OyChicago blog

DIY Judaism

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DIY Judaism photo

Full disclosure here, I worked part-time as a Birthright Israel NEXT Fellow for a year.  The term of my fellowship is up, but if this post comes off as a commercial for Birthright Israel NEXT’s upcoming promotion of DIY Judaism, that’s because you could say that I drank the Kool-Aid.  That said, read on to learn how Birthright Israel NEXT will help you with your NEXT big idea.

Thousands of 18-26 year olds are going on Birthright each year.  For some it’s a fun trip to a new place with some great people and the best part, oh yeah—it’s free.  For many, myself included, Birthright becomes a life-changing experience. 

I remember when I returned from my trip I had learned a lot and I had even more to explore.  Like most participants I was first and foremost obsessed with getting back to Israel.  More than that, I really wanted to understand what was NEXT.  Here I was with a newfound connection to the land and the people that built it as well as a greater understanding of the Judaism that bonded together those people in the first place. 

Last summer I had the privilege to return to Israel, this time as a staff member on a Birthright trip.  I walked with a group of 40 some participants on the whirlwind exchange of culture and ideas that is Taglit-Birthright Israel.  By the end, I found that many of my participants had that same longing in their eyes that I had when I was on Birthright.  They were all trying to figure out “What’s NEXT?”

When Birthright Israel NEXT started, barely two and a half years ago it served an important role in strengthening the Jewish community.  You see, every organization is founded for a purpose.  JUF raises money to help people in need and make the community a better place.  AIPAC lobbies to ensure Israel is on the forefront of every legislators mind.  And a lot of big donors get behind Birthright Israel NEXT because it gets Jews together for the sake of building community.  It’s a place for Birthright alumni and their peers to find what’s NEXT.

The staff and fellows at NEXT have been planning a lot of amazing and influential programs and events over the last few years.  There have been outings to sporting events, educational programs, challah baking, comedy shows, concerts, retreats, an academic reading group, welcome back bar nights, photo exhibits, networking events, ski trips, Shabbat dinners and more.  With all this— it begs the question “what’s NEXT for NEXT?”

What’s NEXT is DIY Judaism.

DIY is “Do It Yourself” and Judaism well, that is entirely for NEXT participants to decide.  Call it a meeting, a training, a program it’s NEXT and it is very grass roots—the future of NEXT is really up to you. If the ideal community doesn’t exist for you, Birthright Israel NEXT wants to help you create it.

If you are interested in planning your own event for the Jewish community or recently returned from a Birthright trip, then sign up and come on March 30th and learn what it takes for Birthright Israel NEXT to help you with your NEXT big idea. 

For more information on Birthright Israel NEXT and the DIY Judaism open session, please visit  www.birthrightisraelnext.org/Chicago


Boppin to a Jewish beat

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Boppin to a Jewish beat photo

I was driving home with my 18-month-old, both of us bopping to the Oy Baby CD that recently appeared in my mailbox thanks to the PJ Library. Ben was too young to understand what he was hearing (Hebrew music made kid-friendly), but something about the music had him hooked; after each song ended, he said “more,” his little brain not understanding why the fun had to end. Then a new song would start, and he’d resume his sweet little toddler head bop.

Watching him in the rearview mirror, and listening to the familiar music, I suddenly found myself in tears. I was having one of those “circle of life” moments, marveling at the fact that I was Mom to this perfect little boy, enjoying the melodies that just yesterday I was singing as a Sunday school student.

The moment ended abruptly when Ben dropped his sippy cup and I almost crashed the car into a tree trying to reach it for him.

However these little moments of nostalgia happen often, and in fact they happen most frequently when I introduce Ben to new Jewish things.

This has taken me by surprise, as my family wasn’t particularly observant, and Judaism was not a major piece of my self-identity pie. I was a singer first and foremost. I tried out for every musical at school, belted out show tunes in the shower, and put on Broadway revues for my family.

But between the many Friday nights spent singing with my synagogue choir, and my seven years as a member of the Shining Lights, a Jewish youth performing group, the Judaism snuck in by way of music. The sometimes haunting melodies, the comfort of the familiar lyrics, and the jubilance of so many songs can trigger emotional responses that I can only attribute to feeling like I’m a part of something bigger.

And now as I introduce Ben to Jewish traditions and holidays, I find myself recalling the music, and using the songs to engage him. We read books and look at pictures of holiday rituals, but Ben is most interested when we sing the holiday songs. We sing them in the bathtub, at the changing table and at the dinner table, and the songs connect Ben with me, and with the generations of Jews that came before us.

He claps along and sometimes joins in with a high-pitched squeal, and I can’t help but get a little teary. 


Goodnight, sweet nine-and-a-half-fingered prince

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The world lost a great Chicagoan last night. I am talking, of course, about @MayorEmanuel, who disappeared into a time vortex just as a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder rocked the city in real time. The mysterious and consistently profane Twitter account has been going since September, when the real Rahm Emanuel announced his intention to run for mayor, but in the last month or so, the story has escalated into the realm of genius.

More than 30,000 followers have been engrossed in @MayorEmanuel’s exploits and misadventures, which have included an uproarious 50 Wards in 50 Hours tour, nights spent under bridges and in the Soldier Field parking lot, camping out in the crawlspace in his rented-out house, cruising down Lake Shore Drive in a blizzard, and a psychedelic mind-bender in the middle of a flooded wheat field, incited by a can of fermented baby food and culminating in an encounter with the living, glowing heart of Chicago oral historian (and excellent Jew) Studs Terkel. @MayorEmanuel’s readers have grown to love his cast of sidekicks, included Hambone the dog, Quaxelrod the duck, Carl the Intern and of course, David Axelrod and his trusty Honda Civic.

Much has been made of the fact that @MayorEmanuel had garnered nearly four times the number of followers that Rahm’s real Twitter account (@RahmEmanuel) did. Rahm himself even offered a large donation to the charity of @MayorEmanuel’s choice, if the creator would identify him or herself. The genius behind @MayorEmanuel, however, has decided to stay anonymous, for now – a move which I applaud, as well as the bold move to literally push his or her creation into another universe to save our own, and to get out at the top of @MayorEmanuel’s game. For those who don’t want to wade through the backlog of posts, Timothy Carmody, a former Chicagoan, has assembled an annotated timeline of this last plot twist (warning: VERY not safe for work language).

When that final thunderclap boomed overhead, and the Twitterverse realized that @MayorEmanuel had gone silent (mid-swear, of course), the outpouring of emotion was immense. People all over the world admitted to crying and feeling empty – which begs the question: What serialized fiction has elicited such a response from its audience since 1841, when Charles Dickens killed off Little Nell in his serial The Old Curiosity Shop? I admit to being suckered in. When I started following @MayorEmanuel, it was mostly reactive snark – good reactive snark, but still reactive. Lately, however, the form of the status updates had been changing: we were getting plot, reported as if we were standing with @MayorEmanuel himself, rather than watching his tweets. The audience became involved, and the shift was fascinating. What are we going to do now, without Quaxelrod, without Hambone, without Carl the Intern? What does Axelrod do with himself, once he’s done with his Kaddish?

