OyChicago blog

26 Acts of Kindness

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It's been really hard for me to wrap my head around what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School less than a week ago. Normally, I'm one who takes note of these horrific stories and then tries to shut them out of my world, avoiding the news so I don't internalize the hurt and suffering.

But this time, watching horror stories on the news day after day and hearing stories of viciously murdered kindergarteners has really broken my heart. The mama in me imagines Colin as an elementary school-age kid, and I literally have no words. Just tears.

So when I heard that my favorite former anchor of the Today Show, Ann Curry, had started a movement via twitter about doing 26 random acts of kindness to commemorate the 26 lives lost in this tragedy, I knew I was in. The tricky part is that with a sick baby and a potential snow storm today, we can't venture too far from home. So we have to start small, with things we can do from home or that require very minimal travel.

Many of you know that in my former life, before the days of stay-at-home-mommy hood, I was the volunteer coordinator at a local nonprofit. I've seen first-hand the wonderful acts of kindness that others can do, and I've already made an effort to teach Colin by example. We've delivered food and purchased Hanukkah gifts for the less fortunate.

But all of those projects have revolved around upcoming holidays, and I love the feeling of doing good because we want to. Not because we're taking part in an organized program or because others are doing it to, but because it's a right and an honor. Because it feels good to give back, and in the wake of such a monumental event, it's a great way to turn something terrible into something positive.

So Colin will help - mostly by being the cute baby that makes others smile, while his mommy does the typing, the driving, the paying and the giving. Here are our first five of our #26 Acts of Kindness:

1) Donating clothes. This is something we do regularly, and I already had a pile of stuff brewing in the closet, so it seemed like a great way to start! Because of our lovely germ-fest going on, we're going to deliver them on Sunday when daddy can watch the dude. We take our clothes to The ARK's Thrift Shop, where ARK clients can shop using vouchers and any money from other sales goes directly back into their budget to fund the awesome work they do!

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2) Colin is so lucky to have four wonderful and worldly-wise great-grandparents. And because we live far away from them, we don't get to see them all that often. I thought one of our 26 Acts should be something nice for them, because honestly, if they weren't around, we wouldn't be either! Plus they are the greatest, so here is what we did:

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 #26 Acts #2: Going online to order and surprise C's great grandparents with photos from his six month portraits - it will definitely brighten their day"

3) This one is my favorite so far. In my work at The ARK, one thing we heard from recipients of aid from the food pantry was the exorbitant cost of diapers. And having a baby myself, I know - diapers are a necessity. So we ventured out for a (not-so) quick errand this afternoon in between Colin's naps, and here is what we did:

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If you can't read it, it says, "#26 Acts: #3 Diapers are expensive! Please take and use this gift card to help defray the cost if you are in need of some assistance, and pay it forward by doing something nice for someone else." I hope that whoever sees it takes the message to heart and only takes it if they need it, instead of just seeing it as free money. While we were at Target, we did #4 too.

4) Buy 26+ grocery items for a local food bank. We chose to buy food for the JUF Uptown Cafe's pantry. I talked to Colin while we walked through the grocery aisles about why this mitzvah was important. I am pretty sure he was just interested in the cereal boxes, but hopefully he absorbs some of this :) Below is the face of a boy who needs a nap... 

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And 5) I've been thinking of one of our pals a lot this holiday season. She's been out of town since before Thanksgiving visiting her family, because her dad has cancer, and she wants to help him and her mom and spend as much time with him as she can. We miss having her and her baby girl around, and we hate to see their family face this kind of pain during the holiday season. Since Colin and I can't cure cancer as act number 5, instead I helped Colin send his first bouquet of flowers to a girl, his pal L, who has a sick grandpa.

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I think we are off to a great start!

So, here is the fun part.

Post a comment on my other blog Adventures of the Fried-baby with your idea of a way to do something kind for others that costs $26 or less. Not only do I appreciate your ideas, but on Sunday, I'll do a drawing using a random number generator to pick a winner, and that winner will get a $25 Amazon Gift Card (since they don't sell them in $26 increments) to use to pay it forward to someone else!


Chanukah: At Home and Abroad

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Chanukah: At Home and Abroad photo

Every day coming home from work, I walk through the Christkindl market, that bastion of holiday cheer and wonder. Above the glittering lights, the mingling aromas of German food and mulled wine, the general buzz of effervescent cheer stands a steel menorah, courtesy of Chabad. The stark menorah in comparison to the intensely sparkly everything else makes for quite the juxtaposition. “Do you have Chanukah songs?,” non-Jewish co-workers ask me, “why, yes we do.” Songs sung in a minor key, far from the carefree jingle jangle of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. But when someone new asks me the story of Chanukah, the response shines as bright as the most shimmering decoration. 

A holiday celebrating miracles. A holiday celebrating light in the midst of a very dark time. Chanukah (Hannukah, Hanukah...) gives us a reason to reflect on the miracles in our lives. I see it as an opportunity, looking at the horrific, senseless events of last week, to shed light on tragedies and try our best to discover within ourselves how we can face such horrible events with sympathy, empathy and caring. And it’s another moment to reflect on how faith factors into our everyday lives. 

I encountered a little miracle while living in France a couple of years ago. My new friends had never celebrated the holiday before and didn’t know much about it, so I took it upon myself to throw a Grenoble Chanukah party. And what is a Chanukah party without latkes? I soon came to the daunting realization that no, I’ve never made latkes before and yes, the recipe called for boiling hot oil. This could only end in disaster, right?

