical garden, the IMAX, a convention center, a Ferris wheel and fireworks. 
DC:  The National Mall, visited by 25 million people every year.  The Mall is home to some of the most recognizable memorials and monuments in America— Lincoln, Washington, WWII, Korea, Vietnam are all a part of the mall.
Winner:  DC (Fireworks over Lake Michigan are pretty cool, but how can you compete with all that history and honor rolled into one park?  25 million people a year agree.)

Getting Around by Car
Chicago:  The streets are on a pretty simple and orderly grid that holds true throughout most of the city.  The blocks are mostly spaced out so that eight blocks is a mile and you can figure out approximate distances. 
DC:  The streets are in no order at all.  There are angled streets, curvy streets, traffic circles and streets that just start and stop without any real reason.  Some say DC streets were designed to keep foreign armies from ever being able to reach the Capitol.  It seems to have also made it impossible for current residents to get anywhere.
Winner:  Chicago (I’m still lost in DC—seriously. I’ve been driving for two days straight now, trying to find my home.)

Getting Around by Public Transit
Chicago:  Second biggest transit system in America.  $2.25 allows you to ride as far as you can get for as long as it takes.  It tends to be slow, smelly and often scary late at night.
DC:  One of the cleanest subways in the world thanks to strictly enforced no food policy.  The seats are cushy though, the floor is carpeted and the stations are air conditioned.  The whole thing shuts down at midnight during the week and has a complicated fare structure based on time and distance (over 400,000 possible fare combinations).
Winner:  DC (You do get what you pay for, but the few extra bucks get you a much more comfortable and almost luxurious ride.)

Famous Fires
Chicago:  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, allegedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (though later theories attributed the fire to either a drunk guy with one leg or a meteor), burned and gave way to a new era of building that changed architecture forever. 
DC:  The Burning of Washington, during the War of 1812.  The British had captured our nation’s capital and burned some of the most important buildings in the capital including the Capitol, the White House and the U.S. Treasury building.  
Winner:  Chicago (Chicago gets the slight edge here because the fire had such an impact on the city’s history moving forward and because of the song that school children sing about the song.  Also Chicago now has its Fire Academy at the very spot the Great Chicago Fire started!)

2011 Disasters
Chicago:  Snowmageddon 2011 was the third largest snowfall in Chicago history.  Hundreds of people were left stranded for hours on Lake Shore Drive. 
DC:  This fall DC weathered an earthquake and a large tropical storm just a few days apart from each other.  The Earthquake knocked over a few lawn chairs and startled a few people, but no major damage was reported.  Tropical Storm Irene proved to be much more of a problem in other parts of the country.
Winner:  Chicago (I can’t imagine spending the night in my car on LSD!)

I could go on for days putting one city against the other; however I think for this match-up we’ll call it after 10 rounds.  I realize there are many other categories to look at, like beaches, parks and recreation, tallest buildings, mayors, other elected officials (by the way DC can’t actually elect any voting representatives in Congress, hence the license plate motto that reads “Taxation Without Representation”).  Perhaps those topics can be revisited in a future post.

And with five points for each win (I gave half a point to each during the draws) it looks like it’s a tie.  Really, a tie?  Hmm….

What’s the tiebreaker?  Perhaps those that know both cities well enough can add your comments and weigh in for the next un-OY-fficial match-up of Chicago vs. DC.  For the moment, though I am writing for Oy!Chicago, the jury is out as to which city is better, which makes this post:  To Be Continued


Too many acronyms

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My first GA 

GA logo 2011 

Let’s be honest, I don’t usually use this space for anything other than my matchmaking musings, but I’m in the middle of participating in Do The Write Thing (DTWT), a three-day program held during the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) annual General Assembly (GA), which gathers young editors, writers and multimedia specialists for workshops on mainstream and Jewish journalism. The program is a joint project of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), American Zionist Movement (AZM), and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). I thought I’d share some of my insights and experiences as I go through the program as a student for a few days with my fellow Oy!sters.