@MayorEmanuel made us laugh, but he also made us care. You can think what you want about the real Rahm, but this one is – or was – intoxicatingly in love with the city of Chicago. Under all the cursing and comedy and commentary, we got treated to totally uninhibited celebrations of the places and people we love best. There was nothing ironic or self-deprecating about his enjoyment of the gin Jacuzzi or the homemade luge track during the ward tour. That ride down Lake Shore with all the windows open was exhilarating just to read about. Even on @MayorEmanuel’s last night, spent under the Cortland Street Bridge, we can pause a moment for the incredible view.

I don’t know when we’re going to see anything like @MayorEmanuel again. Many have tried, but no fake Twitter accounts have really gotten this kind of following, this kind of involvement, for so long. Part of it is the writer’s awesome comedic skills, coupled with a real humanity that sneaks up on you; a huge part of it, I think, is that the writer is so obviously one of us. This person knows exactly when to complain about the snow, what streets are best for cruising, what quirks of the city are uniquely ours. This person also takes advantage of the audience’s surroundings like no other. I’m not kidding when I remind you that @MayorEmanuel disappeared in the midst of a sudden bout of thundersleet. For all its wackiness, the @MayorEmanuel story remained impressively grounded in reality.

It would, of course, be great to have @MayorEmanuel with us for Mayor-elect Emanuel’s real tenure in office. But I would much rather take a glorious ending at the right time than a joke that peters out when its creator has lost heart but not popularity. If the author of @MayorEmanuel has any kind of savvy, my hope is that she or he will both stay anonymous and get a book deal: I would love to see the whole saga collected in a more permanent, presentable way. (On a personal note, I also hope the author is a she: women are funny, world, and we know it too.)

But for now, let us take a moment. The last month has been a real trip in the Twitterverse. Let us pause in the new, one-Rahm world, and celebrate a great Chicagoan: @MayorEmanuel, mayor for all of space and @#()$%*(# time!


Rahm Emanuel is Chicago’s first Jewish mayor

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Rahm Emanuel photo

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been elected is Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, garnering 55 percent of the vote in a five-way race on Feb. 22. The election was the first time in 20 years that incumbent Mayor Richard Daley did not appear on the ballot.

Because Emanuel received more than 50 percent of the vote, he will become mayor without the need for a runoff election in April.

Emanuel, 51, resigned in October 2010 as President Obama's chief of staff in order to run for mayor. He also worked in the Clinton White House and is a former congressman from Chicago's North Side. A Hebrew speaker, Emanuel is the son of an Israeli doctor who moved to the United States in the 1950s.

President Obama called Emanuel on the night of the election to congratulate him, reportedly saying, “As a Chicagoan and a friend, I couldn’t be prouder.”

“There is special pride within our Chicago Jewish community today because of Emanuel’s achievement,” commented JF/JUF President Steven B. Nasatir.

Emanuel faced a residency challenge during the campaign because he did not live in Chicago for a full year before the election; his candidacy was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Anti-Semitism also reared its head during the campaign, in remarks by fellow candidates and in flyers distributed on a train line that runs through the city.


The cultural Jew

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Marcy Nehorai photo

It breaks my heart that I cannot explain it, because it is unexplainable. Like God, just so beyond that it can't be contained in words.
What is it? How do you capture Israel in words? How do you describe freedom?
I imagine if I could, this whole Middle East conflict would dissolve, because everyone would

Can I show you how the Israeli Scouts jumped wildly around after performing a sing-along in the middle of Ben Yehuda; a hip, downtown section of Jerusalem?
Can I explain to you what it feels like to have an Israeli cab driver try to convince me to take his ride instead of the bus, smile, and then wish me a Shabbat shalom?
Can I capture the sense of belonging? Of having an inside joke with an entire country?
Can those who have never experienced the faint, subtle awkwardness of being a Jew in a non-Jewish land feel the difference?
In poems, in images, we try to get close to explaining Israel and the uniqueness of the Jewish people by appealing to that part of the heart that is above logic. Not illogical. Above logic.
In the years before the Balfour Declaration, a member of the upper Parliament in the United Kingdom asked Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, "Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?"
Weizmann answered: "That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street."
A Jewish child. Even if he didn't choose his parents, he is theirs and they are his. No matter what.
The Jewish child's love for God is natural; it cannot be forgotten. One may no longer hang out at his parents' home, or even talk to them. Even if he never eats his Jewish food, reads his
Jewish texts, or does what his father asks of him, he will always be his father's son.
It is only in the last 62 years that we have returned en masse to our childhood home and walked around smiling softly at the familiar places, breaking down when we arrive at the front door; the Kotel. And all of the sudden, we remember. That something else. That time that we stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and shook. The breaking of the tablets. The wandering. We ask our family: tell me about that time... And we hear about the times of triumph, of great insight, great leaders, and breathtaking courage. Of the hard times as well. The people. Our people.
In gratitude, we try to repair our world, through charity, through education, through song. We eat challah, we hang up our keys on Friday night, we light the candles.
And then we talk with God. Jewish talk, with lots of questions and deep, complex conversations. And laughing. We try to understand, analyze, develop our connection with God on an intellectual level.
Everyone has a different level of commitment, a different connection. We are loved. What we choose to do with that love, how we develop it and respect it, that is our choice.
As I walk around Israel I see it: the Ethiopian, the Australian, the Indian Jew all waiting for the bus. Somehow, silently, we sense each other and know that some time long ago, we came from the same home. We've traveled a long way, but we're coming back. We've experienced childhood, adolescence, difficulties, and tribulations. We've gotten caught up in bad relationships, painful times. We've grown so much, but we can still recognize each other.
Some may use the word “culture” for lack of a better word. This is because there is no other concept that exists in the world about a religion that is not just a religion but a home. So we try to capture in words the uncapturable, the ineffable, in hope that others will understand truly who we are and what we need. In hopes, that we can understand it ourselves.


Adorning The ARK

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Students volunteering at The ARK’s food pantry

It’s not that hard to be a Jewish artist, or even an artist creating Jewish work here in Chicago; however, being a proud strong Jew at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is harder than one would expect—it’s not so hip to be religiously affiliated at art school.

Fortunately, Hillel Arts in the Loop, a Hillels Around Chicago program, has presented itself as a group that unites us because we are Jewish and have a common heritage, giving me a sense of place and belonging, something I believe that many of us strive to find. Hillel Arts in the Loop is a program that has helped me explore my Judaism through my art, introduced me to Jewish students at my school, and become acquainted with the Jewish community here in Chicago.

Hillel Arts in the Loop kicked off our fall semester with projects and events we plan to tackle throughout the year. One successful project accomplished at the end of the Spring 2010 semester was a mural at the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. Because of the success of that mural, Hillel Arts in the Loop was offered an opportunity to create a new mural at The ARK this year.