I stood up to my fears and marched to the Makolette, the kosher market in town. Maybe I wanted to give the affair a little extra Jewish “umph” or maybe I was feeling incredibly lazy, but I walked out of the store with a box of Manischewitz latke mix, feeling happy as a clam. 

A bottle of French Crisco and a few terrifying instances of burning oil flying off of the pan later, I had a pile of latkes any Jewish mother would be proud of (maybe). I set my table and added the necessary accoutrements of applesauce, sugar and the ever-present Chanukah classic, frozen pizza. As my friends started gathering at my apartment, we dined and delighted in the sounds of the “Hava Nagila” playlist I’d compiled prior to their arrival. My British, German and American guests fawned over my magnificent latkes (ha!) and it was an evening I’ll not soon forget. In a town entrenched in gorgeous, lavish Christmas spirit, the time I got to spend sharing my holiday and little bit of tradition with people who saw it all with new eyes is a memory I look upon fondly. 

That night also marked the beginning of my first holiday season away from home, not to mention my first holiday season in a foreign country. Before signing a seven month contract to live in France over the course of a school year, I never considered just how lonely it would feel being away at holiday time. Even living in a town ensconced in light and cheer, surrounded by plenty of new friends, there’s something a little isolating about being away from one’s nearest and dearest that time of year. But being able to share a little bit of my upbringing and my Jewish life with my abroad family brought the little miracles of this holiday to light in a heartfelt way that took me by surprise.


Green, Bonds, and Clemens on the Hall of Fame Ballot

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Green, Bonds, and Clemens on the Hall of Fame Ballot photo

This year's Baseball Hall of Fame ballot has been released and it's headlined by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Both will be a true test to the steroid era as Bonds and Clemens are arguably the best hitter and pitcher respectively who ever lived (please note that I wrote arguably).

But we here at The Great Rabbino are less concerned about Bonds and Clemens and more concerned about first-time ballot nominee Jewish baseball player Shawn Green! In all honesty, Green does not have much of a chance of making the Hall of Fame but it's nice to see his name on the list. Other first time nods include a handful of former White Sox (Royce Clayton, Sandy Alomar Jr., Roberto Hernandez, David Wells, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton, and Julio Franco) for more click HERE.

So let's look at where Green stacks up and does he at least have a chance of getting on the ballot more than once.

Shawn Green - .283BA, 328HR, 162SB, 1070RBI, 2003H

NEW TO BALLOT (some of the players)

Barry Bonds - .298BA, 762HR, 1996RBI, 514SB, .607SLG, 7MVPs

Mike Piazza - .308BA, 427HR, 1335RBI, .545SLG, RoY

Craig Biggio - .281BA, 291HR, 414SB, 1844R

Sandy Alomar Jr. - .273BA, 112HR, 588RBI, RoY

Julio Franco - .298BA, 173HR, 2586H, 1194RBI, 917W

Rondell White - .284, 198HR, 1519H, 768RBI

Steve Finley - .271BA, 304HR, 1167RBI, 320SB

HOLDOVER ON THE BALLOT (some of the players)

Jeff Bagwell - .297BA, 449HR, 1529RBI, 202SB, RoY, 1MVP

Tim Raines - .294BA, 808SB, 2605H, 170HR, 980RBI

Larry Walker - .313BA, 383HR, 1311RBI, 230SB, 2160H, 1MVP

Mark McGwire - .263BA, 583HR, 1414RBI, 1626H, RoY

Bernie Williams - .297BA, 287HR, 1257RBI, 147SB, 2336H

It looks like Bonds, Piazza, and Biggio will stay on the ballot. Alomar Jr. has chance. Green....well....with enough Jewish voters maybe he could stay on for one or two more tries. This year should see Jack Morris and Piazza into the Hall of Fame and possibly Bonds and Clemens if voters overlook the steroids. Biggio will come close but I bet he just misses it.

Should be interesting. Let's hope Green stays on!

And Let Us Say...Amen.


Reflecting on the tragedy in Newtown

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Reflecting on the tragedy in Newtown photo

This post was written Friday afternoon, following the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut: 

I have never been so shaken so quickly as I was today. When I first saw the story, all I saw were random words, phrases and numbers and they added up to something insane that made me feel some sort of emotion I can’t comprehend right now. I don’t want to comprehend. I don’t like this. No one would. I have no direct connection to anything that happened and I feel this way. I can’t even pretend to imagine what anyone involved is going through right now. Everything on social media has me incredibly conflicted. On the one hand, people truly, honestly need to think about what they say before they post it on social media. This is obviously a sensitive issue—this is not a time to preach or react in a perverse manner. I feel ironic for saying that first part but while I’d rather be silent than say the wrong thing, that had to be said, despite the contradictory nature of it. If this is a jumbled mess I apologize. I wrote this for me, even though it is directed outwardly at times. It makes me feel, not better, but at the very least, like I’m not ignoring what happened. This is what I am doing as the most minimalistic action to keep my head about me. 

I like when people are saying to do something. Do something. This is advice that should be taken to heart. Talk to someone. Tell your loved ones that you do in fact love them. Hold them close. Hold them long. Never let go if you can. Tell them everything you want to tell them about how wonderful they are because we all know life is delicate and I say time and time again, we unfortunately don’t live that way. I wish I could live everyday like it was my last. In the most ironic way possible, life gets in the way of that. But we live in a time where so much can be done because of the simple advances in communication, we have to do just that. Communicate. Talk. Do something. Be there for someone today. And every day for that matter. Be a good person because you are one. Show it. Express it. Share it. Live life and be happy. In regards to today’s events, to state the obvious, no one should ever have to go through anything like this ever. Everyone seems to bring up different issues and that is entirely fine, but choose them appropriately. Focus on what’s truly important in the present and express yourself eloquently and humbly. I keep bringing it up but focus on not what needs to be done, but what is it you can do. There is something in your power that can make someone’s life better. Find out what that is and take charge. 

