OyChicago blog

Dr. G. tackles the tough questions

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04/02/2010

Dr. G. tackles the tough questions photo

Do you have a friend that works out a little too much? What about a super skinny-mini friend that complains her non-existent butt is too big? And we all have at least one family member that’s a calorie counting, label reading, point tracking, lifelong dieter. Jokes aside, body image issues are on the rise, so I interviewed an expert, Kate Goldhaber, PhD. A licensed clinical psychologist who works as a staff psychotherapist at Chicago Behavioral Health, LLC, and is an affiliate therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Dr. Goldhaber works with adolescents, adults, couples and families. She has expertise in treating depression, anxiety, body image, weight, and eating disorders. I had a chance to chat with Dr. Goldhaber about body image and food addiction issues:

Ron Krit: Why do so many people think they are fat when they are not?
Dr. G: Probably because our beauty ideals are so unrealistic. Beautiful women in the media are typically underweight (often meet criteria for anorexia) and airbrushed. Consequently, women begin to associate beauty with perfection. When they don't measure up, they begin to denigrate their bodies and develop unrelenting dissatisfaction. It's not just the media who are to blame, though. Unfortunately women internalize these standards and subject themselves and their peers to them. Research has found that women are much harsher critics of weight and shape than men are.

Dr. G. tackles the tough questions photo 2

Dr. Goldhaber

What are ways to improve your body image? 
The first thing is to become an educated consumer. You have to understand that the beauty industry is designed to make you feel bad about your looks so that you will consume products ranging from diet pills to "slimming" clothes and plastic surgeries. Advertisements are designed to manipulate you, so be aware of that and check your reactions. Similarly, fight the urge to emulate the models and instead support "normal" women and reinforce natural beauty. The industry won't change if women keep supporting it.

Second, try to think of your body as something other than a beauty object. Your body is functional! Focus on its utility and fitness. Think about becoming strong and healthy rather than simply attractive. Along those lines, think about eating for fuel and functionality. Healthful food doesn't just mean low calorie. What does your body crave, and what will help you feel strong, healthy and energized?

Third, try to recondition yourself to think positively, or at least neutrally, about your body. Practice taking a non-judgmental stance about perceived "problem areas" by generating descriptive rather than evaluative terms. For example, if you feel negatively about your stomach, try generating descriptions such as "round" or "soft" to replace negative evaluations such as "flabby." Then, when you find yourself using the negative words, mentally override them with the neutral or positive ones. This process can actually change your thinking and emotions over time.

Why is important to see yourself in a positive light?
You could be in "perfect" shape according to fitness and/or beauty standards, but if you are still unsatisfied with yourself it will negatively impact your psychological adjustment, social functioning, sexual functioning, and relationship quality. In other words, your perception of yourself is more important to your functioning than any "real" or "objective" assessment of your body. When women lose weight but retain a negative body image, they may receive positive feedback from others but have trouble truly taking it in.

This is similar to what you said about viewing yourself in a positive light, but can you discuss how viewing yourself as the “fat friend” or the “fat one in the family” is damaging to weight loss? 
It sounds like what you are talking about is particular roles and patterns that people can get into. If you are dissatisfied with your appearance, you might focus more on other strengths and identities such as your intelligence, humor, creativity, etc. When you lose weight or make changes in appearance, it can be disorienting to receive different kinds of feedback or attention from people. You might feel uncomfortable and unprepared when receiving positive attention for your appearance. You might doubt whether others genuinely like you, or are instead responding to superficial changes. You might even resent people who give you attention and think that they should have found you appealing before you altered your appearance. All of these thoughts and expectations can complicate the process of changing and maintaining weight loss. It might feel easier to continue in the roles that you have established.

What is food addiction/How do you know if you have that problem?
This is a difficult question. When we consider whether people are addicted to other substances, the criteria usually involve developing tolerance and dependency, structuring your life around obtaining the substance, etc.  In that sense, all humans are addicted to food! We need it to survive, and we quickly go into withdrawal without food or liquids.  When people talk about food addiction or having an unhealthy relationship with food, I think they're typically referring to eating (or not eating) for the "wrong" reasons. That is, instead of eating when hungry and stopping when full, they eat due to social or emotional cues. For example, some people use food for emotional soothing - hence the term "comfort food." If you often have the experience of eating when you're not hungry, feeling dissociated (amnesia eating) or out of control while eating, and feel confused or regretful about it afterwards, you might be an emotional eater. In this case, it's useful to identify alternative strategies for dealing with your emotions.

If you have any tough questions for Dr. Goldhaber, let me know and I will pass them on.

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Kosher and delicious for Passover and every other day

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03/29/2010

Kosher and delicious for Passover photo

One sure sign that spring has sprung is the plethora of Passover products that start appearing on grocery store shelves. Each year I look forward to checking out what new foodstuffs were invented. Usually these products are meant to counterfeit their non-Passover counterparts. Each year I hold my own personal contest to see what the strangest and most Pesadich-y thing will be. Last year I was thrilled and simultaneously disgusted by the Pesadich soy sauce. I saved the bottle and put it in my cabinet just to remind myself of how scary food can get. I wrote last year about my friend Karen and her favorite find of the neon faux Passover mustard. We both thrilled to the thought of faux mustard on faux bread!

Well, that mustard and soy sauce are so last year. I found something that trumps all the ersatz foods out there. The new crop of Passover substitutes includes a product called Mac & Cheez. There is neither Mac (pasta) even of the Passover kind nor is there Cheese or Cheez. The product is pareve and the pasta is made from tapioca. It is nutritionally empty; there is not one vitamin in it. I bought a box and put it right next to my soy sauce and there it shall stay as a reminder of how bad faux food can get.

There is something really great that we can use for Passover. It is delicious, all natural and minimally processed. All Extra Virgin Olive Oil is kosher all year round and that includes Passover. The savvy Passover shopper is buying great olive oil this year.

Olive oil is the fruit oil obtained from the olive. Commonly used in cooking, cosmetics, soaps and fuel for lamps, olive oil is grown and used throughout the world but especially in the Mediterranean.

Olive oil is produced by grinding or crushing and extracting the oil. A green olive produces bitter oil and an overripe olive produces rancid oil. For great extra virgin olive oil it is essential to have olives that are perfectly ripened.

Purchasing olive oil and knowing how to use it can be confusing. Add to that, the kashrut factor and it is no wonder that consumers and home cooks are bewildered by the array of products on supermarket and specialty market shelves.

Here is a summary of olive oils and their uses:

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) comes from virgin oil production only and contains no more than 0.8 percent acidity. Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10 percent of oil in many oil producing countries. The superior fruity flavor makes this oil best used for vinaigrettes, drizzling on soups and pastas for added richness and a fruity taste for dipping breads and vegetables. Extra virgin olive oil does not require hashgacha (even for Pesach) as it is cold pressed.

Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only and has acidity less than 2 percent. This oil is best used for sautéing and for making vinaigrettes. It is generally not as expensive as the extra virgin olive oil but has a good taste. This oil does require hashgacha.

Pure olive oil. Oils so labeled are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil. This oil is perfect for sautéing. It does not have a strong flavor and can be used for making aiolis and cooking. This oil does require hashgacha.

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality olive oil. It is typically more expensive than other olive oils. Extra virgin olive oil is typically not recommended for high heat cooking. Every oil has its smoke point. A smoke point refers to the heat temperature at which the oil begins to break down and degrade. Oil that is above its smoke point not only has nutritional and flavor degradation but can also reach a flash point where combustion can occur. You can observe this when you have a very hot pan and hot oil and food are added to the pan and they produce a bluish and acrid smelling smoke or worse yet, catch fire.

Extra virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point of 375 degrees. I use my best extra virgin olive oil for making vinaigrettes, adding luxurious fruity flavor to pasta dishes, garnishing foods and dipping breads. When I am high heat sautéing or frying, I tend to reach for pure olive oil or a different type of oil.

Extra virgin olive oil has a long list of health benefits from reducing coronary artery disease, cholesterol regulation and possibly reducing risk of certain cancers. This makes the decision for using extra virgin olive oil a no-brainer.

The bigger decision is which oil to buy. Most of the world’s extra virgin olive oil comes from the Southern Mediterranean countries. I favor organic, unfiltered Spanish oil. I also like estate grown products as I know that a farmer fretted over the olives and the weather. Many mass-produced oils are made not from a single source or farm and the flavor can be uneven and harsh.

When cooking for Passover and for every meal, I recommend whole, natural ingredients. I never go to the dark side of cooking with products that are loaded with laboratory made ingredients and faux flavors or colors. For this holiday and everyday—let’s keep it real.

Poached Halibut in Olive Oil

I remember the first time I watched a chef/friend poach fish in olive oil. It was one of those moments when the light bulb goes off! The fish cooks through with a gentle heat transfer and gains the delicate olive oil flavor. The fish is moist and really luscious! Enjoy the fish hot or cold.

4 cups olive oil
4 6-ounce halibut filets-skinned and boned
1 whole head of garlic cut in half
6 thyme sprigs
1 rosemary sprig

Preheat oven to 275.

1. Place the olive oil into a large oven proof dish. Cover the fish with olive oil ¾ of the way. Add the garlic and herbs. Cover the fish directly with a piece of parchment paper.
2. Poach the fish until firm and completely translucent (about 15 minutes). Gently remove the fish and discard the garlic and herbs. Strain the oil and refrigerate covered. The oil can be used to poach fish again and will keep for up to 2 weeks.

Parsley sauce with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 large bunches of flat leaf parsley, leaves trimmed off (reserve the stems for stock making)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Place a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Sear the parsley for about 2 minutes until it is bright green and slightly wilted.
2. Place the parsley and extra virgin olive oil in a blender and process until the sauce has a smooth consistency. Salt and pepper to taste

Chocolate Mousse with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Passover used to mean a hiatus from good chocolate. Recently there have been several new companies that have introduced kosher for Passover high end chocolate. I like to sprinkle my mousse with sea salt as a garnish. The sparkly flavor of the salt enhances the fruitiness of the olive oil and the chocolate.

