OyChicago blog

Jewish Off-Season Baseball Stories to Watch 2015-16

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12/31/2015

Jewish Off-Season Baseball Stories to Watch 2015-16 photo

Joc Pederson

A lot of the big free-agent splashes have been made already, dominating baseball headlines, but here are the Jewish story lines to follow this baseball offseason.

Be Like Ike

After a mediocre year with the Oakland Athletics and their never-ending ability to retool, Ike Davis finds himself out of Oakland. The power-hitting first baseman hit only three home runs last season. Someone may take a flyer on him in hopes he can regain his 32-HR strength from back in 2012.

Start with Breslow

Craig Breslow has been one of baseball's most reliable pitchers in middle relief. But he is seeking a job as a starting pitcher. He's done in Boston (though we have said that before) and looking to reinvent his career.

More than Three Starts

Jon Moscot of the Reds was off to a 1-1 record in his first tgree starts, but then he blew out his shoulder. Moscot was the newest Jewish pitcher in the league and we hope he can get back to where he was before the injury. He made an appearance at the Reds Winter Festival and looks ready to get back to work.

Who's Next?

We are always looking at who has the potential to be the next Jewish major leaguer. Both Jeremy Bleich (Indians) and Richard Bleier (Nationals) have come close. We will watch to see what happens, but my money is on Maxx Tissenbaum, who was recently traded to the Marlins, and Zach Weiss, who was rumored for a September 2015 call-up with the Reds. Others to keep an eye on are Max Fried (Braves) and Alex Bregman (Astros), both first-round selections.

Second Chances

Cody Decker finally found his way to the Bigs and is now in Kansas City. Nate Freiman didn't appear in the Bigs after a decent amount of success in 2014. Josh Zeid spent the whole season in the Minors too. Will these three help boost the JMLB numbers … and their respective teams?

Ausmus on the Hot Seat

Some would call Brad Ausmus lucky to still have his job. The Tigers grossly underachieved last season and the Ausmus rumors were everywhere. But he is back, we are happy, and hopefully he can prove to Detroit just how great of a manager he can be.

Braun's Back

There were, and continue to be, trade rumors surrounding Ryan Braun. He serves as Milwaukee's best asset. But after off-season back surgery, he first needs to get healthy.

Gabe Kapler and the Dodgers

Gabe Kapler was rumored to be in line for the Dodgers managerial position, which ultimately went to Dave Roberts. But Kapler remains with the team and is waiting for his shot. If Roberts slips up, Kapler could be next in line.

Jerry Narron and Israel

Israel was announced for the qualifiers for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. While we wait to hear who will make up the roster, we do know Brewers bench coach and former MLB Manager Jerry Narron (not Jewish) will be on the staff. A big believer in Israel, Narron is excited to be a part of the team.

Joc Pederson

Joc Pederson owned the first half of the 2015 season and was named to the All-Star game. He was all but anointed National League Rookie of the Year until a less-than-pretty second half of the season. Jewish baseball fans everywhere are locked into Joc's story. He is young, talented and wearing Dodger blue.

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My First Christmas

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As told by a 28-year-old Jew
12/30/2015

My First Christmas photo 1

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except me, who took every possible moment to tell everyone how long it was until Christmas. For example, "It's two hours until Christmas!" or "It's 100 minutes until Christmas!" That's because after 28 years on Earth, this year was my first legitimate Christmas, i.e. actually participating in Christmas activities for the sake of Christmas, not the normal Christmas piggybacking I did with watching A Christmas Story on TV for 24 hours straight. (Side note: Jews shouldn't really be piggybacking on anything. It's not kosher). 

Usually on Christmas I participate in the stereotypical movie and Italian food. What? Not Italian food? Get out of town! So I've been doing it wrong for 28 years!? Oh well, moving on.

To mark this first ever day where X-Mas truly marked the spot, I celebrated with my girlfriend's family.

As we all know, Christmas has always been an important holiday to me. But this being the first time I ever celebrated Christmas proper, the level of anticipation was heightened considerably with a buildup of practically three decades. So while Jewish Free Day was not in full effect this year, I couldn't have been more excited to see what it was like from the other side of the Christmas tree.

As the clock approached midnight, the need for sleep was at hand, but this was no easy feat. This was like the night before going to Disneyworld. Sleep would be difficult. I tried counting sheep (we were in rural Indiana so it was easy) but I forgot how excited I get when sheep counting. I instead counted pigs. That was boaring and put me right to sleep.

The moment the sun came up I was yelling, screaming, jumping up and down on the bed, bellowing, "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" for all to hear, whether they liked it or not. I opened the window and it was -- kinda rainy and gross, but it was Christmas rainy and gross! So it didn't matter!

I ran downstairs in my all excitement! Then I ran back upstairs since I forgot to put on some pants in all my excitement. With the extra moment of pants assimilation in progress, I decided form that point forward I was going to make everything Christmas themed that day. 

"Adam, it's time for breakfast."
"Christmas breakfast!?"
"Adam, it's time for presents."
"Christmas presents!?"
"Adam, calm down"
"Christmas calm down!?"

Since I have only previously celebrated Chanukah, getting all my presents at the same time on the same day instead of one by one over eight nights was amazing. It felt like Netflix for presents. Everything was available at once. And I'm glad to say, Santa did come in the middle of night -- but in secret form. You know, Secret Santa. Heh heh.

My First Christmas photo 2

So while I didn't get to see the big guy in the red suit firsthand, which was slightly disappointing only because I wanted a Coke, I still profusely enjoyed the chance to participate in actual Secret Santa. (Although I'm still trying to get everyone on board with "Completely Obvious Santa" -- that's when you pick a name and then yell, "Hey! I'm your Santa!")

After opening all the presents, the rest of the day was dedicated to playing with all of our new toys (as an adult, there's nothing more fun than a new humidifier) and chilling. After all, we did the Netflix equivalent with the presents.

Chanukah never gave me the day off of work, but Christmas does just that, so I might as well take advantage of it. I mean, Christmas has eggnog when Chanukah doesn't have any nog! Honestly, the Jews are severely lacking in nog and need to step up their nog game.

I am excited for the future Christmas shenanigans I will no doubt be able to take part in, in years to come. Perhaps I'll throw some Chanukah flair into Christmas Day with a rousing game of dreidel, or a riveting rendition of "I Have a Little Dreidel." Basically, my ace in the hole is dreidel.

So what did I take away from this, my first ever X-Mas? Well I got a couple DVDs, some new slippers, candy and -- that's not what you meant? You meant "what did I gain from this experience?" I see. You want some genuine Adam stuff to finish off this Oy-tastic year. Well, what I liked most about my first Christmas is the idea of taking the time to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends. Life is hectic; sometimes insanely so. I honestly lose sleep sometimes so I can do the trivial or fun things I enjoy in life, like write this. I don't often get the opportunity to just do nothing without feeling guilt for neglecting something else. Christmas allows, of all things, for me to have that guiltless feeling in whatever it is I do that day. Even if it's just playing games, watching movies or spending time with loved ones.

It's very similar to why I like Rosh Hashanah -- the family element, the excuse to get together for positive reasons. While Chanukah can certainly have that, it doesn't always feel the same as the higher profile Jewish holidays. But having Christmas available in my life (thanks Winter a.k.a. my girlfriend) gives me more reason than ever to say that it is an important holiday to me.

