OyChicago blog

A new to-do list

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Eight years ago, upon returning from a semester abroad, I put together a “Life To-Do” list.  Exhilarated by my experiences and inspired to live the life of a “do-er,” I compiled a few must-do-before-I-die goals.  The items on my list ranged from the possible (learn to play guitar) to the probably not possible (marry a Latino Jew) to the downright silly (streak the quad).

Back at school, the goals stayed in my assignment book as a constant reminder:

• Bike through Argentina.
• Live and work in Europe for a year.
• Learn more about wine.

However, once graduation came and went, my university assignment book was no longer of use to me in the “real world,” and I stuck the list in my travel journal.  It was promptly forgotten.

After reconnecting with a friend from my semester in Spain (thank you, Facebook), I dug out my journal, goals still sticking out of the last page.  My heart sank as I read through them and realized that only one item had been accomplished.

I began to wonder what my 21-year-old self would think about where she is today.  After all, 21-year-old Alyssa certainly did not list “live in the suburb where you grew up” among her to-dos.  She didn’t set out to earn a laughable salary at a non-profit organization, and she really didn’t plan on working part-time in order to stay home with a baby.

My younger self had big plans, but maybe those plans haven’t been realized because better “to-dos” have crossed my path.

The Latino Jew of my list turns out to be an Irish-Polish Catholic.  He may not speak Spanish, or read Hebrew, but he enjoys lox and bagels more than I do.

He took me to Sonoma County, where we drank too much wine without learning a whole lot.

While the younger me probably imagined a big paycheck, a condo by the lake and nights out on the town, I think she’d understand the importance of doing work that I can be proud of, living near family and spending nights snuggling with the husband, baby and dog.

There’s still time to learn the guitar.

And if nothing else, at least I can say I streaked the quad.


I Went to Middle-Earth and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

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I read an extraordinary thing this week. Michael Weingrad, a professor of Judaic studies with excellent credentials, published an essay in the Jewish Review of Books titled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” He makes a number of claims, some insightful, others bewildering, about the Jewish relationship with the fantasy genre. Namely, he claims that while Jews like to consume fantasy, we just don’t write it, and that disappoints him.

First, this assertion is ridiculous. Weingrad claims he “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish,” yet even my mother was able to come up with Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comics, American Gods, Neverwhere and Coraline and winner of just about every fantasy and literary award short of the Pulitzer and Nobel. My baffled friends asked why Weingrad was overlooking fantasy giants like William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), Jane Yolen (The Devil’s Arithmetic) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), not to mention Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler (A Series of Unfortunate Events) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated). My only conclusion is that Weingrad has a very narrow understanding of the fantasy genre, contemporary or otherwise, because given the restrictions he places on his own definition, no wonder he can’t find what he wants.

Weingrad asks why we have no great Jewish works on the level with The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. His essay, couched as a double review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman and The Water Between the World by Israeli author Hagar Yanai, fixates on the idea that only Tolkien-lite qualifies as fantasy works. Fantasy, he says, needs to embrace wonder. (Apparently “the supernatural itself does not define fantasy literature,” so Judaism’s long tradition of ghost stories, miracles, magical realism and mysticism doesn’t count for much — though no less a fantasy luminary than Terry Pratchett recognized golems as a pretty great addition to his Discworld series.) Weingrad writes that “religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature,” and that Judaism in particular has “banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy.” (I would tell him to read The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, which explores Judaism through engagement with none other than the Dalai Lama. Judaism is rife with wonder. It doesn’t necessarily look like non-Jewish wonder.)

I Went to Middle-Earth photo

Circa 2002: Early attempts at a Tolkien-Jewish medley

One problem that Weingrad does acknowledge is that traditional high fantasy authors such as Tolkien or Lewis are writing with nostalgia about a position of power. Neither Narnia nor Middle-earth are explored in depth from the perspective of those outside the ruling establishment, which, historically, has not generally included Jews. This raises the first of many questions about Weingrad’s expectations for “a Jewish Narnia” — where does he want his Jewishness? Would it be the only culture in this setting? What kind of Jewishness does Weingrad want? American Ashkenazim from major metropolitan areas are far from the only perspective.

Why does high fantasy have to mean generic northern European, which typically makes Jews complete outsiders? Why not choose a setting like medieval Spain, or ancient Israel, or 18th-century Vilna, or the Caribbean and South America? Jews have incredible histories in incredible places, all of which are rich in unimaginable ways and all of which can shed light on Jewish experiences that don’t get much air time. I’d much rather read about the Khazars, a Central Asian kingdom said to have converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages, than yet another pseudo-English construct. I know I’m not the only one. (Guy Gavriel Kay, another well-known Jewish fantasy author, set The Lions of Al-Rassan in a Moorish Spain analog. I have it on good authority that the novel is fantastic.)

This issue goes deeper than setting, though: Weingrad specifically asks for an epic work that is as infused with Jewishness as Narnia is with Christianity. He argues that Judaism is too skittish about magic to allow for what “should” constitute fantasy (apparently dybbuks don’t count, because they’re too folkloric), and he offers no proposals for what should replace it. He calls Judaism a “sci-fi religion,” intensely modern and driven toward progress, and chides the Israeli fantasy author for creating a world that is “essentially modern, mundane and technocratic, with magical forces and creatures substituting our fossil fuels and silicon chips.”

Weingrad wants enchantment in his fantasy. Narnia ends with heavenly reward: at the end of The Last Battle, all those who believe in Aslan follow him “onward and upward” into the true Narnia, where every day is better than the last. As a statement of Christian theology, it’s a potent representation. But you can’t just plug in “Jewish” qualities to a generic Tolkien-lite story and claim you’ve done your job. Weingrad himself says the feat “would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds” of an Oxbridge don. Even that formulation, however, is characterizing Jews as outsiders in a non-Jewish, northern European establishment. If you want to say “rabbinic or Talmudic education,” just say it. I don’t think that’s strictly necessary, however.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s tell a story about how Jews love and use stories. I want a fantasy world in which learning and discussion are valued and are used to engage with the world, supernatural or otherwise. I want a story which recognizes that evil isn’t a thing that can just be eradicated because we don’t like it, and so tikkun olam, the repair of the world, becomes the story’s spine. I want a world that concerns itself with justice, and which is always fighting for betterment. And of course I wouldn’t mind a quest or two. I’m a sucker for a good quest story.

In the meantime, I almost envy Professor Weingrad. The fantasy genre, Jewish and non, is so much greater than sword-and-wizard tales, even when they’re deconstructed, as in The Magicians. Fantasy is a way to explore worlds that could not exist in the world as we know it, and he has so many wonderful books to read and enjoy for the very first time.


