OyChicago blog

Meet Matt Matros, owner of Protein Bar

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03/31/2011

Meet Matt Matros photo 1  

I recently sat down and interviewed a fellow health nut and owner of Protein Bar, Matt Matros. This was very exciting for me, as I love Protein Bar. It’s not too often I find a spot that offers amazing food that’s low in fat and calories, high in protein, and for a great value. The funny thing is, I sent Matt an email when he first opened with a few suggestions and he remembered me! While chatting, I realized just how passionate Matt is about nutrition and his staff.

How did you become a health nut?
My whole life I was fat. I got all the jokes, the nicknames, and being named Matt did not help. When I was 22 I decided, enough. I changed my diet to low carb- high protein and started exercising. I dropped 50 pounds in one summer. The items we sell are what I ate to drop my weight.

How did you research what’s healthy?
That’s a hard question to answer. The word healthy means so many different things to different people. For me, it means eating closer to the source, less processed. I worked at Kraft managing a cheese business and everything is so processed.

We also recently added a great nutritionist to our staff. Dawn Jackson Blatner is an incredible nutritionist and author. She has worked with the Cubs, USA Today, NBC, ABC, and the list goes on.

When are you not eating healthy?
I try to eat healthy all the time and fight the urge [to cheat]. I thought I could eat a little unhealthy occasionally, but it’s all or nothing. It’s hard to only eat a little. I like to go to nice restaurants with friends, and it’s challenging to be good. I try to order lean meats with veggies.

What are three healthy eating tips for our readers?
1) Read the labels. Be aware of what’s in a serving, fat, sugar, protein, calories...

2) Portion size is key. When I first started to get healthy, I would automatically toss aside a third of my food. Portion sizes are out of control.

3) Not all calories are equal. There are good fats (avocado) and bad fats (transfat) and the same goes for carbohydrates. The trick is learning which is which and eat accordingly.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about Protein Bar?
I just received an email from a woman who said we should change our name. I wrote back, Pottery Barn doesn’t sell pottery. The truth is, we are starting to outgrow our name. When we first opened I thought we were going to sell protein shakes and some food items. After six months, we noticed a need for more food items. The customers have really taken to our food. We are slowly becoming a burrito place. We are trying to give people what they want, and fill a void in the market. 

Meet Matt Matros photo 2 

What is Quinoa and why is yours so good?
Quinoa is the highest non-meat protein. It’s considered by many, a perfect food as it contains all the essential amino acids. It’s also gluten free and lower in calories then pasta. I feel like other restaurants are going to start selling it more.

Meet Matt Matros photo 3 

What’s been the hardest part to opening your own restaurant?
Managing a staff is probably the hardest thing. You have to keep track of so many different things. I’m lucky the staff here has been great. We have had very little turnover the past year. Many of the people on my staff have other jobs—he’s a photographer, she’s a dancer, she’s an actress—they all need to do something to do during the day and I’m glad I found them.

You’re opening up three new locations, how are you able to grow so fast?
Again, we’re just giving the customer what they want. There’s been a void in the market and we’re happy to fill it. I really try and listen to customer feedback. Our new locations will have more space. We are hoping to expand our offerings.

Word association:
Buff: Schwarzenegger, hey I grew up in LA
Fat: Me at 22
Whey: Our best protein
Cookie: Delicious-hot-chewy-gooey (he’s still human)
Carrot: Beta Carotene, good for the eyes and skin- and juicing! We are going to do juicing in our new locations.

If you are looking for a healthy lunch on the go, check out Protein bar! The menu has a lot of great options for even the pickiest eater. My recommendation:

Bangkok Bar-rito
All-natural chicken or tofu,
snap peas, almonds, housemade
Sesame Ginger
dressing, and our Super
6 Salad Mix
455 Cal, 31g Protein, 12g Fiber, 4g Sat Fat, 3g Sugar 

Are there healthy restaurants you want to tell us about?

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Who’s a master now?

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03/30/2011

Who’s a master now photo

On March 27 I graduated with a Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies—MAJPS for short—from the Spertus Institute in Chicago. It’s a mouthful to say, so instead I’ve taken to telling people I’m now a “master” Jewish professional.

After giving up my Monday nights for two years, and pouring my heart and soul into my final project, I’ve finally reached the finish line. Do I really feel like a master of anything? I’m not so sure.

Does working full-time at a Jewish organization and studying Jewish life in my free time make me a master? Does reading a lot of material and writing a lot of papers about Jewish communal life, history, culture, education, leadership, philosophy (the list goes on), make me a master? What about networking with and learning from Jewish communal professionals in Chicago and experts throughout the country? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am definitely a more educated, better connected and happier Jewish professional—and I made a lot of great friends along the way.

The MAJPS program, in addition to providing courses on relevant issues in contemporary Jewish life and links back to Jewish civilization and culture, brings diverse groups of Jewish professionals together to study in cohorts of about 15 to 20 students. We studied everything from Israeli dancing to the Jews of Early Modern Venice, from grant writing to the future of the American Jewish community.

For me it wasn’t just the rich topics or in-depth seminars with experts in the field that made the program; it was going through these courses and seminars with my cohort that created such a meaningful experience.

We are a small, but mighty, group—some of us work at overnight camps, others at day schools, synagogues, Federation, plus a few brave souls who are hoping to make the transition into Jewish communal work. Though we range in age, and are all at different points in our lives and careers, we somehow blended into a family over the past two years. We challenged each other to think deeper and reach higher, we encouraged and motivated each other—okay, sometimes more like whined and complained to one another—to keep going when we felt like we just couldn’t write another paper, and most importantly, we celebrated milestones and supported each other during difficult times.

Having this type of camaraderie in an educational setting is both a unique and wonderful experience, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of an opportunity like this one.

And now, here we are—we’ve received our diplomas and thrown our caps up in the air. But where do we go from here?

Maybe being a master has nothing to do with actually mastering material or writing papers. Maybe it’s a charge. A challenge. To never stop learning, to have a thirst for knowledge and understanding of the Jewish community that can never be quenched. To always make the time to continue learning. To strive for bigger and better.

Maybe these past two years, Monday night classes were our training wheels. They kept our minds sharp and our wheels turning. We were preparing for the real task at hand—now that we are equipped with all this knowledge, what will we choose to do with it?

And maybe, now that the program has ended and our training wheels have been removed, those of us who can somehow steer our community into the future will become the real masters.

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How to kvetch in Yiddish

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03/29/2011

In today’s lesson, we will learn how to kvetch properly. These are Yiddish adjectives with which we can correctly complain. We will learn the words to accurately describe how we are disappointed by life, people, politics, entertainment, food and the world around us.

Cacamamie— Ridicuolus, dismissable: “Whose cacamamie idea was ‘ninja turtles’?”

Chaloshes— Disgusting, ratty, neauseating: “I refuse to watch those chaloshes zombie movies.”

Farblonget— Bludgeoned, beaten down: “Our poor, farblonget team got shut out again.”

Farfallen— Fallen in, collapsed, trashed, totalled: “After the scandal, his political career was farfallen.”

Ferdrimmeled— Daydream-y, lost in reverie: “I get ferdrimmeled looking at old yearbooks.”

Fershlugginer— Slugged, sucker-punched: “Oy, look at that dent in your fershlugginger car.”

Ferschnoshked— Schnockered, drunk: “That holiday is just as excuse to get ferschnoshked.”

Foilishtik— Foolish, based on poor reasoning or information: “I can’t believe you listen to that foilishtik pundit.”

Hitsik— Hot-headed, short-fused, quick-tempered: “I won’t let my puppy play with that crazy, hitsik dog up the block.”

Ibberbuttel— Forgetful, addled: “Of course you’re ibberbuttel; you have five kids to keep track of!”

Kop’drayenish— Head-spinning, befuddling, over-complicated: “I can’t make heads or tails of these kop’dreynish insurance forms.”

Parve— Wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, noncommittal: “The award votes always leave you with the most parve winners.”

Prust— Coarse, unrefined, boorish: “We’re going to a nice place— you can’t wear those prust hiking boots.”

Shvach— Weak, weary, exhausted; bland, insubstantial, unremarkable: “The soup needs salt or something; it’s very shvach.”

Tzechisht— Distraught, upset, beside oneself: “Every time my baby gets sick, I get so tzechisht I call her doctor constantly.”

Ungebloozen— Surly, pouty: “I see— so ‘emo’ is basically ‘ungebloozen’ as a fashion statement.”

Ungepotchkied— Overdone, over-decorated, overdressed: “That pop star has way more talent for wearing ungepotchkied outfits than she does for singing.”

Next Up: How to praise— adjectives of approval of things and situations.

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Climbing to 60?

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03/28/2011

Early in March, I was speaking with my mom on the phone to let her know we had cleared a Sunday in our schedule to celebrate her birthday together.  My mom has six kids and we had arranged for four of us to free up our schedule along with our respective spouses and significant others.  My mom is in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just over the border from Illinois.  I asked her to think about what might be fun for her to do.  She could come down to Chicago; we could go up there. We were leaving it completely up to her.  It was her 60th and we wanted it to be special.

