OyChicago blog

Interview with swimming gold medalist Jason Lezak

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Interview with swimming gold medalist Jason Lezak photo

We have all seen him swim. Glued to our televisions over the past few Olympics, Jason Lezak has become one of the most decorated swimmers, Olympians, and Jewish athletes of all time. His participation in the Maccabiah Games over the World Championships was a historic Jewish sports moment.

I am really excited that Lezak is now a part of my team at TheGreatRabbino.com. Read the interview and sign up to bring him to your event. And swimmers everywhere can sign up to go to Israel with the legend himself. Just click HERE.

1. Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Irvine, California and began swimming at the age of five, played on the high school basketball team and become an All-American in water polo. In 1998, I made an impact at the U.S. National Championships that year winning my first national title in the 100m freestyle and then went on to win a gold and silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games. At the 2004 Olympic Games, I took home a bronze medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay and the gold in a world-record-breaking swim in the 4x100m medley relay. I also represented the U.S. in Israel at the Maccabiah Games. It was a tough decision to make having to pass on the World Championships but this was more than just another swim competition.

2. You had such a historic Olympic career. What was the highlight?

The 2008 Olympics 4x100 free relay. We had lost the previous two Olympics after never losing before in Olympic history. To help bring back gold for USA was really special.

3. What was the best part of swimming with Michael Phelps? What makes him so unique?

To watch him prepare for a race and see his focus and determination. He is unique because not only does he do all the strokes at the highest level, he can do short distances as well as middle distances. Never has there been anyone who comes even close to him.

4. Is there any event you wish you had competed in but it didn't work out?

I wish I could have represented the USA at Maccabiah in 2001 and 2005, but unfortunately it interfered with World Championships. Since I was swimming professionally as my job, I needed to go to the Worlds.

5. Are you good at other water sports like skiing, diving or water polo?

I was an All-American water polo player in high school. Every year at UC Santa Barbara the coach wanted me to join the college team, but I decided it was too tough to do both if I wanted to achieve my dream of making the Olympics one day.

6. What was your Jewish upbringing like?

I was brought up in a Reform synagogue. I went to Hebrew school as a kid and had my bar mitzvah at 13.

7. What have you been up to since you last swam in the Olympics?

After I retired from swimming in 2012 I have been doing swim clinics across the country, swim camps around the world, motivational speaking, and other appearances. I love the sport of swimming and enjoy still being a part of it in a different way.

8. Anything else you want to share?

Going to Israel in 2009 was a special trip for me. I learned so much of it as a kid and always wanted to experience it. I always saw myself as Jewish and an athlete, but being able to compete in the Maccabiah games, I -- for the first time -- saw myself different. Putting them together I was a Jewish athlete.


5 Impressions of Chicago from an Outsider

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5 Impressions of Chicago from an Outsider photo

To say the last eight months have been a whirlwind would be a tad of an understatement. Following graduation from Indiana University-Bloomington last May, I picked up almost immediately and moved to the Windy City for a fabulous opportunity with a communications firm in River North.

Hailing from Akron, Ohio, I will always be a loyal Northeast Ohioan, but I would be lying if I said I didn't already have a soft spot for Chicago. Here are a few of my "outsider" impressions over the last eight months.

Chicagoans love their skyline

I am often reminded that the lush skyline of Cleveland -- which consists of factories, old banking buildings and a football stadium dubbed the "factory of tears" -- bears no resemblance to the likes of "Big John," the Willis Tower, the Trump Tower and the Aon Center. The skyline is truly a remarkable piece of the city. I constantly find myself looking up at the beautiful buildings and architecture while perusing the loop on any given Saturday.

Chicago is a city built on hard work

A blue-collar work ethic was one of the main reasons I decided to remain in the Midwest for work. Day in and day out I am constantly amazed by the collective work ethic of the city. No matter the time, day or place, Chicagoans always seem to be plugged in and working. Of course I know no one works all the time, but for a young professional still trying to find his way in the world of work, it is inspiring to be surrounded by hard-working folks who are proud of what they do.

Watering holes, watering holes and bars

No if, ands or buts about this observation: There is absolutely no shortage of bars in Chicago. I realize I am pointing out the obvious, but coming from a city with a few decent bars and a college town dominated by two, the variety is unbelievable. As a Cleveland sports and Indiana Hoosiers fan, I am loyal to Vaughn's Pub and Kirkwood's respectively, but I can't wait to explore. I am increasingly fascinated by the way bars in different locations show off the unique characteristics of each neighborhood.

A vibrant Jewish community

One of my first Fridays in the city, I was jogging on Fullerton near the lake when I came across a large group in the park. With my curiosity piqued, I did a bit of investigating and what I found gave me the chills. A large group of young Jews had gathered in the park to celebrate Shabbat.

I have been to Israel three times and celebrated holidays at the Western Wall, but this scene was truly incredible. With the backdrop of a large, immaculate city on one side, the gorgeous shore of Lake Michigan on the other and the Shabbat prayers rising in unity somewhere in between, I truly felt at home for the first time.


Chicago is incredibly diverse in more ways than one. In addition to the unique and vibrant neighborhoods, I have encountered people of every background, race, ethnicity and religion. While I will admit to noticing both tension and ignorance, I know people are proud to call Chicago home. I even had a cab driver comment that he tried moving to New York for a few months, but ended up moving back to the friendly confines of Chicago because his ethnicity was often looked at with disdain.

Regardless of ethnicity, race or sexual orientation, Chicago truly has a place for everyone.

As I finish writing this, I'm on a plane traveling from my old home to my current home, yearning to catch a glimpse of that breathtaking skyline. I can't wait to see what else this magnificent city has in store.


5 Reasons Video Games Are My Books

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Although I still have books

5 Reasons Video Games Are My Books photo

Life. Not the cereal, or the "Game of," but the one we all live in. That life. It's a tough one, and sometimes, a little escape is in order. When stress threatens to take me down a peg or two, I say, "Hey! How did I get on this wall of pegs?" But in every other case when stress needs to be managed, I find solace, beauty and peace in the wonderful world of video games.

It is often stereotypically said that introverts like myself are keen on staying home and reading books. Well for me, I like to stay home and play video games. And also sometimes read books. (Comics count as books!) So what follows is me explaining to you -- my unabashedly attractive Oy! readers -- how in my world, I use video games as my go-to activity when I need some time to escape. 

Warning: I will be mentioning specific videogame titles in what follows, so as to help inform you as to what I'm talking about if you are curious enough. And there will be links to more information about these games. Yes, it may require additional reading but reading is good -- like playing video games to some people.

Now please enjoy my abbreviated list of 18 five ways that video games are my books.

1. They can have amazing stories

I'm a different kind of gamer than most people think when I tell them I play video games. I love games where story drives the game. I'm the only person I know that plays Halo -- a mostly online multiplayer shooting game -- for its single player story (also called a campaign) and doesn't go online to play with others. I never do that. Introverts unite separately!

Anyway, a few of my absolute favorites are the BioShock series, whose story revolves around a man-made city at the bottom of the ocean and then a man-made city in sky. Then there's The Last of Us, a game set in a post-apocalyptic world that is not so much about the post-apocalyptic world but more so about the relationship of a 50-something year old man and a teenage girl as they come to fill a surrogate father-daughter role for each other as they go through a relentless and harrowing journey where they learn to trust and love again. See!? If you get me started on those games, I will never shut up. Ask my girlfriend of the torture she's been through. Which leads me too…

2. When playing through a good game, it's all I can think and talk about

Not only that, it helps me bond with others. James Bond, for those of you that played Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64 growing up. But it's true, because games take roughly the same amount of time as books for me (about 8-12 hours on average), I play them over a few days if not weeks. This gives me a lot to look forward to every day, knowing I have some stress relief  and an amazing other world to keep revisiting once I get home.