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate (must be at least 70 percent cacao)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅓ cup brewed coffee
4 eggs separated
⅔ cup powdered sugar (kosher for Passover)
⅓ cup brewed coffee
1 vanilla bean scraped

1. Melt the chocolate and cool to room temperature. Mix in the olive oil and coffee and set aside.
2. Combine the yolks and powdered sugar and whisk until foamy, add the chocolate mixture.
3. Beat the whites to stiff peaks; fold the whites into the chocolate.
4. Pour into a 9-ich cake pan or loaf pan lined with plastic wrap and chill 8 hours or freeze for 3 hours. Unmold onto a serving plate and slice.

For a variation I like to sprinkle coarse sea salt onto the top of the mousse. The sea salt brings out the fruitiness of the olive oil and the chocolate.

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‘Bubbe, Bubbe, make me a match’

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04/01/2010

‘Bubbe, Bubbe, make me a match’ photo 1

After I graduated from Miami of Ohio with a degree in psychology, I began working as a Life Enrichment Coordinator at The Weinberg Community in Deerfield, Illinois. I had just moved to Chicago, and of course, I was looking for a nice Jewish boy. My father kept saying, “I’m sure one of the bubbes will set you up with their grandsons.”

On a daily basis, I would kibbitz with the residents at Gidwitz Place and Friend Center, and they’d say their grandsons were menches. A typical conversation began with, “Oy, do I have a grandson for you!” They each raved about how handsome, smart and tall their grandsons were. I was flattered, but not really drawn to any of these matchmaking efforts.

I established many meaningful relationships with the residents both at Gidwitz Place and Friend Center. But, the relationship I had with Esther was very special. She was a yenta, and we talked everyday. One day, Esther informed me that she had a grandson who would be perfect for me, but unfortunately, he was still a senior in college. To appease her, I told her to let me know when he graduated.

A year passed, thinking Esther had forgotten about making a match, I didn’t expect her to find me and say “My grandson just moved to Chicago, you need to meet him. Take his number.” I was caught off guard but, I thought to myself, what do I have to lose if I contact him?

That evening, I looked him up on Facebook. I could not believe how cute he was. Bubbe was right! I sent him an email, and we talked back and forth for a couple of weeks over email and the phone. Eventually, we decided to meet up in a group of friends. From that first encounter we’ve never been apart.

On October 30, 2009, Danny and I went to visit some friends in Denver and Boulder. Colorado had just had a huge snowstorm so hiking didn’t seem so appealing to me, but Danny insisted we hike up the flat irons. While up the mountain, Danny swung me around and got down on one knee and surprised me with a proposal! It was the most beautiful moment of our lives.

‘Bubbe, Bubbe, make me a match’ photo 2

We have found our beshert. We’ll always be grateful to Esther and her special eye that brought us together.

Emily Langendorf, from Urbana, will be graduating this spring with an MSW from the University of Illinois-Chicago. Langendorf and Daniel Mysel plan to marry in the fall in Evanston.

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Colt Cabana’s picks for Wrestlemania 26

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03/26/2010

Colt Cabana photo

Oy!’s Jeremy Fine, a.k.a The Great Rabbino, caught up with Colt Cabana, Chicago native and Jewish wrestler, to get his picks for this year’s Wrestlemania. Colt has been traveling the country wrestling and performing his comedy. Big thanks and shout out to the funniest man in the wrestling business:

Colt Cabana: Hello all my fellow Heebs. It's me, you're favorite Jewish WWE wrestler of all time, formerly Scotty Goldman, Colt "Boom Boom" Cabana.

Currently I'm traveling around the world as a professional wrestler and semi-professional comedian. I can be seen every Monday night wrestling for  Ring of Honor  (ROH) on HDNet.

This weekend I'm going to be having three giant shows in Phoenix, Arizona. Friday and Saturday will be a great ROH doubleshot and Saturday night I'll be on stage telling wrestling jokes with Mick Foley for Total Extreme Comedy (totalextremecomedy.com). The biggest event of the weekend though, of course, is WWE's WRESTLEMANIA 26.

Jeremy Fine, The Great Rabbino himself, gave me a call. He wanted to know if I could bless all his fine fans with my Wrestlemania 26 picks. I consider it a mitzvah to do it—all I ask is you don't blame me when you lose all your gelt money when I get the picks wrong! Here you go...

WWE Unified Tag Team Title Match
John Morrison & R-Truth vs. The Miz & Big Show
CC: I think this one's easy. Morrison & Truth have kinda just been thrown together. I think they've done a great job on TV lately though trying to tell you that they're a legitimate team, but a strong bet would be SHOWMIZ for the win.

Money in the Bank Ladder Match
Dolph Ziggler vs. Kane vs. Christian vs. Shelton Benjamin vs. MVP vs.Jack Swagger vs. Matt Hardy vs. Evan Bourne vs. Drew McIntyre vs. Kofi Kingston
CC: I'd love for it to be my old roomie, Evan Bourne. He's definitely gonna be the highlight of this match in many ways. In my mind it's a toss up between Christian and McIntyre. Since they're pushing Drew as the "star of tomorrow," I'm gonna say Drew McIntyre wins and makes his push as the next WWE champion.

Triple H vs. Sheamus
CC: Sheamus doesn't stand a chance. HHH by a landslide.

Triple Threat Match
Randy Orton vs. Cody Rhodes vs. Ted DiBiase
CC: Some interesting ways to think [about]this one. I would hope that Ted DiBiase would get a solid definitive win here and establish himself as the next breakout star. Unfortunately, I've got a feeling Randy Orton beats them both up the whole match and then grabs himself an easy Wrestlemania victory.

WWE Title Match
John Cena vs. Batista
CC: I wanna make a lot of funny jokes about this one, but I won’t. I'm gonna say John Cena stands tall at the end of this one.

World Heavyweight Title Match
Edge vs. Chris Jericho
CC: Edge has really never won the title in a straight up fashion. I think at Wrestlemania 26, Edge gets his first clean championship win. SPEAR!

Career vs. Streak Match
Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker
CC: I think Undertaker's not quite ready to give his streak up. Shawn will "retire," go vacation in Hawaii, and come back with Marty Jannetty for one last Rockers Reunion.

No Holds Barred Match
Bret Hart vs. Vince McMahon
CC: Bret with a Sharpshooter.

Street Fight
CM Punk vs. Rey Mysterio
If Mysterio loses, he must join the Straight Edge Society.
CC: I look forward to this one as it's my boy Punk's first high profile Wrestlemania match. Punk's going to win and Mysterio will join the straight edge society.

Those are my picks. Maybe they'll be right on, maybe they'll suck.
Let me know on TWITTER at @DRColtCabana.

Enjoy all of Wrestlemania weekend and if you're out there, stop by either TXC or ROH and say hi.
Thanks
COLT

And Let Us Say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine

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Cheers! Chicago: The Passover edition

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03/25/2010

Cheers! Chicago: The Passover edition photo

We are approaching the time of year when families come together around the table to celebrate our freedom and the receiving of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. To celebrate this milestone, we are instructed by our rabbis and sages of old to congregate, pray, recline and rejoice. We also set aside a cup of—you guessed it, what else?—wine for Elijah the prophet, to facilitate the coming of the Messiah. We long for all of us to one day gather in Jerusalem and celebrate our faith as a nation.

I always look forward to Passover with my family. Each year, we get together for a typical Seder, complete with a full Seder plate, white tablecloth, fine china and a lavish cuisine filled with brisket and charoset. And every year, my father, knowing how much we children love to spend over three hours eating dinner and talking about serious subjects, makes a concerted effort to draw current events or phenomena into our family discussions regarding the significance of Passover. I think it’s a great way to draw all of us into the discussion and keep it relevant.

Growing up in a Conservative household, we kept kosher and had two sets of silverware. We actually cleaned our house of chametz for Passover. We went to services as a family…not just for the High Holidays. As kids, we went to a Jewish Day School and were immersed in the culture and tradition that surrounds the major holidays. We understood at a young age the significance of our celebrations and gatherings, our reasons for singing and reclining, and even for performing seemingly antiquated rituals. Take the ritual of spilling a drop of wine (or grape juice) from our glasses as representing a drop of blood for each plague God unleashed on the Egyptians during their captivity and enslavement. Of course, as a bartender it’s always tough to see a guest spill any part of a cocktail that you have carefully constructed; however, in this case we are doing it deliberately, to remind us of the terrible suffering that ensued.

Less observant Jews and even non-Jews always ask me, “Why do you observe so closely? Why go through all the trouble of keeping kosher? Why do you celebrate these holidays? Why go to a nearly four hour service in a language not your own?” I always used to answer, “Because my parents said so,” or “Just because,” or even “I’m not really sure,” but now as an adult I know why I spill my merlot ten times. I know why we eat unleavened bread and mix it with bitter herbs and horseradish. I see why the rabbis instructed us to recline and rejoice amidst a story of great suffering and sadness. Out of this suffering and destruction on both sides comes forth the greatest gift God could give us (besides life and wine, of course)—the sacred commandments and laws by which all men and women can lead a good, full and happy life.

So this year, when you’re reclining at the Seder with whomever you are blessed to share it with, remember why we do these things, that we are all part of something greater, that many before us fought with their hearts, minds and bodies so that we may enjoy and celebrate everything we as Jews hold dear. Now, more than ever, we need to support our brothers and sisters in Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora. We must celebrate Passover, in whatever way we know how, in order to keep their memories alive and to preserve our way of life. And if it takes ten drops of merlot to do that…bring on the wine.

Did I mention we get to drink a mandatory four glasses of wine? How awesome is that?! For your Seder tables, Kedem and Manishewitz aren’t the only kosher wines in the liquor stores. At $14 a bottle, I would guide you towards the Borgo Reale Chianti 2007 or the Dalton Shiraz 2007 at $23. If you don’t want to shop online, I encourage ALL Passover-celebrators to check out this fabulous and unique wine tasting experience tonight. Remember to let the red wine breathe a little in the glasses before drinking.

L’Chaim, and Chag Sameach!