I held back tears more times than I care to count today. I can’t remember that ever happening to me in relation to real life events. I was too young during 9/11 to comprehend. I’m almost thankful for that in a strange way. But today, I am an adult, and I know exactly what happened, and I’m holding back tears writing this sentence and I am not ashamed to say it. In reaction to today, I have read some things online that make me downright angry and disappointed and yet there has been a multitude of beautiful words and gestures as well. Take today and know that this should be the worst and cherish that every other day is going to be better. The worst day of my life and the lives of most people doesn’t compare to today for the unfortunate select few. I am blessed with what I have. I am lucky to a level that most people might never get the chance to experience. I have a roof over my head, food on my table and loved ones to share it with. I have no right to complain about anything. Not about my day, not about my job, not about the economy, not about the government, not about anything. I try to cherish what I have because at any second it could all be taken away for no reason without ever a logical explanation. I don’t cherish what I have enough. I don’t think anyone does. That’s not to say I’m not appreciative or aware of what I have, I simply don’t acknowledge it appropriately. Today was a day that is unreal. That shouldn’t exist. But it does. It happened. We can’t go back and do it over. Go forward and do what you can to make every day ahead better and brighter. Be the best person you can be so we never see another day like this again. 

If you read this, I thank you sincerely. I wrote this for me and wished to share it with you, and you are an honest to goodness wonderful person for taking the time to participate in something that has helped me get through this day.


Bring more light into the world

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Marcy Nehorai photo 4

Why is the Newtown tragedy affecting us so much more than other acts of violence? There are so many random, senseless, acts of violence out there. Why does this fill our hearts with such sorrow, shock, and disgust, but hearing about the Batman movie massacre only fills us halfway?

I think mostly it is because they are children. Children that don’t understand the darkness of the adult world (or that we want to shield them away from it). Children who are not in any way responsible for the mess-ups and the confusion. Children who are innocent and want to love and want to play. Children who are pure, unadulterated light. 

The injustice of it, being children, reaches our hearts straight on, fills us with breaking sadness. We want to do something, anything.

We see in the scene, in our minds, the fear that the children must have had. The confusion. The screams of children who could not be protected. The screams of the parents who could not protect. It is almost too much to bear, for the injustice reaches a fevered pitch, a breakable level.

And who, our conscious, rational minds asks, who goes after children? Who is so angry at these children? Six-year-old children? A child who is caught in the gunfire, caught in the messed up dark ramblings of the adult world. But a gunman who purposefully targets such innocence, such potential, who silences those who want to giggle and laugh and run around and learn? 

That is the greatest question of all. Who, our minds beg for some sort of answer, who did this gunman hate so much that he would do such a thing?

People are crazy, of course. People do irrational, irreconcilable things. But that doesn't alleviate the pain.

The thought of the children wears us down. We, the nation, want to maternally wrap our arms around them and bring them back to life. We, the nation, want to tell their parents it was all a bad dream. We want to re-right the world again, bring sense back into the classroom. Give ourselves, and our children, the assurance that things are good and life is safe, and if we follow the lines, we will get ahead.

But instead, we see the shattered world, the unfortunate injustice, and the pain, a gaping hole in our hearts, for the tragedy of this injustice.

In the face of tragedy, in the face of unparalleled darkness, we have only one option— to bring more light into the world. If Hanukkah taught us anything, it was this. 

May the parents, the community, and the nation somehow be comforted, emotionally and psychologically, for the shattered world that sits in front of them, and may we somehow build back the pieces so that it all makes sense again. Children are our future, they are our potential, and they are the light of our lives. They deserve to be safe. May this be an opportunity to bring more and more light into the world, somehow. Somehow, let’s help set the world straight again, bringing justice.

And for the lives that were lost, may they be remembered always. And may their memory be a reminder for how we thus changed the world afterwards, for the better.


Rebuilding after Sandy’s destruction

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A few of the TOV volunteers in front of the center before gutting begins

On the second day of Chanukah, thirteen JUF TOV volunteers boarded a plane for New York on a Hurricane Sandy Relief Mission to help those affected by the severe flooding that decimated parts of New York and New Jersey in late October. The floods forced thousands of New York and New Jersey residents from their homes and major swaths of the states are disaster areas.

The three-day community mission to New York was sponsored by JUF's TOV Volunteer Network in partnership with NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster. NECHAMA—which means "comfort" in Hebrew—is the only Jewish disaster response organization in the United States and has been on the ground since the hurricane struck the region.

"Disasters are very heavily faith based," said Gene Borochoff, President of the NECHAMA board and one of the organization founders. "We feel that there is a need to represent the Jewish community and the Jewish community needs to be involved and represented in the disaster response."

"This is great being able to work in a synagogue [today]," Borochoff continued, "but for the most part we spend the majority of our time in places that don't have a Jewish population…trying to help those with [the] greatest need. Coming in with your own hands and heart, that is a major difference."

The TOV volunteers were sent to The Jewish Center Brighton Beach, which was devastated by the storm. Built in 1928, the historic landmark is one of the oldest synagogues in New York. The congregants are currently using a local department store as a house of worship.

Dressed in old clothing, facemasks, eye goggles, and work gloves, the volunteers gutted the synagogue removing toxic debris and mold all the way down to the frame to prep the center for reconstruction.

