OyChicago blog

The best Jewish Christmas ever

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12/23/2010

The best Jewish Christmas I ever had was when I was 16. My sister was going to New York University for graduate school at the time and my parents gave me their blessing to visit her during my winter break and see New York City for the first time.

Christmastime was both an odd and magical time to experience New York City. The city was a-glitter with decorations and festivities. My sister and I went sight-seeing: We shopped and ate around Greenwich Village; we bought hot chocolates and went to Rockefeller Center; we visited the top of the Empire State Building; we ate dinner in Little Italy, with Christmas garlands and Italian lights strewn over the streets. We even went to see the holiday windows at Macy’s—that is, before Macy’s became evil and bought every Marshall Field’s in Chicago.

It’s weird and also not strange at all to be a Jew during Christmastime in New York City. In some ways, the whole city feels Jewish, what with the availability of deli food at 3 a.m. and the fact that everyone sounds a little Jewish.

However, I was reminded of how insignificant the Jews are, even in Manhattan, when Christmas actually arrived and the city shut down—yes, even New York City has a sleepy night on Christmas. My sister and I followed suit with our family ritual of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve and went to Chinatown. Afterward, we skimmed the streets for something to do and stumbled into the Comedy Cellar—a comedy club which has featured the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle. To our delight, the club was filled with Jews. And, not only was it filled with Jews, but diverse Jews, including a group of teenage Chasidim. The comedians had a good time with the audience and poked fun at the fact that we were the only ones out on Christmas. Oddly, I felt a sense of Jewish solidarity that night that I’d never even experienced growing up in a nearly all-Jewish suburb of Chicago.

Growing up on the North Shore, I was keenly aware that most around me were Jewish. But, this didn’t help the fact that Christmas was a lonely and boring time for the Jews. While many of us were Jewish, the local businesses still closed and there was nothing to do on Christmas but eat Chinese food and go to a movie. We all did it. Big whoop.

Perhaps I needed to move away from my Jewish hometown to truly appreciate my Jewish-ness on Christmas. Only in the last few years living in Chicago have I been able to rekindle some of that Jewish solidarity magic that I experienced that night in New York City.

As my roommate, who also attended a predominantly Jewish school growing up pointed out, having no-school days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were like free days for the non-Jews to romp around and have fun. For us, we meant business—religiously that is. Christmas in Chicago is a bit like that for the Jews. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day the Jews have nothing to do but go out and play.

I became aware of how funny and amazing this phenomenon is when I started attending the Jewish bar events in Chicago on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, the city of Chicago is ours for the taking. There is something tranquil and delightful about the snowy streets that are empty—if not for the Jews. I’ve run into people I haven’t seen in years!

On Christmas Eve and Christmas day we all come out from our neighborhood crevices in the city and reunite for a night of mayhem, and a day of good ol’ Asian food and a flick. We nod with a knowing smile to those we haven’t met; we hug and kibitz with those we have. Beginning on December 24th, Chicago is a Jewish city for 24 hours.

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My strategy – getting the most out of the Jewish singles scene

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12/23/2010

How to sweeten your dating life photo 2

Sam: You going to the Matzo Ball?
Noah: Hell. No.
Sam: Why not?
Noah: Because I went last year and it sucked.
Sam: Awww, it wasn’t that bad.
Noah: Yeah, it was. You don’t remember? We paid $50 bucks for one hour of drinks and pretzels. And none of the women there wanted to talk to us.
Sam: Hmm. Yea, I guess you’re right.

AND …somewhere else…

Hilary: I signed up for the Chanukah bash today! Have you registered yet?
Beth: Oh my God, Nooooo!
Hilary: Why not? We had fun last year!
Beth: We did? Because if I recall all we did was spend three hours talking to Robyn, Amy, and Michelle. Why do we need to go to somewhere to pay to talk to them? Plus, none of the guys will talk to us.
Hilary: Hmm. Yeah,  that’s true.

My single Jewish Brothers and Sisters, my Aunt Judith was right when she said, “You really should just go. G-oh!!!! GO find yourself a girl for God sakes!!! It’d be nice to go to a wedding before I die!”

With that being said, I’d like to offer some of my own words of wisdom to get the most out of your Young Adult Jewish Party experience.  It’s all very remedial and you probably already have this figured out. So, consider this a refresher.  Feel free to disagree with me or offer your own advice. But, c’mon, I’m just trying to do my part to help you find an alternative to JDate. (Sorry JDate, you know that as much as I hate you, I’ll always keep crawling back.)

You go to a million Jewish events and always end up talking to the same friends you arrived with, right? Well, that’s because you had no plan. You were passive. You played it safe to save embarrassment and rejection. Well, you’re in good company. Just look around at your next Jew Party, notice how little mixing is going on? C’mon cowboys and cowgirls, there’s cattle to be herded, saddle-up and ride. Here’s my strategy for landing yourself a stallion (or a cute Jewish girl):

Have a plan: Whether you go alone or go with friends, you need a plan. If you’re going with friends and your goal is to meet some new people, tell your friends in advance that your plan is to mingle and meet. You don’t want your buddy feeling abandoned when you go searching for love.

Give yourself a measurable goal: What do you want out of this? To meet someone to date, right? So, here’s what I suggest. Before you get to the event, make a goal and tell someone about it.

Example goal #1:  Introduce yourself to three new people of the opposite sex and maintain a 10 minute conversation with each of them.

Example goal #2: Spend no more than five minutes in a conversation that you don’t want to be in.  Don’t get trapped.

Example goal: Ask for one woman’s phone number for a date or offer a business card to a guy

Don’t even worry if nothing comes from your efforts to achieve these goals. Just make a promise to yourself that you won’t leave until it’s completed. And, don’t cheat.

Be confident: Do you get nervous sometimes meeting new people? Try giving yourself a code word for confidence. My new code word is “swagger.” I said swagger because I overheard a woman on the L describe a guy that way and she was totally crazy for him. I know it’s corny but when I say “swagger” it just makes me walk tall. If a code word doesn’t trigger a little bit of confidence, then try the old standby: booze.

Accept the awkwardness: It’s a Jewish young adult party with major doses of single people looking for someone. This is not a room of smooth talking George Clooneys or witty Jennifer Anistons. A lot of us are dorky and goofy. It’s okay to flub your opening line or say something weird. We all do it. Laugh it off. Jewish people are known for having good senses of humor. We’ve all accidently spit on someone because we had to shout over that nightclub’s crappy house music. So, take a deep breath, put on a non-creepy smile, and forge onward.

Have an exit plan for conversations: When you find yourself talking to someone longer than you want to, have a tactful way of bowing out of the conversation. Don’t allow yourself to be attacked by Mr. or Ms. Clingy because, before you realize it, the party is over. If you can’t come up with a nice way of walking away, just ask the person you’re talking to if they would excuse you for a moment to use the restroom. It’s not lying even if you don’t have to pee. Because, you really do need to go somewhere quiet and get re-focused. If that person is waiting for you when you come out, it sounds harsh, but keep moving. If you need a second way to get away from someone, say that you’ve spotted a friend way over on the other side of the room and need to catch them before they leave.