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My Spring Break Sushi Tour of Chicago

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03/24/2010

My Spring Break Sushi Tour of Chicago photo

‘Tis the season for spring break.  Left and right, nearly everyone I know is heading somewhere, whether they are graduate students heading on exotic vacations or colleagues leaving town for Passover to avoid the stress of de-chametz-ing the kitchen.

I’m not going to Palm Springs, Florida or Israel.  I’ll be spending my glorious four days off from work during the Passover holiday on my couch, and to add insult to injury, my husband is spending his spring break in Japan, quite possibly the most far-away place he could possibly be.

While David is experiencing a “Global Immersion in Management,” schmoozing with Japanese executives (yes, I told him to yell at the Toyota execs about my defective, recalled Camry), I am stuck in Chicago, where the weather is rapidly yo-yoing from 60 degrees and sun to nearly freezing slush coming down sideways.

I decided that if I can’t go to Japan (or anywhere for that matter), I’m bringing Japan to me!  What better way to relish in my favorite carbs before eight days of eating cardboard then two straight weeks of raw fish, seaweed and soy.  And so, the sushi tour was born.

When we lived in Old Town, we always relied on a few regular sushi joints: Cafe Sushi for takeout, Shine when we went out, and the occasional venture to a new place.  In Evanston, the pattern continues – Sashimi Sashimi for takeout, Kansaku when we go out, etc.  David’s temporary disappearance gave me the perfect excuse to scarf down maki after maki with friends.

While the tour is still continuing, I thought I’d share a few favorites and poll the crowd for your recommendations as well.

I started my sushi adventure with a tried and true favorite – Rise.  Now I know that this does not follow my pre-set rules of trying new places, but Rise is never a bad idea.  There is nothing better than Rise’s Honey Roll, and many of their rolls have delicious unique touches, like their Volcano Roll with the surprise sweetness of strawberry wrapped inside.

Last week, I also went to Sushi Wabi in the West Loop.  Having heard only good things about their food, I was more than ready to join fellow Oy! blogger, Ron Krit, for a few rolls after work.  Of course, since Ron is inching toward elderly, we ate at 5:30 p.m. (can you say early bird special?) and had the place nearly to ourselves.  Being that Ron is our resident fitness fanatic, I was concerned that he would avoid anything with sauce or lecture me about brown rice and whole grains, but that was not the case at all.

We started with this incredible sashimi appetizer of tuna with truffle salt and avocado that just melted in your mouth.  Heaven.  And then we split several rolls that came out one at a time, and each one was better than the next.  Not only that, but the presentation was stunning.  I would share photos but someone (my darling husband) ran off with my camera and is letting it sit in his backpack in Japan, most likely unused.

No sense stopping there.  If David can spend five grand on a two week trip to Japan, I have rationalized that a couple hundred dollars over the course of two weeks would not break my bank.  This week, I hit two local sushi hot spots that somehow I had managed never to visit before: Wakamono on Broadway and Butterfly on Grand.

Monday and Tuesday night were both long leisurely dinners with great friends who introduced me to their favorite haunts.  I’m no Stacey Ballis but in the effort to blog about food, I’ll just say this: both restaurants are definitely worth a visit, if you haven’t already been (I think I may be the only one).  In the world of BYOB sushi, they are both top notch.

Now after four nights of Japanese cuisine in a seven day period, you think I’d be over it.  Not a chance.  Tonight, I’ll be heading to Toro Sushi in Lincoln Park with another Oy! blogger, Jacey, and if the reviews are indicative of the quality of tonight’s dinner, I know I’ll be content (and hopefully not full to the point of feeling ill – my constant fear).

Tomorrow night is still open – not sure where I’ll visit or with who.  But I’d love your suggestions – what is your favorite Japanese restaurant in Chicago?

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Seder invite for that special someone: When’s the right time?

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03/23/2010

Seder invite for that special someone photo

Is your family ready to have your special someone over for seder? Is he or she ready for them? (ThinkFilm Inc., "When Do We Eat?" / Lacey Terrell)

A few years ago I accepted an invitation to share a Passover seder at the home of my then-boyfriend's parents.

Since we were becoming more serious as a couple, I was excited to experience this penultimate sign of family acceptance. I bought a cute new dress to wear and some gourmet kosher-for-Passover chocolates for his mom. I prepped by asking for short bios on second cousins I'd be meeting for the first time and, in case I was asked, I practiced the Four Questions.

Shortly after the seder began, it became apparent that this night indeed was going to be much different from all other nights.

I learned quickly that in this family, the actions of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh could spark a hot debate on current U.S. Middle East policy. I witnessed a Haggadah reading enhanced by the insertion of several scratchy musical recordings -- a lovely albeit seder-lengthening touch. And not surprising, I discovered, no one makes kugel better than my mother.

In truth, it was a perfectly wonderful evening and few experiences provided as intimate a window into the theater of my boyfriend’s family. Their Passover hospitality, and peccadilloes, would set the bar for my relationships to come.

Hospitality is more than encouraged on Passover; it is required. We are commanded to leave the door open for Elijah the prophet as well as to invite all who are hungry to come and eat.

But when you are dating, the hungry can often interpret a come-and-eat invitation as more symbolic than the shank bone on a seder plate. And your family can become either a boon or a liability.

“For me it’s an investment,” says Tara Chantal Silver, 32, a publicist in Washington. “Passover is a very big deal in my family. I don’t bring every guy home, just the ones who are special.”

So how do you know if it’s the right time to extend an invitation to that someone special?

“The first question to ask yourself is, do I want this person sitting beside me?” says relationship expert Andrea Syrtash. “But it doesn’t have to be a specific answer, like I want them to be the mother of my children. It’s a gracious thing to invite someone for the holiday. No one normal or healthy would freak out being asked.”

Dating coach Evan Marc Katz says to consider “the strength of the relationship over an arbitrary timeline.”

If you think the relationship has the potential to become long-term or serious eventually, Katz says, at some point you’re going to have to meet the family -- and Passover is as good a time as any.

Adina Matusow, 28, and her fiance, Ben, took it slow spending the holiday together.

“As far as Passover, we weren’t so interested in sharing,” says Matusow, who lives with her fiance in Stamford, Conn.

By the time she went to his aunt’s house for Passover, they had been dating for nearly two years.

Matusow says the experience was different from what she was used to with her family. His family was smaller and less noisy, and the seder plate looked amiss.

“I thought, where is the celery? They were using parsley [as a leafy green vegetable] instead," she recalls. "I didn’t say anything; I didn’t want to be rude. It’s not a big deal and it was a really nice experience.”

Sometimes, though, a divide in ritual observance can be more significant than celery over parsley.

In 24 years of marriage Robbie Wagner, 48, says most arguments with her husband stem from the differences in their holiday traditions.

Wagner, who lives in Dallas, grew up with an Orthodox Passover seder conducted in Hebrew, a “command performance with 50 to 60 people there, everyone in their best clothes, both nights.”

In contrast, she says, her husband’s family held a small, intimate dinner with no extended family and no reading of the Haggadah. She recalls being particularly disappointed that the afikomen wasn’t hidden for the grandchildren to find.

Over the years, Wagner says she and her husband learned to negotiate and compromise to create meaningful Passover traditions for their children.

Syrtash, author of “How to Survive Your In-Laws” and the upcoming “He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s a Good Thing),” says couples should try to “have an open mind and remember there’s no such thing as normal. What’s weird to you is normal for him. Try not to have judgment.”

When he was unable to get back to his native Montreal for Passover, architect Ian Roth, 35, accepted an invitation to spend Passover with his girlfriend Katy and her family in Denver.

The seder was less traditional and more interpretative than his family’s and the meal was less extravagant than his mother’s, says Roth, but “it was nice just being welcomed. It helped me have a warm feeling towards her and her family.”

Syrtash suggests couples discuss in advance what Passover looks like in their family's home. Give a head's up if expecting a nosy aunt and, if the relationship is serious, discuss what customs you hope to retain or discard in the future, she says.

For couples with a non-Jewish partner, this is especially important. Syrtash recommends preparing the non-Jewish partner on what to expect at a seder.

“Approach it with enthusiasm, and go over a few things like the rituals and story of Passover before he or she gets to the table for the first time," she says. "It’s a fun, festive holiday and it should feel light.”

In preparation for hosting their own seder someday, Katz and his wife, a Catholic, took an introduction to Passover class as well as a Passover cooking class at a synagogue near their Los Angeles home.

“Different people make it easier to share your customs," he says, "and those are the people you should be with anyway.”

When you are dating, navigating Passover can become a representation of the relationship, says Syrtash, and it can “signify a lot.” But she also says to keep in mind that “Passover is not a wedding. You don’t need a plus one.”

Because if the relationship doesn’t work out, it’s important to remember there’s always next year in Jerusalem. And mom’s kugel.

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Going green through a Jewish lens

 Permanent link
03/22/2010

Going green through a Jewish lens photo 1

Evanston's Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation

I’ve been an environmentalist for a good part of my life. My parents deserve some of the credit for this—they used to threaten me as a little boy, telling me that if I didn’t turn off the lights when I left a room, "Mr. Edison" would come get me. I found this to be a little scary, but it worked—to this day, I rarely find myself leaving the lights on when I leave a room. As a pre-teen, I cherished books such as "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" and even tried my hand at running a local environmental group: Kids FACE (For a Cleaner Environment).

Ever since the opening of An Inconvenient Truth, environmentalism and "going green" has become vital to the way I live. More recently, I’ve tried to experience the process of "going green" through a Jewish lens. While working in Austin, Texas, my congregation was the only Jewish institution in the city that had made a pledge to use green energy sources—even though these often cost a bit more. In my current congregation in the south suburbs, I initiated a paper recycling program that is now successfully in place. I am glad that people are now seeing how much paper is being recycled on a weekly basis, giving weight to this mitzvah.