About a week later, I missed a call from my mom and about dropped the phone when I checked the voicemail.  “Hi, it’s Mom, I was thinking for Sunday that we could go to lunch and then maybe I had this idea that we could go rock-climbing, so if you could look up some places to go rock climbing nearby I thought we could do that, ok? Bye.”

I had to listen to it twice, just to make sure I heard it right.  Rock climbing?  When I said, come visit Chicago, I was thinking we would go to a museum, or spend some time at Navy Pier, shop the Mag Mile, if we were really feeling crazy.  Rock climbing?  Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s in reasonable health and to be honest, I don’t often think of her as all that old, but rock climbing?  Was this a joke?  I wondered if I should suggest other things in the hopes of talking her out of this activity.

“What’s the matter,” she retorted, when I called her back the next day, “do you think I’m too old?”  I quickly realized that I had asked her in a way that showed that I had doubts.  This was not a joke.  My mom wanted to mark her 60th year on earth by putting on a harness and scaling a wall.  I hung up and went to work on finding a place for us to have an excursion.

Sunday the 13th (just a few days before my mom’s actual birthday), we met at Slice of Life in Skokie.  My mom, my three sisters, two of their boyfriends, my wife, and me all sat around the table.  Jamie, Jenny, Natalie, Phil, Alex, Rose and me all chatted about this and that until Jamie asked, “So what are you guys doing after this?”  Jamie found out later about the gathering – I had neglected to fill her in on all of the plans.

When we filled her in that we were headed up to Adventure Rock, (www.adventurerock.com) near Milwaukee, she asked, “Have you ever gone rock climbing Mom?”

My mom assured us that she had a lifetime worth of experience climbing all kinds of rocks outside and was quite confident in her ability to scamper up walls.  Scamper?  I immediately had an image in my head of some kind of a large rodent that had my mom’s face scampering up the side of some cliff out in the wilderness somewhere.  It made me laugh.  We poked fun at the idea of scampering for the rest of meal, paid the bill, and started on our way up to Adventure Rock.

Adventure Rock turned out to be pretty great place for climbers of all skill levels.  There were all kinds of ropes and clips that climbers could use.  There were many walls of all sizes.  As we put on our harnesses and got a quick lesson in how to use the ropes, I gazed up to the top of a 20 foot wall, and drifted off for a second.  It occurred to me why I wanted to talk my mom out of this in the first place.  I’m afraid of heights.  I get dizzy standing on a chair to get the blender down from the top cabinet.  I’m terrified of high places.  My mom, on her 60th birthday, was about to school me on a rock climbing wall.  More accurately, just about everyone in Adventure Rock was about to school me.

Climbing to 60? photo 

I remember for my 25th birthday, I was working with someone who had the exact same birthday as me, only she was turning 19 that day.  She was in college, full of hope, life, and excitement.  I was 25, getting my first grey hairs, and full of my quarter life crisis.  Cliché as it may sound, I felt old, wondering if I would ever experience those blissful days of youth again.  Since getting old, though, I have tried a variety of things from running races to taking chances at work to traveling to exciting places in order to challenge myself.  By staying challenged, I have felt less like I was aging and more like I was living.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I sensed that she was looking for such a challenge when she clipped her carabineer to her harness and scampered up about a dozen different walls.  She made it look easy, not surprising, though.  After all, it was her birthday, but who would have guessed it was her 60th?

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The Jewish picks for the 2011 MLB season

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03/25/2011

The Jewish picks for the 2011 MLB season photo

Ryan Braun

I can feel the excitement in the air…baseball season is almost upon us. The North Siders, might be up for another disappointing year (especially with the news of Ryne Sandberg being betrayed), but my beloved White Sox look solid— just waiting for Jake Peavy to return and for Adam Dunn to hit 50 homers. But there is plenty of baseball to be played (actually an entire season). There will most likely be a new World Champion. Records to be broken. Hot dogs to be eaten. Stadiums to visit. And betting to begin. Here are my Jewish picks for the upcoming 2011 MLB Season (Remember, this isn't what I actually think, it’s the Jewish prediction.)

AL Central:
Let us start with my division, the home of the Chicago White Sox. Of course, I am picking my Sox. How are they Jewish? Seriously? Jerry Reinsdorf the owner. He has seven championships between the Sox and Bulls and this could be another ring type season. Danny Valencia and company will keep the Twins close as usual. The emergence of Jason Kipnis and Jason Knapps might come up through the far system and be a boost for the Indians.

The TGR Jewish prediction: White Sox, Twins, Indians, Tigers, Royals.

AL East:
The Yankees added the White Sox bench players (Garcia, Jones, and Colon). While the Red Sox added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Which is great news for Theo Epstein. Well done. Ryan Kalish will also hopefully get a real shot. The Orioles didn't do much on the Jewish front. The Rays added Sam Fuld which indirectly might lift them into the playoff race. The Blue Jays remained Jew-less.

The TGR Jewish prediction: Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles.

AL West:
The Rangers are last year's AL Champs. They lost Vlad and added Beltre. Most importantly for our discussion are Ian Kinsler and Scott Feldman. The Angels might be on their way down and the As seem to be going in the other direction. Hopefully, for our sake the youth pays off and Craig Breslow continues to be the best Jewish pitcher in baseball. The Mariners are without any Jews and really any hope.

TGR Jewish prediction: Rangers, As, Angels, Mariners.

NL Central:
This race is a total mess. But we give the edge to Ryan Braun and his new pitching staff. Pujols and the Cardinals will be a threat and the Reds should continue their momentum from last season. The Cubs have John Grabow. The Pirates and Astros will really need to mature to be a threat at all.

TGR Jewish prediction: Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Cubs, Astros, Pirates.

NL East:
The Jewish pick is not easy here. The Nationals and Mets carry Jewish players (Jason Marquis and Ike Davis). Most sites will place them at the bottom, while the Phillies look to be indestructible. The Marlins and Braves will use their solid and impressive youth to compete. The Marlins are my second favorite team for embarrassing the Cubs and Steve Bartman. But true to our site I will be bold and go yid.

TGR Jewish prediction: Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Nationals, Braves.

NL West:
The Giants are the champs. But not in this year’s TGR bracket. We have the Dodgers with the addition of Gabe Kapler. The rest doesn't really matter to us unless the Padres call up Aaron Poreda (huge fan). Let us say they do. So they become our NL Wild Card. The Diamondbacks need to figure things out. The Rockies will drop down as well.

TGR Jewish prediction: Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rockies, Diamondback.

Playoffs? Playoffs?

AL - Red Sox over Rangers. White Sox over Rays.
NL - Brewers over Padres. Dodgers over Mets.

AL - Red Sox over White Sox.
NL - Brewers over Dodgers.

World Series - We finally see Braun and Youkilis head to head. TGR goes with the Youk and the Red Sox as World Series Champions.

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

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(a)Live from Jerusalem

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03/24/2011

Jewish community leadership statement on Jerusalem bombing photo

I was in the kitchen, dreaming absentmindedly while washing meat dishes, when I heard it. An explosion, ricocheting solidly from within.

My mind raced ahead, as it tends to do, imagining-Could it be? A suicide bomber? A bus? Here?

C’mon, I reasoned with myself, you would hear ambulances and sirens and police cars if it was.

And then I heard them. A couple of minutes later. Maybe one or two at first, and then many, many ambulances continuously driving by, sirens blaring. Close by. Repeatedly.

Well, who knows, I reasoned again, it could be a lot of things.

The sirens kept going.

I grabbed my winter coat, wanting to get to the bottom of this, slipping on my Naot sandals, and walked down the street that overlooked the bigger highway road, searching for signs. Clues. I saw the ambulances race by, and a couple of guys hurriedly running towards the direction of the noise. Are they going to help? I wondered? Should I go?

I watched people’s faces as they walked past me, looking at their cell phones, casually walking by. Nothing for certain. I turned around and returned home.

Scouring the Israeli news sites for any breaking news, I found nothing. I went back to washing dishes, determined to keep on with my life, my body starting to shake, imagining myself outside myself, others looking in, looking in at my life, knowing. What a story.

Ten minutes later, I checked again. And there it was: “Suspected bus bombing, in Jerusalem” it screamed. 15 minutes away from my home, in the direction of the sirens. I burst into tears, unable to control myself. I was shocked, yet I had known all along. My first time in Jerusalem experiencing a terrorist attack.

Everyone was shocked. The streets were somber; all eyes glued to their TV sets and computer screens, waiting to hear more. What to think? What to do?

Understandably, we may look for signs of safety from the outside world. But the true signs of safety are not from out there. Our anxiety will never be fully alleviated by the outside world. There is no fool-proof, bullet-proof land to run to. Freak accidents happen at every moment, at every socioeconomic level, in every country around the world. Heart attacks, random choking episodes, tsunamis. You name it.

The point, however, is not that we could die at any moment. The point is that we could live at any moment. The point is that we are alive.

We must look for the signs of safety from within.

“You’re still here!”your heart screams, celebrating with joy, every time it pounds within you. “You’re still alive!”

You gotta admit it, God is pretty determined to keep the Jewish people going, even though on paper we should have logically been drafted out a long time ago.