But when it is a phenomenal game, it's still all I can think and talk about, even when I'm not playing it, like with The Last of Us -- that's a game I'd talk about at any given moment. Like this moment. You know, the moment where now I'm thinking about it and will probably have to play it again because it gives me oh so much happiness.

3. They are art

There has been a long-standing debate about whether or not video games are art. I stand firmly on the side that says indeed, video games are art. The visceral nature of them can be astounding. The storytelling can be a strong factor, but even games without story have so much nuance and precision in them that you can feel the meticulous nature that went into creating them. Visually, they are getting to unparalleled levels of realism. Many games use motion capture, or taking real actors and capturing their movements, voices and expressions with a computer and then utilizing all of that data to actually create the characters. It's astounding how beautifully rendered this can be. It gives me a sense of being fully immersed and experiencing something special that few other mediums can accomplish. I could probably write an entire article on why video games are art if I wanted to. Perhaps not the worst idea for the future …

Here's one scene in particular to show my point on how video games are art. It's from The Last of Us, of course, because this game deserves another mention. I cried when I first played through this scene. (Warning: Slight spoilers for the game and NSFW language) They were manly videogame tears, so it was cool.

4. They have unlimited replay value

Like a great book I want to read over and over, there are many video games I want to experience and play through over and over. This is because each time I will discover new things and take an extra moment or two to really dive deep into certain areas. Sometimes knowing what to expect increases that anticipation of getting to that awesome part even more. And you know you found something special when every time I play through the game, the experience is not diluted, but enhanced. Like every play through of The Last of Us. Not sure if I've mentioned that game before, but it's good.

5. It feeds my love of voice acting

I love voice acting, especially in animated form. So that obviously lends itself well to my love of video games. I even once wrote a huge list of 25 of the best voiceover actors out there. Sadly, there is no link. (That's a funny joke if you know video games.)

While I could list some many voice actors and the many great games you can hear their voices in, I'll keep it short to some of the pinnacle games I feel deserve an immediate mention. There's everything from the game Portal 2, one of the funniest games in existence, the Uncharted series, which is basically a modern day Indiana Jones, and really anything involving Mark Hamill, Troy Baker or Nolan North. So basically the Batman: Arkham Asylum series. Or The Last of Us, since both Troy Baker and Nolan North have prominent roles in that one.

The point of all of this is I love The Last of Us and you should all go and play or watch someone play The Last of Us. Or watch this, a cut together version of the videogame with all the story moments. It's only four hours!

Thanks for letting me talk to you about something passionate to me. This gives you a free pass to tell me something you are passionate about without interruption for about 1,200 words. Right after I go play The Last of Us.


Anorexia Made Me Empathetic

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Anorexia Made Me Empathetic photo

I confused sickly and sexy for too many years. Now, I'm convinced you're doing it, and I don't want to be an accessory in your rendezvous with sickness.

Because I know that boat neck collar used to not be so big. I knew you when your collar didn't slip and fall in a way so your right shoulder jutted out like an alabaster boulder, as if to say, "I'm casual," in a way you thought couture. But instead of speaking my mind -- of preaching, of mothering -- I turn to my boyfriend and say how I don't want you to die, and he looks at me, all shaken, and carefully says, "you can't save the world."

But it kills me to see your obsession eat up your life.

So in recognition of Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 21-27), when courageous men and women share their ongoing survival stories, I write this post for me, I write this post for you, but truly, friend, I write this post for we:

We know that coffee is not a meal, but we do it anyways, because we want our energy low cal, or rather, Venti Skinny Mocha half soy with two Splendas.

We tell our parents how much we've eaten that day -- we even send them pictures to prove it -- because they ask us to. We pretend it's normal for parents to ask.

We get asked all the time to see a picture of what we looked like when we were anorexic, as if they can't believe that WE were ever thin mints. We show them pictures of our once-lanky frame because it secretly brings us joy. We sense that precarious boiling point when joy too-quickly becomes nostalgia. We know joy can sometimes be unhealthy because we've been burned by it too often.

We know what a single sprinkle tastes like, what it's like to take a veggie patty between two napkins and squeeze out all the excess oil. We know which stairs creek at night -- which ones to avoid when foresting in the freezer.

We know what it's like for a girl to look us up and down on our first day of junior year in high school, when everyone's hugging and squealing in the background, and tell us to go eat a sandwich.

We know how many carbohydrates are in a piece of Breadsmith whole wheat bread. We also know we've already used our daily carb allowance on Fiber One Originals.

Fiber One brownies are not brownies, they're imposters. We've also forgotten what brownies taste like.

We know what it's like to forget our favorite food. We remember when "food" used to not be a "touchy" subject in the house.

We know what discomfort looks like in our best friend's eyes. We know that pulled smile that isn't so much a smile, but a face-tug, when they have nothing to say and they don't have to.

We know what it's like to ask waiters lots and lots of questions, and to disqualify 40 entree options instantly by the terms "saucy," "fried," "smothered," or "cheesy." We've memorized the lines "I'm not so hungry" when we return the menu to the waiter, and know to expect that look from friends.

We know what it's like to disappoint.

We know what it's like to buy more batteries for the green scale in the bathroom. We know what it's like to buy more than one pack at a time.

We know what it's like to have a bony pelvis peek out above your jeans -- the sexy stuff Abercrombie and Fitch uses to sell sweatshirts on shopping bags. We know what it's like to think you're hot shit and to think others think you're hot shit.

We know what it's like to scream in pillows. We know the sticky feeling when we shower in tears, when hair sticks to the front of the chin as we decide to get up and become a person again.

We know what it's like to fall in love. We know what it's like to gain 30 pounds and eat ice cream cake at 2 a.m. while being the happiest we've ever been. Still, we know what it's like to think his legs are nicer than yours.

We know what it's like to fill up a bra and say, "okay, maybe this isn't all that bad." We know what it's like to discover that jeans actually look better, for cheeks to glow instead of sucked sallow. We know what it's like to go weeks without makeup, to feel raw and real and released.

We know what it's like to share our stories again and again so that others won't make the same mistakes, so that others know they're not alone.

We know what it's like to have popcorn nights and pillow fights, to hike all day without feeling weak-kneed and feel like we've conquered the world.

We know what it's like to slip, and what it's like to stand back up, and what it's like to fall in love, and what it's like for love to fall in you.

We know what it's like to try to be superwoman, when really, we already are.


**This post was inspired by a good friend and fellow ED survivor, Kayla Rosen. Her vulnerability and authenticity to share her story of struggle and Herculean triumph is, without a doubt, impressive.


Looking for help?

Clinicians at Jewish Child & Family Services' Counseling Centers work with both adults and teens on eating issues. In addition, Response, the teen center at JCFS, also offers programs to schools and synagogues that focus on the most common forms of eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) and provide a safe environment for teens to explore the reality of these serious illnesses and ways to build their self-confidence. For more information and to make an appointment, contact a JCFS counselor at 855-275-5237. For information about programs through Response, call 847-676-0078 or visit responsecenter.org.

Also, visit the National Eating Disorders Association for more information.


