OyChicago blog

The life behind it all: a tribute to my grandma

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The life behind it all photox

I was putting on my makeup and getting a thumbs-up review on my outfit from my husband when the phone rang. “Mrs. Moses?” “Yes?” I listened as a woman informed me that my 91-year-old grandmother had fallen and hit her head at the rehab facility where she was recovering from pneumonia. She was being taken to the emergency room. I was the emergency contact for my grandmother and my 93-year-old grandfather while my parents were set to vacation in Morocco the following day for three weeks. I called my parents who were getting ready to meet us to celebrate, and a half an hour later, the four of us stood smartly dressed, derailed from my 40th birthday dinner and instead in the intensive care unit of the hospital.

A somber faced doctor delivered the news that the fall had caused bleeding in my grandmother’s brain. He started talking treatment options– none of which she had available to her because she was 91 years old. Maybe he was trying to reassure us that if we ever took a tumble, our circumstances wouldn’t be nearly as dire. He did offer that she wasn’t in any pain, and as we all sighed with relief, he added it was very likely she wouldn’t make it through the night. We sat in a collective silence letting it all sink in. My grandmother would get her hair and nails done every week. She stayed up till after 10 watching TV. She called me once, sometimes twice a week. She loved chocolate. She was feisty and opinionated. She knew things were facts because she said so. (Like, you can call a home Kosher if you eat all your traife on paper plates.) My grandmother had chutzpah. And nonetheless, my grandmother wasn’t going to make it.

But she made it through the night. “Grandma, do you want me to tell you a story?” I started to recite Little Red Riding Hood. “…and when Little Red Riding Hood came to the woods, who do you think she saw?” I paused. Suddenly my grandmother piped in, “Her boyfriend?” With surprise and laughter we welcomed my grandmother back. We were gifted a few moments like that. When I told her that her daughters were flying in, she responded, “No one told me!” A signature comment of hers that intoned her annoyance about not being the first to know. She nodded when asked if I was a better story teller than my mom, (can’t blame her for choosing me – my mom’s version of “The Three Little Pigs” was an example of classic literature being butchered as the wolf was “big” and “fat” instead of “big” and “bad”…) and most importantly she acknowledged with nods, eyebrow raises and the occasional hand squeeze that she knew family was there.

My grandmother moved without much pause from Intensive Care to Palliative Care and then finally to Hospice. Her room was crowded with mostly untouched sweets and a plant with purple flowers. My dad and my husband went over to break the news to my grandfather. He reluctantly resides in an assisted living facility battling the confusion of Parkinson’s. He insisted he see my grandmother immediately. While being pushed to the van in his wheelchair, my grandfather’s foot dropped, causing the wheelchair to tip over, hitting his head on the floor. My grandfather then headed to the ER via ambulance with a head injury of his very own. And “Moroccan Chicken” was the dinner special in the hospital cafeteria.

I sat for three hours in a full ER waiting room. My grandfather bandaged like a solider with five feet worth of gauze wrapped around his head, his wife in a hospice room a few floors above. I felt like I was in a movie. A movie where everyone is whispering loudly in the theatre that the storyline is ridiculous – the situation contrived. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I began loudly pleading with the receptionist. “People are taken in order of the seriousness of their condition. I’m sorry.” And my grandmother’s condition didn’t count. My grandfather became fixated on her white coat. “There’s the Doctor!” “Pop-Pop, that’s not the doctor. She’s the receptionist.” When we finally got in to see an actual doctor, I’d had it. I did the ugly, snotty cry explaining the whole unfolding drama in detail, pleading with him to hurry up and do whatever needed to be done so we could unite my grandparents. “I could have completed the head scan by now,” the doctor said. He promised to get my grandfather upstairs as soon as possible. The doctor followed through and my grandfather had a chance to say his forever goodbye to his wife of 71 years.

The next night my grandmother died. She had a traditional burial and we sat Shiva for a day. My grandfather got overwhelmed with all the people, asked me to take him to his room and told an aide, “Shut that party down!” He asked me what everyone was doing there. “It’s Shiva Pop-Pop. We’re sitting Shiva for Grandma.” “Oh.” He said and then asked to get ready for bed. My kids said that Shivas are fun, the only problem is that in order to have one, someone has to die. This is true. And normally, when we think about death and the things that go along with it, it’s not amusing and definitely not described as “fun”. But there were so many moments that took us by surprise from beginning to end, that although a significant loss had occurred, we also gained something wonderful in the process. And my grandmother, although dying, was the life behind it all happening.


Ten Obnoxious Jewish Songs

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…In “Honor” of Purim


Paul Wieder photo2

Jewish music is many things, but fearful it is not. Jewish musicians— like Jewish novelists (Philip Roth), directors (Stanley Kubrick), and comics (Lenny Bruce)— have never been afraid to push the boundaries of accepted norms… or good taste. Some even bend the line until it contorts like a rubber band in a slingshot.

Here are 10 songs, in no particular order, that might make even Adam Sandler blush. I present them now in preparation for Purim, the holiday that celebrates the iconoclastic streak in Judaism. Just assume they are all NSFW. (This year, Erev Purim falls on the evening of Wednesday, March 7, and Purim itself is on the following day.)

1) "Kol Nidre," The Meshugge Beach Party.

You know surf music? Not the Beach Boys, but the hard twang that shows up in the Hawaii 5-0 theme song, or the incidental music in the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Now imagine the most holy prayer on the most holy Jewish day set to that music. Moshe Waldoks, the performer, has something he can repent for… every year from now on. A sample can be found under Twenty Songs of the Chosen Surfers (the third one on the page).

2) "Shema Yisrael," Nomi

Speaking of key prayers set to off-key music… a nice Jewish girl from Cleveland moves to Israel and forms a choir; she and her group record a song. As she explains in an interview, "I mean, it's sort of roughly translating the text of the song, but basically life here is stressful and I'm opening my heart to God with a prayer." And what prayer would that be? The "Shema." And what music does she set it to? Madonna's "Like a Prayer." Yeah, but… see, the Shema is not "like" a prayer. It IS a prayer, possibly the most important Jewish prayer of all. Whatever— it's not as bad as what Madonna herself has done to Judaism…

3) "K*ke on the Mic," Hip Hop Hoodios

Yes, there are more Jewish rappers than the Beastie Boys. But these guys rap about being Judios, or "Hoodios" as they transliterate it; they are Sephardic Jews who rap in English, Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino. On their Raza Hoodia debut EP, they include this song, with the memorable chorus: "I'm on the mic, I'm a crazy k*ke/I'm a Yid, gonna blow my lid/ My sound in fresh, like a pound of flesh/My nose is large, and you know I'm in charge." It's just sad that they couldn't find a rhyme for "heeb" (Well, there's an off-color comic named Larry Reeb, so maybe next album?). Their "best of" album is here; this song is Track 3.

4) "Zionist Girl," Eric Roth

Another Jewish rapper. Roth's album Anathema is chock full of nose-thumbing lyrics. But then there is this track, the story of his picking up a female IDF soldier at the Western Wall because he is turned on by her machine gun. So much so he tells her to leave it on when they go back to her apartment and has removed the rest of what she was wearing. Needless to say, this is not the definition of safe sex, and our hero ends up literally shooting himself in the foot… while, we presume, Theodor Herzl does backflips in his grave. For this, he founded the Jewish state? The entire album is here; this song is Track 10.

