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The final frontier

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All your Passover dessert conundrums solved

03/30/2012

Jewdish photo

I know many home cooks who make elaborate Passover meals for an insane number of family members, friends, and those in their community who do not have their own seders or Shabbat Passover dinners. These cooks create meals that feature course upon course of delicious and complicated food ornately displayed on platters with garnishes garnishing the garnishes. As a chef, I am impressed and blown away by the care and time taken to prepare the festive meals. As a mom and home cook, I am puzzled by the plethora of dishes and platters. Where do they keep all this stuff? These meals are sumptuous and elegant until dessert.

Dessert for a professional chef is understood to be the last bite of food that is meant to speak to the guest. It is the final message that says who we are and how we feel about you, the diner. For home cooks, it can be the final straw. I have been taken to heights of tongue titillating ecstasy with appetizers, soups, and entrees only to be dashed to the ground by a packaged, store-bought or worse yet, flown in from a faraway bakery, a Pesadich disaster. Who could blame the cook? Making huge dinners for large numbers of hungry guests and then you throw the Passover restrictions into the mix and it not hard to see why dessert is the final frontier. The place that no one wants to go!

Most of these disasters are disastrous because the cook/bakery thought it would be a good idea to mimic a cake or other pastry normally made delicious when all ingredients are fair game but during Passover the cupboard is bare or at least really sparse and many desserts are off limits. Ersatz ingredients are not good substitutes. My Passover philosophy is this: If I wouldn't eat it during the rest of the year, I'm not going to eat it during Pesach. I would much rather truly mark this time as one separate from the rest of the year, and go eight days without cake, brownies, and pie than use ersatz ingredients. The secret to good desserts during Pesach is to understand your ingredients and how they work.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread is confusing to many people. I know experienced cooks and observant Jews who do not understand how a cake recipe for Passover can include baking powder and baking soda and not be considered leavened. I know many people who think that we can only eat "flat" food during Passover.

It is common to think that the options during the holiday do not include delicate, fluffy, and lovely cakes, but they do!

There are a lot of misconceptions about leavening and what differentiates leavened food from unleavened food. These are the four different types of leaveners.

Understanding Leavening:

Biological leaveners
Typically yeast, also beer, kefir, sourdough starter, yogurt are in this category.

Yeast produces carbon dioxide which is part of the organism's life cycle called fermentation. The process of fermentation is one in which carbon dioxide is released in the form of foam or bubbles which create air pockets which when mixed with starch form a sponge-like matrix that gelatinizes and "sets" the holes left by the gas bubbles. Ethanol is a waste product of yeast and adds character and flavor to the end product. These leaveners are not permitted during Passover. While kosher for Passover yogurt can be eaten during Passover, it may not be combined with wheat.

Chemical leaveners
Common chemical leaveners are baking soda and baking powder

Chemical leaveners rely upon heat and acid in the batters and doughs to activate. A balance of acid and alkali with heat cause the chemical leaveners to give off carbon dioxide. These leaveners are usually used in cakes, quick breads, and cookies when a prolonged fermentation would be undesirable or not practical. These leaveners are permitted during Passover.

Mechanical leaveners
Rapid whisking and beating air into food with the aid of a whisk and/or mixer.

Creaming is the process of beating air into sugar and fat. The sharp sugar crystals cut holes into the fat structure leaving air pockets in the fat. Whipping egg whites and whole eggs creates a foaming action that produces a sponge type of matrix that supports batters and custards (think of soufflés and chiffon cakes).

Most home cooks have employed a mechanical leavener when beating eggs and sugar to a "ribbon" stage in baking or when whisking together egg whites to lighten matzo balls. This type of leavening is commonly used in baking and is permissible during Passover.

Other leaveners
Steam can leaven cakes and puddings, and nitrous oxide forces air into whipped cream which, when whipped, can be folded into batters.

Kosher For Passover and throughout the year:

Vanilla Beans

One of the greatest joys when baking is adding the vanilla. I love the aroma with its floral bouquet. Suddenly the simplest recipe becomes a gourmet treat. When my sons were very young, I would perch them on the counter next to where I was cooking and let them smell the ingredients going into the dish. My oldest son, Zachary's eyes would light up and he would announce 'smells like yummy in here,' when I pulled the vanilla extract out of the cabinet.

Vanilla is a flavoring derived from an orchid native to Mexico. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron due to the extensive labor needed to grow the plants and harvest the seed pods.

Vanilla is used mainly in the cosmetic and culinary industries. Vanilla is available for culinary use as a whole pod or bean, a powder, extract or paste.

Vanilla beans or pods are not kitniyot (foods avoided during Passover) and are considered by the highest level or rabbinic supervision to be allowed for use during Passover.

Vanilla beans deliver an assertive vanilla flavor and when split open and scraped add small black specks or seeds. The seeds are edible and are considered a gourmet touch. I use vanilla beans in my flans, crème brulees, and homemade ice creams during the holiday and year round. Vanilla beans do not require kosher supervision.

Vanilla extract is an effective way of adding vanilla flavor to a recipe. Vanilla extract contains at least 35% alcohol which evaporates during cooking. Vanilla extract requires kosher supervision.

Vanilla powder is a mixture of vanilla pods, sugar and starch. Vanilla Powder is not kosher for Passover.

Vanilla paste is a mixture of vanilla pods and corn syrup. Vanilla paste is not kosher for Passover.

While kosher for Passover vanilla extract is available, the quality of the product is not great. The vanilla is inferior and the product is very expensive. Many of the kosher for Passover extracts contain artificial vanilla flavor and artificial color added and blended with real vanilla.

For my Passover baking I prefer to go with the real thing and I reach for whole vanilla beans. A high quality vanilla bean should be shiny, plump and moist. To use a vanilla bean: When you are ready to add the vanilla to your recipe, use a sharp paring knife to slice the bean in half lengthwise, about 7/8 of the way. Scrape the seeds from each half of the bean and add them to your ingredients.

Generally, one inch of whole vanilla bean equals one teaspoon of extract. You may not need the whole bean for a particular recipe. You can store your vanilla bean covered in a jar away from light. Do not store vanilla beans in the freezer or refrigerator. They may become dry and brittle.

When you have scraped the entire bean, save the pod. I like to save used pods in my sugar container. All my sugar has a faint vanilla fragrance. Vanilla beans are available in most grocery stores or online.

Chocolate Mousse with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

This recipe is magical. You can serve it as a mousse, as a frozen dessert, or baked as a flourless chocolate cake! One recipe gives you 3 different desserts. In previous years, Passover chocolate was not of a high quality, now we can eat chocolate desserts with newer chocolates made without lecithin (a soy product and not kosher for Passover) and still with a high cacao content.

Serves 10

7 ounces best quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (for Passover, I only use Schmerling's 70%)
½ cup mild extra virgin olive oil
4 large eggs, separated
¾ cup kosher for Passover confectioners' sugar
⅓ cup brewed espresso, or water
1 vanilla bean, scraped
2 tablespoons kosher for Passover rum or other liqueur or water

1. In a small saucepan, melt chocolate over very low heat. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, add the olive oil, and mix well.

2. In a bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar and whisk until foamy. Add espresso or water, vanilla bean and liqueur. Whisk until well blended. Add the chocolate mixture and whisk together until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

3. Using a standing mixer, or a hand-held mixer, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Scoop about one-third of the egg whites and fold into the chocolate mixture with a rubber spatula. Repeat with half of the remaining egg whites. Finally, fold in remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain visible.

4. Transfer mousse to a 10 inch spring form pan, bowl, or individual serving glasses. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Alternately for a frozen chocolate terrine, mousse can be frozen for at least 5 hours or for up to 3 days. To bake the mousse into a flourless chocolate cake: Preheat oven to 350. Line a springform pan with parchment paper and lightly grease the parchment paper and sides of the pan and then sprinkle the parchment paper and sides with cocoa powder. (All 100% cocoa powder is kosher for Passover) Bake for 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick, inserted, comes out clean. Cool completely before unmolding.

5. Remove the mousse from the refrigerator or freezer, serve as desired. Frozen mousse can be sliced and served like a cake. If freezing the mousse, allow to soften slightly before serving.

6. For added elegance, garnish with a flaky sea salt.

Serve with seasonal fresh fruit.

Clementine Confiture

Passover straddles winter and spring with in-season produce being scanty. But, fresh Mandarin oranges are easy to find and are often sweeter this time of year.

Mandarin oranges are a group of small citrus that include tangerines, Clementines and Satsumas. The fresh mini citrus are brightly flavored and sparkling. You can supreme* them just as you would any other citrus. If you love Mandarin Oranges as much as I do, you can make this brightly flavored and ooey-gooey confit and hang on to the season for just a bit longer.

