OyChicago blog

10, 9, 8...

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12/30/2013

10, 9, 8... photo

There’s a lot of reasons to love being Jewish—community, Shabbat, Passover seders, really funny comedians we get to claim as our own, and mandel bread—but here’s another perk:

We members of the tribe get to ring in the New Year not once, but twice a year.

This year, the need for a winter celebration for the Jews seems all the more necessary—with the unusual occurrence of one of the earliest Chanukahs in history in the distant rearview mirror.

During the fall, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I take seriously the season of reflection, reviewing what I've done right and what I could have done better during the course of the Jewish year, asking people in my life and God for forgiveness.

And then a few months later, as the days draw shorter, the temperature plummets, and the smell of wood and pine fill the air, we get to do it all a second time around.

On Tuesday night, we’ll trade in our shofars for noisemakers, and this time ring in the new year with the rest of the world.

More than any other holiday, Jewish or secular, I hear people talk a lot of smack about New Year’s Eve. “It’s a waste of money…” “Too many drunken idiots…” “It’s a big hassle…” and “It’s impossible to find a cab…” they complain. And, yes, I admit their bellyaching is founded on truth.

But, despite all that, I kinda love it.

I love grabbing a sparkly top from my closet, hanging out with good friends, drinking a glass of bubbly—or maybe two—and starting anew as the clock strikes midnight.

Just like in the fall, I once again take stock of my past year and look ahead to some of my wishes and goals for the next. There’s something hopeful and exciting about the unknown, the many varied paths and possibilities that will unfold for each of us next year.

My life, for one, played out very differently than I thought it would at the start of 2013. And for the people I know, and I’d venture for most of you, your year was different then you'd envisioned too; we all faced both times of despair and times of great simcha.

After we watched some doors close these last 12 months, we’ll see new windows open in 2014—windows that we can’t yet even see our reflection in.

Each of us will take a journey in the coming year. We already know certain hints of where are life is headed, but so much of the new year is a clean slate, yet to be written.

This time of year, the media fills our airwaves, pages, and phones with top 10 lists galore—everything this year from a spy fleeing to Russia to a trailblazing pope to a catchy little ditty sung by the Growing Pains dad’s kid to an irritating new word/dance move created by Billy Ray Cyrus’ kid.

I jump on the list-making bandwagon each December and brainstorm my top 10 resolutions for the year to come. The requisite tasks of dragging myself to the treadmill and procrastinating less usually make the cut, but so too do my deeper mandates, like “Spend the year living a life with meaning,” “Be better to the people I love,” “Do more FaceTime with my fast-growing nephews,” and “Laugh a lot.”

Let's each use these last couple days of 2013 to take stock of where we’ve been these past 12 months and we’re headed in the next 12.

And then, lucky us, we get to do it all again in September.

May your 2014 be filled with love, laughter, and meaning—and may your 5774 continue to be sweet!

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Reconstructing my afternoon commute

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12/27/2013

constructionlia

You know how it is in Chicago. Two seasons: Winter and construction. And sometimeslike right nowit's both.

I am assuming that the construction gods got together up in heaven and said, "How can we make Lia's commute to work even longer?"

They must have known that in the car I'm listening to the third "Clan of the Cave Bear" book on audiobook (highly recommended, by the way), which happens to be one of the longest books I've ever listened to. It's the only silver lining of all of the construction.

It seems like I am constantly hitting one construction roadblock after another. I know several routes home on my 20-mile commute, but not enough alternate routes to avoid the frequent road closures. I turn rightroad closed. Turn left local traffic only. Turn around, turn left, turn right slow traffic due to a road closure somewhere else. I feel stuck.

To help you visualize my daily commute home, please see Exhibit A.

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It makes me feel like I'm actually inside of this:

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Unfortunatelyor, really, fortunatelyI love where I work and I love where I live, so, alas, this commute must remain a long and winding road. Until they invent a way to beam me up to work in an instant, and until we get enough snow for the construction workers to close up shop for the season, I'll just try to sit back, buckle in, turn on my beloved audiobooks, and enjoy the ride.

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Help me, I’m indecisive… I think?

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12/26/2013

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At any given time, I have about five half-written pieces saved on my laptop. I always flatter the idea of writing about one topic or another for a few paragraphs, only to realize that I am not ready to delve into that subject matter yet, which puts me back at square one. This goes on for weeks until I finally get an idea that clicks and it is usually smooth(ish) sailing from there.

I do this because of two personality traits of mine that I am not particularly fond of: I am a procrastinator and I am extremely indecisive. I know that I procrastinate because I am indecisive, and although I am an awful procrastinator, I express it in a much less obvious way than most. I never pulled an all-nighter in college and, unlike many chronic procrastinators, I can focus perfectly well on a project. I  can sit and work on the same project for 12 hours straight, as long as I have unlimited water, caffeine, and snacks to get me through. I hope (at least from afar) I appear to have everything (okay some things) together.

Still, I always put off my writing until the last minute. I always thought this was because, like most journalists, I work better under pressure. This still holds true: I am a stress case (there is really no eloquent way to describe it.) I know that it's this aspect of my personality that pushes me to do well and get things done efficiently. However, my indecisiveness comes into play more often, which is why it takes me weeks at a time to decide what topic I should write about. It is also why I question things much more often than any person should.

When I was applying to college, I could not decide for the life of me which school I wanted to go to more: University of Wisconsin or George Washington University. The early decision one deadline passed and my GW application remained saved on my computer rather than somewhere in the cloud (actually, I don't even know if the cloud existed then, but when I use the term "cyberspace", I feel at least 70 years old). I ended up sending in my application to GW on the night before it was due for early decision two, when it had been completed for months, except for the edits that I added at least once a day, because why not? My indecisiveness was in full force.

I moved into my apartment last December, yet last week was the first time that I actually put pictures in some (not even all) of my frames (note: these frames have been hanging on my walls for at least eight months.) I am still searching for which pictures I want to print, what prints I want to order, where I should hang things I already own, which mirror I want to hang where, and so on and so forth. I can't even decide if I like my bedding and last weekend, I rearranged my entire closet for probably the fifth time since last December.

I'm pretty sure I drive my family nuts when it comes to picking out meals.  They always point out that it isn't the end of the world if we decide on Portillos vs. Corner Bakery or going out to eat at an Italian restaurant or burger joint. However, I sit and contemplate where we should go for hours. The same thing happens when looking at a menu. It actually is helpful that I started keeping Kosher six years ago and don't eat meat out, or else my options would be endless. I still get overwhelmed when there are more than, say, five vegetarian options. I act as if the worst thing is ordering the wrong thing off the menu and having food regret. It's clear that these choices are extremely trivial, yet without a doubt, I always let my indecisiveness get the best of me.

Don't get me wrong, if I have a strong opinion on something, I can make an informed decision. I know what I love and I know what I hate. However, it is everything that falls in the gray area between those two emotions leaves very little clarity for me.

Many experts say lack of confidence leads to indecisiveness, but that usually is not the case for me. I will admit that I have too many drafts on Twitter because I have doubts about the relevance of my thoughts, but beyond that, most of my decisions don't stem from a confidence deficiency. Stress is a huge factor in indecisiveness as well; when someone is overwhelmed, it is hard for that person to clear his or her mind to make a well informed decision. That's me...bingo! Experts also suggest that people are afraid to make decisions, even trivial ones, because they think a better option will come along. There are certain situations where it is easy to let the fear of striking out (or swinging at the wrong pitch), keep me from playing the game.

I have also read that people worry about making choices that other people disapprove of, have learned helplessness from their families. I truly don't think that applies to me, especially because I come from a very relaxed family where I have been encouraged to make decisions for myself.  It has just taken a long, long time for me to do so.

So as I sit and try to figure out why I am so indecisive, I realize that I really just don't know. 

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What if I don’t eat Chinese food on Christmas?

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12/24/2013

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Tonight and tomorrow, Jews will descend on Chinese restaurants across the United States to honor the annual tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas (most likely followed by a movie). I consider myself an observant Jew. I keep a kosher home. I dutifully power down my laptop and cell phone on Friday afternoon, just before sunset and take a break from technology for 25 hours. You can find me in synagogue for most holidays. I give tzedakah to Jewish causes (like JUF!) and volunteer with Jewish organizations. I just won't be eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas.