4) "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," Kinky Friedman

Another story song. The speaker, ostensibly the Kinkster himself, is confronted by a bigot in a bar. The bigot leads with an anti-Semitic remark, then proceeds to spew every racist epithet he can lay his small, narrow mind to. Our Jewish hero responds by… arguing him out of his prejudice with his keen, Talmud-trained logic? Winning him over with his homey Jewish warmth and a bowl of chicken soup? Making him laugh in a way that undoes his prejudice with his Borscht-Belt honed wit? Nope! He simply smashes the bigot in the face with his fist. Even if Kinky does get to be Texas governor someday, let's hope he never makes Secretary of State.

5) "Christian Baby Blood*," Jewmongous!

The solo debut of Sean Altman (formerly of Rocakpella), is called Taller Than Jesus, and it is very much in the Kinky Friedman, um, tradition. In this song, he takes on the blood libel, the age-old slander than Jews use the blood of Christian babies to make matzah, and also to wash it down. (Just so we're all clear, we don't really do this.) The way Altman responds to the accusation, though, is by singing an Irish-style drinking song about how this "misunderstood" beverage is really quite yummy and popular. (*scroll down for sample MP3. Full lyrics are here).

5.5) Hasidic singer Rav Shmuel went for the same sorta logic in his folksong, "Protocols," which strummingly admits that "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are true." (Again, for the record, they're not.)

6) "In My Country There Is Problem," Borat

(Thanks to my wife for remembering this one!) Another country ditty, from our buddy from Kazakhstan. This one's self-explanatory. Sacha Baron Cohen-as-Borat sings this song in environments where he is sure there aren't that many Jews— say, a country bar— just to see if he can get non-Jews to sing along. They do, but we don't know if it's because they agree with the sentiment, or they realize it's a joke… or maybe they are too polite to make an ignorant foreigner feel unwelcome by not singing along. The real test would be if they sang along when someone like Toby Keith sang the song in the same bar.

7) "Dayenu," YIDcore

The lead singer of YIDcore is an attorney and the president of his congregation. He also is a multi-pierced, goggle-wearing punk rocker with orange-and-pink hair— sometimes spikes, sometimes dreads. Like they say, only in… Australia. His band wrangles, mangles, and strangles Jewish songs in pure punk style, and have even performed the entire "Fiddler on the Roof" in punk-ese. Too bad they weren't around to play Joey Ramone's bar mitzvah. YIDcore's version of the Passover standard "Dayenu" features an intro of mouth-in-heel-of-hand flatulence, followed by falsetto warbling, culminating in a headbanging chorus that really puts the "DIE!" in "Dayenu." Their Dayenu is not online, so here is there is their "If I Were a Rich Man" video, which updates the luxury imagery— L.A. style.

9) "The Inquisition," Mel Brooks

In "Springtime for Hitler," Brooks mocks Nazis, but even non-Jews do that— for instance, Spike Jones' "Der Fuehrer's Face." Here, the Inquisitors are skewered for being horrifyingly clever with their tortures, but the Jews are reprimanded for not being more aggressive in their response. One Jew, after describing his humiliating agony at the hands of his captors, which involved fireplace equipment, can only kvetch, "Was that considerate? Was that polite?" Well, what was he supposed to do, Mel? We hadn't invented the uzi yet. This ditty was from the movie History of the World: Part I, so you might as well see the visuals as well.

10) "Jewish and You Know It," Agent K

And the hits just keep coming. This just-released song is more a version of "I'm Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO than a parody of it, since the original version was sort of a parody itself of all the booty-shaking material out there. The lyrics are not all bad; the singer says you "know" he's Jewish because he keeps kosher, wears a kipah, observes "Shabbos," and even likes women in "long skirts." Some of the lines are offensive, like what he uses his "bar-mitzvah checks" to pay for (hint: it rhymes with "checks"). But mostly, it's his obsession with his, er, manhood, especially in the video. It gets to be a bit… much.

What does it mean, to have no idols? Why did the Golden Calf have to be ground into powder? Because we Jews have no sacred cows. The ability to find the absurd both in our enemies and in ourselves is a survival mechanism we Jews have honed to a fine— and sometimes ridiculous— art. The ultimate absurdity? That not taking ourselves or others seriously is something we take very seriously. And even against a Haman, a surprisingly effective weapon turns out to be a gragger.

Hey, what about you? Do you know an obnoxious Jewish song? Or a perfectly nice Jewish song someone did an obnoxious version of? Send it to us! If it meets our standards of obnoxiousness, we'll write it up. Just send the name of the performer and song, and a way I can listen to it, to paulwieder@juf.org.


Runner’s high

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Runner’s high photo 1

I had actually planned to sleep in last Thursday, but after lying in bed for over an hour, unable to get back to sleep, I decided to put my energy to good use, lace up my sneakers and log a few training miles. The sun was barely up as I headed down the hill in my neighborhood and found myself with an unusual burst of energy for that early in the morning. Full of life, I felt for a moment that I could run forever. Full of raw emotion, I started to cry. Real tears began streaming down my face, not because it hurt to run, but because I never thought I would ever run so far, so fast, for so long.

I started running about seven years ago. I was just starting to really lose weight and was looking for an easy way to get some movement into my routine. My sister and then roommate had encouraged me to give running a try. A recent read of the book Ultramarathon Man helped me to believe that I could. The author, Dean Karnazes, tells the story of how he went from amateur to 200 mile marathon runner. Compared to 200 miles of non-stop running, working my way around the block didn’t seem so daunting of a challenge anymore.

I started by alternating between a few minutes at a jogging pace and then a few minutes of walking. I would make my way around the block a few times and be completely red faced and winded after 20 minutes or less. I felt silly bumbling down the street at 275 pounds, yet managed to convince myself that I looked even more ridiculous being obese and doing nothing about it.

Over time I was able to keep a steady pace for a little longer and a little farther. A few blocks of running turned into a few miles and before I knew it I was training for races. I stuck to mostly 10Ks and 5Ks until one October morning I was working downtown the day of the Chicago Marathon. Watching the buzz, the excitement and the sheer number of people involved made me wonder if I could ever run that distance. I was beginning to think that maybe I should.

Runner’s high photo 2

On March 18, I will be running my first marathon to see that longstanding commitment through. 26.2 miles is admittedly far. Legend has it that Phidippides ran the 26.2 miles from the battle of Marathon to Athens in order to warn his Greek brothers that the Persians were not far behind. It scares me to think that in just a few weeks, I will be covering the same distance. After all, Phidippides attempt, though successful and heroic, ended tragically. They say he died shortly after delivering his message.

As I was completing a 20 mile training run this past weekend, I realized that distance running is about training your mind and body to work in partnership to go the extra mile. As much as your mind pushes your body to go beyond rational limits, your body pushes back to force your mind to stretch the limits of what is rational. Sometimes it’s all mental, sometimes it’s all muscle and most of the time it’s some crazy mix of both.

Runner’s high photo 3

Why do I run? I run to remind myself that I can. Every time that I run, I prove to myself that the rest of my life can’t possibly be that hard now that I can run this far, this fast for this long…


My red pants

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My red pants photo

When I was 20 years old, I purchased a pair of tight, bright red pants during my semester abroad in Granada, Spain. Something about the months spent soaking up the Mediterranean sun, sharing paella with my Spanish family, perfecting my Spanish accent (almost), and enjoying sangria with my new friends, changed me. “Spain Alyssa” could do anything, including pulling off a pair of inappropriately bright and tight pants.