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The finished mural

Tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is every Jew's responsibly, something I learned at a very young age and Hillel continues to teach. Erin Jones, program director of Hillel Arts in the Loop, introduced us to The ARK, a JUF grant recipient, that has been repairing our world since 1971. Jewish students from The Art Institute of Chicago volunteered one Sunday at The ARK to help sort food for The ARK’s pantry. Our goal was to help The ARK continue to reach out to more than 3,500 people a year. We took a tour and learned of the many services provided by The ARK, including medical services free of charge to distressed Jewish families. The ARK also has the only Kosher food pantry in Chicago, and profits from their thrift store benefit the less fortunate in these rough economic times. Like Hillel, The ARK treats every Jew the same regardless of observance. Upon seeing and learning about The ARK, we were inspired! Through collaboration between The ARK and Hillel Arts in the Loop we were invited to design a mural.

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Students working on the mural

As artists we have a special connection to God because like Him, we create. I, along with artists Samuel Eisen, Karina Fisher, Cara Frazin, Jonathan Frazin, Justin Katz, Jamie Lee, Rob Steinberg, and others designed and painted a mural in a Chagall-like style. The location of the mural is along an interior wall most viewed by clients of The ARK. We believe that the mural and its colors will enliven the walls of The ARK. This is important because asking for help is difficult for any family and the mural is there to remind us that we are in this as a community. The mural depicts individuals giving and receiving help. The colors are bright and bold specifically chosen to spread warmth.

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Jan. 30 marked the dedication of the mural at The ARK in the presence of Hillels Around Chicago and The ARK staff and community members. I presented the mural to The ARK and to Miriam Weinberger, The ARK’s executive director, describing our depiction of the community helping one another to self-sufficiency. During the dedication Miriam mentioned that the week’s upcoming Torah portion was Terumah—the Jews had been traveling for 40 years, and God instructs them how to build and adorn of the Ark of the Covenant. This year celebrates The ARK’s 40th year and Hillel Arts in the Loop artists have adorned it for the comfort of its clients.

Chaya Brick is a senior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hillels Around Chicago is a division of The Hillels of Illinois, and is supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

The ARK is a JUF grant recipient in support of services provided to the community.


A day in the life

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Finding a deep meaning in every experience

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At the Kiryat Gat community center, playing with the kids.

As I look back at my recent sojourn in Israel, one day stands out. As an experienced traveler to Israel and a madricha (group leader) on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, I hoped for a new perspective, and that’s exactly what I go that day as it perfectly summed up the past, present and future of Israel and clarified my personal connection to the Jewish State.

The day began somberly, with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. Built into a mountain, the museum represents the passage from Jewish life before the war to the depths of despair and cruelty faced by Jews in the Shoah to the new life that has blossomed in the Jerusalem hills with the founding of the State of Israel. After viewing pre-war video of singing children, men and women at work or wading through snow, we slowly walked through the museum, which winds through the story of forced migration, annihilation and atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Although it was not my first visit to the museum, the story gripped me as if I had never heard it before.

As we walked out, a magnificent look out onto Jerusalem appeared before our eyes. The narrow passageway of the museum suddenly widened, the concrete walls wrapping themselves away from the visitors and reaching out into the eternal city. The sun peeked from the clouds, its rays caressing and warming us. That powerful passage from darkness into the light—so sudden, so welcome—gave seed to the idea of life, home and belonging.

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At a Bedouin tent, enjoying the food and the hospitality. © Molly Dillon

We could have gone on to Tel Aviv or the Old City of Jerusalem or a million other places and simply forgotten about the powerful experience of Yad Vashem. But our itinerary directed us to the only logical place: a children’s community center in Kiryat Gat, Chicago’s Partnership 2000 sister-city. The center is an after-school activity hub for the neighborhood kids. Many of them are children of Ethiopian immigrants, though Kiryat Gat is a diverse city that has absorbed a portion of each immigration wave since the city was founded in 1955.

We jumped rope, sang and danced, played video games and basketball. It was a light-hearted reminder of the resilience of the Jewish nation and of new life and new strength. Despite a lack of a common language, Taglit participants found a way to communicate with the kids, who grabbed hands and led us directly into their games.

And yet, the day was far from over. In fact, one of the highlights of that day wasn’t even on the itinerary but speaks to the spark of ingenuity and warmth that’s so characteristic of Israeli culture. The morning of our visit to Yad Vashem and to Kiryat Gat, one of the seven Israeli participants—whose family lives in Kiryat Gat—had called his mother with the announcement that he’d be bringing 50 of his friends to her house the same day. Evyatar’s mother did not balk. Instead, the school teacher took the afternoon off and cooked up a feast: falafel, pita, shakshouka, four kinds of salad, fruit, and nuts graced the laden table when we piled into the family home. Mrs. Ben-Haim’s students even wrote us letters to welcome us to Kiryat Gat! More than the food, the warmth of the family drew us all closer.

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At Evyatar’s home, where his mother served a feast to remember. © Molly Dillon

The experiences of that Sunday are but a couple of snapshots of a very intense experience. Like any Birthright trip, ours was an attempt to show Israel first-timers the beauty, vibrancy and challenges of the country. We took in the symbiosis of natural beauty and mine fields in the Galilee and the Golan Heights; the spirit of Jerusalem and Tzfat; and the pulsing streets of Tel Aviv. It’s impossible to really get to the heart of Israel in 10 days, but we made a valiant attempt.

It could have been an ordinary Sunday—the first day of the work week in Israel. But the combined experiences of the day will stay with me as a marker of what makes Israel tick: a sense of honor for those who have been lost, but also a deep appreciation for life and all it has to offer.


My Stupid Valentine

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My Stupid Valentine photo

The worst V-Day gift I ever received.

The very first Valentine’s Day that I had a boyfriend to celebrate it with was a disaster—not because he failed to mark the day, but because I realized that I thought the candy and roses were silly and cheesy.  In short, I realized that I think like a guy.

Here’s proof:  I can’t remember the date my husband and I first met or got engaged, and I ususally need to double-check with him just how many years we have been married.  I throw out sentimental cards and dislike keepsakes.  I believe that it is more important to show you love someone in little ways throughout the year, then with one or two big romantic gestures on a Hallmark-created holiday.  (Sound familiar anyone?)

And what I’d really like this year from my husband isn’t small and shiny.  No, mamma wants a big flat screen TV mounted on my family room wall and wired with surround sound.  (Brian, are you reading this?)

So, as someone who thinks like a guy let me reassure you that if yesterday you found yourself disappointed that your man failed to “bring it,” it probably has nothing to do with how much he loves you.  He’s a guy—and a lot of guys just aren’t good with holidays.

That said…a truly lousy gift, or no gift at all, it might be time to dump the schmuck.