As many regular readers to my blog know, my wife is not Jewish, so we spend Christmas with her family. Even though my wife would not consider herself very religious, she still finds a connection with many Christmas traditions. Come December 25th, you are more likely to see me with eggnog than egg foo young, eating more Christmas cookies than fortune cookies. Every Christmas, I gather together with family and open presents around the Christmas tree. We all get stockings on Christmas morning. I have one too- because who wouldn't want an excuse to eat chocolate and candy for breakfast? Decorating is a big one too. She has a tree, a village, lights, a wreath and assorted snowmen paraphernalia.

I admit that it took me a while to come around to the idea that I could fully participate in all of this. It helped that my loving and patient wife eased coddled me. For example, one year she convinced her parents to cook Chinese food for Christmas dinner. Also when the village goes up, she always puts a Jewish star on the hall next door to the church. We affectionately refer to it as the Chabad house.

Over the years, I have come to understand that honoring her traditions does not mean that I must compromise mine. Celebrating Christmas with my wife and her family does not make me any less Jewish any more than eating matzah on Passover makes her more Jewish. More importantly, skipping my traditional Chinese food meal for her traditional Christmas dinner allows me to spend time with my wife when she is enjoying her most wonderful time of year.

One day we will have kids. They may never go to the movies on Christmas, but they will surely get a stocking. Who wouldn't want to spoil their kids with chocolate and candy for breakfast once a year?

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‘Down but not out’

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12/23/2013

Down but not out. These were the words that popped out at us as we pulled up to the part of the town of Washington, Ill. that was literally torn apart by a tornado in November. I recently spent the day volunteering with JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network, partnered with a Jewish disaster response team called Nechama.

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What started as a fun car ride from Chicago quickly turned real, as the realization of the task at hand sunk in. Imagine your hometown, and think of a normal day that you might spend. You say hello to your neighbors, see your friends at church or synagogue, maybe even join one another for a neighborhood outing. Now, imagine that same neighborhood, but with everything leveled completely. That is the reality of what happened in Washington, Ill. Trees had been uprooted, cars had been destroyed, signs had been torn to shreds, and what I thought were pebbles stuck in my shoes turned out to only be bits and bits of pieces of glass that had been blown out from anywhere and everywhere. The most miraculous thing to me was how two blocks over it was as if there was never a storm. I guess it's just luck of the draw where the storm hit, and no one knew if they were safe or not.

So, back to the house. The house we were asked to take down had a big sign in front that had been put there by the son of the homeowner. On a piece of the house that had been broken off, it read "Down But Not Out." It's hard to explain what it's like to see that sign, while spending the day tearing apart that home. Insurance helps out a lot with tornado damage, but taking down the house saves the owner thousands of dollars. 

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I took a moment and went down into the basement, which was still intact. I looked up at the door to the upstairs, realizing this was what these people might have seen after the storm. Imagine going upstairs from shelter in the basement, to find everything destroyed. It was very hard to take. Just then, I saw an older man come downstairs; the owner of the house. He explained to me he was looking for his great grandmother's table, which he had kept as a keepsake in the basement. The table was nowhere to be seen. I had prepared myself for the hard work, but it's hard to prepare yourself to see an older man with tears in his eyes having lost something very dear to him, especially from an unexplainable act from God. 

A man from next door came over and told us bone chilling stories from the storm. One man was trying to get his family downstairs, but the storm picked him up and they found him no longer alive up in a tree over a mile away. The car across the street was destroyed but in the trunk you could see a bag from the store filled with wrapping paper that had just been bought.

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Later in the day, the wife who lived in the home we were working on came by and told us that the hard part was seeing the house still up; and that reality was sinking in as we were taking it down. She said she was at church when the storm happened. A lot of people in the town were apparently at church at the time of the storm. I knew we were doing something great when she repeated twice, "Jews helping out with a Christian home, imagine that." Our help was really appreciated, but I knew it was just a small part of a huge process.

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Lastly, I want to talk about the significance that this all took place during Chanukah. As we lit the candles after a day of hard work, I reflected on the destruction we had helped. One of the members from our trip gave some great words that I wanted to share with everyone. Back in the time of Chanukah, the temple was destroyed and everyone had to rally together to pick up the pieces. They didn't have time to sit and cope and be down, they had to start the cleanup and rebuilding process immediately. The same goes for the tornado in Washington. These families immediately started picking themselves up, and then other volunteers came to help in the efforts. This town is down but not out. They are not destroyed. I am glad to have been able to have been a small part of their rebuilding miracle.  

It wouldn't be fair to leave out the positive things I saw while cleaning up. First, the amount of help and support that I saw was amazing. The Salvation Army came around with hot chocolate and snacks, along with a dog to help raise the morale. One man pointed out they had help from Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, and other religious groups. It seems that one thing we all have in common is the realization that when help is needed we can make a difference. Just as the sign stated, this town was down, but they were most definitely not out.

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I want to thank JUF, TOV, Nechama and my own Synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom for allowing me to be part of such a meaningful experience. 

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Matt Rissien is director of Youth Activities at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook. He is a 2013 Oy!Chicago Double Chai in the Chi "36 under 36" winner.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has sent $5,000 for relief efforts to the Jewish Federation of Peoria. Those wishing to aid in tornado relief should send funds directly to that local federation at jewishpeoria.org

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Bears’ Week 15 Recap: “Back in the Trest Tree”

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12/20/2013

Bears’ Week 15 Recap photo

With two weeks left in the NFL season, the top spot in the NFC North division belongs to a team with the worst run defense in the NFL. A team which allowed a record tying 6 100+ yard runners in a row. A team playing without their top three Pro Bowl defensive players.

Your Chicago Bears.

That’s right, as difficult as it might be to accept without constantly looking up and waiting for the other shoe to drop, the Bears sit alone in first place in the NFC North with the Lions’ loss to Baltimore on Monday Night Football. A loss that was clinched with a 61 yard field goal at the end of regulation. In the five games since the Lions beat the Bears and all but had their spot atop the division solidified, they have gone 1-4. In a season we thought was lost with injuries to Cutler, Briggs, Tillman, Melton, Collins, Williams, the list goes on, the Lions have done what the Lions do best, choke. Now the Bears and the Aaron Rogers-less Packers are both in contention for the division with only two games remaining in the season. A Bears win in Philadelphia on Sunday and a Lions and Packers loss clinches the division for the Bears. And while it’s difficult to trust the Bears not to disappoint us all while our hopes are high, it is a distinct possibility with the way the Lions have been playing and with Aaron Rogers still not cleared to return. The Eagles will be looking to bounce back from a huge loss to last place Minnesota, and they bring the best rushing offense in the NFL with them against a Bears team still unable to stop the run.

Worse yet, there’s still the possibility of a Week 17 match-up with Green Bay that brings me back to memories of 2010 when the Packers beat the Bears to get them into the playoffs, and then went on to eliminate Chicago. With this win and the Lions’ loss, the Bears have put hope back in all of us, and it is really hard to accept given the emotional rollercoaster we’ve gone through all season.

It has been a long time since the Bears have been challenged by a true playoff caliber team, and this Eagles game will be a really good indication of where the Bears truly are. My gut is that we’ll see the true Bears this week—an offense with dynamic flashes, a defense with too many holes and unable to come up with big stops in big moments. I see a high scoring game where the team whose defense can come up with the big stop late in the game will win it – and the Bears’ defense has been known to give up late-game full length of the field scoring drives. I don’t think losing this game will completely soil their chances of a playoff berth due simply to the choke-jobs in Detroit – however a loss will tell us that this is still not a team ready to compete for a championship, something we’ve known since early in the season but have been too distracted by the offense to notice. A win goes a long way – it’ll mean that they finally figured out how not to get run all over – but I don’t trust the Bears defense to surprise us suddenly this late in the year. I fear for the worst but, like I do every week, will be watching and hoping for the best.

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A glimpse into Chicago’s vibrant Live Lit scene

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12/19/2013

A glimpse into Chicago’s vibrant Live Lit scene photo

Lifeline Theatre's Fillet of Solo Festival begins in just a couple weeks and if you are interested in Chicago's burgeoning Live Lit scene you should be there. The festival will bring 10 solo performers and 13 storytelling collectives together for a three-week, multi-venue selection of powerful personal stories.

What is Live Lit? Live Literature, or Live Lit as it is known, is a collage of several different types of performance including bits of slam poetry, stand-up comedy, performance art, improv and literary reading. That makes Live Lit sound like a word problem and far more high-brow than it actually is. Basically? It's good old fashioned storytelling in front of a live audience.

