OyChicago blog

Aim Low To Win Big

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12/31/2009

Aim Low To Win Big photo

My first Facebook status of 2009 went as follows:

“Lindsey Bissett lost her camera. Have you seen it? It’s Kodak and has pictures of a naked guy playing guitar.”

I must’ve typed that while I was lying in bed eating take-out during the second viewing of my Beauty and the Beast VHS. Good way to start out the year? Not so sure. Luckily I found the camera at Nick’s Beer Garden along with my credit card and driver’s license. Boy, oh boy, do I love New Year’s Eve.

I would like to thank the person who turned my camera in to the bartender that night. I don’t know who you are, but if you read this, I like you. After much contemplation, I will take my camera out with me again this year but will handcuff it to my chastity belt.

Pretty much the only thing I like about New Year’s Eve is that you get to come up with your resolutions for the next year. The best way to ensure a wonderful year is by setting low achievable goals for yourself. I like to have many New Year’s resolutions that I know I can accomplish in a few short weeks. That way, the remainder of my year is spent feeling totally accomplished. Example: in 2006 I set the goal to grocery shop more than once a month. 2 days later: check! I also set the goal to learn how to dance the mashed potato. 1 week later: check! And party as hard as I can for as long as I can. 8 days later: check! And it turned out that 2006 was the best year of my life to date.

Other years I just set the bar way too high. I had things on my resolution list like: learn the dance to Thriller (much too long), be on time (my mom calls me ‘Lindsey of love and lateness’ for a reason), and figure out my career (sigh). When I checked on www.43things.com 17 people want to try to take over the world! That’s just unrealistic. You have to aim low to win big.

This year I resolve to:

  • Learn to sew. I already know how to sew so this will be easy. I just want to hone my skills.
  • Never once participate in a line dance under any circumstance.
  • Finish watching seasons 3 and 4 of LOST.
  • Eat more Taco Bell.
  • Attend a bar trivia night at least twice.
  • Take more naps.
  • Pay my $1 library fine.
  • And hug a puppy.
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Little snacks mean bigger slacks

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12/30/2009

Little snacks mean bigger slacks photo

Once upon a time, about three months ago, I wrote a post on this very blog about how silly it is to wait until December 31st to start making resolutions for the New Year.  Way back then, my plan was to find a meaningful way to give back to the community.  And I did – sort of.  But today, I’m back to my original quest, and I suppose that quest is for self-improvement.

Here I am, on December 30th (at least I’m a day early, right?), thinking about what I can do differently in 2010.  As I said in September, every year this list looks just about the same.  Eat healthier.  Go to the gym.  Blah, blah, blah.

This year, I’m hoping to try things a little differently.  So here are a couple strategies I’ve devised to make my list of goals for 2010 a bit more attainable.

1)   No vague goals.  Making a list of ambiguous plans like “lose weight” or even “lose 10 pounds” won’t cut it.  Even though the “10” makes it semi-specific, it doesn’t outline the strategies to see it through.

A better resolution would say, “In order to lose 10 pounds, I will stop eating junk from Ronna’s candy bowl at work, visit the gym at least 3 times per week for 45-60 minutes of cardio and weight training, pack healthy lunch four times per week instead of wasting money and eating the fattening crap they’re selling in the Loop, and stop ordering Pad Thai delivery because it’s HORRIBLE for you.”

2)  Find ways to reward yourself for a job well done.  Sitting at the doctor’s office flipping through a beat up copy of Glamour, I stumbled upon a great idea.  Make yourself a reward jar and drop in a quarter for every good decision you make.

If you’re thinking about sitting on the couch all night with a bowl of ice cream while watching the Biggest Loser but decide to watch it from the treadmill at the gym instead, pop in a coin.  Or if you eat a handful of almonds instead of succumbing to the tempting treats in the kitchen at work, contribute a few cents more.  Once your good decision piggybank accumulates enough change, you can buy yourself a treat – like a new pair of jeans in a brand new size!

3)  Post that list of resolutions – everywhere!  My 84-year-old Nana has had two very cute signs on her refrigerator for at least 20 years.  One says, “Those who indulge bulge” and the other says, “Little snacks mean bigger slacks.”  Now I think that if I reach my eighties, I will certainly indulge every so often, especially if I still have my Nana’s figure, but the idea is a good one.

Take that list of resolutions, and print it out in bold bright colors.  Put one up on your refrigerator and one in your pantry.  Post one on your desk at work and one in your car.  Make it your cell phone background.  Engrain one in your memory, and if you want, give a copy to your closest friend or family member and ask them to hold you accountable.

You could even blow it up poster-size and tape it up above your bed so you can dream about it each night.  OK – maybe I’m exaggerating a little.  But seriously, the more reminders you can give yourself, the easier it will be to reach those goals.

4)  Speaking of reminders, here is a great resource: http://www.43things.com.  Now in the world of social networking, I’m not one for posting my every thought and feeling in my status update or tweeting about what I ate for lunch.  But while 43 Things may seem like another cliché networking site or micro-blog, it’s not.

On their website, the creators write, “We believe that the very act of writing ideas down helps you answer the question, "What do I really want to do with my life?" and puts you on the path towards accomplishing it.”

On the website, you type your goal into the blank, and using the example above, I typed in “Lose 10 pounds”.  When you hit enter and then click the link, you’ll see that right now, there are 5,960 people online who feel the same way.  Once you add this goal to your list, you have a lot of options – you can blog about your efforts, read advice from others trying to achieve the same goal, or my personal favorite, write a periodic reminder email that will be sent your way, automatically, as frequently as you like.  Here’s an example of one of mine:

Dear future self,
I'm reminding you about your stated goal on 43 things, to "stop biting my nails".  QUIT BITING - it's disgusting, unattractive, unhealthy, unprofessional, and it's been too long!  Enough is enough!

Sincerely,
Your past self

Now, while losing 10 pounds isn’t one of my resolutions, quitting this gross nail biting habit definitely is.  In fact, it’s been my resolution for over 10 years.

So here is the 2010 version of my annual resolution:  no more nail biting.  Strategy:  finding alternative ways to channel stress, quit chewing my cuticles, let my nails grow to the tips of my fingers and maintain them there.  Reward:  manicures every two weeks and polish changes on opposite weeks.  (Also serves as strategy, since I haven’t the faintest idea how to maintain pretty nails).  Reminders:  posted at my desk and next to my bed.  My husband, my friends and my co-workers all know to call me out, and now all of the Oy! readers do too.

 And as for 43 Things, I just updated my email settings to daily reminders, so someone, even if it’s just my “past self”, will pester me about it every day.

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Facing anti-Semitism at a Chicago coffee shop

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12/28/2009

For many of us that were born and raised in America, particularly in areas that have significant Jewish populations, we aren’t readily faced with overt, in-your-face anti-Semitism. So you can imagine how taken aback I was the other day when the following took place:

I was enjoying a hot caramel apple cider with a friend of mine at well known coffee chain the Monday before Chanukah. He is Jewish, like me, but unlike me he wears a kippah all the time. We were sitting near a window and were spotted by a heavyset man that looked to be in his 50s, grey hair, and oversized, thick, black-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a blue coat, sweat suit and knit cap. He walked into the establishment and approached our table. Judging by his appearance, I thought he had come in to ask people for money. I quickly learned his intentions were quite different as he sauntered up to our table, specifically to talk to my friend.

The man mumbled when he spoke and the restaurant was loud, so I didn’t catch all that he said. It sounded like he was saying something about Israelis, bombs, women being raped, and people getting killed. He was saying all of this directly to my kippah-toting friend. My friend looked at him and said, “I’m sorry I have no idea what you are talking about.” The man glared at him and responded, “You know exactly what I’m talking about, you filthy Jew.”

There was a pause. I think I heard someone gasp, but I’m not sure if that was just my imagination. I could have sworn for a split second it seemed like the whole establishment froze, like a dramatic moment in a movie. Then the man walked away and there was another pause. My friend spoke first, “Wow. I haven’t wanted to just punt someone in a very long time, until just now.” My response was “Clearly this man is having a really horrible day.” It was all I could think of to say. I felt like I should have said more—maybe I should have said something to the man while he was there. But I didn’t.

What was the right thing to do? Was it better to say nothing as we did? Should we have stood up and made it clear to this guy that he was an idiot and was making an ass of himself? My friend wondered aloud if we should call the cops and get him kicked out of the coffee shop. It’s not my nature to make a scene, to give in to antagonizers and instigators. I wondered if this situation called for it. Any person with half a brain would know that this guy was not all there and was just spewing nonsense and hate; however a part of me felt like we let him win. We didn’t stand up for ourselves.

The most ironic part of all this was it happened the Monday before Chanukah, during the time of year where we celebrate a moment in our history where we as Jews stood up and fought. We fought not only for the right to be Jews, but to be public about being Jewish. The Rabbis tell us that reading Torah, performing circumcision, announcing the new month were among the first things that the Greeks outlawed. Wearing a kippah was not a custom back then, but I’m sure it would have been on the list of banned practices—another public display of Jewish identity.

I was bothered for several minutes that I did not attempt to respond in a more Judah Maccabee like fashion. On the other hand I was reminded that the Rabbis focused this holiday on the miracle of the oil precisely to move our attention away from the military victory. Their intention was to keep us focused on God’s miracles and not so much our own military strength and might.
 