First of all, I never thought I’d be in a space filled with so many Jews at once. I believe that there are 3,000 Jews from all over North America and Israel converged in Denver right now. Yesterday, during the opening plenary, you could barely see the people across the room. But you could feel the energy. One of my heroes, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke to the crowd about how important Israel is to her personally and to the President of the United States. She urged everyone in the room to recognize and appreciate the overwhelming bipartisan support for the Jewish State of Israel in the US government and to encourage our politicians to stop using, “Israel as a political football used for a partisan game.” She got a pretty good-sized standing ovation. The only standing ovation of the day, I might add.

This morning I attended a really fascinating session titled, What do Israelis Really Care About Anyway?” The panel included, the new editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, Haviv Rettig Gur, chief spokesperson for JAFI, Rebecca Caspi, senior VP Israel and Overseas for JFNA and Amir Schaham, director of programming, Metrowest-Israel, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, NJ.

So what did I learn?

• Israelis consider the greatest threat to the State of Israel to be the “social demise.” Fears of Iran ranked second. According to Caspi, worry over “the price of cottage cheese appeared many more times than the Iranian bomb.”

• More Israelis watching the finale of Master Chef than Bibi’s speech at the UN.

• 54% of Israelis believe Obama is pro-Israel

• 74% of Israelis believe the economic situation is good

• 62% of Israelis support recognition of any type of marriage in Israel

• 79% of Israelis supported the release of Gilad Shalit “We sat glued to our TVs till we saw him safely home,” said Caspi. “We cried and we are thrilled and every single one of us is nervous about the consequences.”

• Less than a quarter of Israelis are optimistic about peace. But, the vast majority of Israelis (70%) are in favor of the two state solution and massive withdrawal of territories if it leads to a complete and true lasting peace. However at this stage, most don’t think such an agreement could or would give Israelis peace right now.

On that note, while I still have many more sessions to attend and lots more to learn, I’m going to wrap this thing up so I can head to lunch. I hope this gives you a small flavor of what’s going on here…more from Denver soon! 


A very toddler Halloween

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A very toddler Halloween photo 

We prepped for weeks. Ben had the Halloween drill down cold. We fake knocked on our own front door to practice saying “trick or treat” and “thank you.” We dug his Halloween bag out of storage and explained that it would be filled with candy soon. He stared longingly at his costume, hanging on his closet door and prompting the daily question, “Halloween is today?” He was so sweetly excited.

Luckily for Ben, Halloween came early in the form of a preschool party and costume parade. Not to mention the party in his gymnastics class, the party at the Mom-Tot class, plus Halloween itself.

The class lined up to start the parade, little puppy dogs, fairy princesses and Spidermen eager to show off their costumes. When prompted to join his friends, my pirate meandered over, glancing back at the trucks and trains he would rather be smashing, a pout firmly planted on his face. We walked to the first classroom, full of four-year-olds, parent helpers and teachers, paraded through the crowd, and circled back to the door, ready for the next room. Except for the pirate, who had spotted a train set and decided to ditch the parade.

As his classmates went on to the next room, I coaxed, pleaded, and bribed the pirate to move on. The kids in the class watched as I tried to reason with a two-year-old, and the teachers obviously wanted to continue with their lessons. Ben got louder and more decisive each time he said, “Not leaving.” I finally picked him up, absorbing a brutal kick in the gut and a possibly blown eardrum, and walked towards the door. But before we got there, the sneaky pirate wriggled his way out of my arms and onto the floor, where he proceeded to throw the most epic tantrum I had ever seen.

I looked at Ben. I looked at the teachers. My mind went blank.

I scooped him up, held him so tightly neither of us could breathe, and dashed out of the room. When we were far enough away from the scene of the crime, I put him down. He sprinted back to the train table room, threw himself against the closed door, and continued to wail. I dragged him down the hallway, feeling more and more like The Mom Who Can’t Control Her Child, and wanting to melt into the carpet.