Spring fever

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TOV logo

It never fails that by the end of February, I am stir-crazy and absolutely fed up with winter.  I am sick of scratching my dry skin to death and watching my face get paler by the minute.  My motivation to leave my warm couch to venture out on a Saturday night dwindles more and more, and my gloves and earmuffs seem to be staring at me, taunting me with a never-ending winter that shows no sign of abating.

At times like these, I try to visualize my favorite things, a la Sound of Music.  Not really raindrops on roses – more like temperatures above 40 degrees for at least a week straight.  I like to look at my calendar and pick a weekend in April or May and think of all the wonderful springy things I could be doing – visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo with out-of-town guests, playing intramural softball in the park (if I played…anything), or perusing Bucktown boutiques without schlepping my giant puffy coat with me.

If any of this sounds attractive to you, I urge you to consider adding another item to your springtime agenda:  volunteering.

And the best part is that you don’t have to gaze thoughtfully at your imaginary Spring calendar.  You can sign up for a bunch of different projects today.  Here is a small sampling of some opportunities that I can connect you with through the TOV Volunteer Network – JUF’s volunteer services department:


If you are looking for an engaging volunteer project for one afternoon or evening that requires no long term commitment, consider checking out TOV’s Spring Mitzvah Mania.  It’s a great way to dip your toe in the volunteer waters, try something new, and if you like it, TOV can help you pursue long-term volunteer placement.

Projects are offered at several dozen different non-profits throughout the city and the suburbs, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, the JUF Uptown Cafe, CJE SeniorLife, the Good News Community Kitchen and more.

To sign up for a volunteer project, visit the TOV website.


As the newest addition to the TOV umbrella of volunteer opportunities, the JUF Community Legal Services program connects attorneys who volunteer their services pro bono with individuals and families in need of legal services that are unable to afford an attorney.

During the current financial downturn, the need for this service is greater than ever, and TOV is seeking attorneys to handle all types of cases, including but not limited to bankruptcy, foreclosure, family law, power of attorney, wills, and landlord-tenant disputes.

The program is run in conjunction with the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation, which provides malpractice insurance for all participants in the program, as well as training, support and legal resources for attorneys who are handling cases outside their specialty.  Clinic sessions are held on Monday evenings in Rogers Park, Arlington Heights, and Northbrook, and are by appointment only.

In you or anyone you know is interested in volunteering, please contact me at 312-357-4762 and visit our website for more information.  If anyone you know is in need with pro bono legal aid, please have them contact the Legal Services hotline at 847-568-1525.


What better way to celebrate the improved climate than rallying together with several thousand Jews to demonstrate our bond with the Jewish state at the 2010 Israel Solidarity Day?  ISD is a community-wide rally that mobilizes Jews across Chicago at seven sites throughout the city and suburbs and raises money to help support Israel.

TOV recruits nearly 1,000 volunteers who make this day possible, and volunteering at ISD is great.  You get a free t-shirt, a chance to give back to your community and a great time.  Shifts include greeting, registration, set-up, walk route management, children’s activities and much more.

For more details or to sign-up to volunteer, visit www.juf.org/walk or call the TOV Israel Solidarity Day Volunteer Hotline at (312) 444-2850.

Well Oy!sters, I know it’s a brutally cold one today, but you can certainly warm your heart by calling TOV to register for any of the opportunities that interest you.


Rush Limbaugh! The Musical

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Rush Limbaugh! The Musical photo

Those of you who’ve read my columns before are likely aware of two things: a) I could probably use a Valium every so often, and b) I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. My career consists of writing, directing, and performing music and comedy— mostly at Chicago’s Second City theater. And my most recent show, “Rush Limbaugh! The Musical” has proven to be not only my most satisfying, but also my most controversial. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last year, I co-wrote “Rod Blagojevich Superstar,” a Second City musical that was written in a week, and ran for seven months. (I blogged about that experience on Oy!.) While brainstorming for our next show, we decided to tackle a far bigger personality: both in terms of national renown and sheer bacon-eating heft. (Before you get all upset about me making fun of Rush Limbaugh’s weight, please keep in mind the man referred to a then 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton as a dog and accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating his effects of Parkinson's. I think ol’ Rushie can take a fat joke or two. And yes, I know the man is thinner now– but he was fat for so long, I’m gonna ride that Twinkie-train forever...)

The Blagojevich show was inherently political— which has become my forte over at Second City. The combination of political satire mixed with musical theater is nothing new, but it’s a fairly new venture under the Second City banner— and I’ve been the guy who’s asked to supply the music and lyrics for these shows. In “Blago,” we savaged the former Democratic governor and the Democratic machine unequivocally— and made Blagojevich appear as a narcissistic idiot. Based on the ticket sales and long run, it was clear that audiences of all political beliefs attended the show. Conservatives loved seeing Second City rake Democrats over the coals (something which is done more often than one would imagine: shows like “Barackstars,” “America: All Better!,” and “Between Barack and a Hard Place” have all gone to great lengths to satirize both the Obama phenomenon and the man himself,) and liberals showed an uncanny ability to laugh at themselves and their often misplaced support for corrupt Illinois Democrats.

My writing partner, Ed Furman, and I knew that satirizing Limbaugh would be a trickier proposition. How does one go after a man whose entire shtick could be easily defined as satire itself? We figured, the only way to do it was to go after the man hard. For me personally, this was not difficult. I have spent the better part of the last decade appalled by what I’ve perceived to be the lies of the extreme right wing and its powerful media arm. (Quick question: if Fox “News” is the most watched news network, and Limbaugh the most listened to radio personality, why is every other media outlet part of the “Mainstream Media?” Isn’t the most popular entity inherently “mainstream?” It seems ludicrous to play the victim card when you’re number one, but somehow they get away with it.)

We began writing the show last fall— having so much time to come up with a script and music & lyrics was actually more daunting than I’d expected. When you have one week to write a topical musical, you don’t second guess yourself or your material— you just “go”. When there’s four months, every joke, lyric, and note of music becomes a challenge..  Further adding to this challenge was my task to write songs that are pastiches of existing Broadway musical tunes. Rather than parodies— where one merely re-writes the lyrics— pastiches are songs which refer to just enough of the original song structure to establish a clear reference point; while making it different enough to be its’ own tune. (This is a device used to great effect by the Monty Python ensemble in their 1970’s Beatles-parody documentary, “The Rutles”.) In “Rush,” you’ll hear elements of “Rent,” “Wicked,” “Spring Awakening,” and many more.