Christmas is a new and exciting opportunity to experience what I love about the holidays the most. Not the presents, not even necessarily the traditions, but the idea of togetherness -- being able to share those presents and traditions. And also maybe the food. Plus, now I can make watching A Christmas Story on TV for 24 hours straight a true Christmas tradition instead of the ironically Jewish tactic of piggybacking. So I pretty much win Christmas.

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How to Get a Bloody Nose

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12/29/2015

How to Get a Bloody Nose photo

At the Lebanese border

At 8 years old I rammed a shopping cart into a pyramid of cans at Hungarian Kosher Market and spent the next half hour in the parking lot with an ice pack tilting my head back. During basketball practice in seventh grade, a friend set a pick on me, missed, hit my nose and covered her own face in shock. I laughed with lines of crimson dribbling down my chin and said, "Now I'm bleeding from two places." At 14, I broke my nose in a swimming pool, 16 a soccer ball, and by 18 my bedroom just really needed a humidifier.

For three years all was quiet on the nose-in-front, until last night, when I cried so hard I couldn't tell whether my nose or neck was bleeding.

But to understand we need to backtrack over a year ago, to November 4, 2014, the day I made contact with the first of many in the long chain of Israeli reporters.

How to get a bloody nose:

1. Find a friend who knows an Israeli reporter so you can network. Make a good first impression. Ask about summer internships in fall. Write, "I know that it may seem a bit early to be thinking about this, but for someone who's always been passionate about writing, news, and Israel, I would say I'm being only moderately proactive." Click "Send." Wait and nail-bite.

2. Click "Compose"on Dec.16. Write, "Just reconnecting after a few busy weeks and holiday season here. I was wondering if we could set up a time to chat."

3. … Taste cuticle.

4. Finally get a human response. Get the "okay" to give them a call. Reach for the phone and notice they don't have an American line...

5. Stay confident when you're told that your Hebrew isn't t good enough for breaking news coverage. Read to line two: "You may be able to intern with our culture/lifestyle editor...." Do the stir-the-pot dance also known as the cabbage patch.

6. Apply for the university's international travel grant in the hopes you get the internship. On the "funds requesting" sheet, put down price figures to an El-Al standard. Ask for $2,500 total, because Bubbie taught you how to negotiate.

7. The lifestyles editor responds mid-March asking for writing samples. Jump on your bed at school. Bounce for approximately 25 seconds before realizing if the bed breaks you'd probably have to sell a kidney to replace it. Desist jumping and call Mom instead.

8. Mom says you need a Plan B. Apply to a Jewish leader fellowship that night and power off for the day. Find out you are accepted. Feel like a cheese stick being pulled in many directions, yet strung.

9. Be told by fellowship you must accept by "X" date. Email reporter S.O.S. calls. Shout that this Titanic dream is sinking not on holiday! Accept fellowship at 11:59 p.m on "X" date.

10. Love fellowship. Ask multi-billion dollar donors to support the Holocaust Museum. Realize you ain't shabby either. Befriend fellows. They know you're weird immediately. How? Ask, "Howdy Doody?" Mystery solved.

11. Plot Twist: "Dear Eliana, I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism to receive the Gene Roberts Award … This award provides travel reimbursement to undergraduate or graduate journalism students at Maryland to travel outside the U.S. on particular journalistic or research projects with a specific itinerary." COME FREAKIN ON!

12. Convince school to let you use the grant for winter instead.  Do you have a reporting internship in the winter? Yes, mmhmm, of course. Get the "okay" and pull your face into The Scream.

13. Get hit by a wall of silence from newspaper. Use Fellowship clout to get email of someone at the Israeli paper. Receive email hours later saying the position is all mine. Wonder who the hell the Fellowship led you to; discover it's the guy who started the paper.

14. Buy ticket to satisfy parent's restrictions. No AirFrance, Luftansa, Korean Air, Qatar, Turkish Airways, anything not El-Al. How about $686 on Air Canda? kk.

15. Your editor Skypes you while she makes dinner. Chill. You'll be traveling all over Israel -- from Tel Aviv to Eilat, Jerusalem to Hermon -- going to concerts, plays, local events and more covering whatever's happening. Get pumped.

16. Locate a place to stay within a 10-minute walk. Check. Unlock Phone/buy SIM card. Check. Call for health insurance info. Learn what a deductible is for 30 minutes. Don't actually get what it is. Check?

17. Over the next few weeks watch as your Facebook timeline becomes a morgue. Palestinians wield knives, cars plow people down, rocks smack into windshields aimed at 8-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 80-year-olds. Feel things changing.

18. Do what any seminary girl at heart does -- whip out your Tehillim, empty your wallet into a tzedekah can, turn to the words of Rav Kook and Rav Solevechik. Bob your head to the tempo of scholars who say Am Yisrael is incomplete without Eretz Yisrael and "The Way of Hashem is ... to evaluate each situation and determine if it warrants a battle cry or a peace negotiation."

19. Prepare yourself by watching boxing videos and practicing your jabs and cuts. Again, again, until blisters on your raw knuckles pop peach. Buy a personal alarm. Purchase pepper spray. Have your boyfriend ask you what pepper spray is going to do when a terrorist stabs you from behind. Ignore the question and say you've been ramping up your push-ups. So, if you're mortally in danger and the attacker asks you to drop and give him 40, you'll be prepared.

20. Parents forbid you to go. They tell you reporting in a "war zone" is a suicide mission. They tell you they don't want to lose another daughter. Feel icy. Explain you can't live in someone else's shadow, because she no longer lives will not prevent you from living.

21. Cry until your nose bleeds.

Every day I am bombarded with mixed messages. The FBI issuesa warning not to travel outside the country, but my friends are taking the bus to school, my boss is meeting up with friends at the mall, at the movies. My boyfriend is swimming with dolphins in Eilat.

It feels like everything I worked toward was just a sandcastle made too close to the shore -- never really made to last. But more than my failure, there's this ineffable desire to return to Israel. Three years ago, almost to the day, I sat in my seminary bed with a Bar-Ilan application in my lap. But I listened to my parents, the good girl that I am, and told them I'll go to an American college on the condition that they wouldn't stop me from making aliyah after graduation. Their response: we'll help you pack your bags.

Now, I get this ash-in-my-mouth feeling that it was all lie. That no matter what, it's never going to be a good time to go to Israel. But that's the geo-political nature of Israel being sandwiched between enemies and the sea.

And you may think this is all stupid, that I'm making such a big deal about a 28-day internship to go to concerts and plays, but I see this as more than that. It's about a young woman who shows resistance not with a gun but with a pen; a young woman who's not about surviving but living; a young woman who is so passionate she cries blood.

It's the struggle of parents who love too much and a girl who is trying to love herself.

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Don't Turn Away

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12/24/2015

Don't Turn Away photo

The reality of what's been going on in Chicago has sunk in deep lately. People being murdered and beaten in the streets, dragged, handcuffed and TASER-ed -- it's unbelievable. Regardless of what your family looks like gathered around the dinner table, everyone needs to be talking about this.

Maybe they don't look like you. They don't look like me. The tragic statistics splashed day after day, the headlines, the graphic pictures and videos -- they are about black people suffering. And while my heart breaks, I recognize I have been granted a distance because I'm not black.

As a white person living where I live, I could pretend what's happening simply isn't happening. The sidewalks of my neighborhood look nothing like the streets of Chicago. Theoretically, I could just close my eyes to the whole disturbing mess. Except -- except for the conscience I was raised with would never allow me to turn a blind eye to the injustice and suffering of others.

