OyChicago blog

Vayishlach

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17 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 30 - Dec. 1, 2012
11/30/2012

Dan Horwitz photo

“To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” – Jacob to Esau

This week’s portion begins with Jacob preparing to see his brother Esau after 20+ years apart. As you’ll recall, after stealing Isaac’s blessing intended for Esau, Jacob fled in order to avoid Esau’s wrath. Now, a few wives, a dozen children, and massive amounts of property later, Jacob finally has to deal with his past, as he learns that Esau is coming towards his camp with 400 men (seemingly to attack).

Jacob sends gifts ahead hoping to quell Esau’s anger, and then takes precautions by dividing his camp in two – hoping that if one half is attacked; the other will have time to escape.

The night before his meeting with Esau, we find the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. After Jacob emerges victorious, the angel changes Jacob's name to “Israel” (hence we’re the “Children of Israel”).

The next morning Jacob and Esau finally meet, and to Jacob’s surprise, Esau is full of love for him.

In response, Jacob says to his brother: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

How do we deal with this statement? Jacob had literally just wrestled with an angel the night before! You’d think that this kind of statement would have been reserved for the divine being he encountered rather than for his human brother.

We learn in the Torah that humankind was created in God’s image. Perhaps Jacob’s encounter with t angel, juxtaposed with his reunion with Esau, revealed to him just how similar we really are to divine beings?How do our actions change – specifically as it relates to how we treat others – if we can really begin to see ourselves as reflections of the Divine?

Even if you don’t believe in God in the traditional sense (or at all), can we change how we look at other human beings in order to see each individual as unique, beautiful, and worthy of our love?

This Shabbat, reflect on how you interact with others. Strive to see the innate beauty and special energy that every human being possesses. Approach your relationships and interactions from a place of love and warmth, as if every human interaction is truly one between you and the Divine. 

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I Made It to Wyoming

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11/29/2012

I Made It to Wyoming photo 1

I don’t want to depress too many people, but I think holiday travel might be a metaphor for existence—or, at the very least, our 20s.

My first flight, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was scheduled to leave Midway around 1:30. I’m terrible about packing. I always tell people I have packer’s block, and can only do it the morning I leave. It only takes me half an hour at the outside, so I was prepared to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at my Lincoln Square apartment with a huge mug of my favorite tea. Until, of course, I remembered that I wasn’t giving myself nearly enough time to navigate a major airport on the busiest travel day of the year. I’m not saying the scene that followed was from Home Alone, but it’s not as far off the mark as I like to admit.

Turns out more than 500 flights originating in or passing through both O’Hare and Midway had been cancelled since the night before, due to fog. (Yes, really.) My flight was only pushed back three hours, but some people in my gate area would be on standby until after 10 PM. (My sister in Seattle had a worse experience: she and her family got stuck in traffic for two hours, and arrived at the airport half an hour before their flight took off, only to be turned away and put on a flight at ugly o’clock the next morning.)

I was seated in front of the plane’s two screaming babies, but on the plus side, the delay meant that I arrived in Denver at the same time as my dad. The middle part of the holiday, the whole spending-time-with-your-family bit, was fantastic. The less I worried about where I was going or what we were doing, the more present I was and the more I was able to enjoy the company of my brother and sister and nieces and nephews.

There was another adventure calling, though: a very dear friend of mine works at the NPR station in Laramie, Wyoming, which is only a short (two-and-a-half hours) drive from my brother’s house. My brother (after checking with his insurance broker) agreed to let me use his car, and so I got directions, plugged in my iPod and took off for the scenic route.

U.S. Route 287 is, between Boulder and Ft. Collins, the main thoroughfare of a number of small suburban towns: very start-and-stop, very stressful, very aggravating. I was beginning to grumble to myself and wonder why on earth I’d been told to take it, rather than Interstate 25, which is, at least, a highway.

Oh ye of little faith: on the other side of Ft. Collins, 287 opens up into the most beautiful high plains and red rock valleys, and the speed limit is a breezy 75 mph, with no other cars in sight.

I spent all day with my friend, who I hadn’t seen in almost three years. By the time I needed to head back, it was dark, and I had another long drive ahead of me. Thus it was that I made a few more discoveries:

• Wyoming is incredibly windy, and your car will feel it on the highway. The weather, according to a mountaineer my friend once interviewed, is not terribly different from the peak of Mt. Everest, give or take a few degrees.

• It is possible to get incredibly lost anywhere, especially when it’s dark, even in a town as small as Laramie (a town so small that I drove past it for 15 minutes thinking I was looking for another exit).

• I don’t like driving over 80 in the dark.

• I don’t like driving in the dark period.

• This is in part because I was having a terrible time reading the road signs.

I spent so much time furiously promising myself a visit to the eye doctor that I got even more lost finding my way back to my brother’s house. By the time I flopped down on the couch, surrounded by dogs (a Yorkie, a Yorkiepoo and an Australian shepherd, for the record), I was dead to the world, ready for a hard reset. After all, I had to get back to Chicago the next day.

I Made It to Wyoming photo 2

Around noon I began getting text messages from the airline: my connecting flight in Kansas City was being pushed back an hour. I didn’t think anything of it until the times started getting more and more alarming. When I was informed that I would be departing for Midway at 1 AM, clearly something had to be done. I fretted, though—which is silly, in retrospect, but I was worried that I couldn’t expect any help from the airline. They had a profit margin to take care of, right? How much could I afford to pay to switch to another, more reasonable flight?

Turns out when you call customer service and are nice and patient, you can actually get on an earlier, direct flight that lets you make a surprise stopover in St. Louis, with a deeply hilarious flight crew. And you can arrive home by midnight, all the while wondering if that other flight is even boarding yet.

I’ve spent a lot of column inches telling you about my Thanksgiving travel woes, but does it really describe a unifying theory of existence? It could. I’ve spent a lot of the past few years muddling through, worrying about hitting benchmarks and deciding where to go and what to do and whether I would be disappointed if I tried. There have been delays and setbacks and heartbreaks, not to mention a few screaming babies. Some days it feels like nothing is within your control, and you can’t do anything to change that. But then you take a risk, and you see Wyoming for yourself; you meet new people, you have an adventure, you get some perspective, you reach some new conclusions.

This is my last post to Oy! as an employee of the Federation. I’m taking some time off before, fingers crossed, beginning a master’s program in journalism. It’s a big step, but the decision has been years in the making, and I know it’s the right one, despite how scary taking this chance is. After all that traveling, it’s lovely to know that you’re finally coming home.

Thanks for reading, Oy!sters, and catch you on the flip side. 

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Hanukkah Traditions

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11/28/2012

Holiday Traditions photo x

I always feel like Hanukkah sneaks up on us. With all of the hooplah surrounding Christmas—the decorations, the commercials, the transformed radio stations devoted to playing Christmas music round the clock—it's easy to see how Hanukkah and it's eight twinkling lights can get lost in the shuffle. On years like this one, when Hanukkah starts in early December (on the same night as YLD's Big Event—are you registered yet?), I tend to end up even further behind the eight ball. 