How did Live Lit get to Chicago? It's like the saying goes, "two Jews, three opinions." Some argue that the form can be traced back to The Moth in New York City and its successful storytelling nights or even This American Life. Others might say that the form reminds them of improv comedy in the way that it creates no frills theatre right in front of you.

No matter how you trace the origin of Chicago's Live Lit scene, it is here to stay. On any night of the week you can find at least one show (and probably more) to see. Each show has its own personality and rules. Some shows are full of featured performers, have auditions or calls for submissions; while others offer open-mic slots or a hybrid of all of the above. There are Live Lit shows that only want non-fiction tales, while others showcase fiction or maybe even a combination of both. A few shows are themed. Some aren't. You really have to do your research and decide what you want to see or how you want to participate.

That of course begs the question, "How can I participate?" Again, I'd say do your research. Go see a Live Lit show. Many of these shows are free or inexpensive. Stay after and talk to show runners. I produce a show called You're Being Ridiculous, which will be in the Festival. I can tell you that I am always looking for new writer/performers/helpers and I'm certain that other shows are too. Another great way to stay in touch or to do a little research on the DL is Facebook. Search for shows. Follow them. You'll find out the who, what, where, when and whys. There are tons of shows in the city, which means there are more ways to participate than can be listed.

The best way to get to know the form is by coming to the Fillet of Solo Festival next month. It's a unique opportunity. You will have the chance to see a number of Chicago's well-known Live Lit groups all within a couple of blocks and in a short amount of time. Live story telling events are the current hot ticket in Chicago, and we are quickly becoming the capital for the form. The 2014 solo performance and storytelling festival features the work of 2nd Story, The BYOB Story Hour, enSOLO, the kates, The Lifeline Storytelling Project, Stir-Friday Night!, Story Club, Story Lab, Story Sessions, Sweat Girls, Tellin' Tales Theatre, Write Club and You're Being Ridiculous.

Performances run Friday through Sunday at various times from January 3-19. Tickets can be purchased through Lifeline Theatre's website and are only $10 for each performance. Festival Passes are also available for $30, which will allow you admission to any number of performances over the three-week run. Put this festival on your calendar. You don't want to miss it! 

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Waiting For Supermom Part II: A mama’s kryptonite

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12/18/2013

Waiting for Supermom photo

I just finished having an argument with my husband. Or rather, I have (mostly) finished loudly talking at my husband and he has quietly slipped out to work during my pause in thought/rant. I will admit I have a bad habit of starting ill-timed conversations.

He was halfway out the door and mid-swallow swig of his usual berry granola (in a princess cup) when I asked, “Why are there some people who seem to always remember life is short? People who embrace every day and don’t sweat the small stuff? And how come they don’t ever seem to watch TV?” (I will also admit to an unusually excessive amount of nighttime boob tube lately in an effort to not become completely socially irrelevant by not having a clue about ‘Breaking Bad.’)

My husband chewed and busied his hands with a broken drawer that has already been determined a lost cause. I think he sensed a trap. I continued. “Do these people know something I don’t know? Why can’t I know it too?” I want to have a continuous feeling of appreciation and understanding of the bigger picture! I get glimpses! I feel moments! But then it gets away from me (mainly because people are annoying). My husband comes over to me as I load the dishwasher and puts his arms around my waist. “Life is complicated. It can’t always be one way. Some days are better than other days. Nobody is always good or bad. You’re too hard on yourself.” And that triggered my squawking.

Now, you may or may not understand why this response annoyed me. On the surface, it looks and feels like a pretty loving response, (or five fortune cookie affirmations), but in the moment, it did nothing to appease me. It actually made me more upset because clearly, I am married to one of those people that gets it. One of those “perspective” type people. And so my husband’s ease in answering me and being all philosophical and such, only heightened my panic and self-doubt. I started sweating and thinking it is quite possible that I am actually an abandoned alien living amongst highly evolved Super Humans. Super Humans who all “get it.” In fairness to myself, I probably need to own up to a couple of things that precipitated my philosophical quandary/crisis. (So, no need to call those men in puffy white suits that terrified me in E.T. Not just yet anyway.)

As of late, my kids have been trying my patience. They have been argumentative and disagreeable, and from my perspective, incredibly under appreciative. I might even dare to say, they’ve bordered on ungrateful. And as of late, my response to this behavior has been to exhibit a high level of frustration, loss of patience and an inability and/or disinterest in navigating any of this with my kids’ perspective in mind. I have been seeing only mine. I’ve also been feeling very sorry for myself. My poor me mantra is as follows, “I am underappreciated, unimportant and no one likes my cooking.” Catchy, no? I’ve been thinking about putting it on a bumper sticker.

I often get the feeling that people think I am a very Zen mama. This is an aspiration of mine – not a current reality. And to be Zen in and of itself is a lot of pressure. To be a Zen mama, well, that’s damn close to godliness. When I tell a story and part of it includes my divulging that I raised my voice at an offspring, people frequently ‘tut-tut’ me and laugh. Then they say, “I can’t picture you yelling. Come’on. You don’t really yell.” I DO YELL!!! I’m not proud of it, but, yes. Yes. I sometimes yell. I do. Ask my kids. Wait. No. Don’t. (I partially blame the Zen misconception of me on my vegetarianism. People place an unreasonable burden on the average vegetarian to be a better kind of person. We don’t eat animals. It doesn’t necessarily make us more self-aware. Although, for shits and giggles’ sake I was going to list a few notorious vegetarian criminals, but alas, according to google, there are none.)

So I am not a perfect mama. Not by a long shot. I try to be a mindful, thoughtful parent. When I’m not, I get sad and mad and frustrated. I’d like to think I have that in common with other moms – Zen and otherwise. We love our kids. We want to do right by them. But parenting, like life, is no straight line. So we try again (take a left). And again (take a right). It’s a lifetime (we desperately hope) of agains and do-overs (U-turn). Our life’s work as parents – the opportunity to visit and re-visit – is just as much a part of the joy of learning as it is the burden of not knowing. Discovery! So as much as I hate to admit it, life is complicated and today was one of those days that was harder than the others. I’m not all good or all bad and I am (probably) too hard on myself. I’m not a Zen mama. Not yet anyhow – and I may never be. But I am a mama and I’m doing the best I can. And to be admittedly flawed and humbled, that has to count for something. Namaste. ish.

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Not Quite a SNAP

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12/17/2013

Not Quite a SNAP photo

This is Mark.
This is Lindsey.

To open, I should state a few things:

I was participating in this challenge with my willing significant other. Hi. We are both creative folks: an architect and graphic designer. We both have a fairly pragmatic approach to our work and lives. We thoroughly enjoy cooking. When you combine these particulars, you will understand our approach to the SNAP Challenge. At the outset, we had relatively little sense as to how feasible the challenge could be. Yet, we fully embraced it, we decided we would keep costs down as much as possible by making absolutely everything, and it would be utilitarian, from multipurpose sauces to the bread we dipped in our stew.

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Our groceries to start out the week

To us, the most practical and cheapest way about this challenge would be to buy nothing pre-made. In addition to this keeping our costs down, it also meant our meals were a little healthier. Most importantly, it gave us a kit of parts with which we could make a variety of meals. Having flour, which is extremely cheap, we could make loaves of bread, pizza dough, and a roux for our soups and stews. We still haven’t used the last of the flour we bought.

Mark makes this sound so perfect! He failed to mention that he’d never made bread before without a machine. I actually looked at the finished loaf and said, “Oh, you’re not going to bake it?” But that was it, a flat disc of… bread? After a night out when we very much wanted a late night snack, we turned the disc into garlic bread, which really turned into eating the oil and garlic scraped from the top. Moving on…

Had we bought only a loaf of sandwich bread, we would have been out twice the amount of money, and an item that had only one use. But our taste buds would have remained intact. A can of stewed tomatoes turned into a marinara sauce for pasta and pizza, and also a base for a vegetable stew. The majority of our produce was the essentials – carrots, celery and onion – complimented with more expensive items that were stretched out through most meals – Brussels sprouts, brown rice, olive oil, cheese. I wanted to put cheese on everything, but I refrained for SNAP’s sake.