The red pants danced me through many late nights at the discotecas, and even made an appearance at the casino in Monte Carlo when my friends and I traveled to Monaco. Back in the USA, emboldened by the new, independent “Spain Alyssa,” the pants and I accepted drinks from cute boys at Barleycorn and Kincaid’s before packing up and heading south to Champaign, where our flirtation and fun continued all across campus. We went together to New Orleans to cheer on the Fighting Illini at the Sugar Bowl, and to New York City to celebrate my birthday.

After college, the red pants made fewer appearances. My wardrobe budget was allocated to work-appropriate clothing. Our final night out was New Years Eve 2003, when my boyfriend, now husband, told me he loved me for the very first time. A pair of pants couldn’t do much more for me than that. I hung them up later that night, and there they stayed, untouched.

Each year as I purged the closet of unworn, old clothes, I would inevitably come across my red pants. I tried them on, danced them around my bedroom, patted myself on the back because they still fit, and hung them back up. The pants were not quite appropriate for me anymore, but I couldn’t bear to part with them.

The red pants followed me, unworn, from my Lincoln Park studio to our first place as husband and wife in Bucktown, and finally to suburbia, where they eventually shared back-of-the-closet space with nursing covers, maternity clothes, and other lesser-worn items.

During a more recent closet purge, I looked at the red pants with a bit of sadness. Since the last time I wore them, I got married, bought a house, commuted every day to work, and had a baby. “Spain Alyssa” was long gone, as was her carefree attitude and cute figure. While I wouldn’t trade the husband and baby for the life of “Spain Alyssa,” the pants reminded me that such an amazing part of my life was over. What was the point in holding on to them? I tossed them in the Goodwill bag.

Now, a year later, I wish I could have them back. If not for me, then to show my (theoretical) daughter how much fun I had when I was a 20-something. She’ll have to settle for some pictures. Meanwhile, I hold onto the hope that the pants were picked up by a young woman looking for a little adventure. I know they will show her a good time.


Swimmy and the fight against rare diseases

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Swimmy and the fight against rare diseases photo

Do you remember Swimmy, the picture book by Leo Leonni about a little fish alone in the sea? It's been on my mind this month. Not to spoil the ending, but Swimmy becomes a hero by helping a school of fish band together to chase off predators. They couldn't have done it by themselves, but together they're stronger and bigger than the other fish who would eat them.

It may be an imperfect metaphor, but Swimmy has relevance to a much bigger issue. February 29 is National Rare Disease Day, and its slogan couldn't be more appropriate: "Alone we are Rare. Together we are Strong."

So what is a rare disease? In the United States, it's a condition that affects fewer than 200,000 individuals, which is about the population of Aurora, Illinois. The disorders that I talk about working at the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders are rare, though within the Jewish population, their carrier rate can be much higher than in the general population, which is why we encourage carrier screening and genetic testing before couples have children. The National Institutes of Health keeps a registry of rare diseases, and has counted nearly 7,000 separate diseases affecting 25 million individuals. Because they're often related to genetics, rare diseases disproportionately affect children; nearly a third are fatal before the age of 5.

The need for research and cures is obvious—and yet for a large number of families, treatments are not available. Diagnoses can be hard enough to acquire. Why is that?

The truth is that there are lots of gigantic fish in the sea, and they're the ones who get the attention—and the research grants. When a funding committee is asked to give an equal amount of money to a team hoping to treat millions of individuals versus one focusing on a few thousand, it's the rare disease researchers who lose out.

What can we do? Rare Disease Day USA has a list of links, resources and suggestions, including how you can reach out to elected representatives to bring attention to the issue of rare diseases. It also talks about how you can reach out to advocacy organizations, schools, media outlets and more to become an ambassador for rare disease research—and affected individuals and their families.

Within the Jewish community, we are especially lucky to have some history with educating each other about genetic health issues. Tay-Sachs disease once seemed insurmountable; whole hospital wards were dedicated to caring for affected children. But thanks to community mobilization and screening programs, which began in the early 1970s, it now occurs with lower incidence than in the non-Jewish population.

The panel of "Ashkenazi" disorders which can hopefully be avoided through screening has expanded to at least 19 today, and seems to increase at an exponential rate. There are also a growing number of resources for Sephardic and Mizrahi families, including the Persian Jewish Genetic Screening Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Here in Chicago, the Center offers education and screening programs at a highly subsidized rate. Like in Swimmy, our community has come together to help each other do what they can for having healthy families.

An imperfect metaphor, maybe, but every effort starts with one voice. You can make it many. Remember rare diseases on February 29!


My dance journey in Israel

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My dance journey in Israel photo

The author (right) posing outside the main gate of the kibbutz

I didn't start panicking until I had boarded my El Al flight from JFK to Tel Aviv and fully realized that I was about to leave my home for five months. A concerned flight attendant noticed my anxiety and asked me where I was heading. When I told her Kibbutz Ga'aton, she said brightly, "Oh! That's the kibbutz where everyone goes to dance!" I breathed freely again.

Indeed, it was the reason I'd chosen to spend a semester in the northern Israeli village. While Ga'aton functions as a modern kibbutz supported by agricultural and industrial exports, it is also a "dance village." Set in the gorgeous upper Galilee, the main dance studio's windows overlook the rolling hills. Here, Rami Be'er directs the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC), and students from around the world come to study dance in an internship/apprenticeship-like program in partnership with Masa Israel Journey.

The origin of the village is inspiring. During the Holocaust, a girl named Yehudit Arnon was in Auschwitz when a Nazi asked her to perform at a Christmas party. She bravely refused but feared this action would be her last. If she did survive, she decided that she would dedicate the rest of her life to dance. In 1948, Arnon moved to the newly-established Kibbutz Ga'aton, and there, she founded the dance studio that eventually became KCDC. Arnon is still alive today, and though I didn't have the chance to meet her, her desire for life and need to spread the love of dance is embodied in the spirit of the kibbutz.

From the beginning, my days were filled with exhaustion and a sense of fulfillment. My teachers, who were all former professional dancers or current KCDC members, pushed us to reach our highest potential in everything from our dance classes and workshops with other Israeli dance companies to our own choreography projects. The KCDC style, which is characterized by extremely physical, athletic, and large movements contrasted with smaller, gestural, and subtle movements, led to growth in my technical abilities and strength.

We didn't catch our breath until Thursday afternoons, the start of Israeli weekends when we grabbed a bus or hitchhiked to Nahariya, the closest city to the kibbutz. Back at the kibbutz, I'd curl up with a cappuccino at the local café, grab a Goldstar beer at the kibbutz pub, and finally relax. Friday evening meant potluck night at one of the Dance Journey participants' rooms. We were from 16 countries and five continents, and we spent the nights teaching each other about food, music, and traditions from our homes.

One evening in March, we received news that a bomb exploded near Jerusalem's Central Bus Station at rush hour. In the days that followed, I considered the kibbutz's many bomb shelters. Several of them had been transformed into alternative spaces…a Pilates studio, a party room, or a place to practice drums. I appreciated that these musical and physical endeavors seemed to be powerful, metaphorical antitheses to rockets and war.

In one of our performances, we participated in a Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah) ceremony held at Kibbutz Lochmei Hagetaot ("Ghetto Fighters' House,"), which was founded in 1949 by resistance fighters. Against the backdrop of twisted bars and violent images, we performed a section from "Aide Memoire," KCDC's Holocaust memorial piece by Rami Be'er. As I danced for a nationally televised broadcast, I realized how dance—the complete opposite of violence and destruction—can transform and heal.