Serve the confit as a charoset variation by adding chopped pistachios or almonds, pile it on matzoh schmeared with cream cheese, dollop on top of your favorite cheesecake, serve it with a cheese platter, on top of pancakes, or with duck to make my favorite modern Duck a la'Orange .

4 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 pound Clementine tangerines or other Mandarin oranges, cut in half

1. Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer. Add the tangerines. Cook over medium heat until the tangerines are very soft and the liquid has become a jelly consistency (about 1 hour). Check the "set point" of the jellied confit by drizzling a spoonful; of the juice on to a plate and placing the plate in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. If the juice is thick and not runny, the confit is finished. If it is still runny, continue simmering for another 10 minutes and check again.

2. Store the Confiture, covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.

*The beautiful citrus sections or supremes-in French-look picture perfect on a plate and are easy to cut.

Start with a sharp paring knife and cutting board. Cut off a small section from the top and bottom of the fruit. This will give the fruit stability and keep it from rolling around.

Cut down the rind from top to bottom following the curve of the fruit. The goal is to remove the rind and the pith (white bitter part) but not the fruit. Continue until all of the rind has been cut off.

Hold the fruit in one hand and cut ½ into the fruit at one of the dividing membranes. Cut on the other side of the segment along the membrane. This should release the segment or supreme. Continue until all of segments are cut out. Squeeze the juice into a bowl and discard the membranes.

Laura Frankel is the executive chef of Spertus Kosher Catering featuring cuisine by Wolfgang Puck at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies in Chicago. Visit Laura Frankel's website at www.lauraskosher.com.

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What happens at TribeFest…

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03/29/2012

What happens at TribeFest… photo 1

I'm writing this post fresh off the plane from a trip to Vegas. And despite how the old saying goes, this time, I hope what happened in Vegas won't stay there.

You see, for the past three days, I joined over 1,500 young Jews representing 81 communities throughout North America as we literally took over the Venetian Hotel in Vegas for JFNA's second annual TribeFest. There is something so cool about walking around a gigantic hotel and recognizing members of your community in the elevators, at the blackjack table and all around you. After spending three days and nights learning, networking and partying with my peers, I am physically exhausted, but mentally and spiritually, I feel energized and invigorated.

I've only been back a mere 24 hours, and aside from needing a good night's sleep, I also feel a need to take some time away from this experience, to step back and fully process everything. I wanted to share my initial reactions with you here, but you can find an in-depth piece with specific details on the speakers and program in the May issue of JUF News.

I have to say that I was a little anxious going into TribeFest. I knew with Las Vegas as the backdrop, this would not be your typical conference and I wasn't sure what to expect from the programming or the people. I was pleasantly surprised by both.

During the days we heard from incredibly powerful speakers, who inspired us to take action, get involved—who let us know that the actions of one small person can make and impact, and that together we can change the world. We learned about the important work of Federation, and how to take responsibility for the future of our communities. We woke up early after a long night out to share our morning reading to a young child from an underfinanced Las Vegas school, to deliver them a gift of a backpack full of books. We talked to each other, face-to-face, and tweeted at the same time. We engaged in conversation, networked with our peers, made lasting connections.

What happens at TribeFest… photo 3

Some of the Chicago TribeFest participants

At night we dressed up and bonded while dancing to Israeli bands, waiting in excruciatingly long lines to get into night clubs and around the roulette table. We met people we might never have otherwise. "Where are you guys from?" was a common conversation starter, often sparking this retort, "Oh, do you know so and so?" Somehow, in the oversized, overstimulated setting of a Vegas night club, our Jewish and social worlds seemed both larger and smaller at the same time. I reconnected with old friends from college who I hadn't seen in years, became friends with members of my own community who I hadn't yet had a chance to meet, and put faces to the names of the Jewish professionals I had heard of, or spoken to via email or over the phone.

What happens at TribeFest… photo 2

At the closing session on Tuesday, we were shown a video of reactions to the trip by participants, which you can see on the TribeFest website. I found their sentiments echoed my own. As a group, we left feeling pumped up, filled with ideas, and encouraged by the video's message to take that momentum home to our respective communities, to ensure that for once, what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.

(read What happens in Vegas Part II here)

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Spice it up!

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03/28/2012

Spice it up! photo

Spice it up! Instead of adding salt, butter, or oil to your meals, add some flavor! My number one cooking tip— flavor lightly, you can always add more spice, but if you drop in too much Tabasco, it’s over. It’s also important to know what your guests are allergic to and what they don’t like. If I have someone coming over like my nephew Ryan who’s allergic to all nuts, I make sure to not even touch a peanut before I start cooking.

If you aren’t a big cook or don’t know where to start, look at the foods you like. I like to eat Italian, Asian, and Latin, so I spice it up accordingly. Here are some of my favorite spices for each region.

Italian:
Balsamic Vinegar
Basil
Garlic
Lemon Juice
Olive oil
Oregano
Parmesan Cheese
Romano Cheese
Rosemary
Thyme

Asian:
Agave Nectar (like honey but breaks down slower in your body)
Cashews/Peanuts
Coconut Milk
Curry Powder
Garlic
Ginger
Lemon Zest
Low Sodium Soy Sauce
Pepper
Red Chili Paste
Rice Wine Vinegar
Sesame Oil
Sesame Seeds

Latin:
Celery Seed
Chili Powder
Cinnamon
Curry Powder
Garlic
Lemon Pepper
Lime Juice
Onion Flakes
Paprika
Parsley
Red Pepper Flakes
Smoked Paprika

Building Flavor
Most of my dishes start with a fresh onion and some jarred minced garlic. Then I dash in some of the above seasonings. I love boxed tomatoes— if I’m cooking Italian or Latin, I will cook them with the onion and garlic, and toss in whatever veggies I have in the house. Once the veggies are soft, I’ll take them out of the pan and then use that same pan to cook chicken, beef or fish. That helps add flavor. Another secret trick, if the spices and some veggies are stuck to the pan, I will pour a little wine or chicken stock in the pan to loosen it up. Those little bits add a ton of flavor.

If I’m cooking rice, pasta, or potato, I season them after they are done cooking. I like to season my noodles before I add any type of sauce. Since high blood pressure runs in my family I try to avoid cooking with salt. If I decide to add salt, it’s usually at the end of cooking. If you use kosher salt, it gives you a bigger flavor then table salt, and it’s easy to pinch a little of that into a dish.

Quick Grill
Grilling season is about to begin! You can create really healthy meals on the grill that taste great without a ton of calories. You should pay attention to what’s in the store bought marinades. Many of them are loaded with salt and sugar. A simple marinade is olive oil, pepper and garlic— try marinating your meat overnight. If you can’t do it overnight, 20 minutes before cooking works fine. If you have a sweet sauce that has honey or sugar, add it the last few minutes of grilling. If you add it to soon, the sugar will burn your food. I add more seasoning each time I flip whatever it is I’m cooking. If there’s a sale and I buy a bunch of extra meat, I’ll toss pepper, basil, and garlic on it before I freeze it. When you defrost it, it will already have a great aroma.

For more on spices, check out this video where I quickly talk about my 10 favorites:
1. Onion Flakes
2. Garlic Powder
3. Lemon Pepper
4. Celery Seed
5. Pepper
6. Basil
7. Rosemary
8. Curry
9. Ginger
10. Cinnamon

Let me know some of your favorite spices.

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That was offensive!

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The discriminatory origins of everyday words

03/27/2012

Paul Wieder photo2

As a word buff (OK, fine, word geek), I read books on subjects like "words that have been forgotten" and "words that only exist in one language" and, most recently, "surprising origins of common words."

Turns out, many of the words we use as put-downs of certain types of people were actually once slurs against certain groups of people— foreigners, women, the poor, and those of a minority faith or a specific ethnic group. "Nazi" is rapidly sliding down this slippery slope from "a particular group of murderous, fascist bigots engaged in government-enforced genocide" to "anyone strict with a rule I think should be flexible." Here are some words that have already made this slide:

"Barbarian"
The Greeks said that non-Greek speakers sounded like they were just saying so many nonsense syllables: "bar-bar-bar." The rest of us got back at them, sorta, with the Shakespearean saying "It's all Greek to me," which means, "It may as well be gibberish for all I can understand it."

"Gyp"
To give someone less than what was promised. This word may be a slur against the Gypsy people, now more politely called the Roma, although that might also be a folk etymology. It's also possible it comes from a word for lowly kitchen workers, named after their tunics, called "gippos." (And isn't it interesting that they are called "Gypsies" because they were falsely thought to come from Egypt, when in fact they originate in India… while Native Americans were called "Indians" because they were falsely thought to come from India?)

"Jaywalker"
Crossing an intersection from, say, the southeast to the northwest corner is called this because another word for "out-of-towner" or "yokel" is "jay." Those new to city life, not knowing traffic laws, would intuitively cross an intersection in the most direct manner instead of at right angles.