In years past, when I'm ransacking my kitchen for our menorah after sundown, still trying to remember when I stashed it the year before and scrambling to buy a few gifts which are usually tossed into a flimsy gift bag by night six, it just hasn't been a big deal. My husband was rarely home from work by candle lighting time, and although we had been married for five years, creating family traditions wasn't on the forefront of our minds. 

But this year is not like all the others. With a Fried-baby joining the family mix this year, the holiday season seems to have a bit more gravitas. While I know that he won't remember his first Hanukkah at six months old, I want to set the foundation for a meaningful and festive Hanukkah for the years that will follow.

I know that you can't just create traditions overnight. The whole meaning of tradition is that it is something repeated year in and year out, so lucky for Colin, we have time, and I don't just mean ten days.

But in this ten days, besides finding time to shop for gifts for Colin, digging out and cleaning the menorah early, I plan to reflect on my previous 27 Hanukkahs. 

Sometimes the family traditions are more subtle than opening a small gift each night, ranging from feasting on Grandma's latkes to reading a special Hanukkah-themed kids book with Mom and Dad before lighting the candles to volunteering as a family to hosting a $10 gag gift exchange with the extended family.

So while I might surf Pinterest for a picture perfect Hanukkah tradition inspiration that we can do together each year (or I might not...and let's be honest, it's looking a lot more like not...), I know that whatever we decide to do for my 28th Hanukkah and Colin's first will be special because we did it together. 

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Six More Mini Blogs For The Price of One

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11/27/2012

Adam Daniel Miller photo

The Introduction To The Blog Blog
Welcome, welcome, welcome. Yes, welcome to my blog…again! For you see, this is not the first time I have treated my oh so attractive readers with such generosity that is currently happening and is about to follow. I gave you a great six mini blogs for the price of one deal before and feel you deserve the privilege yet again. I’m like a Groupon. Or perhaps, a Jewpon if you will. And oh, I will. Now this first blog serves as a sort of introduction to the rest of said blogs and some of them can be a doozy. Here, a doozy is a synonym for wonderfully hilarious, entertaining and yet poignant. Although if you don’t like them, then here a doozy is a synonym for “not written by Adam Daniel Miller”. I think that’s enough bad humor for the introduction to the blog blog. I’ll save the rest for the other five. Enjoy!

The Little Things I Miss About Israel Blog
I had the wonderful privilege of going on Birthright earlier this year through Shorashim and as I always say, it was the ten best consecutive days of my life. It’s been close to a year since I was there and I wanted to share some of what I miss most about Israel. Enjoy. 

Chocolate milk in a bag: My goodness how I miss this. I miss it so much I’ve started to fill up as many Ziploc bags as I can find with chocolate milk. I’ve even started my own ‘chocolate milk in a bag’ business. It’s called….Chocolate Milk In A Bag: A Business. 

The Ability To Say Shabbat Shalom To Almost Anyone: In Chicago, and the rest of the United States for that matter, I feel that I can pick out my fellow Jews pretty well. (It’s not that difficult to spot attractive people.) However, in the rare cases I assume incorrectly, well, I simply feel foolish. I suppose it is my fault as you know what they say when you assume. The say you make an incorrect assumption sometimes and that’s never a good thing. 

Roundabouts: You know the big ‘ol intersections that are just big circles instead of traffic lights? Of course you do. There’s something a lot more fun about these and while there are some in the Chicagoland area, in Israel, you can find them in abundance. Hence, when I find one around here, I tend to drive around in circles for about three to four hours. Oh memories. 

The Views: In Israel, every single view, no matter where you are, is incredible. Seriously, no matter where my eyes would wander, it was always spectacular. Even looking straight down at my feet was majestic. You know why? Because my feet were in Israel. 

The Things I Like Blog
Hi. I like to be positive about life, so here’s a list of things I like. Enjoy.

Being Jewish, Portillo's chocolate cake shakes, the Peoplemover, being a slightly ambidextrous lefty, calculators, Monopoly, the word 'quite', mirrors, SUBLTY!!!!, rhinoceroses, model trains, k'nex, the letter R, the Muppets, pants straight out of the dryer, old Mad Libs, cinnamon ice cream, the IDF and all the wonderful friends I have that have served, I live very near to Wrigley Field, seeing my siblings, ok my parents too, ok all of my family as well, Chipotle with Cholula, ice cream snickers, postseason sports, people who are utterly fascinated by magic, my nickname ‘Jewbear’, unexpected fun late nights, the Chicago skyline, muscle soreness from exercise (I get this one about twice a year), the fact that you are enjoying reading this…I hope, live television, The Daily Show, Pancheros chips and salsa, the sense memory that comes with smell, British accents, Spaghettios, a cool pillow, making silly voices, not as popular movies, how attractive you are, writing, gummy sharks and coca-cola bottles, good craft beer, writing (needed to be said twice), the perfect amount of sleep, satire, parody, cool calm nights, time to myself, the past, the future, presents, cake.

That was silly. But seriously, I like cake. Moving on.

The Excitement of Jewish Holidays Blog 
As I’ve pointed out before, I love my Jewish holidays. In and of themselves, they are exciting no matter what, but what I want to talk about here is something that is often over looked as to why, fundamentally, they are in fact so exciting. It’s a simple truth that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one. The significance of this you ask? Well I’ll tell you. Every year is different and exciting and spontaneous and awesome. That’s what a lunar calendar does. No two years are the same! Sometimes Hannukah can be as late as early January and sometimes as early as late November. You never know! We always have to be on our toes and it keeps the relationship I have with these holidays very refreshing. Like a Junior Mint. Others should be jealous. Really, they should be. 

I also love the sundown to sundown timing we got going on. Again, it’s a lunar thing that makes it so fantastic where all of the holidays we have feel longer than they actually are. Now the ones that last a technical 24 hours feel like they’re two days long instead. It gives the perfect illusion of maximizing our holiday celebrations. Which leads to my final point. We have Shabbat. We have a special holiday that gives us a weekly excuse to get together with friends and family and have a good if not great time. Some of my best Jewish experiences have revolved around Shabbat and I get a crack at it once every seven days. Everyone should be so lucky. 

The Jewish holidays are so plentiful and often and spontaneous, that to help us out there is even a special site simply called “Is It A Jewish Holiday Today?” If you are unsure if today is a Jewish holiday of some kind, give it a look. If it’s a no, just wait until sundown and try again. 

golB sdarwkcaB ehT (If you get through this one, you are amazing)
.yaw taht ti epyt ot woh wonk t’ndid I tub ,nwod edispu siht etorw osla I ,tsiwt a ni worht ot tsuJ .won werbeH emos daer ot tnaw yllaer I .esoppus I gniht golb sdarwkcab elohw siht ot tnoip hcum toN .dne eht si siht ,yakO .dne eht litnu esualppa ruoy dloh ,esaelP .wonk I tnaillirB !hsilgnE ni tuB !werbeH gnidaer ekil tsuj eb lliw ti taht si golb sdarwkcab a gnivah rof nosaer suoivbo erom eht utB .repap no yllanigiro siht gnitirw gnitarebil os tlef tI .siht fo esuaceb mlap dna yknip ym no segdums teg I efil ym llA .ytfel a m’I ,tsriF .snosaer fo elpuoc a rof pu ssap ot aedi na fo doog oot tsuj si golb sdarwkcab eht fo aedi ehT

The Call Your Mother Blog
So here’s the deal. This was originally going to be a blog about doing little every day mitzvahs, but it evolved in my head into this. Enjoy.