After the man left, we went back to where we left off in our conversation prior to the incident, and finished our drinks. As we were leaving the coffee shop, an African American man in a wheel chair, probably homeless and looking hungry, was on the corner holding a cup, quietly soliciting handouts. My friend with the kippah took out his wallet, pulled out a dollar and handed it to the homeless man, wishing him a very sincere “happy holidays.” I don’t know if I could have asked for a better response to anti-Semitism than that.

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Why JUF? Part III

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The rewards of reporting and writing for the Jewish community 
12/24/2009

Next year, I will celebrate my tenth anniversary at JUF News—the monthly magazine produced by JUF—my first and only job after college. Who says people of my generation can’t commit?! My career at the magazine started in the summer of 2000, mere weeks after tossing my graduation cap in the air and embarking on life on my own. At that time, the world was beginning to turn topsy-turvy, just before the latest intifada in Israel erupted.

A year later came 9/11, a frightening turning point for us as a nation, as a community, and as individuals. My recently graduated (at the time) friends and I talked about this as our JFK moment; we will never forget where we were when the towers were hit or with whom we sat glued to our televisions for the rest of the day. September 11th burst our balloon of invincibility and complacency as young people about to take on the world.

My tenure at JUF News has coincided with all of this upheaval in the world. And I, along with my colleagues, have chronicled this grim reality, this new era of uncertainty in which we find ourselves living in page after page of JUF News for the last decade. As we hear and report on bad things continuously happening to good people in the world, my co-workers and I feel demoralized at times. I often see the world that we write about in our magazine through a bleak lens, from covering constant terror, mayhem, and anti-Semitism around the globe and here at home.

But when I think back over my 10 years as a journalist in the Jewish community, stories of death and defeat don’t come readily to mind nearly as much as do compelling stories about the lives of Jewish people, Jews thriving and triumphing in all walks of life. What I recall most are my many conversations with these people. It’s a privilege to eavesdrop on these lives with a notebook and digital recorder. Each person’s story is different from the next, but all are tied through the tenacious thread of the Jewish narrative.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible people, some of them famous. While sitting with Elie Wiesel—famed Holocaust survivor, writer, and sage—in his midtown Manhattan office, I asked the scholar what it means to be Jewish in America. “Here, Jews can speak as Jews,” he marveled. “In America, you can be seen wearing a kippah in the street. Jews help others but they always help as Jews.”

Turn 180 degrees to Jon Stewart, a wise guy in his own right. My conversation with Stewart stands out to me as the most jokes made at my expense per minute by an interviewee. But the comedian also worked in a few Jewish-themed jokes during our limited time together. “The word Hamentashen—funny word,” he mused, when I introduced myself to Stewart as a representative from a Jewish magazine. “As a comedy writer, I use it frequently. When in doubt—Hamentashen.”

Other memorable conversations have included people with less name recognition, but who have been equally engaging. Alfred Blum, a nonagenarian watchmaker with the spirit of an 18-year-old, fled with his wife, Reni, to Chicago from Germany in the late 1930s, just in time to escape Hitler.

During my interview with the two of them, I admired Reni’s unusual watch. It has a red leather band and a painter’s palette for the face. Reni took off the watch and handed it to me. “You take it. I have another one.” I refused, but they insisted. “When someone offers you a gift,” said Alfred, translating warmly from Yiddish to English, “you take it.” Reni’s watch hangs on my office bulletin board to this day, more than nine years since our interview.

What I love most about working in Jewish journalism is that the stories I cover affect a community I care so much about because I am a part of it.

A ‘wow’ moment for me came after a few months on the job. I reported on a story for a Jewish genetic disorders supplement that we run periodically in JUF News. For the piece, I visited the homes of two heroic families, each with a child suffering from a debilitating genetic disease. Barrie, the mother of Michelle, who is afflicted with a rare illness called Familial Dysautonomia informed me that when Michelle was a baby, pre-diagnosis, Barrie had read two articles, one of which appeared in a past JUF News genetic disorders supplement describing symptoms that matched her daughter’s.

It was only then, after Barrie read these articles, that she was able to identify Michelle’s illness. “I remember reading them, sitting there frozen, thinking this is my child, this is my child,” Barrie told me.

This was a light-bulb moment for her—and for me too. At that moment, I realized my work—and the work of everyone on staff at JUF News, at the Jewish Federation, and in Jewish communal service in general—was helping people, Jews and non-Jews, in large and small ways to live their lives better.

Wanna give back?  Click here to donate to JUF.

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Why JUF? Part II

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12/23/2009

‘I will raise my head’

By Guest Blogger, Caryn Peretz

Why JUF? Part II photo 1

Caryn with Abe (left) a soldier who made aliyah from Chicago

In order to best express why I do what I do as the Director of JUF’s Young Leadership Division (YLD), I want to share the experience I had this summer on the National Campaign Chair and Directors Mission to Israel, a mission comprised of 100 professionals and volunteers from across the country.

I’ve been to Israel over 15 times and was never exposed to the issues in society that I got to learn about on this trip. I consider myself to be someone who tries to keep up with Israel – politics, current events, culture, music – but this was really seeing the heart of a diverse society and a population addressing the needs of its people.  I felt the Zionist spirit of the country that we learn about from Israel’s early years that I wasn’t sure still existed.

We are only a few generations away from the founding of the state of Israel, and I had the opportunity to see how crucial our assistance is through the JUF Annual Campaign, as society in Israel is changing so rapidly.

The first day we met with representatives of the Ethiopian National Project who were my age and immigrated to Israel on foot through the Sudan desert.  They were smart, beautiful, happy, successful women who told us their personal stories.  I always thought that the Ethiopian population came to Israel because they were miserable and wanted a better life, but I learned this summer that this was not the case.  They were happy in Ethiopia, they came to Israel because they grew up yearning for “Yeru-salam” (Jerusalem), but it was only a dream for them.  They didn’t even know that Israel as a modern nation existed.  Only when they heard rumors, and the Jewish community abroad stepped up to help, did they get to fulfill their dream, and now there are over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

One of the women, Liat, said she remembers that world Jewry played a huge role in their journey, and it was something they all acknowledged.  She said it was as if her mother was holding one hand, and we were holding the other.

The Ethiopian National Project was developed as a partnership of all the Federations, JDCJAFI, the government of Israel and others to ensure that we finish our job and continue to support the Ethiopian community and complete our promise to help them settle and be successful in Israeli society.

Liat and her family walked in the desert, they paid their price, now it’s our turn to help.  We can’t stop holding their hands now.  One of my favorite quotes is by William Safire regarding Operation Moses.  He wrote “for the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country, not in chains, but in dignity, not as slaves, but as citizens”.  Israel did this despite pressure not to, and integrating them is not Israel’s job alone.

I see the Ethiopian National Project as a true microchosm of Israeli society – it’s building the country, it’s a work in progress, and it wouldn’t happen without the support of JUF.

Throughout the mission, I felt like I was watching history unfold and Israel develop.  I felt further enthralled with the country and inspired by the spirit of Israelis. 

One of the most powerful experiences for me was visiting the largest army base in Israel where we got a tour of a mock Palestinian village they built for training purposes.  One of the soldiers we met was Abe, a 23-year-old from Chicago who made aliyah four years ago.  There, we heard a presentation from a commander who lost one of his men during an operation during the second Lebanon war.  Three years ago there was a Youtube clip that circulated among my friends during the Lebanon war.  With over 100,000 views, the Israeli who posted wrote she wanted to: “transfer to all of you outside Israel all the pain and sadness that going on in this time of war… And for all our heroes, rest in peace.”  A sad Israeli song called “I will raise my head” plays in the background as we see clips from a military funeral.  The commander we heard from that night played this clip for us, as he shared his stories of the soldier he lost, the soldier who is being buried in this very video.  I’ve watched that video so many times and it’s always been heartbreaking.  But there was nothing like watching it with the soldiers that lost their friend, lived that operation and recall that clip in their memory.  And then, in true Israeli resilient fashion, the soldiers in the dining hall welcomed the IDF entertainment unit and sang and danced with us for the remainder of the night.

As this mission was supposed to do, it made me very proud of what I do for a living and what I’m raising money for.

 

A sense of community

By Guest Blogger, Ariel Zipkin

Why JUF? Part II photo 2

Ariel (left) at this year’s YLD Big Event featuring Andy Samberg

I decided to work in the Young Leadership Division at JUF (YLD) because it is the perfect venue for me to express my Jewish Identity and be involved with the things I care about most – philanthropy, community building and Judaism.  I am continually impressed with the Jewish community here and am extremely appreciative of the warm welcome I have received as a Cincinnati native.  From trying to find me a place to live, to making sure I have plans for the holiday, everyone here has reached out in a touching way.  It is that sense of community and outreach that I love about the Jewish community.

Jewish life and tradition has been significant throughout my life.  This quote sums up how I feel, some of you may know the saying:

אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי?

I first heard this quote at the end of the year I spent in Israel.  I was in a shop in the Old City and I wanted a Hebrew quote engraved on a bracelet from Hadaya.  This sentence immediately caught my eye.