It should go without saying that I’m defining a lousy gift as one with little or no thought behind it, NOT how much it cost.  Because how expensive a gift is often has little to do with how much heart was put into it.

For example, one of the most romantic gifts my husband ever gave me was an inexpensive box of chocolates that he left for me at the front desk of the hotel I was staying at in Vegas.  We had been dating about a month and coincidentally he was in Vegas a few days before me with his friends, and I knew that his friends were with him while he left the gift.  It told me he was unconcerned about some ribbing from the guys, and even while in Vegas, I was on his mind.  I knew than this was going to be a serious relationship, and 9 or 10 (who can remember?) years later, we’re still going strong.

And then there was the worst gift I ever received—a red flag that my relationship was over.  (And oddly, chocolate was involved.  Hmmm.)

After a 5 year on-and-off again relationship, my then-boyfriend—who I was still somewhat “with” at the time—gave me an M & M Candy Dispenser for the holidays.  Here’s the guy interpretation:

1.  I don’t usually eat M&Ms.  I mean, maybe if I was munching on them all the time it might make sense, or maybe if I was 12 and not 28 at the time.  Can you say thoughtless?

2.  It was a special edition, blue M&M man playing the sax.  He said it was funny and that he bought it because it looked like Bill Clinton.  BUT I’M REPUBLICAN.  And in 1992, I had helped to campaign for the other guy. (Bush Sr.)  Beyond lack of thought, the boy was so oblivious to my feelings that it didn’t once occur to him that I would not like a candy dispenser that reminded me of Bill Clinton.  (And no, he didn’t think it would be funny because it somehow insulted President Clinton.)  Can you say self-centered?

3.  When I told him the gift hurt my feelings a little, he didn’t reassure me otherwise.  Nope, instead he made me feel like a beeaattch for not being into the gift.  So basically he wanted me to [once again] put his feelings before my own.  Can you say goodbye?

So the moral of my blog goes a little something like this: gifts from good guys who are into you will have some thought into them.  The gift might not be romantic, the effort may have not been original or over the top, but most likely, the guy will have tried to make you smile.  So cut him some slack.

But dump a guy who somehow manages to make you feel bad about yourself—regardless of how much or little he spent on your gift.  And save the story years from now to laugh about with over drinks with your girlfriends. It may take a little time, but trust me when I say, an awful gift will be really funny someday.


Finding love…with a little help from your friends

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“According to a new nationally representative survey of 3,009 adults with a romantic partner, the Internet has now overtaken all the ways people meet, save one: meeting through friends. … Regardless of when they met, at least 32% of respondents said friends brought them together.” (“Friends No. 1 way to meet that Valentine, but Web is growing” USA Today, 02/11/2010)

Valentine’s Day is still in the air, so now is an appropriate time to look at the role friends play in romance. According to this survey, it’s a big one.

As I’ve mentioned, I generally avoid setting people up. Why? Perhaps I should share my most recent attempt at matchmaking.

Last month, I was sure I had come up with a compatible pairing. I talked each one up to the other (for ease, let’s call them Girl and Guy), forwarded contact information, the whole bit.

The first date was put on hold because Guy had recently been set up with someone else, and he wanted to see where that relationship would go before pursuing my offering. He thought Girl was cute but didn’t want to get himself caught up in two potential relationships at once. (Three cheers for my guy friends not being total crapweasels!) Fast forward one week and I get an email from Girl telling me that the “someone else” Guy had been set up with was… her best friend.

Of course it was.

Now she’s not interested, even if Guy and Girl’s BFF don’t work out, because it would just be too weird. Sloppy seconds and all that. (Or so I'm told.) And you can imagine the conversation when Girl told her BFF Guy’s name, only to learn that BFF and Guy were currently in the early stages of dating.

Fun stuff.

So, yeah. I avoid set-ups as a policy. But you shouldn’t. According to the survey above, friends are the most reliable method for meeting a “romantic partner.” (That is a silly phrase. I have never, nor will I ever, call Matt my romantic partner. Ew.)

While the Internet is efficient, psychologists say that real humans will always beat out the computer in terms of reliability for meeting others. And while I’m totally pro-Internet dating—I’m going to a Match.com wedding this summer!—I like that human connection wins out. Especially in a world where a computer is about to take on Ken Jennings. (Set your DVRs people. This week. It’s on.)

So this Valentine’s Day, perhaps the nicest thing you can do for your single BFF is to introduce her to some of your other single pals. You never know.

Unless you’re me. Then you do know. It won’t go well.

If you’re single, do you trust friends most of all when it comes to meeting a potential mate? Everyone, please do share your set up stories—good and bad. The worse they are, the more they’ll make us laugh.


Happy Valenstein's Day

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Happy Valenstein's Day photo

About a decade ago, I went to a synagogue where someone had passed out red, photocopied cards that said something like: “Rabbi Valenstein wishes you a Happy Valenstein’s Day.”

Cute, but this prank raises the question: Is Valentine’s Day… Jewish? Can it be, even if it wasn’t to begin with?

One argument against Jews celebrating Valentine’s Day is that “every day is Valentine’s Day.” In other words, we are supposed to show appreciation to our sweethearts and spouses every day of the year, not just on February 14. In Hebrew school, I heard the same reasoning applied to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, with a Ten Commandments twist— “Honor thy father and mother” does not only apply in May and June, we were told.

I think that Judaism itself gives lie to that idea. We only have Yom Kippur one day a year— does that mean we don’t apologize or atone any other day? We “remember the Exodus from Egypt” in prayers all year long, but we still have Seders. And we wouldn’t be able to celebrate religious freedom on Chanukah if we didn’t have it the rest of the year.

I asked around last week, to see if my friends— including Jewish ones— were doing anything for the occasion; most were. Some demurred; they felt it was a “Hallmark holiday,” like Grandparents’ Day or Sweetest Day. But one said that she does not celebrate Valentine’s Day at all, she explained, “because I’m Jewish.”

True, Judaism doesn’t celebrate Easter or Christmas, because we don’t celebrate what— or, more accurately, whom— those holidays honor. And unless we are compatriots of Robert Briscoe (the first Jewish mayor of Dublin), we don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, which honors Irish heritage.

But we do honor love, which is what Valentine’s Day celebrates. From “Love your neighbor as yourself” to “Arise, my love, my fair one,” love is a deep and central value of Judaism and the Jewish people. And there is nothing wrong with a day to especially exalt a value we cherish all year.

So, I understand and respect those Jews who do not wish to celebrate Valentine’s Day due to a religious objection.

But I urge them to make sure their significant others share this view… before they have to Talmudically debate their way out of the doghouse on February 15.


Sharna’s top ten foods to eat in Israel

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Taglit-Birthright logo

This week Shorashim will speak to thousands of applicants for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. They will have many questions about Israel, about the Israelis who are on the 10 day trip, the accommodations, and what clothes to bring. They also will ask about the food.

Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim provides meals to the participants, with one meal per day that the 18 to 26 year olds supplement. The participants are fed really well, and that's what they want to know. What I want to tell them though is very different. First let me say, I am not a foodie. While some people like going to fancy restaurants, I like to eat foods that are flavorful, but not necessarily considered delicacies. So while Israel has amazing cuisine up to par with European standards, I simply have some favorites that I cannot live without while I'm working there. Some are readily available to Taglit-Birthright Israel participants; some they have to seek out. Like the United States, Israel is a melting pot of cultures from around the world that have brought their traditional foods to the country. So while Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim participants will experience Israel's multiculturalism when they meet Israelis from all backgrounds, they will also taste it.

1. Cucumbers
Israel has the best cucumbers in the world. They are crisp and mouth watering and available at every meal. The only substitute in the U.S. is something called Persian cucumbers and I've seen them occasionally at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

2. Dannon Yogurt with accessories
In Israel they have Dannon Yogurt with little containers of chocolate candy, sprinkles and cereal attached to it. You dump it into the yogurt, stir, and yum. The yogurt tastes better as it is because the dairy is so fresh there and with the added bonus of a little dessert attached, it makes for a great snack.

3. Marzapan
At the Mahane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem, you can find yourself elbowing, like a football player trying to make a first down during the Super Bowl, to get a dozen or so of the freshly baked chocolate rugelach as well as the other tasty baked goods. You may leave with a bruise or two, but it's entirely worth it when that first tasty piece of dough with chocolate melts in your mouth.

4. Hot Chocolate from Aroma
Aroma is a cafe that is ubiquitous throughout Israel. They put their own chocolate pieces at the bottom of hot milk and then you stir to make the best hot chocolate in Israel and maybe the world. Even if it's 90 degrees, you will see me with a cup of hot chocolate from Aroma in Israel.

5. Schweppes Pomegranate
While pomegranate has become the rage in the United States with costly Pom in every grocery store, in Israel for a few shekels you can buy Pomegranate Soda that carbonates this delicious fruit into a delicious drink. If I become desperate for Schweppes Pomegranate in the U.S., I will buy the Pom and combine it with seltzer. It isn't the same, but it does get me through until my next trip to Israel.

6. Halumi cheese
Typically found in salads throughout Israel, this is fresh goat cheese in pieces, fried so that it is partially melted and extremely flavorful. Sometimes Halumi cheese is made with cow's milk, but it isn't as good.

7. Hummus/Tehina/Babaganoush
While these foods are found throughout grocery stores in the United States, their taste just does not match the freshly made preservative free versions throughout restaurants in Israel. There are even restaurants dedicated solely to hummus with toppings. If you find yourself in Tel Aviv, check out Mashausha on Pinsker and Bograshov Streets in Israel. If you like mushrooms, get the hummus im pitriyot, a delicious combination.

8. Kubbeh
Kubbeh was brought to Israel by the Kurdish and Iraqi Jews. Kubbeh is a dumpling filled with meat and bulgur and can be found frequently in meat based or beet soups. It's similar to kreplach, but more flavorful.

9. Krembo
A chocolate covered marshmallow treat atop a light crust. Unfortunately, it's hard to find Krembo in the summer because it would melt too easily. In the winter, it is a staple of Israeli children.

10. Halava
Again, while there is Halava in the United States, there is nothing like the Halava found in the Shuks of Israel. This sesame based dessert has many flavors and I like to drink it with sweet hot tea.

In the comments section, tell us what your favorite food is in Israel. Is there something I should try on my next trip? What must every Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim participant try while they are in Israel?

Registration for Chicago Community Taglit-Birthright Israel trips is on Feb. 15. Go to http://www.israelwithisraelis.com to register.


My Cold, Cold Heart

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My Cold, Cold Heart photo 1

Old Man Winter, you are no longer my boyfriend.

Year after year you seduce me with your promise of cozy nights spent by the fire with hot drinks, while you dust the streets, rooftops and trees with silent drops of lace.

There are no “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” no latkes a-frying. Jack Frost, stop “nipping” at my nose. I have no chimney. I have no fire for you. I’m burnt out.

Admittedly, Summer—my brief, yearly fling—does distract me while he’s in town, but I always return to you, Old Man Winter, I always return—like a fool.

With renewed optimism, I fantasize about you, as the leaves saunter to the ground and the rain pours through Autumn’s clouds. By Thanksgiving, the tunes of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Frosty the Snowman” have special meaning for us, Old Man Winter. I want to sing your name from the rooftops. I want to go sledding in your arms. I dream of sharing romantic kisses under your chilly moonlight. I have fallen in love with you all over again.

In anticipation of your arrival, I fill my home with scents of cinnamon and vanilla; I adorn myself with over-sized, knitted scarves, puffy coats and layers of socks. I make bedroom plans for my absurdly-printed, flannel pajamas.

This February, my love for you got lost in translation—what with “thunder-snow” and “tornado-like winds” casting two feet of snow on my home and car like a snow cage. Is this your way of keeping me captive, Old Man Winter? February is a cold, cold month to wade through your endless, white feet of false promises and cold regret. Old Man Winter, you are like a creepy old letch hitting on every hot young thing at the bar. I have to ask: “Where do you get your nerve?”

My Cold, Cold Heart photo 2

I sit in your frozen cage day after day, no matter if I’ve left my snow-packed-home or find myself inching my way down the highways you’ve covered with cold, frozen shame. I have not seen the sun in months. Sun-lamps and Jimmy Buffet songs will not do. We, in the Windy City, lack vitamins. We eat during these dark months…and eat, and eat. But, the holidays are over and we have no excuse. It’s a wonder that my fling, Summer, finds me desirable at all!

Wrapped in your scowling winds thrashing against my faces and hands, I tried shoveling myself free, but to no avail. The ground hog could not even paw his way out to see his shadow this year.

Free me from these frozen chains. Our love is not an Irving Berlin song or a fairytale. Old Man Winter, let my people go.


My welcome to Chicago moment

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My welcome to Chicago moment photo 1

In the days leading up to the blizzaster, I was pretty skeptical that anything of substance would actually happen.  Living in Chicago after moving from Detroit, I am always looking to compare life here to life where I grew up.  Between the social scene and the sports teams, I hadn’t yet experienced my ‘Welcome to Chicago’ moment and still felt at home somewhere in between the two cities in the middle of I-94.  But the winter weather is something that I knew was always worse in Michigan.  Every time the forecasters declared as little as an inch of snow this winter, all I could hear and see on the streets of Chicago was the waambulance, rushing to rescue those who forgot their puffy earmuffs at home while waiting for the bus, not thinking to put on the hat held in their hand.

When Tuesday morning rolled around, I dismissed the impending snowapalooza as about as likely as a 2011 NFL season.  I was quick to learn that you can picket all you want against the weather forecast, but Mother Nature will still lock you out.  As the morning sky turned as white as something really white, it became quite clear that we were about to get shellacked.