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Volunteers hauling out debris

"We are pulling away all the debris…," said Judy Springgate, a TOV volunteer. "There's drywall, doors, insulation, wood, exit signs and pipes and we took all [the materials] out with our bare hands and really helped this community."

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Gutted wall

While there, the TOV volunteers celebrated Chanukah with local rabbis at a synagogue that had been repaired and rebuilt by NECHAMA and finished the week prior.

"It was a particularly meaningful time to bring a group of volunteers over Chanukah," said Yael Brunwasser, director of the JUF TOV Volunteer Network, "a time of year when spreading light and rebuilding are essential themes. Over the course of three days, volunteers worked to repair a destroyed synagogue, truly embodying the spirit of tikkun olam."

"It is so unbelievable the group of people who've come together from different ages, different groupings, and different backgrounds, even from different states," said Wendi Passen, a JUF Women's Board member and a mission participant. "It was so cool to team up with NECHAMA. The fact that we are doing this for three days and they are doing this for two years or four years and fifty days in a row…this is an experience I will never forget."

There are still over 200,000 homes and centers in New York that were declared inhabitable that require repair.

"How bad the damage is, is unreal," said Erin Gordon, another TOV participant. "You don't really see or hear about this on the news anymore as much as you did in the beginning and it's just sad and scary how bad things really are."

A second Hurricane Sandy Relief Mission comprised of Chicagoland Hillel students leaves Sunday, Dec. 16 to continue the long and arduous process of readying the Jewish Center Brighton Beach for reconstruction.

As of Nov. 19, Jewish Federation's Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund had raised almost a half a million dollars for relief efforts.

"I'm delighted to be part of this amazing effort coordinated by JUF and TOV, said Adam Hyman. "I'm going to tell everybody about the organization NECHAMA and the important work that they do. I feel fortunate to be a part of it."

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Proof of the volunteers' hard work

Click here for more information about NECHAMA— Jewish Response to Disaster.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is accepting donations to help those impacted by Hurricane Sandy and the following snowstorm along the Eastern seaboard. Chicagoans may contribute online at www.juf.org/relief, by calling (312) 444-2869, or by sending checks to: Jewish Federation Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, Room 3022, 30 S. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60606.

The Chicago Federation will absorb all administrative costs, ensuring that 100 percent of all donations go directly to aid those most affected- -both the Jewish and general communities and to first responders along the East Coast- through the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and other relief organizations and social welfare agencies.

For more photos from the mission, visit www.facebook.com/tov.volunteer


‘Let there be light’

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‘Let there be light’ photo

I'm an early riser and always have been.

Even as a teen, and now in my not-so-teen years, when people my age relish sleeping through breakfast, my circadian rhythms are less like my peers and more like my 89-year-old grandpa, who grabs his morning coffee and paper at dawn every day.

A visitor of mine from out of town, in his 40s, recently told me that whenever possible, he sleeps in 12-hour stretches into the afternoon, an admission he made to me when we met up for pancakes at 1p.m.—his choice of time, not mine. At first, I was envious of 12-Hour Sleep Guy. My body clock just doesn't work like that but, then again, I don't think I'd want it to.

After all, I love the morning because I'm a big fan of the sun. Whenever I can, I'll jog along the lake early in the morning and take in the sunrise. I'll watch the sun dawn over the shimmering water. Each time, I'm struck by the light and beauty of the sky, a palette of oranges, yellows, and reds dancing together, each sunrise breathtaking and different than the one that came before it. It never gets old, something that I can depend on—literally like clockwork. The chores and work for the upcoming day are far from my mind as I'm enveloped by the peaceful majesty of the scene.

It's comforting to know, that in a world with so much uncertainty, we can depend on the sun rising every day. Can you imagine how relieved early cavemen, who were still learning how the world operated, must have felt every time the sun rose another day?

When I watch the sun rise, my belief in God grows stronger. There's a prayer we say thanking God for creating the sun, called the Birkat Hachama, the "Blessing of the Sun," and I think about that blessing in these quiet moments at dawn. 

Light is a constant theme in my life. My bat mitzvah Torah portion, chanted 21 years ago, was Bereshit, the story of creation. Remember the one where God said, "Let there be light," creating the moon, the sun, and the stars? Even my name Cindy means "light" in Greek. Actually, the title of this very column, "Chai Lights" is a play on my Hebrew name—Chaya (life)—merged with my English name.

There's nothing more beautiful to me than the concept of light—both in nature and on a philosophical level, as illumination, a combination of wisdom, optimism, and hope.

It's ironic—all this talk about light—as the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, approaches. But it is now, in the season of Chanukah, that the Jewish people celebrate the light. We'll soon light candles for eight whole nights to celebrate that great miracle that happened there.

No matter what season, I see light all around. I see light in the kindness of a stranger buying a homeless man a cup of hot chocolate on a cold Chicago day. I see light when my baby nephew sings and dances to Carly Rae Jepsen on the car radio. I see light when I watch an elderly couple hold hands walking down the street.

And I see light in the traditions of our people. I even see light in the darkest days throughout history for the Jewish people. It's then that we've had to keep our lights burning brightest, through all of our peril, persecution, and turmoil, such as in Israel right now. But we as a people recognize that light, in the end, vanquishes the dark. 

My mother, who is a playwright, wrote a play staged in Minneapolis back in the 1980s and 1990s, adapted from Shalom Aleichem, called The Adventures of Mottel, about a little Jewish boy who emigrates with his family from Russia to the States at the turn of the 20th century.