Against our will we are sustained, and against all rational, sensible odds, we triumph. How it always was and how it always will be.

If you listen closely enough to the history of the world, this is the story. THIS is the natural order of things. Every Jewish holiday, the joke goes, is basically the same: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

Terrorist attacks actually remind us that the world is not chaotic after all. They reveal the deeper, truer reality. That there is a storyline here. That life is predictable. That we were put on this Earth to live. As Jews.

It is the terrorist’s dream to make us forget our supernatural, miraculous existence. It’s that simple.

To children who are trying to act up for attention, there is nothing more frustrating than adults who ignore them. There is nothing more aggravating to terrorists than civilians who refuse to stop living and laughing and loving and believing. Who refuse to leave their land.

We, the civilians, the men on the ground who he is targeting, the ones whose attention he craves, will treat him like the child that he is and ignore him, while he sulks and throws tantrums in the corner, as we go about our day. As we keep on walking.

We are not dealing with rational minds here and we don’t need to play their games. Of course, we must play by the rules. We must be cautious and intelligent, and upgrade on the military security efforts and speak up and protest and make sure that never again is never again.

But most importantly, when Shabbat comes, when the Bar Mitzvahs come, we must sing more absolutely than we ever have before, looking around and smiling at the precious people around us. Utterly calm. Entirely safe.

It’s our birthright, it’s our history. It’s our religion and it’s our story. No terrorist can take that away from us. And it eats him up inside.

So let him seethe. Let us dance.

Against our will we are sustained, and against all rational, sensible odds, we triumph. We cannot and will not stop our hearts from beating.

The point is not that we could die at any moment. The point is that we could live at any moment.

So let’s live. As Jews. Let’s live.

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Jewish community leadership statement on Jerusalem bombing

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03/23/2011

Jewish community leadership statement on Jerusalem bombing photo

Emergency personnel responding to the scene of a bomb explosion near a bus station in the center of Jerusalem, March 23.

Speaking on behalf of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Skip Schrayer, Chairman, and Steven B. Nasatir, President, have issued the following statement on today’s bus bombing in Jerusalem:

“We were saddened and appalled to learn of the terrorist bombing that took place in the heart of downtown Jerusalem earlier today and that, as of the latest reports, has taken the life of a 59-year-old woman. As of earlier reports, a bomb that had been left near a busy bus stop in one of the most crowded areas of Jerusalem exploded, with nearly 30 people wounded, three or four of them seriously. We mourn the death of the murdered woman. We pray for the swift and complete recovery of the wounded.  And we condemn in the strongest terms the action and the hatred that surely triggered this heinous attack on the civilian residents of the Israeli capital.

“While Jerusalem and Israel have known horrifying attacks in the past, that city and most of Israel had been relatively quiet for some time. But it appears that there is now an escalation of violence against Israeli civilians – something that has been called for by the Gaza-based Hamas leadership and that, we fear, is in part stimulated by incitement that is not adequately controlled by the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.

“Twelve days ago, five members of the Fogel family, including a three-month-old infant and two other children, were slaughtered in their beds in the community of Itamar. And four days ago, Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip were subjected to the heaviest barrage of rocket fire from Gaza in over two years, with more shelling today and a resident of Beersheba wounded.

“This escalation of violence is intolerable. As it puts the lives of all Israelis at risk, it makes progress toward resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict all the more difficult.

“We call on the Palestinian Authority to unequivocally condemn today’s bombing and to do everything in its power to bring the violence to a halt, while taking strong, effective steps to end the incitement. And we call on the world community to condemn these acts in the harshest terms and to make clear that they simply cannot continue.”

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E-pitom-izing Jewish Rock

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Pitom plays The Skokie Theater on March 26 
03/22/2011

E-pitom-izing Jewish Rock photo

Pitom is a Jewish quartet with short beards and long talent. They take their name from the fragile tip of the etrog (that lemon-like fruit used on Succot), but their music is anything but delicate. The band’s most obvious musical influences are grunge, heavy metal, and punk. A closer listen to their arrangements reveals a jazz underpinning, and nods to outré acts like Sun Ra and Zappa.

But they draw their themes from Jewish sources and traditions. For Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes— their second album for the prestigious Tzadik label— their inspiration was the prayer service for Yom Kippur. Song titles include “Confusion of the Heart,” “Azazel,” and “Neilah.” My favorite was “Head in the Ground,” which should be made the theme to a spy-fi show like Alias.

Alongside their drums, bass, and electric guitar, Pitom sports, of all things, a violin. You know those high-pitched vocals and guitar shreddings you hear in heavy metal? You can make those sounds with a fiddle, too, as it turns out.

The band’s driving force is its guitarist, Yoshie Fruchter. His last name is Yiddish for someone who deals with fruit— perhaps an orchard grower or fruit peddler— so perhaps that’s why his group is named for a Jewish fruit reference.

Yoshie also plays with the klezmer band Yiddish Princess, the Jewish jam band Soulfarm, and Asefa, which is not Jewish but North African. Well, if it were Jewish, it would be Sephardic, so that’s a pretty wide range.

But first, he played in his dad’s Jewish band, then with the band Juez while studying jazz at the University of Maryland. There, he started forming his own bands. Moving to NYC in 2000, he gravitated toward the sounds of Tzadik’s artists, and soon enough recorded for the label himself.

Asked about the violin, Yoshie says he liked “expressive, dynamic” possibilities of a bowed instrument, and the interplay of an acoustic one with his electric. And he felt it would be a further Jewish point of reference.

The album’s gut-wrenching sound is not anger directed at his religion, Fruchter explains. It is the sound of Yom Kippur itself, echoing the agony of self-examination and the torment of facing one’s deeds. He followed the directive of the holiday, he says, which is to delve into the dark, murky, confusing places of one’s soul to gain forgiveness and clarity.

Pitom brings its hard-driving, head-banging sound to The Skokie Theater, 7924 N. Lincoln Avenue, this Saturday night, starting at 8:30. The performance is being presented by KFAR Jewish Arts Center, and you can get tickets at its website.

Tickets are $12, but KFAR is offering a special discount for your readers using promo code OYChicago.
 
Beatboxer Yuri Lane and Balkan ensemble Black Bear Combo will also be there… will you?

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The friend breakup aftermath

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03/21/2011

Last night, while at my cooking club, I suggested that one of my fellow chefs try a delicious restaurant in my neighborhood.

“I can’t go there,” she said. “I might see her.”

The “her” in question is my friend’s ex-BFF. Once upon a time, in another city and another decade, they were the closest of friends. After a long story that is not mine to tell, that friendship is over. It didn’t end due to any one thing so much as an accumulation of issues that deteriorated the friendship.

The tough part though—well, one of the many tough parts—is that while they grew up together on the East Coast, they both now live in Chicago. And while there have been attempts to mend the friendship, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Now my friend is hesitant to venture to a night out in my neighborhood, for fear of a dreaded run-in.

When I asked her if I could blog about this today, my pal was quick to point something out: “I could go there, I’d just need reinforcements.”

“Totally understand,” I said. “And if we did see her, I'd for sure shoot some angry glares in her direction.”

And then I realized I’d had this conversation before. Plenty of times. About ex-boyfriends.

I talk so much about how making friends is like dating, but I’ve never considered the reality that if friending is like dating, then the aftermath must be similar too. Bad breakups might mean avoiding a favorite lunch spot or yoga class or an entire neighborhood just to steer clear of any unplanned meetings.

It means keeping up with their whereabouts through friends or Facebook, but not calling or reaching out. It’s over, after all.

As we know, friend breakups often inspire more guilt in women than romantic breakups do. But what about after the breakup? Is there protocol for shedding that toxic relationship from your life?

From what I can tell, post romantic-breakup behavior (after the initial crying/confusion/anger) involves some combination of Facebook defriending/burning photos (or at least taking down the frames)/avoiding him/dressing up in your hottest outfit when you might see him to show him what he’s missing. Accurate? Or too romantic comedy?

So what I want to know is, is your post-BFF breakup behavior the same as the romantic kind? I’ve never broken up with a BFF that I might run into, but if I did I’m willing to admit I’d probably go through all of those phases—the picture removal, the avoidance, the extra attempt to look cute in case avoidance wasn’t an option one day.

But what about you? If your ex-best friend lives in the vicinity, how does that affect you? Do you avoid each other? Or maybe just shoot death stares at each other in response to any surprise encounter? Do you try to act civil, or just pretend you never knew each other?

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Changing the world, one dance step and one book at time

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03/18/2011

Changing the world photo 1

Israeli artist Netally Schlosser never set out to change the world or anyone’s life. She’s not a humanitarian or a selfless do-gooder. But her work in a small patch of green in one of the seediest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv is challenging her in ways that other artistic projects never have.

Plopped in the middle of the green square of Levinsky Park near the central bus station is shelter No. 740—the white-washed boxy bunker studio of Schlosser’s friend and collaborator Lior Waterman. The shelter studio serves as the base of operations for Schlosser and Waterman as well as Waterman’s independent arts collective, ARTEAM. Together, the artists have been the driving force behind a thriving and innovative cultural hub for and by neighborhood residents.