Five Cubs Storylines Heading into Spring Training 2016

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Five Cubs Storylines Heading into Spring Training 2016 photo

What curse? The 2016 Chicago Cubs have no idea what you're referring to. When Steve Bartman reached for that infamous foul ball, Kyle Schwarber was 10 years old. Addison Russell was 9. When the black cat ran across the field in 1969, Cubs' manager Joe Maddon was 15. And nobody around the organization was around for the curse of the Billy Goat.

Fans on the north side of Chicago are all too familiar with the dark history of their beloved Cubbies, but bring up any talk of a curse around this current team and you won't get so much as a raised eyebrow. This is a new team, a new regime and a fresh start for one of the two original National League franchises.

These are not the "Lovable Losers" anymore, as they enter the 2016 season with perhaps the largest target they've had on their backs since '84 or '69. And it's probably even bigger.

The Cubs are legitimate contenders this season; the pick of many to represent the NL in the World Series. Ever since the organization hired boy genius Theo Epstein in 2011, the team has improved every season, but nobody quite expected the jump they made last year.

In Epstein's first season the Cubs finished 61-101. The next year they finished 66-96. In 2014 they improved by seven games in the win column to 73-89. And last season the Cubs finished the year 97-65 and made it all the way to the NLCS.

When Epstein came aboard he drew out a six, perhaps seven-year rebuilding plan with a focus on big picture. But as they enter year five, the Cubs are looking like the perennial October team we all dreamed of but few realistically envisioned in his introductory press conference.

Spring is right around the corner and for the first time in a long time the change in weather might not be the thing Chicago residents are most excited about. There is a change happening in the entire sports culture of this city, and if results can match expectations, Chicago will see a celebration unlike anything the nation has ever seen before.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. It is a long season and a lot can happen. So let's just start with the big storylines to watch as the Cubs begin spring training next week.

Innings for the starters

It became apparent in the playoffs last year that the Cubs' starting rotation was only formidable for about two and a half games each series. Management did something about that in the off-season by bringing in John Lackey, but their lack of depth also cost them because of the physical toll it took on Cy Young winner Jack Arrieta and last year's big acquisition, Jon Lester. Arrieta had a career year but also pitched 229 innings, second most in the NL. Lester pitched 205 and Lackey pitched 218 as a member of the Cardinals. These are veteran players and those are a lot of innings.

When the playoffs hit we saw a noticeable drop in Arrieta's game, due in part to the amount of innings he had put in including the playoffs. His four complete games were tied for the most in the league and his 3,438 total pitches thrown were the most thrown by anyone in the NL.

This year with Lackey bringing depth to the rotation and the Cubs' sights set on the playoffs, Maddon will have to manage the innings of his veteran starters early in the year, perhaps allowing for extra days off for them and innings limits early in the season. Of course try telling that to Maddon while Arrieta is in the midst of an 8-inning shut-out, but it's a good problem to have.

Who will be the fifth starter?

The top four spots in the Cubs' starting rotation seem set with Arietta, Lester, Lackey and Jason Hammel. But the fifth starter spot will likely be fluid and something to keep an eye on throughout spring games and early in the season.

Kyle Hendricks appears to be the favorite to start the year given his spot in the rotation last season. The 26-year-old isn't flashy, but he has really good stuff when it is accurate. Hendricks struggled last season, however, especially in the playoffs, and the Cubs will really need a reliable fifth starter in order to help keep days off consistent for the other four guys.

Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren will also be given a look in that spot. In 11 games with the Cubs, Cahill went 1-0 with a 2.12 ERA. He pitched really well in long relief out of the bullpen where he would be valuable for Maddon again, but if Hendricks struggles or there is an injury to someone else in the rotation, Cahill may be the next man up.

Warren came over from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade and will most likely stay in the bullpen, but he may be someone worth looking at for a spot start from time to time. He has a career 3.39 ERA and started 17 games last year for the Yankees.

While it is possible the Cubs could still make a move mid-season to help fill out their starting rotation, you'll likely see a good amount of musical chairs from Maddon as he experiments with different guys in that fifth spot.

Development of the youngsters

The Cubs farm is growing them faster than they can bring them up and that is another good problem to have. Last season we saw Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler as expected, but Russell and Schwarber getting called up early was a bit of a surprise. But no matter how and when they made it up, they did everything they could to set the bar extremely high for themselves coming into this year. Rookie of the Year Bryant hit .274 with 26 HR and 99 RBI. Schwarber hit 16 home runs in only 69 games and Russell hit .242 and was one of the team's best defensive players before an injury kept him out of the NLCS.

Then there's the playoff run Soler had. In seven post-season games, Soler hit .474 with a .600 OBP and three home runs in 19 AB. Javier Baez saw a nice post-season bump as well, hitting .333 in place of the injured Russell.

Now with a full season and post-season experience under their belts, there will be a lot of pressure on this young core to take the next step alongside veterans Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero. If these guys can continue to develop at anywhere near the pace they did last season, the Cubs are going to have one of the most formidable lineups in baseball.

The one outlier perhaps is Baez, who has struggled moving back and forth between the Minors and Majors last year. He is an incredible talent defensively with a lot of power behind the plate, but he strikes out a lot and could become a liability in a lineup built on high pitch counts and on-base percentage.

Sure there will be slumps and steps backward -- most of this group is under 25 years old -- but they play with a poise and maturity rarely seen with this many young players on one team.

Who will bat lead-off?

This is definitely the most intriguing question in the Cubs' lineup entering the season. Last year the Cubs were fourth in the NL in On-Base Percentage (.344) from the lead-off spot. Dexter Fowler saw the most at-bats at the top of the order, but with Fowler gone there are a couple of different ways the Cubs can go.

The Cubs acquired Heyward and Zobrist, both fully capable of jumpstarting your order. Zobrist is a switch hitter and Heyward bats from the left side. Heyward is a career .268 hitter with a .353 OBP. At 34 years old, Zobrist has almost identical career numbers with a .265 average and .355 OBP. Given Maddon's tendency to be aggressive on the base-paths, he may go with Heyward more often, who is more of a threat to steal a base, but both guys will likely see time at the top of the order this spring.

Some of this will also depend on how well the youngsters play. If Baez's struggles continue heading into the season, Zobrist will likely be an everyday second baseman and a sure thing at or near the top of the batting order. However, if Baez plays well, he could give Heyward days off in center field as well, based on what we're hearing. So the two could form a platoon in that leadoff spot for most of the year until Maddon decides to set a lineup heading into the post-season. Either way, expect to see a lot of experimentation with the lineup this spring and even into the first couple months of the season.

Embrace the target

Gone are the days of the Cubs taking opponents by surprise. As deep and talented as they are, they are no longer full of "unknowns." Everybody will be on everyone's scouting report from day one. Pitchers will have a much better idea how to keep pitches to Schwarber off the rooftops. The core players have continued to develop their A-game, but this year everyone will be bringing their A-game when the Cubs come to town. And how does Maddon plan to approach the added pressure?

Maddon stresses never taking anything for granted or becoming complacent, and if the Cubs have a hard time keeping themselves humble, you know their opponents will be doing everything possible to bring them down.

"Embrace the target" has become the mantra for the 2016 season, yet another t-shirt worthy phrase out of the mouth of their eclectic, fearless leader. But it isn't just the target on their own backs they should be working to embrace. It is the ultimate target ahead of them as well -- the World Series.