Last fall quickly became late January when rehearsals began. The talented, Jeff-award winning director Matt Hovde (who also directed “Blago”) was again at the helm, and I assumed the double role of composer and musical director— teaching and arranging the score and conducting the band from the piano. There was so much to do that I (thankfully) had precious little time to worry about small issues like you know, “is the show funny?”

Amazingly, even before the show opened, there was controversy. Fox “News” ran a short preview piece asserting that the show would not be favorable to, “allegedly conservative” host Rush Limbaugh. (If Rush Limbaugh is “allegedly conservative,” I can “allegedly dunk a basketball.”) Bloggers took to the Internet to proclaim the show a “liberal hatchet job” and “hate-filled diatribe” against Mr. Limbaugh. There’s a slight problem with these assertions: these were all posted the week before even the actors had seen the script. Life is sure easier when you can form an opinion based on no facts whatsoever, isn’t it? How else do you think Ann Coulter sells so many books?

At Second City, we loved the negative press. What the angry, uninformed types didn’t take into account is that any buzz for a show is inherently good buzz. Furious conservatives kvetching about a show they hadn’t seen – and therefore didn’t realize contains a major b-story where the Democrats are painted as feckless, weak, incompetent, and totally unwilling to put up a fight – was good for business. Word began to spread, tickets began to sell, and opening night arrived.

The generous ovation during opening night absolutely validated the hard work we spent creating and preparing the show. The reviews that scattered in over the next few days ran the gamut— much as we’d expected for a show this polarizing and controversial. The publications which tend to influence theater-goers in Chicago, specifically Time Out, the Reader, the Examiner, Centerstage, and a plethora of theater-focused websites gave the show rave reviews. The Tribune and Sun Times were less kind, and some dude who wrote the book “Nixonland,” used many SAT words to joyfully express his disdain for our show. Good to know a guy who wrote a book about Nixon – a book which a journalist-friend of mine compared to Dwight Gooden’s baseball career (exciting start, stunningly dull middle & finish) is qualified to review a musical comedy.

And yet most satisfyingly, a review in the Southtown Star, provided us with the greatest gift we could have ever asked for. The critic, Betty Mohr, wrote a review that ripped the show to shreds under the guise of vehemently defending Rush Limbaugh. Obviously a Limbaugh fan (though never stated directly), Ms. Mohr labeled the show an outright lie, and added that the show was: “A screaming hate fest…a torrent of venom [performed by] a troupe of zealots…an effort to demonize Limbaugh,” among other wonderfully jaw-dropping comments. Best of all was her closing line: “Hitler once said, if you tell a lie big enough, everyone will believe it. No they won’t. Not anymore.” You read that right – a show I wrote mocking Rush Limbaugh was compared to the words of Adolph Hitler. Oy, I must be doing something right! Not so coincidentally, in the days after Ms. Mohr’s review was posted on Second City’s website and on Facebook, our next two Sunday matinees sold out. Thanks to Ms. Mohr, and completely against what she’d intended, the show now appears headed towards a certain extension.

To any Oy!Chicago readers who enjoy political comedy, musicals, and/or the Canadian classic rock legends Rush (who get a lot of play in the show), you’ll dig “Rush Limbaugh! The Musical” a whole lot. You need not be a dye-in-the-wool liberal, either. The show, as mentioned before, paints liberal Democrats as fools unable to join the fight—  so if you reside in the political center, you’ll also love this show. However, if you swear by Limbaugh’s every word, agree with Glenn Beck that the President is a “racist who hates white people,” or walk around saying to yourself, “you know, I don't care what Obama's legal birth certificate says, the man is a Muslim!” you’ll probably feel a bit like Betty Mohr. In that case, perhaps you’d be better off seeing a revival of “Cats.” For the rest of you? I hope you’ll come see a show that Zev Velancy of Centerstage calls, “one of the sharpest political satires I've seen. See it before Limbaugh's lawyers shut it down.” Who am I to argue with that?

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical plays Tuesday & Wednesday nights at 8:30 and Sundays at 2 p.m. at Second City e.t.c., through March 24th. Go to  www.secondcity.com for tickets.


Making a mountain out of a bunny hill

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Making a mountain out of a bunny hill photo

Over the last couple of weekends, I’ve been working on overcoming a fear. As I launched myself down a steep hill, with two pieces of plastic strapped to my feet and two poles in my hands for balance, I remembered that I really hate this kind of thing.

Successfully negotiating that first slope without falling was beyond fulfilling. I wanted to act like an Olympic athlete who had just won gold. I wanted to pump my fists in the air and scream the adrenaline off.

And this wasn’t even downhill skiing. My husband and I have been inspired to return to the sport of our Soviet childhoods and try our hand—or should I say, foot—at cross-country skiing. The old skills sort of came back when I spent three hours on skis in a forest one of the days over Christmas weekend. But I couldn’t manage to make my way downhill without ending up splattered on the snowy curbs. And don’t get me started on the trickiest part: going down a curving hill, which requires you to reorient as you’re hurtling down at supersonic speed. (Well, it’s not really supersonic, but the adrenaline and the fear make it pretty close.)

When I lived in Moscow, our winter gym class would be two hours of cross-country skiing in a nearby park. Twice a week, we’d change into sweats, pick up our wooden(!) skis and jars of special wax and head out to the park. As a 10-year-old, I used my mom’s old skis from the 1970s, which were a bit more temperamental than the plastic ones we recently rented. Even as I would build up speed, I would have to stop to clean off the snowy goop that would get stuck to the bottom of the skis and re-wax them.

By the time we decided to spend the weekend skiing with friends at Kettle Moraine Southern Unit, near Whitewater, Wis., I had regained some of my dexterity on skis. But the successful downhill evaded me still. I barely coped with the tiny slopes at the beginning of the trail. So when I got to the nearly vertical drop down which I was supposed to ski, I briefly considered taking my skis off and turning back. (I admit, I can be a wuss: I’d done that the one time my husband took me alpine skiing.) I let several people pass me as I stood at the top of the hill, watching them fly down the slope with barely any effort.

As the rest of my friends took on the massive hill, I saw some falls and some successes. I saw their speed – frightening! In the end, I decided my pride couldn’t let me just stand there any. I forced myself back onto the ski trail and gingerly began my descent. In the end, there was nothing ginger about it: I built up speed as I went down and would have succeeded without falling if only I knew how to stop or change trajectories. A friend who had skied before me had fallen at the very bottom of hill, which I couldn’t see as I launched myself down, and I couldn’t stop before running into her. No one got hurt, but it made for a big collision.

And yet, here I was, at the bottom, both of us a little the worse for wear, some snow in my boots, but having faced a fear. Now, onto curving hills!