The first part literally means: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”  The year I lived in Israel there were many suicide bombings very close to my home.  Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy to live in Israel during that time, but I was never scared.  I realized how important it was to support the country during such a vulnerable time—it was my responsibility to stand by Israel and show the world that I could not be intimidated by threats or turn my back on the Jewish people’s homeland.  I wanted to learn everything about the conflict, so that I could effectively stand up for myself and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the past year, Chicago has been hit hard by anti-Semitism and JUF has been there to respond.  It is so important that we make ourselves heard and stand up for what we believe in.

The second part of the quote states: “and if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  This idea of brotherhood and responsibility for one another is central to Judaism and seems to be the core of what JUF stands for.  Over the past year, I have been continually impressed with the breadth and scope of services JUF supports locally and abroad.  I have volunteered at the Uptown Café, where homeless people of all races and religions are served with dignity and respect; I have heard how JDC has active programs in 66 countries around the world; I have visited Mount Sinai Hospital where JUF dollars help save premature babies lives; and the stories go on and on.  We, as Jews, are responsible for taking care of one another and for tikkun olam, repairing the world.

The quote ends with: “and if not now, when,” which is a simple call to action.  Sometimes as individuals it is difficult to realize how great we are, and how much greater we can become. So we procrastinate.  Working in YLD forces me to act and never be complacent.  I am extremely proud to work for JUF and to be and advocate for the Jewish people on a daily basis.

Wanna give back?  Click here to donate to JUF.

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Why JUF? Part I

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Fifteen (Expletive) Phonothons Later 
12/22/2009

Why JUF? photo

I was 25 years old and so green I sat there in my bare naked cubicle that first day at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago waiting – 5:00, 5:21, 5:37 – waiting for my boss to “dismiss” me. She never did. And I’m still here 15 years later.

I didn’t stay for the salary. Not for the tuna, the bronze Ben Gurion bust, or the bio-readers at every door. As for those phonothons – with my telephone phobia and fear of rejection – they damn near give me the hives.

But I understand their importance.

As a professional, I’m proud. As a client, I’m grateful. As a Jew, I’m humbled.

Once upon a time, I was a Hillel Lewis summer intern, packing food bags for hungry Jews at The ARK. Does it get any more basic than that? As a budding grant writer at CJE SeniorLife, I saw the kind of care I hope to receive when I grow old. (Let’s face it, reading glasses and hot flashes are not so far off.)

Working in the Chicago Federation system for a decade and a half, as I’ve graduated from that bare naked cubicle to a private office with glorious views of a parking garage, I’ve shared tuna with some phenomenal professionals. My colleagues – legends in our field with extraordinary vision, managers running model programs, clinicians offering compassionate services.

Compassion that I have come to know firsthand.

A Federation scholarship sent me to Israel. JVS helped me land a job (guess where). The same JVS taught my husband English. HIAS Chicago helped him become a U.S. citizen. JCC took care of our babies so we both could work. (And really, would I hand over my three month old to just anyone?) When we hit those goddamn inevitable bumps in the road, JCFS was there.

And that, my friends, is the biggest understatement of all. Big vision, big hearts, dear human beings.

Ironically, the moment that sums it up best didn’t take place at any of our JUF agencies – it actually took place in Orlando.

I was at a national Jewish conference six months after Hurricane Katrina hit. The first night at dinner (kosher chicken), a professional from the New Orleans Jewish Federation approached the podium and dissolved into tears. He thanked the Miami Jewish Federation for guiding him step by step through disaster recovery. He thanked the Houston Federation for providing physical refuge as he set up temporary shop in their offices. He thanked the Toronto Federation for bailing him out personally when he flew to his father’s funeral in Canada and left his passport behind.

He tearfully thanked us all, from Chicago to Chattanooga, for providing the financial resources and the human resources that enabled his Jewish Federation to be a source of leadership, support and concrete assistance to his community in the aftermath of that hurricane, in those weeks of chaos and months of despair. No matter what challenge he faced each day, he knew he could draw on the collective strength of the Jewish community and slowly begin to rebuild.

This is why I’m still here, 15 years and counting. In our darkest moments, whether it’s a hurricane or a war, a hate crime, recession, or personal time of need, I know the Jewish community is behind me.

And from what I’ve seen – as a professional, a client, and highly objective, emotionally detached Oy!blogger – the collective strength of our Chicago Jewish community is second to none.

For this reason – not for the tuna – I will trudge upstairs for the 15th year, pick up my stack of phonothon cards (to hell with my hives) and hope you, fellow Oy!sters, answer my call.

As a professional, I’m proud. As a client, I’m grateful. As a Jew, I’m humbled.

Wanna give back?  Click here to donate to JUF.

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Be the change you want to see in the world

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12/21/2009

Hey Oy!sters,

This week at Oy!, we’re taking a break from the usual stuff to devote some web real estate to a cause that is dear to our hearts: The Jewish United Fund. As you know, many of us Oy! team members are also on staff at JUF, spending our days working to help those in need in Chicago and around the world. Stay tuned this week to hear some personal stories from Oy! team members about why we work for JUF and what serving the Jewish community means to us. During this holiday season, we hope you’ll take some time to watch this video, hear our stories and consider including JUF in your charitable donations this year by making a gift that’s meaningful to you by clicking here.

2009 has been a rough year for many of us. Here’s to a better 2010!
Stef and Cheryl, your Oy!Chicago editors

   

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Interview with the writer and producer for TV show Being Erica

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12/18/2009

Interview with the writer and producer for TV show Being Erica photo 2

Have you ever not watched a television show because you identified too much with it? When I watched Sex and the City in my 20s, I really enjoyed storylines of older single women in the dating scene. Now that I’m the same age as Sarah Jessica Parker when the series started, I no longer find it (as) funny and kind of depressing.

There’s a new show that I avoided for similar reasons, but at the recommendation of a friend who told me I was being ridiculous (it’s always good to keep those people in your life) I began watching the show Being Erica .

Erica is a single Jewish woman in her early 30s who goes back in time to fix her past in order to have a better present. After the first episode, I was hooked and even became a “fan” of Being Erica on Facebook. My friend Jen Cohen Galet saw that on my newsfeed and connected me with the show’s writer and producer, her friend Jana Sinyor, a Jewish 30something Torontonian married with two kids.

Jana said the show appeals to all audiences, but Jewish people especially identify with Erica.

“She’s Jewish in a way which is recognizable to people who are Jewish. She’s not hyper observant, she’s culturally Jewish, although her father is a Reform Rabbi,” Jana said.

Being Erica deals with Jewish life cycle events like Bnai Mitzvah and Brit Milah.

“People who are educated and people who are more culturally Jewish than religious have trouble reconciling their education with Jewish law,” Jana said. “An episode in Season 2, Erica struggles with circumcision and her feelings about it.”

Although there are Jewish themes, most of the topics are universal. What do you do when someone you love is marrying the wrong person? How do you cope with jealousy and conversely monogamy? How do you deal with your family and society’s expectations of you?

“Erica is funny, smart, educated, attractive, but she is nowhere near where she is supposed to be in her life,” Jana said. “But the expectations are part of the problem. There’s not much wrong with Erica. She’s not a loser. She’s a normal person struggling with normal problems.”

Jana felt that pressure when she first graduated from college. With a liberal arts degree, she struggled to get a job. Her first break was working for the Canadian version of Sesame Street writing lines for puppets. With time, she became a writer on Degrassi: The Next Generation and a producer and writer of Dark Oracle.

“It can be very daunting, you’re smart and you are educated, something I saw everywhere, but there is a lot of pressure to have the things to have in place by the time you are 30,” Jana said.  "This is very common in Jewish families. You must accomplish certain things by certain points and most people don’t.”

Amen Jana! Season 2 of Being Erica begins on Wednesday, January 20 at 9 p.m. on SoapNet and is downloadable via iTunes.

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Chanukah music that doesn’t suck

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12/17/2009

Chanukah music that doesn’t suck photo

Chanukah music does not begin with “The Dreidel Song” and end with Adam Sandler. There is plenty of great Chanukah music out there suitable for adult tastes. It’s just a little hard to find… until now. So here they are— the Top Ten Best Chanukah Albums for Grown-Ups:

1. Alan Eder:  Reggae Chanukah
After a research trip to Africa, Fullbright ethnomusicologist Alan Eder attended a Passover seder back in America and was struck by the similarities he heard in the music of both cultures. He responded with the album Reggae Passover. His follow-up, Reggge Chanuakah, is even better. As the title suggests, it’s all your favorite Chanukah songs, and way more, done reggae-style. It’s fun, funky, and amazingly well-produced and -performed. I have been reviewing Jewish music for more than a decade, and it’s the best Chanukah album I have ever come across. Hear here.

2. Shirley Braha, ed.:  I Made it Out of Clay
19-year-old Indie-rock fan Shirley Braha solicited her favorite obscure bands to create new Chanukah songs. The performers on Clay are based in a dozen U.S. states… plus Canada and Finland, where they know something about winter. Kisswhistle remakes Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” into “Verhannukah,” and Mesopotamia harmonically laments the passing of a tail-chasing dog named Dreydel. Quirky, provocative, and repeatedly surprising.