Indiana Jones and the Staff of Moses

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Why Indy should pursue the Biblical artifact in his next adventure

Indiana Jones and the Staff of Moses photo

Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones went after the Ark of the Covenant, currently has an 8.5 on imdb.com. It's the highest rating of any film in the franchise, with The Last Crusade -- in which Indy pursued the Holy Grail -- at an 8.3. The other two films don't rate anywhere near that high.

So the message is clear: Indy needs to go after something Biblical. Nothing else has that kind of emotional impact. Only, what's left for him to look for?

Answer: The Staff of Moses.

Moses' staff started off as a simple shepherd's crook, but went on to become the basis for every sorcerer's staff or fairy's wand that followed. Seriously, why else is a stick the symbol of magic? Why not a glove, or a kerchief, or a gemstone? Because Moses invented the magic wand.

The Blue Fairy, the Fairy Godmother and Tinkerbell … Gandalf, Dumbledore and Jafar… from Hermes and Circe of myth to the magician at a 5-year-old's birthday, each has a wand or staff of some sort. (As for Hermes' snake-entwined staff becoming the symbol of doctors and healing, that's also Biblical in origin; see Num. 21:8-9).

Now, Moses's staff has three main powers. One is its command over water. We read about it turning the entire Nile to blood (Ex. 7:19-20), splitting a sea (Ex. 14:21), and drawing water out of a boulder (in both Exodus and Numbers).

Another power relates to its control over simpler animals. In the second and third plagues, it calls forth infestations of frogs (Ex. 8:1-2) and lice (Ex. 8:13). Even its very first miracle is to turn itself into a snake (Ex. 5:2-4); it repeats this transformation in Pharaoh's court and devours his magicians' snake-staffs as well (Ex. 7:10-12).

In fact, this could be a major plot point when Indy finds Moses' staff. Why? Indy is famouslyterrified of snakes! He would have to overcome his fear in order to retrieve the artifact.

The last power of the staff would be why the Nazis want it (it's always the Nazis). In one battle retold in the Torah, the Israelites win as long as Moses holds the staff aloft (Ex 17: 9-13). Of course the Nazis would crave an object that helps them win wars with ease.

So, Mr. Steven Spielberg, I think you see the cinematic possibilities of the Staff of Moses for the next Indiana Jones film. Imagery-wise, we're talking about water effects, swarms of small creatures, and an epic battle. But this time, the object of the quest goes right at the heart of Indy's character, because it's both what Indy wants -- and fears -- most. How epic is that?

The other object in the Torah that would be worthy of an adventure is the Urim V'Tumim, the High Priest's gem-studded breastplate that could foretell the future and reveal secrets. But that's harder to explain … we can save that for the sixth movie.


5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became Pregnant

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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became Pregnant photo

A few months ago I did something totally crazy -- I created a human! A tiny, beautiful, miraculous human. Well, I guess I had a little help from my husband, but I did most of the heavy lifting (pun intended).

And while, amazingly, I am not the first and only person to accomplish this ridiculously incredible feat, I know I will not be the last. So I thought I'd share what I learned throughout my pregnancy -- things I wish I'd known before starting out on this crazy journey.

1. People will say the weirdest stuff to you -- don't let it get to you.

People will tell you that you're carrying big. "Yes, I'm sure there's just one in there," you will tell them. They will tell you for sure you're carrying like it's a girl, even though you have the ultrasound pictures to prove it's a boy. They will tell you horrific labor stories that you can't unhear. One day, when I was about 8 months pregnant, I was walking out of Starbucks and this woman just pointed at me and said, "You're pregnant!" and kept walking. No shit, Sherlock.

The thing is, people will also be pretty nice to you and treat you like some kind of super human (which you are). They will hold doors for you, help you carry things, and occasionally they will give up their seat on the train for you -- but not always. Well-meaning strangers will smile at you, ask you when you're due, offer words of advice, wish you well, and warmly welcome you into the club of parenthood. You will totally do the same annoying thing the minute you become a parent.

Read the rest on Kveller.com »


The Grocery Shopper’s Dilemma—why buy organic?

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The Grocery Shopper's Dilemma-why buy organic? photo

"I read three papers a day and watch the news constantly, I would know if there's something to organic food." That's what my dad said while we were discussing the merits of organic food. I know that organic food uses less pesticide, no synthetic pesticides, and no antibiotics -- but are those reasons enough to buy organic?

I buy a few things organic and I was starting to wonder, was my dad right? The main things I buy organic are the dirty dozen, which you can find on a list the EWG puts out each year. They also list the clean 15, which are generally foods with thick skin that you do not eat, like avocados.

There are a ton of articles on the topic, but who to trust? Monsanto, the largest manufacturer of seeds and pesticides, pays universities to conduct studies on many things, like safety of pesticides. On the other side of the spectrum are organic advocates that also conduct studies. So, who do you believe?

I did a lot of research and reading on the subject, but for further clarification I spoke with Robin Levy Brown, a friend and nutritionist who works for the Midwest Dairy Council and previously worked for the Chicago Public School systems. Like many articles I read, she said ideally buying local is best. It's the freshest food and travels the least amount of miles to get to you, so it's also environmentally friendly.

I also asked Robin about meat. A lot of articles I came across, like this one, talk about buying organic meat because 80% of all medicine in the US is given to livestock, and that might be the reason drugs are less effective on people. According to Robin, dairy cows given drugs are taken off the lot until they are tested and there is no sign of drugs in their system. Organic farms have to sell an animal when it gets sick. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that farms are using drugs to make their animals gain weight faster (and in the case of dairy, produce more milk), and they are working to get the FDA to close loopholes allowing this practice to happen.

If you have been in a store lately you might have seen, rBST free meat and dairy available. rBST is a drug Monsanto produced to help cows grow faster, it's basically a synthetic growth hormone. Food labeled rBST free is not necessarily organic but it is free of growth hormones. Robin did calm my fears when she said rBST has no effect on the human body. It is not recognized by the human body and is completely destroyed by our digestive tracts.

Getting back to vegetables, do we need to spend the extra money on organics? Having fewer pesticides is good for the soil and in theory better for consumption. Of course organic farms still use pesticides and fungicide but they have to be natural (which may or may not be safer -- for a closer look checkout this article in Scientific American).

Are you confused? Have you come to your own conclusion? After reading way more than I had anticipated -- and since I'm not an expert -- I have come to the personal decision to do the following:

- Buy local first
- Buy a few organic produce items
- Buy organic or rBST free meat
- Keep reading
- Plant my own garden

Hungry for additional resources? Contact Ron at ronkrit@juf.org.


Having each other’s backs

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On a recent snowy Chicago Friday night, I attended a pop-up Shabbat dinner in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, where the menu, prepared by a gourmet Jewish chef, featured a modern twist on traditional Jewish food -- matzah ball soup, butternut squash cholent, pastrami, and of course challah and wine. The dinner was sponsored by OneTable, a nonprofit Shabbat initiative that started in New York and has recently expanded to Chicago to bring the Shabbat table to Jewish 20- and 30-somethings in a fresh way.

As delicious as the pastrami and wine were, we were there as much for the connection with one another as we were for the food.

People crave connection; it makes us human. Philosophers and scientists agree that the largest indicator of happiness is building strong relationships of all kinds with other people. And as Jews in America, particularly in Chicago, one of the strongest Jewish communities in the country, we're blessed with the resources and tools to make forging connections easier.

You could say, we in the Jewish community of this "city of big shoulders" have each other's backs.