The area around Levinsky Park is home to refugees and foreign workers. Many are in Israel illegally or on short-term visas and come from places like Sudan, Eritrea, Thailand and the Philippines. Their cultures are vastly different from the sabra state of mind, and interaction between Israelis and these communities can be fraught with misunderstanding.

That’s where Schlosser and Waterman come in. Back in 2009, they helped establish a public library in Levinsky Garden. Designed by an architect who is a member ARTEAM, the library is basically two giant bookcases under an awning attached to Waterman’s bunker studio. The bookcases are transparent and lit up from within, making the books glow at night.

Changing the world photo 2

The books cover a variety of subjects in at least 16 languages, including Amharit, Tagalog, Arabic, French, Spanish and Thai. Hebrew-language books are available for the neighborhood kids, many of whom study at the Bialik-Rogozin School nearby. A documentary about the school recently won an Oscar. Kids and adults from all over neighborhood hang out at the library. Protected by the wide canopy, they read, get homework help from volunteers and generally socialize.

But the library is just the tip of the iceberg for Schlosser, who spoke about the many projects in Levinsky Park to a local group of women in Chicago as part of the FeminIsrael series sponsored by the American Zionist Movement March 10.

An accomplished visual artist, Schlosser said her approach to her art changed through dance collaborations with the Levinsky Park regulars. At first, small shows included tribal dances from Sudan and Nigeria and casual showcases of holiday traditions from Southeast Asia. Then, Schlosser came up with the idea of adopting Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” ballet to a communal performance. Despite scheduling challenges, her team of dancers from the area put on an exuberant performance in May 2010.

Changing the world photo 3

The video Schlosser showed depicts a crowd pressing in on a wooden stage as the improvised troupe troops out for their take on Ravel. The movements are far from the traditional African dances, which were performed earlier as a warm-up for the audience―the motions are more fluid and graceful. But the spirit is the same: exuberance and pride jostle concentration on the faces of the performance, just as in earlier cultural events in the park.

That moment of glory has stayed with Schlosser. The road to the accomplishment was physically and emotionally draining, she said. And she hasn’t yet created anything similar, though smaller cultural gatherings continue to take place in the park, the volunteers continue coaching the community, and the library continues to stock up on books in a slew of languages.

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“No team like the Jewish people”

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03/17/2011

“No team like the Jewish people” photo

From left, Rob Simon, Ariel Zipkin, Amy Kirsch and Josh Liss

There is definitely power in numbers. We may be a small TRIBE, but when we band together there’s no stopping us.  Last week, 1,200 Jews from across North America overwhelmed Las Vegas (is that even possible?) for the Jewish Federation of North America’s TRIBEFEST conference.  This 3-day convention featured concerts, speakers, workshops, networking and performances all aimed at helping young adults identify with their own Judaism.

Vanessa Hidary, also known as the “Hebrew Mamita,” opened Tribefest with her signature poetry piece (check it out, it’s amazing!).  After a covertly anti-Semitic experience, she examines what being Jewish means to her, “I am the Hebrew Mamita, long lost daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the sexy oy veyin, chutzpah havin, non cheapin, non conspirisizin, always questioning, hip hop lovin, torah scroll readin, all people lovin, pride filled Jewish girl.”

Discrimination may not prompt all of us to examine our own relationship with Judaism, so what does?  Like many North American Jews, I lead a comfortable secular life.  I’m not often asked to define or defend myself, so I don’t.  It is all too easy to go about life and forget about where we come from.  The truth is we are a small race and if Judaism doesn’t mean much to us, it might mean even less to future generations.

So…Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) decided to create Tribefest, a conference with the tagline “connect, explore and celebrate.”  They partnered with roughly 40 other incredible Jewish organizations and wowed the audience with amazing speakers and programs aimed to inspire and connect.

On day two, Jon Kraft and Mark Wilf, the Presidents of the New England Patriots and the Minnesota Vikings, respectively, told the audience about how Judaism is a central part of their lives.  Kraft said his family observes kashrut and that it’s, “a very big part of my life to make sure my kids get a Jewish education and understand the traditions.”  He continued, “It’s also very critical that they understand the importance of the State of Israel.”  Wilf says he takes pride in the shofar on the team’s helmets, “there’s no team like the Jewish people.”

This conference showed just how strong our team can be.  Young adults woke early to participate in seminars and stayed together all through the night at parties and occasionally on the casino floor.  Jews from all over the country united under a common goal and some of the breakout sessions were so popular that they even “sold” out.

One breakout session particularly left a big impression on me.  It was called “What’s Jewish about Pink Ribbons?” and featured speakers Jonny Imerman and Rochelle Shoretz.  Jonny is a local Chicagoan and founder of Imerman Angels, an organization that provides 1-on-1 cancer support and connects cancer fighters, survivors & caregivers.  Rochelle Shoretz is the founder of Sharsheret, an organization that supports Jewish women and families at every stage of breast cancer.  Jonny and Rochelle spoke very openly about their struggle for survival and how they built their non-profit organizations on “sheer passion”.  Jonny recognized that during his battle with cancer he had support from his family and friends but no one who shared his experience.  Imerman Angels is the first organization to fill that void and the largest nationally to date.  This organization matches up cancer patients with survivors so the survivors can help patients keep up morale and show them that there is a life worth living after cancer.  You could feel the inspiration in the room.  Jonny and Rochelle are amazing people who have taken their struggles and created something huge—awareness and education about cancer, tools for coping, and comfort to those suffering.  I left the room thinking how I too wanted to do something big for the world.

There were many other speakers present.  Alina Spaulding recounted how Jewish Americans helped save her family and bring them from the former Soviet Union to the US.  Jon Meyer, one of the Chicago co-chairs for Tribefest said that what he really enjoyed about Alina was that, “after two nights of drinking and socializing, Alina’s speech really brought it back to the whole point of the program.  People forgot about their hangovers and were in tears”.

Mayim Bialik, best known for her years playing “Blossom” on TV, spoke about how the Jewish Federation solidified her Jewish identity during her formative years and how she has chosen in her adult life to become more observant. Ben Mezrich, author of “Bringing Down the House” and "The Accidental Billionaires," talked about his Jewish connections and rise to fame. Other speakers included: Members of the House Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Shelly Berkley of Las Vegas, security expert Aaron Cohen, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, Congressman Joe Heck, HBO Real Sports’ Jon Frankel, Idealist.org founder Ami Dar, and performances by Joel Chasnoff, Yemen Blues, Soulico, Y-Love and Diwon and hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari.

It was apparent that JFNA did a lot right! People were trying to sneak into the convention and there was buzz all around the hotel at Mandalay Bay.  Where I think JFNA fell a little short, however, is identifying exactly who they are.  As the central address of the Jewish people (yes, I work at JUF, but no, they did not make me say this), I truly felt that the connection to the Federation was missing. Federation is no longer our grandfathers’ organization, and we should be proud of our support and relationship with our local federations.  In Chicago, we raise around $80 million annually to provide critical services for the most needy in our society—both locally and abroad.  Why should we shy away from this while we highlight every other organization?  Isn’t this also an amazing thing to be a part of?  I understand that the aim of Tribefest is to reach young adults in a new way.  The goal is to make it cool to not only be Jewish but to do Jewish, but let’s not ignore who put this whole thing on and show how strong and committed we are to the Jewish people and the next generation.

That, I suppose is now our role at home: to ensure that Las Vegas was only just the beginning of Tribefest, to harness the passion and energy that began there, and to continue the momentum in our home cities.  Here in Chicago, we have lots of post-programming planned and I hope other Federations do as well.  It was said best at the closing session, “for the first time ever, what happens in Vegas, better not stay in Vegas,”…well, at least most of what happens!

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Oy, world…

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03/16/2011

In the same week, Charlie Sheen (born named Carlos Irwin Estévez, according to IMDB) declared he’s Jewish, and there’s been talk of a possible McDonald’s “McWinning” menu item in Sheen’s honor in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I am for once, without words. I lied—I have many.

You can check the latest app, The Charlie Sheen Jewish Name Generator, via the Jerusalem Post. And, according to OK Magazine, Sheen re-tweeted the idea of a “McWinning” sandwich. All trash news? Yes. While I love a good ‘ol game of Jewish geography as much as the next gal, the process of tracing Sheen’s Heeb lineage through a barrage of ridiculous entertainment links on Google makes my head spin and makes me slightly nauseated.

According to Google search result numbers, Charlie Sheen is getting searched about 15 million times more than the tsunami in Japan. Let’s pause and soak that in.

I'm a bit fermished. We just had daylight savings, it’s nearly spring and I’m having trouble finding the sunshine and a sense of equilibrium amidst political unrest at home and in the Middle East as well as natural and man-made disasters in Asia, which have real consequences.