"Vandalize"
Now meaning someone who defaces property, perhaps by spraying graffiti on a building, this word comes from a case of sore loser-ship. The original Vandals were "a member of a Germanic people who overran Gaul (ancient France), Spain, and northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, and in 455 sacked Rome." The Roman response? To use their name as an insult.

"Welsh"
Obviously, a slur against the Welsh people. The word means "to renege on a debt." (Sometimes spelled "welch.") 

"Yankee"
This term, now meaning "American" (or "member of a rich baseball team"), has origins that are muddy at best. The best guess is that it was originally a slur against the Dutch by the English, who ran into each other in New Amsterdam and early New England. It either made fun of Dutch names… or their love of cheese. The term then broadened to include all New-Worlders, including the British colonists themselves, and the word was used to insult them by British loyalists once the Revolution got underway. The now-Americans embraced it instead.

"Bum"
Now replaced by the more polite "homeless person," the word originally mean "sponge, mooch," someone who was content to reap the benefit of others' work. Message? "You're poor because you're lazy."

"Cheat"
In English feudal law, land owned by a serf with no heirs would "escheat," or revert to the lord of that region. It is not surprising that those survivors not considered legal heirs would feel "cheated."

"Truant"
Now mostly confined to "a kid who routinely skips school" it was first another word for someone who did not work. It was assumed that they simply didn't want to, not that they were unemployable due to circumstances beyond their control. (See "Bum," above.)

"Vulgar"
It now means "tasteless, offensive," but once just meant "common, not noble." The "Vulgate," for example, is the standard Catholic bible, in the then-common language of Latin.

"Dodger"
This baseball team name embraces a slur against certain New Yorkers. Because Brooklynites had to run between streetcars to cross the street, Manhattanites dubbed them "trolley-dodgers." A far cry from today, when public transportation is hailed as solution for everything from traffic jams to pollution.

"Dude"
As in "dude ranch." The laid-back ranchers at these ranches liked to mock stuffy, dirt-averse city folk who came to play cowboy as "dudes," which meant "dandies."

"Heathen"
Now a word meaning "someone yet unconverted to a given faith," it comes from the word "heath," and referred to someone living outside the city.

"Savage"
Today, this means "ferocious." But it comes from a word simply meaning "forest related" or "forest dwelling."

"Hysterical"
The root "hyster"— as in "hysterectomy"— means "uterus." When a woman was accused of acting with heightened emotions, regardless of the reason (which may have been legitimate!), this was attributed to uterus-related problems. (Relatedly, "lunatic" comes from the same word as "lunar," meaning "moon-related"; the word "moon" gives us both "month" and "menstruate.")

"Prude"
Now someone puritanical and anti-fun, it originally meant simply a "good woman," a prudent, decent one… perhaps the female equivalent of a "mensch."

"Brute"
A crude and aggressive person. But first, an animal. As if all animals lacked grace and tenderness— didn't these people own horses and dogs? 

"Sinister"
This word means "evil, malicious"… but originally just meant "left-handed." Meanwhile, "dexterous," or "agile, skilled," meant "right-handed."

Other, older words that began in as slurs against a specific group include: "Scalawag," "Vagabond," "Blackguard," "Cad," "Knave," " Lout," "Rascal" "Rapscallion," "Rube," "Riffraff," "Cretin," and "Dunce."

I have nothing against denouncing bad behavior. But reprimands cross a line when they denounce someone for who they are, not what they did. As these words show how today's offensive, lawsuit-worthy, career-ending slurs can become tomorrow's generic insults. Bigotry against foreigners, the poor, and other minorities deeply impacts our speech and the way we think and act toward others we consider inferior.

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4:23:12

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03/26/2012

4:23:12 photo 1

Over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, while many flocked to the streets to enjoy the parades and then to the bars to enjoy a fresh pint of Guinness, I ran my first marathon. I crossed the finish line after four hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds of beating up my body. I can’t tell you how I finished. I can tell you it hurt a lot, it wasn’t fun and I admittedly felt sick for a day from what I think was slight dehydration. I can also tell you, that I’ll likely do it again.

The day of the race— and the little bit of time that has passed since— has taught me two important lessons.

Lesson 1:

Marathon running is absolutely crazy. Unless you are some kind of elite athlete like the guy who won the race a full two hours ahead of me, it’s not a good workout. I’m not even sure our bodies are made to go through that abuse. Most importantly, there are plenty of good ways to spend four to five hours of your day other than running.

Those of you that have run 5K’s, 10K’s and even half marathons have probably finished feeling good, assuming you trained well. It probably took a couple of hours and you left feeling tired, but fulfilled after a good long workout. During the race, I felt very much the same way, as I passed the half marathon mark after two hours of running. Then I kept going for another 13.1 miles. As I kept going mile after mile, fatigue and pain set in more strongly. It went from fun-run to serious work. Soon I realized, there was only one reason to keep going: bragging rights.

The first lesson I learned was that the only good reason to run a marathon is to say that you have run a marathon.

4:23:12 photo 2

Lesson 2:

I finished, collected my medal and post-race paraphernalia, stretched out and posed for a picture with a smile. I had finished in the time I had targeted and more importantly had bragging rights (see lesson 1). I had plenty to smile about.

Then over the next few days, I saw the likes, comments and messages stream in over Facebook. Never before had a post about an event or achievement in my life garnered such a huge response from my friends and family. Everyone was proud and excited to hear what had happened and how it had happened. Many commented specifically on how much of an inspiration I had been to them.

The second lesson was that running a marathon can really move and inspire others. The second lesson challenges the first lesson because it implies that maybe there is a good reason to run this thing after all: inspiring others.

We all have our marathons to run in life. They are the long races that push us beyond our limits and call us to do the things that other people cannot or will not do. I believe we should seek out these opportunities. When we finish marathons, whether they are literally 26.2 miles of running or the equivalent in some other arena of life, we get to say that we did. By saying we finished, we inspire others to do the same.

The author Marianne Williamson wrote in her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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The Wandering Chicagoans

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03/23/2012

The Wandering Chicagoans photo

There is a new generation of wandering Jews. We are the child immigrants who came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union during Operation Exodus. We went to Shalom Sunday at the JCC, we and took ballet classes at Ballet Russe, we wore hand-me-downs from our American "volunteer families." We wore more layers than anyone else, talked to our grandparents every single day, ate smoked fish when everyone else ate peanut butter, we learned English and translated for our parents. We had finished pre-school and maybe even the first few grades in Soviet schools where we had learned that our nationality was "Jew." Then we came to America and were told that our nationality was "Russian" and that "Jew" is not a nationality. We were confused.

I can't speak for all of us, but there is definitely a group of Chicago-raised Russian-American-Jews who have spent our twenties in a search for meaning and identity. We graduated from college and went into many different fields. Whatever we did, our Babushkas bragged about it. Some of us stayed in Chicago, but many of us have lived all over the country and even the world and are now entering our thirties with a whole plethora of adventures behind us and many more ahead.

How did our quest start? I know it can't all be explained by our Jewish Refugee identity crisis. We are a part of the generation who graduated from college right in time for the post- 9/11 job drought, which sent many non-immigrant grads to law school or to ashrams in India. But our quest was special. We were brought up by parents who struggled. Many of them, like mine, were former Refuseniks who had lived through hardships which are completely outside of our capacity for relating. They came to this country with advanced engineering degrees, literature, violins and $90 per family member. They started out working in stores and nail salons and factories so we could have the choices and freedoms they hadn't had. They didn't teach us about the stock market, or saving for retirement, and they didn't have savings accounts for our college education, but they managed to help us anyway. Our families lived through our accomplishments and we were afraid of disappointing them, but we also wanted to take advantage of the American freedoms they had provided for us. So we packed up our degrees and went on a search. And they said, "Why are you going?"

In my case, I have lived in New York, Israel and most recently Texas. In Jerusalem I married an Argentinean boy who was on a similar journey and we had a beautiful baby girl. My travels and experiences have not only molded me into the adult I have become, but they have also inspired me and enriched my artwork. I started a business painting modern ketubahs and selling Judaica which allows me to merge my passion for art with my love of Hebrew and Jewish culture. On my journey I learned that who I am doesn't have to be defined by my religion or cultural identity, but it is very much enriched by it. As we raise our daughter I hope that I can infect her with the same curiosity, lust for life and eagerness to explore that my Chicago immigrant childhood fostered in me.

Anna Abramzon graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts inPainting and Graphic DesignfromThe School of the Art Institute of Chicago.Anna now lives in Houston, Texas creating ketubot (illuminated marriage contracts), designing invitations and art for weddings, and various commissions. You can see her work at http://www.annaabramzon.com/ and www.AAketubah.com.