Rebecca Crystal, from Chicago, IL, graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She participated in Masa Israel's Dance Journey program in February-June of 2011. You can read more details about her experience at http://artinmotionblog.blogspot.com.


A shekel saved is a quarter earned or: jingle jingle jingle jingle jingle yeah

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A shekel saved is a quarter earned photo

I just had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I got to go to Israel on Birthright… and discover the shekel. Now, one might think that there's a lot more to take away from Israel than the shekel, and that is very true. I also took home some Bamba. However, as the title of this article might suggest, I will be talking about my experience with said currency and not so much about the fantastic peanut butter flavored snack.

For those of you that may not be familiar with the shekel, it is simply the Israeli form of currency. And what I must say first is that I love the exchange rate. Basically it's a little more than three and a half to one. So let's say I want to exchange 100 of my silly American dollars. In return, I get back nearly 400 beautiful shekels. I just quadrupled my net worth. I'm aware this isn't the actual case, but the feeling of getting so much for what feels like so little can only be provided by the generous Israeli exchange rates.

But let's get to the root of what makes a shekel so great. At least, what makes a shekel so great to me. Just say "shekel" out loud. Seriously. Go ahead. Try it. It's a wonderful word, isn't it? Shekel. Just rolls off the tongue. Before Israel, I had only been to two other countries. Mexico, where they have the peso. Boring word. And then there's Canada, where they have the humorously named loonie and toonie. Funny, but true. And of course we have America with the dollar. Meh.

The truth of the matter is that I feel the shekel is a lot more efficient. Because of the exchange rate, the lowest denomination is essentially equivalent to a quarter. We won't mention the awkward half shekel. Whoops. But imagine America where we have nothing less than the quarter. No more annoying loose change. No more agitating purchases ending in .36. It would solve the debt crisis. That's fact… based on my hopes and dreams. But, still fact.

Then, from the visual point of view, the shekel is, in a word, beautiful. The 20, 50, 100 and the elusive 200 shekel bill all have different colors and designs and it's gorgeous. It makes you excited to have money outside of the idea of spending money. You almost want to keep the shekels and put them on your walls to liven up the place. Or better yet make a big rug out of them to tie the room together. I also love the fact that a 20 shekel bill is impossible to rip. Seriously, it's made out of thin flexible metal. Little-known fact I made up. In America, we keep trying to liven up our currency, but all we've ever done right is the sort of fun, patriotic looking 50. But honestly, other than in a birthday card from your grandparents, you never, ever have a 50. So it's like they don't even exist.

Now don't get me wrong, I love the dollar. The sight of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the sound of it, the taste of it. The anything of it. The fact that apparently 80 percent of circulated paper currency might have traces of coke on it. And I ain't talking about the refreshing carbonated beverage. No, no, no. Seriously, look this up. It's true. But I really wish the American currency system did have some sort of a revamp coming. I don't need pennies, nickels and dimes. I mean, if you don't want them I'll gladly accept them every single time, but they aren't truly necessary.

Coming from the context of being in the United States, a pocketful of change is practically worthless. All it is good for is rounding out your purchases to make sure you don't get even more change. But having a pocket filled with the almighty shekels, I feel like a rich man. Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. And as I've said before, everything costs an even amount with the shekel. In American equivalency, everything would essentially end with 25, 50, 75 or 00. Much more simple. And how amazing would that be!? It would take away at least 50 percent of my daily stress. It would also give me time to finally figure out better topics to write about than why I like foreign currency. Sorry to say that is not the case, and so I apologize for this entire article. Thanks for reading.


The casual pick-up: is there a script?

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Rachel Bertsche photo 2

Over the past two months I've done a number of interviews for MWF Seeking BFFQuite often, an interviewer will ask me, "We all know the usual ways to make friends—at the gym, say—so why was it so hard for you?"

To which I will usually respond that yes, we've probably all spoken to someone at the gym or the coffee shop or the grocery store. Wherever. But that's not the issue. The issue is what to say to turn that casual conversation into friendship, or even a friend-date.

I've spoken to the girls on the treadmills next to me plenty. But how do you go from commiserating over a hard workout to "let's have lunch and maybe be best friends soon?"

It's tricky. And people glaze over this most important step.

In the dating world, I guess this is what guys call "closing." You can flirt with a woman all night, but you haven't closed until you've gotten her number. Before I did my "Year of Friending," I couldn't close. I'm pretty good at chit-chat; I could throw out a quick quip and give someone a laugh. But then I'd flounder, stretching the small talk for too long while I tried to figure out how to non-awkwardly ask for digits. I'd usually walk away with nothing but the hope that maybe she and I would meet again. And maybe next time she'd be braver and more socially competent than I.

I'm still not great at this aspect of making new friends. I'm good enough at writing the "want to have lunch?" email, or following up for that second date. But that moment when you ask for a phone number or hand someone your card is still tough. These days I say some variation of, "We should totally get together! What's your email/number?" (I switch back and forth between these methods of conversation depending on the person.)

I'm still not great at using that line on someone I've only spoken to once or twice in line at the grocery store or at yoga. I can manage it with someone I've met for an extended period (an airplane ride, for example), but if it's a casual neighborhood acquaintance…that's tough.

But like I said, I keep hearing from interviewers: "I'm just the type of person who makes friends everywhere…"

So what I'm wondering is simple: what do you say to close?


Making up my bucket list

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Making up my bucket list photo

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I'm inching toward 30. Not just yet, still have a bit more than a year to go, but I've been in an introspective mood lately. That's why I've been thinking about what I want to accomplish in life.

I've got some of the big things squared away (hopefully): a fantastic husband, a job I love, a city I can't get enough of.

But that doesn't mean that I've settled down completely. In a society full of "30 before 30," "10,000 places to visit" and "1,000 things to do before you die" lists, I'm considering jumping on the bandwagon and creating my own "Bucket List." My timeline is vague, and I'm sure the list will change in the next couple of years. 

I'm not about to bungee jump or train to climb Mt. Everest. I like adventure, just not that much adventure. The list germinating in my brain is comprised of more doable accomplishments.

For example, last summer I set out to run a 5K in under 30 minutes. For someone whose average mile time in high school gym class was more than 17 minutes, a 30-minute 5K would be quite an accomplishment. I trained for several months, and then ran three races in about two months. I improved by more than a minute at each, coming in at 29:46 at the Disco Dash in late August. The exhilaration of that race is indescribable.

Every time I put on the bright blue jersey I received that day, I remember running on the Lake Front path, past Diversey Harbor among a hundred others. I thought I was slow, people kept passing me. In reality, I hadn't run that fast (for me, anyway) for that long in any training session! More 5Ks are definitely in store (they'll help me lose the extra poundage from incubating a human - due in mid-May!).

Here are seven other things I'd like to accomplish:

1. Travel to Argentina and meet my large extended family there
2. Have three children
3. Read everything on my ever-expanding Goodreads list (150 titles and counting now)
4. Read, write and speak Spanish on a weekly basis
5. Open a café and bake up a storm
6. Take voice lessons
7. Travel around Italy

Do you have a bucket list? What's on it?


The new “to-do” list

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The new “to-do” list photo

I have a love-hate relationship with my to-do list.