3. Woody Guthrie/Klezmatics:  Happy Joyous Hanukkah
Woody Guthrie married a Jewish dancer… whose mother was the great Yiddish songwriter Aliza Greenblatt. Inspired by her, Woody wrote many Jewish-themed songs, performed here by the incomparable Klezmatics. Most are adorable songs Woody wrote for Arlo and his other children. But “The Many and the Few” shows that the man who carved “This machine kills fascists” into his guitar internalized the holiday’s message of liberty. Hear here.

4. The LeeVees:  Chanukah Rocks
Adam Gardner, the frontman of Guster, looked at the Christmas song/Chanukah song disparity and wanted to even the odds. So he created an entire new band to write entire new songs, entirely about Chanukah. He cites the Ramones as the inspiration for “Gelt Melts,” and The Who for “Jewish Girls (at the Matzoh Ball),” about singles’ events. The rest of the album reveals shades of the Kinks, Elvis Costello and other acts whose music makes you think on your feet. As good as any alt-rock on the radio. Hear here.

5. Craig Taubman:  Hanukkah Lounge
Taubman is a one-man Jewish music factory. In addition to his own albums, he has compiled the works of dozens of other Jewish musicians in themed “Celebration” anthologies. This CD is part of yet another series of Jewish-holiday albums, but this time it’s all electronica and chill. Great for unwinding during the frenetic holiday season, or as background to a cocktail party. Hear here.

6. Jon Simon:  Hanukkah and All That Jazz
For a dinner party, though, try these piano jazz versions of familiar Chanukah tunes, presented simply and elegantly. The only sound is Simon’s graceful playing. There are also three originals the capture the warm flicker of the candles. Speaking of fire, it’s also perfect for sitting by the fireplace. Hear here.

7. Erran Baron Cohen:  Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah
Erran did the music for his brother Sacha’s movie Borat. This music is all over the map. Most of it uses the Balkan Beat Box “throw everything in the pot and set it to boil” recipe. Klezmer, hip-hop, acoustic folk, Timberlake-esque pop, they’re all here. Israel’s Idan Raichel, Ladino singer Yasmin Levy and rapper Y-Love stop by to show the range and history of Chanukah’s freedom message. Hear here.

8. Various Artists:  A Chanukah Feast
Do you like snark? Then you’ll like this irreverent CD. The Hip Hop Hoodios rap in English, Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino; here they present a hip-hop version of a Ladino Chanukah standard. Another standout track is folkie Chuck Brodsky’s p.o.’d “On Christmas I Got Nothing.” The rest includes a heaping helping of experimental klezmer, and way more Jewish country music than you’d expect. Volume II is more of the same. Funds raised go to bring music education to poor kids. Hear here.

9. Various Artists:  Festival of Light
A nice variety. The breakout song here is a duet between Israeli superstar David Broza and American alt-rocker Peter Himmelman, “Lighting Up the World.” Marc Cohn stops walking in Memphis long enough to chime in with his version of “Rock of Ages.” Jane “Calling All Angels” Siberry is here, too, as is Don Byron, an African-American klezmer clarinetist. The collection is rounded out by the famous Klezmatics and the should-be-famous RebbeSoul (check out his Fringe of Blue album). Volume II is jazzier, with Dave Koz, Frank London, Wayne Horvitz, and Yiddish singer Chava Alberstein. Hear here.

10. Various Artists:  Chanukah Celebration
This one’s mostly folksy and laid-back. Mainstream acts like Barenaked Ladies contribute, and it’s also a great introduction to some of the best Jewish singers today, like Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Judy Frankel, and of course  Debbie Friedman. The Marc Cohen song and the Broza/Himmelman duet are here too… as are songs from the LeeVees and Woody Guthrie/Klezmatics albums, so if you are unsure if you want to get those whole albums, you can start with this one. Hear here.

So there you go. Now, no more complaining about how there’s no good Chanukah music!

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Jewish high schools, Jewish basketball, Jewish pride

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12/16/2009

Jewish high schools photo

I was in eighth grade limping around on crutches when my family took me to an Ida Crown Jewish Academy vs. Fasman Yeshiva High School basketball game. It was a packed house. Literally, my broken ankle was hanging over the court because there was nowhere to sit. The Ida Crown Aces varsity team ran out onto the court and the atmosphere was electrifying. I know it sounds weird that a high school game featuring religious Jews could be so exciting— but it was. And from that point on, I knew I wanted to attend Ida Crown Jewish Academy for high school.

When I got to Ida Crown the games were exactly like I envisioned them. There was heated competition with fans screaming and chanting. And we played our hearts out in every games. Emotions were always high. I remember the coach, Gary Peckler’s, locker room speeches and how we tried to ignore the other team during warm-ups, but were really sizing each other up. Fans would be passing out student papers that compared each player to his counter part. Throughout my years at Ida Crown we split with the Yeshiva. But each game came with a different feeling of either total demoralization or complete accomplishment. Those games usually decided the Metro Prep conference champion.

The games got so intense and so packed that the Yeshiva no longer plays its home games vs. Ida Crown at the school. Instead, they have started renting out a gym and changed their game from the Saturday night craziness to a calmer Wednesday night setting. This year they take on Ida Crown at Chicagoland Jewish High School.

In 2001 Chicagoland Jewish High School officially became the third Jewish high school with a basketball program and they quickly joined the Metro Prep. While CJHS is still a young team they do hold a few junior varsity wins. I remember going to a game and CJHS beat Ida Crown—that win meant a lot to the up and coming school. This year CJHS has left the Metro Prep and will play as an independent school. In 2007 CJHS also built a gorgeous new gym, a perfect setting for any high school basketball game.

For everyone out there in the Chicago Jewish world who has not gone and seen some of these games, I say go for it. The Yeshiva chants of “hit the floor” every time I touched the ball still rings in my ears. The excitement was unbelievable. Jewish pride is on the line with every free throw and every miscue (I mean it is Jewish basketball). Below is the rest of this year’s schedule. Also, Ida Crown and CJHS plan on attending an all Jewish High School basketball tournament in New York at Yeshiva University on March 11th-15th. 

ICJA vs. CJHS - Dec 16th
ICJA vs. Yeshiva - Jan 24th
ICJA @CJHS - Jan 30th
ICJA @ Yeshiva - Feb 6th @CJHS
CJHS vs. Yeshiva - Feb 21st
Metro Prep Tournament - Feb. 22nd
Red Sarachek Tournament - Mar 11th-15th

For more information about high school sports or anything else in the sports world please visit www.thegreatrabbino.com.

And Let Us Say…Amen.

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A simpler recipe for Friday night

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12/15/2009

A simpler recipe for Friday night photo 1

As the holiday season is really all about food, I thought it would be funny if I attempted to cook a traditional Shabbat dinner for my boyfriend Mike and wrote a blog post making fun of my inevitable failure. Lucky for me (and for Mike), this isn’t a story of failure at all.

Let me back up a bit. I don’t cook. In fact, I’m actually quite phobic about cooking—touching raw meat, messing up my kitchen, not cooking things correctly, accidentally using expired ingredients, making people sick…you get the point. I usually prefer to leave the cooking to the experts, like chefs, or Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice. I never really had the desire to cook—I figured my time could be better spent in other ways. Plus, I had managed to get by for 25 years making soups, sandwiches, TV dinners and pasta.

And then, I moved in with my boyfriend Mike.

A simpler recipe for Friday night photo 2

For the purposes of this story, all you really need to know about Mike is that he loves to eat—particularly meat—and for a skinny guy, he eats a lot. He loves meat so much that he often salivates while watching commercials. He loves chicken so much that he actually dressed up in a full chicken suit this Halloween. The day I was going to cook dinner, he ran around the apartment all afternoon singing “today is the day of the Shabbos chicken!”…but I digress. He also loves to cook and experiment in the kitchen—a blessing for the half of me that loves to eat too, and a curse for the half of me that really doesn’t like having raw chicken out on my kitchen counter.

Since we moved in together in May, Mike has slowly but surely been showing me the ropes in the kitchen. I can now proudly say that I make a mean scrambled eggs, and despite our super-busy schedules, we take the time to prepare dinner together nearly every night. But despite my progress, I was still lacking the confidence to really be on my own in the kitchen. So, I gave myself this assignment—no backing out of this one. I knew the only way I was ever going to learn and conquer my culinary fears was to just get out there and do it.

A simpler recipe for Friday night photo 3

I decided to make a traditional, kosher Shabbat dinner for two—no need to subject any of our friends to my cooking quite yet. In the week leading up to the Friday night of my big dinner, I nervously made lists of everything I would need to get at the store, and asked my coworkers silly questions I felt I should have known the answers to. By the time Friday came around, I felt a bit anxious, but ready. I found a recipe for lemon and sage roasted chicken online, borrowed an awesome and tasty recipe for potatoes from Cheryl (Oy! managing blogger) and Jane (Oy! blogger) shared her delicious and simple family recipe for apple cake.

A simpler recipe for Friday night photo 4

Mike’s only job for the night was to make sure we didn’t get salmonella—I wanted to do this myself. I started with the cake, which was, as they say, easy as pie. Then I moved on to the potatoes, and just as my nerves were calming down, it was time to deal with the chicken. We had purchased a whole chicken that was already broken down into pieces, so all I had to do was rinse each piece and get it into the pan. I’ll admit that a small wave of nausea passed through me as I picked up the first bony, bloody breast, but I swallowed my fear and kept going.