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Meet Matt Baum and the American Ultimate Disc League

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03/22/2012

Meet Matt Baum photo

Yes, it’s Spring Training. Yes, the NCAA tournament has started. Yes, the NBA trade deadline just happened. But The Great Rabbino wants to give you something totally different. Meet Matt Baum and the American Ultimate Disc League. Enjoy! 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Matt Baum. I am a 20 year old Jewish student at the University of Connecticut, and I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. I began playing rec league basketball and youth league baseball at a young age, and I've always been a pretty athletic kid, but loved playing music more than anything. I began taking piano lessons at a young age, and in elementary school began to play the saxophone. I played sax all through middle school and high school, and I am now a Jazz Studies major at UConn. I have also taught myself guitar, and I constantly think about music in everything I do. Being brought up around sports though, I always had that athletic outlet in basketball and baseball. 

When did you get involved with ultimate frisbee?
I actually began playing frisbee in middle school during lunch recess, but did not start playing ultimate until I got to high school. My junior year of high school, I saw a poster for the start of an ultimate frisbee club. I went to a few meetings and practices, and immediately became obsessed. I wasn't great in high school, but it was a good way to start playing the sport. I got involved with the ultimate team at UConn (our team name is GRIND) as soon as I began my freshman year, and have been playing ever since. I also played for the club team "Slow Children" this past summer, which gave me a ton of experience with high level ultimate. 

What is the American Ultimate Disc League? How did you get involved?
The AUDL is a new league that was recently formed, with the main goal of making Ultimate more accessible and spreading the sport to take it to new heights that the sport has never been to before. The AUDL is doing a ton of promotion and marketing with the main goal of making the sport more mainstream. I got involved after hearing a little bit about it from my teammates, my coach, and other ultimate players. When I first heard about the league, I did not think too much of it. I really did not think that it would be as big as it is today. A few weeks ago, my UConn coachinsisted on a bunch of the UConn guys going to the open tryouts that the Connecticut Constitution were holding. We had nothing to lose, so about 15 of us went. Four of us were invited to the second round of tryouts, and three of us were invited back to the third and final round of tryouts. Those three players, myself included, all ended up making the team. 

What are the Connecticut Constitutions chances of winning it all?
I think that the Constitution's chances of winning it all are really good! Next to all of the pure athleticism and talent that we have, our team chemistry is like nothing I've ever been a part of before. Every single guy on the team is incredibly nice, supportive of each other, and has a desire to win that is unparalleled by other athletes. I could not think of a better and more talented group of guys to play with. 

How can more people get involved?
More people can get involved by coming to some of the clinics that the Constitution will be holding throughout the season and by contacting the team. The absolute best way to get involved though is to come to a game.

Where do you think the league will be in 10 years?
In 10 years, I see the AUDL becoming huge. I can see this league blowing up and become a national thing. I'm thinking specials and full games covered on ESPN or some other national network. It definitely has the potential to become that big.

What are your aspirations for yourself and team?
I always aspire to become a better player in every aspect, but as a team, I would love to see us win the championship in the inaugural season of the league. I know that I am part of something special here, and I am really looking forward to an incredible experience.

Thank you to Matt. And good luck.

And Let Us Say...Amen.

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Things I’ve learned from raising a puppy

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03/21/2012

I have a puppy named Levi. He's about eight months old, and he is an adorable chiweenie.

Chi-what? Yep, you read that right. Levi's a chiweenie. (Or as a friend said, a teeny chiweenie.)

Take the cutest features of a Chihuahua and a Dachshund, mix them together, and that's Levi.

I got Levi in November, when he was a tiny puppy. Today, I got to thinking about all the things that raising him (yes, raising like a child) has taught me.

Things I’ve learned from raising a puppy photo 1 

Levi, when I first got him.

Until you have perfected raising a dog from puppy to adulthood, you will never be ready for parenthood. I'm not the first to say that having a dog, particularly a puppy, is like having a child. Except that you have nine months to prepare for a baby, during which you go to classes, read books and prepare yourself for the being that will dominate your every thought and breath for at least the next two decades.

If you go to a pet store and purchase a puppy, like I did, all it takes is a few minutes and it's a done deal. Most people, me included, probably don't "prepare" for having a dog at all, let alone as much as they should. (Cats are different – their independence makes them much lower-maintenance pets. And maybe their intelligence too. Kidding.)

I didn't read anything. I didn't think about what I'd do when he'd start treating the carpet like a toilet. I didn't imagine a situation in which he'd rip through a wire, or stick his nose into a socket and electrocute himself, causing him to spend the night at an animal hospital, hooked up to an IV. I didn't consider that he'd turn into a little bully, pestering the cats and pulling at their ears with his teeth like Mike Tyson.

Having a child certainly isn't a prerequisite for having a puppy, but perhaps having a puppy should be a prerequisite for having a child. You develop patience, immunity to the smell of poo, and most importantly, self-restraint that will prevent you from harming your future child after they've done something wrong. (At least you'll be able to speak in the same language as your future child!)

Also, being cute will get you off the hook for just about anything. There have been times I've wanted to scream at Levi at the top of my lungs. Like all the times that he ate through a nice pair of shoes, dragged cat poo out of the litter box, ripped up the carpet, howled like a coyote at 3 a.m…. you get the picture. But every time I've picked him and wanted to yell at him, I couldn't. I tried, but I was powerless. Want to know why?

Things I’ve learned from raising a puppy photo 3

This face. Look at this face. Can YOU yell at this face? Thought not.

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My views on Jews and tattoos

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03/20/2012

My views on Jews and tattoos photo

I recently learned that there are more divorces today then tattoo removals. I'm assuming that’s a fact. And while both are supposed to be permanent, the tattoo ironically seems to be the one that sticks around till death do you part. Well, let's just say till death. (You really don’t part with a tattoo when you die…) But what I do find ironic is the thought process to get a tattoo seems to be relatively expedited. The decision to get married sometimes take years to manifest, yet the idea of getting a tattoo is sometimes a way to kill an afternoon.

Let me preface this by giving you my personal view towards tattoos, I would never get one. Never have, never will. However, I actually like tattoos. I think they can be an awesome way to express who you are. That is, of course, as long as the tattoo looks good and/or has a special meaning to you. You getting a tattoo for the sake of getting a tattoo is absurd. Once you hit 20 different tattoos, that rule doesn't apply anymore. At that point, clearly you are a tattoo enthusiast and I’ll shut up with my feeble opinion. But until then, for the casual tattoo recipient, it’s very important to remember that a tattoo is a permanent life decision, not that I need to tell you that, and one you are probably not going to tell your parents about. So if I do happen upon an individual with, let’s say, a tattoo of an apple, there better be an interesting anecdote or affirmation as to the apple permanently emblazoned into their flesh. Not something like, "I love apples!" But more like, "You see this apple? This apple right here? This apple saved my life man. Without this apple, we would NOT be having this conversation. I hope you can appreciate that fact man. It’s a reminder for me to never…and I mean NEVER forget the power of the apple.”

Placement is also another important issue. One place in particular, strikes my critical fancy. This is why I fail to understand the back of the neck tattoos. What’s the point of a tattoo if you can’t see it? For that matter, anywhere else on the neck makes even less sense. As the comedian Todd Barry says in regards to people with neck tattoos, “hey, you forgot to not do that.”

One thing that I find incredibly interesting is the types of tattoos that I have known many Jews to get. I have a handful of Jewish acquaintances that have gotten Jewish themed tattoos. I've seen a lot of people with tattoos written in Hebrew, or something involving the Star of David and even images associated with the AEPI fraternity. It's not so much an act of rebellion, but an act of embracing their Jewishnessicity (a word I made up but love). I bring up the point of rebellion, because until I wrote this blog and did a little research, I really thought you could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you had a tattoo. Turns out, that's not always the case. When it comes to Judaism and tattoos, the argument against it, is really more about not altering your body, so essentially piercings are out as well. And braces. (Without knowing it, I rebelled for almost three years.)

Let’s try being hypothetical for second. If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would have to be something I was ready to have for the rest of my life. It could not be a quick decision. It could not be an easy decision. That said I’ll make it right now. Some ideas I have are getting a tattoo of my face covering my face, because I love my face. I’d also really love to put the phrase, "this space left intentionally blank" pretty much anywhere. Every time someone would point it out, I’d look at it with exasperation and distraught wondering how this could have happened. Then I have the idea of putting, on the small my back, a picture of a stamp with the word “tramp” on it. Ha-ha! One tattoo I’d obviously be required to get is the Batman symbol affixed to my chest. If only I had the chest to pull that off. But finally, if I have to choose just one to get, I would like to get a simple word… slapped across my tuchus… that reads, “jew-cy”.

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The inner battle of the Orthodox Jew

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03/19/2012

Marcy Nehorai photo 4

A baal teshuva is a term often used to refer to Orthodox Jews who did not grow up religiously observant and became religious later on in life. Literally, it means "master of return"; returning to who we really are, on an essential level. In my opinion, we are all baal teshuvas no matter whether born religious or not; always struggling to stay both inspired and committed— an arduous task indeed.  And this is our story.