I still keep my tasks for work written down on an old fashioned notepad—for some reason, it’s much more satisfying to actually cross something off with a pen, rather than just deleting text from the notepad application on my iPhone. I hate it when the page gets too full and messy, and when my list of tasks seems never-ending and overwhelming. But I love the feeling I get when I’ve crossed off enough items that I’ve earned the right to turn the page, to have a fresh start.

You’re probably thinking it’s kinda weird to reflect so in depth on something like a to-do list, right? It’s not something I do often, but there is a reasonable explanation here.

I spent the past two days getting trained in Scrum—have you heard of it?

Aside from being an unfortunate sounding word—someone told me it sounded like a cross between a dirty word and the grime you clean off your shower—Scrum is a method of agile project management that is used most often in software development, but can be used in other fields as well. (Side note: for those of us who don’t work in IT, apparently Scrum is growing in popularity among advertisers and wedding planners!)

The process focuses on self-organization, team work and promotes efficiency through regular meetings and predefined roles. I’ll spare you all the details, but there are words like backlog, sprints, iterations. impediments, relative estimation, retrospectives, epics, and the best part? Someone gets to be the ScrumMaster!

One important item used in Scrum, and agile project management in general, is an oversized board, where one’s Scrum team keeps track of their progress by physically moving tasks around a board divided by tasks to do, tasks in progress and tasks completed.

During our training, the presenter said people often use variations of this methodology to manage household tasks and errands, which seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Ironically, this concept, which is obviously meant to make employees more efficient and productive, made me think about Pinterest, which could be seen as the total opposite to productivity (but great inspiration for creativity!). I only joined Pinterest—a virtual pinboard that allows us to share things we find on the web with our networks—a few weeks ago and I haven’t done a lot of pinning myself yet, but I can see how this could be great for finding gift ideas and recipes, perfect for wedding planning and so much more. I even did a search for “to do boards” on Pinterest and came up with a slew of creative ideas.

In a way, in pinning cute outfits, inspirational quotes, places we’d like to go and home decoration ideas to Pinterest, we are creating our dream to-do lists. Pinterest has managed to turn the dreaded to-do list into something magical, a world of endless possibilities, where our imaginations can run wild. But at the same time, providing a platform where we can organize these thoughts and dreams into categories, making them seem all the more attainable.

This makes me wonder, why are we so fascinated with organization—practical, virtual and otherwise—these days? And with all these options, maybe it’s time I reevaluate my old trusty notepad technique and opt for an upgrade.


Miri Ben-Ari: rockin’ the violin, raising money for valuable causes

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Miri Ben Ari photo 1

Before last week, I had never seen Miri Ben-Ari perform. But working at JUF, I sure had heard a lot about her.

Originally from Israel, the Jewish, Grammy-winning, hip-hop violinist has made a name for herself here over the last several years, and not just for her incredible musical ability.

Not only did I hear about how Ben-Ari has collaborated with some of the biggest names in hip-hop music, including Kanye West and Jay-Z, but I also learned about her philanthropy.

Several years ago, Ben-Ari founded the Gedenk Movement, a non-profit that raises awareness about the Holocaust, and uses it to teach more global lessons about anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate. The movement is aimed at educating youth about the horrors of such a dark time in history. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Ben-Ari, like all of us, wants to make sure there will never be such a thing as a second Holocaust.

Anyway - that's what I knew about Miri Ben-Ari. So when I heard that she was going to be performing a benefit concert here in Chicago I was thrilled to be going to hear the amazing violinist perform live.

As it turns out, I was even luckier than I had previously thought. Right before the concert, Ben-Ari would be taping an interview for JUF's Sanctuary, so I asked my boss if I could attend the taping.

I ended up meeting Ben-Ari, and seeing the interview (which is scheduled to air at 1 p.m. on Feb. 26 on WLS/ABC 7). Although shy at first, Ben-Ari instantly transformed into a fierce activist when asked about her non-profit work. I'm sure you'll be impressed by how passionate this woman is about preserving the memories of the Holocaust and fighting anti-Semitism and hate.

(On a side note, I also became quite friendly with her manager Josue Sejour. I started things off on the right foot by asking if he was her bodyguard, because he was tall and looked strong. Oops. Luckily, the man had a sense of humor.)

After the interview, I caught the train to Lincoln Hall to watch Ben-Ari perform – and it was incredible. Her stage presence, combined with her amazing talent, was captivating. It was also beautiful to witness how the concert brought together so many people, old and young. I ended up having a wonderful time and can't wait to see her perform again.


Who will be the next big Jewish NBA star?

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Jeremy Fine photo

The NBA is up and running. Omri Casspi is starting, but without very impressive numbers and Jordan Farmar remains a solid backup on the verge of leading a team. Since everything is status quo with our current star NBA players, The Great Rabbino begs to ask the question, “who is next?” (Not a Goldberg reference).

In the college game right now, our upperclassmen and top scorers play for smaller schools. Certainly Zach Rosen and Jake Cohen will have a chance to play overseas, but it is unlikely either will make the NBA. Corbin Moore and Chris Wroblewski have improved, but there chances are even dimmer.

If we look at some of the younger players at top programs, we have a few potentials. Jacob Susskind at Maryland, Danny Rubin at Boston College, and Nate Lubick at Georgetown. As of now, none of them show NBA caliber potential, but should improve at these big time programs. Also, next year Aaron Liberman will join the Northwestern Wildcats. At 6’9 he is a work in progress, but could have some potential if he puts on weight— but again, NBA is very unlikely.

So that means we have to look overseas to Israel— which brings me to Idam Zalmanson. Zalmanson is a 6’9 forward who is only 16 and already playing with the pros. He is not draft eligible until 2017, but with his size could make Zalmanson the next big Jewish star. He was pre-draft already by Maccabi Tel Aviv, so he will get top competition and European recognition.

Of course, there is the outside chance that Jon Scheyer or Sylven Landesberg get it together and make a run at the NBA, but neither has been that NBA impressive in their short time in Israel. Landesberg is averaging 21.8 points per game, but his team has been a big letdown at three and 12.

So watch out for Zalmanson even if it’s a few years down the road. Until then, enjoy the Casspi and Farmar moments.

And Let Us Say...Amen.


Valentine’s Day for singles

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Valentine’s Day for singles photo

Just like Alex on my new favorite show Happy Endings, I've always loved Valentine's Day—even as a single girl.  Growing up, my mom and dad would buy me a new set of cute pajamas every year and I've always made an effort to exchange cards and chocolate with my single friends. In fact, one year my best friend and I even went on our own Valentine's Day date. Who says chocolates, flowers and a yummy dinner have to be just for couples?

So just because you don't have a date for Valentine's Day this year, doesn't mean you have to sit at home eating chocolates by yourself watching cheesy rom coms. This year, use Valentine's Day as an opportunity to meet that special one—no really, I'm serious. Chicago has a plethora of singles Valentine's Day parties that take place all week/weekend. From Second City to Adler after Dark, there's a party for everyone—even the most cynical at heart.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any specifically Jewish singles parties, but one of these other parties should catch your fancy:

Solo in the Second City: A Reading Series, Chapter 1
Two Chicago singles discuss their dating lives or lack thereof.
Cobra Lounge, 235 N. Ashland Ave.
February 13, 8 - 9:30p.m.

Anti-Valentine's Day Party 
Local comedians Seth and Kellen host dating and love-themed performances by storytelling group 2nd Story and all-female goth-garage band the Black Belles.
Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Ave.
February 14, 8 p.m.