By Tuesday afternoon, it wasn’t as much the snow that was complicating things as it was the traffic.  It seemed like everyone’s HR department conspired to let us out of work at the same time.  After failing to acquire space on a train at Washington & Wells, Merchandise Mart, and the #22 and #36 buses, I was just about to settle for the most expensive cab ride ever when I managed to squeeze my way on to the Red Line.  And squeeze I did because after that train ride, without talking to anyone, I got to know some new friends [ahem] unusually well!

Given that I was calling shenanigans on the blizzard and being brash about it too, I didn’t stock up at the closest Jewel with any food.  Going there during the storm, I was reminded of my adventure to Halloween USA for a costume on Oct. 30th.  Suffice it to say, there wasn’t much left, but I managed to the get the food I needed and stumbled to my apartment to bunker down and pray to the snow gods for a snow day.

My welcome to Chicago moment photo 2

As you’ve already learned, I love winter.  So you can only imagine how happy I was when, for the first time since middle school, I had a snow day!  SnOwMG was upon us and I took to partying on LSD (that’s Lake Shore Drive).  It was like the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur: just me and the road.  No traffic, honking, or brake lights.  Just the sounds of dogs barking and kids laughing and snowballs launching.  After gathering some accomplices, it was time to explore.

Walking on Lake Shore Drive from Belmont to Division was surreal and felt like watching Day After Tomorrow in 3D.  Aside from the abandoned cars and the occasional tow truck zooming by, the whole area was a gigantic playground.  There were dogs leaping through the snow, free of their leashes, groups of friends climbing on snow banks, and true to their routine, some runners fulfilling their duties.  If it wasn’t clear to me earlier, the impact of the blizzard hit home when I saw foreign TV anchors sending their reports to their tuned-in audience oceans away.

My welcome to Chicago moment photo 3

I came across an abandoned SUV that, without any obvious explanation, found itself wrecked right next to Lake Michigan on the higher of two separate docks.  I clearly wasn’t the only one who found it, as tens of people gathered around to take pictures.  Rumors swirled as to how it got there.  One man said that the driver must have done one too many while driving donuts in the snow.  Another lady swore she saw it there before the snow even started coming down.  Others simply noticed the six-pack in the front seat and filled in the blanks.  The real story is immaterial as the unanswered questions add to the spectacle.

My welcome to Chicago moment photo 4

After a day of walking down the streets where cars should drive, seeing dogs take their owners for a walk, and snow plows stuck in the snow, it is evident to me that I witnessed a truly historic day in Chicago’s history that I will remember forever.  This was my welcome to Chicago moment.


F-61 Finds M-25

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She was not the kind of match my mother would have normally approved of. Frankly, wasn’t the kind of match anyone would typically approve of. You see, I had never met this woman before and didn’t even know her name. For all I knew she may have been married with children. Yet I flew across the country, twice, to support her in a way that nobody else could. I formed the kind of bond with her that I will one day share only with my children. That’s because F-61 was a recipient of my bone marrow stem cells this past December 14—a whole bagful of my tomato soup-looking stem cells.

Allow me to fill you in from the start. It all started with a cheek swab after a JUF Young Lawyer’s Division board meeting. The volunteer was available, the test was painless, and it took less than two minutes—just about all the time I had to spare for extra appointments. Months later, one very early Monday morning in November, I got a call from the Gift of Life Foundation telling me that I’m a 100% match and asked if I was still available to donate.

That moment was like a TV scene where the world around the central character slows down once the “big news” is delivered. I immediately agreed to two cross-country trips to aid this unknown woman. The first was for my physical, the second for the donation. What I wasn’t ready for was the news that because F-61 was in remission, they needed me to fly in for a physical the following week—as in 6 days later! Although I’m a litigator and used to surprises, this was just crazy. I didn’t know how I would break the news to the judges, opposing counsel and my boss that meetings would have to be postponed and deadlines extended all at the last minute. Turns out the “bone marrow donor” card proved much more effective than the “my dog died” one. My calendar was completely freed up for both trips by that afternoon.

When I first got the call, I had this image in my mind of me strapped to a table, blinding lights, and a doctor drilling into my spine and sucking out fluid with a painfully long needle. Ignorance and some medically inaccurate TV were jointly responsible for the image. As it turns out, most donations nowadays are stem cell extractions that just involve needles. No anesthesia, no scalpels, no stitches, no bone drilling…just needles. The needles started when a nurse visited me at home the week before the procedure to begin a series of injections and continued up until donation day. The days went on, the blood samples continued, and the closer donation day came the more my arm looked as if I needed an intervention.

F-61 Finds M-25 photo

As I lay on the hospital bed on donation day, blood flowing out of one arm and being returned to the other—sans stem cells—I began to reflect on the year prior. For starters, it was exactly one year to the day after my grandfather passed away. Certainly there had to be some spiritual/metaphysical connection between my saving a life on the same day that he passed. Also, I then began to think that of the millions of people in the marrow registry, I was the only match for F-61. How incredible that modern medicine, with all its marvels and advancements, could not produce for F-61 what my body was able to in less than a week.

Sparing you the details of the discomfort of the shots and procedure, the bottom line is that sometimes the only possible cure to another’s illness may be contained within you; and if you’re not in the registry, some person desperately looking for you will never find you.

Now, I wait. It will be months before I find out how F-61 is doing. Perhaps I will never find out at all. Notwithstanding, I consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to save a life. If anything, F-61 did me the favor. I can only hope and pray that I was as good a match for F-61 as she was for me. F-61, if you happen to be reading this, thank you. Signed, M-25.


Covered in chocolate

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My favorite obsession

Covered in chocolate photo

Often lovingly referred to as the “other food group,” chocolate has found its way into our daily lives. Inspiring everything from recipes, stories, cravings and a host of products from funky-flavored chocolate bars to bubble bath— chocolate is an obsession.

Cacao trees are native to Mexico, Central and South America. Cultivated for over 3,000 years, Mayans drank chocolate both as an everyday beverage as well as for ceremonial purposes. The frothy bitter concoction was mixed with vanilla, chile peppers and achiote (annatto). Brought to Central Europe by Jewish traders, chocolate is a food we can add to the list of Jewish Foods!

Turning cacao beans into the tasty sweet confection we all know and crave is a complicated process with only a handful of companies all over the world truly making 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. This is due to the theobromine content in chocolate.  Chocolate then and now is considered to have many therapeutic benefits including cancer fighter 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. They should be: CACAO PASTE, sugar, COCOA BUTTER, lecithin, and vanilla for dark chocolate. Milk chocolate will have the addition of milk listed and 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, will have 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. Valrhona Cocoa powder. This is an amazing cocoa powder with a deep, dark color and flavor.

• 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.