Though our tiny one-bedroom apartment doesn’t have room for a kitchen table, I covered our coffee table with a table cloth and pulled out the Shabbat candles we bought at IKEA when we first moved in and had yet to use. We turned off the television, lit the candles and broke out the nice bottle of wine we had been saving for the right occasion.

While waiting for the chicken to finish cooking (the chicken recipe called for 25 minutes in the oven and actually took about an hour and a half), we drank wine, laughed and talked, and finally got around to putting our mezuzah up on the door post. It took me about four hours to prepare everything, and we didn’t get to eat until long after the sun went down, but we didn’t really mind. Everything came out more than edible and I was really proud of what I had accomplished.

We realized how nice it was to just slow down for one night, to take a break from law school and work and crowded bars and parties and just enjoy spending time with one another, and we made a decision that night to make time one Friday a month to cook Shabbat dinner for the two of us. Stay tuned, next month, I’m planning to tackle matzo ball soup, brisket and challah!

Want to help me learn to cook like a Jewish grandma? Email me your favorite simple recipes at Stefanie@oychicago.com. I’d love to try them out!

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It's Chanukah Babies!

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12/14/2009

Oy!Chicago blogger Chai Wolfman gave birth to twin girls Violet Portia and Autumn Claire on Friday, December 11th at 10:30 p.m. and 10:32 p.m.  The identical twins both weighed in at 4 lbs., 1 oz. and are 18 and 17 inches long, respectively.

Congratulations to Chai and Mandi!!!

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No Fear of Frying

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(Have Yourself a Crispy-Crunchy Holiday)
12/14/2009

It is hard not to feel festive this time of year with all of the shining lights, decorations, and a general feeling of goodwill toward everyone. It is my favorite time of year. I love the brisk—chilly air and broody—moody sky that December brings. I also love Chanukah.

Chanukah is a celebration of oil—lighting it on fire and enjoying the glow and also of frying things in it. What is there not to love? For anyone who thinks that Chanukah is just a child’s holiday, I give you the following.

There is nothing more pleasing than sitting by the soft flickering flames of the chanukia and scarfing down plates of crispy, crunchy fried things. It is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to eat latkes on Chanukah, and who doesn’t like latkes? A properly constructed latke is nothing to trifle with—still, there is a whole world of frying going on out there and we Jews only got eight days to do it. Israelis make sufganiyot, or fried jelly doughnuts; Greek Jews make fritters called loukamades; and Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and Portugal, make sweet or savory fritters called binuelos. When you think about, the fried possibilities are endless.

There is tempura with its potential for a crispy coating of just about anything; there are all sorts of fritters with batters, doughs and any manner of binding ingredients in an effort to make them… well, fry-able. There are also methods of frying, from pan frying and sautéing to the “fry daddy” of all, deep frying. Then there is the oil itself, really-the cause célèbre for the whole festival. You have your good ole stand-by like peanut oil, but with all the allergies these days you cannot really go that route anymore. You can always go neutral with canola oil, or vegetable oil. But why go neutral when can use a tres chic extra virgin olive oil or an Iron Chef-esque pumpkin seed oil? I hope you are seeing what I see with all of the possibilities of Chanukah. This holiday is the bomb!

I have not even mentioned the ingredients or should I say”fry-ables”? I like to start the holiday with my gourmet or high-end ingredients. I am, after all, a chef and author and I have a reputation to uphold. On the first days on Chanukah, I go with artichokes, heirloom squash, eggplant, fancy mushrooms and local apples. After a few days of pretending to be hoity-toity my frying gets gritty. Have you ever fried gelt? I have! Not bad as long as you remember to remove the foil. I have also gone down the deep-fried pickle, olive, candy bar and marshmallow road. I do not recommend the latter as it messes with the oil.

In short—Chanukah is an eight-day fry fest. Yes, there are lessons to be learned from the holiday and meaning to glean from the story of Chanukah. I, for one, will ponder all of that while crunching and munching on fried goodies. Have a Freylich Chanukah!

TORTELLI DI ZUCCA

These fried purses are filled with pumpkin, rice and cheese. The dough and filling can be made several days ahead of serving. Once the tortelli are assembled, they can be frozen for several months. Before serving, heat your oil to 360, remove the tortelli from the freezer, and fry to a golden brown. Have a Freylich Chanukah and happy frying!

For the pastry

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 egg
½ cup ice water

1. Combine the flour, olive oil and salt in the food processor. Pulse several times until the mixture looks like cornmeal. Add the egg and water and process until the dough forms a ball. Remove the dough and knead for several minutes until it forms a smooth-elastic dough. Add a little four if the dough seems sticky.

For the filling

olive oil
4 leeks, white part only, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
½ cup COOKED Arborio rice or other risotto rice
2 large eggs
1 cup parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

1. Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Sweat the leeks until they are very soft and fragrant (about 15 minutes). Add the garlic and continue cooking for 5 more minutes until the garlic is soft. Add the pumpkin puree. Stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and allow to cool completely.

2. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Assemble the tortelli

2 cups extra virgin olive oil for frying
Sea salt and parmesan cheese for garnish

1. Using a pasta machine or on a large work surface, roll the dough until it is very thin. Cut the dough into a rectangle about 12 X 20 inches.

2. Scoop walnut-size pieces of filling and position them 1 ½ inches apart. Brush the dough around the filling with the egg mixture. Fold the dough over the filling and crimp with a fork for a decorative edge. Cut the tortelli using a pizza or pasta cutter. You should have 20 tortelli.

3. Heat at least 2 inches of extra virgin olive oil, to 360, in a deep saucepan. Fry the tortelli 3-4 at a time until they are golden brown and puffed (about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese and sea salt.

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L’Chaim to Chanukah!

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12/11/2009

L’Chaim to Chanukah! photo

Ah, the Festival of Lights—the eight days of oil burning brightly in the newly purified Temple, thanks to the Maccabees and the thousands of Jews that stood against its oppressors. While we do say blessings and light candles as a reminder to the sacrifices of those before us, I say it’s about time we raise our glasses and say a toast! Lucky for us, this year the first night of Chanukah coincides with a Friday night—drink up people!

When most of us think of Chanukah, two major flavors come to mind: chocolate via the tin-wrapped edible coins that we hoard each December; and latkes with applesauce. But come on, who is going to drink a cocktail that tastes like latkes and applesauce? Definitely not this bartender! So I’ve decided to take an Israeli approach to the holiday celebration. And what do they enjoy over in the Promised Land?

Sufganiyot, of course! These delectable jelly-filled treats are found everywhere in Israel this time of year, so I designed a cocktail that I feel best represents the spirit of Chanukah and the wonderful tastes of jelly doughnuts. Most bartenders should be able to fix this up on your next night out, so don’t be shy and give it a try! (Careful of allergies! This cocktail contains dairy and nut components.)

The Sufganiyah
1 oz. SKYY Infusions Raspberry Vodka
1 oz. SKYY Infusions Grape Vodka
¾ oz. Chamboard
½ oz. simple syrup
1 oz. heavy cream
splash cranberry juice
squeeze lemon juice
powdered sugar
4-6 drops frangelico
pinch of nutmeg

Add ingredients to shaker half filled with ice. Shake vigorously and continuously for 1 minute, or until shaker is extremely cold. Rim cocktail glass with powdered sugar. Pour, float Frangelico on top, and garnish with pinch of nutmeg. L’Chaim, and Chag Sameach!

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For the fitness freak in your family

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12/10/2009

Owning a treadmill, belonging to a gym, even hiring a personal trainer does not guarantee that your skinny jeans, or any jeans, will fit perfectly.  But, the right fitness equipment can help. With all the crap being sold at 3 a.m., SPAM mail guaranteeing “Drastic Rapid Weight loss” (amongst other things), and magazine ads, it’s difficult to know what equipment is truly worth four installments of $19.95. Since my wife might be reading this article, I will not disclose the total amount of money I spent on fitness equipment this year, but let’s just say I tested out a lot of equipment. Here are my recommendations:

The TRX

If I was stranded on an Island and could only take one piece of fitness equipment, I would take the TRX. Fitness Anywhere, created a fitness gadget with two handles, two straps and a carabineer that you can place in a door, ceiling, around a tree, post… and complete a kick butt full body workout. Check out the video. The versatility of this product is amazing:

• Pushups
• Chin-ups
• Planks
• Squats
• Curls
• Presses… You name the exercise and this tool can help you do it.

Since the straps are easy to adjust, you can combine your cardio and weight training into one power packed workout that fits in a small backpack! If you want to buy one, order here. There are a ton of videos you can buy or even visit You Tube for free tips.

The Rope

Is running on a treadmill boring for you? Did the uncomfortable bikes turn you off from spinning? Maybe, your knees can’t handle running or jumping, but you still want to fit in some heart pounding cardio. Well, I have the toy for you! The ropes sold here are awesome! If you don’t have a large backyard, basement of gym, this might not be the best option. This product is really just a long heavy rope. This is not a weighted jump rope. Watch the video to see a few of the crazy movements you do with the rope.  My boot campers love this tool. If someone has a shoulder injury I limit the use, but otherwise I let clients go nuts. With shipping, a 40 foot rope can run you over $200. This is not a cheap toy but it’s cheaper than a treadmill and a lot of fun. I even have my three and five year old nephews play with it (supervised of course), so it’s a great way to exercise and involve the whole family.