At the end of a week, we found that we were actually quite successful. I think we were dancing close to having 10 percent of our cash allowance still left to spend. I took offerings of candy at work, is that cheating? What’s more, we feel as though we made some memorable meals. That marinara sauce was amazing! And who doesn’t love a good bowl of cereal?

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One of the delicious pizzas we made

However, we also knew that we were very fortunate. We knew how to make these meals, except for the bread, we live a short walk away from cheap, affordable and healthy food, and we had every tool at our disposal – a mixer to knead our dough and a large stockpot to make stew.

There was only one day where I found myself hungry, but I didn’t want to overeat and then not have enough another time, or then be eating a portion of Mark’s food. So I was starving and cranky. And then I went on my way to a horseback riding lesson. Oh, the irony. If I were truly on food stamps I would have had to give up riding long ago. I made several sacrifices, like declining a lunch invitation with friends, and not grabbing a coffee in the afternoon, but to truly NOT be able to do those “simple” things is unfathomable for me.

Despite what we thought was a success, we still felt a bit psychologically drained. The largest take away from the experience was that it – outside of work – consumed the majority of our day. We spent all evening chopping and stirring, and then thinking about what we’d make the next day. We spent an entire weekend afternoon baking bread. One week of living off the average food stamp budget was an interesting challenge, but after that it’s just a burden. 

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Holiday Mash-Ups Beyond Thanksgivukkah

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12/16/2013

Holiday Mash-Ups Beyond Thanksgivukkah photo

Now that we have all long-since survived the cholesterol cornucopia that was Thanksgivukkah—during which we celebrated both oil and gravy—it's time to see what other Jewish/American holiday mash-ups are coming up in 2014. 

Program the Trees Day
Tu B'Shvat celebrates trees in January, and Jan. 7 is International Programmer's Day. So instead of hacking down trees with axes, we're gonna have Jewish computer programmers hacking into the trees and, um, program them to do things. Like, I dunno, grow caramel apples, or etrogs that can regenerate broken pitoms. 

Pi-rim
Mar. 14 has been celebrated in some circles as Pi Day because the date recalls Pi's first three digits, 3.14. Purim is right around that time in 2014, but our holiday's shape is embodied in the triangular hamentashen. So the day would be celebrated by baking hamentashen, which involves folding circles into triangles. And then eating too many of them. 

L'Chaim Day
An amalgam of Purim, Mardi Gras, and St. Patrick's Day, three holidays within a month of each other that all celebrate libations. You can wear a mask if you want—actually, you probably should. L'chaim!

Taxover
In 2014, the first day of Passover is Apr. 15, known in America as Tax Day. Just in case getting your house in order for Passover wasn't stressful enough, you have to get your financial house in order in the previous weeks, too. But by the time you sit down at your seder, you will have had to file taxes already. Just in time for unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and in-laws! You might need more than four glasses of wine. 

Earthover
The last day of Passover coincides with Earth Day. On Earthover, we recycle matzah and other cardboard items.

Cinco de Iyar
Cinco de Mayo falls, as its name indicates, on the fifth of May. Israel's Independence Day falls on the fifth of Iyar. When they fall on the same day, we eat "falafos," which are taco shells filled with falafel balls and a spicy, creamy salsa-hummus sauce. We also put on blindfolds and whack blue and white piñatas until they break apart, and all the children dive to grab up the Israel bonds that spill out. 

Mother's Day
This is already the most important Jewish holiday.

Flaguot
On Flag Day, we parade our flags around and, umm … well, anyway, on Shavout, we received the Torah! So we parade the Torah around and … ah, no, that's Simchat Torah. Hmm.

We'll get back to you.

Labor B'Av

This is the day we try to have a barbecue but fail, and instead eat nothing and sit in ashes. Serves us right, forgetting to buy lighter fluid again. And of course the stores are closed for the holiday. 

Arrrrosh Hashannah
Ahoy, mateys! This, ya scurvy scalawags, be the holiday that merges the Jewish New Yearrrr with Talk Like a Pirate Day! Ye never heard such shanties as today, when Cap'n Cantor sings "Oy, oy, oy … and a bottle o' rum!" You can also stick a shofar up your kitel sleeve and go as Rabbi Hook.

Day of Ateachment
The day after Yom Kippur is World Teacher's Day, so on the Day of Ateachment we repent for our incompletes and promise to do better on the next test.

Vikkot
In 2014, the first day of Sukkot falls on Leif Erikson Day. He was a Viking explorer who landed on North American shores, and we mean far north, in 1000 CE, which is a half-century before Columbus. So instead of Sukkot, we build huge wooden ships in our backyards. And sing Wagner's Ring Cycle. This takes seven days.

Shmini Alaska
Shmini Atzeret is sort of the Alaska of Jewish holidays, so today we take down our Sukkot and just sit in the cold to honor Alaskan statehood. 

Torahween
This is the fall holiday on which we finish reading the Torah and go house to house to get candied apples. And yes, you should wear your mask again.

Cyberkkah
Sure, Cyber Monday is on Dec. 1 and Chanukah doesn't start until the night of Dec. 16, but you have eight days' worth of presents to get us! You need all the time you can get!

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Ice Cream Topped with Kindness

 Permanent link
12/13/2013

Ice Cream Topped with Kindness photo

For the fourth consecutive year, my father, along with the rest of the immediate family, has managed to host quite a special birthday party celebration. The reason I say it’s special is, well … why don’t you tell me if this sounds like a fun and happy birthday party:

First, we rent out a social hall for a couple of hours. Then, we order four five-gallon containers of ice cream with the smoothest, richest ice cream you could imagine, in four delicious flavors: Chocolate Chocolate, Super Vanilla, Strawberry and Butter Pecan – my dad’s favorite – plus all the killer sundae toppings. A choice selection of cookies, wafers and other pastries complement the ice cream sundae station along with two chilled fresh fruit platters. Next, we hire a well-established two-piece band with an emcee to play a beautiful collection of international and seasonal music for the guests to enjoy. Lyrics to the songs are passed around to all the guests to invite everyone to sing along. Finally, the guests arrive, some whom we escort and others by their family members. Everyone is having a fabulous time drinking punch, gobbling up their sweet treats and singing loudly together. Once everyone is stuffed and the entertainment exhausts all the songs in the packet, everyone departs feeling satisfied and in a great mood, but not before a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy, who grins and waves to everyone like a kid that just won first place in the spelling bee.

Sounds like a great birthday party, right? Though I’m guessing you wouldn’t have guessed that it was at a senior community.

A few months before turning 60, at a rare moment when everyone was in town and available, my father announced to the whole family one Shabbat dinner that he would like to have a big birthday party and invite lots of his friends. “An ice cream social,” he stated with an excited tone, as a kid would say to his parents when planning an upcoming birthday celebration. “I want to invite as many people that we know, all our friends and family to join us.” We all looked around the table, our eyes wide with excitement. Quickly we exchanged ideas across the table and rattled off all my dad’s favorite ice cream flavors when my dad raised his hand, clearly indicating he had more to say, and we all sat waiting to hear what he said next. “We’re going to host an ice cream social at the Lieberman Home.”

My father wanted to volunteer on his birthday.

“Are you sure that’s what you want, Gregg?” my mom asked, but she already knew the answer. “Let’s get a list of guests and send out a notice, so people can save the date,” she continues, and rushes off to get a pen and pad of paper.

We all looked at each other around the table. I still wasn’t sure how this would go, or who would even want to RSVP to this party. Wouldn’t some people be uncomfortable or awkward at this so-called birthday party? What if people don’t come because they feel awkward volunteering at an elderly home? That notion was quickly put to rest when, a month later, more than 30 of my dad’s closest friends (and our family, of course) RSVP’d yes. My dad smiled, and I could see that – for the first time in as long as I can remember – he was looking forward to celebrating his birthday, sharing in the fun of digging through a make-your-own-sundae buffet and exchanging anecdotes about life, family and celebrations.

Birthdays bring out the best and most loving sides of ourselves and those we care deeply about. My father wanted to celebrate his milestone birthday at CJE SeniorLife’s Lieberman Center for Health & Rehabilitation, not as a preview for the later stages of his life (joke!), but as a way to share in the love and joy. No one at Lieberman knew my father or family personally, yet they felt just as close after enjoying generous scoops of ice cream and singing songs in Yiddish.