Chocolate Crepe Cake

This gorgeous cake is simple and delicious, fun to make as a family project, and easy do-ahead of time. This is a perfect recipe and works every time. You may need to try out a couple of crepes until you get the feel of your pan and range. The crepes can be made one day ahead of assembling the cake and can be stored overnight, covered in the refrigerator or frozen for up to one month. You will need one Teflon or non-stick coated crepe pan.

¾ cup flour
¼ cup cocoa powder
⅔ cup cold milk
⅔ cup cold water
3 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan

1. Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate at least one hour.

2. Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.

3. Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.

4. Cool on a plate as you finish making the rest. You can stack the crepes-they will not stick together.
This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.

Chocolate-Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream

This is a basic recipe that you will turn to over and over again. The fragrant, sweet pastry cream can be used as a filling for cakes, éclairs, homemade doughnuts, shortcakes etc…It can also be thinned out and used as a topping for any dairy dessert. This is one those recipes that can be used as a base and adapted. You can: infuse jasmine or your favorite tea into the milk, and add ginger or lemongrass …you get the idea. Oh yeah-this recipe is DAIRY. Please do not try and make it pareve. It is perfect they way it is and will lose all of its integrity, not to mention flavor, if made pareve.

2 ¼ cups whole milk
6 egg yolks
⅔ cup sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch
1 vanilla bean split, lengthwise
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1. In medium bowl, whisk together ½ cup milk, egg yolks, ⅓ cup sugar, and cornstarch.

2. Transfer remaining 1 ¾ cups milk to heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean and the seed and the pod to the pan. Sprinkle remaining ⅓ cup sugar over, letting sugar sink undisturbed to bottom. Add the chopped chocolate. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.

3. Whisk hot milk mixture, then gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture-this is called tempering. You want to do this slowly or you will have scrambled eggs.

4. Return to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod, and whisk cream until smooth. Transfer to bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until cold, about 4 hours. (Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on surface, up to 3 days.)

Raspberry Filling

1 cup purchased or homemade raspberry preserves

1. Strain out the seeds using a mesh sieve.

Assemble the Cake

Place one crepe on a cake plate. Lightly brush the raspberry preserves over the crepe. Spread one tablespoon of pastry cream evenly over the crepe. Layer another crepe on top and continue with preserves and pastry cream until the final crepe has been added. Leave the top plain.

Chill the cake for 2 hours or overnight to firm up. Top with fresh whipped cream and berries.


Cheers! Chicago: Ask a mixologist...how to drink like James Bond

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I honestly have to say that over the last five years that I have worked in the business, I have seen people become more inquisitive in their bar-going experiences. Now the guest feels more empowered to find something that they like without having to resort to the more traditional (and boring) mixed cocktails. The more curious the guests become, the more informed the bartender must become. This generates a new and dynamic relationship between guest and bartender that will lead to a more satisfying and enjoyable experience for both, so don’t be shy and try something new!

Here is a question I was recently asked:

So I just finished watching a James Bond film called Casino Royale. I love James Bond, and it got me wondering, what is a Vesper? And what exactly is the difference in the cocktail that is shaken versus one that is stirred?

Ah, you must be referring to the 1953 book’s reference from Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”, uttered by Sean Connery, the famous Vesper cocktail James Bond loves to drink, “Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

Cheers Chicago: Ask a mixologist photo

Well, this particular cocktail is very indicative of the time period and the overall cocktail revival that occurred in the 1950s, not because of the cocktail’s construction but of its ingredients. So let’s walk through it. First, it is strong, with over four parts of straight up alcohol. Gordon’s gin is a London Dry Gin, a popular style of gin, even nowadays, that has a dry but prominent juniper nose and taste. Vodka is vodka, although did you know that the official vodka brand for James Bond films since Dr. No is Smirnoff? Yep.

Kina Lillet is a wonderful French aperitif wine, and the addition of quinine in the blend acts as a muscle relaxant and was also used to treat malaria. The name changed to Lillet Blanc with the introduction of Lillet Rouge, made with red wine instead of white, in the 1960s. Its unique flavor derives from a combination of quinine (greatly reduced since Bond’s time) and various sweet and bitter citrus fruits and peels. All three ingredients are shaken so well that ice crystals appear in the cocktail glass when poured. It is served up in a cocktail glass, NOT called a martini glass because other cocktails are served in this glass besides martinis, or a deep champagne golbet if you’re Bond, and garnished with a nice wide lemon peel, to accentuate the citrus notes of the Lillet, embolden the dry gin, and add a nice citrus effervescence while you sip.

So if you ever wonder what James Bond felt like, order one from your bartender and then tell me if you think it suits the superspy’s personality. This cocktail is great on its own because of its strong construction and unique flavor combinations of sweet and bitter citrus, white wine and dried juniper notes. Martinis also pair well with various small plate appetizers like stuffed olives, salumi, charcuterie and cheese plates.

As for shaken versus stirred, I was taught by my master mixologist Bridget Albert as a general rule of thumb, to shake the cocktails that are opaque, usually due to the addition of juice or a dark colored liqueur. Usually one wants to shake cocktails when they include fruit juices, cream liqueurs, simple syrup, sour mix, egg, dairy or any other thick or flavorful mixers to ensure even distribution and blending of ingredients. Conversely, drinks that have no juice and have a clarity and translucent quality should be stirred. As a general rule of thumb, Stirring is a more gentle technique for mixing cocktails and is used to delicately combine ingredients with a perfect amount of dilution. Many gin and whiskey cocktails are stirred because shaking is said to "bruise" the spirit, or bashing it with shaken ice and diluting it to the point of changing the flavor profile. Studies have been conducted to answer this question over several decades, including ones done by biochemists.

Mixologists will stick to this rule for most cocktails unless the recipe specifies otherwise, but if you have a preference make sure to tell your bartender when ordering your drink. Do not assume the bartender can read your mind and know how you like your martinis made, so don’t be shy and give the Vesper a try! Who knows, after drinking one you may be whisked off to save the world from evil villains, Vesper in hand. You never know...



Ron’s get skinny plan

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Ron’s get skinny plan photo

Have you noticed the gym is already a little less crowded then it was a month ago?  And Crumbs Bake Shop opened in the Loop, challenging diets left and right.  Temptation and life get in the way of training and eating healthy.  Trust me, I get it.  Do I always indulge? No, but I have my days.  On those days I’ll allow myself either a cookie or other dessert option and a cheeseburger or something else that’s not super healthy.

The trick to surviving a busy schedule and a sweet tooth is a plan. My health plan is simple:

• Cut up fruits and vegetables on Sunday
• Do something active everyday:
     • Clean house
     • Lift weights
     • Walk
     • Cardio
     • Walk the steps a few times
• Bring healthy snacks to work
• Brown bag lunch
• Cook at least three times a week

These are very simple ways to stay healthy.  I’m going to get more specific on the diet end and I will end with fitness tips.  When I coach a client with their eating, the first step is to log their food.  From there, I look for trends and usually I notice:

• Too much eating out
• Not enough fruit or vegetables
• Low protein
• A lot of pizza
• Several drinks a week

Using this data I recommend grocery shopping and cooking.  For vegetarians this is a different list.  I try to get people to think about meals. Plan your meals to have a protein, carb and vegetables.  Lately I’ve been into cooking a few chicken breasts on Sunday night with just salt and pepper.  I then use this chicken on top of a wheat pizza, seasoned with soy sauce and rice, or mixed in a tortilla with salsa, veggies and cheese.