Hovering in a pack: If you have friends at this party and you want to talk to them then by all means form a circle and catch-up with them. Meet their other friends. Enjoy some male or female bonding. But, while you’re doing that, it’s not likely the man or woman of your dreams is going to approach your friendship circle. For most people, it’s too intimidating to a walk up to a group of people and single out someone. So, make a point to peel away from the group by yourself or with one other person. Go stand in line at the bar. That’s probably the easiest place to talk to someone new.

How do you meet someone at these things? Well, you could just walk up to them and say hello and give them your name. Yea, that’s all there is to it. But, if you want to be fancy you could ask for help, ask for advice, or pay someone a compliment about their shoes. People love to be helpful, especially when it costs them nothing.

So, okay, maybe this is all ridiculous and too elementary. But, ask yourself, “Are you going out to these events and feeling good about them?” If the answer is no, then, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re doing and make a change. Now go get ‘em!

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Interview with Former MLBer Norm Miller

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12/22/2010

Recently, TGR caught up with former Jewish MLBer Norm Miller. Miller played mainly for the Astros and finished his career in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves. He played with Hank Aaron and was there when he hit the home run to break Babe Ruth's record. Miller was nice enough to grant us an interview. Check it out below.

TGR:You had a 12 year career. What were some of the biggest highlights?
Norm Miller: Biggest highlight no doubt was [my] first time up in big leagues, hometown against the Dodgers and [I] got a base hit. Every day living the dream was a highlight. Playing with Hank Aaron was special. Being a ballplayer was the best.

Who was the greatest pitcher you ever faced and what was it like?
Bob Gibson was the best pitcher I faced by far. Koufax was the best around but I never went up there against him. Facing Gibson, simply stated, was overpowering. Painless and quick.

Do you think the records of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Alex Rodriguez should treated differently? How should we view the steroid era?
Steroid era is a shame. I blame both the players and management. Bonds, McGwire I have no respect for [them] as people. Rodriguez doesn't bother me. Records should not be acknowledged.

What have you been up to since your career ended?
Since retiring in ‘74 I enjoyed a wonderful business career in marketing and advertising. I also did radio and TV work and just enjoyed being. I've been married now for 42 years and have two daughters and two granddaughters. I'm retired and writing. I just finished a television pilot idea and a screenplay, my second.

Interview with Former MLBer Norm Miller photo

Tell us a little bit about your book,  To All My Fans From Norm Who ?
My book is about my career. What it took, what I did and how much I loved it.  Lot's of stories all real.  Well received.

Do you have any advice for young athletes trying who want to play in the Bigs?
Young athletes need to get real. Most are told they're great and [they’re] really not. The percentage that make it is so small. But you don't see the effort you should. I've coached kids for years and the decline in the passion and commitment is noticeable.

Who would you rather start your team with Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg?
[I] only know Greenberg from stats and reputation. Give me Koufax...unhittable.

You can learn more about Norm Miller by visiting his website www.normwho.com. Also, check out his book.

And let us say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine
For more info check out www.TheGreatRabbino.com. Now part of the Yarbarker Network.

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Angry Birds are taking over the world!!!

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12/21/2010

Angry Birds are taking over the world photo 1

What do Conan O’BrienJustin Bieber, noted author Salmon Rushdie, the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, a fussy two-year-old, and 50 million people around the world have in common?  They, like me, can’t stop playing Angry Birds, the highly addictive video game developed by Rovio for mobile phones and iPads.

Have you heard of this game?  This year, Angry Birds is undeniably all the rage and it is stealing all of my free time.  The game has become so popular that it has been written about in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and  it is considered by Facebook subscribers the best app of 2010.  Please someone release me from its captive grip.  Not only has Angry Birds been downloaded 50 million times (as I already mentioned) but it is estimated that people around the world spend a collective 200 million hours a day playing this puzzle game as they launch wingless birds from slingshot into flimsy structures to kill the greedy pigs who stole their eggs.  What a waste of (my) precious time!!  Somebody help me!

Some fans have even gone as far as to say that Angry Birds is the new Pacman or Tetris.  I think the game is like Pringles—once you pop you can't stop.  Others have created International Angry Bird’s Day so that gamers can meet other fans and plan Angry Bird Flash Mobs.  (Chicago held its first Meet-Up of this kind two weekends ago at Millennium Park.  As it turned out, I was the only one who showed up—which makes me the most dedicated Angry Birds Fan in the city!!!!)  And a dork.

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Best of all an Israeli comedy show called 'Eretz Nehederet' (A Wonderful Country) has created a hilarious YouTube video that has been viewed over 2.7 million times imagining a peace treaty between the Birds and the Pigs.  Here’s the censored version, minus the fowl language.

   

As a fan of both Angry Birds and Israeli comedy, I might suggest a few additional skit sequel ideas. For example, a Passover Seder scenario with Birds and Pigs.  Everything is going just fine until the leader, a green pig, points to the egg on Seder plate, and the birds goes berserk!  Another idea would be to stage a wedding ceremony between a pig and bird.  When the leader of the ceremony asks if anyone has any objections to this marriage, the door suddenly swings open, and a yellow angry bird objects and the wedding ceremony turns into complete pandemonium with birds begin catapulted everywhere.

There are some like me who think that Angry Birds is one small part of an evil plot to take over the world.  They think that the game has the power to steal our attention from what really matters in life.  Oh, sorry, Grandma, I would love to visit you in the hospital today but I have a species to save!  They think that Angry Birds is a ploy to get our money.  I will pay you anything if you help me clear the next level.  And there are some who think that Angry Birds is taking over our minds.  Did you just see that boomerang bird fly across the street?

I think thoughts like these are nonsense.  You did see that boomerang bird though, right?  I see them everywhere now!!!  The idea of using video games as a means to achieve world domination sounds like something from Pinky and the Brain or from some far off Star Trek: The Next Generation episode but not something that is really happening.  Note to self-remove these references so you can get a date in this town.

And yet, think about it—200 million minutes a day are spent playing this addictive game.  That’s the equivalent of 16 years of human life dedicated each day to what is a mind numbing distraction.  I am just as guilty here.   Perhaps there are consequences at play here that are even worse than the time we lose to playing the game.  I am worried that playing Angry Birds may have a negative effect on our psyches.  Could it be that the game is slowly turning the humans of the world and in particular its Jewish followers into people with bad values?  Again think about it.  Every time we launch a bird into a building, are we not perpetuating a senseless and epic war?  And as Jews are we not taught to advocate peace?  Should revenge be our major motivation in life?  Are we a people who enjoy breaking down and destroying rather than building up and repairing?  And what about this indulgence of blind anger?  Is this who we want to be—Angry Birds?  I am also troubled about sending these kamikaze birds to their certain deaths.  Who do you think brainwashed them into taking such a terrible flight?  Why don’t they wear helmets like the pigs do for protection?  Also, before killing the pigs, have you ever stopped to wonder if ALL the pigs, even the really little ones are guilty?  What’s equally troubling is the gloating and rejoicing the birds engage in each time their enemy is destroyed.  That is so not Jewish!!  We are taught not to rejoice after the downfall of our enemies and yet the birds gleefully cheer at the death of the green pigs.