I recently led a trip for our high school kids to one of the greenest congregations in the country— Evanston's Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC). Our students went on a tour of the building and learned about how it received LEED green certification. The building is stunning to look at and walk through, and knowing that what you are seeing is not simply for appearance but is actively making a difference in the world, gives you such a sense of gratitude. One of my favorite aspects of the building was how they used wood from trees cleared from the building site and fallen trees from storms to line the ceilings and build their bimah. When you walk in, you smell the amazing aroma of this wood—such an enveloping welcome as you enter the space. JRC has also made the choice to put in energy efficient light sensors in all rooms, so that no energy is wasted, as well as water saving toilets. I have seen these recently in other newly built synagogues, and it’s an easy and cost effective way for any congregation to start going green.

Going green through a Jewish lens photo 2

Our students were very interested in what they saw on the tour. A few were already well educated on environmental issues, which was clear from their comments and questions to our tour guide, and putting this into a Jewish context made it all the better. We know that beyond measure, Judaism values the protection and care of the world we live in. This is just one element that plays into the multitude of what we define as tikkun olam. I certainly hope that Jewish institutions and organizations will do their part to make environmentalism and "going green" a conscious decision in an era where doing so is not just a values statement, but an essential mitzvah upholding the health of our planet and us.

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Celebrating, Russian-restaurant style

 Permanent link
03/19/2010

Celebrating, Russian-restaurant style photo 1

As you enter, you are greeted by an obsequious type wearing a bowtie or a garish – possibly sequined – tie and vest combo. You are led to a room full of gilded baubles. Tables are piled high with colorful food whose names you know only if you grew up in a Russian household.

In Chicago, you’ve got a choice of at least a half a dozen of these Russian restaurants, some that even cater to other Eastern European communities, like Poles and Ukrainians— who seem to share with us a love of heavy food and stultifying 80s pop.

But what to do if your city doesn’t have a Russian restaurant?

My husband’s family live in Indianapolis, and the Russian-speaking community is simply too small to support even one restaurant. (For the record, some entrepreneurial types have tried – twice! My husband worked at one of these restaurants as a bus boy during his high school years.)
In the absence of a real Russian restaurant, the Indy Russians make do. They’ve found two alternatives: Chinese buffet and Italian chain.

I’ve stopped counting the number of birthdays and anniversaries I’ve celebrated by eating nothing but fruit – the only thing I can stand to consume at a Chinese buffet. (And yes, I’m aware that makes me sound pretentious, but as I don’t eat meat in most restaurants and seafood at all, fruit is my stuff of choice.) I was even forced to hold our non-rehearsal rehearsal dinner in a so-called “upscale” Chinese restaurant. While I stick with my fruit plate, my husband’s family and their friends indulge in plate after plate of food until they can barely get up from the table – a venerable Chinese buffet tradition.

But recently, Max and I have been insisting on skipping the Chinese fare and finding a better alternative to the grease-laden foods (especially since his mom recently had surgery and is trying to lose weight). So the family has come up with another alternative: the venerable Italian chains, Bucca di Beppo and Maggiano’s. The former for small events and the latter for big, blow-out celebrations.

Celebrating, Russian-restaurant style photo 2

In fact, we just did the Maggiano’s thing last weekend for my father-in-law’s 75th birthday. The scene was strangely similar to a Russian restaurant: the cheesy décor, the fairly obsequious staff, even the sequined outfits on most of the guests (excluding yours truly).

The lunch-hour celebration started with my mother-in-law trying to bring a touch of home – or the Russian restaurant – and pulling out the sprats. These are tiny anchovy-like fish canned in oil. They are an homage to the Soviet era, when the deficits meant that sprats and other “special” foods were hoarded until major celebrations for guests to wonder at the hosts’ ability to procure the “best foods.” So here’s my mother-in-law, presiding over a 25-person table in the middle of the main dining room at Maggiano’s, pulling cans of fish from her bag to augment the starter course. She made the waiter – who took it all in stride (I’m sure he’s seen worse) – open them and set them along our table in all their metal-can glory. Because of course people would starve on Maggiano-provided salads and appetizers without the added benefits of the sprats.

Celebrating, Russian-restaurant style photo 3

Once she started with the additional treats, there was no stopping her. To accompany the second course, she brought – wait for it! – cow tongue. Boiled and spiced with pepper, tongue is a Russian delicacy. I’m normally not averse to a small slice, which tastes like pâté, but I tend to reserve my tongue consumption for the home.

As I sat there, wedged between my husband and his elderly aunt, I resigned myself to the fact that my husband’s older relatives as well as my own won’t ever leave their Soviet-style outlook behind. It’s simply too late for them. While Max and I already have spent half of our lives living in the States and have assimilated certain attitudes, our relatives will forever remain not merely Russian or Russian-speaking, but Soviet. The country that birthed and reared them no longer exists. But the attitudes nurtured by years of deficits will forever remain with them.

Just know that I solemnly promise that when I invite you to celebrate a milestone with me, there won’t be a sprat in sight – unless, of course, you’re at my house.

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Why this Skidmore girl loves the Jayhawks

 Permanent link
03/18/2010

Last summer I gave up on the Cubs.  The fun was gone— Wood and DeRosa kicked to the curb and the Bradley signing left a bad taste in my mouth.  I’d spent too many summers hoping, spending and crying on a team that kept letting all of us in Cubs nation down, so I decided to take a healthy break and wait for Jay Cutler, the Bears and fall. That didn’t go so well either.  And the Bulls…ugh.

Professional Chicago sports teams= big fail.

So, what’s a girl to do?

Cheer for the White Sox?

No offense, but it’s just not happening and I don’t think they’d want me as a fan anyways.

Cheer for another city’s team?

I tried cheering for the Tigers, but even with two of my favorite players on the roster, I just didn’t have it in me.  And I was glad the Saints won the Super Bowl, but let’s face it, I’m a fan of Kim Kardashian (I know, I know) and that’s not a good reason to cheer on any team.

Cheer for a college sports team?

Hmmm.  As a proud alumnus of a small, Division III liberal arts college in upstate New York, I spent most of my college years watching my friend’s field hockey, lacrosse games and horse riding competitions.  Not exactly the kind of thing one tailgates for…but, it’s kind of nice how players don’t get traded and it doesn’t seem to be so blatantly all about the money, and most importantly, if I cheer for a college team then I can hang out with my boyfriend Jason and my friends when they go watch their games at their team bars.  So while I missed out on college sports in college, I could at least start rooting for a team every weekend as a newly anointed fan.  This could work!

Who to choose?

It needed to be a team that wins often and had some history, like my Cubs.  (Full disclosure, Jason went to Kansas and Kincades (a KU bar in Chicago) has great veggies burgers, so picking didn’t involve much thought), I decided to become a loyal Jayhawks fan!  And for the most part, I think I’ve been a good fan— I visited Kansas and looked at Allen Fieldhouse with just the right amount of reverence, I bought some cute KU apparel, I’ve cheered loudly and frequently— sometimes I even forget that I didn’t actually go to school there.

But then on Sunday I got accused of being a fake, fair-weather fan.  Ouch!  I made the mistake of not loudly whining about how unfair it was that Kansas has the most difficult route to the championship this year.  (Kansas potentially has to play the two teams they lost to this year, while Duke, which lost nine games, has arguably the easiest route to the finals.)  Instead, I might have innocently suggested that it seemed kind of fair, “We won the championship just two years ago, let’s not be greedy.  We’re a great team and a tough road to the finale will just showcase how deserving and talented we really are.”

Jason hid my Kansas t-shirt and I’ve been disinvited from watching the games.  So to prove my undying love and support for Jayhawks basketball, here are my top ten reasons to be a Jayhawks fan, even if you didn’t go to Kansas:

1. They invented basketball…sort of.  James Naismith is credited with inventing the sport of basketball in 1891 and he was the first coach for the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team.

2. They win a lot.  One of only three teams to ever win more than 2,000 games.  52 conference championships. 5 national championships— 3 in the NCAA tournament.

3. They’re not part of the Big Ten.  Bill Self left Illinois for Kansas.

4. This amazing shot of Mario Chalmers tying the 2008 NCAA championship game and forcing the game into overtime.

5. Alumni Kirk Hinrich is a Bull (at least for now.)

6. Sherron Collins is from Chicago.

7. Some of the greatest NBA players went to Kansas: Danny Manning, Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Pierce.

8. I won my first March Madness bracket in 2008 because I picked Kansas to go all the way!

9. Singing the rock chalk Jayhawk chant inside the packed beyond capacity Allen Fieldhouse.

10. They’re probably going to win the National Championship again this year!  What more can you ask for— a winning team!

Rock Chalk Jayhawk, Go KU!

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Shout out to other women

 Permanent link
03/17/2010

Shout out to other women photo

I love this photo of my baby Lindsay on her first swing ride, because if you look a little closely, you will see something amiss… look at the shoes… see it?  Mommy put her shoes on the wrong feet!  DOH!

Ok, so I guess I won’t be winning any mother-of-the-year awards.  But, since I’ve managed to somehow keep my daughter healthy and pretty darn happy for the past 13 months, I don’t think I’m doing too badly as a mom either… even if there are days when I put her shoes on the wrong feet, her shirt on inside-out, or her diaper on backwards (only ONCE).  Truthfully, there are days where I’ve gone off to work dressed worse.

Motherhood, as you have read on the blogs of my fellow Oy!sters, is an awesome challenge, and if you don’t have a sense of humor about it, you are going to be in for a really rough time.  Because there are going to be days when you will forget to pack the diapers, wipes, or a change of clothes and it’s inevitably the one time she has a massive, gravity-defying explosion—like up the back and into the ears—when you are in the middle of nowhere.  Or, you will take your baby to services and she will sit perfectly quiet up until the Rabbi’s sermon and at that moment she will screech “Dadadadada”, distracting the entire congregation and annoying the Senior Rabbi—a.k.a., Dadadada’s boss.

While I could go on about my “mommy adventures,” this blog isn’t about being a mom, or about my absolutely perfect and brilliant daughter.  (She can clap!  Get out the applications for Harvard!)  Nope, this blog is about the OTHER women in my life—my family, my friends, my colleagues, and those random kind women who have helped me through all the ups and downs.

Truthfully, I have been happily surprised by just how great my fellow XY chromosome peers have been.  Sadly, I think I more prepared for criticism and judgments, and I would be lying if I said I have not received negative comments about my full-time-burb-to-city-commute work schedule.