This year, on the drive over, I asked my dad why he chose to do this for his birthday when he could’ve easily donated money and just had a quiet celebration with the family featuring our nana’s famous double chocolate cake. He answered, “I’ve had a lifetime of parties and celebrations, and to live a meaningful life, I wanted to start giving back in a more committed fashion.” When I pressed to find out why he chose the Lieberman and not some other organization or charity, he chuckled and said that they were the only one that accepted him and his crazy birthday celebration idea, and they were the only place open the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when we traditionally celebrate.

I then asked him if he thinks celebrating his birthday with these residents makes a difference. He answered that many residents and their family members, even the staff, came up to him after the first year, complimenting him on how wonderful it was and how much they look forward to the next one. Some of them did indeed remember him and our family from the previous year. “It’s the smiles and the heartfelt thanks from the residents,” he said. “There’s no other feeling quite like it.”

By choosing to celebrate his birthday in this way, my dad made the residents feel special too. Despite the fact that we were celebrating his birthday, it felt as though we were there to celebrate the residents, and I think that was my dad’s intention all along.

At the end of our talk, he said, “I know that something unequivocally good takes place, and there are not too many things in life that are that way. Bringing light and warmth and celebration to those that don’t have much is just a very uniquely fulfilling feeling, for me and for them.”

I thought about what he said and realized that my father had found his own place and way of giving tzedakah, trailblazing the way for the rest of us.

Next year, my dad turns 65. Next year, we will be back at Lieberman for another birthday celebration, catching up with old friends (G-d willing) and making new ones. We all look forward to my dad’s birthday now, and for more reasons than devouring our nana’s ooey-gooey double chocolate cake.

L’Chaim! 

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Stuck Like Glue

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12/13/2013

Stuck Like Glue photo

This week’s portion, Vayechi, marks the end of the book of Genesis. We first find Jacob about to pass away, and note that he still hasn’t learned his lesson about the issues that come with playing favorites, as he adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, ensuring that each gets an equal share of his inheritance with his true born sons. He then gathers all of his sons together in order to share with them some insights he has about their futures. Needless to say, some of his words are pretty harsh. After delivering them, he passes away, is mourned throughout Egypt (due to his relationship to Joseph), and his sons collectively travel back to Canaan in order to bury him in the family burial place.

With Jacob having passed away, Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph would finally punish them for having sold him into slavery so many years before, and bow down to him begging for his mercy (again – 17 years after having settled in Egypt together). Joseph assures them once more that their actions were part of a broader divine plan, and that they have no reason to fear him.

At the end of the portion, Joseph makes his family promise that when the time comes, they will bring his bones back to Canaan, as they did his father’s. He then passes away at the age of 110.

There are so many real, raw emotions that we find in this portion, and we continue to see modeled challenging Biblical relationship situations often present in our own lives. It is not at all uncommon for families today to have a patriarch (or matriarch), in this case Jacob, serving as the “glue” that holds a family together. Just as Joseph’s brothers were afraid of a potential changed relationship when their father passed away, so too do many contemporary families crumble when siblings no longer have a shared love of their parent(s) to keep them from fighting with one another. Putting aside fights over who benefits from a parent’s estate, which unfortunately are all too common, sometimes siblings are so different from and have so little love for one another, that once their parents are gone, they perceive no further reason to interact and simply go their separate ways.

I can’t help but wonder what the interactions between Joseph and his brothers must have been like during their 17 years of living in Egypt together. Perhaps their relationship was so lukewarm – a farce being put on for the sake of Jacob – that the brothers had every right to be afraid that Joseph was ultimately going to be vengeful. Needless to say, Joseph, as Egypt’s No. 2 honcho, could very easily have belatedly punished his brothers for their past actions, knowing that his father was no longer around.

And yet, despite their long and complicated history, and despite his position of power, Joseph assures his brothers that they have nothing to fear. Even if we read between the lines to suggest that perhaps 17 years prior, Joseph forgave his brothers but still harbored some resentment towards them, we can know for certain now – 17 years later – that he has forgiven them for the way they treated him.

What’s the lesson we can learn from this interaction between Joseph and his brothers?

Forgiveness takes time. Even when we forgive someone (or say “I forgive you”) shortly after an incident takes place, we haven’t necessarily gotten to a place where we’re ready or willing to truly put what we perceive as the other’s shortcomings behind us. Even after forgiving one another, it’s possible that the way we interact with and treat them may not be ideal, and will create lingering doubts in their minds (as it did in Joseph’s brothers). Some wounds will forever leave scars – although with time, they usually become less and less visible, slowly fading away. So too, forgiveness takes time.

This Shabbat, reflect on your family. Who is your family’s glue? How can you enhance your relationship with other members of your family?

Also, meditate on the theme of forgiveness, and don’t beat yourself up if there are folks in your life who you have forgiven in word, but whose prior actions still trouble you. Examine the ways in which you interact with such folks, to make sure you aren’t putting off a negative vibe, despite having “forgiven” them. Be comforted by the fact that true forgiveness takes time.

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Rephrasing Bad Luck

 Permanent link
12/12/2013

Rephrasing Bad Luck photo

You might say my family has been really unlucky lately. You know the notion that “bad things happen in threes,” or its less superstitious cousin, “when it rains, it pours”? For those of us who don’t believe in meaningful coincidences, these phrases help us to make sense of life when its randomness and unpredictability occasionally yield a strange, inexplicable pattern of events that suggest some kind of connection, significance – or luck.

Given everything that’s happened lately, I’ve had to revisit these phrases, and I’ve found this conventional wisdom offers little solace. Because when life throws you a string of strange coincidences, it’s hard to trust that things are going to be normal again. Sometimes, it seems, life tests just how brave you are to live it.

About four weeks ago, my aunt went for a run in the neighborhood as part of her training for the North Shore Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day. She ran by a dog that was out on a leash. Sensing a threat, it jumped up and bit her arm. She was taken to the hospital for stitches. She even got coverage in the local Patch (she’s the “person jogging” and later “victim”). Not long after, her husband – my uncle – also training for the race, discovered the start of a stress fracture in his heel and would not be able to run.

Not too bad so far? We’re not even halfway through.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was on the train commuting to work when I began to feel lightheaded. I got off at my stop and went to the railing on the far side of the platform to catch my breath when I passed out and hit my head on the rail. After I collected myself and got back to my feet with some help from concerned bystanders, I lost consciousness again and hit my head a second time. I wasn’t in much pain, but I had to be boarded and collared anyway and spent the whole day in the hospital getting tested for conditions I didn’t have. The doctors eventually determined it was vasovagal syncope, a common condition, likely due to a combination of dehydration and standing for a long time on a jam-packed and heated El train in a heavy winter jacket.

That was the first of three incidents in the same day.

When my parents picked me up from the hospital they told me that my grandmother’s close friend, whom I consider my fifth grandparent, suffered a stroke while visiting her children in California. She is recovering but it has been and will continue to be a long process. Then, what couldn’t have been hours later on the car ride back from the hospital, my aunt (“person jogging”) texted us that my cousin, a senior in high school, was rear-ended at a stoplight at what the police guess was 35 miles per hour. She suffered whiplash and has since started physical therapy, but was otherwise unscathed.

Well, almost needless to say, on Thanksgiving we had a lot to be thankful for. Despite these scares, every one of us was well or recovering. Were there moments of panic, concern, uncertainty and disbelief? Yes, but not tragedy. This would blow over, we knew. Just not yet.

That Sunday, the end of a relaxing holiday weekend, I was getting ready to see everyone at a family Chanukah dinner when my parents called. It was my brother, who’s in college out east. He had picked up a prescription at the pharmacy near his apartment off campus when three men stalked him on his way home, assaulted him and stole his wallet.

It was hard to believe at this point. I knew this happened – I got all the police emails when I was in school – but this was my younger brother, attacked somewhere he thought to be safe, far away from where any of us could help him. But, as traumatic as this was, even he was fine despite the bruises, and even if it might take him awhile to regain a sense of safety in his neighborhood.

My instinct through all of this was to see it as bad luck – a bunch of unfortunate incidents grouped closely together – but everyone in my family is alive or getting back to normal. There are a lot of incidents people must deal with every day in which they can’t say that so easily if at all. Dog attacks, fainting episodes, strokes, car accidents, muggings – these are awful things, but they happen. They don’t happen to you or someone you love all the time, and you don’t expect them to, but they occur with regularity in this world. Grounding myself with the knowledge that accidents have a certain inevitability to them, and knowing that the phrase “it could’ve been worse” applies to my family’s situation, I think that means we are quite lucky.