In the meantime, Sheen is “winning” his way straight to the bank after throwing an incoherent fit about wanting a few more million from CBS executives, and is making it repetitively unclear why he’s watch-able and interesting on broadcast interview after broadcast interview. And yet, we continue to watch. He’s already amassed more than 2 million followers on Twitter and his touring show, "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not An Option Show," scheduled to drop by the Chicago Theatre April 3, is sold out, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Let’s face it: Sheen has always been a letch. In my opinion, he peaked during his “Hot Shots” film days in the 1990s.  But, people are still taking great interest in his not-so-grandiose fall, just as Americans watched in awe when Britney Spears went a little bonkers and shaved her head, or when Kelly Bensimon might or might not have had a meltdown on the Real Housewives of New York City last year.

Why do we like to watch semi-talented super stars plummet to their publicity deaths? Does it make them a bit more human and give us a little elitist gratification? Perhaps watching Sheen’s tsunami of self-destruction is gratifying in the way that a Jersey Shore or Kardashians’ marathon is gratifying; it makes us feel a little smarter and a little more in control of the world.

How do we process all that has transpired in the world this year? Watch another episode of Jersey Shore? Volunteer? Protest on capital steps? Hope this is the calm after the storm?

Oy, world…is it spring yet?

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Cheers! Chicago: For Richer or Purim

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03/15/2011

“A man is obligated to imbibe on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai.’” – the Talmud

Cheers! Chicago: For Richer or Purim photo

Ah, the Hebrew month of Adar. Adar is quite the month, with its most notable celebration being the holiday of Purim, commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from an annihilation plot by Haman, the Wicked One. Today, we celebrate by reading the Book of Esther, giving charity to the poor, drinking, eating and wearing awesome costumes, among other things.

It’s one of my favorite and most memorable holidays as a kid for many reasons, especially being able to dress up in costumes and cranking the noisemakers as loud as possible, annoying my siblings and parents. Then there was the hamentashen, which brings back memories of the song “Three Corners,” which I used to sing with my classmates, and the delivering of these tasty treats with my family to those in need. This year, as USY advisor to the SHMUSY chapter, I am especially excited to help coordinate the awesome Purim carnival, filled with inflatable rides, gift basket making, and making some crazy masks! What’s even more special is that the money will be donated to charities and social action projects that the USY chooses.

But what does Purim really mean? Drinking and eating? Making noise? Dressing up? To me, the holiday celebrates our liberation from oppression, but it also celebrates the community. Look at how we as Jews view this moment in history as a people: rather than diminishing this moment in history as another attempt to expel and exterminate the Jews. We celebrate our freedom and religious beliefs in the face of our demise. I love that kind of attitude, don’t you? Rather than simply add the book to the annals of Jewish lore, we read it aloud every year to remind us of our past. Instead of skipping over the nasty parts, we read them aloud with pride and block out the bad parts with lots of noise, to show those who aim to exterminate us are never going to break our spirit (kind of like Passover). I like being a part of a community that celebrates and remembers the bad times (or almost-bad-times) as well as the good ones, that sees a reason to be lively and spirited amidst the trouble that surrounded the Jews in the story. What’s your favorite Purim memory?

This year, I am honored to be asked to leyn from the Megillah at Anshe Emet for the first time. I can’t wait to celebrate. So grab that glass or wine, snack on that hamentashen, and be merry! Now, where did I put that Mordechai costume?

L’Chaim!

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Sisters

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03/14/2011

In many ways my older sister and I are perfect opposites.

Almost seven years divide us, enough time between so that even our childhood cultural references differ.  She watched different shows, wore different fashions, and listened to different music.

What time couldn’t make different, our genes and parents did.  She got the 20/20 vision, blue eyes and tall, slender frame.  I got the coke-bottle frames, brown eyes, and drew the short and squat card.  (But hey, I’m still 6 ½ year younger!)

Sisters photo 1   Sisters photo 2 

Me and my sister (she with her hubby)—can you see a resemblance?

Throughout high school and college, she was given the role of the black sheep in the family while I played the nerd.  She loves the great outdoors; I hate nature.  She stays at home with her two children; I work full-time.  She has the sensitive soul of a writer; I have the thick skin of a business major.

She is a devout Christian with “Jesus in her heart”; I’m a Jew.

It’s not easy to have a sibling you most likely wouldn’t be friends with were it not for your blood.  And for a long while, we weren’t even friends.

You know the book (and subsequent movie) In Her Shoes—a story about two sisters very different from one another?  It could have been written about my sister and me—right down to the growing up in Philadelphia part (but stopping short of sleeping with my boyfriend.  Ick.)

Sisters photo 3

When you have very little in common with your sibling, it means that if you want a relationship with her, you have to work at it.  You have to try to understand and respect different perspectives, and learn how to ask for and give forgiveness.  It means challenging yourself to look beyond who you think your sibling is, to who she really might be.  What you find might surprise you—people can and do change.

And sometimes you simply have to put up with shit that you would not take from anyone else.

There have been truly challenging moments when I’ve been seriously tempted to break all ties with my sister.  The time she refused to have her daughters participate in my wedding—not wanting to “confuse” them by exposing them to Judaism at a young age—comes to mind.

And then I think about how I could ever explain to my daughter why she has an aunt she never sees, cousins she has never gotten to know.  And I ask myself: do I really want to have a sibling that I never speak to?

So I pick up the phone and call and say it’s OK when it’s not, just to keep the peace.

That experience taught me that tolerance and acceptance are two different things.  And sometimes all you can expect from someone—even family—who has vastly different beliefs than you is tolerance.

Over the last few years, my sister and I have found common ground as wives and mothers.  I can call her for advice when my child is sick, and she can call me she needs to talk to an adult. 

We’ve both learned to let go of past hurts and move forward because we simply need each other.  Only we know what it’s like to be Don and Joanne’s kids.  We will always get each other’s inside jokes about our crazy family.  And when my parents age and someday pass away, I expect we will cry on each other’s shoulders—even if we dispute how to handle the estate.  (Sis—Dad’s collection is all yours.  I insist.)

Being related to someone by blood isn’t enough to make them family.  But I’ve seen many estranged families, and so often the hurt and pain of estrangement is far worse than what caused the breach.  So I’ve learned that while breaking ties might be the easier road, it isn’t always the right one.

I can’t predict the future of my relationship with my sister, but I hope that we continue to want and need each other in our lives.  And that’s really all we need to have in common.

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My Council of Moms

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How losing my phone helped me find my community 
03/11/2011

My Council of Moms photo

Last night I heard Bruce Feiler speak at the annual JUF Non-Profit dinner about his latest book, The Council of Dads. The book has a beautiful premise; when Feiler was unsure about the future of his health, he called upon friends to serve as part of a “council” to mentor his young daughters in case of his death.

Feiler’s speech was very moving, so much so that I bought his book and spoke to him about it. And the first thing I thought about as I was leaving was that I really needed to call the several good friends whom I have been neglecting lately.

And then I realized I had no idea where my phone was.

It was gone.

Let me tell you something about myself. I am one of the most responsible adults that you will meet—who loses things all of the time. Whether they are stolen or thrown away, I somehow routinely put my items in places where they shouldn’t be.

I have been this way since I was a child. Whatever the first thing I was allowed to hold on to, probably a pacifier, I likely lost it. Instead of being a latchkey kid, my parents put a code device on the garage because they knew our house keys would end up in locations all over South Bend.

I find this fact about myself very depressing. This is not how I would like to be known among my family, loved ones, and coworkers.

A few weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, I was with my boyfriend and he insisted I upgrade my phone. I was hesitant. He was relentless. You deserve a new phone. Your phone doesn’t surf the internet fast enough. There are all of these cool applications you can take advantage of. We can Skype with each other. I didn’t want the phone. Why? 1. Learning a whole new phone system stresses me out. 2. I knew I would lose it.

Sure enough, three weeks later, and it’s gone.

It’s time like these I’m glad I don’t have kids. How can I care for a child when I can’t care for a phone?

This kind of thinking can go on in my head for a very long time—too long especially if you take Feiler’s message to heart that we need to slow down and stop taking the good in our lives for granted.

So instead of thinking about who would be on my unborn children’s Council of Moms upon my untimely death for a disease that I don’t have, I started to think about all of the wonderful friends of my parents who have been in my life and how much unconditional love they gave me throughout my childhood.

When you are part of a loving community, like I was as a child, you don’t need a Council of anyone. The Jewish community is a council. Unfortunately, nowadays it is rare for people to commit to communities that matter, unless the only requirement is to click the “yes” button on Facebook.

The best gift that you can give to your kids is to provide them with a values-based community, not just as insurance in the case of your death, but as role models for them to look to while you are alive.

And to tell you not to be so hard on yourself when you lose your phone, again.

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Tribefest a hit with young federation donors, but reaching unaffiliated still a challenge

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03/10/2011

Tribefest a hit photo

Five women from the Atlanta delegation to Tribefest enjoy a moment in Las Vegas with a new friend from Los Angeles, March 7, 2011. (Sue Fishkoff)

“Connect, explore and celebrate” was the tagline for Tribefest 2011 held this week in this desert gambling town.

Drumming imagery aside, the new name for what was a re-branded annual convention of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federations of North America accurately described the spirited atmosphere at the confab.