You should call your mother. 

Oy! You should really give her a call. You know she loves you and she misses you and she worries about you. What? Are your fingers broken? Can’t you dial a phone? Even if you can’t, most phones these days have voice dialing, so what? Is your voice broken? Can’t you at least say Mom one time? I know, I know, you want your space and she wants to give it to you but would it kill you to give her a call just once a week? She just wants to know how you are. If you’re eating well. When she can expect those Jewish grandkids. Nothing too personal. Oh, stop. She doesn’t ask too many questions. She asks just the right amount of questions. Maybe if you called more often all these questions wouldn’t be piling up. Did you ever think about that? Hmmmm?? And you never come to visit! Always you are busy with this and that and the other and never any time for your mother. The woman who gave birth to you. Who suffered through 14 hours of labor for you. Yes, you need the reminder. You know you were no peach when you were born, right? And this is how you repay her? So pick up the phone, give her a call. Make her day. It is practically the mitzvah of mitzvahs. She tells all her Mahj friends every week how wonderful you are so you shouldn’t disappoint her. In fact, give her a call when she is with her Mahj friends. It will make you the poster child for poster children who call their mothers. And believe me, your mother loves to kvell over you. Just thinking about it is getting me verklempt. 

Hi Mom. Thank you for reading and supporting me with all my writing. You’re the best and I love you. I might even call you next week. During Mahj. I know, I’m such a mensch.

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“The Dreidel Song” is a lie

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11/26/2012

“The Dreidel Song” is a lie photo

With Chanukah just around the corner, I've been thinking a lot about Chanukah music and one song in particular. It's not just that it's insipid and babyish and cloying and maddeningly repetitious. No, I hate "The Dreidel Song" because it lies. It lies about every aspect of the dreidel— from what it's made of to how you play the game. And it's also supremely poorly written.

But it's the only Chanukah song most Jews know, when there are hundreds of others that are better… and so every year I have to hear, "Why aren't there any good Chanukah songs? Why didn't all those great Jewish songwriters write any?" asked by people who never raise a mouse-clicking finger to try to find any. Yes, there are good Chanukah songs, great Chanukah songs— tons of them— and you can read about them here.

So here is a line-by-line breakdown of what is arguably the worst Jewish song of all time: 

"I made it"
No, you didn't. You did not make your own dreidel. Nor did anyone you know. Dreidels come from the store, or in gift bags. There are very nice ones that are made by artists, and cheap-o ones that are made by machines. But you do not own or use a dreidel you made. Tell the truth!

"Out of clay"
No, it's not. Clay dreidels don't work. It is almost impossible to make one that is balanced enough to spin well. I actually have two clay dreidels and they spin the worst of all the ones I have, and I have way too many. More than 30. Clay dreidels are almost always uneven, and land as predictably as loaded dice. 

"When it's dry"
Another reason you don't see any clay dreidels. They are children's toys, and kids can't wait that long. Further, true clay art is fired in kilns, not air-dried. 

"With dreidel I shall…"
What's with the passive tense? Weak. And while we're at it…

"shall"
Really? "Shall?" Who are you, Sir Walter Raleigh? Did ye get thy dreidel at yon Dreidel Shoppe a Renaissance Faire? Who says "shall"… or has for the past century or two?

"It has a lovely body"
No, it doesn't. The last person with a body that shape was a Chicago Bears lineman named William Perry, and his nickname was "The Refrigerator." A violin has a lovely body.

"With legs"
If anything, a dreidel has one "leg." It wouldn't spin on more than one. Look at a ballerina or figure skater. When you spin, it's on one leg. 

"So short and thin."
Not really. The base of a dreidel isn't that much smaller than the "body" part. And the base also isn't "thin" but tapered. In fact, the top of a dreidel's base is usually as wide as the body itself.

"And then I win."
No, you don't. If it lands with two of the four faces up, either nothing happens ('nun') or you actually lose pieces ('shin'). If it lands with the 'hey' up, you do get half the pot, but you don't win the round. And even if it lands on 'gimmel,' you don't win, because even though you win the round, the game continues until one player wins all the other players' tokens or until the latkes run out.  

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Top 10 College and Pro ball stories to follow

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11/21/2012

Jeremy Fine photo

Normally we tackle the top 10 college and top 10 pro basketball stories to watch this season. Due to time and numbers we have decided to combine them. Ball is back and The Great Rabbino is excited.

10) Day School to the College Game
With two former Jewish day school players in the NCAA; Aaron Liberman (Northwestern) and Jacob Susskind (Maryland) has JewBall become a legitimate thing? I will keep a close eye on both prospects.

9) Farmar Far Away
Will we ever see Jordan Farmar back in the NBA? Does some team need a point guard or is this move to the international scene long term?

8) Pastner's #17 Memphis Tigers
How good can Memphis be? Pastner is finally out of Callapari's shadow, now what does he do with his own recruits.

7) Can Jake Cohen Make a Statement
Last year Jake Cohen led Davidson to the Tournament. They lost a tough game in the opening round, but Jake became a star. Can he create even more buzz and eventually win in the tournament and get some NBA team to notice him?

6) Short man, Big Task
The Detroit Pistons are bad. Can Lawrence Frank make them good? Seriously, if he does he has to be coach of the year. 

5) From Mark Cuban to Micky Arison to ?
The last two NBA champions have been teams owned by Jews. Can we make it three in a row? 

4) Larry Brown is Back
Can the new SMU coach bring the Mustangs some wins? Can he take another team and turn them around?

3) Influx of Israeli's into the College Game Gone Bad
Over the last three years the NCAA basketball has seen three (that I know of) Israelis come over to the states; Nimrod Tishman (Florida), Hen Tamir (Jackson State), and Noam Laish (Maine). All three are gone. Will any other Israelis bring their talents to the States after these 3 failed experiments? 

2) How will David Stern's eventual departure affect the NBA?
With Stern announcing his retirement in 2014 will he have one last final imprint to make and will it make a difference on the NBA's future.

1) Omri Casspi's NBA Future
Casspi came into the league and captured not only Jews attention but the attention of the league. Since his rookie season Casspi has been slipping. Will he be able to bounce back?

And Let Us Say...Amen.
- Jeremy Fine

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Israel, that’s a part of me

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11/19/2012

Ashley Kolpak photo

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a great event celebrating the launch of Living Jewishly, a newly published collection of essays curated by this blog’s founding editor, Stefanie Bregman. It was a nice opportunity to mix, mingle and give some thought to how I in fact, “live Jewishly.” 

A coworker of mine encouraged me to contribute to Oy!, so when she told me she would be doing a reading, I happily tagged along. I rushed to the bar after my long suburbs-to-city commute. It was a warm and welcoming venue (Matilda on North Sheffield) and I made my way to the back to survey the scene. There was a mix of faces new and familiar, and I put on my most engaged networking smile. I was hoping to meet fellow bloggers at the event and I was excited to meet other members of the Jewish non-profit community. 