Ladies Night at Soha Comedy 
See love-and-no-love-themed sets by an all-female lineup including Kate Cullan, Kristen Toomey, April Kaprelian, Kate Steit, Caryn Ruby, Megan Gailey, Caitlin Bergh and others.
Sopo, 3418 N. Southport Ave.
February 14 , 9:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.

Franklin Tap's Beer is My Valentine 
Spend this February 14 at Franklin Tap, where beer is everyone's true love. Franklin Tap will offer four Valentine's Day beer specials sure to get your heart pumping.
325. S Franklin St.
February 14, 11 a.m. - midnight

Adler After Dark 
Have you been meaning to check out Adler After Dark? This monthly series features beer, wine and appetizers for sale, access to the planetarium's exhibits, unlimited sky and space shows, demonstrations, telescope viewing, trivia and tours.
Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive
Every 3rd Thursday of the month. 6 p.m. - 10 p.m.

If none of these are really your scene, consider hosting a singles Shabbat dinner or party this week. Even if you don't know a lot of single folks, have your couples friends bring along a single friend, ask co-workers and even friends-of-friends and before you know it you will have a whole new crowd of single folks to mingle with at your own home! 

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!


Spring fashion fever

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Spring fashion fever photo

This is a difficult time of year for me. Every February, I'm bombarded by emails about the latest spring fashions. Always a fan of predominately neutrals paired with the unexpected neon or shimmery accent, this season's spring runway is right up my alley. Not to sound too dramatic, but this fashionista is suffering. To me, fashion is more than simply clothing and accessories; it's a form of artistic personal expression. Feeling confident in how we look helps us put our best foot forward and with the warm weather and soft breeze, springtime is a fabulous time to embrace fashion.

I receive emails from several stores and fashion blogs daily. The options are endless, how do I choose? As in years past, I can't help but feel like this excitement could not come at a worse time. Recouping from the expense of the holidays, it would be nice to save money. Furthermore, although this winter has thankfully been rather mild, it's still dragging on and with flurries still in the forecast, spring seems eons away, making it hard for me to conceptualize spring fashion when I'm sitting here typing in my heavy cashmere sweater and boots.

But, I supposed I should swallow my aggravation as it's never too early to prepare to hit the Chicago streets in style. Although I may not be whipping out my credit card just yet, I'm scoping out the selection for when the time is right. I will be the first to admit that, unfortunately, shopping on a budget has never been a great skill of mine, but understanding that I am on a budget, I've developed a knack for selecting just a handful of key seasonal items (not necessarily frugal, but also not astronomical) that get me through each season classically and with a little edge.

Hence, I'm offering up my opinion on good examples of what I believe are spring's key items for the female wardrobe, and with my limited time to peruse the selection these days, I am presenting simply what has come through my email inbox that has looked appealing. (Gentlemen, don't you worry, although I have to conduct some further research and practice a little bit more on my boyfriend, you'll be next in March.)

Here it goes:

  1. Something I absolutely love about spring is how the change of weather makes me feel like I can take more fashion risks and embrace a more casual, edgy bohemian vibe. A good pair of bell-bottoms never goes out of style. Embracing springtime even further, how about ivory. Check out these jeans from Club Monaco.
  2. I mentioned neons above. Let's get it straight, neons in moderation are awesome and so hot (word play) right now. There is also nothing like an edgy, feminine look. Not too sweet, not too sassy. Loving this frock on neimanmarcus.com from the Nanette Lepore runway.
  3. The most versatile and fun spring/summer piece is the right tunic-style top or dress. Paired and accessorized correctly, it literally can go anywhere from the office to the bar to the beach. Australian blogger Jessica Stein of Tuula Vintage masters the look in the center image originally presented by www.whowhatwhear.com.
  4. Lastly, I recently bought this blazer from J. Crew. It's 100% classic and the ivory color and medium weight allows it to be the perfect seasonal transition piece. To me, tweed is a year-round fabric. Work to play, I can't wait to wear it continuously.

Love starved

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Love starved photo 

A Play in One Act

Chicago, IL. Winter, 2012. 8 p.m.

A sub-par Mexican restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood. It is a yuppie area, inhabited mostly by young singles, couples, married couples, married couples with babies and married couples with babies and dogs.

The entrance to the sub-par Mexican restaurant is dimly lit, street (stage) right.

Street (stage) left; SHE hurriedly pays her taxi driver, checking her phone for the time. She is late.

Inside we see a dimly lit restaurant, garnished with mounted wall animals wearing sombreros and other pseudo-Mexican decorative disasters—clearly not kosher. Two tables are occupied: one with a couple enjoying their mediocre Mexican fare; another with an eager young man sitting in a button-down shirt and jeans. HE rises from his chair when she enters. They hug. Awkwardly.

HE and SHE are in their 20s.

SHE smiles with relief because he somewhat resembles his online dating profile picture. HE scans her face and figure.

SHE. It's nice to meet you. Sorry I was late.

HE. That's Ok. It's nice to meet you too.

HE sits. SHE takes off her coat and places it on the back of her chair.

SHE. Thank you for suggesting this place, I've been meaning to try it. Did you have an OK time getting here?

HE. Yeah, it's not far from where I live.

SHE sits, unfolds her napkin and places it over her lap. HE takes a drink of water. SHE reaches for her menu.

HE. Are you going to order something?

SHE puzzled.

SHE. Yes? Aren't you? Did you have a late lunch?

HE. I don't eat dinner.

SHE looks down at the menu deciding how to reply.

SHE. You don't eat dinner?

HE. I only eat one meal a day. I've lost 60 pounds. In fact, I went on the scale this morning and saw I lost a few more pounds.

SHE. That's nice…

HE. Yeah, my eating regime has worked really well for me.

SHE. Which meal do you eat?

HE. Lunch.

Silence. SHE glances at the menu unsure of how to proceed.

SHE. How did you get into this…schedule?

The waiter comes for their drink orders. SHE orders wine. SHE wishes she ordered something stronger. HE orders a soda.

HE. When I fasted last Tisha B'Av I realized I could get along on less food.

SHE. Oh.


HE. I guess…since I lost a few more pounds on the scale this morning I can splurge and eat dinner.

SHE. Ok.

SHE stares down at her menu. SHE wonders, "What does one order after that?"

End of Scene.


This was my re-entrance into the online dating world after a several-year hiatus. A few years ago I'd sampled it and the experience left a bad taste in mouth—so rancid, I swore I'd never try it again.

During my first online dating interlude, the menu included guys who lied about their looks; guys who lied about their age; guys who lied about their looks and age; guys who drank too much; guys who talked too much; guys who loved their mothers too much; guys who loved their ex-girlfriends too much; guys who loved their therapists too much and so on…Never had I come across a guy who loved his scale too much—that is, until now.

To break this down and talk in terms we can all understand: Let's compare dating to the economy. The older we get, the harder it is to find a job; the same is true for dating. The longer a person has been working, the more bad job stories he or she will have, and the same goes for dating. Both can turn us into cynics, which makes the search all the more difficult. While I am still in my 20s, I have had my share of bad dating stories—some of which, would stop your heart altogether.

If I were to create a "seasonal menu" themed after the guys I've met this time around, I would title it "Gluttonous Over-Sharing." These guys spoil your palette before you've unfolded your napkin or ordered your drink. They're the anti-amuse-bouche of dating.