More than 1,200 Jews in their 20s and 30s turned out for three days of lectures, workshops and performances on everything from new trends in Jewish art to the 2012 elections to the etiquette of offering a “L’chaim!”

The federations apparently were doing something right: People were trying to sneak into the convention rather than sneak out.

Federation officials say Tribefest is the first step in a new outreach strategy for the national federation system. Instead of targeting Jews aged 25 to 45 who already donate to federation campaigns -- a tactic tried by previous Young Leadership conferences -- Tribefest offered an open invitation to any young Jew who wanted, according to the marketing brochure, to be “entertained and educated” about Israel and the Jewish community, affiliated or unaffiliated.

“In the past it was about getting young leaders more engaged,” said Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky. “This is about consciousness raising, bringing more people into the fold.”

Of course, he added, “We hope in the long term they’ll want to learn more about federation. But this is not about hitting up people for money. We’re not preaching to the converted.”

But if one of Tribefest’s central aims was about reaching a whole new audience, an informal survey of participants revealed the challenges of achieving that goal. Eleven of the 12 attendees interviewed by JTA reported that they already are active members and donors in their local federations.

“If you’re unaffiliated, why would you shlep all the way out to Vegas for this?” said Dan Sieradski, digital strategist for Repair the World.

“The scene is different, and there’s a lot more security,” said George Faber, 39, of Baltimore, who said this was his ninth Young Leadership conference.

But the people?

“Pretty much the same,” he said.

Not that it's a bad thing, those interviewed pointed out.

They came to Tribefest to learn how to get even more involved more effectively -- in federation as well as the other Jewish organizations represented. The Jewish Federations partnered for the conference with about 40 Jewish organizations popular among younger Jews, from Israel-oriented groups such as the New Israel Fund to the food justice organization Hazon to smaller groups focused on music, art and social service.

Hal Greenblatt, 26, and his friend Marc Prine, 25, both of Philadelphia, were part of the Jewish fraternity AEPi at Temple University and now are active in their local federation’s Young Leadership Division. Though this was their first time at a national conference, both said they didn’t need any convincing to make them fans of the federation system.

“There are many different ways to get your interests met in federation -- cultural, social service, religious,” said Prine, who like Greenblatt enjoys social service work and has raised funds for various Jewish causes.

“My dad is a Holocaust survivor, and I grew up doing social service. I want to give that to my kids," he said. "If we’re not going to build the next generation of the Jewish community, who will?”

Some of the presenters at Tribefest didn’t seem to grasp that the conference participants were not disaffected from the Jewish establishment. At a session Monday titled “Reconnecting Young Adult Jewish-Americans to Israel,” the panelists spent an hour apologizing for what they deemed as Israel’s bad behavior to a room full of young Israel supporters who seemed bewildered by the message.

“Unlike our parents, who saw Israel as a source of pride, many in our generation see it as a source of shame and disillusionment,” said Israeli army veteran Yoav Schaefer, executive director of the Avi Schaefer Fund, which advocates for strong Diaspora support for Israel while recognizing the rights of the Palestinians.

“I’m a Zionist, pure and simple, despite what I’ve heard from this panel,” responded one audience member.

Despite their already firm connection to federation, many attendees said they appreciated the direction the conference had taken and learned a lot from the sessions.

Prine and Greenblatt particularly enjoyed a session on punk Jews.

“We have friends with Jewish tattoos, friends who are black Jews, and they are shunned by the mainstream,” Prine said. “It doesn’t matter how you want to show your Jewishness. If it means getting tattoos or wearing tzitzis, it’s all about passing the flame to the next generation.”

While Tribefest may not have drawn as many newcomers as organizers may have liked, it seemed to have hit the mark for its core audience -- those already involved with federation and committed to Jewish community.

“As a Jewish professional, it got me re-energized and ready to go home and engage new people, and that’s what it’s supposed to do,” said Staci Weininger, 37, communications director of the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Atlanta.

Weininger noted that some of the 23 delegates from Atlanta weren’t in her federation database.

The lone newbie JTA interviewed, Debbie Zaidman, 38, of Columbia, S.C., said she found out about the conference from a friend’s posting on Facebook and suspected it “would be something that would inspire me.”

Zaidman grew up in a small Southern town with no Jewish community to speak of. Her mother drove her an hour each way to religious school until her confirmation at 16.

“In high school I always felt like an outsider,” she said.

Now Zaidman is part of a young Jewish professionals group in Columbia that regularly draws 100 people to events.

“It helps me be inspired,” she said. “Now I embrace my Judaism. I love it.”

Were you at Tribefest? Tell us about it in the comments section below:

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Life lessons learned while turtle racing

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03/09/2011

I have found the newest cool place to hang out on weekends.  It involves good times, lots of people, and animals!  I know you’re probably thinking ____ but it’s not.  I’m talking about turtle racing!

Life lessons learned while turtle racing photo

I was recently exposed to turtle racing, which is probably the coolest thing in the entire world.  Yea, I see that confused look on your face and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like.  A bunch of people getting together to watch turtles run from the start to the finish line.  You think it’s crazy?  You’re absolutely correct!

What happens is every time you make a purchase, you receive a ticket, which then goes into a bucket.  From that bucket, and throughout eight rounds, six turtle jockeys (TJs) are selected to race.  Prizes are awarded to the fastest and slowest turtle.  City slickers from and around Chicago and turtle enthusiasts from around the Midwest gather and celebrate warmly like old friends.  We let our guard’s down as we cheer on our four-legged, shelled comrades, share stories and life lessons, and have a little bit of fun.

As my luck would have it on my first trip, the track announcer wearing his awesome turtle hat called my number and I was up first.  Although my turtle, Jolanda #5, didn’t inch toward victory or anywhere really, I said arrivederci to my new four-legged comrade and vowed I would return with an entourage of my friends to dominate the track.

Upon my second trip to the turtle track with my band of brothers, I immediately knew that my chances of becoming a turtle jockey that night were slim to none.  Since it was their first time at the track and I wanted them to have a full experience, I decided that if my ticket number was called, I would pass it on to one of them.  After all, while winning is important, I am in the having fun business.

Why is this important?  It is in the sporting world, as demonstrated by the turtle race, that we see what humans are capable of.  It’s a place where compassion, teamwork, skill, and fun all come together.  To me, however, this is not the only place where these traits show up in society.  One experience I’ve had in the last week especially  contributes to this belief.

Unlike other places that provide free meals for the underserved and the needy, The JUF Uptown Cafe provides those populations who receive their services with some extra dignity.  Instead of standing in line to wait for some slop to be plopped on their plates, attendees are seated and served restaurant style.  But this arrangement only scratches the surface.

Much like you may make friends with a favorite waitress at your 24/7 dining hangout – FYI mine’s Melrose Restaurant – the diners at The JUF Uptown Cafe had the opportunity to chit-chat with me.  I, along with the volunteers I teamed with, was able to find out how people in need are really similar to me, a person with a steady job and a roof over my head.  The latest movies (King’s Speech), favorite hobbies (HAM radio – am I allowed to say that on a kosher blog?), and best places to hang out in the city – besides turtle racing – were all served up during our dinner time conversation.  At the end of the meal I really felt full, but not with food.

I never had been a waiter, but volunteering at The JUF Uptown Cafe was something that I could get used to.  I took off my apron and said goodbye to the staff, feeling inspired by the hard work that they do.  If we can cheer a turtle to the finish line with the hopes of winning a free t-shirt, it should be just as easy to band together to support people, especially those in need.

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My admiration runs deep

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03/08/2011

Watching a child discover new things for the first time makes me nostalgic for innocence. The look of pure joy and unabashed pride is amazing to watch unfold on a child’s face. With a wide grin and sparkling eyes, they can be openly proud of a job well done and no one thinks they are boastful or arrogant. Somewhere along the line of growing up we learn to be skeptical of trying new things: climbing to new heights, falling in love, speaking our minds. At some point we learn that people judge, reject, and fail. If we want to chase a dream, if we want to really grow, we must look into that collective face of fear and say: I’m doing it anyway. We have to be just like Erin.

My admiration runs deep photo 1

At Erin's farewell party

Here’s what you do if your best friend packs up her car and drives out to Seattle, where she will now live despite your crying protests. You will drink a chocolate stout at the Long Room and take a lot of pictures and bond with all of her friends over her leaving. You will cry some more. You will make her set up Skype on your computer before she leaves. You will thank your creator for giving you your best friend and ask how in the world you are supposed to go shopping for the spring season without her by your side. You will wonder if you will still play your cello if Erin isn’t nearby to play duets with you. You will feel grateful for all the cds you made together and you will wonder if writing songs over Skype will be frustrating or fun. But above all, you will feel inspired.

Because Erin’s move to Seattle is the physical manifestation of chasing a dream.  At the same time of starting over in a new place, Erin is returning to her roots as a musician. An amazingly talented songwriter, I have no doubt that her voice and her keyboard and her violin will make an impact on people. My admiration runs deep.

I am currently attempting to write my first novel, my first attempt at fiction. And when I start to doubt myself and my story and my ability to communicate in general, I think about Erin in Seattle. She is there; she picked up her entire life and moved there. And if she can make a move like that, well, then I can sit at my computer and put some more words together. Plus, I have an example to set for two little dreamers named Violet and Autumn, who demonstrate for me every day that doing things for the first time is fun, and that doing those things every day is how we grow.