As the evening wound down, several featured contributors delivered readings of their short stories. Some painful, some poignant, all moving in their own special way. It's interesting, I thought to myself, looking at the world through a uniquely Jewish lens. It was refreshing and relatable to hear stories...funny, wise, wonderful stories...geared directly toward what it means to be growing up Jewish in this generation. 

The older I get, and the more places I go, I learn just how fortunate I was growing up in a community that shares similar views to me regarding Judaism and Israel. In the wake of the new and upsetting clashes in the Middle East, I take comfort in my friends and family that support and share my opinions, or at least can understand where I am coming from. I welcome diversity, but there is something to be said for someone automatically being on (nearly) the same page about issues that are close to one's heart.

I'll never forget the first time I really, truly had to defend Israel to someone. It was a few years back on a train ride from Vienna to Prague. A friend and I sat with a young New Zealander. He was smart and friendly, and we all got on well enough. The conversation took a turn when he brought up the Flotilla, which had happened a few months before. He had some very unsavory things to say about the IDF and Israel in general and I was taken so aback I wasn't quite sure where to begin.

Growing up in the North Shore of Chicago, conversations like this just weren’t something I was a part of. In trying to defend my Zionist beliefs, I came off a little...flustered. I went on about how it was a PR nightmare, about how it is a terribly complicated situation; I conveyed quite clearly how upset the comments made me. I was missing the cool, calm streak of reason. It’s a flaw of mine, but standing up for what I believe in, in that moment, it made me proud to be Jewish. Wanting to stand up for my faith and my people that really made me appreciate my roots, where I come from, and where I want to go.

It’s conversations like that, and conversations discussed at the book launch party that bring up the ever-elusive topic....what does living Jewishly mean to me? To anyone? For me, I think it's a mixture of things. I don't know if it's a part of my every day. I’m hardly religious; my life is not dictated by halacha, for better or for worse. But Israel, that’s a part of me. I think of Israel often, I think of my friends there, I think of family. I think of what a magnificently beautiful place it is, of the incredible strife it’s under at this very moment. I think that no matter how hard I try to wrap my head around the situation, I'll never quite understand it. And that come what may, I hope for the best, and pray for my family and friends and for peace. 

More often than the rules of religion, I think about tikkun olam. When I was a little girl, my father subscribed to “Tikkun” magazine. When it arrived in the mail, I clearly remember asking what “Tikkun” meant, and the definition still strikes a chord with me all these years later.

So, “tikkun olam,” or “to heal the world”...it's a tall order, isn’t it?! After working for a non-profit (my first “real” job post-college), I’ve seen tikkun olam realized on an organized, very real level. I’ve been so very moved by the generosity of others by witnessing the efforts of those donating to a charitable organization. And there are so, so many ways that tikkun olam can be manifested, on a small and large scale. But what can I do, what can “we” do? Donate money, sure. Donate time, even better. “Living Jewishly” is an ever evolving concept. And as I grow older, I hope to up the tikkun olam quotient in my life. Because, in my opinion, there’s nothing like some good old-fashioned g’milut chasadim.

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‘Um, I invented Post-Its.’

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11/15/2012

Blair Chavis photo

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”

--Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

A few months ago, I attended a going-away party for a colleague who was changing cities for a job. We’d met during an early-career, news internship, and I was flattered to be included in his “goodbyes” after all of these years. I found myself in a noisy bar, surrounded by a bushel of people I’d known for years but hadn’t seen for some time. Some of these re-connections felt awkward, but many of them also surprised me—because they weren’t. Mid-way through the party, I found myself deep in conversation, drinks in hand, with an old colleague who had once been my supervisor, talking more candidly about the news, ourselves, our beliefs…than we ever had. I can only hope that’s how my 10-year high school reunion turns out this fall.

Then again, I think my former supervisor and I fell so easily into conversation because we knew too much going in. Facebook gave the false illusion that we’d been following each other’s lives. It’s darn right creepy. He and I knew where each other currently works, what accomplishments we’d recently achieved and more.

Some half-heartedly joke, “Who needs a reunion, when you have Facebook?”

I already know who’s married; I know who got knocked up; I know who got pregnant on purpose; I know the states in which fellow high school alumni live; I know their professions; and I’ve already sized up how attractive their spouses are. What will we talk about? How will we avoid looking like creepers when we’re scarcely surprised by each other’s life updates? What’s left after Facebook?

Few friends my age pause and contemplate our unique role in Facebook’s coming-of-age story and how it has impacted us and our coming-of-age stories. Fellow members of my high school graduating class, and classes a couple of years below and above me, were among the first to join Facebook while we were in college. Facebook began in February 2004, and my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, was among the early campuses invited to join—back when Facebook only accepted college students. According to my Facebook timeline, I joined in September of 2004 when I was a junior. My friend who attended the University of Michigan at the time invited me. Facebook, then, was an odd little world in which invitations were necessary to join, and we could search fellow students and what classes they were taking. When photo posting became available, we adopted a narcissistic obsession with posting photos of ourselves and spying on each other. For a short while, Facebook was a college students’ bubble. We never imagined we would continue to trace our lives through this medium for years to come—I’ve now been on Facebook for seven years. Kids are starting much younger than we did, and I can only imagine the bullying implications that come with it. Zuckerberg and his Facebook masterminds have expanded Facebook’s concept into a “timeline” of our lives, from start to finish. Our timelines, however, have more holes than a history text book. It’s oddly comforting, however, that Facebook acknowledges on my timeline that I was born before it existed.

Had Mark Zuckerberg gone to my high school, he would have graduated in my class; we’re the same age. While I was trekking Bascom Hill through several feet of snow at the University of Wisconsin, Z-Man was tucked away at Harvard, developing a little program that would later make him one of the wealthiest people in the world. (That depresses me, by the way.)

I’m now on the precipice of this 10-year reunion and I’m filled with a mixture of dread and curiosity. I have friends who’ve side-stepped their reunions altogether to avoid this uncomfortable experience. The late ‘90s film, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, gained iconic notoriety because it touches the core of our collective, reunion insecurities and the desire to prove how far we’ve come when confronted with those of our past. In the film, Michele was so desperate to prove a legacy, she claimed to invent Post-Its.

(Courtesy of IMDB.com)

"Christie: So, Mi-chelle! What are you up to?

Michele: Oh, okay. Um, I invented Post-Its.

Christie: No offense, Michele, but how in the world did *you* think of Post-Its?

Michele: Uh…"

The truth: Most of the growth we’ve achieved over the past 10 years won’t be perceivable to former classmates this November when we re-unite. Some will have fancy job titles; others will have fancy engagement rings (both of which we’ve already seen on Facebook). If you’re attending a high school reunion to prove something to your class, right a wrong, erase a perception—you’re wasting your time. At the very most, fellow classmates will quietly snicker about how attractive or unattractive you’ve become, or they’ll congratulate you on the babies you’ve birthed. At the very least, they’ll remember who you are. We all edit our lives on Facebook, so they’re coming in knowing the best version of you to date already—hey, you’re ahead.  