We're members of a tribe that connect to each other in so many ways. We connect through our grandparents and great-grandparents having survived the pogroms of Russia or the horrors of the Holocaust. We connect through a love of Israel and our shared favorite haunts on Ben Yehuda street. We connect with pride when we see a Jewish person triumph, but at the same time, we connect with horror when we see an infamous Jew, like a Madoff, commit shame. We connect through our skill at breaking into the same Jewish camp song in unison at any moment in time. We connect through knowing that almost from birth we're taught it's how we treat each other that counts -- at that all the rest is commentary. And we connect through sharing our family kugel recipes; your grandma made hers with raisins, and mine used currants.

Our people connect through so many of the joys of life -- Torah, family, love, Shabbat, holidays, comedy, food, and even dance. My mom has always been an enthusiast for the " hora," the circle dance performed during Jewish celebrations, which physically connects us to each other as we link arms in celebration. In fact, Mom has always implored me never to sit out a hora at a wedding because we have to embrace the joy wherever we can find it. (She's a wise one, that Jewish mom of mine.)

But we as a people know all too well that connection isn't just about simcha. As I get older, I not only see more blessings, but I, unfortunately, witness more sadness too. In fact, I know now that none of us are immune to tsuris. But when we do experience hardship, it's comforting to know that we're part of a community that doesn't let us suffer alone.

Over the years, each time one of our friends goes through pain, I watch our Jewish network mobilize to help the struggling friend find the hope, the light, the inspiration, and resilience that eventually can transcend the tragedy.

A minyan -- a quorum of 10 people -- is often required for certain Jewish observances. It seems like the minyan concept extends in other parts of Jewish life as well as we watch so many members of a community support each other in times of trouble.

I hope your days are filled with blessings, but it's comforting to know that when life wounds us, we're part of a community that's there to help us heal and light the way through the darkness.

To learn more about OneTable, visit www.onetable.org.


The Single One in the Brunch

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Feeling out of place among my closest friends

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For my friends -- and most 30-something women -- brunch is a ritual. Plans are made weeks in advance, restaurant recommendations are vetted and you know to block out two hours or more in order to properly catch up on the status of everyone's busy lives.

This past Sunday we celebrated one girlfriend's engagement, got the details about another's three-week honeymoon in Thailand and heard the latest in the never-ending parenting adventures of my two other girlfriends and their kids. (There are five between the two of them.)

As for me? I filled everyone in on the new dating apps I downloaded over the weekend.

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The brunch group

In my 30s and newly single after ending a long-term relationship, I recently found myself navigating unchartered territory with my best friends. These are girls I have known for years, who are like sisters to me and have been there for me through the best and also worst moments in my life. How was it that I suddenly felt like I didn't fit in? There was a time when text messages between my girlfriends and I centered on what bar we were going to that night, the drunken texts we had mistakenly sent to that ex-boyfriend, or who had the worst hangover. These days, our texts read a bit more like the "Real Housewives of Chicago."

After we ordered cocktails, the conversation immediately turned to my girlfriend's recent engagement. We heard all about the proposal, learned about the venue she had just booked and were informed that she would not be having bridesmaids (phew). My other married girlfriends chimed in to give advice or recommendations for hair, make-up, wedding planners and everything in between. Meanwhile, I quietly sipped water from one of the pink-striped straws with a cut-out diamond on it that someone brought to brunch as a party favor.

Truthfully, all the wedding talk had me feeling a bit anxious. I was incredibly happy for my newly engaged and recently married friends, but being two months out of a relationship, I felt slightly discouraged. I was starting back at square one -- they were settling into the rest of their lives.

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Friendships change when your friends get engaged or married, and it doesn't make it any less difficult to adjust when you're the only single gal in the group. You're busy swiping left or right while they are busy wiping their kids up and down -- or tracking down a Lanvin dress for their wedding. How can they possibly relate to the bad date you just went on while they are planning Disney World vacations with their husband and kids?

Meanwhile, your calendar fills to the brim with engagement parties, wedding showers, and children's birthdays that the best excuse in the world couldn't get you out of, yet when you try and plan a night out to celebrate your recent single status, no one can find babysitters, dinner reservations at Next can't be rescheduled and staying out past 10 p.m. is a thing of the past.

After wedding-planning discussion, ogling my girlfriends' engagement ring and hearing hilarious mommy-disasters, I did, however, find that my "single girl" stories were their own source of entertainment for the group. I talked about my solo post-breakup trip to New York City to see friends, shop and have some much-needed fun, and they couldn't have been more encouraging when I mentioned the date I had gone on with a very cute, successful guy I had met through one of my numerous dating apps. They also didn't fail to mention that they never liked my recent ex and were very happy I had moved on.

It was then I realized that although I was in a totally different place in my life than my friends, it didn't stop them from caring about me. They might not be clued in to the newest dating app nor I to the latest Disney phenomenon, but true friendship never changes. At times, it can be challenging to accept all those differences, but that doesn't mean you are inadequate or don't fit in with your friends anymore -- your journey might just be a little different than theirs. If you are lucky enough to have great friends (as I certainly do), it shouldn't matter if you are single, married or divorced -- your friends will love and support you no matter what.

Most importantly, they'll be there when you dust yourself off and get yourself back out there to find your Prince Charming -- or at least someone who won't make you split the check on the first date.

Jennifer Rottner is 34, lives in Old Town and works in Communications for the City of Chicago. She hates cilantro, loves Dateline and would love to meet a nice Jewish boy.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.


My Religious High-Wire Act

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Keeping my balance as a Jewish single since becoming more observant

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I'll never forget my first Shabbat at home after spending five months in Jerusalem studying Judaism at the Pardes Institute. I had spent my entire life in the northern suburb of Deerfield before going away to college, yet I came back feeling like a stranger in my home town.

I picked a synagogue within walking distance of my house, one with a parking lot full of cars and a microphone on the bimah (stage). These things never fazed me the last 22 years of my existence, but they weren't what I had been used to in Jerusalem. There was a big difference walking past buildings made of golden Jerusalem stone to get to shul each week, compared to navigating around Lexuses and Land Rovers.

Clearly I was not prepared for just how difficult my first Shabbat as an observant Jew would be.

I wore my tallit out of the synagogue one humid summer afternoon and walked down the shoulder of a major road. Instead of the typical "Shabbat shalom" greeting I'd get walking the streets in Jerusalem, drivers pointed and stared at me with looks of confusion and amusement as they drove by. The whole walk back I wondered what the hell I was thinking when I made this permanent change in my life.

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A family visit during my time living in Jerusalem

When I was getting ready to leave Israel, a friend suggested I pick up Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith, a book about the struggle that comes with trying to be a spiritual person in a physical society. Needless to say, the book has been apropos of the last five years of my life, and today that struggle includes not only my relationship with myself, but also those around me.

When you're studying in Israel, you spend your day learning about the laws and customs and reading commentaries on the Torah until you feel like your eyes will fall out. It results in an infatuation with what you're learning, and as part of that natural progression, you often become more religious. But that didn't prepare me for what I would call the "wear and tear" of my observance.

On a spiritual level, there were many times when my life in Chicago's Jewish community felt like my walks to and from the synagogue in Deerfield -- lonely and full of doubt.

At first, I thought I could gracefully say goodbye to Chipotle veggie bowls, pray on a daily basis and wear a kippah at all times. And there were times I could. But over the years, the sailing of observance has proven anything but smooth.