Ben’s teacher and classmates appeared at the end of the hall. He stopped crying, grabbed his pirate hat from the floor, and sprinted over. He grabbed his teacher’s hand, smiled, and asked if it was snack time yet.

I could only shake my head in awe at the classic toddler split personality, and brace myself for the party at gymnastics, the Mom-Tot class, and Halloween itself.


Beyond the organ recital

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Esther Bergdahl photo 

Listening to stories about my family is a surefire way to keep me enthralled. It has been since I was little. My parents had me quite late, and I missed out on knowing a huge segment of my relatives, including both my maternal grandparents. Stories are how I connect with that part of myself.

My parents like to say that our family business is storytelling. We all rely on it to some degree professionally, but we do it for fun at the drop of a hat. I had great uncles, the sons of immigrants, who used to jump off bridges into the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, long before it was the most livable city in America. My grandfather, who was 6’4”, was hired to be a school principal on Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie because the previous principal had been tossed out a second-floor window. One that always blows me away is my father’s story of his great aunt, who, when he visited as a small boy, told him that she’d been sitting in that very chair when her father walked in, hung up his coat and hat and said, “They’ve done it, they’ve shot the president, Mr. Lincoln is dead.”

I have an insatiable appetite for these stories, as I suspect many of us do. I remember once asking my mother how far back our family remembers go. She said there used to be a saying, “cold as a Frenchman,” which we got because come spring, when my predecessors in Lithuania did the plowing, every year they turned up bones of Napoleonic soldiers who’d died marching against Russia.

Thanksgiving is prime storytelling time. Not only do you have all those hours waiting for the turkey to roast, you have those glorious, tryptophan-hazy post-meal evenings to sit around and let the conversation wander. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing my two young nieces who live in Seattle, who are at a wonderful age for asking questions about our family. We’re a far-flung bunch – I like to tell people that I’ve got one sibling in every time zone – but Thanksgiving has always been a great time to catch up.

There are other benefits to swapping stories over the holiday. Aside from Turkey Day and the inevitable crush of pre-Christmas mania, November is also National Family Health History Month. Family health history is one of those “secret weapons” in health care that, when used properly, can open up a whole field of potentially life-improving options. Preventive medicine loves family health histories. For instance, if you start talking about particular health issues that have appeared in multiple members of your family, you may wonder if you’re at risk for these issues yourself. They can range from diabetes and high blood pressure to an increased risk of developing cancer. Ashkenazi Jews are often particularly attentive to patterns of cancer in their families, because of increased incidence of cancer predisposition mutations in their BRCA genes. If you’ve learned that you’re a carrier for one of the “Jewish” genetic disorders, other family members may want to investigate testing too. This information is useful: your health care provider will always want to know if you’ve made some connections or discovered something new in your background.

I get it if the thought of talking about health issues, particularly scary ones, is kind of a downer for Thanksgiving. (My grandfather, who was a doctor, used to say that when he got together with older friends or relatives, it always became “the organ recital” – an exhaustive catalog of all their latest aches, pains, operations and embarrassing prescriptions.) But it doesn’t have to be excruciating. There are a number of free resources online to help get the conversation started. Even the act of putting together a family tree – a pedigree, in a medical context – is a great start and can be a fun activity, especially with a healthy dash of anecdotes. (And goodness knows I have a hard time keeping my gigantic, sprawling list of relatives straight in my head.)

This year is going to be nuts at the old homestead. My sister and her family are coming, and all five of us will be staying at our parents’ house, along with Gus, the 80-pound basset hound. In addition, I also have a serialized novel to keep writing, the GRE to study for and graduate school applications to map out. There are only so many hours in the day. But I am looking forward to the moment when I can sit down, look around at my family and pose my favorite question: “Hey, remember that time when…?”