The Valslide

Have you ever been on a slide board before? They are about five to seven feet long, you have to put booties on over your shoes and you slide from left to right like a speed skater. Many athletes use slide board workouts to recover from injuries. The Valslide works along a similar premise but it’s much cheaper and small. The gadget comes with two pads that you can put on your hands or your feet, and slide across the floor with them! You can do hundreds of different exercises with this small product. Here’s a product demo. My favorite exercises are:

• Chest flies (hands on Valside)
• Mountain climbers (feet on Valslide)
• Body pulls (feet on Valslide)
• Single leg lateral lunges (foot on one Valslide)

If you decide to buy a set, make sure it comes with a cover. The cover goes over each pad and helps you slide on wooden surfaces.

Extra Long Resistance Bands

For the fitness freak in your family photo

The band man, Dave Schmitz, created 42” long rubber bands that give you an amazing workout that builds muscle, burns fat and makes you more athletic! These long bands can be tied to a door, tree, or even a friend! I tie the band around my client and then myself and let my client drag me. It sounds a bit old school torture device, but it’s so much fun! My clients love the bands. For around $100 you can buy a few bands and use door straps and handles and create an amazing workout that can actually increase your speed and agility level. Dave has a lot of great videos on YouTube.

I could probably bore you with several other pages of fitness goodies, but these are a few of my 2009 favorites. The moral of the story: depending on your budget and goals, there’s a tool for your house, gym or park only a few clicks away. If you need help buying equipment, shoot me a note. Happy Holidays from Fit with Krit!

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What’s in a name?

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12/09/2009

I have an odd name. My mom wanted something unique that couldn't be nicknamed. She was probably none-too-pleased when my dad almost immediately started called me "Niecy Poo-Poo." My parents had a friend who was an intern in a hospital and had access to all the names of patients who had been admitted. My mom asked him to make a note of all the "original" names (read "weird") he came across. He made her a list. I have the list tucked away in some baby book of mine somewhere. I wish I could find it so I could share with you how much worse my name could have been. But needless to say, as a youngster, and as a young adult, I was not fond of my name.

There were a few problems with it. Firstly, "Annice the Beast" rolled happily off many a school bully's tongue. And as we got older, "Anus" was the cruder version that could bring red to my cheeks and a ringing in my ears. And it was embarrassing when one of my aunts would introduce me as "Annice my Niece" which always made people giggle. My best friend was "Jenny." and my other friends were Michele," "Sarah," "Shelly," "Allison," "Kathy," "Molly," "Emily," "Nicole"... nothing radical. Just good, normal names. (Apparently my parents felt being into organic foods, no sugar and limited TV watching before their time was not enough of a statement.)

So back to that list of names. Mine was on it. Or rather a version of it. It was spelled, "a-n-i-c-e". My Grandfather "Israel/Isadore/Izzy" took one look at the spelling and said, "You can't spell it like that! You need another 'n'. Otherwise, she'll be called "a nice." And so, an "n" was added, so everyone would call me Annice pronounced "Ann-niece." But honestly, the only one in my youth that got it right was my mother. My dad called me the poo-poo thing and most other people called me "Uh-niece." I didn't really care, but it set my mom off like crazy. Her name is "Renee" pronounced "Re-knee" but she gets "Renay" all the time. I think it brings up some issues for her.

What’s in a name? photo

The birth name of our daughter from Ethiopia was difficult. It didn't help that we got two different spellings and no crystal clear pronunciation. We thought we were pronouncing it correctly, until my Ethiopian friend intervened— it was too late. At least it was too late for my husband. He had the wrong pronunciation seared into the depths of his engineer mind and he couldn't change it. He was very upset by this because I was making an impassioned push in the direction of keeping our daughter's birth name. My reasoning was that children of adoption, no matter how loving, wonderful, fabulous and good-looking their adoptive family might be, are suffering a huge loss. And with international adoption, EVERYTHING changes— the smells, the foods, the language, the topography, the faces— and often, names. This was one loss we could avoid. Something that could stay the same.

There was tons of back and forth. My husband kept saying the same thing over and over. "I am her dad. I can't pronounce her name!" Good point. So after much back and forth, we decided to sit down with the boys and go through a long list of Ethiopian names. They glommed on to "Uniqua" which is the hippo character in the Backyardigans. And although I love, love, love! their opening theme song, we gave them a big fat, "NO!" Then we saw the name "Kiya" which means "mine" and everyone agreed— the name, the sentiment, it all fit.

My husband had a lamb bought by my parents stuffed in his suitcase with the name "Kiya" sewn in hot pink lettering on its chest. I had a softie light pink blanket in mine with a satin "K" on it. We arrived in Ethiopia with her name frequently on our lips. Phone calls home were peppered with her name. And then we met her. We watched as she was kissed and held by the nannies. Her name called lovingly. Her birth name over and over and over. I started to have terrible regret and doubt. This became cemented when we met with our adoption team privately, and I asked, "How do you change a child's name? How do you introduce a new name?" The case worker looked at me and said, "In Ethiopia, our names are very important to us." She then had everyone in the room go around and share the significance of their names. She continued. "I love my name. Do you all love your names?" Everyone in the room nodded. Oh boy.

We left that meeting and I was in tears. We HAD to keep her name. I tried steamrolling the husband. I told him how insensitive he was being. He could learn to pronounce her name. How would he like it if his name was suddenly changed?! He said we'd talk about it later that evening. But I was a mess. And when I’m a mess I can be, um, grumpy. There was much grumpiness I tell you.

That evening discussion stretched into three evenings. I kept apologizing to the cheery couple whose room shared a plywood wall with us. I was passionate and emotional and the husband was practical. Normally a trait of his I appreciate, but not in this case. I felt like I couldn't get him to understand. We were at a stand-off. This, in addition to all that was happening, was incredibly stressful. We needed help.

Help appeared innocently enough. The man accompanying all the families was on the bus waiting for everyone to board. I got on the bus and said, "I'm having a problem." This man is used to fielding all sorts of stuff. I was hoping he could guide us somehow. I explained the situation in way too much detail. He looked at me. He shrugged. He said,” So? call her..." and he uttered her name. A shortened version that we had overheard her nannies, the social workers and the cooks calling her. And the guy I was talking to! But it had never clicked until then. This name WAS her name! And so there it was.

I call her by both names. So do the boys. It's natural. Her birth certificate will have the shortened version to avoid mispronunciation— Fray. I like that we have the lamb and the blanket so our daughter can know the process we went through to get to where we did with her name. It's unique (but not Uniqua) and beautiful. And her. And for the record, if I had been a boy, my name would have been Seth.

Her full name (original birth name) was Frehiwot Tessema and we changed it to Fray Tessema. Frehiwot means seed of life and fray means seed. Tessema is the middle name, but was originally her last name. All children have their birth father's first name as a last name in Ethiopia.

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Breaking Out

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12/08/2009

Breaking Out photo

Have you ever felt like a visitor in your life?  Or worse, a prisoner?  One who is walking around in a daze, viewing your life and actions through a haze, as if you’re watching yourself move and act in a dream.  That’s how I’ve felt recently, as if I’m stumbling through a maze and I’ll never find my way out.

Do you think it’s possible to come back home after a period of time and find it feels different than when you left?  Is it possible to move forward in a place you’ve been for most of your life?  I’m beginning to think that the only way to break out of this rut is to move on to a new place.  Changing scenery would force me to change and adapt to a new situation, and maybe that’s what I need.

As for the changing scenery here in Chicago, I’m actually looking forward to the massive amounts of snow we are bound to get this winter.  The beginning of winter signifies the end of construction, and I for one, will be sincerely glad.  However, thinking about construction and how well people in the business must be doing (I mean practically every other street around me in the suburbs is under construction right now) it sometimes makes me wonder whether I’ve gone into the right business.

My uncle works as an executive in construction and accounting, two very secure and essential businesses.  He recently gave me some advice about how to solve my job search problems: pick a very specific career and go to graduate school.  Then, once you finish, you’ll always be able to find work in that particular profession.  Although this advice makes a lot of sense, particularly in seeing how well it worked out for him, at this point in my life I’m not ready to commit to one specific career path.

A lot of my friends majored in Computer Science or were Pre-Law or Pre-Med.  They had very specific career paths, and now are either happily settled in a job or on their way to achieving their dream positions.  But what does a liberal arts degree really do for you?  I have been told that it makes you a well-rounded individual.  One who has a solid background in a lot of different subjects.  One who could branch out into many different careers.  The problem is that I don’t like settling on one thing.  I love being involved in a lot of random interests.  College was supposed to give me direction in life, right?  It seems I am surrounded by people with clearer purpose.

I came across a someecard that said, “Thanksgiving eve inebriation: because tomorrow your family is going to remind you that you suck at life.”  Although none of my family or friends would blatantly say something to make me feel this way, the holidays are an especially difficult time, and my continued unemployment makes me wonder if I do indeed suck at life.