Mottel and his family carry candles on stage to commemorate the end of Yom Kippur. After all he and his family had endured in Russia and on their long journey to America, the family gets through all the adversity by maintaining their sense of humor, hope, and light. And then, Mottel closes the play with the following words of wisdom: "If you carry your own lantern," Mottel tells the audience, "you can make your way through the dark."


Leading down a whole new path

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Lauren Schmidt photo

This week marks my tenth week at my first full time job after college. It is honestly remarkable to me that it has only been 10 weeks because I feel as though I have been here for so much longer. My position is at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which in their mission statement is described as a “global Jewish human rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.” In my new role, I act as an event coordinator in addition to the administrative assistant to the Midwest Director. As you can imagine, this is a very inspiring place to work. My boss’ office is covered with photographs of Simon Wiesenthal, Winston Churchill, Anne Frank, and Theodor Herzl. Hard to not feel inspired each and every day. 

The Midwest office that I work for actually just opened at the very end of the summer. Because this arm of the center is relatively new, I definitely feel as though I have an opportunity to get more hands on experience than if I were to be working for an office that had been established for years before my arrival. It is really flattering and interesting to be able to provide your opinion on major event details and decisions for the office after only spending a short time with the company. The only reason I am even communicating these feelings of content is because this all became quite apparent to me last week. 

During that time, we hosted two events that premiered the movie It is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl, a film produced through the filmmaking arm of the center called Moriah. These events combined hosted over 200 people and were both fun and, at times, stressful to plan. In the end, the outcome was successful in achieving the centers mission and in my opinion, events that were enjoyed by all of our guests.

It also led to some personal feelings of accomplishment and led to reflect as to how I became an event coordinator. I majored in Journalism in college, which will always be one of my greatest passions. I always will find writing to be a release for any sort of anxieties in my life and I love telling stories, updating people on events and trends, and interviewing individuals about their lives and passions. However, the culmination of my college experience led me to work for a Jewish non-profit—not exactly what you learn about in the School of Media and Public Affairs.

What I realized over the past week is that probably less than five percent of the work I do is anything I learned from sitting in class. My first thought was oy! (pun most definitely intended), but I then realized that it doesn’t really matter where you learn the life skills you use on a daily basis. I am not disvaluing my education in the slightest, but rather pointing out that organized coursework isn’t always what teaches you the most.

I was explaining to some of my friends that most of the responsibilities I have in my position are things I only know how to do from working at overnight camp, pretty much living at Hillel, and being in a sorority. Sure, some basic tricks of the trade in Microsoft Office are skills I picked up during a semester long internships and I probably can write a more eloquent email after taking what seemed like 100 plus journalism courses, but the main day-to-day organizational skills, people skills, and communication skills are all thanks to four years in a sorority and at Hillel, and six years on staff at overnight camp. 

Strangely (or maybe not so much so) this is something that many people I have talked to agree with me about. Many of my friends use skills from outside extra-curricular experiences in order to advance in their careers and maybe less so information they learned in class. Of course, there are many exceptions to this, but it is extremely fascinating to think that the most important things you learn in school may not be from class at all. This isn’t exactly the direction I intended on going when I thought about reflecting on my first job, just as when I applied to major in Journalism during my senior year in high school, I wasn’t thinking that I would end up here. I guess this shows that even when you have a plan or think you know the course that you hope your life goes, things can gradually change, leading you on a whole new path. Maybe in four years my life will be similar to how I imagine or it could be completely different than I could even envision. Just when you think the whirlwind part of your early 20s is over with the end of college, it might only just be beginning.


From Survivor to Supporter

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Social Media— A Mechanism to Effectuate Real and Meaningful Change photo

In my post-treatment chapter of survivorship, I am no longer searching for meaning in my suffering, but rather I am committed to applying the lessons learned to my here and now. This is no easy task—in fact it is rather arduous.

As a 31-year-old young adult cancer survivor, I sometimes feel that I am the gatekeeper of innocuous information, strategies and tricks that at this point in time serve no real purpose for me.

During the eight months of treatment, I learned how to make the hospital my home, learned how to outsmart taste aversions developed during chemotherapy, and learned how to connect my mind and body through deep breathing and meditation. I learned how to see the world in hypercolor, learned how to connect with my authentic self, and learned that there is a fine line between vulnerability and strength.

Today, this knowledge and these experiences, reside peacefully between my two ears waiting to be accessed when the time is right.

While this information may not be applicable to me as a survivor, I have found it tremendously useful in my new role as a supporter.

I know what it feels like to be tied up, and locked in by cancer. I know what it feels like to be betrayed by my body. And I know what it feels like to be on pause when the rest of the world is on play.

I have learned that there simply is no perfect thing to say-and no perfect thing to do. All we need to do is show up—and keep showing up. Instead of gifts, bring love and don't forget to hold hands.

This is what I know.
This is what I learned.
And while I am grateful that I don't currently need these lessons for my own personal benefit, I am thankful to have survived and to now be able to give.


2012’s Best and Booziest

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2012’s Best and Booziest photo

Ah, the holiday season is upon us once more! Some will imbibe on eggnog, others will be sipping fine wine. Whether it’s an office party or a prepaid bonanza, the drinks will definitely be a-flowing. But if you’re looking to try something other than the usual beer or sparkling wine, consider stepping outside the box and joining me on a trip to experience some of Chicago’s best cocktails! 

While some consider these to be the last days of our entire existence, the majority of people will still be looking for the party (and cocktail) to party their way into 2013. So, as this year draws to a close, let’s take a look back at some killer cocktails and where the best places are in the city to find them! 