The challenge in all of this is moving on. It is living without fear and trusting that an incident is truly random and isolated, while controlling what you can. My aunt will have to run by dogs again if she wants to continue running; my cousin will need to drive; my brother will be faced with walking outside alone near his apartment. Already, I’m apprehensive about getting a seat on the train and staying hydrated. It’s crossed my mind on every commute in the last two weeks.

And there are even more plausible reasons to be afraid. My diagnosis does not rule out arrhythmia or other heart issues; whiplash can lead to future neck problems; a stroke often makes life more challenging; getting assaulted can lead to post-traumatic stress issues. All of these, however, as scary as they are, are treatable or become manageable with time.

Time, as another phrase tells us, heals all wounds, though some wounds leave bigger scars than others. What matters, I think, is how we respond when we remember that we have them. We can be brave or afraid, strong or vulnerable, sure-minded or uncertain. And even though we can’t control our misfortune, we can still choose to believe whether or not we feel lucky.

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18 Reasons I’m Finally an Adult

 Permanent link
12/11/2013

The Woes of Being an Introvert and Other Shenanigans photo

It’s been more than a Bar Mitzvahs length of time since my Bar Mitzvah, and now, finally, I am an adult. I know what you’re thinking. Nope. Not this guy. Even with the face and the beard and the Bar Mitzvah length since Bar Mitzhvah, nope – he’s no adult. No chance. But yes, faithful attractive Oy! reader, it turns out I am part of the coveted group that gets to sit at the big people table during Rosh Hashanah. It was a shock to me too, but now I have evidence to back it up. In a convenient 18 different items no less. Well, possibly less. Ok, probably less. I’m tired. So I present to you how I discovered I am an adult in 18 examples. Enjoy.

1. Instead of the question, “What do you study?” the first question I always receive upon meeting someone is now, “What do you do?” The answer is still I don’t know.

2. I have the freedom to take a day off of work for no reason other than I don’t want to go to work. I have freedom to do whatever I want, which is mostly not to accomplish anything. I’m very good at this.

3. I can spoil my supper on purpose. And besides, Double Stuf Oreos that will inevitably become Quadruple Stuf Oreos are an entirely acceptable choice for supper. Also, I’ve started saying supper.

4. I’m allowed to get distracted by literally nothing. Also by…sorry. Just noticed how white my wall is.

5. If at any time I have a hankering for chocolate milk, then by gum, I’m gonna have me some chocolate milk. Why I always want to have chocolate milk next to gum, I have no idea.

6. The freedom of being anywhere without anyone knowing. When I was younger, this usually meant I had accidentally locked myself in the bathroom.

7. I have my own health insurance. But that’s not the adult part. The adult part that I don’t use it. I’m 26 and a half. I’m invincible. Well, as long as I have my Bubbie’s cooking, that remains true.

8. I’ve learned that my apartment doesn’t just clean itself. I just have to hold out long enough until my mom visits.

9. Everyone around me takes my relationships more seriously. Mostly that my relationship with Spaghettio's is getting unhealthy, to which I say, but it has Riboflavin! (Seriously, look at the can. It’s a real thing and I love to say it out loud like the nutty professor. Glavin!!!!)

10. As long as I can afford it, I can buy anything I want at anytime, because in this day and age nothing is “hard to find”. Just “expensive on eBay.”

11. To make it through a day, I usually need some sort of wake-up juice. Be it an energy drink (Monster) or fake coffee (Frappuccino) or a more untraditional method (fish slap to the face), the excitement of life doesn’t keep me awake like it used to.

12. I now have the authority to bring any special food I want to family functions. So yes, there will now always be Zebra Cakes at Rosh Hashanah.

13. I am a lot closer to my siblings now that my siblings are farther away.

14. Naps have become the absolute greatest gift that is ever possible. Both having the time to take one and then doing so. Although sometimes I don’t always have the time for naps and then I occasionally get struck by the elusive and unwanted “nap attack.” That gets embarrassing on the bus. Every. Day.

15. My mom no longer burps me. Mostly because I moved out last year.

16. I do not have a bed time. My bed time is now defined as the moment I pass out while watching re-runs on Netflix every night.

17. I’m able to try and do any new things. Also, I don’t have to try and do any new things.

18. And last, but not least, one of my favorite examples of how I know I’m an adult. I now get asked, “Do you have kids?” To which I always reply, “Why? You looking to buy?” 

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Balkan Invasion

 Permanent link
12/10/2013

Balkan Beat Box Concert in Chicago photo 1

Balkan Beat Box 

This post originally appeared on the Masa Israel Journey blog

It wasn't until I lived in Israel as a Masa Israel Journey participant that I first learned any Israeli music. I hadn't been exposed to it before, I'm sad to say, but this was something my friends were determined to change. They introduced me to their favorites. I listened to the radio and heard new music every day. I quickly learned that I was a Mizrahi fanatic – what can I say, it's just too much fun not to dance to!

I also discovered a band I could sing along with, as they were expanding into English songs. Thus began my love affair with Balkan Beat Box, a group made up of Israeli ex-pats mostly living in New York. My friends and I watched their videos, learned the lyrics, and requested their songs when we went to pubs. Many of my memories of Masa and living in Israel have to do with Balkan Beat Box, including the time I traveled to Jerusalem to see them perform. It was at Gan HaAtzmaut where I experienced my first BBB show, and it was an incredible one. I was there with hundreds of other Israelis who were all dancing, singing and relaxing – and I felt like I was home.

I had just returned to Chicago after another two-month visit to Israel this past summer when I saw that my favorite Israeli band would be coming to Chicago. More than anything, I wanted to see them again and experience that sense of familiarity that I had had in Israel. I reached out to my fellow members of the Masa Alumni Committee of Chicago and suggested that we get a group together. Perhaps Balkan Beat Box had been an integral part of someone else's Israeli musical journey; if not, they would surely become a fan after seeing them live. We decided to invite other area Masa alumni and put on an event. We met at the venue before the show to meet recent Masa returnees and share our Balkan tales over drinks.

It was incredible to experience a show in Jerusalem with friends, but seeing them perform in my hometown was a really neat experience as well. I loved seeing people who weren't familiar with the band simply enjoying the music and dancing with everyone else. The energy in the crowd was amazing; everyone danced the entire night, people grabbed their neighbors and pulled them into a circle to dance. It was a mixture of Americans and Israelis and I felt like I was home again.

Music has a way of doing that, I suppose, particularly when it brings you back to a specific time and place as Balkan Beat Box does for me. I got to relive some of my favorite Masa memories while hanging out with new Chicago-area Masa friends. I can only hope that they will return for another show soon and bring us all back together again. 

Balkan Beat Box Concert in Chicago photo 2

Cara Mendelsberg, Balkan Beat Box lead singer Tomer Yosef and Rachel Gutman at the event.

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One thing

 Permanent link
12/09/2013

One thing photo

Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal the meaning of life. Great, now I have your attention—read on if you want the answer.

Every so often I think about the movie City Slickers when Jack Palance’s character, the older, leathery cowboy named Curly gives Billy Crystal’s character Mitch some profound life advice.

“Do you know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks Mitch, holding up one finger.

“Your finger?” Mitch asks.

“One thing,” Curly says. “Just one thing…”

“But what is the one thing?” Mitch wants to know.

“That’s what you have to find out,” the cowboy replies.

What Curly said stuck with me since I saw that movie way back in junior high. And I’ve been trying to find that “one thing” ever since. It’s something we each have to discover for ourselves.

A while back, I heard a moving sermon by a rabbi who had faced a near-death experience. After wrestling with his own mortality and living to tell about it, the rabbi asked us what we each think our life’s purpose is. What, he asked, were we put on this earth to do?

I’ve pondered my answers to the questions posed by the rabbi, and—no big shocker—I haven’t exactly figured out all the answers just yet.

But, if we already knew the answers, how boring would that be? Life is all about the journey—continually searching for the answers, and then revising and finding new answers to what we thought we knew but realized we totally didn’t. At least I think.

You know that game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Well, in a philosophical way, the answer to that question is “no” because the adage “the older we get, the less we know” rings true.

What if we don’t narrow it down to just “one thing” as Curly said? Maybe we’re meant to find more than one thing.

Here’s one thing I do know: We’re all meant for greatness. We’re meant to fulfill multiple roles as complicated, interesting people—in our jobs, as parents, as sons and daughters, as romantic partners, as citizens of the world, as Jews, and as all around decent human beings.