My parents will admit they completely missed the boat in terms of raising me with a formal Jewish education, but they always said and continue to say, "We raised you with Jewish values. That's how you know you're truly Jewish." So here I am, with my Jewish conscience at its breaking point.

As Jews, our history knows the consequences of turned backs. The "not me, not mine" complacency allows for injustice and murder and everything in between. We can't just shake our heads and say, "What a travesty of justice! What a shame!" and think that changes anything. Well, I suppose we can. And this is where a fear begins to consume me. If "it" doesn't touch us, if the metallic taste of blood isn't in our mouths, are we forgetting?

As Jews, there is a thread between us and any people who are grouped in the pejorative and categorically denied, demoralized and disempowered. "Those" people are "us."

The difference is we can hide our "otherness" if we choose by tucking our Jewish symbols under our shirts. We can avoid being identified as Jews by putting our Jewishness on a hanger or by omitting our last names. We can walk down the street as if we are in the majority. Nobody need notice us if we don't want them to. We can hide. And hiding is seductive when things feel scary.

And things feel very scary right now, but we cannot hide in fear. We must be seen. We must join in the collective voices that demand justice. Because as Jews, we cannot ever, ever forget.

B' Shalom,

Annice

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Bulls at a Crossroads

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Team struggling to find identity in the switch from Thibs to Hoiberg
12/23/2015

It doesn't often happen that a team will fire a head coach with a .647 winning percentage and NBA Coach of the Year honors, but after five seasons and five straight playoff appearances cut short, the Bulls parted ways with Tom Thibodeau this off season and replaced him with first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg.

Despite grinding their way to the top of the Eastern Conference year after year under Thibs, many felt he pushed the players too hard, playing through injuries and logging 40-plus minutes in sometimes meaningless regular season games. His high standards and relentless style had worn on everyone, even the players who bought in completely.

Hoiberg was supposed to be the "anti-Thibs," and so far this season, the players agree. This was intended to be a good thing, but so far the results have not been there. Hoiberg was brought in to move toward an offense-focused game plan in a changing league modeled after high-volume scoring teams like the Golden State Warriors, but the Bulls rank near the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency (only the Nets, Lakers and 76ers are worse) as well as effective field goal percentage (tied with the 76ers, only the Grizzlies and Lakers are worse).

The relationship between Hoiberg and the players has also been edgy since the beginning, starting with moving Joakim Noah out of the starting line up in favor of Nikola Mirotic. Noah reportedly was very comfortable with this change and even approached Hoiberg about it because he was more comfortable playing with Taj Gibson anyway. This did not come as much of a surprise seeing as Noah has been a team-first pro since coming into the NBA, but it was later revealed that the move was not Noah's idea and he was just going along and looking on the bright side.

The most recent spat came last weekend in the form of a much more aggressive calling-out by team leader Jimmy Butler. Butler said that Hoiberg was not pushing the team hard enough or holding his players accountable. Although he later said he was not throwing his coach under the bus and that it was on everyone to push harder -- nobody was fooled.

hoiberg butler

This was a roster built for Thibodeau's style of play, with his work ethic embedded in the players' DNA. If Hoiberg's style was creating positive results maybe things would be different, but they are not.

Mirotic and Doug McDermott, who were placed in the starting lineup to lead the offensive attack, have struggled and have since been replaced by Gibson and Tony Snell -- stronger defensive players. The change in style along with a setback to Mike Dunleavy and Derrick Rose's double vision have led to a rare occurrence -- a team that returned 90 percent of its roster from last season is struggling to find chemistry.

Changes need to be made if the Bulls want to salvage this season. Noah is on contract a year. Pau Gasol is too and Rose's enormous contract has one more year after this one. Butler appears to be the only untouchable player on the roster, though if this rift continues, it may come down to him or Hoiberg.

The Bulls will never tank, it just isn't like them, but they don't appear to be going anywhere this season. It'll be interesting to see how active they are at the trade deadline considering they're already threatening the luxury tax threshold.

Hoiberg may turn out to be the right coach, but he is not the right coach for these players. If Hoiberg and Butler, who were both just signed to five-year contracts, aren't able to find common ground, this could end up being a bigger mess than anything that happened under Thibs, because even when things were at their most chaotic, the Bulls were still winning.

The biggest difference I have seen so far is that this Bulls team just doesn't seem to enjoy playing together. Even when the Bulls have been undermanned in the past, they were always fun to watch. But this Bulls team lacks identity and cohesiveness on both ends of the court.

Now is the time to sell high on some of their players like Noah, Gibson and even Rose. Lightening up their overloaded frontcourt will give more opportunities to rookie Bobby Portis and give them a chance to see if they actually do have players to build around in Mirotic and McDermott.

As of today, the Bulls sit in the No. 7 seed of a much-improved Eastern Conference. They have lost three straight games and 6 of their last 10, and finish out 2015 with a very difficult schedule including Oklahoma City, Dallas, Toronto and Indiana.

The Bulls' front office needs Hoiberg to turn things around. He is the sixth head coach in the last 10 years, not a great record for a general manager to have. If improvements aren't made across the board, we could see changes made at the top, and another potential period of misery like the one we saw in the early 2000s.

The Bulls are on the verge of a new era, and the next few months will determine what kind of era that is going to be.

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Are Tech Startups Losing Their Charm?

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12/21/2015

tech startups

"Tech" and "startup" are popular buzzwords. Use them together, and you've got "synergy," the crowned king of buzzwords. These words are like fuel to a flaming conversation, blazing with interest and hype.

Just 15-20 years ago, tech startups were rare gems, and few were lucky enough to jump on the bandwagon. Think Google, Amazon and the fashionably late -- yet my personal favorites -- Facebook and Instagram.

Like a rom-com, it's a roller-coaster of (market) sentiment full of the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Not all tech contenders could weather the deadly storms, the dot-com bubble and housing bubble (who knew bubbles were so dangerous?), and yet the chosen few prevailed. And after all these years, we stay enamored as ever with the idea of startups and even more enchanted with "tech startups."

So is it even fathomable to think that tech startups may be losing their charm? If so, why are these lovable underdogs becoming less lovable? Here are a few reasons I'm noticing:

Quantity over quality

The space feels saturated, claustrophobic even. Like Starbucks in the early 2000s, startups are popping up on every corner, each one sounding more promising than the last with a killer mission statement to boot.

But the market is free -- and so is the consumer -- to determine their fates. It's not all glamorous and there's a good reason actuaries have jobs. Numbers/stats/math don't lie: 92, I repeat, 92 percent of startups fail in the first three years.

And still, like the Gold Rush, hundreds of thousands flock to them. I'm beginning to wonder who doesn't work at a startup? Such a job is losing its exclusivity, and this deters some talent from joining the club. VIP status just doesn't feel the same anymore.

Perks aren't so "sexy" anymore

You've got concierge service, free meals, free dry-cleaning, free phone and laptop, free housing, free booze, and even free puppies. So what? So does everybody else. Tech perks are losing appeal because they are no longer perks -- they're expectations. Provide them or forget about world-class talent.

Talented people like to be taken care of, and companies feel pressure to up the ante on the swag they provide or need to create insane buzz around their business. To remain successful incubators for all this raw talent, it'll cost a pretty penny. It's not clear whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, but the bar sits high and pretty, which probably benefits us all in some way.