I guess I’m going to have to wait for my Chanukah miracle.  Preferably eight days of job interviews.  Although as another someecard states, “Unfortunately, because of the recession, we’ll only be celebrating the Festival of Lights for four days this year.”  I think that’s more on par with my life right now—only half the luck.  Or maybe it’s that I don’t have a Get out of Jail Free card.  Until I secure one of those, I cannot pass Go into the land of employment. But who knows, if the candles can burn for eight days, maybe some gracious employer will let me out soon.

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“Jews and the graphic novel”

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12/07/2009

Jews and the graphic novel photo

Jews are some of the most famous novelists, and Jews also are some of the most important people in the superhero-type comic-book world. So it’s no big surprise that Jews are some of the most famous, most important people in the genre that conflates the two: graphic novels. What’s surprising is that so many Jewish graphic novelists have focused on Jewish experiences for their subject matter.

So many, in fact, that essays on this topic have been collected into—what else?—a book, titled  Jews and the Graphic Novel  by David Gantz. There are many books about Jewish artists and subjects in superhero comics (see below), and one or two about individual Jewish graphic novelists. But Jews and the Graphic Novel seems to be the first book covering Jewish involvement in this genre as a whole.

Jews and the Graphic Novel starts at the same place where many discussions of “the graphic novel as art” start— with the work of Will Eisner, the Jewish man largely credited with creating the graphic novel altogether. His first major work, the 1978 A Contract With God, is a series of stories based on the life of Jews in the (in)famous Lower East Side tenements and their Heaven-on-Earth, the Borscht Belt. While it is not the first graphic novel, it is one of the first to have a basis in “real life” as opposed to a fantasy/sci-fi/superhero setting. Eisner’s other Jewish work includes stories of immigration, assimilation, anti-Semitism, and even a retelling of Oliver Twist from Fagin’s point of view. Eisner, who also created the character The Spirit, became so respected, his colleagues created the Eisner Award for achievement in graphic novels… and accolade he would later win himself! His last work was also Jewish in subject; The Plot traces the history of the pernicious forgeries known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The next major milestone in Jewish graphic novel-ing has got to be Art Spiegelman’s  Maus  in 1986, which depicted Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, and Americans as dogs. Spiegelman’s landmark effort was listed as a bestseller in the New York Times’ list under fiction until he protested that all the facts and stories in the work were true, so they moved it to their non-fiction list. It may be the first book ever to make in both lists; in any case, it won the Pulitzer. More recently, Speigelman wrote In The Shadow of No Towers, a rumination on September 11.

Since Maus, there has been an explosion of graphic novels on Jewish themes. There are a few that cover the expected subjects, like the Torah, Chanukah and Purim stories. One brand-new standout is Book of Genesis by non-Jewish artist R. Crumb, who also wrote a graphic bio Kafka. Another startling work is the excruciatingly researched, starkly black-and-white  Megillat Esther  by J.T. Waldman.

Others, like Eisner’s work, continue to cover the anomie of urban life. The best of these includes the novels of Ben Katchor, like The Jew of New York, about the historical attempt at a Jewish utopia in the 1800s by a remarkable man with the appropos last name of Noah.

Aside from Maus, the most famous Jewish graphic novel must be one of the few made into a movie— Harvey Pekar’s  American Splendor . Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, also wrote Our Cancer Year, and Miriam Engelberg also dealt with his topic in Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. Another work about struggles with illness is Neil Kleid’s Migdal David, a memoir about an Orthodox boy and his developmentally disabled brother.

Still other graphic novels discuss more out-of-the way aspects of Jewish-American history, such as The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin… The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm, about 1920s Jewish ballplayers… and Houdini: The Handcuff King, by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi. Joe Kubert, whose novel Yossel is about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, also wrote Jew Gangster; Neil Kleid and Jake Allen’s Brownsville likewise covers the Jewish mob world.

Of course, there has been Jewish life outside of America and Europe. Joann Sfar’s  The Rabbi’s Cat  and Aryeh Mahr’s Shmuel Ha Nagid: a Tale of the Golden Age are set in the Sephardic world.

Marv Wolfman’s  Homeland  tells the official story of Zionism and the creation of the modern nation of Israel… while Jetlag and Pizzeria Kamikaze by Etgar Keret, Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan, and real gone girl by Miriam Libicki paint a more current and visceral portrait of Israeli life.

With both fierce honesty and brilliant imagination, Jewish artists are challenging—and changing— the perspectives their readers. Given the mountainous range of Jewish history and the underdog doggedness of Jewish artists, it’s no wonder that Jewish graphic novels are particularly… graphic.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
A list of Jewish-themed graphic novels, some of which are not mentioned above, can be found here; the ones for adult readers start on the second page.

As mentioned, most of the books that touch on the Jewish relationship with graphic novels mostly focus on the superhero end of the spectrum. Two exceptions, which give graphic novels more time, are Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature and Arie Kaplan’s Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, which includes interviews with Eisner and Spiegelman along with other Jewish artists.

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Joining the Jewish party

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12/04/2009

Joining the Jewish party photo 1

During my pregnancy, despite not knowing whether we were having a boy or a girl by any scientific means, I always knew that there was a boy in there.  And because I just ”knew” the baby was a boy, I started planning his bris months before he was born.

By “planning his bris,” I mean I chose a location, figured out the menu, thought about what I’d wear, thought about what he’d wear and put together an invite list.  I daydreamed about showing him off to family and friends for the first time.  I emailed a few mohels.

I considered the bris to be an essential Jewish rite of passage for my son, without really thinking about what would have to happen at the ceremony.  In my mind, it was just another Jewish party – lots of love and too much food.

After Ben was born, and we met with the mohel prior to the ceremony, reality struck.  He explained the process to us in detail, and my feelings slowly changed from “boy am I excited for my son to join the tribe” to “keep that evil man and his knife away from my baby.”  How could I subject this tiny little child, who I had protected for nine months in the womb, and for just days in the real world, to certain pain?

Friends and family tried to reassure me, telling me that Ben would be the zillionth Jewish baby to go through this ritual and come out ok, and that at least these days the procedure is done with sterile equipment and topical medication – imagine what babies in biblical times went through.

In spite of my dread, we went ahead with the ceremony.  On a sunny Friday morning, our closest friends and family gathered to welcome Ben to the tribe.  The hysteria that had been slowly building inside me since the day we met with the mohel was unleashed as I watched him place Ben in the circumstraint.  I didn’t watch the procedure, and instead focused on my dad, the Sandek, as he held a gauze strip soaked with sweet wine in Ben’s mouth to soothe him.

The rest of the ceremony went by in a haze.  Our rabbi gave Ben his Hebrew name, we read him a letter explaining where the name Benjamin Cooper came from, we sang a song, and then whisked Ben off to feed him and give him some alone time.

While I sat upstairs, dazed, our guests mingled and had brunch.  I couldn’t help but think it odd that my son had just gone through a minor surgical procedure, yet everyone moved on to the food and fun seemingly without much thought.  To everyone but the baby and his parents, it was indeed just another Jewish party.

It took me a good hour to pull myself together enough to go downstairs.  Ben required only a feeding, and promptly fell asleep.  Apparently his recovery was much smoother than mine.

Joining the Jewish party photo 2

While Ben slept in my arms, family and friends kvelled.  I had a bagel and cream cheese, hugged and kissed about a million people, and my feelings about the day slowly changed from nervous anxiety to relief and pride.  Ben had just joined the ranks of generations of Jews before him, and I finally joined his party.

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A Thanksgiving story

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12/03/2009

Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the house a creature was stirring, but it wasn’t a mouse. 

Trevor, the family yorkie, was playing in the yard, when a skunk strolled by and sprayed him real hard. 

Poor dog let out a big, “yelp” and took off in a flurry.  He rushed through the kitchen door in quite a hurry. 

“Oh Trevor, what’s that smell?”  I heard my mom yell.

“Quick Cheryl— move your caboose.  We need something to soak up the stench!”  “I know, I’ll get tomato juice.”

So I raced out the door and drove to the store mainly because I couldn’t stand the smell anymore.

A Thanksgiving story photo 1

Tomato juice to the rescue!

Poor Trevor the only thing worse than a spray by a skunk is getting a good tomato juice dunk.

A Thanksgiving story photo 2

Trevor in his tomato juice bath…not a happy puppy

Have no fear, it basically worked.  And at least for now, Trevor was in the clear.

A Thanksgiving story photo 3

Trevor (not skunked) with Stef…happy puppy

Well, it was a Thanksgiving to remember and my very silly Oy! story preserves it forever.

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“ ‘Tis it really the season?”

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Tools the unemployed and underemployed can use to keep it together through the holidays 
12/02/2009

JVS logo

Thanksgiving kicks off the season of family gatherings, holiday parties with friends and outings to the mall and Michigan Ave. for shopping, food and fun.  To borrow a quip from our Christmas-celebrating friends, “ ‘Tis the season for peace, love, and joy!”  But what about the over 10% of Americans on the unemployment roles or the estimated 10% more who are either underemployed or out of work for so long, they are no longer eligible to get help?  ‘Tis it really the season for them?

As a counselor at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), I’m seeing clients that have been out of work for three months, six months, a year or even more.  For many of these clients, millions of Americans, and I’m certain many Oy! readers currently looking for work, December is bound to be a lot less peaceful, loving and joyful.  As unemployment runs out, bills pile up and family members express concern that they cannot keep up financial support for much longer, stress builds, hope dwindles and the unemployed and underemployed wonder if it’s worth trying at all.  However, it is at this critical juncture that job seekers do not throw in the towel on the job search.