For instance, here’s what I know about myself: I’m meant to honor my parents as the Torah tells me to by being the best daughter I know how to be. I’m meant to be the world’s coolest aunt to my nephews and spoil them with toys—and lots of love. I’m meant to be a friend that my friends can count on who would take their calls at 3 a.m. and talk them through a crisis, or dance to 80s music with them; and I’m meant to write it all down in blogs and columns like this one.

And when I don’t live up to some of these things, and I know sometimes I fall short, I’m meant to do a little better the next time around.

Oprah used to preach on her talk show that the one thing everyone wants is to matter. Whoever we are, whatever our race, religion, gender, age, or job, we all want to be useful, to make a contribution. That’s one of our greatest equalizers.

So as we encounter one another, from the people we love, and even the people we don’t like so much, to strangers on the street, we ought to be gentler with each other. We should keep in mind that we’re all just trying to matter, to leave our imprint on the world, to know that the world is a better place because we’re in it.

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How I Became a Full-Time Jew

 Permanent link
12/06/2013

How I Became a Full-Time Jew photo

This post originally appeared on the Schusterman Foundation blog

Now that I work in the Jewish community, people always assume that I’ve been a “super Jew” my whole life. In reality, it took a special trip to pique my interest—and experiences thereafter—to land me where I’m standing now.

When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot until settling in exotic Buffalo, New York. That first summer in Buffalo, I spent my days with the other soon-to-be fourth graders at a JCC-partnered Jewish camp in central New York. As fun as shaving cream fights were, I was the new kid in town. Two summers were enough for me.

I attended Sunday school and became a bat mitzvah. After throwing a candy-themed party to celebrate the occasion, attending a few classmates’ b’nai mitzvot and trying Hebrew High school for a few weeks, I checked out of my Jewish involvement. I recall going to a youth group meeting, which I hated, and never returned.

My family and I continued to celebrate holidays with amazing meals, stories and traditions. While I loved this aspect of being Jewish, I didn’t consider myself to be religious or active. When I attended Arizona State University, I continued to join my AZ-based family for holiday meals, but I never even knew that Hillel existed.

It wasn’t until my later years as a college student that my mother mentioned a “free trip” to Israel. Israel? Why would I go there? Isn’t it scary, war torn, third-world? Obviously I lacked education about Israel and it was definitely not at the top of my list of places to visit.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the world of entertainment. I turned 25, and my mom continued to suggest that I go on this free Israel trip called “Birthright Israel.” I was still unsure—I worried I was not religious enough for a Jewish trip. I didn’t even have a passport and now I was going to take a 14 hour flight across the world? Then, when I realized that I would soon be ineligible because of my age, I applied.

Needless to say I had a fabulous time on the trip, falling in love with the country and having a little Israeli romance as well. I never imagined that the country could be so beautiful, with such diverse people, and that spending time with other Jews doing Jewish things could be enjoyable. I returned to LA in tears, wishing that I had never left.

Now that I was back, I told everyone I knew about my experience. I went to a Shabbat dinner with the LA Federation (which I knew of from the trip orientation). I started hosting Jewish parties–Chrismukkah (with my Catholic roommate) and Passover seders; both open to friends of all faiths. I learned to cook brisket, noodle kugel and matzo ball soup.

After a year, I quit my coveted job to participate in a Masa Israel program called Career Israel. I loved living in Israel with Jews from around the world, touring the country and getting to visit Turkey and Jordan too.

I soon found that I didn’t want to live in Israel forever, so I moved to Chicago with a few of my fellow participants from the program. After struggling to find work in the world of event planning, I took on a variety of random jobs. I wanted to meet new people in my new city, so I attended a few events put on by Birthright Israel NEXT (now called NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation) and a year later started a fellowship with NEXT, reaching out to Birthright Israel trip returnees and planning programs for them in Chicago. The programs I ran included a challah-baking/platter-painting event, cooking classes and an outing to a Chicago Blackhawks game.

This Birthright Israel alumni network became my own personal community in Chicago. As a NEXT fellow, I had the privilege to staff a Birthright Israel trip with a Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation (JUF) employee with whom I’m now very close. One year later, I applied for a job working in young adult engagement for JUF, and all of a sudden, engaging with 20-something Jews became my life.

Five years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be a “professional Jew.” But today I am lucky to be in that position, meeting Jews of all backgrounds and helping them connect to the community.

There are so many ways to be Jewish in Chicago. For someone like me, who often didn’t feel like I wanted to be part of anything Jewish, I realize that it’s all about finding the right fit for each individual. I can be a Jewish leader without having to fit stereotypes; I can be myself, and in return, I appreciate that everyone has their own way of living Jewishly.

When meeting with people who are not engaged in Jewish life, I try to connect them to opportunities that are meaningful based on their interests. I stay motivated because I know the work I do helps so many people in Chicago feel welcome and find a deeper connection to our Jewish community for those whose paths are as winding as mine.

Elizabeth Wyner is the Young Adult Engagement Associate at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF).

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The Greatest Gift

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12/05/2013

The Greatest Gift photo 1

Loving this fitness gear!

Tablets, flat screen TVs, and blenders are all great gifts. Who doesn't want a shiny cool new gadget? But the greatest gift you can get is more basic than that – it's health. I know, boring and cliché, but true. If you don't have your health, nothing else matters. 

The next time the stomach bug hits, there is one thing you will wish/pray for, and it's not a tablet. Working out will not prevent the stomach flu, of course, but we all know the benefits of exercise. So instead of a gadget that promotes laziness, get yourself a fitness present this holiday season! It's much easier to justify a new gadget purchase when it's making you healthy.

This is a billion dollar industry with a lot to choose from, so here are some gadget and equipment recommendations.

Fitness Trackers

There are several ways to track your fitness; everyone from Nike to Polar is in on the action. These various wrist devices track your movement and how many calories you burn and some even have sleep trackers. If you are trying to lose or gain weight you can also log your food, do the math, and figure out if you are burning more calories than you take in, or eating more calories than you burn.

I like to think I was ahead of the curve when I wore a tracker and wrote an article about the Go Wear Fit. It was interesting to learn that I burn more calories training others than working out myself, and that I need to sleep better. Since then, these tools have exploded in the wellness scene. Several companies by trackers for their employees and then have competitions to see who is the most active employee. I think they are great if you are not an active person. It guilts you into moving when you realize how you are more sedentary than any of the Golden Girls.

Here are the top three gadgets on the market in no particular order: 

-Fitbit
-Nike Fuel
-Jaw Bone Up

Fitness Equipment

I am sucker for fitness equipment; it fills a void in my heart that I never knew existed until I became a personal trainer in 2001. I have everything from bands to medicine balls at my house and I desperately want a Hex Squat bar and a sled. Granted I would only use the Hex bar for deadlifts, but it would be so worth it. Look at how it evenly distributes the weight, and the ergonomics … am I the only one salivating over this bar

The Greatest Gift photo 2

For your home, however, I would recommend simple equipment that is easy to store and can be used for many different exercises. It's great to have some equipment around the house for days you cannot make it to the gym, or walk outside. And if you don't belong to a gym, you can outfit a home cheap without breaking the bank. If you have children, working out at home is a great way to be a fitness role model. My son is only two and he already tosses around a medicine ball and attempts to do pushups.

My top five favorite items for your home:

1. Resistance bands – Great for weight training, stretching, or cardio. You can place the bands around doors and do almost any exercise you could do with a machine plus more. I use my bands all the time for a full-body workout. I even take a band with me when I travel. If you want to know which types of bands to buy, email me.  

2. Soft Medicine Balls – These are soft so you do not have to worry about making too much noise slamming them on the ground, playing catch with a workout partner, or having a child run into it (they think it's fun). I use mine with all my clients. These are actually cheaper than the ones I have, and more durable. 

3. Kettle bells – This is basically a weighted ball with a handle. I hide these from my son because they are solid. You can do a ton of exercises with this, like deadlifts, shoulder press, bicep curls, and many others. For women, I would buy a 15- to 20-pound one and for men, I would buy a larger one closer to 20 or 30 ponds. I own a 20- and 30-pounder and want another 30-pound one.   