Today a start-up, tomorrow a giant

When you've got a great idea (and I mean a really great idea), the right tools (*cough*, capital, *cough*), and most importantly the right people (and lots and lots of luck), there's a sliver of hope a startup might materialize. But a startup is only as successful as the brevity of its startup status.

Look at it from any angle, but the fact remains that a startup is a true success when it is no longer considered a startup. Keeping that in mind, the fundamental goal of any tech startup is exponential growth (and revenue). To continue moving full-steam ahead, you lose room for the start-up culture, flexibility and appeal.

It's a hefty trade-off, but one that founders and VCs are game to make because for them, that means money. For you, the employee, that means fate at the hands of new management or possibly shareholders. The startup phase is a glamorous run, but it's short-lived.

Despite these three charm-busters, past and current tech startups are pretty much killing it right now (Tumblr, Spotify, Instagram, Snapchat etc.). In fact, they're young, and more popular and attractive than ever.

There's a lot to consider before joining a startup, but they're quite literally shaping our modern world. Tech startups are always on the leading edge of problem solving and innovation. Many people still consider being a part of one a privilege and honor; and if you find the right one, the sky's no longer the limit.

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‘Star Wars’ with My Bride-To-Be

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Five things we learned watching 'Star Wars' together
12/14/2015

'Star Wars' with My Bride-To-Be photo 1

There is a period in every geek, nerd or dork's life when he or she has to grow up. You still remain a geek, nerd or dork, of course, but growing up sort of happens. Things like meeting a special someone, for example, sort of happen. And unless you meet on the floor of a comic convention admiring each other's cosplay outfits, the odds you will have to share whatever it is you geek, nerd or dork out over with that person. It's a big moment in a relationship, because part of you knows inside that if they can't accept or learn to love whatever your geeky, nerdy or dorky obsession is, how can they possibly be the right one for you?

For a lot of men (or perhaps one should say "boys" in this instance), that obsession is Star Wars. Okay, maybe it's not an obsession for everyone, but at one point in almost (most) every boy's life, he becomes crazy about Star Wars. You might be inactive in your Star Wars fandom for a time, but that will never change how you feel about these movies, or how quickly you will defend them.

My obsession with Star Wars catapulted when I was about 10, a couple years before Episode I came out. I began reading Star Wars books, blew my allowance on Star Wars toys and even tried to orchestrate a Star Wars theatrical play with my classmates during recess in the fourth grade.

My love of Star Wars carried on naturally through the release of Episode III my senior year of high school, when I worked at the LEGO Store at the mall and sold countless Star Wars LEGO sets (and bought a few for myself, admittedly). I'm not as active in my love of the franchise anymore, but that has no bearing on my absolute love for the films, excitement for the new ones, and my total fan allegiance -- and I suspect many others feel the same way.

So if someone we know hasn't seen these movies, it's troubling -- deeply troubling. And if that someone is someone we might consider spending the rest of our lives with, that someone just has to like Star Wars, or at least understand it and not dismiss or belittle it and its contributions to humanity's collective imagination.

An on-the-nose depiction of this sentiment appeared in the Season 4 premiere of How I Met Your Mother, in which the main character, Ted, learns that his then-fiancé has never seen Star Wars. He says she has to watch it, and determines that if she doesn't like it, there's no way he can marry her. She endures the first film and doesn't like it, but she lies to Ted and tells his friend Marshall that she's prepared to pretend she likes it for the rest of her life. It's supposed to be sweet that she's willing to do this for Ted, but then they don't end up together.

'Star Wars' with My Bride-To-Be photo 2

The thought never occurred to me that I should probe into whether or not Mollie had seen Star Wars, (I plan to marry her regardless, though it would be nice if she at least supported my Star Wars fandom), but then a couple of years ago, well before our engagement, she volunteered this confession, then suggested we watch all the movies together.

Wait, what?

Watch. All. The. Star Wars. Movies? Together?

And she meant all six of them. She didn't even want to be spared of the prequel trilogy.

After a failed attempt (we watched just two right after she suggested the idea but then stopped), we got back on track to watch all six in advance of The Force Awakens coming out this week, like many of you are probably also doing right now.

When we told our friends and family that we were watching all the movies together, they all had one perfectly understandable question for us: What order will you watch them in?

In my mind, there was only one film that we would be starting with -- Episode IV: A New Hope. You have to experience it where it all began to understand the phenomenon. After discussion with my then-roommate -- my closest Star Wars brother in arms -- the kid I sat and built LEGO X-Wings and TIE Fighters with in his basement 16 years ago and who will be with me Thursday night for The Force Awakens -- suggested an order that he read about online: IV, V, I*, II, III, VI. ( Episode I is optional). If you know the films, you know this order is truly inspired.

Before we started watching, I had to find out what Mollie knew already. She was familiar with character names like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, as well as Darth Vader. Also, Obi-Wan Kenobi was an alien. When I explained that he wasn't, I asked her to describe him. She called him a little guy who is like "the Dobby (from Harry Potter) of Star Wars."

Master Yoda has never heard a more debasing comparison.

I also had to take a moment to silently curse pop culture when she told me that she knew Darth Vader's "secret." The line "I am your father" had become such a canonized movie quote, thereby ruining one of the greatest twists in movie history for those who barely know anything about Star Wars -- and don't speak German ("vader" means "father"). There was another twist she didn't know about, but had it ruined by the surge in Star Wars posts on Facebook just before she was set to discover it. I was devastated; the payoff would've been huge given the order we were watching the movies in.

All that aside, I was intrigued at what she would be drawn to, what her takeaways would be, what her perceptions of the characters and other elements of the story would be, and how well the film would hold up over 35 years to someone who has seen similar things that are more visually impressive, someone who no longer has a completely unblemished child-like sense of wonder.

So I took her on as my padowan learner to begin our journey to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As of this writing, we still have Return of the Jedi left, but here are the big takeaways from the experience thus far:

Be patient with someone who has never seen Star Wars

Like, really patient. Mollie has no idea how children are able to follow these story lines. The prequels especially are full of political intrigue and power moves. If you start to ask yourself why stuff is happening in these movies, you will end up confused. The action/interesting parts of Star Wars often overshadow or distract from the details.

Plot aside, there are also 500 kinds of aliens, planets and spaceships in this franchise. Mollie could not tell the good guys from the bad half the time, which becomes even harder to do in Episodes II and III. I took for granted that I had spent my whole childhood learning what things names were through books, toys and whatever else. Not once in the movie (I'm pretty sure) is an AT-AT, for example, called an AT-AT. They're called Imperial walkers. How did I learn that?? Unless you engulf yourself in the mythology of the Star Wars universe, you will be confused, so you need to be patient with someone who has no concept of these things.

Star Wars has a lot of religious and philosophical ideas

As a social worker, Mollie pointed out throughout the films moments that Jedi wisdom sounded awfully similar to concepts in social work, but she also noticed that the Force is an analogy for God, or a divine presence. Her keenest observation was that in the same way the Force can be used for good or evil, so can divine belief, such as what we see today with religious extremism.

It's easy to criticize the Star Wars films for thematic simplicity, and take credit away from George Lucas' genius for choosing to focus on basic platitudes of good and evil rather than moral complexity. But there's universality in these ideas, and what makes Star Wars have such broad appeal is this focus on fundamentals.