Limmud Chicago: A Jewish communiversity

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Limmud Chicago 2010 logo 2

Remy Kaskel wasn’t nervous about the content of her talk about the Sh’ma, the prayer considered central to Judaism. She had presented a similar session two years ago. Mostly, she was anxious about people’s reactions when they saw the slight 14-year-old in front of the classroom. A student at Evanston Township High School, Kaskel taught one of about 100 sessions at the Feb. 14 Limmud Chicago, the international movement’s first local conference.

In the end, Kaskel needn’t have worried: her course on the Sh’ma, which addressed the prayer’s purpose, content and meaning, was the second most-attended session during her time slot. Participant Caroline Musin, a Jewish educator, said the session was among the most inspiring she had attended.

“She handled [the pressure] really well,” said Kaskel’s mother, Debra Yampol, a member of the Limmud Steering Wheel who was responsible for the food at the conference and also attended sessions together with her daughter. “Remy is following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, who taught at a yeshiva when he was just 12. She’s the kind of person you feel blessed to know, let alone give birth to.”

Kaskel’s session fit perfectly into Limmud’s philosophy, which holds that everyone has something to teach and something to learn.  The very name of the conference emphasizes knowledge acquisition—the Hebrew word limmud means learning.

“One of the things we were aiming for is a wide-enough variety of topics so that there would be at least one or two things that anyone could say, ‘I always wanted to learn about this,’” said educator and University of Chicago Divinity School graduate student Avi Finegold, who co-chaired this year’s conference. “Limmud is an immersive experience in the value of studying Judaism and Jewish text. [But] the ultimate goal is to enhance Jewish education beyond the one day.”

Nearly 400 participants of all ages in the 13-hour educational marathon discussed the interplay of the environment and Jewish festivals, got recipes for vegetarian food for Shabbat, analyzed mental health from a biblical perspective, danced, formed a drum circle, engaged in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, explored Jewish spirituality, read Yiddish poetry and surveyed the archeology of Jerusalem, among other offerings. Meanwhile, children attended Camp Limmud, a series of fun and educational activities that had them creating hands-on art projects, playing, listening to storytellers and singing.

The idea to bring a variety of disciplines together arose in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, when Limmud was a conference for Jewish educators. The movement has spread internationally and now offers conferences throughout Europe and North America as well as in Israel, South Africa and throughout the former Soviet Union.

Even as attendees explored myriad subjects, many focused on the opportunity to improve their personal connection with Judaism and Jewishness.

Jacob Cynamon-Murphy, a Chicago software developer, heard about Limmud through his Birthright Israel NEXT reading group and decided that the conference offered an opportunity for him and wife Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy to continue their exploration of “how to merge our spiritual identities,” he said.

“We chose sessions that would give us some food for thought,” said Jacob Cynamon-Murphy, as he volunteered to direct people to sessions during a break.

Organizers hoped for similar reactions when putting together the Limmud roster, which they tagged as “taking you one step further on your Jewish journey.”

Plans for Limmud Chicago 2011, which will take place during Presidents Day Weekend, are already underway.


Jewish Olympians hoping to bring home more than a chai necklace

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Jewish Olympians photo

I have had some fans write in asking about Jewish representation at the 2010 Winter Olympics. We know that Tamar Katz isn't going to be there, but who is? To my knowledge there are five participants in this year’s Olympic Games.

Israel is sending three participants and I am hopeful that they can bring home at least one medal. Two of them are brother and sister pair, Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky. They are entered in the couples’ ice dance competition later this week. Roman started skating in Minsk while his sister, Alexandra, did not begin until their family immigrated to Israel. They train at the Metulla ice rink near the Lebanese border, which is the same rink Tamar Katz trained on (it is the only real ice rink in Israel). They both moved to Israel in 1990. They competed in 2006 placing 22nd. But they finished 9th at the 2008 World Championships and 1st in the 2009 World University Games. Their chances are pretty good for receiving a medal this time around.

The third member of the Israeli delegation is skier, Mikail Renzhin. He participated in the 2006 Winter Games but did not win a medal. He finished 32nd in the giant slalom and 37th in the slalom. Renzhin will once again compete in both events. Renzhin was born in Latvia but moved to Israel at the age of 22. He spent his first years in Israel learning Hebrew and did a short stint in the Israeli army. Immediately after immigrating, he contacted the Israeli Ski Federation and was able to continue as a competitive skier. Renzhin now trains in the USA.

I have been able to track down two other Jewish participants: Laura Spector and Ben Agosto. Laura Spector represented the USA as part of the biathlon team. The biathlon is a combination of cross country skiing and rifle shooting. At 22, she is the youngest member of the biathlon team, and at only five feet tall, she is also the smallest member of the US Olympic team. She is currently a student at Dartmouth majoring in genetics and Jewish studies.

Finally, there is Ben Agosto who won a silver medal in the 2006 Olympics as a part an ice-dancing pair. Agosto almost missed the 2006 Olympics because his partner, the Canadian-born skater Tanith Belbin, had yet to finalize her American citizenship. Agosto is ready to compete again this year, which he says should be his last Olympics.

Know of any other Jewish Olympians? Let me know by commenting below.

For more Jewish articles on the Olympics visit www.TheGreatRabbino.com.
And Let Us Say...Amen.


The stuff they don’t tell you in any intro-to-Judaism class about being a Jew

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Off the top of my head, here’s…

The stuff they don’t tell you in any intro-to-Judaism class about being a Jew:

1. No matter how accepting your family is of your religious choice, you are now different. And sometimes this difference might make you a little sad—it can be lonely when your family isn’t sitting at the Seder table, or breaking the fast with you. My advice so you don’t feel alienated from your family: include them in your traditions and life as much as possible, and return their acceptance by participating in their lives and religious practices as you are comfortable and able.

2. Nobody comes to a Saturday morning service on time. Except for maybe the b’nai mitzvah family. And it’s OK to get up and go to the bathroom—the whole room won’t turn around and watch you exit.

3. Nobody cares if you were born-Jewish or converted to Judaism. Either way, you are Jewish. (This comes with all sorts of footnotes—see your Rabbi for details.)

4. Jews love to discover that you are also Jewish. Especially when you have a non-Jewish last name. And don’t expect your last name to explain that you are a Jew by choice either. I’ve been asked if Flayhart was Polish, and when I responded it was Irish, the response was, “wow, I never knew an Irish Jew before.” (And this person was serious.)

5. Born-Jews are fascinated by your choice to become Jewish. Be prepared for a lot of questions—people are flattered that you thought so highly of Judaism that, despite the obvious, inherent challenges, you pursued your religious choice. But sometimes the questioning can make you a little uncomfortable or feel too probing. If this is ever the case, feel free to excuse yourself—it’s no-one’s business but yours, and there is no right or wrong reason why you chose to be Jewish, or how you practice your religion.