Cocktail - Fizz/Flip.
Best Destination - Union Sushi & BBQ
For those of you that have checked out this modern Asian eatery for its fabulous sushi and robata grill, you have to go back to see my good friend Adam Staniszeski behind the upstairs bar and author of the newest cocktail on the list (and one of my favorites). A must-try, this version of a historically valuable cocktail recipe called a fizz - a cocktail with egg white - really brings out the flavors of the season. Adam’s versions are really creative, so go during happy hour after work one week and you won’t regret it. If anything, you’ll have great company and an even better drinking experience. Tell Adam that Ari sent you!

Cocktail - Artisan.
Best Destination - The Violet Hour
I have been talking a big game about this place for a long time, and after about six years of infrequent visits, the libations have only gotten better and better. Besides having a chic entrance and some very unique interior decor, this establishment does not disappoint. Their newest installment consists of an earl grey infused London Dry Gin and some lemon acidity, delicately balanced with orange marmalade. Juliet and Romeo, their long-standing king of all cocktails, is worth the trip - and possibly the wait, too.

Cocktail - Classic.
Best Destination - The Drawing Room
While my mentor and good friend Charles Joly has departed The Drawing Room for a prestigious role at Achatz’s The Aviary, you will not be disappointed by those he’s trained and left behind. It’s a wonderfully quaint, boutique style bar with lounges and classic cocktails. Ask for Sergio or Cristiana and they’ll lay it all out for you. If I were you, I’d go for the simple yet classical Manhattan or Hemingway Daiquiri, or be dazzled by the multi-layered flavor of Sergio’s Caribbean Queen, one I intend to taste test myself. I’m sure I’ll be heading there soon myself to remind myself why I loved bartending and creative cocktails so much.

Cocktail - Beer.
Best Destination - Emporium Arcade Bar
Yes, you can pretty much get good beer almost anywhere you go in the city, including your local liquor store, due to the rise of artisan libations and the growing national popularity of companies like Two Brothers Brewery and Goose Island Beer Company. However, there are one or two shining gems that must be acknowledged for their expert selections of brewski on tap. The first may come as a surprise to some, but the newly established Emporium Arcade, known for its vast selection of retro arcade games, actually boasts a killer lineup of beers. My favorites are the Woodchuck Private Reserve, the Lexington Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and for those just looking for a good ol’ classic and reliable brew, PBR.

Cocktail - Wine.
Best Destination - Pops for Champagne, DOC Wine Bar, Di Sotto Enoteca, Vera, Webster Wine Bar
Wine is not much different than beer in the city, thanks in most part to the growing restaurant industry in Chicago and the rise of regional and local artisan companies that offer eclectic, unique flavor profiles and even more interesting names. In my opinion, each of the places I mentioned above are beyond comparison when it comes to selection and quality. You can take friends or a date to any of these wonderful, cozy, and exciting places to whet your whistle and savor the flavor.

So cheers to you, Oy!sters, see you in 2013!! L’Chaim! 


Waiting for Jan 1

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Waiting for Jan 1 photo

Every year, I have one or more friends that tell me the same thing: “I’m going to start January 1st. I will work out all the time and eat nothing but veggies and protein!” And it never happens. It’s like a heart patient telling their doctor, “After a triple bypass I’ll start exercising.” What are you waiting for?

Quit procrastinating, because “I’ll start next year” never works. It does not get easier to lose weight; chocolate won’t taste worse in 2013. Burgers (cooked correctly) are always going to be delicious, unless you are anti-meat. So here’s my tip: do not give up anything. This is going to sound too simple—just eat less crap. Buy less treats, stop going to the office that’s filled with sugar for your afternoon fix. Don’t buy the cookie for your “son” instead split an awesome cookie once in a while with your “son” or anyone. 

I am not minimizing exercise, but I want people to realize step one is developing healthy eating habits. Sitting down with a plate filled with pasta, while watching TV, and drinking wine, beer, or soda is part of the problem. Eat dinner at the table, pretend you are at a restaurant. Leave the pot filled with mac and cheese on the burner and just take a small portion of it on your plate and sit down. If you want more food, get up and help yourself. By developing a habit of sitting at a table and cooking your own meals, you save money and calories. 

When my life became extremely busy I asked my wife to find me some easy recipes on-line. She found great recipes, made a grocery list and it made cooking fast. When you are organizing meals, you want to have meat (or non-meat protein like soy), VEGETABLES, and a grain (think rice, quinoa, bread, pasta). Once you start planning meals and snacks it becomes second nature to eat apple slices and peanut butter, and hummus and carrots instead of peanut butter cups. 

# 1 Ron Tip: Cut up two apples on Sunday night, squeeze lemon over it and place in a container. 

Most people are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Aside from nutrition and minerals, fruits and vegetables actually taste good. Get in a routine of cutting up fruits and vegetables on Sundays and snacking on them. It also makes cooking easier when you already have the veggies sliced.

# 2 Ron Tip: Frozen veggies are so easy for side dishes with dinner. I often make Jasmine Rice and when it has 5 minutes left to cook I drop in frozen veggies. 

Along with eating well you have to move your body to be healthy. Whatever your health goals are, exercise is a must. Many people lose a ton of weight by walking and eating better. Since the number one excuse I get from people is, I don’t have the time, you have to plan it.

# 3 Ron Tip: In your phone, planner, calendar write in workout 11-11:30, or 5-6, 8-9, whatever time works for you pencil it in and do it. Even if it’s 10 minutes start fitting it in. 

Walking for an hour or biking for a few hours around town, is awesome but not always realistic. And I know, not everyone is able to work out at lunch like me. The good news is, you can work out for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch and another 10 minutes after work and it counts. If I don’t have a lot of time to workout I do an intense 10 or 20 minutes. 