Darth Vader is the main character of the entire Star Wars saga

If you've never thought of this before, then watch the films either in episode order or the IV, V, I, II, III, VI order we chose. Obviously the prequels are all about how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, but when you weave them with the original films, you see that the whole series is about him all along. In fact, Mollie wishes we could watch IV and V again now that we've seen all the prequels and she knows the man behind the Darth Vader helmet, and I would agree. It's illuminating, frankly, and it makes me all the more interested in the direction of Episode VII and the films to come in terms of how they will fit with the overall saga's arc and themes

R2-D2 and C3PO are the heart and soul of Star Wars

The misadventures of everyone's favorite astro and protocol droids often distract from the exciting parts of Star Wars, but they represent everything that's lovable about these movies. (Chewbacca too, I should say.) Without them, Star Wars would be kind of hollow, maybe even arrogant. I could tell Mollie was keeping tabs on them, and enjoyed the many ways they pop in and out of the six movies, even if sometimes out of nowhere.

There are a lot of bad components in Star Wars , but …

I love the movies and I will defend even Episode I, but you notice a lot of bad storytelling choices in all six films, even if you are new to the series like Mollie (unless you're a kid). Romance, character development, dialogue, transitions -- George Lucas is not a brilliant filmmaker he's just an incredibly imaginative one who knows how to inspire his audience and that sticking to the fundamentals of storytelling and universal ideas is how you create a pop-culture phenomenon.

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Life Lessons from My Toddler

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Everything I ever needed to know I learned from my 18-Month-Old
12/10/2015

It's true what they say about our kids: we learn more from them than we will ever teach them. Every day that I spend with my 18-month-old son is not only a lesson on how I can be a better parent, but how I can just be a better person. Here are just a few things that I have learned from watching, parenting, and loving our little toddler, Johnny.

 

1. You don't need to know the words to sing along.

At 18 months, Johnny's vocabulary is expanding every day. He isn't exactly expressive enough to be reciting Shakespeare, but he has reached a stage of development in which he still wants to engage in the rhythm of conversation.

We have caught him many times pointing at objects going "DUHH, OOO, Nee" as if he is counting without knowing the words for numbers or fully grasping the concepts behind numbers. On other occasions he will babble along to music that is either played on the radio in the car or that we are singing to him. Again, he doesn't know the words, but he knows that that only way to learn the language is to fail at it until he gets it right.

Too often in my adult life I have hesitated because I didn't feel fully prepared. I have held back because I didn't think I knew all of what was required of me. I have chosen not to start because I didn't know if I could do it perfectly. Johnny has reminded me that it's okay to get it wrong the first few times in order to practice. With practice I can make perfect, if I only dare to start practicing.

 

2. Most stress goes away with a hug and a kiss

Life Lessons from My Toddler photo 1

Adults and kids both get riled up about the littlest things. Just the other day, we witnessed a complete meltdown because we didn't want Johnny using his fork to stir the milk in his cup. He was literally crying over spilt milk! … Or I guess the fact that we stopped him from spilling the milk.

In the midst of this, my wife picks him up, holds him in her arms, and kisses the top of his head. The tears stopped flowing and he let out a big sigh. I brought him a bottle of milk, which he took, and the tantrum was over.

Kids trip, fall and scream all of the time. Being a toddler is frustrating because as cognitive abilities grow, the words and physical abilities to express them do not always develop at the same rate. Being a young person in this world is like being the new person at work. Everything takes longer, you don't fully understand the language and culture at the office and you can't figure out where they hide all the supplies you need to do your job.

At the end of some of our very stressful days, maybe in lieu of a freak-out, perhaps it would be better to find someone who can hold us, or provide us with affection.

 

3. What makes us most happy is when we are all together with those we love most

Life Lessons from My Toddler photo 2

We were in Italy, for a week, which meant a week away from Johnny, who stayed with his grandparents. As he was playing with his toys on our first morning back home, he came over to me, pulled my leg and dragged me over to join him. He moved a pillow in just the right place for me to sit next to him. Standing up after only a moment, he rushed back to my wife and grabbed her arm to come as well. She joined us by the pillow and we all sat there together on the floor.

Johnny started laughing, giggling uncontrollably as if he had just received some life-changing news. He was ecstatic just to be sitting with the people he loved most -- Mom and Dad. That was the moment in his day that brought him the most joy after being apart from us for a whole week.

I find myself searching for so many ways to entertain us and make our moments seem more special. I buy things, I take us places and I schedule activities. It's hard not to get caught up in all the things at my disposal that I might consume or do. Johnny reminds me that if I really just want to be happy, I have everything -- or everyone -- right there. I just need to make the time to sit down with them.

 

4. Whenever you hear music, just dance!

For Johnny, where there is music there is dancing. Last weekend, a new Chanukah compilation was an opportunity to grab a giant stuffed bear and trot around the living room. Even a phone ringing or alarm buzzing has enough of a beat for Johnny to start moving. Music brings such joy and helps him find new ways to wiggle his tiny body. The more he dances, the more he smiles and shrieks with delight.

At first I used to wonder how he had such great rhythm. Clearly, he couldn't have gotten it from either of his parents. (True story: we actually both hurt ourselves taking a beginners salsa lesson because we were so out of sync with the music.) But then, when I really thought about it, I wondered if we just lost that rhythm somewhere along the way, because unlike Johnny, we got scared about how we looked or what people might think. With that realization, I found myself eager to join my little one in his dancing escapades and found out what was making him so happy.

 

5. Run, don't walk through life.

Life Lessons from My Toddler photo 3

We always like to tell people that Johnny never learned to walk; he learned to run first and figured out how to slow down later. A lot of kids love nothing more than to find a big open field, a long sidewalk or huge playground with space to just ratchet those little legs up to top speed. It's exhausting to keep up with and also inspiring to know how fearlessly fast this little one wants to go.

My life moves fast. Every moment is truly gone before I have a chance to know it even existed. I can either choose to work against nature and fight to slow it down or jump on the rollercoaster and move at the speed of life. With that notion, I am most grateful I have my baby boy in front of me, leading the charge.

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Vegan Creamy Mashed Sweet Potatoes

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12/09/2015

Vegan Creamy Mashed Sweet Potatoes photo

I happen to love Thanksgiving -- a lot; the family, the loud laughter and the food. Ohhh the food!

When I do a holiday party there are a lot of people at my house. The tables are breaking at the rims with food and liquor and the house aches to break at the seams with all the laughter and chatter. It is always a good time and everyone always leaves with full bellies and big smiles.

This year my cousin and I had decided to combine our Thanksgivings into one. They have a beautiful house that actually has a gigantic basement complete with a fancy bar and a second kitchen. So cooking up a storm in that house was awesome.

When we started talking about the menu for the 20-some people attending the Thanksgiving feast this year it hit me … what am I going to eat? No really? I mean, so many side dishes for Thanksgiving either are full of dairy or are laden with meat products. And my mashed potatoes; I literally LOVE mashed potatoes, creamy and delicious in all their glory. I could eat an entire bowl (and have).

And let me tell you … I love my family but if I even started telling them, particularly the men, that they are eating vegan they would sit me down and explain what a freak I am and how I am depriving my body of protein and how I need to be institutionalized. (Funny story: I was informed by someone that the Russian radio had a debate about vegan vs omnivore eating and that the World Health Organization said that vegans are clinically insane. Don't these people have cancer and diabetes to worry about?)

Anyhow … my goal for this year was to create ridiculously delicious food that just so happens to be vegan or at the very least vegetarian. And then at the end I will scream out "SURPRISE, you have been punked! This is VEGAN!!!" Or not … because then I really would be a lunatic.