When you eat out, you also need a plan.  If you know dessert is going to happen, skip the appetizers, take it easy with the bread, and ask for steamed vegetables.  When you are with a group of people it becomes a little harder.  We all know fried is bad, grilled is better—use that knowledge and suggest a few healthier options.  Your friends might make fun of you, but they’ll probably make fun of you anyway.  Another big tip: salads are great but in restaurants they are loaded with empty calories like croutons, and dressings can contain 20-30 grams of fat.  Ask for the dressing on the side and only eat the lettuce, veggies and protein.

Healthy eating is part one, and exercising is part two.  The key here:  keep moving!  Take whatever time you have and walk, run, jump rope or hit the weights.  You don’t need a membership to East Bank or treadmill at home to work out.  Here are a handful of exercises you can do with no equipment at home:

• Pushups
• Lunges
• Plank
• Side Plank
• Squats
• Jumping Jacks
• Mountain Climbers
• Burpes
• Dive Bombers

Like your weekly meeting with your boss, you need to plan your workouts.  Use the calendar function on your phone or an actual calendar (yes, some people still use them) and pencil in workouts.  If you can’t wake up early, workout at lunch or hit the gym on the way home from work.  Or plan to work out while you watch TV.  I actually have clients ask for exercises they can do while watching TV—well, everything listed above is totally double while watching “Modern Family.”

Another great option: buddy up!  Find a friend or a set of friends that want to get in shape and then call me or another trainer.  Mini-group training is a great way to see your friends and get in shape at the same time.  It’s also a cheaper option than hiring a personal trainer one on one.

If you have no idea what these exercises are or proper form, stay tuned for some video!  If you know any great body weight exercises, send them my way!


How To Compliment Someone In Yiddish

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Yes, it’s possible

In our  last edition , I listed as many Yiddish insults as I could, to illustrate the amazing precision with which Yiddish is able to find fault. To balance that, this time we will look at the many ways Yiddish has to say something nice about someone…

Aishet Chayil: Today, the term "woman of valor" is reserved for women who are activists, philanthropists, and community leaders… even if the text of the 33rd chapter of Proverbs praises a homemaker extraordinaire, a Martha Stewart type, as exemplary.

Badchan: This the high-spirited, genial, clever emcee of a Jewish wedding reception, who moves the guests from one aspect of the event to the next, calls up those who are to speak, and generally keeps the party rolling. Can be generalized to a skilled host of, say, the Oscars.

Balebus: From the Hebrew "ba'al habayit," or "master of the house," and pronounced "Bahl-a-BUS." This is a gracious, welcoming, and considerate host.

Ba'alabusteh: The female equivalent, a hostess. But this term is usually reserved as extremely high praise, for "the hostess with the mostest."

Berye: A virtuoso, an absolute master of one's art or craft.

Boychik: An Americanism, meaning a cute little boy.

B'shert: One's predestined, fated soulmate.

Bubbeleh: One of the most endearing terms of endearment ever, it literally means "little doll."

Chavruta: One's Talmud study-buddy, who often becomes one's BFF.

Chochom: From the Hebrew word for "wisdom," a sage.

Gaon: A title of high respect reserved for the great Talmud scholars and yeshiva heads of the age.

Gadol Hador: Literally meaning "great of the generation," one whose scholarship is combined with a moral rectitude that causes this person to be considered a true leader, a shining light.

Kemfer: Literally, a fighter… but one who fights for a cause; an activist.

Lamed Vovnik: "One of the 36." Jewish tradition has it that the world is allowed to exist due to the merits of 36 living individuals. No one knows who they are, so it is incumbent upon us to treat everyone- no matter how insignificant they may seem to us- as one of these 36. One is called a "Lamed Vovnik" if their actions are so pious as to make it obvious that they must be one of the 36.

Landsman: Someone from the same part of the Old Country as you are. But one is called that as a compliment if he or she helps you on that merit alone, and is otherwise a stranger.

Macher: It means "maker," but an English equivalent might be "a mover and a shaker." One, often pillar of the community, who can "make a few calls" and make major things happen.

Mayven: An expert, a "go-to" person on a particular subject. Often used as an insult for a know-it-all who supposes himself an expert on every subject.

Mechayeh: Only sometimes used for a person, it means "that which gives life" (the root word is "chai"). A cold glass of lemonade on a muggy August day, or someone who has that effect.

Mensch: One of the highest words of praise in all of Yiddish, it literally just means "man." To Yiddish speakers, it means one who represents the highest, best qualities of humanity- not just a human, but a humanitarian. One need not be learned to be a mensch, but considerate in the extreme.

Mishpacha: While the word means "family," it can be used to encompass those friends who feel like family: "Of course your friend can join us! She's mishpacha already."

Oytser: Yiddish for "treasure." A sweetheart, the love of one's life. (NOTE: Make sure not to confuse this word with "oyster.")

Pits'l: "A little piece," used to mean a small, adorable child, as in the English "little bit."

Posek: A rabbi whose decisions are so sought-after and highly regarded that they have the force of precedent. More generally, someone whose opinion- be it legal, medical, technological, etc.- you trust implicitly.

Pupik: Belly button. Yet another word for a cute kid.

Rav, Rebbe: Terms of endearment for one's rabbi.

Schtarker: Related to the word "stark," this is a strong, even muscle-bound, person. Someone you'd want to help you move to your new place.

Shayna Maidel: A "maidel" is a "maiden," but a "shayna maidel" is a pretty one. Most often used by bubbies for their own granddaughters.

Talmid chochom: Not just a "chochom" (see above), but an especially impressive one, who combines both native intelligence and deep study to possess true wisdom.

Tumler: Literally, a "tumbler," and so an "acrobat." But it has been generalized to include all manner of jesters, jokesters, and physical comedians (think Chris Farley, not Chris Rock).

Tzadik: Take a "tamid chochom" (see above) and who is also a "mensch" (see above) and you have a "tzadik." It is someone who possesses both scholarship and compassion in excess.

Tzutzik: An ambitious person, one who is admired for industriousness. A hustler, in the positive sense.

Yingel: A "young-ling." Also a cute kid- but not a baby, more a toddler.

Zeiskeit: Literally, "sweetness." Someone so sweet, they are the very definition of the word. Again, usually used for children.

The list of Yiddish compliments makes clear what the values of Judaism are- while having a big brain is highly regarded, the highest of praises are reserved for those with big hearts. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."

NEXT UP… Yiddish complaints. More negativity- but aimed at things and situations.

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