But I have received far more in the way of encouragement, support and random acts of kindness from women—some who I know well, and others who I will never see again.  When I went back to work, my friends and family were rocks for me.  They were the ones who when I was petrified and crying, told me it would be ok, that I would be fine, that my daughter would be fine, and they were right.  Never once did any of my friends who are stay-at-home-moms ever make me question my decision or lifestyle, and for that they have my enduring love and respect.   And when I returned to work, I found an office filled with women (and men) willing to listen to me babble on about my baby, who shared their own experiences, offered support, and even exchanged baby gear.  I know that not every woman has this kind of support at work, and I do not take it for granted.

And then there are the complete strangers I have met in the parks, on the planes, in the bathrooms, whose little random acts and words of kindness can make a new mom’s day.  Such as the waitress at Walker Brothers who tells you about baby gas drops when your baby is colicky (thank you Walker Brothers Waitress).  Or the women in your aisle on the airplane who doesn’t mind when your baby cries.  Or the dental hygienist who tells you not to listen to any “so-called experts” who say that babies in daycare or with other childcare providers are somehow disadvantaged—her children turned out just fine, thank you very much.  It makes you realize just how kind and generous women can be, and when you are inevitably on the receiving end of a catty remark, it really doesn’t matter.

So, on this St. Patty’s Day, I want to wish every woman (and man for that matter) who has held me up, given me a shoulder to cry on, and told me that my kids shoes were on the wrong feet and that she has done it too, all the luck of the Irish.  (Hey, I’ve got a drop or two of Irish blood in me—pass me a green beer.)  Thank you—you all have been my pot o’ gold.

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Bonsoiree

 Permanent link
03/16/2010

Bonsoiree
2728 W. Armitage Ave.
773-486-7511
www.bon-soiree.com

Howard’s Wine Cellar
1244 W. Belmont

Rating:  Five stars

StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey 

Being a foodie can occasionally be something of a burden.  It is all too easy to get jaded, to stop finding pleasure in perfectly serviceable meals, because they aren’t new enough or innovative enough.  One can forget that doing something simple and well is actually proof of skill in the kitchen.  After all, ask almost any chef or restaurant critic the mark of a great cook, and they will tell you roasted chicken is the ultimate test.  And while I try not to be a food snob, I do occasionally have to check myself, reminding my inner-critic that underseasoned is better than overseasoned, easily fixed with a salt shaker, and not a personal affront.  Likewise, when a more upscale place bandies around effete adjectives and food “philosophies,” I have to hold myself in check, hoping the food is as good as the marketing vocabulary.

Chicago is an amazing place to be an unabashed foodie, with an enormous range of fabulous restaurants old and new, in every possible ethnic variation, and at every level of cuisine from the most basic one-step-up-from-home-cookin’ to places like Alinea and other multiple starred restaurants that always make the “best in the world” lists.  We have fantastic places to buy exceptional ingredients for playing with in our own kitchens, and terrific takeout for those nights when dirtying pots seems impossible to imagine.

When a new place starts to get a buzz around it, I often cringe, since often “hot” just means “expensive, with foams” or “famous people have been spotted there.”  I don’t necessarily need everything deconstructed or molecularly gastronimied, as much as I enjoy those conventions in the right hands. I’m as passionate about the best simple bowl of pasta (Buona Terra) and corned beef sandwich (Manny’s Deli) as I am about fancy multi-course meals.  I get as excited about the newest greasy spoon that is doing amazing omelettes and hash browns as I do about the hot new wunderchef.  Often more.

Lucky for me, by the time I heard about Bonsoiree, the new BYOB in my neighborhood specializing in five- to thirteen-course tasting menus, it was from people whose palates I trusted, eliminating any of my usual skepticism.  So when these same people snagged a reservation for a party of eight, and invited my boyfriend and myself to join them, we jumped at the chance. 

Bonsoiree is located in a small unobtrusive space on West Armitage Avenue, just east of California.  I must have driven by it a hundred times and never noticed it.  They do two seatings of up to twenty-eight people, one at 6 p.m. and one at 8:30.  The menu changes seasonally, and is posted ahead of time on the website for patrons to peruse to see if the current offerings are to everyone’s taste, and they are quick to accommodate special needs of diners with food restrictions.  The room is tiny, the tables simply set with white linen and basic flatware.

The food, quite simply, is spectacular.

We began with an amuse bouche of raw Hamachi, served over a simple seaweed salad with house-pickled radishes.  Not being a fan of seafood, mine was served with crispy lotus root subbing in for the fish, with delicious results.  The second course was a simple salad of roasted red and golden beets, with endive and Treviso, roasted pears, pomegranate-charred tomato vinaigrette and a tiny cranberry fritter.  The beets were perfectly cooked, the dressing subtly smoky and tart, balancing the crispy fritter.  The next course was scallop and peekytoe crab motoyaki, a preparation which has the seafood suspended in a rich Ponzu aioli, served with a bruleed top in a large scallop shell.  My dish replaced the seafood with duck confit, and frankly, it was one of the best single mouthfuls of food I have ever experienced.  The silky aioli was subtly spiced, and a perfect foil for the meaty duck.  Around me, the seafood version disappeared quickly, with exclamations of delight, so I feel confident that it was equally delicious.

A clear veal and coffee consommé was hand served from a French press coffeepot, into large wide bowls of sautéed wild mushrooms, a potato and chive dumpling, and a small nugget of bittersweet chocolate ganache.  The flavors were complex and yet comforting, and while many people chose to eat the chocolate in one bite, I allowed mine to melt into the soup, and loved the depth of flavor it added.  Following that was small slice of perfectly rare venison loin was nestled on top of a small portion of blackberry risotto and blackberry and blueberry coulis, the meat velvety and slightly gamy, the risotto perfectly al dente.

The next course was probably the only one that failed somewhat for me, in part because of the exceptional dishes which preceded it.  A slice of roasted Barramundi was paired with an artichoke croquette and candied Brussels sprouts.  The fish was well cooked, and moist, but not a terrific match with the croquette, which had decent flavor and an excellent crisp crust, but a somewhat watery texture.  I am an enormous fan of brussel sprouts in general, but the “candying” process did them a disservice.  However our disappointment was very short lived, as the next course was a showstopper.  A pairing of braised rabbit in a Riesling beurre blanc, and braised oxtail with a bone marrow smoked tomato compote, served with crispy sage gnocchi.  The rabbit and oxtail were both extraordinary in flavor and texture, the gnocchi were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with excellent flavor, and the smoked tomato sauce heightened the entire plate.

Their version of a cheese course, a gruyere fondue with a gooseberry beignet for dipping was playful and tasty, and the desert course of blood orange frozen yogurt over a chestnut pudding was a lovely tart and light ending to a decadent meal.

The evening was guided by the knowledgeable staff, who explained dishes with calm precision, and kept wine and water glasses filled almost by magic.  As a BYOB, you have total control over wine pairings, which is terrific for anyone who is a connoisseur.  And if you aren’t, never fear.  Go see Howard Silverman at Howard’s Wine Cellar at 1244 West Belmont.  Howard will find you the perfect bottles for the current menu in your price range, and probably a few extra bottles for your home collection at the same time.

I couldn’t stop raving about the meal to everyone, and as a result, several of my friends (including my personal trainer) have been to dine there since.  And every one of them has reported back to me that their evenings were as special as mine had been.  Most did the five course menu, so far none of us have indulged in the expansive thirteen course option, but it is on my list to do one of these days!

And while it is a very ‘foodie’ experience, the food stands on its own in a way that is not in the least alienating to someone who might not be as passionate about culinary arts, but just appreciates a terrific meal.  It would be a wonderful place for a special occasion, or a way to make a non-occasion special.  I can guarantee it will stay on my radar, and as the menus change seasonally, I am anticipating a return as soon as the spring menu is in play.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com
www.thepolymathchronicles.blogspot.com

NOSH of the Week:  As we head into Passover, the foodiest of foodie holidays, try my new favorite pesach cookies!  These almond macaroons are one of the easiest things I can make, and are completely addictive.  I hope you will try them, and wish you a very happy holiday!

Chewy Almond Macaroons

1 (7-ounce) tube pure almond paste (not marzipan; about 3/4 cup)
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of Kosher salt
2 large egg whites, left at room temperature for at least 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 300°F and place racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Line two large sheet pans with parchment paper.

Pulse almond paste, sugar and salt in a food processor until broken up, then add egg whites and puree until smooth. Transfer batter to pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch tip and pipe 3/4-inch rounds (1/3 inch high) about 1-inch apart in pans. Dip a fingertip in water and gently tamp down any peaks.

Bake, rotating and switching position of pans halfway through, until golden and puffed, 15 to 18 minutes.
Let cookies cool almost completely in their pans. Once cool, they’re much easier to cleanly remove from the parchment. You can make them into sandwich cookies but spreading some jam (I used raspberry) between them or ganache (3 ounces of semi-sweet chips melted with 1 to 2 tablespoons of cream, then left to thicken a bit would be enough to sandwich the whole batch).

Cookies can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a day or two or frozen up to one month.

Nosh Food Read of the Week:   Toast  by Nigel Slater

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An NCAA Bracket with a Jewish twist

 Permanent link
03/15/2010

So, it’s tournament time. Everyone is frantically filling out their brackets, hoping to gain pride and maybe some cash. Everyone has a different strategy for picking the Final Four. Some people pick underdogs, some pick according to mascots, and some pick by using what they think is knowledge yet always end up losing. Well, The Great Rabbino has decided to help you out. TGR is filling out your brackets with a Jewish twist this year. I want to state clearly that I am NOT responsible for you losing your pool. This is just a fun, Jewish, and different way of trying to win your bracket. And remember that God influenced these picks…I am a rabbi-in-training after all.

After tons of extensive research I came up with this crazy and completely illogical system. Picks were considered by the team’s number of Jewish players/coaches, seeding numbers (#1 = God, # 10 = 10 Commandments, etc), the university’s Hillel/Jewish studies programs, the number of Jews on campus, the surrounding city’s Jewish presence, Jewish sports alumni and a slight TGR bias.