For many of us, our 20s are a work in progress—particularly with a rough economy—and we might not be ready to gloat and count our chips just yet. At my core, I am who I was in high school, and I always will be—I’m not ashamed.
I’m indebted to Facebook for helping me to re-unite with high school and childhood friends long before this reunion’s arrival. These friends loved me then, know me now and are catching up on my journey.

I’m bemused by Facebook’s daily offerings of insignificant details from friends’ and near-strangers’ lives. At the same time, I’m grateful my high school landscape was a land of misconceptions fed by little information. In hindsight, it was a more innocent time.

I look forward to the awkward—and perhaps creepy—interactions to follow at this reunion. Hopefully, we’ll surprise each other.

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Post Grad Problems

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11/14/2012

Lauren Schmidt photo

A new twitter handle has found a spot in my heart: @PostGradProblems. Although I can admit that a few of their tweets may not be relatable, the whole premise of the account resonates with me. It is blunt, nostalgic, and still possesses a sort of “woe is me” attitude over seemingly minute aspects of life. In comparison to things that most people in other generations would consider detrimental, many postgraduate concerns aren’t truly that pressing (beyond finding employment and confirming that you have enough funds to support yourself and pay your bills, which, of course, are vital worries) many of my complaints are, in fact, fairly silly. 

If my biggest problem is that there isn’t enough coffee and Diet Coke in the world to make me feel like a functioning person on some days, that I can easily pass out at nine p.m.— even in the middle of a presidential debate, an intense Bulls game, or even Homeland (just kidding, I could never actually bring myself to miss even a millisecond of Homeland)— or that I find myself missing the most random and absurd things about college on a regular basis, does that really qualify as a legitimate reason to whine? 

In some ways, of course it doesn’t. However, it is completely understandable to allow both small and large transitions in your life affect you, even if it ultimately leads to stupid complaints.

To backtrack a bit, graduating GW seemed different to me than graduating from most other schools. I wasn’t saying bye to football games and hanging out in the student union and although graduating meant saying bye to some of my best friends, the structure of coursework and extracurricular activities, and Washington DC, I literally told everyone that it wasn’t going to be that big deal. It was barely a transition. I lied.

See, many GW students (myself included at times) are a bit overly confident about the preparedness that school provides us for the real world. In my mind, sometimes it is rightfully so. Interning in the city for three years, living in your own apartment in the middle of DC, and being on your own in an urban setting, 100% prepares you for many aspects of being a young professional. Of course, some of my former classmates may feel totally prepared and as if they “beat the system” and did not have any post graduate meltdowns, but I can’t say the same. Still, there are some things about post graduate life that no amount of coursework or series of impressive internships can really prepare you for:

1. What it is like to live at home after college: This isn’t something everyone experiences, but for those of us who do, it is quite the experience. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my family, but there is something to be said about living on your own in your own space. There is also something about living in your childhood bedroom that makes you feel like you have regressed to high school, and believe me, even if you loved high school, you have to be crazy to wish this feeling upon a 22-year-old. “Yes mom, I did eat lunch today even though you were out running errands. I am sort of a functioning adult.”

2. What commuting is like: The longest commute I experienced at GW was a thirty minute walk to an internship junior year, which took about 10 minutes if I decided to take the metro. Sitting on the el for two hours every day is exhausting. As @PostGradProblems put it “Speeding up the aging process one commute at a time. #PGP” Nothing says anxiety attack quite like being sardined on a purple line express for an hour after sitting at a desk all day. 

3. How tired you will be: I was extremely busy in college, running from class to work to Hillel to SDT events and then back to Hillel and out and so on, but post-graduate exhaustion is a whole new ballpark. As this said twitter handle so greatly phrased it, “searching for "fatigue" and "lethargic" on WebMD. #PGP.” Besides the fact that my friends joke about adopting bedtimes similar to those of fourth grade campers (and I 100% agree with them), my body literally always hurts and I could always go for a nap (if only offices had a nap room, right?). In addition, I haven’t had an immune system since, well forever, so this new lifestyle isn’t much help. I couldn’t have said this better myself: ”Starting every week by desperately trying to rebuild your immune system. #PGP”

4. How much you’ll actually miss the school part of school: I am not even sorry to say that I miss sitting in class, taking notes, and learning. I absolutely love my job, but I am not ashamed to say that I very much miss some of my professors. However, I don’t miss homework, papers, and exams, even a little bit, so there is something to be said about that. Of course, everyone knows that they’ll miss the social part of college. Why else would everyone joke about “Really regretting the whole "graduate in 4 years" thing. #PGP”

5. How you will never feel old enough to be living the life that you are living: One of my favorite tweets that I’ve read is “laughing to yourself anytime you're categorized as a young professional. #PGP.” There is not a day where I feel like I am actually old enough to be doing what I am doing. Even with the preparation for the real world, sometimes I still feel like I’m like 19, and that’s okay.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is okay to freak out. Growing up is terrifying, the real world can be scary, and I don’t think anyone is 100% prepared for what lies ahead. I think it is acceptable to complain about these small details that encompass our lives after graduation as long as we make sure to celebrate the good things that come along with “adulthood” or what I’d rather refer to as “the limbo before adulthood.” Post Graduate problems are expected, but the little things that make this new life alright are essential.

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MASH

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11/13/2012

MASH photo

Remember when we were kids and we looked forward to our birthdays with gusto, crossing the days off the calendar as The Big Day grew closer? When our only worry on that day was how much birthday cake frosting we could stomach?

Then, somewhere along the way—after we reached birthday milestones like the ones allowing us to legally drive, vote, drink, and rent a car—birthdays took on a bum rap. At some point in our journey, when the number of candles on the cake started posing a fire hazard, growing a year older morphed into a subject of complaint and, sometimes, even dread. Balloon animals and party favors got traded in for over-the-hill jokes and guilt about where we are or, as the case more often may be, aren't in life—not a fair trade in my book. 

In junior high, my girlfriends and I would pass the time on the school bus playing this game called "MASH," where we'd try to predict our future. MASH is the acronym for Mansion/Apartment/Shack/House, delineating the potential choices for our future dwellings. We'd ask each other a laundry list of questions: What would we do for a living? Who would we marry? How many kids would we have? What type of home would we live in?

We'd take out a piece of notebook paper and jot down multiple choices for each category. For instance, for the marriage question, we'd list a bunch of names of potential husbands, like the guys we had crushes on in our grade, and then add in some famous heartthrobs, like Kirk Cameron and Ralph Macchio, for good measure. Then, using the scientific "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" counting system, we'd select the answers to each category, right then and there designing our futures. 

If only we could use this system in real life. And if only the Karate Kid were still on the market.

With my next birthday divisible by 5—the big 35—looming on Thanksgiving weekend, and the High Holy days of reflection in the not-too-distant rearview mirror, I've been thinking a lot about growing older and wiser, and some of life's biggest questions. 

On Rosh Hashanah, I joined my parents at their synagogue in Minneapolis. Their brilliant rabbi, Sim Glaser, recently suffered a burst appendix that almost killed him. Facing his mortality head on, he delivered a dvar torah urging each of us to examine our own life and death questions, in a productive and positive way. What, he asked, is our life's purpose? What were we put on this earth to do?