At the same time, I wonder, where is the game called Happy Birds?  A game that features idealist, caring, loving birds that work for peace—birds that help the pigs to find sensible alternatives to eggs and who are dedicated to building rather than destroying?  Come on!  Would anyone play this game?  Where is the wisdom that says—rather than play this game, we could all pay more attention to our friends and family.  Where is the wisdom that could direct us and guide us toward spending our precious time living out lives of meaning, purpose, connection and holiness—lives that make a difference in the world?  As the song from Rent goes, we only have a limited amount of minutes here, so we need to make the best use of every moment.  It doesn’t mention anything about Angry Birds as far as I can recall.  On a similar note, we addicted gamers might take heed of the advice of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”  That’s how we live our best lives.  That’s how we live most fully.

And I am fully prepared to take my own guidance here, I promise-just as soon as I complete level 15 of the Big Set up!  Really!  It will only take a minute…

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Cheers! Chicago: sharing my mixology wisdom with The Forward

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12/20/2010

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Leah Koenig, a writer from The Jewish Daily Forward, who came to me with the idea of wanting to write a profile about me. At first, I was extremely flattered and humbled, believing that I was unworthy of such an honor.

I really was not sure how to react or what to say if and when she started to interview me. She explained that she wanted to write a profile highlighting the fusion of my Jewish background and values with the mixology wisdom I have gathered over the last four years. She was interested in exploring how my Jewish background and passion for all things Jewish could possibly intersect with a very secular, fast-paced world. Check out my interview here.

L’Chaim and Happy Holidays and 2011 to everyone!

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Dear Miley Cyrus

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12/17/2010

This week you received a lot of publicity for smoking something from a bong. You are trying to get out of your Disney contract. Your photo shoots are getting more and more provocative. Pundits are already putting you in a triple suite at a Malibu rehabilitation center with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears.

It’s been a rough year for you. Your parents are getting divorced, you’ve had some boy drama here and there, and you’re struggling to leave Hanna Montana behind and earn real credibility in the entertainment world.

You are at a crossroads. We’ve all been there, but without the fame and fortune that you have acquired in your young life. Seeking pity for being under a microscope is futile, especially in a day and age when people are struggling to feed their families and you are crying about the burden of being a role model to millions of kids.

Your life does not have to be the longest slide from Chutes and Ladders. You have the potential, influence and material wealth to make real contributions to this world, more so than most of us can ever dream of.

Take a moment and look to a couple of people who died this week for some guidance. Neither was sexy or perfect, but both Richard Holbrooke and Elizabeth Edwards made the most of their lives and worked for those who were less fortunate.  While no one expects you to make peace between warring factions or advocate on behalf of breast cancer sufferers, there must be a way that you can start down a path of a more meaningful life and have your picture taken in the middle of a charitable act rather than in an orange prison suit in a California jail.

Elizabeth Edwards posted a quote on her Facebook site before she died. It really stuck with me. I hope that it sticks with you, too:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.

My New Year’s Resolution is to make a daily effort to make a positive impact in the world. I hope yours will be, too.

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I can has social life?

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12/16/2010

I can has social life photo 1

I’m obsessed with my cat, Morris. He’s really the bee’s knees. I don’t know exactly when it turned from love to obsession, but it was some time between when I bought him a bowtie to wear on fancy occasions and when I got the tune “Here Comes Morris Clause” stuck in my head. But really I can’t help it. Look at that little angel.

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Being obsessed with a pet isn’t something new for me. When I had a horse named L.L. Bean you could frequently hear me singing “I’m a little Bean pot short and stout, here is my saddle and here is my snout.” And when I had a hamster, Penelope, I made calendars strictly dedicated to her, her cuteness, and my love for her cuteness.

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So it was no surprise when this realization of obsession struck me on Saturday night. While at a party I kept being asked, “What’s new?” And all that I found important to tell them was, “Well, I took pictures of my cat for my holiday cards.” I think this is a great topic of discussion, but I kept getting blank stares and turned backs. Ugh. I can has social life? Appears not.

I can has social life photo 4

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Farewell to Grandpa

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12/15/2010

Farewell to Grandpa photo

When I visited Grandpa one afternoon in August, soon after he moved into the nursing home this summer, I walked in and introduced myself as “one of Sol's grandchildren.”  His roommate said, “Oh, one of the 42, huh?”   I laughed and said, “well, 32...but who's counting?”  Grandpa said, “32?  Oh, OK!”  Even if his memory were flawless, you can't blame a 94-year-old guy for making a minor error like that, with so many grandchildren to keep track of.

I'm “number six.”  My earliest memories of Grandpa begin somewhere between the ages of five and 10.  I remember countless visits and parties at Grandma Doris and Grandpa Sol's house in Morton Grove, and the new feat of being able to count that we cousins numbered a total of 10...  The Original 10:  David, Ira, Rachel, Larry, Esther and me, (number 5 and 6, two months apart, right in the middle), Aaron, Jay and my sisters.  This was easy to remember, because whenever we were over, the kitchen was off-limits to kids, while Grandma was cooking so we were always corralled into the basement to play, all together.  Sometimes Grandpa could quell the noise momentarily.  With bribes:  sticks of Doublemint gum.  The basement was filled with tons of things that they were given as gifts, or got while traveling...things that they loved, or at least, lots of treasures of the '70's to occupy the Original 10:  Russian dolls that got smaller and smaller as you opened them; Chinese checkers; a weird wooden triangle game with wooden pins in it, that I still have no idea how you'd play; and someone brought a Battleship game down there.  (Probably one of the older, roughneck boy-cousins.)  The most difficult game, to me, around age 10, was this big bowl of nuts-in-the-shell that someone put down there on the coffee table, with a 2-pronged nutcracker that I could never work.  The cashews, walnuts and almonds would always crush into tiny little pieces, and I could never eat any.  It took years before I got to eat the whole inside of a walnut, in that basement.  To this day, I wonder whose bright idea it was to put that bowl of nuts down there.  (I'm actually inclined to believe it was Grandma, since she was the original nut-cracker in the family.)

And hanging over the sofa in the wood-paneled basement, were five pictures, always there.  Smiling graduation pictures...of the engineer in the good suit and tie...the Nurse...the Teacher, also in suit and tie...the high school cello player-turned-Food Expert...and the girl with pigtails, holding a giant candy sucker in front of her face, from performing in one of her plays, who would become the Occupational Therapist-turned-Businesswoman.  Grandma and Grandpa opened their home and hearts to a foster child to whom we were affectionately introduced as “Auntie Leslie.”  Her class pictures hung there every year, too.

On Passover, at the appropriate time during the Seder, Gramps urged us all to find “the A-fick'-o-men,” for the prize of a quarter, after dinner.

But, Chanukah parties at their house were the stuff of legend...not only because they showcased their endless parade of loving friends, and zillions of siblings on both sides, but, mostly, because of Grandpa's famous latkes!  We were again corralled in the basement, and, this day, once a year, Grandpa disappeared into the kitchen. 

After what seemed like hours of the intoxicating aroma of Grandpa's magic potato latkes wafting through the house, suddenly, great platters of them would appear, with all the fixings.  We were called to eat dinner, hocking Grandpa to reveal the secret ingredient:  “What made his latkes so good?!?”  He just smiled his sly smile, and chuckled, and wouldn't tell...and dumped some more golden potato goodness on our plates.  Then, the entire crowd would retire again to the basement for the main event:  Presents!  We'd try to wait patiently, as each aunt and uncle handed out the precious Chanukah loot... Aunt Sara smoking in the corner, Aunt Rose being...Aunt Rose, joined by Great-uncle George and Aunt Sylvia, Millie and Joe Kaplan, Lee Podgers, Goldie Ettinger, and countless other friends of theirs looking on.  All the action was in the middle of the room, overrun by the Original 10, now ages 5 to 14.  Amid the madness, wrapping paper, and the gold foil from chocolate Chanukah gelt flying everywhere, you'd catch Grandpa quietly rocking in a chair off to the side, his work as Latke Chef done, smiling, laughing, and basking in all that he had created.