MIDWEST REGION ROUND 1
Kansas vs. Lehigh – While Lehigh has a Jewish player, Matt Shamis, all #1 seeds will advance because the number one stands for God.
UNLV vs. Northern Iowa – I believe Northern Iowa was the home to the Rubashkins. UNLV wins by default.
Michigan State vs. New Mexico State – Hank Greenberg’s Michigan roots push MSU ahead to the next round.
Maryland vs. Houston – Maryland boasts one of the best Hillels in the country.
Tennessee vs. San Diego State – Player Steven Pearl gets the Volunteers to round two.
Georgetown vs. Ohio – Even with less Jews on campus Ohio wins by a Hillel.
Oklahoma State vs. Georgia Tech – Neither school is strikingly Jewish, so #10 gets the nod representing the 10 Commandments.
Ohio State vs. Santa Barbra – UCSB has Jordan Weiner, but OSU’s stadium is the Schottenstein center. Jewish home beats out Jewish player.

WEST REGION ROUND 1
Syracuse vs. UVM – The number one stands for God, which is unbeatable (unless it’s Ditka).
Gonzaga vs. Florida State – The Christian school wins this one. Let the interfaith dialogue begin.
Butler vs. UTEP – Butler has better Jewish life on campus.
Vanderbilt vs. Murray State – Vanderbilt’s quick growing Jewish population gets them to round two.
Xavier vs. Minnesota – Sigmund Harris was an All American quarterback at Minnesota and a part of the tribe (yes, that is the best we can do).
Pittsburgh vs. Oakland – Pittsburgh Hillel trumps Oakland’s chances.
BYU vs. Florida – Nimrod Tishman, while not playing much, creates the Jewish/Israeli upset here.
Kansas State vs. North Texas – My regular bracket won’t have this, but my Jewish bracket does. North Texas has a great Jewish studies program and advances.

EAST REGION ROUND 1
Kentucky vs. ETSU – God is one!
Texas vs. Wake Forest – Current Jewish Major Leaguer Scott Feldman plays for the Rangers. Texas pride!
Temple vs. Cornell – TGR is so upset that Jews are playing each other in the first round. Cornell has two and Temple has one, so upset in the making. 
Wisconsin vs. Wofford – Wisconsin is home to tons of Jewish summer camps. Not sure what Wofford is known for.
Marquette vs. Washington – The better Hillel moves on.
New Mexico vs. Montana – Umm…so…I have a Rabbinical School friend from New Mexico?
Clemson vs. Missouri – Numbers system. The #10 Commandments trump the days in a week (#7).
West Virginia vs. Morgan State – UWV at least has a Hille1.

SOUTH REGIONAL ROUND 1
Duke vs. (ARPB/WIN) – #1 God is with Duke and Jon Scheyer.
California vs. Louisville – Last season California had David Liss. His legacy continues.
Texas A&M vs. Utah State – There are more Jews in Texas. That’s a fact.
Purdue vs. Siena – Purdue has a Hillel.
Notre Dame vs. Old Dominion – Continuing our interfaith theme.
Baylor vs. Sam Houston – Baylor has a Hillel.
Richmond vs. St. Mary’s – Mary was a Jew.
Villanova vs. Robert Morris – Seems to be the interfaith region.

MIDWEST REGIONAL ROUND 2
Kansas vs. UNLV – God is still #1.
MSU vs. Maryland – Maryland’s Hillel continues to roll.
Tennessee vs. Ohio – This time it’s Bruce Pearl who leads the way.
GT vs. OSU – Shalom in the Home. OSU marches on.

WEST REGIONAL ROUND 2
Syracuse vs. Gonzaga – Player Brandon Reese pushes ‘Cuse ahead.
Butler vs. Vanderbilt – Vanderbilt’s Jewish studies program trumps Butler.
Minnesota vs. Pittsburgh – The Squirrel Hill faithful keeps Pitt in it.
Florida vs. North Texas – Tishman’s prayers keep them alive.

EAST REGIONAL ROUND 2
Kentucky vs. Texas – God remains on top.
Cornell vs. Wisconsin – Jon Jaques and Eitan Chemerinski help Cornell move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Washington vs. New Mexico – Yikes again. Washington has more Jews?
Missouri vs. West Virginia – Been to Wheeling, WV and it has a nice synagogue.

SOUTH REGIONAL ROUND 2
Duke vs. California – Scheyer will play a huge factor in the tournament. Stay tuned.
Texas A&M vs. Purdue – More Jews on campus.
Notre Dame vs. Baylor – The Hillel beats the Church.
St. Mary vs. Villanova – Mary over her son’s followers.

SWEET SIXTEEN
Kansas vs. Maryland – No Hillel can beat God.
Tennessee vs. OSU – The Pearls cruise.
Syracuse vs. Vanderbilt – Syracuse has Assistant Coach Bernie Fine. Winner!
Pittsburgh vs. Florida – How can Pittsburgh overcome thousands of Jewish bubbes?
Kentucky vs. Cornell – I want to pick Cornell but when Calipari left Memphis it allowed Josh Pastner (Jewish) to move into his coaching spot. So, for Calapari’s act of chesed the Wildcats move into the Elite Eight.
Washington vs. UWV – Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg played fullback for the Steelers, but he was born and raised in UWV (and makes this bracket not totally weird).
Duke vs. Texas A&M – Scheyer keeps them moving.
Baylor vs. St. Mary’s – Lets face it, not too many Jews at St. Mary’s.

ELITE EIGHT
Kansas vs. Tennessee – Finally, I can stop picking Kansas. Tennessee’s Jew power overcomes Kansas.
Syracuse vs. Florida – Coach Fine and benchwarmer Reese carry the Orange into the Final Four.
Kentucky vs. UWV – Calipari’s help makes me want to keep him going.
Duke vs. Baylor – Scheyer is the best Jewish player in this tournament. Period.

FINAL FOUR
Tennessee vs. Syracuse – Both teams have a Jewish player and coach, but Tennessee’s are better.
Kentucky vs. Duke – Jon Scheyer takes the Dukies to the Finals.

CHAMPIONSHIP
Duke vs. Tennessee – Jon Scheyer wins it all.

For more Jewish sports visit www.TheGreatRabbino.com.
And Let Us Say...Amen.

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Is there a benefit to emotional and physical ailments?

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03/12/2010

Have you ever read an article that just sticks with you? I did a couple of weeks ago: Depression’s Upside by Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times.

The article evaluates the theory of psychiatrist Andy Thomson and psychologist Paul Andrews that a “depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit.”

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while: why would we suffer from anything unless there was a purpose or benefit to it?

What should we be learning from emotional or physical ailments and if we know, will we have more control over their outcome.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s necessarily something to learn from every disease, but from some sickness, there must be a greater message that our body is sending us besides expletives.

I used to get stiff necks a lot. It was absolutely miserable. I went to a doctor who told me that my neck was saying, “STOP MOVING ME.” I was forced just to sit it out. It turned out that there were things I could do and have done to significantly reduce the occurrences of neck and back pain (moderate weight lifting and ergonomic changes) but my neck was stiff for a reason to force me to stop moving it, so I wouldn’t do any further damage to it.

Another thing: I’ve never liked foods high in fat. For example, mayonnaise, avocado, macaroni and cheese, whole milk have always disgusted me and made me feel sick. No one could ever understand my strong dislike and physical reaction to the foods. It turns out my body couldn’t process them properly. I was being sent a message even just smelling the Kraft on the counter top or seeing mayo spread on bread: these foods WILL make me sick.

But then there’s the emotional part. How are depression, anxiety and rumination beneficial? According to Thomson and Andrews, it helps us understand situations better and analyze them piece by piece to forge a better outcome. I can buy that for some symptoms, but others, especially my distracting ruminations, only seem like mental clutter and are sometimes even somewhat personally destructive. Why am I burdened by them? Why is anyone burdened by anything?

One might argue that my obsessive thinking helps me pay attention to detail at work and come up with every scenario that could enhance or pitfall a project. Therefore it serves a purpose. If I were in the wild, I’d be constantly on the lookout for danger, and protect myself, family and community.

How our behavior can serve or preserve us can play a role in our interpersonal relationships as well.

I’ve always considered myself a compassionate person. When a person is behaving poorly, I try to think about what caused him/her to act that way. After reading this article, I will add to that, what purpose does it serve said person to act that way. I don’t know if it’s a worthwhile analytical process, but it does make for perhaps a more holistic view on those around me who are acting in a way that is hard for me to understand. It’s also a way to view the self and perhaps to welcome our demons to the table instead of being handicapped by them.

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Flashback to seventh grade

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03/10/2010

Recently, I was going through a pile of old school papers in a box my mom dug up in our basement and I found a piece I wrote back in the seventh grade. Reading it, was a nice walk down memory lane. If you’re feeling nostalgic for your childhood as I’ve been lately, then keep reading. If I do say so myself, I think it  shows amazing promise for little twelve-year-old me, waxing poetic. I think it all still rings true!

Flashback to seventh grade photo

"A Wish” (1991)

"Throw your dream into space like a kite and you do not know what it will bring back... a new life, a new friend, a new love or a new country." -Anais Nin

Let the dream sift away, like a lost memory. Then open your eyes, so you can reveal freedom or equality. Maybe the past or future shows.

Open up yourself. Explore new places. Let your mind just drift away. Then your wish will come true. Let yourself sit on the wish. Hold it with your heart's content. Dream and think about the wish all the time. Involve it, love it, and want it. Make it your best friend. Believe in it completely. Soon, you will be bleeding in a goodness that your desire has let you be. Now you're ready for anything.

When you make a wish, at first you believe it and want it, but then many times wishes get caught in knots, and then float in the deepest sea. A wish will not work this way. It must be kept in your insides, hidden away, but not forgotten. It must be loved. If you let it reside within you, you will soon obtain it. Then it will become real.

Wishes bring a lot. They may show you the future while you remain in the past. They may bring you "a new love, a new country, a new life, or a new friend." They may bring good or bad. Who knows exactly what they may bring. That is up to the dreamer.