6. Jewish people love their dogs, Nordstrom, Costco (except Linda Haase), and Toyotas. If there is reincarnation, I’d like to come back as a Jewish-owned poodle. And Toyotas are good cars, recalls and all.

7. You will most likely gain 10 pounds the first year you have converted. Maybe it was just me, but all of those Shabbat dinners and holidays with endless amounts of food torpedoed my waistline.

8. It’s OK to miss celebrating Christmas. I’ll never have a tree in my home, and I don’t want to. But this doesn’t mean I don’t get nostalgic for my childhood, or stop me from celebrating Christmas with my family—important in keeping up the family relations. The moral: do whatever makes you happy. No one is going to strip you of your “Jewishness” if you watch Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer for the one millionth time.

9. There are a million little and big differences between the various streams of Judaism—and you will probably have to explain a little bit of this to your non-Jewish family. Some of my family seriously expected when they met my husband—a reform Jew—to meet a man with a full beard, black and white clothes with fringes, and payas, because this is what they saw on TV. I had to explain that as with Christianity, there is much diversity in Judaism.

10. The first time you experience anti-Semitism, you probably won’t realize it, and when you do, you will be probably be more pissed off than someone who was born-Jewish. I was in the middle of Ohio when a sales woman recoiled when I explained why the cross she showed me wasn’t of interest. It wasn’t until I left the store, that I realized her reaction to me, and I was mad. I’ve found that I get more upset than my born-Jewish husband and friends about this—maybe it’s  because I was raised Christian and taught to be accepting of others, so I have zero tolerance. Or maybe it’s the Irish in me…

11. You don’t have to cram a whole lifetime of knowledge into your conversion process. Becoming Jewish is only the first step in your journey—you will learn more throughout your lifetime and probably want to practice Judaism in different ways along the journey. You don’t have to know everything right now—just enjoy it!


Cheers! Chicago: Cocktail Celebrations from Osiris to Jerry Thomas to you and me

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Cheers! Chicago: Cocktail Celebrations photo

Since the dawn of civilization, man has harnessed the power of the process of fermentation and enjoyed the fruits of their labor – or lack of labor, I should say. After all, it was spoiled grapes and grape juice or grain mash they were drinking that had been left over or sitting around untouched or unused. And for as long as we’ve been boozing, we’ve been telling stories about where it came from, how it got discovered, what it’s used for, and what it does to you and to others. As early as 4000 BCE the Egyptians were brewing fermented beverages as instructed by their gods because it pleased them. Historians write that the ancient Egyptians made at least 17 types of beer and at least 24 varieties of wine, and that alcoholic beverages were used for pleasure, nutrition, medicine, ritual, remuneration and funerary purposes. Today’s topic of focus…you guessed it. I mean, they don’t call it aqua vitae (water of life) for nothing.

This month, many of us will experience the romance and passion that is Valentine’s Day. As we all know— passion and romance can be amplified with a little alcohol. But did anyone wonder what it was like to celebrate and enjoy life in ancient times – with alcohol? Believe it or not, there is quite a bit of history of alcohol and romance. We already know about the ancient Egyptian’s experiments…what about the Chinese, the Greeks and the Romans? Well, the earliest evidence of alcohol in China are wine jars that date to about 5000 BCE— produced by fermenting rice, honey, and fruit. People drank when holding a memorial ceremony, offering sacrifices to gods or their ancestors, and while attending the ceremonies of birth, marriage, reunions, departures, death, and festival banquets. They sure knew how to celebrate!

For the Babylonians, beer was the beverage of choice. As early as 2,700 BCE, Babylonians worshipped a wine goddess and other wine deities. As for the ancient Greeks, while they espoused and led moderate lives around the same time period as the Babylonians, let’s not forget the cult of Dionysus and their theory of excessive drinking and intoxication leading you closer to a higher power. As tributes to other nations, leaders would send both concubines and barrels full of fermented goodness, and they were frequently enjoyed simultaneously. And it was only 150 years ago when someone named Jerry Thomas finally said, “hey, let’s take everything we would use to make a beverage or medicine and figure out tasty recipes and ways to combine them and better enjoy them.” Now, drinking became not only medicinal, but also fun and exciting to create, experience and taste.

What was most interesting to learn about all of this was that all of the different beverages were available and accessible to everyone, and were neither elaborate to make nor difficult to store or enjoy.

Remember folks, the booze does not make the celebration. This is why I love what I do, and why I keep doing it: to simply celebrate and enjoy life.



Bravo, Canada!

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Bravo, Canada! photo 1

Perhaps, the Canadians have young Jewish women figured out better than anybody.

Recently, I have become enamored with the show, Being Erica —so much so, that it made my highly selective DVR list a couple weeks ago.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I happened upon the show when I was catching up on old reruns of Beverly Hills 90210—the high school years, on SOAPnet one Saturday afternoon. What can I say—SOAPnet is how I take in my mental rest on the Sabbath?

However, Being Erica does not feel like a 90210 or a One Tree Hill, or a Days of Our Lives, for that matter. It’s dramatic, but not in the tragically trashy way.

The main character Erica Strange, a 32-year-old woman, suffers many of the trials and tribulations young women face with dating, difficult co-workers at her publishing job, siblings with impossible in-laws and friends who are rushing to the alter or popping out babies, while she remains single, broke and frustrated.

She enters therapy to cope. Who knew Jews in Canada—like their American counter-parts—need therapy too? However, there’s a catch, the therapy involves time travel. I know this sounds like a weird 1980s after-school special, but I promise it’s better.

Bravo, Canada! photo 2

Through her therapy she’s able to re-visit past events and regrets and try those scenarios over again—she even revisits her Bat Mitzvah in one episode.

Strange gets a do-over during every hour-long episode, which includes a conflict in her life in the present, which then gets dissected, clarified and illuminated through revisiting a past event that mirrors the present.

The SOAPnet site describes her journeys: “Guided by the mysterious Dr. Tom, she weaves through present and past, realizing she needs to take control of her own destiny.”

All I have to say is—bravo, Canada, bravo! Finally, we have a show that portrays a modern woman that is in touch with her own emotions, intelligent, independent, modern, real and trying to take control of her own destiny.

If one merely looks at the title of the show, Being Erica, it hits on the fact that the main character is in a transitive state. She exists in each moment in her life, trying to figure it out—much as anyone is—on a day-to-day basis. Granted, her problems fit into one-hour episodes with some carry-over, but her character does live in the moment—a rarity for the modern TV character.