Waiting till 3:00

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Jenna Benn photo 

I forgot about you
About the scar I want to repair
Representing the memories I have been trying to forget.

You are elevated, raised, tender
I hoped you would be flat, translucent, invisible.

It was only at 3:00 p.m. today that I remembered you.
You came up in the midst of scheduling appointments, arranging meetings, planning life.

And there you unexpectedly emerged—to remind me that this journey is not a sprint but rather is a marathon.

I need to slow down.
I need to breathe deep.
I need to refocus.

Life loses meaning when led by urgency.

As I prepare to remove the scar that holds the memories of the last 10 months
May I continue to remember that cancer does not define me but is a part of me.

As the scars heal, and my mind quiets—may cancer continue to wait till 3:00—be remembered by accident, and eventually become a profoundly meaningful afterthought.


Giving thanks every day

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Cindy Sher photo 2 

I recently read my 3-year-old nephew one of my favorite books from my childhood—as much a treat for me as for him.

The book, appropriate to dig up in time for Jewish Book Month this month, is a cherished Yiddish folktale called It Could Always Be Worse, by author Margot Zemach, about a poor shtetl man who thinks life can’t get any harder than living in a tiny one-room hut with his wife and many children. His home has become so noisy and chaotic that he can’t take it anymore so he consults the village rabbi for advice.

To the man’s shock, the rabbi advises him to bring more creatures into his home each day—first chickens, then a goat, plus a cow too.

The animals live with the man and his family in the hut for a few days and, then, when the man thinks things can’t get any crazier, the rabbi finally tells him to release the animals. That night, sans animals, the man’s home feels peaceful, roomy, and quiet. 

It Could Always Be Worse is a parable that I’ve thought about often throughout my life. I learned the lesson when I was as small as my nephew, but that book has wisdom that can apply to us at any age.

The story teaches us to be thankful for all the wonderful blessings in our lives—even when life is hard—and not to take the good for granted. As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems like the right time to stop and think about that lesson.

Whenever we watch the news or read the headlines, we’re reminded to appreciate what we have when so many people in this country and abroad are plagued by high unemployment, natural disasters, war, famine, persecution, and terrorism.

Even so, in our own lives, we can’t help but complain, and sometimes rightfully so, bogged down in the details and headaches of our over-scheduled daily lives amidst a bad economy and divisive political climate.

But I take a moment each day, some days briefer than others, to reflect on all I have—something Judaism instructs us to do every morning. The very first prayer observant Jews recite before they get out of bed is Modeh Ani, “I give thanks,” thanking God for protection.

Giving thanks was the focus of a recent dinner conversation with three of my Jewish girlfriends, a group of grounded, intelligent, and spirited women who share with me similar worldviews and values. Our conversation suddenly devolved into a gripe fest about everything from long hours at work to rising rent costs to bad dates. But—then—we stopped ourselves, regained our sense of perspective, and pointed out how lucky we are.

We’re lucky we’re American Jewish women, endowed with the freedom to be anything we want to be, no matter what our religion or gender. We’re lucky that we were raised in loving, compassionate, and haimish Jewish homes, with parents who served as models of love to emulate in our own lives. We’re lucky that we attended excellent schools in safe learning environments with teachers who nourished our potential. And we’re lucky that we’re members of this committed, caring, and vibrant Jewish community here in Chicago, where we’ve found like-minded friends like each other.

When I was growing up, my mom used to tell me a phrase she made up that but for “a few inches on a map and a few pages back on the calendar” it could have been us in Tsarist Russia or it could have been us who suffered during the Holocaust. My ancestors, who lived through the hardest of times, paved the way for me to be a free Jew with opportunity at every turn.

Sometimes, in a weak moment, I forget how lucky I am. So I imagine what it would be like to fill my home—my downtown apartment—with all the chickens, goats, and cows like the man in the shtetl did.

And then I imagine letting all the animals go. It is then I remember how good I have it and hope you will too.

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