He used to play a game with me (probably with others too, but it always seemed like he played it with just me):  At any family gathering, when the phone would ring, and I'd go to answer it, he'd say to me, cryptically, “Tell Jimmy I say hello.  Tell Ron I say hello.”   I was in high school when the name suddenly changed:  “Tell George I say hello!”  I finally realized he was trying to tell me that the President was calling him.  (You can see why it took me so long to get the joke for the first eight, long years...)   Later, in college, I was able to turn the tables.  The phone would ring, and I seized my opportunity:  “Hey Grandpa, tell Bill I say hello!”  And we would laugh.

Senior year, while other classmates went off to Cancun to party over winter break, I visited Grandma and Grandpa, who had retired to Florida.  One day, we sat in their den, chatting.  They asked me what I wanted to do after college.  I told them I was going to work on the radio...that I knew it might be a tough road at times, but that I was going to do it.  Grandma, sitting next to me on the couch, looked me in the eye and said, “Whatever you want to do, we'll support you,” and slapped her hand on the cushion for emphasis.  Grandpa looked over from his chair, and chimed in: “Just do whatever makes you happy, that's all.”  Grandma, always one for the last word, echoed with finality, “See?  That's all.”  That was all.  Grandma and Grandpa said so.  No questions, no doubt, no judgment.  Just unconditional love and support.  In that moment, I knew how those five people in those  pictures on the wall in their old basement came to be as distinguished and successful as they were.  I knew that I could, too; that I could try.  As I left for a quick jog, the door closed behind me, and I could hear Grandma’s trademark affectionate cackle: “…Solllll-yyy!”  and I knew she had found a new project for him to do.  He’s probably hearing it already.

In recent months I visited Grandpa as much as I could at the nursing home.  The cheerful, funny, go-getter, who, for about 92 years couldn't sit still very long, even to read the paper or a book, had been having increasing trouble walking in the last couple of years.  But it was summer, so we sat outside on the patio, him in his wheelchair, me on the bench, and we chatted and people-watched all the residents and staff that came in and out of the front door.  He gave me the low-down on his new digs.  He had me wheel him around, gave me a mini-tour, and we went back to his room.  We continued our conversation as I plopped down on the bed.  Out of the blue, he sighed and said, “I just miss your Grandma.”  (Not that you'd ever doubt it, but I had never heard him say that before.)   Hiding tears, I said, “I do, too.”  With that, a nurse came in to give him some meds, told us it was dinnertime, and he had me wheel him back into the dining room.  Shortly after that, Grandpa's condition began to change.  The next times I visited, all he wanted was for me to make his feet cozy in a cocoon of blankets at the foot of his bed.

While Grandma Doris made her presence known in their old house as the loud, bossy, 'tough-love' one of the pair, as I get older, I've come to view Gramps as the “Man Behind the Curtain.”  With his quiet strength, work ethic, humor, and kindness, he was the beloved husband, father, brother, uncle, friend, and grandfather.  He was a war veteran, taxi driver, bus driver, milkman, candy store manager, among other things, all because he followed his own advice:  He created a huge family and worked tirelessly to nurture it, because he did what made him happy—even if that included being a Cubs fan.  (Also, apparently, with the close friendship and help from several U.S. Presidents.)  Their Original 5, and our Original 10 cousins, turned into 15 cousins, and a continuing legacy of 17 next-generation cousins…his great-grandchildren.  He was the prolific teller of hilarious bad jokes, the consummate patriarch, and he was the Magic Latke-Maker.  It doesn't take much to figure out that Grandpa’s secret ingredient, for latkes and life, was Love.

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When life gives you eggplant

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12/14/2010

When life gives you eggplant photo

Even before my graduation from Michigan State University this past spring, it was clear to me and to those in my graduating class that we would be entering the most difficult job market (save for those poor ’09 grads) in recent years.  With many of my friends planning to move away from Michigan after graduation, I knew I too, would most likely end up a Detroit native living in a foreign land.

When the prospect of moving to Chicago turned into a reality, I discovered I would be embarking on an unexpected journey into the world of Jewish non-profits.  Growing up, I had always wanted to be a part of the family scrap metal business— there’s not a whole lot that beats torches, cranes, trucks, and heavy pieces of metal.  But when the business closed while I was still in high school, my dreams were put on hold.

Growing up a nice Jewish boy who attended Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp with a smile, it was almost inevitable that I’d become a camp counselor.  Although not my first job, it was the most responsibility ever bestowed upon me at the time.  It all took place in a magical environment, full of friends, waterskiing, and s’mores-on-demand.

Before I get too lost reminiscing about my summer camp days, let me tell a slightly different story.  One day after school in 1999, I got home hungry as a hog (not kosher) dog.  I opened the fridge and there in all of its glory was the most wonderful chicken patty I had ever seen.  My mom had picked it up from the butcher shop for some noshing later, but I couldn’t wait till dinner time.  I put that sucker in the microwave and waited to bask in chicken patty wonderland!  At the beep, I brought the food to my throne, took a bite, and spit it out.  Not only was the breading stale as cardboard, but the chicken had a rubbery texture and was a little bit gray.  I quickly threw the rest away.  I found out later that evening that what I thought was a chicken patty was really eggplant parmesan!  At that moment, I permanently removed eggplant from my list of tasty food and downgraded it to “only if I have to survive” status.

Over time, my memory of that incident faded, but my dislike of eggplant stood strong.  Now where was I?  Oh yeah, my days as a camp counselor.  After spending six years as a counselor and supervisor at my Jewish camp, I decided I wanted to surround myself with Jews full-time and took a year off before college to live in Israel.  During that year and into college, I’ve had my tough moments, but I also began to learn many things about my identity as a Jew from East Lansing.  You could say I’ve had my fair share of “eggplant parmesan” moments, like that one time I thought it would be a good idea to take a hike across the Negev during a shitafone (flash flood), but it wasn’t until last year that I realized what I could discover from eggplant.

As I came home from class one snowy afternoon, I walked through the kitchen to see my roommate preparing dinner in a huge aluminum pan, enough for all three of the “roomies.”  As it baked in the oven, I couldn’t wait to take a bite out of whatever it was.  It turns out, I was about to sink my teeth into a big piece of eggplant parmesan!  So I told him The Story, but this time promised him that I would at least try a tiny bite.  And this time, I kind of liked it!

In the words of my roommate the good cook, “nothing tastes good and nothing tastes bad, you decide in your head.”  My expectations for eggplant that day were destroyed when I compared it to the breaded “chicken” patty from my past.  And I think that’s how many moments of life go, you just have to make the best of them.  So, as I start my new life in Chicago, I hope that I will be able to continue appreciating the adventures of life for what they have to offer, even when they taste like eggplant.