When did you first wish for that special thing you longed for? Was it last Monday, a week ago, a month, or even a year ago? Did you forget your wish or did you keep in touch with it? If you forgot about it, you must revive it and bring it back to its full stance. After awhile, you will realize what has happened. The wish has revealed itself and become its true fantasy.

Next time you wish you will have this in mind. You will remember that if you follow these guidelines, your wish could be anything you would like. Then you will see that imagining can bring what you want and need, but only if you believe in it. A wish brings its coming on its own...

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A different kind of exodus

 Permanent link
03/09/2010

A different kind of exodus photo 1

Hanging out at my birthday party with my BFF, Lauren

I wish I could recruit for a new best friend in town.

My closest friend Lauren just moved out of Chicago this winter and returned to her hometown of Miami with her husband and toddling daughter to live near Lauren’s parents. She’s my best friend of 15 years so whoever you are, New Best Friend, you’d have big shoes to fill—literally. Lauren wears a size 11.

I realize my recruitment sounds a bit like Paris Hilton’s MTV reality show called “My New BFF,” in which she auditions people across the world to become her closest pal.

New Best Friend, I promise you this is where the similarities between Paris and me end, and I’ll refrain from using the acronym “BFF” after I finish this column.

But to fill Lauren’s shoes, you’d have to meet high expectations.

Like Lauren, you’d have to be versatile—game for joining me for Cubs games, Oprah shows, Friday night Shabbat services, a range of movies from “Valentine’s Day” to the Michael Jackson documentary, wine tastings, the Art Institute, and, of course, Ghiradelli’s chocolate/ice cream parlor.

You’d laugh at my jokes even when they aren’t funny.

Oh, and when I’m on a blind date, I’d text you from time to time from the bathroom with either a “I like him!” or a “He asked me to pay for his coffee and was mean to the waitress!” Then you’d text back with a loyal and motivating line, either “Yay, can’t wait for the wedding!” or “You’ll write a book about it one day!”

Most of all, like Lauren, you’d just be there for me—and I the same for you.

A different kind of exodus photo 2

Lauren and me…The Graduates.

But even while I’m wishing for a new best friend, I know I’m not alone. After all, Lauren is one of many making an exodus these days.

In fact, Americans are the most mobile people in the world, moving on average every five years so many of us are forced to make new friends, and often. Fittingly, I read this statistic in “Marie Claire” magazine while waiting for a flight at O’Hare to visit loved ones across the country.

American Jews are no exception in this transient society. Recently, I’ve noticed several of my other Jewish friends moving back to their hometowns too after spending their young adult years here in Chicago.

Back when we were 18, it was exciting and a little sad that, for so many of us, growing up meant moving away from our hometowns and families—our nests—to discover who we are as independent adults in big cities like Chicago.

The 2000-2001 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Population Study reports that some 46,000 Jews, ages 22-35, live in the Chicago area, about half of whom, 23,500, weren’t born in Illinois.

We made a home for ourselves in this city, this large melting pot of 20- and 30-something transients. We were each looking for a more urban experience, a city packed with young people, a thriving Jewish community, a compelling career, and maybe a Jewish mate.

But now, as we settle into the next stages of life, some of us are leaving the big city behind—returning home to raise kids near family, taking better job opportunities, and embarking on suburban life. That’s also both exciting (especially for grandparents) and a little sad too.

Now that I think about it, though, maybe I don’t need to find a new best friend. After all, there’s Skype, there’s e-mail, there’s good old-fashioned phones, and airplanes too.

It’s a fact of life that people move away. But if you’re lucky, your closest friends will stay with you forever—they’ll still be there for you no matter where they live.

Want to make some new friends on Passover? Join Sidney N. Shure Kehilla for the first 1st Night Young Adult Seder on Monday, March 29, 7pm @ Temple Sholom 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive  $25 before March 20, $36 after at  www.shurekehilla.org   Kosher for Passover Dietary Laws observed.  Open to all Jewish backgrounds.

For more info, email  Kehilla@gojcc.org or call 224-974-9090.  Sponsored by Sidney N. Shure Kehilla - Making Jewish Connections in Chicago for those in their 20s & 30s!  Sidney N. Shure Kehilla is a partnership of JCC of Chicago, Anshe Emet, Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, Temple Sholom of Chicago, Emanuel Congregation, and Or Chadash.

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Spring Cleaning

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03/08/2010

Spring Cleaning photo

Fridays are frenetic, frantic and leave me frizzled! I run around like a maniac so that I can rush home to make an elaborate dinner for my family and friends. I don’t usually question if I could be doing a better job of “doing a Friday,” I just accept it and run around trying to make it all happen.

Several weeks ago I had a weak moment. I woke up on Friday morning at 5 a.m. and ran downtown to my kitchen at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, got my work done, jumped back in the car and sped up north to pick up my son Jonah from school and stopped at the grocery store to get the few items I needed to round out the Shabbat meal. All was going well…until the trip to the store—I bought a challah! I had not started my dough that morning or Thursday night. I was tired, frazzled, fschizzled (as Jonah would say) and just not in the mood.

Let me say before I go on—we always have homemade challah on Friday night. It’s like the mail service—through snowstorm, blinding rain, extreme heat and whatever else….we will have homemade challah. Except that one day.

The challah was made at a local kosher bakery and shipped directly to my regular grocery haunt. I knew something was wrong the second I picked up the offending item. It was light as a feather. Too light. Not normal. I was rushing and blowing through the store—I had no choice.

Table set, dinner ready, dessert divine (as always) and the challah was really scaring me. It was unnaturally brown but without the crust, it weighed next to nothing and smelled faintly of fake vanilla. You know that smell, the one that is usually associated with soft serve ice cream. Sort of vanilla-y, but not really.

Candles, blessings, wine etc….and the moment of truth. Awful! No texture, no density, no flavor other than the fake vanilla and worst of all, NO SOUL! We joked about it, discussed whether or not I was losing “it” and ate the meal. I was seriously upset. I bought another one the next week as an experiment (I made the real one). I inspected it closely. It was made up of a fine network of gluten strands and air. I pushed it down and it made a ‘swoosh” sound and bounced back up. I did it again and the same thing happened. Over and over again the challah defied the laws of physics. I put it back in its plastic bag and enjoyed the dinner with our homemade challah.

I sort of forgot about the challah until a few days ago. I had stuck it in the microwave (to me it is a bread box-I never use it) out of sight, out of mind.

The challah had not changed. It was still the same. It did not mold and still defied physics. This was one sturdy little challah, which is not normal and not good.

In Chicago we boast a major Jewish community. Why can’t we get a decent kosher bakery? The breads have no heart. I buy breads for events all the time. It is hit or miss. I am concerned as to why we don’t have an artisanal bakery. I am thinking of gorgeous baguettes all crispy and crusty and NATURAL brown colored. How about challot that are dense and heavy with eggs, bread flour, honey and natural fats-say oil for example? This is a trend folks. Not a fad. Great bread is in! A good baguette is the new black this year. How about it? When did the amber waves of grain become synonymous with soulless, artificially flavored puffballs of dough? Am I the only one who is upset by this? Does anyone else see the difference in the great breads out in the world and the wretched loaves we get? Seriously, walk by a bakery or look one up on line, call me for examples and check out what everyone else is eating.

As we approach Pesach and purge our kitchens from flour and grains, we also should do some serious spring cleaning of another kind. Let’s all agree to stop eating what isn’t good for us, doesn’t taste wonderful and is made with less than great products. Just because it has a hechsher does not mean it is quality.

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The Spain Diet

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03/04/2010

The Spain Diet photo 1

What if I told you, you could eat bread, pizza, potatoes, wine and pastries and still be thin? Oh, and you can eat dinner at 10 p.m. Carbs, alcohol, sugar and some more carbs do not add up to a diet most people think of as healthy. Dr. Atkin’s would be shocked.

I just got home from a once in a lifetime vacation to Spain with my wife. We had an amazing trip filled with walking, sightseeing and food. Hey, a trainer on vacation can eat chocolate. Okay, so I didn’t just eat chocolate; I ate a waffle covered in chocolate. At least I didn’t add the gelato. What surprised me the most, aside from the amazing Gaudi architecture, was the way people ate. A typical Spanish diet:

Breakfast 10 a.m.:
Coffee and a roll with butter and ham

Lunch 2 p.m.:
Fish, rice, veggies, wine
Followed by Siesta (nap)

Snack 5 pm:
Pastry and a Coke (10 ounces)

Dinner 9-10pm:
Tapas: fried salted potatoes, bacon wrapped around pretty much anything, a small salad with lettuce, chicken, tomato
2-3 glasses of wine

In all of Spain, I saw five overweight people, and two of them were wearing Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia. Most Europeans were thin, eating a diet high in carbohydrates and light on the protein. Now this is not a horrible diet, but not remotely close to what you would think a fit person would eat. Side note, I don’t condone drinking at lunch or eating fried foods (I am a sucker for a good pastry though). At this point, you are probably asking yourself, why are the folks of Barcelona so skinny?

The Spain Diet photo 2

The biggest, number one, most important detail you should walk away with after reading this is you need to have an active lifestyle. At 9 p.m. on a Monday night, the streets were flooded with people of all ages. The only time the streets were quiet was during siesta. People were not sitting in front of the tube waiting for Gossip Girl; they were out, walking around. A few other important things I noticed:

• NO CORN SYRUP IN SPAIN (not in the Coke, not in the chocolate…)
• 2-5 is Siesta time, people eat, sleep and then go back to work
• Public transportation is great but the stations are huge requiring lots of walking
• Every few blocks there is a little market selling fruit and vegetables

Aside from the massive amount of bacon and ham, there’s not a lot of processed food. There’s a big debate about whether high fructose corn syrup is good or bad for you, but in general, if you avoid products with corn syrup you’re eating less processed food, which is definitely better for you.

The Spain Diet photo 3

Spanish food was calling my name

Let me wrap this up—get moving! It doesn’t matter if it’s at the gym, on the street or around town. Get together with some friends and cook a great meal. I might be interpreting this wrong, but siesta time reduces stress, so look for ways of reducing your stress— meditate, drink some relaxing tea or just take a nap. Adios!