I've thought about his sermon a lot over the last couple months and, needless to say, I'm still searching for the answers and probably will be for a long time to come. 

But what I do know for sure is that each one of us is meant to do many great things in this world. We're here to fulfill not just one, but many purposes in life, in our multiple roles as professionals, as parents, as offspring, as siblings, as romantic partners, as friends, as citizens of the world, as Jews, as decent human beings.

All these years later, my friends and I are still playing the game of MASH. We may have answered some of the questions posed back on that school bus, but now we're figuring out the answers to more. In fact, if anything, we've actually added so many new questions to our list. And you know what? I don't think that's such a bad thing. 

We're not supposed to have life all figured out by 35 or really any age, because how boring would that be? It's the most Jewish thing in the world to keep questioning, keep striving to figure out who we are and who we're still becoming.

There's the old adage that growing older is better than the alternative. Yep, that's absolutely true. But it's more than that. I say we adults take our cues from wise children everywhere and reclaim the joy that comes with celebrating a birthday. Growing a year older, and wiser, is a big deal—whether you're 5, 35, or 105.

After all, celebrating that we were born, that we were brought into this fascinating, heartbreaking, and beautiful world, and that we're one year closer to figuring out who we are and what difference we're meant to make in this world is worth celebrating—preferably over birthday cake frosting.

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Turkey Time! To Celebrate or Not

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11/12/2012

Talking Turkey photo

I was recently surprised to hear a friend tell me that she does not celebrate Thanksgiving. We were schmoozing over coffee and I asked about her plans for the day. She ticked off the usual expected items like: sleeping late, eating breakfast in pajamas, watching football, etc. I did not hear any mention of turkey or family and friends coming over. So I mentioned it. “Oh, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said. When asked why, she replied, “well, it is not a Chag.” I should mention that my friend is a modern orthodox Jew.

This is not the first time I have heard this. When SHALLOTS, my first restaurant, was on Clark Street, we offered a Thanksgiving Day menu complete with turkey and all the trimmings. A regular customer came in and was extremely upset that they were not able to order from the regular menu. I told him that we were featuring a holiday menu. He said, “Thanksgiving is not actually a holiday for Jews.” 

I thought a lot about that conversation over the years and have quietly polled people regarding the American holiday and whether they celebrate it or not. 

I personally love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of all holidays. As a Jew, I especially love the holiday. It is the only holiday where I can eat a big fancy dinner and 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. I can, but don’t watch TV or go to a theatre and see whatever holiday movie is playing. 

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 brought my kids with me to New York and we watched the floats being inflated at 2am in Central Park. There were crowds gathered and it was amazing. I also had the thrill of watching the parade right there in Columbus Circle. We loved it.

As an American Jew, I owe this great country my thanks and gratitude for allowing me to follow my religion and all of its dietary laws. I openly celebrate who I am and never apologize or hide. That is not the case all over the world.
As an American I also acknowledge our differences and the right that each of us has to celebrate or not.

Here is a classic Thanksgiving recipe— redone, pareve and delicious. If nothing else— maybe we can agree on the food?!

GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE-2012

1 pound fresh green beans, stem trimmed off
Extra virgin olive oil
½ pound mushrooms, sliced (I like to get really festive and use local mushrooms like chanterelles, royal trumpets or oyster mushrooms)
2 cups thinly sliced shallots
½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
For the sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable stock
½ cup pumpkin puree, (I use canned)
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350

1. Toss the green beans with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and salt and pepper. Place the beans on a parchment lined sheet pan and roast them in the oven for about 20 minutes until they are slight browned-but still crispy.

2. Sauté the mushrooms in a large sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium high heat until they are crispy and browned. Combine the mushrooms and green beans in a casserole.

3. In the same sauté pan, add about ½ inch of olive oil, and over medium low heat brown the shallots until they are crispy-this will take about 12-15 minutes. BE PATIENT! Combine the shallots and pumpkin seeds.

4. Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Sauté the garlic just until it is soft (about 2 minutes). Add the flour and stir for 1 minute to get rid of the raw flavor. Add the wine, stock and pumpkin puree. Stir constantly until the mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper

5. Combine the green beans and mushrooms with the sauce. 

6. Sprinkle the casserole with the shallots and toasted pumpkin seeds. Bake the mixture until bubbly-about 20-30 minutes.

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Cheers! Chicago: Wisdom From Heschel on a Thursday Eve

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11/09/2012

Cheers! Chicago: Wisdom From Heschel on a Thursday Eve photo

As I was rushing up the stairs to religious school one Thursday afternoon to prepare my lessons for my fourth grade class, one of my friends and fellow religious school teachers, Miron, sticks out his hand and places a folded piece of paper in it remarking as he walked away, “Just read it.” Curious over the contents on this piece of paper, and knowing that Miron never disappoints, I nodded with a smile and continued up the stairs. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy reading this.

After religious school finished, when the classroom was finally empty and quiet, I absentmindedly reached for the folded piece of paper, unraveled it, and began to read it out loud— something I never do. My friend Miron, a sixth grade religious school teacher at the same school, loves to challenge his students in fun ways, usually beginning with an idea or a quote. Here is what the paper said:

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had a great appreciation of the embodiment of truth in tradition. He was fond of telling the story of a woman who approached him in the synagogue, complaining that the service did not say what she wanted to say.

“Madam,” he responded, “you have it precisely backwards. The idea is not for the service to say what you want to say, but for you to want to say what the service says.” -Richard John Neuhaus

I had to read it a second time to make sure I understood what the quote said. I began to chuckle out loud, not because the quote was funny, but because I know that feeling. In fact, I’ve felt that way for a long time. Being a longtime product of Jewish day school education, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t any of the prayers I wanted in the Siddur, such as a prayer for the Cubs to win the World Series, or a blessing for growing three inches taller, or to get blond hair. Now I realize that it was I that needed to find some meaning, that it would not appear out of thin air or be handed to me on a silver platter. It was not long after that I began to read the translations of many of the daily prayers with much voracity. Now, I didn’t believe as a young boy that people were forcing me to read these prayers, but I did question their value and meaning in my everyday life. But once I was exposed to it and learned about how it connected to me, I began to feel something meaningful when I prayed. I may not be able to say all the things I want when I pray, but I do control the feelings I feel when I pray from the heart. I pray knowing that there has already been 2,000 years of praying from Jews all over the world, that when I speak these words I am participating in a tradition that stretches back, a tradition that has deep meaning and value to those that appreciate it.

How often do we try to mold and manipulate the world or the things in it for our benefits? When we do this, are we thinking of only ourselves and personal gain? Why do we bother with traditions? Pretty heavy questions for sixth graders to tackle, let alone someone with an MA in Education and 25 years of Jewish education. 

I didn’t get a chance to ask Miron afterwards why he chose that quote, or what lesson he planned to teach his sixth graders. Maybe he was just trying to get them to appreciate the meaning of services and prayer by showing them the significance of inner faith and inner motivation. Maybe he was trying to open their minds, to fully commit themselves to the experience of the service, to feel that desire rather than perceive it simply as words and melodies forcefully shoved down your throat without question or hesitation. Or maybe, he just wants them to give tefillah a chance. 