Anyhow … these mashed sweet potatoes were born one night when I found four large sweet potatoes in my pantry looking sad and lonely. It happened to be the same night that I was making my Panera copycat vegan butternut squash soup and I was inspired by the magic ingredient in the soup that makes it so unbelievably creamy: coconut milk.

Chef note: When I talk about coconut milk I am talking about the stuff in a can, not in the cartons next to the milk. That stuff is thinned out and watered down and while it is good as a drink, it is not for cooking or to add creaminess to dishes.

After the potatoes were boiled, I drained them really well.

Chef note: No one wants soggy mashed potatoes. Water and cream do not mix. Drain them really well in a colander so they are nice and dry.

I added a bit of vegan butter once the potatoes were cooked and some coconut milk as well as a secret ingredient I use in my Crazy Creamy Mashed Potatoes -- sour cream (except this time I used vegan sour cream). I added a very good pinch of salt and pepper and some fresh thyme. Then I whizzed it up in my mixer. I think this was imperative as it really got the taters nice and creamy.

Chef note: Check out my super special make-ahead tip in the notes of the recipe.

The result? It was FANTASTIC. Hubs loved it. And he was in disbelief how creamy and delish they were without all that cream and butter.

Although Thanksgiving is long gone, there's still plenty of time to take advantage of these taters in your winter menu.

 

Vegan Creamy Mashed Sweet Potatoes

From girlandthekitchen.com

Ingredients

4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into half moon shapes
3 tbsp vegan sour cream
3 tbsp vegan butter such as Earth Balance
4 tbsp coconut milk plus extra to garnish * (Note 1)
2 thyme stems, with the leaves removed, plus extra for garnish* (Note 2)
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the potatoes well as they tend to hold onto some of the dirt even after they are peeled.

2. Add to a large pot and fill completely with water. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook until knife tender -- when a knife goes into the potatoes smoothly.

3. Drain in a colander. This step is crucial because you want to get as much water out of the potatoes as possible.

4. Now add BACK into the pot that the potatoes were in. The pot will now be dry because the residual heat will have dried it up. If not, then just wipe the access water out with a paper towel before adding in the potatoes.*

5. Add the remaining ingredients into the pot with the potatoes. Now add this point you can either use a hand mixer, a stand mixer or a plain masher to get everything smoothed out.

6. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly.

7. Before serving, swirl in some coconut milk on the very top and sprinkle with thyme.

Notes

1. Use the coconut milk from the can NOT the cartons. Stir up the liquid and the solids in the can so that it is completely combined. This will give you the perfect texture.

2. Removing thyme leaves is super simple! With one hand hold the top of the stem and with the other hand just slide your hand down the stem to remove the little leaves and voila, de-stemmed!

3. Personally I get the creamiest outcome when I use my stand mixer with the whip attachment. However, hand mixers work just as well. And when you are in a pinch for time, the hand masher will do just fine.

4. Make ahead tip: You can cut up your potatoes and store them in your pot of water up to 2 days ahead of time. Then once your potatoes are cooked. Drain them and keep them in your pot. Right before your guests come, heat up the remaining ingredients until they are melted through and add to the potatoes. You will have perfect creamy potatoes that are gorgeously warmed through!

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The Guide to Giving Gift Cards

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12/07/2015

The Guide to Giving Gift Cards photo

Dear Reader,

If you should ever have to give me a gift for any reason -- be it this week's holiday of Chanukah, my birthday, perhaps an anniversary, or maybe even a very futuristic Mothers Day -- I hereby henceforth declare my written permission for you to purchase for me a gift card.

Here's the part where you gasp. "A gift card?! What an impersonal gift!"

But I'll repeat: You have been granted my official permission (is anyone out there a notary?) to get me a gift card and call it a day. And yes, believe it or not, this can even apply to husbands and mothers.

When it comes to gifts, I can see how I may be difficult to shop for. I'm usually at least a season behind the rest of the fashion world, I'm pretty particular about jewelry (I like silver but I'm not a huge fan of gold), and I like dollars but I don't like any scents (get it?). For whatever reason you're buying me a gift, I am so grateful, and the last thing I would want to do would be to stress you out.

A gift card to one of my favorite stores (Or really any store! I can find something anywhere!) is a nice way to put your gift to good use. As my personal shopping budget comes up a bit shy of the million-dollar mark, these gift cards come in handy to update my closet with more recent fashion or the latest gadget.

I do understand, though, the need for wanting to make a gift more "personal." A gift card may be construed as cold or lacking in creativity. But if you're feeling a case of "gift card giving blah," here are a few ways to make a gift card gift shine a bit more like you.

Be creative in your choice of gift card store. Maybe you've heard that I like scarves (it's true!) and you have a favorite scarf store. I'd love to try a new store, and a gift card is a wonderful incentive.

Pair the gift card with a related gift. My mom used to get people gift cards to Blockbuster (RIP) along with a couple packs of popcorn, and I thought it was the cutest thing. What about a gift card to Old Navy on top of a fun pair of mittens? Or a gift card to a sports store with a nice water bottle?

Wrap the gift card in a big box. It's fun to unwrap a piano-sized box shrouded in paper reminiscent of the Fourth of July. It's even more fun to find a little box inside of a big box. Make me work for the gift card. Heck, send me on a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood to make me find the gift card.

Write me a poem. You can include a thoughtful, creative card with your gift! Make a collage of pictures and memories of us. Scrape up your sonnet-writing skills or write about how I'm L ively, I nteresting, and A ctive. Your creativity in the card is worth more than the gift.

So, use this guide to the gift card when thinking about what to get me or other people. Happy Chanukah, happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and happy Monday!

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For the love of fried food

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12/04/2015

For the love of fried food phot

Every year, friends and family gather to celebrate the miracle of an event that happened in ancient times. After the Maccabian revolt, there was only enough oil in the temple to last one day. Miraculously, it lasted eight. All around the world, Jews gather to celebrate the holiday for eight days. We also gather to eat, for what would a Jewish holiday be without food?

The holiday commemorates the oil lasting for eight days and to honor that, we Jews celebrate by eating amazing, crispy, crunchy, delicious foods fried in oil. We certainly know how to party!

Latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) are central players in many celebrations. I love latkes and oh, how I love me some donuts! But making latkes  for a party also means making a main dish and then a main dish leads to sides (latkes are the starch; I mean a veggie side) and then there is a salad and then maybe an appetizer etc… you can see where this is going. Before you know it, you are cooking for days and that is only for one of eight festive nights!

But, what if there was a dish that was all inclusive? What if your dish could be the main, the side, the everything? I am thinking about a delicious platter of crunchy, and satisfying Fried Fish and Chips. I simply crave fish and chips. They are the answer to my holiday quest for Jewish comfort fried food.

It is not random that I am planning my fried fest to include savory fish and chips. Fried fish is actually Jewish in origin. Marrano Jews dipped their fish in egg and bread crumbs and fried it. The "chip" part of the dish came later. The first fish and chip shop was founded by an Ashkenazi Jew in 1860 and the rest is history.

This year for Chanukah, I am celebrating a true Jewish food and by munching and crunching my way through Fish and Chips.

 

Fish and Chips

For the batter:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup rice flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Dash of Old Bay seasoning
1 bottle dark brown beer

1½ pounds cod, tilapia, or other firm fleshed lean fish, cut into 2 inch pieces
4 large russet potatoes
Cornstarch for dredging
4 cups canola oil

Directions

Preheat oven 200 degrees

1. Place ice and water in a large bowl. Fit a mixing bowl into the ice water (this step will yield a light and delicate batter).