Here's a tale not often told.

Or perhaps, more honestly, a tale rarely told all the way through.

We've got the disenchanted on one side— the jaded, the skeptical— and the inspired glowers on the other, both championing their cause, both stomping their feet on the ground and insisting they are right.

But, like any truthful portrayal of humanity, the masses that choose to play by the game and live by the rules live in the middle, perspiring, shuffling, rising and falling.

You may hear their stories of triumph, but not always their moments of confusion, of fluctuation, when they find themselves on the left, then the middle, and finally right again. Only to oscillate once more.

A life of continual return. Never quite there, never having made it, at least for long.

For these Jewish souls, there is one common thread— when the going gets tough, they remain in the fight.

Heaving themselves off the couch to daven (again) (for the third time), steadfast to their promised weekly learning schedule (it's getting boring), opening up that Sefer, forcing concentration, reaching deeper, trying to mean it, trying to feel it, trying to think…

Wearing the kippah. Slipping on the knee length skirt. Playing the part. Going through the motions. Again.

Until they break through.

It's not the glamorous life, not always. But then again, neither is exercise. In the end, in the middle, in those moments of triumphs, in those feelings of connection and intimacy and understanding, for them, it's all worth it. Not that they live for those moments; they live for the relationship. In it for the long haul, knowing that their souls are one, that this is their destiny.

You may call them Orthodox, but I just call them committed.

Turning their eyes to the Oral Law, they bow their heads and know that, long ago, their Ketubah was signed, and they will put in the effort no matter what.

Glamorous or not. Despite, despite…

Despite the horror of horrors, not "feeling it". There, the Baal Teshuva stands. In that place beyond and within reason, in that realm of commitment. Finding his place and identity in the very mental and emotional exercise that wears his bones and ultimately, tones his own muscles to push him through.

Some might not tell the complexities of their tale because of shame, not wanting to taint the minds of those already turned against their ways, who don't understand. Who don't want to understand. Or to avoid discouraging others from embarking on the difficult journey. Or just not to focus on it. To focus on that which they love, that which they understand. That which they hold within themselves. To keep on pushing through. To keep sane.

On the street they may look one way, but they may talk another. One can never know the continuous battle that goes on within their minds and their hearts, wholeheartedly committed on one hand, wrestling, entangled on the other. The nature of their condition.

There are no victory parades for them, or movies cataloguing their latest subtle triumphs. Like any real relationship, there is no fanfare. The only thing ostensibly discernible for certain is their commitment.

For the reward of their journey is found within.

There, the Baal Teshuva stands.

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Strategy at its finest

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Heaven for international relations junkies

03/16/2012

Strategy at its finest photo 1

Representatives of Israel and the United States negotiate over prospective action.

This week, I attended unprecedented negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. What can I say? My job's pretty exciting!

Before you get too excited, they weren't real-life negotiations. They were part of "Strategic Crossroads," a national security simulation I facilitated for the young professional leaders of AJC Chicago and AJC ACCESS Chicago. This was pretty close to a personal slice of heaven for a political science and international relations junkie like me.

Four teams–each representing either the United States, the European Union, Israel or Saudi Arabia–received an "intelligence update" that required a carefully tailored reaction from each. They plotted strategic goals, negotiated with other teams and then presented a set of national security recommendations to the head of their country.

Strategy at its finest photo 2

Members of the EU team contemplate their goals at the beginning of “Strategic Crossroads.”

But the learning didn't stop there. Two Chicago-based diplomats along with AJC Chicago Regional Director Dan Elbaum played the roles of country leaders and gave feedback on the actions and strategies suggested by each team. Their real-world diplomatic experience added insights that might have been overlooked otherwise.

I can't reveal the original scenario–the game was designed exclusively for ACCESS by a current Chicago Booth student Gil Schwartz, who used to create similar simulations for the national security establishment. But I can reveal the desired effect: A more profound understanding of the power plays involved in solving an international crisis; a better handle on the art of diplomacy; and an object lesson in subtlety and keeping one's cool.

I'll be organizing at least three more of these games throughout the year, each focusing on an issue in the Middle East. And similar games are going on all around the country. Schwartz is also designing a new scenario for the upcoming ACCESS 20/20 conference, a D.C. weekend of activism, networking and fun May 4-6.

See you there!

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2012 Jewish NCAA bracket

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03/15/2012

Jeremy Fine photo

Over the last three years The Great Rabbino has been giving you the Jewish NCAA Bracket. In the first year I brought you a winner—Duke and Cornell helped produce those results. Last year I was in the middle of the pack. I used various methods from Jewish numbering, players, and Hillel sizes. But this year I tried a different method—I reached out to four rabbis, each with a connection to the tournament regions. Each region was decided by the individual rabbi and then I picked the Final Four matchups and champion. Below you’ll find a brief reason why each rabbi was chosen and their respective brackets. Here’s hoping that five rabbis can summon God and help you with your bracket.

Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz - Duke Hillel Rabbi. Duke is the #2 seed in the South Region.
Rabbi Efrem Reis - Last time MSU won it, it had a lot to do with Flint. Rabbi Reis was born in Flint.
Rabbi Erez Sherman - Rabbi Sherman was raised in Syracuse and they are the #1 seed.
Rabbi Ari Kaiman - Rabbi Kaiman is a rabbi in St. Louis that serves as host of the Midwest Region.

SOUTH - Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz
Round 1 - Kentucky, Iowa State, VCU, Indiana, Baylor, UNLV, Xavier, Duke
Round 2 - Kentucky, VCU, Baylor, Duke
Sweet Sixteen - Kentucky, Duke
Elite Eight - Kentucky

WEST - Rabbi Efrem Reis
Round 1 - Michigan State, Memphis, New Mexico, Louisville, Colorado State, Marquette, Virginia, Missouri
Round 2 - Michigan State, Louisville, Marquette, Missouri
Sweet Sixteen - Michigan State, Marquette
Elite Eight - Michigan State

EAST - Rabbi Erez Sherman
Round 1 - Syracuse, Kansas State, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida State, West Virginia, Ohio State
Round 2 - Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Florida State, West Virginia
Sweet Sixteen - Syracuse, Florida State
Elite Eight - Syracuse

MIDWEST - Rabbi Ari Kaiman
Round 1 - North Carolina, Creighton, Temple, Ohio, San Diego State, Belmont, Saint Mary’s, Kansas
Round 2 - North Carolina, Temple, San Diego State, Kansas
Sweet Sixteen - North Carolina, Kansas
Elite Eight - North Carolina

FINAL FOUR - Rabbi Jeremy Fine

Given all #1 seeds (thanks Rabbis for being creative) here are the TGR Picks

Michigan State over Kentucky
North Carolina over Syracuse

North Carolina over Michigan State

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My bucket list

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03/14/2012

My Bucket List photo 1

Hiking in Torrey Pines National Park

I couldn't read Jane's post last month without stopping to day-dream about my own bucket list. I've thought about my list before from time-to-time. I was very fortunate that my parents traveled extensively with me during my childhood and instilled in me the same love of travel that they share. As a result, my bucket list has always been just a long list of the places in the world I want to go visit that I haven't been to yet. But Jane got me thinking, isn't there more I want to accomplish in my life than just traveling a lot?

The other night I couldn't sleep— something of a reoccurring problem— so I started to write my own bucket list. (It was better than counting sheep.) I thought I'd share it with you Oy!sters. Travel will always be my number one passion, but trips are no longer the only items to make up my list. I realize this list will change (probably dramatically), but I like having it written down in a public space— maybe it will get me to accomplish some of these.

Here's my bucket list:

Swim with the sharks.

Climb a man-made landmark like The Great Wall of China or the pyramids in Egypt. Climb a nature-made landmark, Mount Everest is probably aiming a little too high, but something along those lines.

Set up at least a dozen couples and dance at a few of their weddings/Become the (nice) Patti Stanger of Chicago to my friends and family.

Live in a city other than Chicago for at least a year, preferably in Maui.

Learn to surf.

My Bucket List photo 2

Hiking with Jason in Waimea Canyon in Kauai

Become a bigger risk taker professionally/start my own business.

Get a Master's degree for fun. I've finally come to the realization that I'm never going to do anything with my undergraduate degree in history, but I still want to "waste" more money and make it a Master's.

Write a historical fiction book.

Learn to relax. Be less stubborn.

Get married and have at least one kid.

Bake a delicious cake and eat the whole thing myself without feeling any guilt.

Perfect my Spanish.

Jump out of a moving helicopter into the ocean and/or go sky-diving.

Get involved with politics again and advocate for causes I believe in. (I was very involved in politics in college but my pessimism and life have gotten in the way in the past few years.)

Visit all 50 states… I'm close on this one, I've been to 46 of them.

Visit at least the following places: Panama, Belize, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Ireland, Scotland, Amsterdam, Greece, Croatia, Fiji, Bora Bora, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand…

So… tell me…what's on your bucket list?