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Something Else for Jews on Christmas

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Chop Suey Gets a Makeover
12/13/2010

Something Else for Jews on Christmas photo

Forget the turkey, goose or other roasted items gracing the holiday table. We Jews have our own tradition for festive meals on Christmas; Chinese food! The history of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas comes from the late 1800’s when Chinese restaurants were typically the only places open on Christmas (many Chinese are Buddhist) and welcomed Jews who were looking for an outing on the Christian holiday. The Chinese restaurants also did not discriminate and allowed Jews to patronize their restaurants. Eating Chinese food was considered sophisticated and many New York Jews would frequent the restaurants eager to try something new and worldly. Eating Chinese food on Christmas was an easy endeavor as most non-Jews were at home enjoying their holiday dinners so reservations at the local Chinese restaurants were easily had. The Chinese do not mix milk and meat, in fact there are no dairy products at all in Chinese cuisine, so something resembling kashrut or “safe treyf “was attainable in the local chop suey establishments. 

While many neighborhood Chinese restaurants are not serving the unique and exotic flavors that tempted Jews years ago, I still crave the Asian delicacies. I am also never one to break with tradition and this year I will be firing up the wok in my home.

Revamped Modern Chop Suey

Chop Suey was once a Chinese dish that was made over in an effort to appeal to both Chinese and Western tastes. Chop suey or shap sui in Cantonese and za sui in Mandarin means assorted pieces. A sort of hash that is bound together with a starchy sauce-chop suey is currently passé. I am on a one-chef campaign to bring it back en vogue. Made properly, chop suey is fairly healthy dish. What is old is new again and chop suey is no exception, so I offer you my chop suey makeover for your Jewish-Christmas dinner.

Essential Sauce No. 1

1 cup chicken stock
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
2 scallions, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 star anise
2 teaspoons spicy Asian chili paste (optional)
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons cold water

Chop Suey

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
8 ounces Chicken, turkey or beef, sliced thinly
8 ounces Fresh Shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thinly
4 ounces Oyster or other exotic mushrooms, sliced thinly
4 scallions, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup Snow peas
½ cup Green beans, cut into 2 inch pieces
Canned baby corn, drained and rinsed
Bamboo shoots, drained and rinsed
1 small head of bok choy, chopped
Cilantro leaves and bean sprouts for garnish

1. Bring the chicken stock to a simmer and add the dried shiitake mushrooms, scallions, garlic, ginger and star anise and chili paste. Turn off the heat and allow the mushrooms to soften for 20 minutes.

2. Remove the mushrooms and slice them thinly. Add the mushrooms back to the chicken stock mixture. Add the soy sauce and sugar and bring to a simmer.

3. Whisk the corn starch in a bowl with cold water to make a slurry (thickening agent). Add the slurry to the sauce and allow the mixture to thicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Heat a large wok or sauté pan over high heat. Add the canola and sesame oils. Add the chicken or turkey to the pan. Cook stirring frequently until lightly browned and cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining ingredients and stir fry quickly until lightly browned, but still leaving the vegetables crispy. Add back the chicken to the pan and pour some of the Essential Sauce over the stir fry.

5. Serve the chop suey over steamed rice and garnish with bean sprouts and fresh cilantro leaves.

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The tooth fairy

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12/10/2010

The tooth fairy photo

"There is no tooth fairy." This statement caused a kid to cry and resurrected an old disagreement between my husband and me. But before that, we'd had a great day. Our good friends had left to celebrate their 10 year anniversary in the city and we had offered to watch their son for the weekend. The problem started after the Field Museum, after dinner, after the Indiana Jones DVD ended on the car screen, and after a dessert of fudge, ice cream and chocolate covered pretzels with four boys and a baby in the car driving home.

Our friends’ kid asked my son, "What'd you get from the tooth fairy?" He answered, "Three bucks." (That's another story...) One of my other boys said, "The tooth fairy is Dad." And another added, "Yeah. The tooth fairy is our parents." Then to verify, they all said, "Right Mom?" I responded by saying, "I believe in the tooth fairy." They switched teams. "Right Dad?" My engineer husband responded, "There is no tooth fairy. But we don't talk about that to other kids." After my husband kabashed the tooth fairy, I turned to him and whispered, "What about the kid in the back?" He rolled his eyes. "The kid is nine. Nine-year-olds don't believe in the tooth fairy anymore." The usual kid banter of who farted and who was annoying whom resumed and the tooth fairy discussion ended.

On Monday, I received a call from my girlfriend. "Hi. I just want you to know that thanks to you, my son now knows there's no tooth fairy!" Of course this was an uncomfortable beginning to a conversation, only made worse by the fact that I know this friend would rather chew off her own arm than be confrontational. She said her son was playing on the computer and suddenly burst into tears. When she asked him what was wrong, he responded, "Is the tooth fairy real? Annice says she's not!" Well, first of all, as earlier mentioned, I did not in fact say this. I had said the opposite. She then felt she had to tell him the truth. He was completely devastated. And I felt bad. Because I would like to still believe in the tooth fairy as well.

The initial spousal divide began when our oldest lost his first tooth. He asked me, "Is the tooth fairy real?" I relied upon the good old response of, "What do you think?" He said, "Yes! Yes! I think the tooth fairy is real." I then indulged myself with having him tell me what she looked like and what he thought she did with all those teeth. Not too long after this, my son asked my husband if he was the one who put money under his pillow. He said yes. And what about the tooth fairy? NOT REAL. I was really upset when my kid informed me that he no longer believed in the tooth fairy because Dad told him she didn't exist. My husband’s response to my hysteria was to say he doesn't believe in lying, and it's very important to always be truthful—especially with your kids. He rationalized that if you lie about the tooth fairy, maybe your child will decide you're lying about other things. I disagree.

Soon enough, my kids will learn the world in a cruel and unfair place. (Even more cruel and unfair than them being the only kid in their 3rd grade class—besides three girls—that hasn’t been allowed to see Avatar.) They will learn that people die senselessly. They will experience heartbreak. They will hear and read terrible stories about human rights atrocities. And, they will pay taxes. I feel like maintaining a fantasy/story/lore about a fairy sustains a very fragile innocence our children will lose soon enough. I don’t think that because I said I believed in the tooth fairy, that my kids can’t and won’t expect truthfulness from me. So now they know the truth. But you know what else they know? That the “fairy” dust I rub in between their eyes at night helps them have good dreams. And I know this is real because they tell me so.

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Under the knife

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12/09/2010

I’ve been cut twice recently.  Both surgeries were to fix lingering hip and shoulder issues.  I’m talking 7-8 years of discomfort.  I’m not addicted to surgery like some reality television star, or Joan Rivers.  I really tried everything first:

• Rounds of physical therapy,
• Numerous chiropractors,
• Experimentation with acupuncture,
• Massage therapy (think pain not pleasure),

and the list goes on.

It felt like Groundhog Day.  The only upside, I have an unbelievable library of exercises for your hip and shoulder.  You might be wondering, how does a trainer in his 30s have a bad hip and shoulder?

Well the shoulder is easy to explain.  I was working at the JCC in Skokie and we were repainting the locker rooms.  We mailed two letters and had a sign up asking members to remove their lock.  Our requests went unnoticed by a shockingly high percentage of senior clientele.  Weird, right?  With all the locks stuck on the lockers, I helped remove them for about 45 minutes.  Of course I thought, what a great workout!