The realness of Erica is ironic, I suppose, because she exists in such a surreal world where time travel is somehow OK, but she herself, is someone you might meet on the street. She doesn’t wear a ton of makeup, she can be awkward at times and she’s vulnerable—something one also doesn’t see on TV often these days.

I would say many women on TV are glossy, weigh 2 pounds and cry without earning it, within the context of the show. In addition, the fact that Strange is Jewish is not neatly tucked into a stereotypical box—it’s just one part of who she is on the show.

The show is all about her mending the relationships in her life, and many of them are not romantic in nature. The show does not tread lightly, but rather deals with sexuality, death, family relations and identity—the ingredients of life.
The Canadian broadcasting Web site features the show and also has a page that asks the question, “If you could go back in time to any point in your life, what point would that be? Why would you choose that moment, and what might you do differently?”

I know that we cannot perform the miracle of time travel. However, I do believe that it’s possible to take control of our own destinies by taking a moment to reflect on our relationships with others, how past moments could have been handled better, and ways in which we can mend, heal and grow.

Oy!Chicago bloggers are big fans of "Being Erica." If Blair's review of the show piqued your interest, check out Sharna's interview with the show's writer and producer, Jana Sinyor.


Why I made aliyah

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Why I made aliyah photo

Me with Shimon Peres

Are you crazy? Why would you ever move here? What's better Israel or the USA?

These are the usual questions I encounter on a daily basis when I'm interacting with taxi drivers, bank managers, check out girls or men trying to hit on me. My answers have changed only slightly since I made aliyah 2.5 years ago.

I always saw myself living in a foreign country for an extended period of time. Being a Spanish literature major the choices were either a Spanish speaking country or perhaps Israel due to my ingrained connection to the state. When I graduated from college six years ago, I went to Israel to volunteer for 10 months on a wonderful program called OTZMA.There, we were living and volunteering in peripheral towns and areas that most tourists and even Israelis never get to. It solidified a love for the goodness and the potential that I saw in this country.

Afterwards I decided that I wanted to make aliyah, but on my own terms. I was not coming to bring peace to the Middle East, rather I saw Israel as a place that I could flourish in and enjoy. After working and saving money, I settled in Tel Aviv and started the slow ascent to making myself comfortable in my new surroundings. My job in the beginning was to learn Hebrew and make friends.

Now 2.5 years later, I am quite proficient in Hebrew, have a job that I am satisfied with, dear friends who I consider family, and the freedom to do what I please.

Making aliyah is a personal choice and does not make one a martyr. I came here because I wanted to and I can leave here when I choose— a situation that most people are not as fortunate to have.

Am I crazy? Yes, a little bit. Why would I ever move here? Because I love the energy of this country, the weather, and I was bit with that Zionist bug a long time ago that makes me believe in a Jewish state. What's better, Israel or the USA? Well it's like comparing McIntosh apples and Jaffa oranges. Each has its own flavor and its own pros and cons.

Try explaining that to your Israeli cab driver…



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Chocolate photo

Often lovingly referred to as the “other food group,” chocolate has become an obsession, inspiring everything from recipes, stories, cravings and a host of products from funky-flavored chocolate bars to bubble bath.

Cacao trees are native to Mexico, Central and South America. Cultivated for over 3,000 years, Mayans drank chocolate both as an everyday beverage and for ceremonial purposes. The frothy bitter concoction was mixed with vanilla, chile peppers and achiote (annatto). Turning cacao beans into the tasty sweet confection we all know and crave is a complicated process—only a handful of companies all over the world truly make their own chocolate. Most candy shops buy chocolate in blocks, melt it and shape it into candies and other sweet treats.

Xocoatl, as it was known in the Mayan culture, was believed to be used to fight fatigue due to the theobromine content. Today, chocolate is considered to have many therapeutic benefits including cancer-fighting antioxidants, circulatory benefits and many studies are being conducted on using chocolate to fight obesity. While this is certainly good news and really any excuse to eat chocolate is a good one, I urge you to take heed of the adage “you get what you pay for.”

Not all chocolate is good chocolate. In fact, there is a lot of bad chocolate out there. Thankfully, it is easy to find the good stuff. Look at the ingredients on the label. There should be just a small handful of ingredients: CACAO PASTE, sugar, COCOA BUTTER, lecithin, and vanilla for dark chocolate. For milk chocolate add milk and for white chocolate, (which is not really chocolate due to the fact that it does not have cocoa paste or cocoa mass but does have cocoa butter) mix sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder and vanilla. That’s it! No other ingredients should be in the chocolate. Notice that cacao paste is listed first. Great chocolate should have a high concentration of cacao, not other ingredients.

There are many great chocolates on the market that are kosher. In fact, there is no reason that great chocolate cannot be kosher. I am lucky enough to have recently been in Paris where I slurped and stuffed myself full of chocolate for one solid week. Armed with my list of kosher chocolate companies and bakeries, I ate my way through the city of lights. You also can enjoy amazing chocolate if you follow a few simple rules.

• Buy the good stuff. You are feeding your family and friends. They deserve the good chocolate. Do not cut corners. Cheap chocolate cannot be disguised by any amount of other ingredients in a recipe. My favorites are: Callebaut chocolates, for cooking, baking and eating, and Valrhona Cocoa powder, an amazing cocoa powder with a deep, dark color and flavor.

• Remember Chef Laura’s golden rule: do not use substitute ingredients. Butter is butter, cream is cream, margarine is never good and non-dairy whipped topping comes from a laboratory and should not be ingested by humans.

Now that you have the rules-go forth and enjoy!

Chili Con Carne

The chocolate in this recipe adds not only a faint sweetness but also an earthy and robust flavor. I love the way the chocolate makes the texture of the chili velvety. My kids like to garnish their chili with additional chopped chocolate and cacao nibs which are the cracked shell of the cacao bean. They add a crunch as well as cocoa butter fragrance. Cocoa nibs are found easily in the baking aisle of most grocery stores and online.

2 pounds lean ground beef
2 large red onions, diced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, toasted and torn into pieces
1 chipotle chile
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 15-ounce cans tomato puree
1 3-ounce can tomato paste
1 32-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
2 cups dried pinto beans or canned
2 cups dark brown chicken stock (see recipe, page)
2 cups dark beer-such as Guinness or Aventinus
¼ cup finely chopped dark chocolate

1. Brown the beef in batches in olive oil over medium heat. Brown the onions until they are caramelized and soft. Add the garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes until the garlic has softened slightly. Add the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker and cook on HIGH for 3 hours until the beans are tender. Remove the chipotle chile before serving.