2. Whisk all the ingredients for the batter together over the ice. The batter can be made one hour ahead of frying and should be kept on ice. 

3. Pat dry the fish and set aside.

4. Slice the potatoes, skin on, into wedges about 1 inch thick and place in cold water.

5. Heat the oil in a large heavy-duty saucepan to 320 degrees.

6. Dry the potatoes completely and fry them in batches until they are opaque and limp. Transfer the par-cooked potatoes to a sheet pan lined with paper towels or a brown paper bag (helps to sop up the oil).

7. Increase the heat until the oil reaches 360 and add the potatoes. Fry the potatoes until they are golden brown and crispy. Transfer to a lined pan. Keep the potatoes warm in the oven.

8. Dredge the fish in the cornstarch and then into the batter. Fry the fish in batches until golden brown and crispy. Transfer the fish to a lined platter and keep warm in the oven.

 

Lemon-Garlic Aioli

½ cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
Dash of hot sauce
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

Directions

Whisk all of the ingredients together.

 

Vanilla Bean Zeppole

What is the holiday without a dessert? Here is a simple and delicious, lighter-than-air donut-called a zeppole. Chag Chanukah sameach! Happy Chanukah!

1 vanilla bean, scraped
½ cup sugar, plus
3 tablespoons
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 stick butter
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs

Directions

1. Cut open the vanilla bean lengthwise. Using the back of a knife, scrape along the inside of the vanilla bean to collect the seeds. Scrape vanilla bean seeds into a small bowl. Add the ½ cup sugar and cinnamon and stir to combine. Set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan combine the butter, salt, 3 tablespoons of sugar, and water over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Take pan off the heat and stir in the flour. Return pan to the heat and stir continuously until mixture forms a ball, about 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Transfer the flour mixture to a medium bowl or the work bowl of a stand mixer. Using a mixer, add eggs, one at a time, incorporating each egg completely before adding the next. Beat until smooth. If not frying immediately, cover with plastic wrap and reserve in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.

4. Pour enough oil into a large frying pan to reach a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over medium heat until a deep fry thermometer registers 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

5. Using a small ice cream scoop or two small spoons, carefully drop about a tablespoon of the dough into the hot olive oil, frying in batches. Turn the zeppole once or twice, cooking until golden and puffed up, about five minutes. Drain on paper towels. Toss with cinnamon and sugar. Arrange on a platter and serve immediately.

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8 Jewish Lights unto the World

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Jewish contributions you may not have thought of
12/03/2015

8 Jewish Lights unto the World photo

There is an interesting account written by Clearchus, a student of Aristotle, telling of when Aristotle was confronted by a Jewish sage. The sage (unnamed) had come to test Aristotle's renowned knowledge and insights. However, according to Clearchus, Aristotle was the one who left impressed by the sage's knowledge and insights.

When we hear the names, "Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates," we feel admiration and wonder at those great wise men. When we hear the names, "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," it doesn't seem to have the same effect. Perhaps that's because we don't realize what they have contributed.

So, for this Chanukah, in honor of the eight nights of light, here are eight great leaders of the Jewish people with one contribution each (though they have given plenty more) to the world as we know it. And as the "Relationships Rabbi," I'm going to take a view on these contributions from a relationships perspective.

1. Joseph

As a young man of only 17 years, Joseph was abandoned by his brethren and painfully sold to slavery. He found himself emotionally and physically destitute, eventually sold to a wealthy Egyptian man, Potiphar. Potiphar's beautiful wife takes a liking to Joseph and consistently attempts to seduce him. He was alone, forsaken by his family, in a foreign country, living as a slave. He had every excuse in the book to give up on his integrity. And yet he refused. This commitment to morality, especially marital morality, has been, and unfortunately still is, a lesson for civilization to continue to learn from.

2. Aaron

Known throughout Jewish literature as, "The Seeker of Peace," Aaron was a very holy man. One of his first "cameos" in the Bible is when he heard his younger brother, Moses, was going to become the leader of the nation. Their father, Amram, had also been the leader of the nation. It would make the most sense that Aaron, a man of great scholarship and wisdom who is also the oldest in the family, would follow in that role. However, his brother was Divinely declared as the leader. What was his reaction? Indignation? Remorse? Frustration? It is beautifully and succinctly stated, "His heart rejoiced." The joy for others and their accomplishments to trump our expectations for ourselves is a profound lesson in relationships.

3. Rebecca

As a stranger came to town with his long entourage of servants and camels, he went to the well to fill up on water after a long journey. Not knowing who he was or what he was there for, Rebecca offered him, his servants and his camels water. (And camels drink a lot of water!) The great lesson of honoring and taking care of others is beautifully exemplified by our matriarch.

4. King David

Arguably the greatest leader of all times, King David was a powerhouse -- a genius beyond comprehension and mastermind at war, poetry, scholarship and governing. Yet he was never apprehensive to admit to making a mistake. We learn the essence of admitting to our mistakes, learning from them and repenting to change for the future from our great beloved leader, King David.

5. Moses

As the receptor of the Divine word to be brought to the entire nation of the Jewish people and eventually to the world, there doesn't seem to be a more honorable and esteemed position ever to exist. And yet the Bible's one description of Moses' character is simply, "the most humble of all men." His recognition of the greatness of every human being and their Divine soul was why he was charged with the great task of bearing the Divine word to the world. And his great accomplishment of character development is perhaps one of the greatest lessons that he taught us.

6. Rachel

After meeting the love of her life, her sister was snuck under the chuppah instead. Did she cry out? Did she tell her beloved fiancé that she will seemingly never be able to bond with him? No. Out of deep empathy to her sister's shame, she did not speak up. To reach such a profound level of empathy even in the midst of our own emotional pain is something we dream of. Our matriarch embodied it, lived it and taught it to us.

7. Joshua

He assumed leadership of the Jewish people after Moses. What were his great qualifications? We know he was close to Moses and learned from him regularly. We also know he was Divinely declared for the position. However, what is interesting to note, is the description of his merit to this position. Jewish literature relates that he would clean up after everyone in the study halls. He made sure everything was taken care of behind the scenes. No one was watching. He saw the need for the community to have this taken care of, and so he took it upon himself to do that. He exemplifies the concept of looking at the community and seeking what needs to get done, with no self-aggrandizement or gratification taken into account.

8. Matityahu

And for the final relationship insight, we'll talk about the Maccabees. Imagine a world without marital allegiance, empathy, altruistic communal concerns, a willingness and desire to amend mistakes, kindness to strangers ... The Maccabees knew the great wisdom of those listed above and much more was at stake when the Greeks attempted to Hellenize the Jewish people. They recognized that there is wisdom and meaning beyond what is scientifically quantifiable. Their victory proved it, as a few farmers defeated the world's greatest army. They were willing to fight and die for the sake of a spiritual existence that goes beyond the physical reality.

Jewish people, stand proud! You have contributed and continue to tribute great light unto the world! Happy Chanukah!

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When do I add paprika?—and other questions for a Jewish mother

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12/02/2015

When do I add paprika? photo

While cleaning out the closet of my childhood home over the fall holidays, I dug up a tattered cookbook made from construction paper and crayon. The recipes, created by my fellow Jewish preschool classmates and me back in the 1980s, weren't exactly of Julia Child's "Beef Bourguignon" caliber.