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The BFF ‘I do’

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03/13/2012

The BFF ‘I do’ photo

I found myself deep-sighing on the phone with my sister recently about some of the annual inevitabilities of spring—namely moving season and wedding season.

"Spring is a real yay-boo," my sister said.

To which I responded, "Is that a real phrase, 'yay-boo'?"  Honestly, she kind of nailed it.

Only a day after setting the clocks back, I gleefully pulled down my sun visor during my car ride home from work. Soon, I will uncover my pedal pushers (as my mom likes to call them) from the dark depths of my dresser. I will dust off my heavy duty sunglasses. I will make the dramatic switch-over from my hot Starbucks Grande Americano, to my Starbucks Iced Grande Americano—my true marker of spring. My neighborhood Scooter's Frozen Custard shop just opened, and soon all will be right in the world.

With chirping birds and iced caffeinated beverages comes yet another "spring awakening": The wedding save-the-dates on my refrigerator no longer announce events a year away.

The minute you say "I do" to your BFF, she owns you.

On one hand, you wanted to be "owned." It's like the ultimate first pick in elementary school dodge ball. "She likes me, she really likes me!" It's a huge honor when a friend asks you to be a bridesmaid and it's flattering to receive the bridesmaid proposal. It means your friend values you enough to have you share real estate at her wedding alter. She wants you to be in her photos that she's going to show her grandchildren. She wants you there on the ground floor for one of the biggest days of her life. She also trusts you to be there to help put out fires.

The BFF "I do" also comes with its challenges. If movies such as 27 Dresses and Bridesmaids have taught us anything, bridesmaids need to be supportive and they also need to do their best not to wreck the wedding. Let's face it, the bridal party consists of a group of women preparing for an emotionally charged event and their personal issues are inevitably going to surface. Whether these ladies are already married or bride hopefuls, they have some strong opinions about how every aspect of the festivities should go down. A friend and future bride who fears turning into a bride-zilla often jokes in her emails to the bridesmaids, "I still want us to be friends after the wedding."

Every bride and bridal party will have their own personalities, peculiarities and triggers, from demanding hand-dyed shoes and spray tans, to passive-aggressively tearing each other apart throughout the festivities leading up to the wedding. Some men think the movies dramatize these events—sometimes they're accurate. I have a few pointers for surviving bridesmaid-dom.

A Bridesmaid's Survival Guide: How not to turn into Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids

'Say yes' to the Bridesmaid Dress

The dress might be frog-green, with ruffles and sequins, but wear the dreadful dress. If she asks, wear the halter straps, strapless dress or sleeves. Many modern brides are letting bridesmaids pick the style if they all adhere to the same color and fabric. You can live with anything for one day. The bride has been dreaming of this day since she was 5 and this is how she envisioned you would look. Assume the attitude of a child preparing for an ice skating recital. Put on the costume and smile as you glide down the aisle.

Hopefully your bride doesn't have a side agenda to make all the bridesmaids uglier than she. I personally think this is a bit of an urban myth. Most brides want their bridesmaids to look attractive, so the entire wedding is beautiful.

What to Expect with the Dress

The dress will be too expensive. Bridal-wear is often sized down, so you'll have the added ego-booster of having to buy a dressing that is two- to three-times larger than what you normally wear. Expect you will also have to spend about half the cost of the dress in alterations. It's the most expensive dress you'll never wear again.

Play Nice and Drink Up

While the maid of honor often plans the bachelorette party, bridesmaids can find themselves tasked with planning the party instead. For the bride, this ladies' night really is a special "last night out" with some of her closest friends. That's not to say brides don't have ladies' nights after they get married, but it's a special and symbolic night for the bride.

This night can also be a significant and memorable night for all the attendees—a last hurrah with the soon-to-be-attached bride. Don't let tiffs between bridesmaids get in the way. The happiest group is one where everyone feels like they have a say. And, account for everyone's budgetary limitations.

Cha-ching

No matter what, the wedding will cost you. Whether you're attending a local wedding or traveling for the wedding, at the very least, account for a dress, shoes, shower gift, bachelorette gift and wedding gift.

Don't Get Caught Up in BFF Drama

Avoid comparing your relationship to the bride with the other ladies in the bridal party. You're part of the party because the bride cares about you. She's not sitting and measuring you against her other bridesmaids—so you shouldn't either. The best thing you can do for yourself and the bride is to be there to support her. You'd want the same if you were getting married. Don't pull a Kristen Wiig!

Be Prepared

In events leading up to the wedding and on the wedding day, be prepared to wear many emergency hats including therapist, counselor, problem solver, tailor, medic and more. Be prepared for bride nervous breakdowns, bridesmaid meltdowns, sick and drunk relatives, emergency stains and tears on dresses, family fights and more. Bring an emergency kit with band aids, nail polish remover, extra makeup, chocolate and booze.

I went to a wedding in Denver, in which a bear wound up in the parking lot and guests couldn't leave. Anything is possible.

Don't Have a Date? Don't Worry

Groomsmen. Enough said.

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I felt the earth move under my feet

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03/12/2012

I felt the earth move under my feet photo 1

March 11, 2011

It was shortly after lunch on my eighth day of training in Japan, when I suddenly felt dizzy and thought my bowl of ramen was about to make a return appearance. The room honestly felt like it was spinning. Turns out, it wasn’t actually spinning but rather swaying back and forth. I looked around and my eight fellow trainees and trainer had a similar look of confusion on their faces. Ah, yes. It was an earthquake.

I’d heard Japan is pretty seismically active and I was now feeling my first one. Cool? Yeah, a little. I was safe. My new friends in Japan were safe. And once the building had stopped vacillating, we immediately resumed our discussion on managing a classroom of Japanese students who understand little of what I say and vice versa.

After training I sent a quick email to my parents and brother reassuring them that when they woke up and read online that there was an earthquake in Japan, I was ok. My training group then went out for a night of beer and fried deliciousness at a nearby basement izakaya where I had no cell phone reception and had no idea what was becoming of the “little” earthquake I had felt hours ago. I emerged from dinner, checked my new iPhone and found 64 notifications waiting for me on Facebook. Now, I consider myself a pretty active Facebook user with numerous daily notifications, but 64 was a new high. Don’t think I even hit that on my birthday. Something big was happening. All of America awoke to news of an 8.9 earthquake in Japan, and as one of Japan’s newest citizens, I was one of the first people to pop into everyone’s mind. The response was a bit overwhelming. I was grateful for everyone’s concern but the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, though devastating, happened over 500 miles away from me. I knew my experience abroad was about to change, but I had no idea the turn this disaster was about to take.

You see, the seismic activity was a devastating blow to Japan, but in the area of the earthquake was a nuclear plant that was damaged by the quake and began to have trouble cooling itself down. I was and am still no expert on nuclear activity but I started hearing rumors that this could be trouble. Radiation could escape and be potentially dangerous.

The hardest part of all of this for me was that I couldn't wrap my head around what was happening. Was it safe to stay in Japan? I tried to read the reaction of the Japanese people on the street which proved difficult because everyone seemed to remain calm—but there was a tension in the air. Since I was in training, I wasn’t in the classroom yet with Japanese students who I could ask what they were feeling. I was also hearing rumors that the Japanese government wasn’t being completely forthcoming with information which made we weary of any news coming from them. Finally, I met a Japanese teacher who taught English (and coincidentally had lived in Chicago for five years) and she explained to me that what happened is causing problems in Northern Japan, but at that time, I was safe in Osaka. I learned that even though there may have been some radiation that had escaped, the amount I would have to consume for it to cause any damage to me would have been extreme and we experience more radiation with microwaves and cell phones than what was coming from the nuclear plants at that time. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge YouTube fan so it probably shouldn’t surprise you that that is where I finally found the answers I was looking. Nuclear Boy calmed my nerves about the whole situation. Somehow comparing this nuclear disaster to a soiled diaper cleared up my confusion.

During this difficult time in Japan, I was so impressed with America’s response to the situation. Immediately, my home country began collecting funds and sending aid to those in the disaster area. As a Jew and former JUF employee, I was proud to see our community come together and send help to a country in need. There aren’t very many Jews in Japan (I’ll save that for a later post) and to see my community respond was heartwarming. I went to see some live music at my favorite local café and at the end, the musician, noticing that there were some foreigners in the audience, (I had a hard time blending in anywhere) extended his appreciation for the support and aid that foreign countries were sending to his country.

I felt the earth move under my feet photo 2

Being in Japan during a time of national tragedy gave me a unique perspective on what was happening in the world. I was able to see the strength and resilience of the Japanese people and see the nation come together to support their peers in the north. One year later, there is still rebuilding to be done, but if there’s one thing I know about the Japanese, it’s that they are hard workers and will persevere to rebuild a stronger Japan. 