Suggested garnishes: fresh or frozen corn niblets, lime wedges, tortilla chips, fresh flat leaf parsley and fresh cilantro, chopped scallions, chopped jalapeno peppers, chopped red onions, cocoa nibs, chopped chocolate

DIY Chocolate bubble bath

Looking for a chocolate recipe that won’t go to your thighs? Here’s one you can really enjoy!

1 cup of unscented bubble bath
½ cup of dried milk powder
3 ounces powdered unsweetened chocolate

Mix the powdered milk and chocolate well, until blended.  Stir into bubble bath until well mixed. Add to your bath in the amount desired. Relax and enjoy the fragrance of chocolate without worrying your waistline!

Chocolate Pound Cake

We cannot have a meal in our house without chocolate. I wrote this recipe years ago when I was looking for a good pareve pound cake. I wanted a simple presentation that did not require lots of fuss but still delivered the big chocolate flavor I was looking for. Attention home cooks: there is no margarine in this recipe because you can still have your cake and eat it too-even pareve!

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup best quality cocoa powder (I only use Valrhona)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I only use Callebaut 71%), melted
3 eggs
½ cup brewed coffee
1 ½ cups brown sugar
½ cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Lightly grease a loaf pan with canola oil and then dust it with cocoa powder.

1. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Set aside
2. Mix the chocolate, eggs, coffee, brown sugar and vanilla together in a small mixing bowl.
3. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Be careful not to over mix or the cake will be tough. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in a preheated oven for 50-60 minutes until a toothpick can be inserted and will have moist crumbs on it.
4. Place the cake pan on a cooling rack and allow to cool for 1 hour. Run a knife around the edge of the cake and unmold onto a plate. Dust with powdered sugar.


Like It? Put a ring on it.

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Like It? Put a ring on it. photo

After dating for five agonizingly frustrating years, I finally got the procrastinating bastard my beshert down the aisle.  The news of our engagement came as a great relief to my friends and family—my father’s actual response was: “Well, it’s about time.”

It goes without saying that couples should date as long as they want/need/could/should.  However, most people would agree that five years is a significant amount of time to waste on date “the one”.  That five years of hard core solid couplehood—you’ve vacationed with each other’s families, you’ve discussed names for your unborn children, your friends have come up with a catchy brand name for the two of you—is enough to drive even the most non-traditional and independent woman mad.  At least, that’s how it was for me.

By year three of our relationship, I had verbal diarrhea on the topic.  I wanted to stop bringing it up with him, with my friends, but I just couldn’t.  (My friends were really, really great during all of this.  They were rewarded with an open bar reception.)  Rationally, I knew that since he was in the midst of a major career and life change that he didn’t then consider himself “marriage material”.  (A funny thing about lots of men, they actually need to be ready too.  Huh.  Who would’ve known?)  But, despite his reassurances that he loved me, I could not but help wonder if I needed to move on.  I wasn’t getting any younger.

Messing with my head were all of the stereotypes and clichés in existence that warn women to beware of the men that “just aren’t into you”—the men who do love you, are happy to be with you for an indeterminate amount of time, but will never, ever marry you.  We eventually broke up, but wound up back together months later, in exactly the same spot.

And then two things changed.  One:  I made a major move (literally, I moved cities) to be with him.  Three weeks later, he popped the question.  Two: I stopped my constant nagging we both stopped focusing on marriage, and instead focused on simply enjoying being together.  All the negative energy had sucked the fun out of our relationship, and out of the act of getting engaged.  The more I pressed him about it, the more the stubborn asshole my husband dug in his heels.  And really, who could blame him?

Now, after three plus years with the ball and chain of married bliss, the length of time we dated seems completely irrelevant.  We’ve got a great relationship, a beautiful daughter and a wonderful life.  It goes to show that the so-called dating “rules” are often little more than complete bullshit grossly generalized fears that play on women’s insecurities.

So what should you do when the fucker “Mr. or Ms. Wonderful” is dragging his/her heels?  I have no idea.  But here’s some obvious advice on what NOT to do:

• Don’t deliver any ultimatums you aren’t prepared to carry through and can live with.  And don’t play games.

• Don’t forget to talk about marriage and your future life together to make sure this person is “the one.”   I have a good friend that never discussed religious differences or their consequences with her fiancé, only to have it all come to a head when she found out they couldn’t be married in her church or he in his synagogue.  They never made it down the aisle.

• Don’t confuse marriage and a wedding.  Duh.

• Don’t compare yourself to other couples.  Especially the ones who get engaged after six months.  This isn’t a race or competition.  Remind yourself of that while drinking heavily at their weddings.

• Decide if, and how long, you are willing to wait and accept that this is your choice to make.  And really, consider moving on if he/she tells you they do not want marriage.  Ever.  Repeat after me: “He/She is just NOT that into you.”

• Try not to talk about your relationship constantly with all of your friends and family.  Not only will it annoy the hell out of them, they might start to hate your man (or woman).

• Don’t listen to bitter women who freak you out about wasting your time.  Only you know what’s right for you.  My husband’s aunt and uncle dated for 11 years, and are very happily married.  My uncle never dates longer than a year, and he has been divorced 4 times.

So, to all you single ladies out there, I wish you much love and luck in your romantic endeavors.  And whatever happens, please remember one cliché is ALWAYS true: if she/he isn’t “the one”, that person is out there.  And probably with less back hair too.



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Nostalgia photo

Daydreaming of a Dream House

When I was a kid, my across-the-street friend had a Barbie Dream House. It was amazing. It had three floors and a working elevator…and you know the best part? For a good portion of its life it lived at my house. I don't remember why or how it got there, but it made me so happy. My friend would come over and we would play with our Barbies in that house for hours and hours. I remember my "main" Barbie was blond (duh) but with short curly hair. I had others, but she was my go-to girl. Between us, we only had one Ken doll. He was mine and he was "Boogie Ken." His upper torso and legs were attached with some kind of rubber band that allowed his body to wiggle and groove. He also had a hole in his plastic hand where a ring with a big red jewel fit into one of his fingers. His outfit was a navy velour jumpsuit with a maroon collar.

Ken played many roles—mailman, husband, boyfriend, plumber, cheater. And even though he was the same doll each time, my Barbie greeted him according to his chosen role for the day. They made out. A lot. Especially when he was the mailman, for some reason. The whole rubber band situation must have made him a fantastic lover. Barbie thought so anyway.

My Barbie had a dog named Beauty which was some kind of afghan beast. It came with a little yellow dog bowl. Sometimes, we'd boot Beauty from the house and bring in Scooter, my hamster. I'd put nuts and seeds in Beauty's tiny bowl and Scooter would go to town. Barbie also occasionally had a baby. But mostly she smooched Ken and changed her outfits. She was generally shoeless as keeping them on was difficult—Barbie has one hell of an arch.