Many people say that looking for employment is and should be a full time job.  There are so many things to do when looking for a job, that someone could easily spend 40-50 hours or more a week looking.  Do you know anyone that really spends that much time working on the job search?  You probably don’t, so give yourself permission to not feel guilty when you are not looking.  You still get to live your life, even if you are unemployed.  If you are worried about not getting enough done, pick three things you know you need to accomplish each day.  Try and finish those three tasks as early as possible.  Think about it—if you do three things a day for a week, that is 21 tasks completed.  Keep it up for month and you have a list of 90 items checked off.  Even some working people aren’t that productive with their time.

This is not an article about how to find a job.  There has already been a lot written on the subject.  It is also not a piece on how the unemployed and underemployed are victims of the economy or how unfair employer’s hiring practices can be.  This is about managing the most important part of the job search—the emotional side.

Three keys to keep it together through the holiday season and into the New Year.

1. Take care of yourself

You may have already heard this one, but what have you done for yourself lately?  Keep exercising.  This is the time to work out several times a week.  The Chicago Park District has workout facilities at many of their buildings and the membership is one of the cheapest out there.  No, they don’t have TV’s on the treadmill, but there is enough equipment to get the job done.

Make sure your diet is healthy, too.  Under-eating because of anxiety and over-eating because of stress is not going to help you look and feel good for your interviews.  Take time once a week to plan out your menu.  Fill yourself with fruits and vegetables and hold back on the comfort food.  Produce can be quite reasonable if you find your way to produce stores or farmers markets instead of the mainstream grocery stores.

Stay on a consistent sleep schedule.  If you find yourself submitting resumes at 3 a.m., remember, the people responsible for reading those resumes are not awake, so why are you?  Go to bed early, so you can be up in time to make those phone calls and return those e-mails when the working world is awake.  Are you too restless to sleep?  Up late, worrying about the job search?  Keep a notebook by the bed and try the following each night:  Write down 3-5 things for which you are grateful.  Next, create a to-do list including everything you want to get done the next day.  Last, write 3-5 things you did well that day—it is important that you find at least three things for which you can acknowledge yourself every single day.  Every victory, large or small is worth celebrating.

2. Keep in touch with friends and family

Keep in touch with everyone.  Employed people spend one-fourth or more of their time at work, so it’s easy to make our jobs define us.  Without a job, you may feel like you have no identity.  This is simply not true.  Your identity is much more rich and complex than something that can be summed up and posted on Career Builder.com.  Get past the shame of unemployment and reach out to those that care for you.  Just make a point to talk about other things besides your job situation or lack thereof.  Ask them about their day and their lives.

Chicago has many free or inexpensive options perfect for outings with friends.  There are recession specials at bars and restaurants, free festivals downtown and passes to Chicago museums at libraries, just to name a few.  You can also host a movie or game night.  Even your working friends will thank you for coming up with such a relaxed and cheap idea.  Most importantly, reach out to those who are also unemployed.  One job seeker recently landed a job from a friend he reached out to when they were both unemployed.  They kept in touch for support and occasionally shared leads or contacts. The friend ended up landing a job first.  Three months later, another position opened up and he was able to get his friend’s resume in front of the right people.  In addition to being new friends, they are now co-workers.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is helpful for three reasons.  First, it is good for your health to just have somewhere to get up and go in the morning.  Second, it gives you something extra to put on your resume.  Interviewers will ask you, “What have you been doing since you got laid off?”  Third, it is a great way to make contacts.  One client that worked with me volunteered to be on the committee for a large nonprofit’s annual event.  When she showed up to the first meeting she happened to sit down next to the hiring manager for a job she had just found out about.  They talked, and she asked some questions about the job.  The manager was impressed with her background and told her to definitely apply.  Of course, she was called in for an interview.

I really believe that for most people, 80-90% of the job search is simply staying in the right mindset.  Almost anyone reading this piece has found a job before, probably several times.  We all know how to find a job.  I worked with a client this summer who complained often.  She would come to my office and say, “Nothing is working for me!  This isn’t fair!  Why have I not found a job?”  She seemed to spend more time complaining than taking my advice.  She often didn’t follow through on assignments I would give her.  After meeting several times, she was still complaining.  Finally I said to her, “Maybe you haven’t found a job because you are too negative.  If you keep putting out all this negative energy, nothing good is going to come back to you.”  She e-mailed me later to thank me for bringing it to her attention and to tell me she left that session feeling better than she had in a long time.  She rescheduled our next session because she had an interview (her first in several months).  We never got to have that session—she was offered the job!


A note from your Oy! editors:  Thanks to JUF-funded agencies like JVS,  every eight hours an unemployed worker finds a job.  JVS relies on our generous donations to provide for job counselors like Andy.  Wanna help support organizations like JVS?  Give back .  Need help?   Make an appointment online , email   ParnossahWorks@jvschicago.org or visit the  JVS job search website .

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Why there’s no ‘Happy Hanukkah Charlie Brown’

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12/01/2009

Why there’s no ‘Happy Hanukkah Charlie Brown’ photo

The Christmas season seems a great time to debunk one of those nasty rumors: that Jewish people run the media. Jewish people run the media? What a load of garbage. If Jews really ran the media, do you really think we would have allowed “Soul Plane” to be made? Two hours of Snoop Dogg getting high on a plane might be funny to some, but to me it’s a serious issue, and should be treated as such. That said, anyone with Snoop’s phone number is encouraged to contact me immediately.

Indeed, one may look no further than the annual holiday season to fully comprehend that the idea of Jews running the media is as big of a joke as the Bears having an effective offensive line. Or defensive line. Or running back. Or a chance to make the playoffs. Or a coach who knows what in God’s name he’s doing. Is it Cub’s season yet?

If Jews really ran the media, the holiday season would have an entirely different vibe, and Hanukkah wouldn’t take such a subjugate position to Christmas. Last I checked, there was never a very special Hanukkah episode of “The Facts Of Life”, “Mr. Belvedere”, or “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. To my knowledge, there’s currently no annual airing of, “Happy Hanukkah, Charlie Brown!” on CBS. (Though, if there were, couldn’t you just see Snoopy and Woodstock doing their happy dance to a jazzy, piano version of “The Dreidel Song”? I sure can. You know, maybe hanging out with Snoop isn’t such a good idea.) And for all of the holiday music floating around out there, the only popular Hanukkah songs tend to be the exact same novelty tunes year after year by folks like Adam Sandler or, even worse, those cloying, cutesy Barenaked Ladies. When Jewish supergroup Guster recorded a holiday song a few years back, it was called called ‘Donde Esta Santa Claus”. Worse, Bob Dylan, whose real name is Robert Zimmerman, and who likely wrestled with whether or not to attend dental school back in the early 1960’s, just released a Christmas album. Even the Black Eyed Peas shout “Mazel Tov” in their latest hit, but not Mr. Dylan. Then again, Dylan’s cover of “My Humps” is pretty killer.

When Lite FM starts their all-Christmas music marathon on July 5th, you never hear any Hanukkah songs. And no TV show worth its’ Kosher salt dares to air a Hanukkah episode. This is no different in film or theater, either. Chevy Chase never made a movie called “National Lampoon’s Hanukkah Vacation,” Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn didn’t make a movie that 16 people saw (all of whom were on an international flight at the time) called “Four Hanukkahs,” and little orphan Annie didn’t give a damn about FDR’s New Deal for Hanukkah in “Annie.” (For those of you keeping score at home, yes; I did just refer to both the Bears’ offensive line and an obscure song from “Annie” in the same blog. I’m a little bit proud and a whole lot ashamed.)

But you know what? Christmas fever doesn’t bother me. In fact, despite being 100% Jewish, I am, and always have been, a Christmas-Loving Jew. Perhaps it’s the inordinate number of Catholic women I’ve dated, or my strange and insatiable desire for those egg shaped Reeses Peanut Butter Cups only available during Easter (trust me – they somehow taste better than Reeses’ traditional variation). Whatever the reason, I’ve long gravitated towards Christmas as a cheerful, non-religious addendum of joy and festive times; not to mention a legitimate excuse to get drunk a lot in December.  And it’s not too late for you to join the bandwagon! By all means, continue to spend your eight nights eating latkes, lighting menorahs, and spinning dreidels with family. But don’t feel too guilty the next time you’re at Walgreens and start singing along to the dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” Nat King Cole’s homage to chestnuts roasting, or Paul McCartney simply having a “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Just keep in mind that if we Jews really ran the media, there’d be none of those catchy Christmas ditties to sing along to. Frosty the Snowman would have said “who cares about a little melting, I’m going to Boca for the winter.”  And Rudolph would have had a good plastic surgeon to correct his “nose issues” just in time for his little reindeer bar-mitzvah, destroying his entire mystique. So as much as I hate to crush the dreams of the “angry-at-everyone-who-doesn’t-look-like-them” FOX “News” types who scream and cry that Christmas is being taken away from them, it’s not our fault! Jews don’t run the media. We’re more like those BASF commercials from the 1980’s: we don’t make the media, we make the media better. So who can blame us if, every now and then, even we need a little Christmas?

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