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Hushed tones

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03/09/2012

I remember as a kid, when someone had an illness it was talked about in hushed tones.

I'm not sure why words like cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's were not discussed, but that was the whispering culture that has ended in the last decade or so.

However, there are some diseases that are still stigmatized, and sufferers are often marginalized.

This week, I attended a Mental Health First Aid course. One of the presenters pointed out that if you have a family member diagnosed with cancer, everyone calls, emails, people bring over food, offer to visit, etc.

If someone has a family member diagnosed with an impairing mental illness, the support is limited and the family of the ill person as well as the person suffering from the disease is often isolated and ignored.

We can all agree that it is a Jewish value is to visit the sick.

However, mental illness is a sickness, and how many people visit those who are recovering from mental health disorders?

A few months ago, I heard a report on the radio about a class offering "Mental Health First Aid." Often times, I listen to a program on the radio and find it compelling, but rarely do I follow up on the information.

However, something about this report propelled me to find out more information, and this week, with encouragement from my colleagues at Shorashim, I was sitting at the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago learning what to do in case you encounter a mental health crisis.

The course is not intended to turn you into a psychologist or therapist. It is to give you the tools to react appropriately in a crisis until professional help arrives.

I learned how to be a "first responder" if someone is depressed, suicidal, having an anxiety attack, abusing alcohol, or having a psychotic episode.

The information was very comprehensive, and I highly recommend the class to basically anyone who has frequent dealings with the public.

The two-day class is free although space is very limited. Check out the website for more information or find a class in the Chicago area.

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Why I love eating out in Chicago

 Permanent link
03/08/2012

Michelle Well photo

Last month I promised to write about men's spring fashion for my March post. I'm actually postponing that to next month and instead, I'm writing about dining in Chicago. I know this probably sounds like a generic and over-addressed topic, but I actually think it's interesting – the culinary experience in Chicago is so unique. I'm fairly well-traveled and I truly believe that Chicago has the best restaurants out of any city I've visited. Even my many dining experiences in New York City haven't measured up. And my favorite part about dining out in Chicago is that it's not just the food, it's also the neighborhoods that enhance the eating experiences. Take for instance neighborhood sweet spot, Sweet Mandy B's. My boyfriend and I have recently fallen into the habit of taking a walk over there on the weekends from my Lincoln Park apartment to share a piece of their homemade fun-fetti cake. Literally the best cake I have ever had in my entire life. Even better than NYC's Momofuku Milk Bar's birthday cake truffles – and that says a LOT. We've grown accustomed to grabbing a bite of authentic Jamaican cuisine at Ja Grill or Greek comfort food at the Athenian Room, both charming, cozy, exceptionally tasty and within walking distance of my place.

Last Friday, we decided to walk into The Purple Pig on a whim and as usual, the atmosphere didn't disappoint. Yes, crowded, yes there's a long wait, but everyone's nice, the service is fast, the food is phenomenal, and the location is perfect for a fun night downtown.  Last night, I went with a friend to Tavernita, recently opened by the same people as Mercadito, one of my all time favorites. Both of us eating there for the first time, we were extremely impressed by the Spanish tapas-style restaurant. The vibe was trendy yet very comfortable, the wine was delicious and inexpensive, and the food wowed. I'm definitely going back. On top of it all, the location is perfect, right in the middle of all the action.

Chicago does a great job with its restaurants because they consistently play off of the neighborhoods they're in, adding to the overall dining experience. The Lincoln Park establishments fit into the casual and residential vibe of the neighborhood and the downtown restaurants tend to be more bustling and energized. I've only used two neighborhoods as examples, but no matter where I am in this city, I have found that I always leave satisfied.

My boyfriend and I were on a double date at Coast Sushi in Bucktown (the "Tuna on Top" special maki roll was ridiculously good) last Saturday with friends from Arizona and Georgia. They are only living in Chicago for about a year and a half for work and have made a point to eat at as many Chicago hot spots as possible. Every time I see them, they're talking about the last amazing restaurant they tried and they are such fans of Girl and the Goat, and its West Loop location, that they make their next reservation at the host stand immediately following their meal, like making a dentist appointment.  

People from all over agree, there is nothing like eating in the Chi.

What are your favorite eateries?

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Portlandia

 Permanent link
03/07/2012

Cindy Sher photo 2

At a recent family dinner, my 6-year-old nephew said the words that perhaps every 6-year-old kid has said at some point in their young lives. "It's not fair," he objected.

He was venting his frustration toward his parents who were forcing him to turn off a computer game, a typical request from the parents of a first grader.

In a way my nephew is right—being a kid isn't fair. He doesn't get a vote or get to vote (although I think he knows more about the political candidates than some adults), and he has to do everything his parents tell him—go to bed when he's told, eat what's cooked for him, go to public school and Hebrew school, and limit his Nintendo Wii and Star Wars consumption.

In my daily life—apart from the demands (albeit big ones) like work and family—I have the freedom to make my own choices. If I wish to book a flight on a whim to New York City, I can do that. If I want to go to the midnight showing of Midnight in Paris, I can. And if I want to eat Ben & Jerry's "Peanut Butter Cup" for dinner, that's okay too (sort of).

This empowerment thing was going along swimmingly for me for a long time. But it hit a snag some months back when my older sister—and best friend—told me that she, my brother-in-law, and their three precious sons (ages 6, 4, and 1) are moving out of Evanston for my brother-in-law's job. No, they aren't moving down the road to Skokie. Rather they, in Lewis & Clark fashion, are heading northwest to discover Portland, Oregon.

Guess how much say I had in this decision? That's right. Zero. Sometimes being an adult isn't fair either.

I've gotten very accustomed to having my sister's home a quick car or El ride away, watching my nephews gradually grow up. One of my favorite traditions with them has been Shabbat dinners. Lighting the Shabbat candles over the years has been a marker of time. At first, I'd hold my nephews, swaddled sleeping bundles of joy, in my arms as we welcomed in the Sabbath. And then, every day before my eyes, they grow into sweet and precocious little boys, now lighting the candles themselves, chanting the blessing over the challah, dressed in coverings decorated in crayon and construction paper by the boys at school.

Last summer, when I heard news of their pending move, I googled Portland, searching for ammunition to convince them to stay. "The Occupy Portland protests have gotten out of hand over there," I was tempted to remind them. "Did you know the Portland Jewish newspaper folded? How will you get your local Jewish news?" the Jewish journalist in me wanted to tell them. And then I thought to reach for the most obvious Portland factoid of all in my bag of tricks: "You know it rains like 95% of the time in Portland, right?" But in the end, I didn't try to sway them at all because I know I don't get a vote on this one.

And from the rain (of Portland) comes a rainbow—and I'm trying to find the rainbow, the bright side, in their move too: They have carefully weighed the decision and the move is the best thing for their family as they seize a wonderful, fresh opportunity. Plus, Portland, I've heard a zillion times over the last several months, is a city with a very high quality of life, a combination of incredible city living and natural beauty—a great place to visit.

Oh and Portland may rain—though it doesn't rain there nearly as much as we think it does—but in a weather contest, Chicago so loses every time.

The other bright side for anyone out there with relatives scattered geographically is that the world keeps shrinking and we can easily connect with our loved ones in any locale. After all, there are airplanes—thank you Wright Brothers! In fact, I already have a flight booked to Portland for Pesach. And when you can't actually be there, there's Skype, there's e-mail, and there are phones attached to us at all times too.

It's a fact that life's not fair. People move away. Siblings relocate—and take their kids with them. But if you're lucky, you'll nurture your relationships with the people who matter most to you—you'll be there for each other no matter what zip code you live in.

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Seeing all my colors beyond the shade of grey

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03/06/2012

Jenna Benn photo

It has been quite a year. Less than a year ago I was in the beginning of my fight against cancer – unsure if I was going to make it to my 30th birthday. I was bald, underweight and praying that my PET scan would show a reduction in the cancerous cells that had ravaged my body. I held my loved ones tight, I wrote, and I reached out to my world for love and support.

As I called to you, you answered me with open arms – open hearts – and you were there, ready to brace my fall.

During some of my most vulnerable moments you reminded me that I am stronger today than yesterday – but not as strong as I will be tomorrow.

A year ago I was desperately holding on to moments, praying for more time, and trying to find meaning amongst all of the suffering.

This Saturday – March 3 – I turned one.

One year of being in remission.

One year of seeing and living in hyper color.

One year of living in a state of overwhelming gratitude.

When I finished treatment this past May and slowly tiptoed out of the shadows and into the real world, I found myself negotiating a lot of fears.

The further I moved away from the trauma, the more I started to rebuild – and the more I felt I had to lose.

I was constantly waiting for the ball to drop.

During this period of overwhelming "what-ifs," I also wondered if I would ever find love again. Would I ever meet someone that could see beyond my physical scars and navigate their way through the scars that lay beneath? Would I ever be able to meet someone that saw my cancer experience as a strength as opposed to a handicap?