People lie on their resumes and people lie on their online dating profiles. Both are hazardous ideas and I do neither. As with a job interview or a first date, we aim to lead with our best selves. The liars think they can fake it and at least get their foot in the door for an interview. In the world of online dating, it seems to take about one encounter, five minutes and a few sentences for a date to stick a foot in his mouth so deep, there is no exit strategy.

If you're going to lie on your online dating profile, don't reveal you're crazy too early when you actually meet the person—unless of course, you're actually that crazy. The difference with lying in dating is that it's not business, it's personal.

I had a conversation with my sister the other day, who is also facing the trials and tribulations of dating after much disappointment in the past. We decided together on five categories of online daters:

Online Dater 1: I could not get a date outside of the virtual world if my life depended on it. 
Caution: You can usually sniff these people out by reading their profiles.

Online Dater 1a: I project sanity loosely veiling my depravity.
Caution: Be careful of these!

Online Dater 2: I want to get laid.
Caution: These folks sometimes wear chivalrous disguises.

Online Dater 3: I am using online dates to pad my recent break-up.
Caution: Be careful, motives potentially overlap with Online Dater 2.

Online Dater 4: What I think and say I want is vastly different than what I'm actually capable of handling. I think I want to be in serious relationship or get married and have kids, but I actually need some therapy—or perhaps lots of therapy.
Caution: These daters are the trickiest of all. They appear normal.

Online Dater 5: (See Explanation Below)

I think my sister and I fall into this category. We're run-of-the-mill neurotic and intelligent Jewish girls who still have hope that our romantic best friends are still out there, and we're still willing to take a leap of faith. We know too, that everyone, to some degree, is a composite of all of those personas at one time or another.

Armed with dating horror stories—some more recent than others—I'm trying to tackle dating these days with a little less naivety and a little more faith. Dating boils down to a perfect recipe of perseverance, hope and amnesia from all of our heart-break history.

My sister put it perfectly: "Part of why I hate Valentine's Day is because I kind of love it."


Before you register for Birthright...

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Before you register for birthright... photo

During the last three years, Shorashim, in partnership with JUF, has expanded its regular Israel trip programming reach to young adults with special needs.

Shorashim started by working with KOACH to run a Taglit-Birthright Israel group for 18 to 26 year olds with Asperger's Syndrome in 2008.

The trip is now in its third year and is being spearheaded by KOACH's Associate Director Elyse Winick and Shorashim alum and Chicago native Darin Argentar. From the first year, this group has soared in popularity, and now draws a waitlist.

The 20 young adults who participated in the most recent trip had an amazing time. If you're interested in learning more about their journey, check out their blog.

Word of this trip spread and Shorashim was contacted by a group of parents from Los Angeles who wanted their 18 to 26 year olds with special needs to have a similar experience on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

"The trip went really, really well. It exceeded our expectations," said Elizabeth Cohen, a parent of a participant and one of the trip's organizers.  "It was a great experience for the kids. They got to do what their peers do, and they made a connection with each other and Israel. 

Before you register for birthright... photo 2

Her son Zachary had a great time.

"It was fun seeing all the sites and seeing my family in Israel," Zachary Cohen said. "I liked all of it. It's a fun place to see."

A special needs expert, Lee Chernotsky led the trip.

"It was the journey of a lifetime," Lee said. "It was a trip that fostered growth and independence for all of our participants, and raised awareness on everything we can do, instead of what is challenging."

Lee met with each participant several times before the trip to set goals. He said every goal of every participant was met.

"We did everything from a disco cruise on the Kineret to crying at Yad Vashem," Lee said. "We learned a tremendous amount about ourselves. We will all be forever changed by the experience."

They are not the only ones. During the trip, the special needs group had an evening activity with one of the Chicago buses.

Before you register for birthright... photo 3

"It was such an amazing experience for each and every one of us," blogged Lauren J.  "We learned that our groups weren't so different from each other after all. We all saw the same sites and cities and had the same experiences, just at a different pace. Most importantly, we are all Jewish, and are all here to embrace our heritage and learn about our roots."

To read more about the LA trip, check out their blog.

Registration for Chicago Community Trips begins Feb. 14 for previous applicants and Feb. 15 for new applicants. For more information and to register: http://israelwithisraelis.com/


A series of markers, dates, finish lines and moments in time

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Jenna Benn photo

My life has become a series of markers, dates, finish lines, and moments in time.

The days no longer bleed into each other, but rather stand out, waiting to be counted, hoping to be acknowledged, and eager to be added to my list of memories, hardships, challenges, and victories.

The list is growing because I need it to, because I want it to, because I am not sure I remember how to live without the acknowledgment of what was and what is.

And so I honor, I remember, I celebrate and I mourn these makers, these dates, these finish lines.

The date I was told I have cancer.
The date I was told there was no sign of disease.
The date I was told I was infertile.
The date I had my eggs extracted.
The date I started treatment.
The date I finished treatment.
The date I thought I was going to die.
The date I knew I was going to live.
The date I entered the hospital for the first time.
The date I left the hospital for the last time.
The date I shared my story with the world.
The date I felt I had lost my voice.
The date when I could do the running man and the roger rabbit.
The date when all I could do was the twist.
The date when I was able to run for 13.1 miles.
The date when I was unable to climb a flight of stairs.
The date when I returned to work.
The date when I couldn't remember where I lived.
The date I started to accept and embrace this new self.
The date when I let myself mourn my former self.
The date my eyebrows mysteriously grew back.
The date when I decided to shave my head.
The date when I found refuge in running.
The date when I nearly passed out after walking a block.
The date when my white blood count was 0.0.
The date my blood count was 8.1.
The date when I raised $18,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
The date when I was billed $18,000 for a CT Scan.
The date when my toes reconnected with sand.
The date when I was unable to wiggle my toes.
The date when I felt grounded and still.
The date when I finally was able to take flight.
The date when I fell out of love.
The date where I found love again.
The date where I felt everything had been taken and the date where I felt everything had been found.

As I continue to choose to be surrounded by markers, by dates, by finish lines and by moments in time, I am reminded that it is the acknowledgment of these events, it is the list that keeps on growing, and it is the experiences of what was and what is that reminds me that I am here, that I am alive, that I am present and that I am ready for what is and what will be.


Chosen bites: Tu Bishvat treats

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The New Year for trees is a great time of year to remind ourselves of the importance of eating locally and in season.

As we prepare to celebrate the New Year for trees, we are reminded of the relationship between humans and the land. As a chef, I understand the value of great produce and the beauty of a great bottle of olive oil and delicious wines. Tu Bishvat is a perfect time of year to remind ourselves to eat locally, in season and to celebrate responsible farming practices and the continued bounty from the earth.

Chicken with date and fig relish

For the relish

I love the harmony of sweet, sour and spice in this relish. The dates become soft and gooey and the crunch of the onions and pomegranate seeds are the perfect counter point to the quick cooking and brightly flavored chicken breasts.

1 cup red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
¼ cup honey
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 cups pitted dates
1 cup dried figs, stemmed and diced
½ cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses or syrup
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup pomegranate seeds
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt and pepper

1. Heat the red wine vinegar, crushed red chilies and honey until the mixture comes to a simmer. Add the sliced red onion and dates and remove from the heat. Allow the onion and dates to marinate in the pickling liquid for 30 minutes.