It took three doctors to figure out that was the repetitive motion that injured my shoulder.  At the time I was single, poor and scared of surgery.  So I signed up for physical therapy and worked the crap out of my legs.  I was leg pressing Mini Coopers (not really but my legs were getting strong).  And then I made the huge mistake (not really) of running.  After a few months of running more than usual—hip pain.  The diagnosis took years for one simple reason—no doctor requested an MRI with dye (MRI Arthrogram).  My takeaway: if you are feeling any pain in the hip or shoulder, push for an MRI with dye.  They inject your joint with a safe amount of fluid that makes it easier to see tears in tight spaces.

When I finally had the MRI it was clear that I had a tear and possibly other damage in my hip.  The cause was congenital, meaning my bones/joints developed that way (it was not from working out too much).  After meeting three surgeons, and consulting/annoying doctor and physical therapist friends, I went with a doctor at Rush.  His approach was in between the optimistic and the pessimistic doctors.  Despite his name sounding like a James Bond villain, Dr. Nho was my guy.

Since my shoulder had been bad longer than the hip, I went for the shoulder surgery first.  Reaching for the backseat, placing the remote next to my bed, and trying to put plates on the top shelf all where annoyingly painful.  The surgery went well.  Since the problem was going on forever I had already seen several doctors and knew Dr. Romeo at Rush would do my surgery whenever it happened.  When I saw his physical therapy protocol, I knew I picked the right guy:

• 8 weeks, throwing from a pitcher’s mound
• 12 weeks, light contact drills, progressing to full contact

No, I did not do either of those exercises but apparently I could have.  The physical therapy went well for the shoulder.  It’s still taking me time to get back complete range of motion and strength, but I’m happy to say I’m much better!  Thanks to my wife and my physical therapist Kristine, the road to recovery was smooth.  I was back at work after only a few days and started personal training people four days after the surgery.  The first few days post surgery are the worst.  I needed my wife to constantly fill this ice machine, help me shower (trust me not sexy) and I had to wear a massive sling with a squeeze ball attached to it.  Sleeping with a sling, brace…it all kind of sucks.

I had a two week hiatus from shoulder therapy ending and my hip therapy beginning.  The three biggest downsides to the hip surgery:

1. Crutches
2. Brace
3. Couch

You think it would be nice sitting on a couch all day, but it sucked.  I was so bored.  I had some visitors, but it was lonely.  It also made me realize once I’m healed, I need to get out of the gym and spend time with some friends.

Television was my only act of gluttony.  Three-hundred channels, and there’s still nothing to watch.  I’m happy to say I didn’t sit on the couch and wolf down buckets of chicken or anything like that.  When you don’t move much, you just don’t get that hungry.  I have no idea how those grossly overweight people stuck to a bed eat so much.  Then again my home nurse (wife) was feeding me healthy meals.  You really need a good wife to get through this.  A combination of pain, helplessness and boredom can make for one crabby patient.

I am now walking without crutches and counting the days for this brace to come off (eight to go!).  If you need a referral for surgeons or physical therapists, shoot me a note.

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Miracles Happen Every Day

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12/08/2010

Miracles Happen Every Day photo

Violet is ready to light the candles while Autumn plays inside the toy basket.

Hanging in our bathroom is a cheesy picture that says “Miracles happen everyday” above a brightly colored flower. It’s a little embarrassing, but the sentiment is nice, so I got over myself and agreed to let Mandi put it up. It has traveled with us since Mandi purchased it for some college apartment at least 10 years ago. Part of me wants to hang a little sign above it that says “this is Mandi’s picture; I think it is cheesy too. Love, Chai.” But that makes me sound like a curmudgeon and I actually agree with the thought. Anyway, all this to say that the idea of miracles reminds me of Chanukah and here we are in the midst of the holiday.

Last year was my most memorable Chanukah ever. My water broke on the first night and two and a half (loooonnnngg) hours later Violet and Autumn were born. It was a miracle on a night celebrating miracles. They were six and a half weeks early and it’s another miracle they waited that long after a bout of preterm labor followed by three weeks of contractions at five minute intervals. But they waited; those are my little fighters.

They survived the NICU, and I survived the NICU, albeit with way more crying than both babies combined. Why doesn’t anyone tell you that once you give birth you will cry more than you ever thought possible? I know I’m not the only one to experience this. Mandi says I’m making up for lost time for being inhuman and rarely crying before. Well, now I cry watching the news. I cry at movie previews when a parent is grieving or a child is sick. I even cry at effing commercials. I don’t know who I am anymore. Except I guess someone who has seen the fragility of human life in my own premature babies. Fortunately I also saw those darlings grow and become strong and come out healthy and beautiful on the other side of that month in the NICU. Even though there are many medical and scientific reasons for their existence and their health, they are still my little miracles and Chanukah will never be the same again.

Growing up my family would light candles and exchange gifts and eat latkes, but as an adult I haven’t really celebrated Chanukah. I only lit candles if I happened to walk by a nice someone from Chabad who was handing out free candles on the corner. But now Chanukah gives me a personal reason to be grateful and I purchased candles for our three menorahs several weeks in advance.

Even if Chanukah doesn’t fall on December 11, it will always be my daughters’ other birthday and another reason to celebrate Violet and Autumn. It will be a chance to reminisce about their birth day while lighting candles and eating fried foods and watching the girls open presents, or at least play with the wrapping paper. Even though we will celebrate the first year of Autumn and Violet this coming Saturday, it seems like we’ve been celebrating all week. Those lucky girls get a whole holiday in addition to their birthday.

I know some people debate the importance of Chanukah, after all it is a pretty minor holiday on a calendar filled with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Passover and tons of other holidays. There is always a Jewish reason to celebrate. But whatever you think about lasting oil or violent uprising of the underdogs, it seems like a good idea to me to take a moment or say, eight days, to acknowledge the miracles in your everyday life.

This Chanukah I am surprised to find myself all sentimental about things. I guess this year has changed me. I cry at corny commercials. Two little girls call me mama. I can embrace cheesiness (in small doses). This morning when I straightened the flower miracle picture in the bathroom I didn’t cringe, not even in my thoughts. Instead, the corners of my mouth rose just a tiny bit in a smile. I’m looking forward to seeing what miracles the next year will bring.

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My Trip to Poland

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12/07/2010

My Trip to Poland photo 1

When I was young, growing up as a member of a small Jewish community in a rural town, about 45 minutes out of Savannah, GA, my only recollection of the history of Poland was Fort Pulaski and Pulaski, GA, named for Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier who served as an American General during the Revolutionary War and died at the Battle of Savannah.

Then, I grew up, moved to Chicago and married into a Polish Jewish family that had emigrated during the 1960s.  My knowledge of Poland was still poor at the time, but the overall feedback I had heard from other Jews was that Poland is terribly anti-Semitic and that there are no Jews left.  My husband is unusual in that he still has family in Poland and has visited before a few times as a child.

I had an opportunity to visit Poland a few weeks ago with a small delegation of Jews from around the country with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish nonprofit with the mission of eradicating anti-Semitism and encouraging Polish-Jewish dialog.  I was struck by how westernized the country is.  It’s been over two decades since Communism fell and it is a different country than one envisions under the Cold War or after WWII and is not much different than visiting France or another central European country.