You never know what you might experience if you never give it a chance.

L’Chaim!

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Holiday Health

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11/08/2012

Halloween is a killer, not in the gory-scary-chainsaw massacre way but in the belly. It starts the holiday season with miniature morsels of goodness. Even if you are not knocking on doors begging for candy, you have some. And it’s in your office too, there’s no escaping Halloween candy. Up next: Thanksgiving and a disgusting quantity of delicious stuffing, turkey, pies and potatoes. 

Since most people gain a few pounds throughout the winter and don’t lose it, now is the time to be diligent. With work events, friends, and family gatherings it’s hard to stay on a workout regime and eat healthy. You have to outsmart fat. Here are some simple strategies to stay slim this holiday season:

• Pre-eat, I know this sounds like blasphemy but have a healthy snack before you hit the holiday buffet style meal. 

• Appetizers OR Dessert, plan your meals. If you are going to have some pigs in a blanket that are held together by corn syrup solids (gross but usually true), skip the cake or vice versa.

• Ask to bring a dish and make it HEALTHY. HEALTHY can still taste YUMMY.

• Have some soup! Make sure it’s a puree or clear broth. Those cream based soups will kill you (not literally).

• If you are the cook, surf Cooking Light or Spark People and find healthy recipes.

• Plan your day, if you know you are going to have a dessert at dinner, have fruit when you crave sugar earlier in the day.

• Walk after your meal. Aside from burning calories, walking helps with digestion.

Holiday Health photo

I love soup! I know some people are not into to soup, but if you are, here’s an easy delicious soup that’s low in calories:

Asparagus Soup

2 stacks of asparagus
2 cups of low sodium chicken broth
Small onion
2 stalks of celery
2 Teaspoons of garlic
1 Teaspoon of pepper
Teaspoon olive oil

In a deep sauce pan, heat oil on medium, add onion and celery. When the onion starts to brown place chopped asparagus, garlic, chicken broth and cook until asparagus gets soft. It takes about 10 minutes or so. Blend in a food possessor or blender. Add in pepper, serve! Sometimes I add a dollop of Greek yogurt to make it a little thicker and add more protein. 

Do you have a favorite healthy soup? Send it my way!

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In Loving Memory

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11/07/2012

I wrote the following eulogy and delivered it in honor of my beloved grandfather at his service on November 5th, 2:30 p.m.

In Loving Memory photo

In Loving Memory of Isidore "Iz" Siegel 
May 20, 1918 – October 29, 2012

In my mind, I have imagined standing here many times. I imagined eulogizing my grandpa, my “pop-pop,” honoring him, his life, and listing the innumerable people, places and things that were changed, influenced and impacted by him. My grandpa was in his 90s after all – and no one lives forever. But I was in shock the morning my mom called to tell me my grandpa had died. And while I was writing this (and now that I am actually standing here), I realized the practicing in my mind was my heart’s attempt at bracing itself for a huge hole. Our family has lost a most loyal, loving and kind soul.

I have no idea how to summarize my pop-pop’s life in a few minutes. How do I do justice to a brother, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend? I really only know how to talk about what he meant to me, and how it felt to have him in my life. When I was a little girl, my grandpa would take me to the park. He’d wait at the bottom of the slide for me and scoop me up. He wore an aftershave that lingered on my clothes after he hugged me. That smell made me feel safe. So did sitting in my pop-pop’s lap and squeezing his jowly cheeks while he pretended he was trying to eat my fingers. As a little girl, I remember mornings in Florida when I visited my grandparents. I’d sit across from my grandpa at the kitchen table, he’d be dressed in his bathrobe and slippers, me dressed in my PJ’s, and we’d eat grapefruit halves sprinkled with sugar with special grapefruit spoons for breakfast. He had a hairbrush that always sat out on his bathroom counter that had very coarse brush bristles. I would sometimes run it through my hair and wonder if my grandpa liked the feeling of it as much as I did. And sometimes I used his shampoo that said something about making the silver in your hair even shinier. I pretended it would give me beautiful streaks of silver hair – just like my pop-pop’s.

My grandpa didn’t always know what to say in a moment, and he would fill the space with crazy faces and silly sounds. He’d make one eye big and the other one small and his eyebrows would go all crazy and he’d make a grumpy, squished up mouth. When I was a little girl it made me laugh. Fast forward 37 years, he had my little girl laughing at it too. My pop-pop loved talking to people and I noticed whenever he spoke to someone, he physically touched them – enveloped them. Most often, he would extend his hand to someone, who would take it anticipating a handshake. But my grandpa would always initially go to shake but then hold the persons hand, take his other hand and place it over the handshake, securing it. He turned a social formality into a genuine connection. His hands were soft and warm and he was always looking into your eyes when he greeted you. I can remember observing this about him as a little girl. I didn’t know the word for “finesse” back then, but I remember thinking my grandpa was very brave to touch so many people, pulling them in close and really looking at them. Later, I defined my grandpa a gentleman, a charmer, a mensch.

Over the past several years, my grandpa was bravely battling Parkinson’s. It took away a lot of things from my grandfather. It was very difficult to watch his mind be robbed of things as time went on. Sometimes he didn’t even know who I was. But when I reminded him, he’d nod slowly and smile. And my pop-pop would come back to me. My grandfather always prided himself in his ability to take care of his family. Then there came a time where he was unable to care for himself. This distressed him deeply. But as time went on, he began to acknowledge he needed help, and slowly, he opened himself up to the people who loved him to help him and care for him at the most vulnerable time in his life. He gave us a gift really. He gave us the opportunity to finally give back to him. The gift of giving back to a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather and a friend – a man who spent his entire lifetime giving to others. My grandpa gave his heart and his soul to his family. He lived for us. 

Life is very complicated. But loving my Grandpa was very, very simple.

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JUF gets Wind of Hurricane Sandy and Sends Relief

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11/06/2012

JUF gets Wind of Hurricane Sandy and Sends Relief photo

Every water bottle, pitcher or jug we owned was filled with water. A pyramid of canned beans, corn and tuna were stacked neatly atop the counter. The pantry was full of stove-top friendly fare, such as rice and quinoa. The freezer was packed with extra ice, so that it would hold its contents better— in case we lost power. The fridge was unusually bare. We stopped buying perishable goods, once we got first wind the storm was headed our way. The emergency suitcase was prepared for a quick departure with some warm clothes and our most essential documents. We were doing our best to take the threats seriously and “hunkering down” for a hurricane.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall outside of Atlantic City and touched over 65 million people in its path. I heard about school closings as far west as Chicago, because the winds from the storm disrupted the Lake Michigan tides. The DC Metro area fared luckier than most, as many have seen the maps of New York City showing the neighborhoods still without electricity, heat and water. The heartbreaking photos of devastation along the Jersey Shore and neighborhoods in New York such as Breezy Pointe have been difficult to watch.