That Barbie Dream House was huge in my life. I don't remember any adults being around when I played with it—just me, my neighbor and our imagination about what life was going to be like for us as grownups. Recently, at a Toys"R"Us visit, I saw the Barbie Dream House. It looked a little different— updated, slicker—but I was flooded with nostalgia. It took everything in me not to buy it. But like most things, when you try to go back, you end up disappointed. It’s not what you thought, not quite as great as you remember. So, I'm just hoping that one day my kid will want a Barbie Dream House, and I can watch her act out what she thinks life will be like when she's a grownup. Then, I can create a new memory through the eyes of my daughter. And who knows? Maybe she'll invite me to play. A mom can dream, right? It's the Barbie "Dream House" after all...


Firing your personal trainer

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It’s happened to me. Some, I didn’t work hard enough; others, I worked too hard. One time, this woman called me and said, “I have severe post workout muscle soreness, I can’t come anymore.” Another time, I had a slick trainer steal my client with a smooth promotion...Sure I was pissed at first, but that client started busting her butt and working out everyday and I’m proud of her. If you’re not getting the results you want, speak up and make a change.

Like any healthy relationship, communication is the key to a good training season. I always ask my clients, how do you feel, is this too easy, is this too hard. But, I wasn’t always like that. When I first started training people, I just wanted to break them down Jillian Michaels style. My first job at Bally’s was to train people who bought a membership and got three free sessions. The hope—that these people would continue to train once the sessions ran out. Well, my first month, many people never came back after the first free session. This one girl told me she had to go to the hospital because her butt muscles were so sore (get your head out of the gutter). My response was, “really?” Her answer, “no, but I couldn’t walk right for a week.” And she never came back. Whether your trainer is a friend, coworker, parent or me—be vocal. If you’re trainer doesn’t listen, pink slip him.

Even if you’re not about to fork over money for a trainer, learn to have good form some other way. You can do this by watching demonstrations on Youtube or asking someone at your gym. When I see trainers letting their clients get away with bad form, it rips away at my insides; I just want to yell, “DUDE! LOOK AT THEIR BACK!” I actually lost a client because she wanted to be beaten like an egg but had horrible form and I wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t figure out why her knee hurt or why she kept spraining her ankle. Well, work on balance and core strength! A good trainer should help you prevent injury and other health issues. When I train people, I look at the following signs:

• Heavy breathing
• Bad form
• Heart rate
• Shortness of breath
• Core Strength
• Posture
• Gait

Do not use the Biggest Loser as guidelines for healthy living. It’s unrealistic to lose 10 pounds in one week, and it’s not good for you. I’m all for a ball-busting workout, but build up to that carefully. If your motivator is making you puke or feel light headed, take it down a notch. I had one client who was a freak of nature for 45 minutes and after that he crashed. It could be diet, sleep or fitness level but listen to your body. Don’t get me wrong, slackers will not see results.

Speaking of slackers, remember, training is not talking time. Whether you are working out with a friend or trainer, you still need to be working. I’m all for small talk, but come to the gym to workout. If your workout buddy is a chatty Cathy, you have a few options:

• Nicely tell them to shut up
• Find a new partner
• Stay on task, hurry to the next exercise

Most trainers, including me, are part therapist, but when it’s time to work we get quiet.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think you should enjoy your workout. I’m no Chris Rock, but I try and make my sessions fun and enjoyable. If you really hate the gym, find something you enjoy, like dancing or boxing, and if your trainer is mean, fire him. I had a friend tell me her trainer was mean to her. She asked me what to do; I gave her the name of a nice trainer. She now looks great and actually looks forward to her workouts. So stop reading already, and go have some fun in the gym!


Jewish Music for… February?

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Jewish Music for February photo

February is African-American History month. And the history of American music is a story of blacks and Jews working in, literally, harmony. Even back in the earliest part of the 20th Century, African-American singer Paul Robeson performed spirituals alongside Yiddish folksong, while the first racially integrated ensemble was led by Jewish bandleader Benny Goodman.

More recently, explicitly Jewish music has been made by bands— or even individuals— who combine African-American and Jewish elements.

Take Joshua Nelson, the self-proclaimed Prince of Kosher Gospel Music. He has fused gospel sounds and Jewish content, both in his work and his life. In his career, he has shared a stage with both Aretha Franklin and the Klezmatics. When not performing or recording, Nelson is both a Hebrew teacher at a synagogue school… and the director of music at a Baptist church. Hear his “Adon Olam.”

More Jewish-gospel fusion can be heard on a recent recording by Neshama Carlebach. On Higher and Higher, she uses the 24-voice Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir as backup singers while performing the music of her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Both Carlebach and the choir sing in both English and Hebrew. (My review of the album is here, my interview with her about the album is here, and you can hear samples of the music itself by going here and clicking “Music.”

On a more jazzy note is the Afro-Semitic Experience, a combo co-founded by a Jewish bassist, David Chevan (my podcast with him can be heard here and African-American pianist Warren Byrd. The band has recorded a half-dozen albums containing both Jewish and African-American liturgical songs with a mix of modern and traditional instruments. Hear theirAdon Olam.”

Other interesting music comes from Jews who are not African-American, but simply African. Many of the Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel (thanks, in part, to JUF) have become musical performers. One standout is Alula Tzadik, who performs under his first name. In his music, one can clearly hear the African basis of reggae music— and in his lyrics, the Jewish influence on Rasta and reggae imagery. Strictly speaking, his reggae is only one part of his sound, which is largely East African.

Southwest of Ethiopia is the nation of Uganda. There, in 1919, a regional governor came upon a Bible left by Christian missionaries. He read it… and converted to Judaism. Then he converted the rest of his people. Called the Abayudaya, the community has been connected to the larger Jewish world through an organization called Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), which integrates such far-flung Jewish communities with the rest of the Jewish world. This organization published an album of original Abayudaya melodies to Jewish songs. Then the Smithsonian Folkways label produced another album of their music, which was nominated for a Grammy. (One note— in the Ugandan language, all words end in vowels, which affects their pronunciation of Hebrew.)

Three notable mainstream African-American singers who converted to Judaism were Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson, and Nell Carter. Carter, remembered as an actress for her sitcom Gimme a Break, once recorded a gospel-inflected version of the Chanukah song “Rock of Ages.” It’s track 6.

The centrality of the Scriptures and their rich imagery… the historical arc from oppression to liberation… the values of freedom, responsibility, and hope— all are shared by both peoples. Enjoying the merger of Jewish liturgy with gospel, jazz, reggae, and African sounds is a fascinating way to see how Jewish and African-American cultures have influenced each other. It’s also just great music.

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