My Trip to Poland photo 2

The Forum hosted us in an intense week of reviewing Polish-Jewish history, meeting with teens in a small town who are learning about their town’s once thriving Jewish population, touring Auschwitz and introducing us to Jews in Poland.  We quickly learned that there would be no Poland as it is today without the influence of 900 years of Jews.  For most Eastern European Jews, Poland is their place of origin (Poland’s borders often changed, so Russia is often substituted for Poland as a result).

None of the interactions surprised me until we met Jews who lived there.  You will find a few Americans who have chosen to live in Poland and have become leaders in the Polish Jewish community.  I met an Israeli who loves it and would not live anywhere else.  But, more commonly, you might meet a young person in their twenties who discovers their Jewish roots on one or both sides of their families by accident as a teen.  They might ask their grandfather who omitted sharing the information as they were growing up, but confirms it now when asked.  This secretiveness is indicative of the older generation who has had to be silent to survive.  But for today’s upcoming generation, there is an opportunity for openness and conversation that has never existed before.  The question is whether we, as American Jews, are ready for this?

As a Jewish child growing up in the South, I became accustomed to addressing questions that might be considered offensive to some, but demonstrated the need for education to me.  As a member of the Chicago Jewish community, I find that the more of us that live together in the community, the fewer of us often want to take the time to address questions by outsiders.  In many ways, we have become very insular as a result of our growing numbers.

Now, Poland is at a crossroads and we have the chance to support those who are coming back to their ancestral roots and to help a country confronting its history.  After the trip, I felt drawn closer to Israel because the connections between Poland and Israel are so deeply rooted in history and the Diaspora.  I have to admit that I loved visiting Poland and that I came out of it with a sense of optimism, even as I lit a candle at Auschwitz.  I hope that I can share this with my daughter as she confronts her family history.

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A Great Place to Send Some of your Chanukah Gelt!

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12/06/2010

Happy Chanukah, Oy! readers!  This marks my 12th Oy post and first anniversary blogging for Oy!Chicago.  It has been great being an Oy! blogger, a website made possible by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.  This post is dedicated to the good folks who fundraise to make possible Oy!Chicago and a whole lot more.

Most people don't realize how much JUF monetary support and JUF funded services can do for them, until they really need it.  When individuals in the community here and abroad are really in need, though, JUF is there in a big way.  I give to JUF most years, and this year I made a point to give more than I had in the past.  I don’t think any buildings are going to be named after me for my contribution, but I did stretch my comfort zone with my donation this year.

It feels good to give and I believe that I am giving for good causes.  I know that JUF support goes to Israel, to disasters like the forest fires near Haifa, and to all types of programs in the Chicago community, from supplying food for those that are hungry to providing counseling for those that need help.  I also believe in taking advantage of the opportunities JUF provides for me as a young professional in Chicago.

The annual Trades, Industries and Professions (TIP) dinners are opportunities to hear great speakers and network with others in my field.  TIP events and Young Leadership Division (YLD) events have helped me to meet people that are relevant for my work.  The Walk with Israel is a chance to support Israel in a big way.  I have walked with JUF several times and got to see the Idan Reichel Project at the 60th year walk a couple of years ago.  This summer, I was lucky enough to staff a Shorashim trip for Birthright Israel, and part of the trip was funded by JUF.

When I worked for one of the Federation agencies, my position, and in fact, most of my department was funded by JUF.  Of course, then it was easy to give to JUF, because ultimately it was supporting my own paycheck.  The longer I worked in the Federation system, though, the more I got to meet a lot of people over at JUF headquarters and I found them to be great people that I could really trust and count on personally and professionally.  Even though I don't count on JUF for a paycheck anymore, my experiences with the different staff members and executives I met have made me a believer in donating to JUF, for their benefit and for the benefit of those they serve.

This is the time of year where a lot of people and a lot of organizations are going to ask you to part with some of your Chanukah gelt to give to the greater good.  I want to encourage you to keep JUF on your list of recipients.  Many Oy! readers out there have given to JUF in the past and continue to give now.  That is awesome and important.  For those of you that have not had the chance to give yet, this year or ever before, consider giving.  It will help make sure you get to read the next Oy! post and a whole lot more…

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Hannukah grinch gets in the holiday spirit

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12/03/2010

Hannukah grinch photo

It’s outrageous to wake up on the morning of December 3, having only had two days of below 30 degree weather and one light dusting of snow, and realize that tonight is already the third night of Hanukkah…craziness, right?!

For most of us, it feels like Hanukkah just snuck right up on us – we’ve only been seeing commercials about Christmas for a month – not the requisite 7+ weeks that we’re used to by Christmas time when Hanukkah usually falls (some of you might remember my Christmas overload frustration).

For me, it’s quite the opposite.  I’ve been talking about Hanukkah on a regular basis nearly daily since August.  Yes – that probably seems odd to most of you, but as a volunteer coordinator at a local Jewish agency, The ARK, Jewish (and some secular) holidays drive my workload…and sometimes drive me crazy.

The ARK runs an incredible program called Chanukah Gift Wishes.  (Sidenote: yes, the I just spelled Hanukkah with the “Ch” – don’t ask me why but while I have always drifted to the one “H”, two “K”s in my personal life, The ARK typically uses the “Ch” spelling, but I just can’t give Hanukkah up…I’m weird.)

Chanukah Gift Wishes is a program where ARK clients and their families fill out wish lists for holiday presents (valued around $35 per gift) and volunteers from the Chicagoland community generously purchase their gifts anonymously so that the recipients can celebrate the holidays in the same dignified manner that us Oy!readers do.

By October 25th, I was already feeling like the Hanukkah Grinch!  It was 10 days past the deadline, and I had dozens of clients turning in forms late.  I had donors turning in forms late.  I was trying my best to accommodate special requests from both parties, juggling over 850 clients and 250 volunteer families, and I just wanted to pull out all my hair!

Fast forward to a month later, making sure that the gifts came in for all 885 clients (final tally!), and I was just beat.  Hanukkah was a few days away, Thanksgiving was upon us, and the thought of lighting a menorah made me want to hide under my desk.

My wonderful husband asked me what I wanted this year for Hanukkah, and I asked him to cancel the holiday – for me and for everyone else!  Um…not an option (duh).

We decided that instead of buy gifts for each other, we would take part in The ARK’s Chanukah Gift Wishes program, so we headed to Target with wish lists in tow, and picked out presents for ARK clients who wouldn’t otherwise receive gifts this year.

As we stood in line at Target with gifts for others filling my cart, my strange Chanukah hatred slowly started to evaporate.  As the trite saying goes, it’s better to give than to receive.  And boy did our community give.

We, along with 270 other families, bought linens and toys, kitchen goods and books, towels and games, DVDs and gift cards to Target, Kohls, Walmart and even the CTA.

Reading words of thanks from an elderly couple who haven’t received gifts in years brought tears to my eyes.  Seeing the faces of parents as they walk out of The ARK with gifts to give their children made my Hanukkah hatred dissipate faster than those cheap candles burn in our menorah 20 minutes after we light them.

Had I been smarter, I would have shared this story with the Oy! community sooner, so you could have taken part in this mitzvah.  I’m lucky that not only did we have 270 families by gifts for ARK clients but dozens of others donated money so we could provide gift cards for clients in our transitional housing shelter and program for mentally ill adults.