# 4 Ron Tip: If you plateau, you need to take your workout up a level, try something different and make it count. Pick four exercises like pushups, lunges, rows, and hip lifts, and do ten repetitions of each exercise and move on to the next exercise—do that straight for 10 minutes. It’s a simple way to burn calories and build muscles. If you have 30 minutes, you can do three different circuits and you will be sweating! 

Have a great 2013!!! Whatever your goals are, put them down on paper, make a plan how you’ll get there and follow through. Don’t forget to ask for help. If you need fitness help, let me know below. 


Full circle

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Full circle photo

My husband and I have talked for years about hosting someone from another country. I have fond memories of my parents doing this when I was a kid. First it was a smoking, Parisian, male (after my mom requested a non-smoking, non-Parisian, female) who fascinated me with his accent and his long romantic draws on his cigarettes. I remember my mom taking such joy in showing Christophe the city, cooking for him and talking culture, art and politics late into the night. She cared for him like a mom, really. He lived with us for a month. Then came his cousin (a non-smoking, non-Parisian, female) who lived with us for a year. She was a dancer with the longest hair I’d ever seen. Every morning she wrapped it carefully into a perfect ballerina bun. She functioned as a big sister to me and someone to blame when I was in a pinch. They both became a part of our family. Recently Christophe’s daughter came to the States and split her stay between my parents’ home and ours. She loved ice cream and pizza and Great America. Just like her dad.

So when my neighbor started hosting a soccer coach from England, I noticed. I saw him take their little girl out to the soccer field, I heard them playing on the jungle gym in the yard. I was intrigued and I inquired as to how this all came to be. My neighbor gave me the contact information for the person who was placing the coaches with host families. I called her on a Friday afternoon, spoke to her on a Saturday morning, and early Sunday, we were told our coach would be arriving momentarily with bag in hand. I cleaned the house before he arrived, wanting to make a good impression representing our entire country to the English. Plus, normally, my house is a complete dump. My mom called while I was tidying. I told her what we were doing and I offered that it was a kind of homage to her and my childhood—wanting to recreate those nice feelings I had as a kid with the people who came into our home as strangers and left as family. We exchanged some memories from that time and then she wished me luck at keeping the house clean for the long term. 

When our guest arrived, I apologized for my wet hand that he wanted to shake. “I’ve just washed them.” I said. “It’s OK.” He said. “My hands are wet too – I’m nervous.” Five minutes later he had one kid on his back while wearing a top hat. Nothing in my house is subtle or slow and this guy jumped right in the fray. The kids were thrilled immediately – fresh meat. But the cementing of their affection came later that night when, (while spiking his hair up into a faux-hawk to fit in with the boys trio of mohawks) Steve remarked (quite accurately) that our dog Rufus seemed to really enjoy playing with his own “jiggly-bits.” In no time, Steve was just another part of the crazy brood. I’m not saying there weren’t things to get used to – no one has EVER called my cooking, “brilliant” and I had no idea there was a man alive who owned as many shoes as Imelda Marcos (although I doubt she exclusively purchased Converse), but our most major adjustment was simply setting an extra spot at the dinner table and curbing the marching around the house in our skivvies.

Steve stayed in many different homes during his stay in America. Each stop brought him into a different family of personalities, food, culture and tradition. He spoke about all of his adventures – the wonderful, the odd and the not so great - with the same level of appreciation. He explained that he was just so thankful to have people open to including him in their lives. Nonetheless, we were pretty surprised when Steve asked to attend High Holiday services with us. We of course said yes. He then went on to have Rosh Hashanah dinner with our family and extended family, fasted on Yom Kipper, stood in our Sukkah and shook the lulov while smelling the etrog and attended my grandfather’s funeral. My husband became seriously concerned that Steve might think we were trying to convert him. “No,” he said. “I want to experience everything. That’s why I’m here.” 

I never anticipated a stranger could fill a spot in our family that we didn’t even know we had room for. Life is pretty full with 4 kids, 2 dogs and all the joy and chaos that goes along with that. But there was plenty of room for a bloke with an open heart and an open mind. He embraced our liberal, vegetarian house with enthusiam. (A meat eater willing to eat tofu every other day? That has got to be some kind of special guy.) And while Steve didn’t smoke and wasn’t from Paris, I had a very similar experience to my mom’s time with Christophe years ago. I took a similar motherly joy in showing Steve the city, cooking for him, talking politics (it was a presidential election year after all!) and… well, I skipped the art talk and replaced it with introducing him to my most favorite series ever - “Six Feet Under.” He said yes to every opportunity/invitation/inclusion we offered him in the three months he was here. 

Steve is missed. The first couple of days after he flew back to England, my middle son walked around the house wearing the clothes he had left behind, styled his hair like Steve’s (with Steve’s hair gel) and wore his leftover deodorant he excavated from Steve’s bathroom garbage can. My oldest sleeps with Steve’s soccer jersey. My youngest boy wants to Skype with him every day so he can show him the various art projects he’s brought home. The wee one just pouts, “I miss Steeeeevvvve.” And you know what? I couldn’t be happier that they miss him. To watch your children embrace the opportunity to be open, to connect, to miss people when they leave and to discover family in a stranger is such a gift for them. What snuck up on me, was how 30 years later, it was still such a gift for me as well.


Fritter frenzy

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Jewdish photo

This year to commemorate Chanukah, I am breaking out of my usual latke habit and shaking things up a bit with savory and sweet fritters. Fritters are defined as a wide variety of fried foods, usually consisting of a portion of batter or breading which has been filled with bits of meat, seafood, fruit, or other ingredients. Sounds good, right?