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My trip to Belgrade

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03/03/2010

My trip to Belgrade photo 1

Ariel with Rabbi Isak Asie, Serbia’s only rabbi

I recently returned from a whirlwind visit to Belgrade, Serbia.  I ended up in Belgrade sort of randomly, after my friend Marissa invited me to join her for a weekend in Athens.  We were discussing adding on to our trip in Europe, and Belgrade quickly became our number one choice; Marissa works for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications in Boston and one of her accounts is the Serbian Import and Expert Promotion Agency (check out an editorial she helped get placed in the NYT).

At first mention of Serbia, I thought of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).  As an employee of JUF, it’s extremely important to me to see how the dollars we raise are used.  About half of the money JUF raises each year stays in Chicago and the other half is distributed abroad (mainly through two organizations, JDC and JAFI, the Jewish Agency for Israel).  The JDC works in over 70 countries today, rescuing Jews in danger, providing relief to those in distress (they are doing amazing work in Haiti right now), revitalizing overseas Jewish communities, and helping Israel overcome the social challenges of its most vulnerable citizens.  I know what JDC is all about through my work, but wanted to see it in action.

Prior to my visit to Belgrade, I emailed Ela, the JDC contact in Belgrade, who went above and beyond to make sure that Marissa and I had everything arranged for our trip.  In addition to agreeing to show us around, she offered to book our hotel, pick us up from the airport and arrange a tour for us around the city!

My trip to Belgrade photo 3

Ariel (right) and Marissa with Ela

The Jewish community in former Yugoslavia was majorly affected during WWII and about 60,000 Jews were killed in this region.  Roughly 10,000 Jews lived in Belgrade before the Holocaust, and only around 2,000 Jews presently reside there.  The only synagogue in Belgrade today was used as a night club and brothel during WWII.  Our first stop on the Jewish Belgrade tour was this synagogue (Beit Haknesset Sukat Shalom) which also serves as a community center offering programs for the older adult community (which serves many Holocaust survivors), adult/student/youth activities (clubs and weekend programs), a kosher kitchen (the only kosher kitchen in Belgrade), and the center of Jewish activities in Belgrade.  While at the center, we met with the program coordinators, attended an elderly event with a comedian (although we couldn’t understand the jokes since they were in Serbian, we heard it was very funny), purchased local crafts made by some of the women in the community, and ate lunch with several of the leaders in the Jewish community.

My trip to Belgrade photo 2

Ariel (right) with the Belgrade synagogue’s program coordinators

We also had the incredible opportunity of not only meeting Serbia’s only rabbi, but spending most of the day with him.  Rabbi Isak Asiel serves as the community’s leader; running the services, butchering animals, conducting funerals, teaching classes, and serving as a public figure for the Jewish community.  We went with the rabbi to pick his daughter up from school and ended up on a tour of an old Jewish area in Belgrade.  Remnants of Jewish artifacts and writings can be found in the neighborhoods that were once predominately Jewish.  We passed a public school and the rabbi showed us a plaque that read “The computer lab in this school is donated and supported by JDC.”  I was shocked and proud to see the far-reaching scope of JDC’s efforts.  I was impressed to see JDC on the wall of this public school providing non-sectarian long-term development assistance in Belgrade.  The rabbi then began to tell me some of the specific things that JDC supports in the Jewish community, including financial assistance for the synagogue remodeling and money for Shabbat dinners, and I was beyond impressed.  Our tour ended with a visit to a mosque.  The rabbi wanted to stop by and introduce us to his good friend the imam.  As we walked back to the synagogue, he told us how important it is to him to build relationships with the Muslim and other minority communities.

The Jewish community in Belgrade has come a long way, yet there is still a lot of work to do moving forward.  I was impressed to see that despite the many challenges (including the Holocaust and the hardships of living in a nation plagued by many wars in the 1990s) the Jewish community in Belgrade is fighting to remain strong.  In recent years they have worked to create an amazing community center and programs that strengthen individual and collective Jewish identity.

This community’s hospitality and welcoming attitude toward us epitomized the strength of the Jewish community worldwide.  I have never felt so comfortable and welcome anywhere in the world, besides Israel.  This reminds me of the saying: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (All Israel is responsible for one another).”  Not only does this saying describe the way we were treated in Belgrade, this exemplifies the mission of JDC and how they operate.  The work that JDC conducts daily exemplifies the Jewish way of thought, the idea that we are responsible for one another.  I am proud to be a part of a community that cares for people worldwide and feel fortunate to have had the experience to visit the unique and wonderful Jewish community in Belgrade.

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Our “Greatest Generation”

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03/02/2010

My grandfather, who had celebrated his 100th birthday last November, died this February. I was asked to speak at his funeral.

In preparing my grandfather’s eulogy, I recalled what I knew of his life’s story: Born in the Old Country. Lost most of his family to the Holocaust, which he survived by escaping a labor camp and fleeing to the woods. Married, then moved to a displaced person’s camp, where my mother was born. Immigrated to America, worked as a carpenter while my grandmother took in boarders. Ultimately had four daughters, all of whom graduated college and started their own families.

A remarkable story, yet I had heard so many like it in my own lifetime that I wondered if I should even tell it at the funeral. Hasn’t a similar story— Holocaust survivor comes to America and starts a new life— already been the subject of endless movies, plays and memoirs?

Which is when it dawned on me— the reason we take that generation’s resiliency so for granted may be that it seems so typical. My grandfather’s story is all the more remarkable for being so common.

Sure. To us, now. But at the time, it could have gone either way.

At the time, there was no guarantee that the Holocaust survivors would be able to rebuild their lives. But today, we have heard story after story of Holocaust survivors thriving in their new country.

We hear, again and again, the tale of those who went to the nascent nation of Israel and “made the desert bloom.” We hear, over and over, the saga of those who got trapped behind the Iron Curtain and kept the sparks of Judaism alive under the smothering Soviet flag.

While we see these outcomes as inevitable now, none of them were guaranteed at the time… any more than there was a guarantee that America would have survived the Great Depression, or that Hitler would have lost.

The American generation— millions of whom are Jewish— who did endure the Depression and defeat Hitler is now known as the “Greatest Generation,” in part thanks to a book about them by Tom Brokaw. And their achievements are certainly remarkable. But my grandfather, while their contemporary, was not part of that story. He spent the 1930s in then-Czechoslovakia, and he did not arrive in America until after WWII was over.

But that only means that he is part of a different “Greatest Generation.” Millions of Jews fought for survival within the death camps, fought armies to establish Israel, and fought oppression in the Soviet Union. They were not necessarily American, but these astonishing people also found deep reservoirs of hope and resourcefulness in hellish situations.

Few of these Jews are known by name, but cumulatively, they form a generation worthy of reverence. The fact that there are so many Jews with these stories does not render them cliché at all. It elevates them to the level of historic significance.

Together, these are not stories of what some Jewish people did. This is the story of what The Jewish People did.

Certainly, the achievement of enduring the Depression to defeat the Nazis is equaled by that of enduring to the Holocaust to build new lives in America and a new country in Israel. Apologies to Mr. Brokaw, but Jews of non-American extraction also have a Greatest Generation.

A man comes to a new land with his new family… he does not speak the language… all of his children become self-sufficient. Within one generation, a regeneration.

Maybe the story is common. But there is no reason it had to be, and it is therefore a thousand times more awe-inspiring for being common. As often as this story is repeated, it never fails to impress.

I miss my grandfather. Maybe he was not an historic figure like JFK or Walter Cronkite, cited in Brokaw’s book. Or even Elie Wiesel or a David Ben-Gurion. But my grandfather’s efforts, alongside those of the millions of Jews like him, stand as an eternal inspiration. He was part of a Greatest Generation, too… parallel in time, equal in honor.

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To my brother

 Permanent link
Thank you for volunteering to defend our country.
03/01/2010

To my brother photo 1

Aaron’s deployment ceremony

On February 22nd, 2010 Operation Enduring Freedom, the current U.S. war in Afghanistan, surpassed the Revolutionary War as the longest war in American history.  I am sure those who read the articles marking the occasion found it to be a sobering reminder that our troops have been in harms way for over eight years.  Personally, that reality flashed on my radar screen about five months ago.  My older brother, Aaron, volunteered for the National Guard a few years back and at the end of last summer he received deployment orders for February of 2010.

The challenging part for me hasn’t been the possibility that he might miss my wedding, scheduled for later this year—I can always Skype him into the ceremony if he does not get permission for leave.  It hasn’t been getting time off to visit with him before he leaves—I feel great about having used some vacation days to visit with him last December and to attend his deployment ceremony in mid-February.  It hasn’t even been managing the heightened level of stress that my family is experiencing—all of us are feeling a sense of urgency to get in some quality time before he goes.

It’s figuring out the best way to say goodbye that’s been the challenge for me.  Certainly I don’t want to talk about the unthinkable.  At the same time, the fear is real that my brother may not come back.  But I just do not feel right acting as if I may never see him again.  What good does it do anyone to expect anything less than my brother’s safe return home?  I certainly do not want to be the one to put that on him.

What follows is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Aaron when we were traveling together to visit family this past December.

To my brother photo 2

Andy (right) with his brother, Aaron

December 25, 2009

Dear Aaron,

Thank you for volunteering to defend our country.  I wanted to write to let you know that I am proud of what you are doing.  I think that it is brave to volunteer to serve in the military; I think it is even braver to follow your dream.  I can tell that this is the mission you have always dreamed of completing.  I know it has been hard for us to make time to spend with each other over the years, but I have still been keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.  I will continue to do so while you are overseas…

…Please take care of yourself and do everything necessary to keep yourself and those who are serving with you safe.   I am confident that you are in good hands and capable leadership.  I know that you will do whatever is necessary to get the job done and return home safely.  Below is a prayer for travelers.  Even if you don’t read it, I hope that you will keep it close to your heart and on your mind.

“ May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, to sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace.  Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world.  Bless the work of your hands.  May we find grace, love, and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all who see us.  Hear our supplication, for You listen to prayer and supplication.  Praised are You, Lord who hears prayer.”

Love your brother,
Andy

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