Would I ever be able to meet someone that saw cancer as one piece of me – as opposed to all of me? Well. I met someone – and not just someone.

The person I was hoping to one day meet happened to be there all along. It took ten years of living in close proximity to one another for us to be able to see each other for who we really are.

I not only found someone that is able to see beyond the scars and beyond the cancer, but I found someone that appreciates all my quirks, my eccentricity, and all the colors beyond the shade of grey.

My dear friend, soul sister, and fellow survivor Ann wrote, "with trauma comes perseverance, empathy, an open mind and most importantly an open heart."

I wholeheartedly believe that my journey with cancer is what has brought me here – which is exactly where I am supposed to be.

As I approach my one-year birthday and I reflect on what it means to be tied up and untied, I am reminded the importance of holding on to hope, of dreaming big, and believing that miracles can and do happen.

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Introducing Rebbe the puppy!

 Permanent link
03/05/2012

Introducing Rebbe the puppy photo

A healthy cockapoo was born December 22, 2011, from a lively poodle dad named Dino— who could smile on command— and a sweet mother named Ginger. We had no idea how we were going to choose him from the litter or if he was going to choose us. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. This was a life-changing decision, and we were scared and uncertain of how the future was going to unravel, now that we were about to welcome a little male puppy into our lives. We had chosen to name him Rebbe Kain Silver, which most of you already know is Yiddish for rabbi, so he was going to be as Jewish as possible. Of course, we tossed around a bunch of different names, including Shlomo, but Rebbe seemed to stick when we were introduced to him. But we shouldn’t have worried; we saw many wonderful qualities right away that we fell in love with: he was approachable, friendly, full of life and love, and a great listener, like any successful rabbi. We could look into his beautiful blue puppy eyes and see the wonders of the world swirling about, like the waves of the ocean.

Our lives were about to change forever: we were bringing a rabbi into our home! He was just under seven weeks when my girlfriend Ashley brought him back home. We had no idea what to expect, but we both kind of liked it. We were masters of our domain now. We decide how to raise him, how to care for him, and how to enjoy every minute with him. As any good parent does, both of us were wondering how we were going to train him, what toys to give him, what food and when to feed him, and how to discipline him when he misbehaves.

My uncle Steve, a psychiatrist, wrote a wonderfully insightful blog that takes a look at how animals as pets can be very rehabilitative for humans and covers a range of therapeutic issues (I’m pretty sure Ashley and I are the “couple” he mentions). It really got my girlfriend and me thinking about how Rebbe was going to affect us, our relationship, and our own well-being. Since neither of us were raised with pets, we were not familiar with what it’s like to live with a pet, let alone take care of one. We knew that we were going to be making sacrifices, that he was going to try our patience and vie for our attention at every turn, but most importantly, he was going to love us, and we were going to love him.

We excitedly brought him into our home on that cool Sunday evening. Ashley says he slept most of the car ride, a rarity with puppies, so we knew right away he was going to be just fine. By the time I had arrived from out of town, Ashley had already picked him up and went with him to meet me at the airport. He couldn’t be more excited or more precious— slightly larger than the last time I saw him— and in a matter of moments I felt myself transforming from a 28-year-old graduate student and educator into a parent. And it felt great. I couldn’t wait to take him home and play with him, shower him with love and share with Ashley the happiness that only families can experience and appreciate.

Before we were settled, we gathered around the mezzuzah outside our apartment and said the Shehecheyanu, to welcome our newest member into the family and our home. We looked upon him with loving eyes and reflected on how bright and exciting the future looks. And while he may not be given a neshamah— a soul— like we were by o-d, Rebbe’s life and existence will be highly valued and cherished. We are a family, embarking on a new journey through life.

So cheers to the families out there, it is truly a blessing and a joy. L’Chaim!

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What I Did Today In Reverse Alphabetical Order

 Permanent link
03/02/2012

What I Did Today In Reverse Alphabetical Order photo

In honor of the 29th of February, I decided to not have a very ordinary day. I chose to have a day that might happen only once every 4 years. At least in my life anyway. A day in which I tried to do something that started with every letter of the alphabet. Following is a list of my activities that took place throughout the day. Enjoy!

Z- I didn’t do anything with Z. Kind of a bad start. But not many things involve the letter Z. I can only think of two. Zombies and zebras….oh wait…I rode a zebra today. Forgot about that.

Y- Yodeled. Not too much though. Just enough to get it out of my system.

X- Just marked that spot.

W- Walked a mile in my own shoes, just to see how it felt. I now realize I knew nothing until then.

V- Voiced my opinion on how I am a productive procrastinator. I thought I had some strong arguments but instead gave up.

U- Unregistered from being an Earth citizen. I want to keep my options open.

S- Smugly realized I knew the alphabet in reverse.

T- Thought, but was mistaken, that I knew the alphabet in reverse.

R- Repaired my alarm clock. It should finally stop waking me up.

Q- Questioned the meaning of life. Realized I am Jewish, therefore started questioning what that small spot on my arm was. Will go to the doctor tomorrow.

P- Purchased a rug for my rug. It really ties the rug together.

LMNO- Organized my thoughts and figured an easy to way to consolidate four things into one. Now I have one dollar instead of four quarters.

K- Kung fu-ed my way out of a brown paper bag. Please don’t ask.

J- Jumped to conclusions. Took them for all they were worth.

I- Issued a statement to all my enemies that if they do not wish to speak to me I do not wish to speak to them and that it’d be great if they would call me immediately to confirm.

H- Hijacked a shopping cart. I am now the proud owner of 6-pack of Kleenex, a box of Good and Plenty and some Dr. Scholl’s. All of which don’t taste terrible.

G- Gave my regards to Broadway. Will hear from them in 5-10 business days.
Pineapple: Just making sure you’re paying attention.

F- Forgot where I left my keys. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found them in the second to last place I looked.

E- Educated myself on the difference between ketchup and catsup. One word is a slang way for felines to ask “How’s it going?”. The other word is catsup.

D- Deflated my bicycle tires to assure I continued my rigorous lack of exercise.

C- Cookie. (That should be good enough for you)

B- Brushed up on my brushing.

A- Accepted the challenge I gave to myself to spend my one extra day that I get every four years to make a silly list such as the one you have just read. Or skimmed. Or avoided altogether.

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Ron’s healthy toolbox

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03/01/2012

Ron Krit photo 2

Insanity, P90X, Biggest Loser, Crossfit… the trends in fitness today are scary. You listen to experts talking about lifting fast heavy weights, and it just irks me. Everyone is different, and there’s no one routine, or diet that will get you fit. Especially as we age, some exercises are just not good for us.

You do not have to exercise like a high school wrestler and snack on baby food to get healthy. You need a plan, and I’m going to help you create one. This is not an ad for a Fit With Krit product, it’s simple steps to live a healthy life.

Steps to a healthier YOU:

1) Buy more vegetables and fruit

I don’t care if they are fresh or frozen—just buy them. These are part of your new snack routine. You will cut them up and bring them with you wherever you go. I like to cut carrots, celery, cucumber, grapes, and apples (if you poor some lemon juice on them they don’t turn brown so fast).

2) Buy protein

Nothing fancy here—lean meats, fish, nuts, almonds, seeds, beans, greek yogurt, cheese… When you eat your vegetables, mix in a protein. If you are traveling, I recommend making your own trail mix. *You have to be careful—a lot of the prepared packages have a ton of salt. I like to mix a lightly salted almond mix with raw peanuts, almonds, cashews and some chocolate (yes, I eat and love chocolate). I’ve recently been into almond butter, placing it on everything.

3) COOK

Recipes are everywhere. There are TV shows, cook books, and this thing called the internet that make cooking very simple. If you want some tips and tricks, shoot me a note.

Stock your house with some of the staples:
- Low sodium chicken broth
- Low sodium soy sauce
- Spices (I’ll devote another column to this)
- Minced garlic (makes it easier)
- Onion, carrots, celery (a lot of recipes start with these ingredients)
- Canola oil and olive oil
- Black beans
- Quinoa
- Mustard & ketchup
- Eggs (I like cage free)
- Lean meats: chicken, beef, fish, turkey, buffalo
- Oatmeal and oats
- Tortillas (wheat, corn, flour)
- Salsa

4) Gym Bag

I use a backpack and always have it ready to go. If you work out at home, put clothes out the night before, if you go to the gym at lunch or after work, have the essentials with you. Even if I have lunch plans, I bring clothes, just in case.

Pack: 
- Clothes (I like shorts with underwear in them, one less item to bring) 
- Water bottle 
- Gym shoes 
- Flip flops 
- Deodorant 
- Lock

I’m not telling you, stop buying exercise DVDs with pretty people on the cover. Some videos are great and you can always skip exercises that hurt your body. The key to long term success: make healthy changes that are sustainable.

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