The program has ended, but the needs still remain – not for Hanukkah, but for the year-round needs of Jews in need in our community.

To find out how you can get involved and volunteer at The ARK, email rfriedman@arkchicago.org.

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Apartment-Dwelling for Dummies

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12/02/2010

Apartment-Dwelling for Dummies photo

To be fair, this is not a recent picture.

My favorite hashtag on Twitter is #firstworldproblems. On a fundamental level, I am grateful that my most pressing needs don’t include keeping myself warm or being responsible for feeding other mouths in my household. On the level that I am privileged enough to have a Twitter account to complain on, however, I am deeply frustrated by my inability to like anything that I own right now.

You know that feeling. All your furniture is from Craigslist, and you want to stop living like a college student. Your clothes keep winding up on the floor, and none of your outfits satisfy you anymore. My last place was a small one-bedroom, and the place before that a studio. Now I live in a large one-bedroom furnished with the first-apartment wares of a studio, and while I appreciate that minimalist look in other spaces, in my own digs, I would like to not feel like I moved in yesterday. (I confess, there are still boxes lurking in corners. If it’s hidden from view by a bookshelf, does it still count?) The total effect is that somehow I have both too much stuff and not enough. First World Problems-palooza, right?

I might not be in such a knot about this if I wasn’t hopelessly addicted to Apartment Therapy and other decorating blogs. Whenever I see what some ingenious city-dweller has done with a spare 500 square feet and some suitably eccentric knick-knacks, I get pangs of envy. I am a connoisseur of junk. Seriously, you should see what I just cleaned out of my room back home. Why am I then so freaked out about putting a nail in the wall and showing off my oddball treasure on a shelf? (There is an answer to this, but it involves an irrational fear of opening a gigantic crack in the wall because I chose the one spot to hang a picture that will open up the structural integrity of the building like the gaping maw of a kraken.) Why does it take me so long to make decisions? (Go on, ask my friends how long it’s taken me to decide on colors for my walls. Then ask me if I have, in fact, done any painting whatsoever. The answer may not surprise you.) Why does my gorgeous apartment still look like the ink on the lease is waiting to dry?

For a long time, I’ve done a lot of justifying to myself. When I was 18, I went from living in one house my whole life to moving every few months for the next five years. I would never go so far as to call that trauma, but I will say that I have a hard time thinking about how much time I will enjoy in an apartment, versus how much trouble it will be to take it all down and pack it up again. Most people make resolutions in January, but I don’t see why the end of a year isn’t also a fitting time to set some goals. I’m scouting out some places to donate those clothes I’m sick of, and several people have suggested Freecycle as a place to unload that old IKEA furniture. Nowhere is it written that just because I own a thing or inhabit a place, it can’t change.

I’m looking forward to my junk-free future. It’ll take some planning, and some (ulp) investment, but I think in the long run, it’s better to settle in somewhere than to settle for it. Then again, the plan could always go off the rails. The Renegade Holiday Craft Fair is this weekend. Surely a new couch can wait for my bank account to cool off after that…?

#firstworldproblems

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8 Nights of... Debates

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12/01/2010

8 Nights of... Debates photo

First of all…
1) “Chanukah” or “Hanukkah”?
I prefer “Chanukah.” The Hebrew version starts with “ch,” so the English version should reflect that. If you can’t say the “ch” sound, I explain how here. Also, since there are no double letters in the original Hebrew, why should there be in the transliteration?

2) “Menorah” or “Chanukiah”?
A chanukiah is a kind of menorah, the kind used on Chanukah. It has nine flame-holders—  eight because the Chanukah miracle lasted eight days… plus one candle to light the others (a.k.a. the shamash).

The original Menorah was in the Holy Temple; it was the one rededicated and rekindled by Judah the Maccabee and his followers. It has seven flame-holders, for the seven days of the week. We know what this Menorah might have looked like because it is engraved on The Arch of Titus in Rome. It has become a major symbol of the State of Israel, and a sculpted one stands outside the Knesset. It’s also on Israel’s national seal.

3) Oil or candles?
Oil is more historically accurate. It’s also messier and smellier. Especially if children are involved— or even just around— stick with candles. Also, they are more colorful and some kids (and adults) like arranging the candles in patterns.

4) “Latkah” or “Latkee”?
I don’t know why, but Chicagoans have a way of putting an “ee” on the end of many Jewish words. Challah becomes “challee,” Sukkah becomes “Sukee,” tchatckeh becomes “tchatchkee”… even Pesachdik becomes “Pescachdiky.” I’m not originally a Chicagoan; to me, this sounds a bit childish, like “doggie” and “tummy.”

So although I am sure I am going to get a lot of flack for this from actual Chicagoans, I have to come down on the side of “latkah.” For what it’s worth, I have the great Jewish philosopher Andy Kaufman on my side.

5) Sour cream or applesauce?
On the topic of latkes, I am an applesauce fan. I do not knock sour cream users, although I admit befuddlement over such dairy products as sour cream and yogurt. Their point seems to be: “Oh gee, this milk went bad… but I think we can still use it!”

When I was a kid, I ate my latkes with ketchup. Now, now… a latke is basically a flat French fry. My sister ate her latkes with mayonnaise, the way the Belgians and Dutch eat French fries.

And I never ordered it, but a restaurant in my hometown offered a corned beef sandwich… with latkes as the “bread.” I think it came with a side order of defibrillator.

6) “Dreidel” or “sivivon”?
There are two ways of looking at this. One has to do with the person holding this toy top. An Israeli will call it a “sivivon,” from the Hebrew word for “around.” Most of the rest of us Diaspora types will call it a “dreidel,” from the German/Yiddish word for “spin.”

The other way is to look at the top itself. If the last letter is a “ shin ,” it’s a dreidel. That letter stands for “shum,” Hebrew for “there,” making the whole dreidel read “A great miracle happened there”… in Israel, not here.

But the Israeli version reflects the fact that the miracle did in fact happen in Israel. So the sentence represented is “A great miracle happened here.” The Hebrew word for “here” is “poh,” the initial of which is a pey. If it has a pey, I’d call it a sivivon.

7) Maccabees or Hasmoneans?
The Hasmoneans were a prominent family at the time. Matisyahu (the original one, not the rapper)— a.k.a. Mattathias— was the patriarch, and his open defiance of religious intolerance started the revolt.

Judah was one of his sons; his nickname was “Maccabee,” meaning “Hammer” (the original one, not the rapper.) Around him, Judah gathered his fellow Hasmonean brothers, and they called their guerilla army The Maccabees after their leader.

8) Syrians or Greeks?
Who did the Jewish army fight and defeat, anyway? Well, they were from the land northeast of today’s Israel; a current map would call that area “Syria.”

But (to oversimplify) that territory was then part of the larger Greek empire. The Greeks were running things, and their goal was to Hellenize the hell out of everybody, Jews included.

So yes, the attacks came from “Syria.” But the ideological fight— the “culture war” or “clash of civilizations” into today’s lingo— was between Jewish and Hellenist worldviews. Even when the Maccabees didn’t fight actual Greeks, they were fighting Greece and the paganism it pushed.

Setting all differences aside… best wishes for a holiday that is both warm and happy!

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