2. Remove the onion from the pickling liquid, reserving the liquid, and coarsely chop the onion and dates.

3. Add the remaining ingredients and 2 teaspoons of the pickling liquid.

4. Salt and pepper to taste.

For the marinade

Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 glove of garlic, grated on a microplane
1 medium shallot, finely minced
1 tablespoon honey
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Whisk all of the ingredients for the marinade together.

For the chicken

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to ¼ inch thickness

Place the chicken in a medium container and pour the marinade over the pounded breasts. Place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours but no more than 6 hours.

1. Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and discard the marinade.

2. Heat a large sauté pan or griddle to medium high heat. Coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil.

3. Place the chicken breasts in the hot pan, be sure not to over crowd the pan or the chicken will not get crispy and brown. Cook the breasts on the first side for 3-5 minutes until they are browned and slightly crispy. Turn the breasts to the other side and cook an additional 3 minutes until the breast is lightly browned and cooked through (you can test this by gently pushing on the breast and checking for firmness). If it is firm-it is done.

4. Serve the chicken breasts with the relish and barley pilaf.

Herbed Barley Pilaf

4 ounces whole wheat capellini or thin spaghetti, broken into 1-inch segments
1 ½ cups barley
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
¼ toasted pine nuts
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Suggested garnishes: pomegranate seeds, lemon slices

1. Place the pasta in a sauce pan that is lightly coated with olive oil. Toast the pasta, stirring occasionally, until it is a dark brown color, but not black.

2. Add the barley to the pasta and add 3 cups of water and cook the barley, covered, over medium heat until the barley is soft but with an al dente texture, about 30 minutes. Transfer the barley mixture to a large mixing bowl.

3. Stir the rest of the ingredients with the barley and garnish with pomegranate seeds and thinly sliced lemons.


Cheers! Chicago, V-Day edition: Red lipstick, sparkling wine and a day of love

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Cheers Chicago, V-Day edition photo

In the past, I spent my Valentine’s Days watching couple after couple glide into the restaurant I was working at, sliding up to the bar, their eyes beholding a sparkly, dreamy look. They appeared to be in another place altogether, alternating between gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and frequent “5-second Frenchers.” I would always try to welcome them in with a few libations. Wine was the preferred beverage; though not always red-colored or even the clichéd ‘rose’ blush wine most commonly associated with Valentine’s Day. (Champagne or sparkling wine is most appropriate, actually, according to most food and beverage experts). One of the companions, usually the gentleman, would gaze ever so affectionately at his companion, while she would smile coyly and ever so delicately sip on her chardonnay.

Of course, I had the pleasure of meticulously rubbing out the deep red lipstick stain that would take more than a few runs through the glass washer, while Don Quijote over there managed to squeeze out a two dollar tip on $40 worth of wine and barely acknowledge my presence. I would never grumble— at least out loud. Instead, I would just imagine what it would feel like to have just one Valentine’s Day that did not end with a lonely frozen-dinner and movie, or with me finding some excuse to minimize what it’s all about, or worse have to work behind the bar and watch others celebrate it. And let’s not forget a phone call from mom, just to make sure I’m alright, that I’ll find the right [Jewish] girl, “Soon enough.”

Three years ago, I was single and talking about girls to my mother. This year, I am spending the day with my girlfriend, taking her out to dinner and having a wonderful evening of fun and laughter— and gifts, of course. I don’t think you need to have a significant other to appreciate this holiday and what it’s all about. Just open yourself up, you never know what’s around the corner.

So guys— dress nicely, pick a trendy place, grab a rose (or a bouquet), look clean and presentable, smile a lot and maintain genuine eye contact with your companion. Girls— try not to judge too harshly, compliment on how your companion looks and what place is chosen. Most importantly, whatever you do for Valentine’s Day— single, solo, group outing— have fun and enjoy it.



Cheap, simple, full body

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No, I'm not talking about wine. This is a full body workout that you can do at home with little equipment. I used a band and my bodyweight to get a quick workout. If you do each exercise for 30 seconds and repeat the circuit five times, only resting a minute at the end of each circuit, you will have burned a ton of calories in 30 minutes!

The exercises are:
• Wall sit
• Plank
• Walking lateral with band
• Wall press
• Lunges
• Hand walking
• Mountain climbers
• Knee lifts
• Jumping jacks

Check out this video for a simple circuit workout!


Nine dresses

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Nine dresses photo

Pictured is the author with her sister at her sister’s wedding.

Later this month, I'll be a bridesmaid for the ninth time.

I guess you could say standing up in weddings has become an extra-curricular activity of mine by default. I'm a bridesmaid about as often as people change their clocks for Daylight Saving and Standard Time—about twice a year.

My closet is filled with more long black dresses than Morticia Addams'; I've witnessed more ketubah signings than some rabbis; I've sauntered down more aisles than a Pam Am flight attendant. I've had my photo snapped by wedding photographers more times than Larry King; I've linked hands, dancing in circles with more people than a kindergarten teacher; and I've toasted brides and grooms with more bad jokes than a comedian on a cruise ship.

You would think I'd grow tired of the task, but actually I find it an honor each time I'm asked to stand up for a friend/sister. It's a testament to my friendships with each of these wonderful women who have asked me to celebrate their love and upcoming life's journey with them.

What I love about standing up in these particular weddings is how low-key my bride friends have been. In contrast to the wedding-obsessed culture we live in where four million people tuned in for Kim Kardashian's over-the-top nuptials—my friends shared a grounded sense of perspective at their own haymish weddings.

They saw the triviality of details like what color linens adorned the tables or whether quinoa will be paired with the tilapia option. Instead, they recognized the important stuff like that the wedding is really the launching pad for building wonderful homes with their beshert. They understand that it's all the days after the wedding—the marriage—that really count.

This isn't always the case. I've heard urban legends about—ahem—more "challenging" brides. One friend told me that a bride insisted all her bridesmaids wear the same brand of nylons at her wedding. Note to that bride: If a guest is close enough to a bridesmaid's legs to know the difference, they've got much bigger problems to deal with. Another bride insisted her maid of honor choose a less pretty dress to wear because the bride worried her friend would outshine her. These brides were drunk with power no person should have. Assuming the role of bride shouldn't transform you into ruthless dictator.

My older sister couldn't have approached her nuptials more differently than these bridezillas. Hers was the first wedding I ever stood up in—I was her maid of honor. When I gave the toast at her wedding, as soon as I reached the mike, I started sobbing—so emotional was I to watch my best friend/sister marry a wonderful mensch. The wedding guests obliged me for a full minute before I collected myself enough to deliver my speech. (I've since destroyed the videotape of the toast.)

And before my sister's reception, I recall taking pictures with the other wedding party attendants on a beautiful July 4th weekend in the Twin Cities. The photographer wanted to film us in a garden outside the Minnesota State Capitol. We trekked through dirt to get to the garden, dressed in tuxedos and long ball gown skirts. My job was to hold up my sister's train away from the soil, but there was so much dirt that the bottom of her pristine white dress got soiled no matter how hard I tried to keep it clean. 

Other brides would have freaked out. But my sister just shrugged. She was marrying the kind, decent man she loved. All the rest was commentary.

A decade later, the dirt-covered dress is just a funny wedding story, and all that matters is she and her husband have a happy marriage that has produced three beautiful sons.

Ninth wedding? Bring it on. It's a mitzvah to dance at a wedding. In fact, Jewish tradition tells us that you should dance at as many weddings as possible. After all, there are unfortunately way too many sad occasions in this world (why else would we break a glass during a wedding ceremony?). So when we can, we should embrace the joys in life wherever we find them.

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