No, this collection read more like a humor book than a cookbook. One recipe was for popcorn calling for extra "drops of apple juice." The ingredients for the spaghetti and meatballs specified exactly "90 noodles."

And my recipe for "corned beef sandwiches" took the cake. It read: "She (I'm assuming my mom was the "she") buys corned beef at the store. Then she takes it off the wax paper. Then she puts it on a plate. She gives us bread too."

My contribution to the book was an odd selection because my mother is a wonderful home cook and baker, but for some reason her simple deli sandwich prep was the meal that stuck out in my preschool mind, the one I thought merited saving for posterity.

Each child wrote his or her cooking instructions in the third person -- usually referencing a mother or an occasional dad or grandma preparing each step of the recipe.

There's something so Jewish about that amateur cookbook. The compilation sparked for us children, barely out of the womb, our introduction to thinking and talking about food -- and really does it get more Jewish than that?

Whether its roast chicken on Shabbat, blintzes and kugel for Yom Kippur break-fast, or, heck, Chinese food on Christmas, food is a core value for us -- along with Torah, family, and acts of loving kindness. As the old joke goes, when our people aren't currently eating, we're usually planning for our next meal.

The cookbook is a Jewish artifact in another way too. The recipes were passed down to us from our families-our parents and grandparents and those that came before them. From one generation to another -- l'dor v'dor -- these recipes link our family tree from past to present to future. It's the power of Jewish continuity -- in culinary form.

My great-grandmother taught my grandma the recipes back in a tiny shtetl in Belarus, and my grandma, in turn, recorded the recipes either in her mind or on paper, and then taught them to my mother in America. My mother, then, passed them down to my sister and me when we were growing up.

As in so many other homes, my mom would employ her children as pint-sized sous chefs in the kitchen. We little ones always got the fun jobs, mixing ingredients with a big spoon, dipping our noses into the vanilla to smell the sweet, singular scent, and rolling out the dough for sugar cookies in the shape of dreidels, Haman hats, and shofars. Today, my nephews are the sous chefs, and maybe someday, I'll instruct my own children in how to prepare those same recipes, where we'll read the directions together on the next iteration of the iPad.

Now that I'm all grown up, my mom is still transmitting her culinary knowledge to me. I'll often call her up for guidance on recipes. From the aisles of a Jewel or Hungarian, I'll ask her random questions: Can I substitute broth for stock? Can Greek yogurt be used in place of sour cream? When do I add paprika? I swear half the time I know the answers -- or at least Google or Siri do -- but it's just comforting and familiar to hear her on the other end of the line.

There's a paradox in chatting on a 21st century smartphone, while keeping alive these old family recipes -- and, with them, keeping alive a special piece of my grandparents and great-grandparents. We're honoring the legacy and wisdom of our loved ones who came before us -- pulling parts of our Jewish families out of the past and into the present day.

On that same weekend last fall when I discovered that silly little cookbook, my mother, sister, and I prepared Shabbat dinner for the rest of our family. And just like when we were growing up -- only this time around my sister and I are taller than my mom and there's more wine involved -- we treasure these recent moments too.

That evening, we made chilled cherry soup, London broil, potatoes, challah, and brownies. As we whisked, seasoned, chopped, muddled, and sipped, we gabbed about everything -- work, the presidential race, Kabbalah, family resemblance, relationships, and more.

The cooking set the backdrop for our bonding. Those old recipes -- in our home and millions of other Jewish homes around the world -- have seen it all. They've traveled a long way in miles and years -- by train, boat, and plane -- often one of the few treasures to survive pogroms and war.

The recipes, for kugel, mandel bread, charoset, and more, serve as a constant in our volatile Jewish history -- a witness at our Shabbat and holiday tables to our conversations, songs, tears, and laughter, a witness to our Jewish story.

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CHI to NYC: My Chanukah Miracle

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12/01/2015

CHI to NYC: My Chanukah Miracle photo

Every Chanukah we are reminded of the phrase "nes gadol hayah sham" -- "a great miracle happened there," and we celebrate the various miracles of Chanukah. But as I'm writing this from my new apartment in New York City, I'm thankful for a different type of miracle, and the "there" in this case is a little more complicated.

I called Chicago home for a long time, but after two of the most stressful months of my career, I miraculously made the move to the Big Apple; to a neighborhood I've been wanting to live for more than a year and a half.

On a cold Friday night in February 2014, I went to a Modern Orthodox synagogue called Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a shul known as the go-to place for young professionals on Friday nights. As I waited for Kabbalat Shabbat services to begin, at least 300 20-somethings filled the shul, and after services, 95th Street became the scene of an impromptu singles' event.

Finally, I understood why my college friends -- and a number of articles -- kept referring to the Upper West Side was "a scene." I'd never seen anything close to this in Chicago, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a part of it.

It's safe to call New York the Jewish capital of America, and I've heard there are more observant, single 20- and 30-somethings there than there are in the rest of the country combined. Chances are if you talk to a young Modern Orthodox Jew living in the city from out of state, they'll tell you that these numbers are the number one reason they're living here.

It also goes without saying that keeping kosher and finding a synagogue that matches your belief system is infinitely easier here than anywhere else. Looking for some kosher meat late on a Saturday night? No chance if you live in Lakeview. Milt's (the only option) closes well before midnight. On the Upper West Side, a burger or shawarma is a stone's throw away -- even at 3 a.m.

But when I came back to Chicago after that eye-opening trip, I suddenly found my heart in two places. On one hand, I enjoyed the life I've made for myself in the Lakeview community. And the idea of paying double in rent for half the space was certainly a hard pill to swallow.

So for nearly a year and a half, I flirted with the idea of moving and visited nearly a half-dozen times, but never actually made the move and constantly made excuses for why I couldn't. I had a cool job working for a hot bourbon brand, a spacious apartment and, most recently, a summer romance I thought could last. Moving was a nice idea to fantasize over, I convinced myself, but a far cry from reality -- or so I thought.

In August, everything went downhill. That summer romance suddenly ended; what I thought was a dream job started becoming less and less of a fit and I could tell it was mutual. By October, I was let go. Feeling like I had been punched in the gut but like nothing was holding me back, I finally made the decision. Despite my lack of connections, the seemingly impossible logistics of moving in the winter and five months left on my Chicago lease, I decided it was time to go for it and move to New York.

I'm not sure if divine miracles happen anymore, but what followed certainly felt like one. Two weeks after I made my decision, I headed to New York with five interviews and a big dream to live. By the time I came back to Chicago, I had an offer that I ended up taking.

But that was only the first miracle I needed. Next, I had to find an apartment for Dec. 1, which is the worst possible time to find roommates, and that was on top of finding someone to sublet my Chicago room for five months. To add to the degree of difficulty, I needed to find someone who keeps kosher -- something you can't easily find through airbnb or craigslist.

But in the 11th hour, everything fell into place. I found an apartment just a half a block from the ideal train to get me to work, found a third roommate and someone to take over my sublease at close to full price all in the span of three weeks.

As we light the menorah in celebration of Chanukah, the message of believing in miracles even during times of immense adversity still ring true today. When I light the candles this year from my new apartment in New York, I'll be reminded of how one of my biggest disappointments led to the start of a new opportunity in a place where I've wanted to be for so long.

May this year's Chanukah lights inspire us to be extra ambitious and strive for the seemingly impossible. No matter how big the challenge, may this be the year we are fortunate to receive miracles beyond our wildest dreams.

From New York to Chicago and beyond, chag sameach.

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