My admiration runs deep photo 2

Three inspiring ladies: Erin, Violet and Autumn

Maybe we can’t recapture innocence and no one will think we’re cute if we radiate pure glee over our accomplishments, but Erin’s move reminds me that we can start over and take new risks at any time. It still can be just as exhilarating as when my daughters first rode their new radio flyer bike, or first climbed the stairs, or first hugged the cat.

So thank you, Erin, for being an inspiration to me and reminding me that leaping far and having faith are possible at all times. I hope you are overwhelmed with a feeling of pride for taking this step and I hope it shows all over your beautiful face.

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This ain’t your parents’ camp

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Chow time just got better
03/07/2011

This ain’t your parents’ camp photo

I’m not sure how campers are called to meal time these days. I know most of the kids do not wear watches (they all have cell phones with which they check the time), so I’m not sure of how CHOW TIME is announced.

I do know that this summer at the JCC Camp Chi in Wisconsin I will be leading an extraordinary summer experience for budding culinarians. I also know that the CHOW will be anything but the usual camp fare.

This is my kind of camping! Sure, there will be swimming, hiking, cookouts and all of that outdoorsy stuff, but the part that I like will be in the kitchen. There, we will create some great treats that the campers can enjoy and recreate at home. We’re cooking, baking, marinating, sautéing and learning how to produce healthy meals.

Ahh—I can see it all now. Young, eager and hungry campers visiting the local farms in Wisconsin, getting in touch with their inner farmer, seeing how vegetables and fruits grow, picking produce and then hustling it back to the ole camp kitchen for an afternoon of cooking.

We’ll bake bread; make salads, soups, kabobs, cakes and cookies and more. It’s going to be a great summer at Culinary Kids Camp—JCC Style.

I will teach my fellow young foodies the basics of Farm to Fork foods and how to avoid processed ingredients.

My campers will learn how to work together as a team to create spectacular foods; they will learn life skills and knife skills and how to create their own recipes.

Camp sure is different from when I was a kid and even from when my kids were campers. Sure, we’ll hang out and do the campfire thing—but at the JCC Culinary Kids Camp it will be with homemade marshmallows.

A Taste of Strawberry Sorbet

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Chill time: overnight
Total: 1 day

Yields approx. 1 ½ quarts

2 cups water (bottled water makes a tastier sorbet
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers (optional)
5 cups fresh or frozen strawberries (at JCC Culinary Camp we will use fresh, of course!)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Heat the water, sugar and lavender in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Transfer the water mixture to a bowl and chill completely.

2. Once cooled, strain out the lavender if using. Stem the strawberries and puree them in a food processor or blender. Add the lemon juice and sugar syrup and blend thoroughly. Chill the mixture until it is very cold.

3. Process the sorbet mixture in your ice cream machine following the manufacturer’s instructions.

4. Transfer the sorbet to a covered container and store in the freezer.

Strawberry Marshmallows
(Perfect for Passover and JCC Campfires)

Pareve
Yields one 13x18 inch pan

1 cup potato starch
8-10 ripe strawberries, or frozen (about ¾ cup)
1 vanilla bean scraped
1 1/3 cups cold water
2 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup honey
3 tablespoons gelatin
6 egg whites at room temperature
1 teaspoon rosewater, optional
¼ cup kosher for Passover powdered sugar mixed with ¼ cup potato starch

1. Line a 13x18 inch sheet pan with parchment and sprinkle heavily with potato starch and set aside.

2. Purée the berries in a blender. Scrape a vanilla bean and stir the seeds and pulp into the strawberry puree.

3. Place ⅔ cup of water, sugar and honey into a medium saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat until the mixture reaches 265 on a candy thermometer.

4. While the sugar is cooking, sprinkle the gelatin over the remaining ⅔ cup of cold water and let it soften.

5. Whip the egg whites until they form stiff-glossy peaks. Pour the sugar syrup along the side of the bowl with mixer on low into the whites; add the gelatin and beat for an additional 3-5 minutes until the mixture is combined.

6. Fold the strawberry puree and rosewater, if using, into the egg white mixture. Turn out into the prepared pan. Dust with additional potato starch and powdered sugar. Allow to sit at room temperature for several hours before eating to allow the marshmallows to fully set.

7.  The marshmallows will keep, covered at room temperature, for about 1 week.

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Once Upon A Time… Part 1

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03/04/2011

Once Upon A Time… photo

On October 16, 2009, my husband and I landed at O'Hare airport with our 17-month old daughter Frehiwot (Fray) Tessema. Our three boys, my parents and Mike's mom met us at the airport to meet their new sibling and grandchild. While all of us were overjoyed, excited and beyond thankful, Mike and I were still in a cloud of processing our journey and Fray's birth story. The story of how she found herself being taken from her home in Ethiopia, to become a member of a new and completely unfamiliar family and land. This weighed heavily on us. The weight increased by our decision not to share Fray's birth story with anyone but Fray when she became old enough to understand it. This was not the original plan. At first, Mike and I had decided we would share our child's birth story with family and friends, and possibly even the curious friendly stranger. Our thinking at the time was there is no shame in being adopted and by the birth story being out there, the whole thing would just be normalized. No one special day of sitting down and revealing all the details. They would just always be out there for our child to grab on to whatever made sense to them at the time. We had a plan, a philosophy. We were all set. Until...

I must admit, I am not a fan of non-fiction reading, and as much as I would like to say that the excitement and process of adopting Fray motivated me to scour adoption books cover to cover, that would just be a big ol' fat lie. My engineer husband on the other hand, is the exact opposite, as he is seemingly allergic to all things fiction. So although we didn't ever really fashion an information attack plan, I garnered the majority of my adoption information from People Magazine articles about Angelina Jolie, talking with adoptive and prospective families, and a subscription to a thin magazine called, "Adoptive Families." Mike read piles and piles of adoption books addressing everything from attachment to identity. He would then regurgitate all the important facts, whittling a 200 page book down to a summary of three pages for me, while I would share a heartening story or photograph I had come across. We were an awesome team.

It was a relatively short article that threw us for a long and windy loop. I can't remember the exact title. It was something to the effect of, "Your Child's Birth Story— Who Should Know?" The author basically took the position that your child's birth story is exactly that— your child's. That in addition to being given the gift of adoption, you have also been given the gift of your child's birth story— but as a guardian of it and not the teller of the tale. They emphasized the first person that should know your child’s story is your child. Because once you put it out there, you can’t take it back and in essence you have given something away that never belonged to you in the first place.
 
The most difficult part has been keeping Fray’s story from her brothers. They are not inquiring all at once, and they are not curious all the time, but when they ask and we give our little speech, I can see the wheels turning. When you don’t explain, when you can’t answer, kids come up with their own reasoning, their own answers. For our kids, there is nothing they can imagine that would create a situation in which they could no longer live with us. They can also not imagine anything happening to us that would make our staying a family impossible. In some ways, I am grateful for this. But I have recently stoked the fires by taking Fray back to Ethiopia last month. The trip was to say the least, utterly amazing. Next month I’ll tell you all about it. Well, not ALL about it…

Click here to read part two.

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Ron’s rant: smoking sucks

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Smokers have it so tough. 
03/03/2011

Ron’s rant: smoking sucks photo

As I sit in my office and hear some smoker in the alley yelling at her smoking buddy, I feel bad for them.  Smokers are second class citizens.  They can’t smoke in bars, restaurants, or even in front of offices in the city of Chicago.  Pretty soon smokers will only be able to light up in their homes and cars.  Poor smokers.  Not only are they getting fazed out of social situations, but there are a few other negatives to smoking.

If being relegated to the alley wasn’t enough, there’s cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other horrible diseases.  Smoking is bad.  We all know it.  Even second hand cigarette smoke can cause cancer.

I don’t mean to pick on smokers.  I realize it’s terribly addicting and unfortunately can be passed down from one family member to another.  That’s right, if you smoke, your children are at a greater risk to become an alley smoker.  Not only are there the obvious diseases, but the accompanying cost of insurance is higher for smokers.  With a shorter life expectancy and higher rate of illness it’s harder and more expensive to get insurance, both health and life insurance.  Since smokers on average miss more work than non-smokers, and cost more to insure, they are discriminated against.  A smoker just can’t catch a break.

In the gym I’ve trained several social smokers.  Although they claim to only smoke when they drink, I can tell the difference.  Usually, it’s endurance work that hurts them the most.  Running on the treadmill, biking fast or completing a circuit of weight training exercises pushes them to the edge faster than non-smokers.  The amazing thing, after only a few weeks of not smoking, they tell me how much better they feel.

The biggest barrier I hear to quitting is, “well, if I quit smoking I’ll gain weight.”  Many people do gain weight when they quit smoking, because they start eating more.  If they trade in cancer sticks for free weights and a jump rope, weight gain will not be an issue.  I did have one client that replaced her nicotine with caffeine and sugar and gained a few pounds.  Once we switched her new cola addiction to healthy snacks, the weight came back off without her lighting up.