I am so excited I cannot wait for Chanukah. I love my theme this year. Don't get me wrong, I am wild about latkes, all crackling hot and sizzling right out of the pan with just a little bit of salty greasiness. YUM! I will definitely be making and eating those too, but the fritter has unbounded possibilities. I can use anything, bind it up with a little batter and fry away. I also make sufganiyot (donuts) every year. And I am sure my favorite jelly doughnuts will be on the menu at least once. I am craving something different this year, and the fritter has unlimited potential and variations.

I am like a kid in a candy store. The infinite amount of ingredients that can be bound up in a little dough or batter and then fried up to crispy golden goodness is staggering. I am going to follow some traditional fritter recipes and riff off them a bit. I like to find delicious fried tidbits from other cultures or lesser known traditions. One of my favorite alternatives is to celebrate the festival of lights with a Sephardic style dairy meal. So, I am frying up some Bimuelos De Queso, which are crispy and creamy. They are traditionally drizzled with honey.

I am also making root vegetable fritters that can be served as hors d'oeuvres or as a side dish for fish, chicken, or beef. Finally, I am serving Apple Fritters. Delicate, crispy and light, the apple fritters will have you jumping off the couch to fry up a batch.

Chag Chanukah Sameach

Bimuelos de Queso

Makes about 24 Bimuelos

2 cups drained farmer's cheese, quark, or ricotta cheese
½ cup cornstarch or flour
1 ½ tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
Olive oil for frying
Honey for drizzling

1. Drain the excess liquid from the cheese in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and allow it to drain in the refrigerator for 4 hours. Discard liquid.

2. Mix the cheese, corn starch, sugar, salt, and egg in a large bowl until well blended.

3. Shape the dough into 1 inch diameter balls. If the dough is too loose, add more cornstarch or flour until workable.

4. Heat several inches of oil in a heavy pot to 350 degrees.

5. Add the fritters, a few at a time, and cook. Cook for 3-4 minutes, turning them occasionally, until they are golden brown on all sides.

6. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

7. Arrange on a serving plate and drizzle with honey. Serve warm.

Root vegetable fritters with smoked paprika aioli

Yields 2 dozen fritters

2 medium parsnips, peeled and grated
2 medium carrots, peeled and grated
1 medium celery root bulb, peeled and grated
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne
1 egg
Extra virgin olive oil, for frying

1. Mix all of the vegetables together in a medium bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

2. Heat 2 inches of oil in a pan over medium high heat. When the oil reaches 360, use either an ice cream scoop or teaspoon to portion the batter. Place the fritter batter, gently, in the oil and fry, turning occasionally until brown on all sides.

3. Transfer the browned fritters to a paper towel lined sheet. Garnish with sea salt

For the dipping sauce

½ cup aioli, store bought or homemade
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon warm water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1. Mix the paprika and warm water (this helps the paprika "bloom" a bit).

2. Add the paste to the aioli and the lemon juice.

3. Serve the dipping sauce with the fritters.

Apple Fritters

Yields 16 fritters

½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup rice flour
1 egg
1 cup ice-cold water
1 pound apples (about 3), any variety, unpeeled but cored and cut in to batons about 2 inches long and ¼ inch thick
1 ½ cup canola oil
½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Put the flour, rice flour, egg and a third of the water into a bowl, and mix vigorously with a whisk. The mixture will be fairly thick. When smooth, add the remaining water, and mix again until the water is incorporated. Stir the apple sticks into the batter.

2. Stir the sugar and cinnamon together and place on a plate.

3. In a large, heavy skillet heat the oil to 365 degrees. When hot, pour about 1/3 cup of the batter into the pan for each fritter, making four or five at a time. Spread the batter so that it is not more than 1/2 inch thick. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side, until brown and crisp.

4. Drain the fritters on paper towels, and transfer them to a rack. Dredge the fritters in the sugar-cinnamon mix and serve immediately.


Reflections on my ann-Oy-Versary

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Reflections on my ann-Oy-Versary photo

I am proud to say that I am celebrating my three year ann-OY-versary! I wrote my first post in November 2009. Do you remember way back then? Obama was President, gas was only $3.44 per gallon and the biggest issue facing our nation was the economy. It’s amazing how much can change in just three short years— Obama is still president, gas was $3.44 per gallon on 11/12/12, and the economy is filling the headlines. Hmmm, so I guess the big stuff has stayed the same.

In my experience, we often look for cues around us to gauge how everything is going. It is easy to watch cable news or follow our Facebook feed to know that things are not wonderful in the world around us. There is enough negative buzz out there to make even the most optimistic among us worry.

I invite you to consider taking the opposite approach. As the secular New Year approaches and you look back on 2012 to make those important resolutions for 2013, look inside and ask yourself how am I going? We all make up a cast of billions that contribute to a global performance on the world stage. Shouldn’t every contribution we make to the world, no matter how small make a difference for us and for everyone near and far? 

This year I ran my first marathon down in Virginia Beach. It was a deeply personal accomplishment, but by no means something that hadn’t already been accomplished by others many times before. However from posting comments, photos and blog posts on my experience others wrote me to say how they had been inspired. 

Take time in the month of December to acknowledge your contributions this past year and commit to contributing more in 2013. Ask yourself each day, what did I accomplish in 2012? What would be exciting to accomplish in 2013. Keep a running list of both, and use it to inspire your New Year’s Resolutions for 2013.

Happy New Year!

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