There is no law in Jewish texts, for example, explaining what to do when your company orders lunch for the office every day and the only kosher option available has lousy service. Nor does it tell you what to do when asked why you can't break Shabbat, no matter what it is you're missing out on. I wasn't prepared for attracting unwanted attention, or offending those who matter most to me, so I punted on the aspects of Judaism that I knew I'd want to take on eventually, but couldn't presently do on my own. Instead of working on my growth, my priorities shifted to doing what was convenient and keeping my ambition under wraps.

A lot of this had to do with the reality I faced in terms of dating. The already small Jewish dating pool was even smaller now. Despite moving into the city to be part of a more religious community and improve my odds, it felt like within a few months I had I met every single Shomer Shabbat Jewish girl in Lakeview. When I started to put myself out there, the "non-negotiables" I promised to look for on dates suddenly became flexible.

Worse, I often had to defend myself for believing what I believe. When out on a date or meeting someone new, I often said I went to dinner at a friend's on Friday night and hung out with friends on Saturday, instead of just mentioning Shabbat. Although it was an accurate description, it felt inauthentic to the meaning behind what I was doing. Spending Shabbat afternoon eating lunch, playing board games and going on walks is more meaningful than just hanging out. It's immersing yourself in an entire community for 25 hours in a shared spiritual experience that is incomparable to anything else.

And now I find myself in New York, a city where I can practice however I want without feeling guilty about it, or lonely.

I have been here just a couple short months, but there's already been a big difference. When my company learned about my Shabbat observance, the CEO followed up and asked me about my level of kashrut so that the company could accommodate me during company meals. I've never heard such a nuanced question from a non-Jewish person I've worked for. Overall, non-Jews have a better understanding of Judaism in New York than Chicago, but it wasn't until I saw this for myself that I fully realized the difference.

You would think this would make the transition to taking the next step easy, but it's not. While physically I live in New York, in my mind, I'm still in Chicago. Five years of a certain feeling or experience do not go away just because you change your home address.

It took me about a month before I was fully able to utter the phrase Shomer Shabbat, even to other people who are equally or more religious than me -- even in New York. While it's technically easier to be religious here, a part of me still feels tepid about it. The line I walk might no longer from the high wire-act I used to perform, but the muscle memory from that act is still there. Over time, I hope it is easier to balance.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.


Set Up By Grandpa

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Because it's more romantic than by a computer, right?

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Every few weeks, I go with my grandfather to visit his best friend. We see each other every other week; sometimes he treats me to dinner at Taboun in Skokie, and other times I visit him at home. But my favorite visits take place at Irving's retirement home. 

At 95 years old, my grandfather spends much of his time at home, except for the three or more times a week that he and my grandmother go to visit Irving. My grandfather and Irving exchange newspapers in big piles that I swear neither of them reads. In fact, I'm pretty sure they've been passing the same papers back and forth for years. Sometimes they argue over politics, and other times they binge-watch Fox News. When I come along, it's not uncommon for me to ask Irving a question only to have my grandfather spout the answer for him (or vice-versa). Despite the fact that both of them seem to be losing their hearing, they never have trouble hearing what the other is saying.

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My grandfather and his wife, Judy, who I consider my grandmother.

But our conversation usually starts with my grandfather asking me, "Have you met a nice Jewish man yet?"

I laugh and tease back. "I thought you were going to find me someone, Grandpa," I say.

For the next 10 minutes, I absentmindedly leaf through the piles of ignored papers while my grandfather threatens to start taking out advertisements in local Jewish newspapers to find my beshert. Then someone, usually my grandmother, gracefully manages to change the subject, and Irving and my grandfather retreat into their comfortable silence.

That's usually how it goes, except for this one time, when a few days after our visit, I got a text from from my grandmother, who -- at my grandfather's request -- sent an email to a friend asking if she knew of a potential match for me.

Apparently, my lack of a love life at the old age of 27 was such cause for concern that my grandfather felt he needed to intervene. I was torn between sighing and laughing.

To be fair, it's not like my attempts at dating on my own have produced stellar results. My close-knit group of friends makes it difficult to meet anyone new, and my attempts at online dating resulted in dates with men such as the one who was only using dating sites as a tool to find a job. I suppose I could use all the help I can get, so what was wrong with being set up by my grandfather?

In past generations, it was commonplace for relatives to introduce young Jews. And in a way, it felt more romantic in my mind to be able to say my future partner and I were matched by relatives instead of a computer.

So after the original humiliation waned, I was weirdly excited about the idea. I wanted to be set up by my grandfather.

Judaism speaks to me through traditions. I didn't grow up in a kosher home or go to synagogue every Shabbat, but the memories that revolve around Jewish customs -- throwing plastic bugs at the Passover Seder, or watching my 85-year-old grandmother become a bat mitzvah -- those are some of my favorites. Only recently did I become interested in learning more about the Jewish values and history behind the traditions I adore. I'm slowly starting to bring more of these practices into my daily life, so it felt fitting that I take a path to finding a life partner with more traditional roots.

I didn't hear back from my grandparents for a couple months, so I tried my hand at online dating again. After one eventful date with a gentleman who thought it appropriate to spew racist and obscene jokes the entire time, I pretty much resigned myself to being a spinster.

Then one day I received a call from an unknown number. I promptly let it go to voicemail, of course, but it turns it was from a nice young Jewish man, Alex, whose aunt was friends with my grandfather's friend, the one my grandmother had emailed. He was interested in meeting me.

I spent a good day trying to decide if I should call him back. After all, he must be a bit odd if he was willing to be set up on a blind date by a relative. Then again, so was I.

I boldly called Alex back (after spending a long time trying to plan out what I would say). Our phone conversation was quick and casual. He claimed to know of the best local sushi place, and intrigued by such a bold statement about one of my favorite foods, we made a date for later that week.

The afternoon of our date, I ran home from work and felt butterflies as I tried to decide what was appropriate to wear on a blind date set up by my grandfather. I decided on an outfit I felt comfortable and confident wearing. I felt good. Instead of my usual anxious nerves, I experienced more of a joyful nervous feeling.

Alex met me at the door to the restaurant. My first impression was relief; he was reasonably dressed, taller than me and fairly attractive with strong bone structure and dark hair, on top of which he kept a well-worn kippah. It was actually refreshing to see -- it suggested a comfort and pride in his religion, which I appreciated. So far, so good, Grandpa.

Figuring out what sushi to order made for an easy conversation starter, and while I usually stick to the rolls that have ingredients I can pronounce, Alex was a bit more knowledgeable and able to recommend some nigiri to go with my standard roll.

The food arrived on long, elegant rectangular trays. In between bites of salmon-topped California rolls and tuna-covered spicy vegetable rolls, I learned that we both enjoyed books that have elements of fantasy and science-fiction. I also learned he was a creative professional, but when I asked his career and plans, he became a bit distant.

Alex said his family frowned upon his current profession. He explained that he went to an Orthodox Jewish day school growing up where he felt his talents in the arts were stifled, and where men were discouraged from creative pursuits.

I tried to interject, my hand fiddling idly with the paper used to wrap napkins, but he was talking so passionately that I felt compelled to listen. He then concluded that all this had disenchanted him with Jewish culture.

Having grown up in a community that valued and supported all art forms (and all genders in the arts), I couldn't imagine how difficult this must have been. I was upset for him.

Then Alex navigated his feelings into a conversation around non-traditional gender roles in comics and film, and halfway through my nigiri, I realized I hadn't spoken more than a word at a time since we had ordered. I tried to chip in during one of his lectures about a movie series, but I got maybe four words in before my comments were refuted and forgotten.