Looking back at the moments we experienced while this tragedy unfolded through the fuzzy signal on the TV in our living room, we could do little more than “hunker down.” From Sunday evening through Tuesday afternoon, we stayed indoors and waited for the storm to pass. There was real fear as we watched tall, strong trees bounce back and forth in the 50 mile and hour gusts. We even considered sleeping in the hallway as conditions started to really deteriorate. I admittedly wondered what it would feel like and how I would react, if I was awoken in the middle of the night to a tree coming down through our home.

Though, on the second morning, when it became clear that the serious danger had passed from DC, and the news had focused attention mainly on the devastation of our friends to the north, I began to feel helpless. What could I do to help? I was miles from the wreckage and there was no way to be there and make a difference.

Then on my Facebook news feed, a message pops up that the JUF had established a “Jewish Federation Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.” Time and time again, the JUF steps up when people need it most. Even though I’ve made the East Coast my home, last week was no exception.  

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You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile

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Parashat Vayera
18 Cheshvan 5773 / November 2-3, 2012

11/02/2012

Dan Horwitz photo

At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayera, we find God visiting Abraham to check on him after his recent circumcision (which at age 99, was likely taking its toll physically). Modeling for us the Jewish value of bikkur cholim – visiting those who are ill – you’d think that Abraham would have been flattered that God was stopping by to hang out for a bit. Instead though, what we find is one of the more interesting interactions in the Torah. Just as God was visiting Abraham, Abraham looked up and saw three men passing by. Abraham rushes out of his tent to them (leaving God behind!) in order to greet them and to offer them food and shelter as a respite from their journey.

What. Just. Happened.?!

Abraham, our patriarch, supposedly the founder of monotheism, is being visited by his one and only God, and abandons God in favor of greeting complete strangers?

Is this simply a case of excessive hospitality?

There is a midrash that teaches us that Abraham's tent was consciously kept open so that he could see visitors coming in order to greet them in this fashion. [Genesis Rabbah 48:9]

Clearly we can learn from this episode the significant value that our tradition places on welcoming guests – including (and especially) ones that we don’t have existing relationships with.

For example, on Passover, there’s a part of the Seder (the paragraph of “Ha Lachma”) where we say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Many families will actually open the door to their home at this time and shout it to the street so that anyone passing by in need of a Seder will be able to come and join (granted, this model might have been more practical in Old Country where folks were living in closer, tighter quarters, although there’s certainly an argument to be made that in big cities with dense populations the ability still exists).

In the Talmud, we see Abraham’s actions used to illustrate a general (and significant) principle: “Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine.” [Bab. Talmud Shabbat 127b]

And yet, despite our people’s strong tradition of being welcoming, there are many who find today’s Jewish community to be cold and distant, rather than warm and present. People sometimes feel when they walk into synagogues that they might not be greeted warmly. Individuals will make charitable contributions to Jewish organizations, and may not receive a personal phone call expressing appreciation – rather, they’ll only receive a form thank-you letter in the mail. Someone new will move to town, may not be invited to join existing social circles, and/or may not be invited over to someone’s home for a Shabbat dinner shortly after arriving so that s/he can meet others.

We can and need to do better. Our tradition and accompanying values demand it.

This Shabbat, reflect on what you can do to be more welcoming of others.

Commit to reaching out to someone you know is new to the area and invite him/her to your home for a meal.

We learn from Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors, that we should “receive everyone with a cheerful face.” [Avot 1:15]

Sometimes all it takes to change the world is a smile.

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My November 50K

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11/01/2012

My November 50K photo

How we spend October 31 can say a lot about us as people. Some of us hand out candy from the front porch. Some of us go wild and hit the town in costume. Some of us go about our day business as usual. And some of us stay up until midnight, furiously outlining the 50,000-word novel we'll start writing when the clock strikes.

Ask anyone in the last group why this is, and they might reply, in varying states of dazedness, elation or exhaustion, "NaNo." It's not a Mork & Mindy reference—it's National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. The gist of the project is not to produce a perfectly formed story in 30 days, but to create a messy, sprawling, often terrible first draft that you can either edit when you can stomach looking at it again, or simply use as bragging rights for having finished a novel. To achieve the minimum word count by the end of the month means writing 1,667 words a day, a number to which anyone who has participated probably has some visceral reaction.

Your approximately 1,700 words translate to three or four typed pages daily. My favorite method is to write three pages longhand on notebook paper; when I type that up, I inevitably add more words, and can generally make the per diem requirement. (I wouldn't say I'm old hat at NaNo: I've participated on and off since about 2004, and have actually "won" twice. But you learn as much from the struggle as you do from the victory, as anyone who's ever trained for a race can probably tell you too!)

NaNo exacts a toll, I'm not going to lie: my family has long since come to terms with my insistence that I get a couple hours alone in my room during Thanksgiving so I can finish my day's words, and social outings throughout November involve a lot of give and take (and sleepless nights or very early mornings). But if you're the kind of person for whom writing, for all the anguish, rage and self-doubt it can cause, is the thing that makes you feel most alive, NaNo is your marathon, your delirious month of living and breathing story and words, along with hundreds of thousands of other people who have given themselves permission to do the same for thirty days.

The community of NaNo is a life-saver, by the way. Writing a novel alone is hard enough, but there's something awesome about doing it at the same time as other people the world over. Advice and help come from all corners of the internet, though this year's favorite might wind up being the inevitable Fake NaNoWriMo Tips Twitter account (I promise the jokes are hilarious if you've ever tried to write a story or read a writing blog). NaNo also has an extensive system of local meet-ups in place, with communal writing parties at coffee shops, libraries and other spots. And if you're signed up for the official newsletter, every week you get encouragement and words of wisdom from authors you admire—nifty, right?

Some people use NaNo for that great idea they've been nursing for years but never acted on; others go full-bore silly (mine this year involves werewolves, though they're not sexy werewolves, so perhaps this one isn't destined to sell). Every possible genre you can think of (and many, I mean many, that you have not) has some representation, and while literary agents are famously leery of NaNo (December becomes an avalanche of unedited manuscripts in the slush pile), some books you've heard of, including The Night Circus   and Water for Elephants, started out in 1700-word-a-day chunks.

Even if you don't "win" or finish your novel, the benefits of NaNo are quite tangible. For me, it does a great job of killing my fear of the blank page. Your first draft doesn't have to be good, it just has to begin. You learn to go with your first instinct and just plow ahead, because you can always change it later, and you might even surprise yourself when you stray from your own script. That's not just useful for novel-writers, that's a good skill for anyone who relies on words for a living.

November 30 can be a strange time for a NaNo participant. It often feels like the following, if you're on the verge of passing 50K:

Your story may have devolved into sputtering nonsense, or you may be on such a roll that you clear your last 8K in a single sitting (the two are not mutually exclusive). Both deserve a good round of celebratory beat-boxing. If this sounds even remotely intriguing or appealing, why not sign up and see for yourself? As for me, maybe this whole novel thing can be some sort of meta-examination of NaNoWriMo (and werewolves)—you think I can count this article toward my daily total?

Catch you on the flip side, Oy!sters—if you're writing a novel this month, break a leg (or maybe some pencils), and tell us about it in the comments!

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