My dad was a rare individual that could run 4-5 miles, have a cigarette, and no one knew the difference, at first.  He had an entire ritual to de-cigarette himself.  He gargled, sanitized his arms, face and hair with baby wipes and finished with some Binaca mint spray.  He tried everything to quit, including hypnosis.  We would sit on the couch and listen to this calm voice telling us to relax.  It always made me really tired and it didn’t work for him.  The patch finally helped him kick the habit and he’s been smoke free for 25 years.

Whether it’s your first drag in the school parking lot or at a party, the addiction forms quickly, Nicotine is:

• 1000 X more potent than alcohol
• 10-100 X more potent than barbiturates
• 5-10 X more potent than cocaine or morphine

How do you quit something that’s more addicting than cocaine?  I’m glad you asked— there are several different methods, the best of which starts with a discussion with your doctor.  The important thing, make the decision to escape the alley and save your life.

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Just don’t call me yenta

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03/02/2011

Just don’t call me yenta photo

I recently picked up a new hobby: matchmaking.  I’m not exactly sure when I became obsessed with fixing people up, but with each success I’ve gotten more confident in my skills and well, no one I’ve set up has yelled at me…yet.  I’ve got one marriage and a live-in couple under my belt— I hit a high this past weekend when a couple I introduced became official and the two friends who I knew would have chemistry took a liking to each other.

Getting involved in people’s romantic lives, is a risky endeavor, but it’s also afforded me a unique glimpse into the world of dating for both men and woman in Chicago…and again since so far no one has yelled at me, I’ll continue to do it.  I admit I’ve always been a bit of a busy body— back in college I started dispensing my dating rules and relationship advice to my friends.

Though I do dream of being the Patti Stanger of Chicago (with a little less snark and a lot more affordability), I’m not ready to quit my day job.  However, a friend recently suggested that I start sharing my advice and stories with more than just my own network— so Oy!sters, welcome to my inaugural relationship blog post.

Disclaimer- I admit I’m old fashioned, but when it comes to millennial dating, I really think everyone should be.  When it’s common for guys and girls to meet after midnight, in a bar, on a Saturday night, five drinks deep, it seems like a no brainer we should all be a little bit more protective of our hearts these days.  But I’m sorry ahead of time if I offend anyone— I know being single is tough and there’s no magic way to find a soul mate.

So, here are my dating dos and don’ts:

Don’t hook up with someone the night you meet.  This seems so obvious, but I hear stories all the time of girls in their mid-to-late 20’s who are surprised and disappointed when they spend the night with a guy they just met in a bar and he never calls.  I realize spending the night doesn’t necessarily mean having sex, but just sleeping in someone’s bed is too intimate too fast.  And frankly, any guy who wants you to come home with him the night you meet is only hoping for one thing…

First dates on weekdays are fine.  I’m a firm believer in going out on actual dates.  A date doesn’t have to be fancy dinner downtown, and the guy doesn’t always have to pick up the check (just on the first one), but the effort that goes into planning an actual date and asking someone out on a date can go a long way.  By the third or fourth date, he should be asking you out on weekends, too.  After a month of dating, if the girl you’re seeing still refuses to make plans on the weekends, then she’s just not that interested in you and it is time to move on.

Run away from the guy or girl who only wants to “meet up in a bar.”  On the other hand, if the guy you like only wants to see you on the weekends, in a bar, when he is out with friends, move on.  He’s just looking for a hook up.

Use texting and social media sparingly.  I love texting and social media as much as the average person (it is part of my profession), but there is a time and a place to use social media.  It’s fine to text the girl you like occasionally, but make sure you call her once in awhile, too.  This goes the same way for girls.  Guys shouldn’t be the only ones picking up the phone.  The biggest complaint I’ve heard from my male friends about the females they are dating is that they never initiate and they never call.  We expect guys to make efforts to woo us and it should go both ways.

Make that online dating profile.  I don’t care if you use JDateMatch.com, or eHarmony, just make one!  You have nothing to lose and it is a great way to expand your dating pool.  I know people worry about how they will look, but really everyone is doing it these days.  And yes, there may be some creepy people using online dating sites, but there are creepy people hanging out in bars, too.  Just avoid them.

Make time for that profile.  A lot of people tell me the reason they don’t want to use online dating sites is because it takes up too much of their time.  My response, “relationships take work and if you don’t have time to invest in one, you’re probably better off single, at least temporarily.”  I’m not saying you have to spend hours working on your profile or winking at girls, but put as much effort into it as you would want your potential mate to put into you.  Creating a profile can be daunting— take it slow and don’t be afraid to ask a friend to help look it over.  A tip for creating a great online dating profile— try to end the “about you” section with something that elicits a response.  For example, you could do three truths and a lie about yourself and ask potential suitors to guess which one is false.

Stop trying so hard.  Know when to go on a dating detox. After a break up, even if it’s only for a week, you need to take a break from the dating scene to focus on yourself and your happiness.  If you’re going out every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night searching for your next boyfriend, ask yourself if it’s time to take a dating detox.  If you’re juggling three girls, none of whom you are really interested in, it might be time to take a dating detox.  We can all smell desperation— no one wants to date a girl who is hunting for a husband.

Always accept a first AND second date.  This one can be hard at times, but try to always accept a first date.  It’s good karma and you never know what might come of it.  Also, many of my friends complain to me that they don’t get asked out anymore, so when you get that elusive date offer, take it!  More importantly, go on that second date!  People are nervous on first dates and might not make the best impression.  Don’t tell me you’re not interested in a second date because the girl was wearing an unflattering shirt or the guy picked a bad restaurant.  Now, if on the third date, his shoes are still awful, then you are free to move on to the next guy.  This second date rule goes both ways— you might have had a great first date and have already started fantasizing about your dream wedding, but don’t get ahead of yourself.  Second dates determine real chemistry.  You might have had great conversation on the first date, but is there anything left to talk about?

That’s all I have for now, but I’ll be back next month with more.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear some of your dating rules.  Also, I’m always looking to set people up and expand my own network, so if you’re interested, drop me an email at cherylannjacobs@gmail.com or leave a comment below.  Happy dating!

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Meet The Maccabeats!

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Sing Out Chicago is March 13
03/01/2011

Meet The Maccabeats photo

This past Chanukah, we all gathered around the warm, flickering glow of our… computers. We were mesmerized by The Maccabeats, and their catchy, clever, a cappella version of Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” which they re-cast for Chanukah as “Candlelight.” To date, their video has had more than 4.5 million views on YouTube.

While the original song is about going to a dance club, the Maccabeats changed it to be about Chanukah. “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes” became “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes.”
 
Ah… but who are these Maccabeats, you ask, and where did they come from?

Well, back in 2007, some guys at New York City’s Yeshiva University noticed something. Many other colleges had Jewish a cappella groups— but not theirs. So they started an a cappella band of their own.

First, they needed a memorable name: Cornell University’s was Chai Notes, and University of Michigan’s was Kol Hakavod, and one in Chicago is called Shircago. So they decided on The Maccabeats.

They had auditions and were surprised by how many people were interested. Now, the group is 14 strong, about as many as The New Directions on “Glee.” Then they started performing around campus.

You might think with a name like The Maccabeats, they would debut with a Chanukah song. Instead, their first video was of a Matisyahu song called “One Day.” This video showed the group formation, and their auditions and rehearsals. (Take a second and listen— your ears will thank you.)

When they were looking for an idea for a second video, one of their members heard a YouTube singer named Mike Tompkins do a solo, multitracked, a cappella version of “Dynamite.” Rather than repeat that, the band decided to create a Jewish version in time for Chanukah of 2010.

Unexpectedly, the “Candlelight” video went viral. Before they knew it, The Maccabeats were all over the Jewish press, including the Jerusalem Post. Then they went on “The Today Show” and CNN, written up in “The New York Times” and in “Time” magazine, and of course they were all over the blogs and Facebook. They even performed at Madison Square Garden. The Maccabeats then put out an album called “Voices from the Heights”  and went on tour. (Scroll to the bottom for sound clips, including “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”).

When “Candlelight” made it to iTunes, it went into the Top 20 on two charts. It made it to #19 on the Holiday Digital Songs chart…and to #2 on the Comedy Digital Tracks, behind Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” This is the first time Chanukah songs were at #1 and #2 on any Billboard chart— and Billboard has been tracking song sales since 1894.

And now you can see them live! They will bring their singing, beat-boxing energy to the stage for  JUF’s new Sing Out Chicago on March 13, at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. The first show is already sold out; a second show was added at 4:30.

“This will be our first Chicago-area performance—in fact, our first major concert in the Midwest—and we are very excited about it,” said Julian Horowitz, musical director for the Maccabeats. “We hope everyone will come out to see us, and to support JUF!”

Tickets to Sing Out Chicago are $18 per person and must be purchased in advance through JUF, by calling 312-553-3530, or by e-mailing  SingOutChicago@juf.org . Attendance at the event signifies intent to make a donation to the 2011 JUF Annual Campaign, which can be paid in installments through December 2011.

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