After some perfect mango mochi, Alex walked me to my car and we made tentative plans to meet again, but our date left me kind of stunned. I wish I had gotten the chance to really introduce myself.

For days I played it all over in my head. Did he really talk so much or was I just exaggerating it in my mind? I talk a lot when I'm nervous, so that's what he's doing? I should give him another chance.

But I didn't. Not because of his relentless chatter, but because our lives seemed to be in very different stages. Alex was looking into possible new careers; I was just settling into my job of choice. I was just starting to feel the attraction of Jewish culture and tradition; he was pushing it away.

Harder than making that decision, however, would be telling my grandpa that all of his hard work and effort didn't pay off. Standing in his kitchen as my grandmother made us matzah brie, I told him about the date he had set up. Halfway into the story, my grandpa interrupted. "Wait a while," he said. "I have to put my ears in -- I can't hear what we are talking about."

After I told the whole story again, he smiled. "Oh well, there are still hundreds of grandparents at the nursing home; I'm sure one of them has a good match for my granddaughter. I'll keep asking."

Perhaps my grandfather's scheme didn't pan out (at least not yet -- I did get a new email from my grandmother just last week … ), but he did help me realize something extremely important. I do want a future life-partner with whom I can explore our Jewish identities. And more than that, I want my beshert to be someone like, well, Irving -- someone I can sit in a room with, week after week, whether in conversation or in complete silence, and never tire of their company.

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Danielle Borher is young Jewish woman in Chicago juggling a career in healthcare while exploring her Jewish identity. When not being set up on blind dates by her grandfather, she occupies her single-dom by performing on stage, taking long walks with her crazy dog, Kayla, and competing in Karate.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.

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30 and Widowed in Chicago

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Starting over in the city where we were supposed to spend the rest of our lives

Once upon a time, I was lucky in love.

Nathan and I hit it off at his 20th birthday party at Washington University in St. Louis. We became fast friends between the kisses, parties and laughs.

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Several months after we started dating, I joined his intermural Ultimate Frisbee team and sprained my ankle colliding with a teammate. After the game, Nathan helped me up the stairs to my apartment and fetched me an ice pack. It was the first time someone wanted to take care of me -- and make out with me. Isn't that all anyone ever wants?

Throughout the next several years, Nathan helped me understand sports and politics. He was brilliant, humble and hilarious. He could kick most people's butts in racquetball. He loved to travel and explore restaurants with me. Somehow I had found an amazing man -- I always told him how lucky we were.

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It wasn't all peaches and sparkles all the time, though. After our first year of dating, we did the long distance thing when I took a job in Indiana and he had a year left of school. When it was over, I didn't hesitate to join him in Milwaukee as he began medical school. Three years later, my job ran out of funding, but I got an offer in Chicago -- the city where Nathan was hoping to match for his residency; the city where we were both born and had family. Doing long distance again after more than four years together was not ideal, but we knew it would be temporary.

Then came Match Day, and Nathan matched in Milwaukee. He was upset. He was looking forward to a change of scenery, and he wouldn't get it for another few years at least. I cried about it, but knew it would be harder for both of us if we weren't together. Things were better for both of us when the other person was around.

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A month later, Nathan proposed at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the pinnacle to a wonderful, nearly two-week adventure. "Ilana, I love you. I want to do it all with you. Will you marry me?" It was the happiest day of my life until the day we got married.

I came back from our trip and started looking for jobs in Milwaukee again (while wedding planning), hoping to find something before my lease in Chicago ended. When I came up empty, I moved in with his parents in the suburbs to at least shorten the distance between Milwaukee and Chicago. By December, I quit my job and moved back to Milwaukee without anything lined up. Again. For him -- for us. We were married in May.

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Ilana and Nathan on their wedding day.

It was just a year ago January that I remember sharing with Nathan some amusing anecdote about a colleague's dating misadventures. We both chuckled, glad that we didn't have to date as adults. I told him it sounded hard, exhausting and frustrating. How lucky we were, nearly nine years after our first kiss, to only have to date each other.

And then, one month later, Nathan died unexpectedly. Needless to say, I didn't feel so lucky anymore. I was a widow at 29 years old.

The day after I finished sitting shiva for Nathan, I told my boss that I wanted to move back to Chicago. I felt a strong need to continue cultivating my relationship with my in-laws, and brothers-in-law. I spent the last nine Thanksgivings with them, including this past one, the first without Nathan. They were my family. I wanted access to a vibrant city, where I could run into old classmates at events or on the street. I needed to be in a city where people knew me before I was a part of "IlaNathan."

Of course, I also knew I needed to be in a city where there were other Jewish unmarried 20- and 30-somethings, people with whom I could learn, laugh, explore and hopefully -- one day -- love. In Milwaukee, my friends were almost entirely couples getting ready to start families; the Jewish life there was stifling and devoid of ample age-appropriate single, Jewish men.

For months and months after Nathan died, my heart wasn't open to letting another man in, yet my fingers were going through withdrawal without Nathan on the receiving end of my texts. Maybe I wasn't ready for love, but I needed something -- someone -- to fill this tremendous void, someone to check in on me, flirt with me, admire me, and, yes -- send me thoughtful emojis.

I asked other young widows what was appropriate. It turns out, there's no Emily Post to guide you through the dos and don'ts of widowhood. They said anything that made the days more manageable -- that made me feel less sad in the moment -- was the right thing to do. "You do you," is a common mantra among this peer group.

Regardless, friends were surprised when I went on my first first date in nearly a decade. Friends judged. Friends were in disbelief that I was moving forward, and that I was no longer part of the couple they had admired for so long.

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Ilana (bottom right) with Nathan's brothers and their significant others.

I judged too. I too was in disbelief. On my second date, I left and cried the entire car ride home. Is this my new life? Going out with guys who live in apartments that smell like a locker room? Guys with makeshift coffee tables made out of plastic hampers, littered with papers and unidentifiable sticky substances everywhere? Guys who need convincing that an eight-hour first date is a bad idea? Having to explain to these guys what happened to the one I was with for nine years?

Apparently, this is my new life.

At first, I was upfront about being a widow. I included a line about it on my dating profiles. I didn't want to waste my time with someone who wasn't emotionally mature enough to handle my loss. But as time went on, I decided that wasn't fair. Most people don't include their dating history on their profile -- why should I?

Eventually, the "W" I felt emblazoned on my chest faded. My coping mechanism of choice has been to schedule myself stupid. I am determined to continue putting myself out there, to meet people who can introduce me to more people, to cast as wide of a net as possible.

So far, I have met people at happy hours, alumni events, Shabbat gatherings, speed-dating events, and a ton of other young professional programs. I smiled. I drank. And I told my story.

I joined a book club and told them about Nathan. I opened up to my colleagues about why I quit my last job and moved to Chicago. I'm sure I have made a lot of people uncomfortable -- but I'm not sure I care.

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Ilana (right) at a Jewish young adult event.

And I've continued to date, mostly through the online dating platforms I never thought I'd have to use. And it is exhausting, frustrating and hard. I've been on maybe two or three dozen dates since Nathan died. I've cried after some, and harder after others.

But I'm opting to spend much of my time offline, because it only takes a few minutes of talking to someone to know if there's potential for romance, or to find out that they're younger than 26. Of course there isn't anything inherently wrong with being in your early or mid-20s, but I know in my heart of hearts that as a now 30-year-old widow who at one very recent point in time had baby names picked out with her husband, men of a certain (younger) age simply aren't going to get me.