4. Stability Ball – These are the large balls some people sit on in their office or home. You can do core exercises on the ball, like pushups with your hands on the ball or even pushups with your feet on the ball and your hands on the ground. This is a great piece of equipment for pregnant women to open up their hips by simply bouncing while sitting on top of it (don't fall off). The site tells you based on your height what size ball to purchase.

5. Valaslide – This tool is like putting plastic wrap on your hands and feet. The Valaside comes with two separate little sliders that you use with your hands or feet, and are great for working the core. You can do a lot of exercises with them on the ground, standing up or on your knees. My favorite exercise with them is in a pushup position with your feet on them and you pull one leg at a time into your body and feel the burn in your abs.

With New Year's resolutions only a few weeks away, get started now on living a healthier lifestyle. Keep in mind you do not need any of these tools to get fit, but they can help make your routine a little easier. If you have a favorite gadget, send it my way at rkrit@fitwithkrit.com. 

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Dinosaur Chanukah

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12/04/2013

Dinosaur Chanukah photo 1

I’m not particularly proud of it, but this is what I did for Chanukah. Strike that. This was my attempt to make Chanukah as cool as Christmas.

I happened upon a Facebook post about a couple who told their kids each year that, once a year, their toys woke up for the night to have a party. The kids eagerly anticipated seeing the party aftermath in the morning. Cue the lesson on wonderment and imagination.

"Bee would go crazy for this," I thought to myself, and the light bulb went on.

This year, despite being more than a month ahead of Christmas, Chanukah already has taken a backseat to Christmas movies, Christmas books, Christmas clothes, and Christmas events. My rational side says, “What’s the big deal? Chanukah is a minor holiday, and really, you can’t compete with Christmas (or at least, you really shouldn’t want to, you Scrooge). It’s part of American culture. Find a way to enjoy Chanukah for what it is, and let it go.”

The other side of my brain said, “Tell Bee that Chanukah is the dinosaurs’ favorite holiday, and that they wake up on each of the eight nights to have a party!”

Dinosaur Chanukah photo 2

Genius? Petty and pathetic? Perhaps both.

Reasons my idea was genius:

1. Bee was SO EXCITED for Chanukah.
2. Bee was SO EXCITED for Chanukah.
3. Bee was SO EXCITED for Chanukah.

Reasons my idea was petty and pathetic:

1. Dinosaurs have nothing to do with Chanukah, which means Bee was SO EXCITED for dinosaurs, not Chanukah, if I’m being honest with myself.
2. I get on my high horse about not feeling the need to compete with Christmas, yet the first time my child tells me he likes Christmas best of all and that it’s his favorite “season,” I’m the first one scrambling to make Chanukah cooler.
3. I dislike most things that attempt to make Chanukah more Christmas-y (like this and this). They feel inauthentic, like we’re saying to our kids, “Oh, sorry you’re Jewish and you can’t have a Christmas tree … decorate this bush instead.” The dinosaurs on Chanukah? Did nothing to enrich my son’s actual Chanukah experience.

I genuinely like Christmas, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with my son liking it, too. It’s part of his heritage and history, and frankly, it’s a ridiculous bonanza of happiness. Really, what’s not to like? I guess I’m just frustrated that the Jewish holidays, while full of meaning and rich history and tradition, don’t deliver quite the punch that their Christian counterparts deliver.

I love being Jewish, and I want my sons to feel the same way. Perhaps the way to go about this isn’t forcing T-Rex and triceratops into our Chanukah celebration, but rather modeling a happy Jewish life for them, a Jewish life that’s filled with delicious food that we cook together, pizza Shabbats with our beloved friends, giving back to our community together and holidays celebrated with precious family – including Christmas.

For the record, though, Bee’s reaction to the dinos was priceless, and we will definitely be repeating the exercise at some point next year (though maybe not for eight nights - how many places can we possibly come up with to set up 45 dinosaurs?).

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How To Break A Habit

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12/03/2013

How To Break A Habit photo

I am writing this with glue on my fingers.

I know what you’re thinking – is this a complex, deep, meaningful metaphor for the meaning of life? Also, WTF?

To answer your first question, no, it is not. Sorry if that disappoints. If you want to turn it into a complex, deep, meaningful metaphor for the meaning of life, by all means, go ahead, and please let me know what you come up with. It is actually very literal, and it is also a very sticky situation. (I know, I know … but I couldn’t not say that.) And actually, it has dried a little bit so it’s slightly less gross than it sounds.

In response to your second question, the reason I have glue on my fingers is because a very smart friend told me to put glue on my fingers. Not because I’m doing an art project or anything like that. (But you know what’s fun? Mixing glue and shaving cream and painting with it. Trust me on this.) While I generally disapprove of peer pressure, I think this is a good idea my friend came up with, though she might need to buy me a new keyboard pretty soon because this can’t be good for it.

When I feel anxious, a lot of things happen. I talk too fast. My face gets red. And, I noticed recently – I scratch my head. Just a quick, innocent little scratch, only there isn’t really anything there that’s itchy. Although this might not seem like a huge deal, you ladies (and long-haired gentlemen) out there are well aware that when you touch your head too much, your hair becomes greasy and gross. And frankly, it’s not cute. I miss having cute hair and I think it misses me too. We used to have such good times together.

As anyone who’s ever tried to kick a habit knows, breaking one is a lot easier said than done. Intellectually, I know that I have a bad habit. I know that I would no longer like to have said bad habit. I know that said bad habit is really awkward and makes people think I have lice when I don’t. However, in that anxiety-ridden moment, such as when I have everything I need to make chocolate cake except the chocolate (and the cake) or even right now, at this coffee shop, when I’m trying to write this incredibly amazing blog post – it’s almost like there’s this robot dude in my arm who reaches up to my head and scratches the crap out of it without me realizing until it’s too late. And dude needs to stop, hence the glue. Even a sneaky nonexistent robot dude is not going to run sticky fingers through my hair. Even nonexistent robot dudes have their limits, you know?

Breaking a habit is hard. It’s unnerving. It causes anxiety, which really sucks if you’re like me trying to stop doing the thing you do when you get anxious. I think it’s important to focus on the end goal, though, and how glorious it will be when you don’t do whatever it is any more. After all, life is too short to have hair that is anything less than adorable. 

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Mazel Tov to Jewish Athletes Everywhere!

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12/02/2013

Mazel Tov to Jewish Athletes Everywhere! photo

Mazel Tov to Brad Ausmus!
Former Jewish Major League Baseball player Brad Ausmus was tagged to replace Jim Leyland as the new manager of the Detroit Tigers. Ausmus inherits a mega lineup featuring Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and ace pitchers in Justin Verlander and 2013 American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. The Tigers even recently acquired Jewish second baseman Ian Kinsler (talk about beshert!) Now if only Lawrence Frank could get back into a head coaching spot we'd have a Jewish coach/manager in all three major sports (Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman is Jewish).

Mazel Tov to Craig Breslow, Ryan Lavarnway, Ryan Kalish!
Mazel tov to the Boston Red Sox for winning the World Series! Only Breslow was on the World Series roster, but I believe Lavarnway will receive a ring for his playing time during the season. Kalish did not appear this season for the BoSox due to injury. Breslow was the 24th Jewish ballplayer to play in the World Series.

Mazel Tov to Craig Breslow and Ian Kinsler!
Breslow was also this year’s recipient of the Sandy Koufax Award given to MLB’s best Jewish pitcher by TheGreatRabbino.com. Breslow was 5-2 with a 1.94 ERA. He struck out 32 batters in 52 innings. This is Breslow's third time winning the award (second in a row). Honorable mentions: Scott Feldman and Jason Marquis. Ian Kinsler won the Hank Greenberg Award for best Jewish MLB hitter; Kinsler hit .277 with 13 HRs and 31 doubles. He also compiled 15 stolen bases for a Rangers team in the thick of the playoff hunt throughout the season. Ryan Braun has won the award the last three seasons and Kevin Youkilis was the inaugural winner. Honorable mentions: Josh Satin, Nate Freiman, and Ryan Braun.

Other Mazel Tovs
On Nov. 1 the NBA saw its first matchup between two Israeli born players. Omri Casspi of the Houston Rockets took on cross state rival the Dallas Mavericks and rookie Gal Mekel. This was an amazing moment for Jewish basketball and the country of Israel.

Meanwhile, in the NFL, brothers Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City Chiefs) and Mitchell Schwartz (Cleveland Browns) met for the first time on Oct. 27. Geoff and the Chiefs were victorious. 

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