The loneliness can be consuming, but I know I'm not alone in my quest to find another Jewish partner. I know I'm not even alone in knowing what I'm looking for, though I don't know that I'll be able to recognize it in a package that's not Nathan. I know there are others my age (and older) craving events that offer a better chance of developing more meaningful connections.

So I continue to look for my next beshert, sometimes with a slightly jaded outlook after now being alone for a year -- sometimes with a more hopeful outlook when I meet someone inspiring, someone who makes me laugh and is able to teach me about something I wouldn't have otherwise known.

There's still so much I don't know, but one thing I do know is that as sad as I am and as unlucky as I feel, I'm lucky to have known Nathan. I only hope that one day, someone else feels as lucky to know me.

For more stories in the "Single, Jewish and Figuring It Out" series, visit oychicago.com/single.

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A Whale of a Truth

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Seeking answers in the 'Blackfish' controversy.

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After taking my kids to pet the dolphins, kiss the sea lions and watch the killer whales at a marine mammal theme park in Florida, I was told I have to see the documentary Blackfish.

For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it follows the history of three deaths associated with a captive killer whale named Tilikum, along with the history and context of other captive killer whales. It shows sailors (with big beards and tattoos) crying over how sad it was to take the baby whales (adult whales were too large to transport) from their families in the wild and the mother whales moaning as their babies are taken away from them. There are scenes of whales that have been "raked," or scraped by other whales' teeth, attributed to the animals' aggression due to the confinement of their tanks. It tells stories of these socially advanced marine mammals being isolated from the other whales or in tiny pools.

The filmmakers interview whale trainers who describe their sadness at seeing the treatment of these creatures, and pepper in gut-wrenching facts such as how the life span of killer whales is only half or a third as long in captivity as in the wild.

Needless to say, I had a newfound dismay with our innocent trip to see these sea creatures.

But I decided to continue my explorations beyond the documentary; I believe in trying to judge everyone favorably, and I felt the least I could do was give my childhood-idealized theme parks a chance to defend themselves. I soon found major research-based responses to practically everything I found so disturbing in the documentary.

For example, killer whales have not been taken from the wild since the '70s. Raking happens in the wild too. Parks with tiny pools are no longer active and often whales are separated to protect them when being attacked by their "comrades." There is a multitude of trainers who vehemently disagree with the film's depictions, including some of the people interviewed in the film claiming their words were taken out of context. The "baby whales" were only taken from their mothers after many years fully grown with babies of their own, which were actually transferred with them. And many of the "facts" about moaning, expected lifespan, and even accusations of these creatures being traumatized to the point of becoming psychotic murderous creatures were speculations and unfounded in research or facts.

So now what do I do with all this? Well, as a rabbi, I see truth. No, I don't see any truth in how to decipher which side to believe. I don't think most of us will really know a full truth about orcas in captivity, and I have no personal claim in any direction on the topic.

However, there is an important truth that I do claim we can learn from the two sides presented here in understanding the human psyche: We are inclined to believe what we hear and see.;

When something is presented to us, especially when presented emotionally and with conviction, we are inclined to believe it. And then we become impassioned about it. We'll even start to take action based on the passions we now feel. Sadly, we often skip the integral step of asking ourselves a simple question -- "Is that really true?" Is the perception I am being fed the actual truth of what happened?

It can be slightly daunting to tell our kindled emotions to slow down for a minute as we intellectually process the validity to what is being presented. If asked, we would all claim to be truth-seekers, but in order to truly seek truth, we have to sometimes give truth-seeking credence even beyond our emotions.

Part of the prayer the Shema includes a perplexing passage that says, "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes as they lead you astray." One could ask, if we can't trust our hearts and our eyes, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is that we have to think. Our hearts become impassioned by what is seen long before we have contemplated validity and truth to it. The Torah teaches us time and time again the importance of thinking for ourselves. Sometimes the supremacy of using our mind has to come before our heart's first impulse and even over our eyes' first impression.

I don't know how to feel when I think about the orcas still in captivity, but I do know that I've got a new understanding of the phrase, "Think twice before you act."


The Five Books that Changed My Life

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I'd like to use this space to share with you the five books that have changed my life. Please let me know if these books have changed your life, too; and feel free to comment with books that have changed your life!

I'll share these in the order by which they changed my life.


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1. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

It's possible that The Tipping Point was the first real non-fiction book I willingly read. The book teaches us how small changes can make a big difference. One of my favorite takeaways from the book is the idea of a "connector." If you're planning an event, you don't need to make 100 phone calls to invite people; instead, call the five "connectors," the people who have a million friends, and they'll bring their networks. I use these concepts every day in my work life, volunteer life and social life, and I'm grateful to this book for piquing my interest in marketing and communications.

You should read this book if … you're looking for easy fixes to increase your success with friends, business, or volunteering.


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2. Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey with Michele Bender

Curly girls, make some noise! Throw away your hair straighteners! Let your curls shine! Curly Girl: The Handbook is a curly manifesto, encouraging girls (and boys!) with curly hair to wear it proud. In another generation, curly hair was considered unprofessional, Lorraine Massey writes, but today it's fun, hip, smart, sexy and appropriate for the office.

This book offers both encouragement for curly girls and step-by-step tips on how to manage, maintain, and enhance curly hair. The advice offered in this book has helped me feel confident with my wavy hair, and since reading the book more than six years ago, I have not once straightened my hair (sorry, Mom!).

You should read this book if … you have curly or wavy hair and need some emotional (or shampooical) support.


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3. The Spirituality of Welcoming by Dr. Ron Wolfson

This book is truly the reason I got into my current line of work -- synagogue membership and community. Dr. Ron Wolfson writes about the power of creating welcoming spaces and friendly communities. Synagogues (and really, any congregation or organization) can't just be about a big beautiful building -- people must feel comfortable and cared for.

Do your synagogues have directional signs? Would a visitor know where to hang her coat? Have visitors' needs been anticipated? After reading this book, I applied to work at Temple Jeremiah as the membership director and have never looked back. (Side note: When I met Dr. Wolfson a few years after reading this book, I was completely star-struck and felt I was meeting my celebrity idol.)

You should read this book if … you're involved with welcoming newcomers (and aren't we all?).


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4. The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman

My husband, Adam, recommended that I read this book when we first started dating. This book discusses five different ways of expressing love, and while this book focuses on romantic love, I think it can be applied to friends, family members, and even co-workers.

People express love differently and it is important to understand how your partner expresses and receives this love, whether it's in the form of words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service (like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes), quality time, or gifts. I found this book to be so eye-opening and a fascinating study on relationships.

You should read this book if … you're in a romantic, friend, work, or family relationship.


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5. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

This is my new Obsession -- with a capital "O." I never, ever thought that tidying actually mattered all that much; everyone has a room that's off-limits during dinner parties where you throw all of your stuff into, right? But boy, do I think differently now.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , Marie Kondo writes that you should only keep items that bring you joy, and everything else should be thanked and then discarded. Once you're left with only joy-sparking items, every item will have a home and should be returned to its home when you're finished with it.

Since reading this book in November, I've focused on little else other than tidying using Kondo's method. As a result, I've donated a dozen bags of clothes, three bags of books, and two bags of DVDs; thrown away another dozen bags of garbage and papers; bought a scanner so I can aim towards a paperless lifestyle; and given each of my items a home. There's still more work to be done, but our apartment is on its way to being a much happier place.

You should read this book if … your house or apartment isn't what you want it to be (or if you just have too much stuff).

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