OyChicago blog

Refugees are Human Beings

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Meet Teklit, an Eritrean refugee trying to make a life in Israel
03/31/2016

Refugees are Human Beings phot

The global attitude toward accepting and integrating refugees has become increasingly more challenging of late. In Europe and North America, political leaders struggle to find physical and emotional space for the millions of refugees fleeing from Syria. Although Israel is not a destination for Syrian refugees, it is the destination for countless African refugees who seek to escape corrupt and militarized governments.

Where I live in Tel Aviv has one of the nation's largest and most concentrated populations of African asylum seekers, the majority of whom come from Eritrea and Sudan. This piece is about one of the remarkable men in my community who fled his homeland to take refuge in Israel.

Meet Teklit, a refugee from the previously war-torn and now suspiciously silent country of Eritrea. When Teklit was 17 years old, he was arrested by the Eritrean national police for asking too many questions about the government and its practices. As a rising track star preparing to join the national team, Teklit was too far into the local spotlight for the government to allow his questioning to continue.

For months, Teklit lived in a one-room cell with other political prisoners. His shared cell was dark and damp with no proper beds or toilets. At the center of the room was a hole where he and his fellow prisoners relieved themselves. The air was thick with the scent of human waste and disease spread quickly among the inmates. If one person grew ill, within hours, the entire cell was sick. To Teklit and his peers, this place was "hell on earth," but luckily for Teklit, his former athletic career caught the eye of the national military.

Ever weakened by his time in prison, Teklit remained a strong and disciplined young man. So the military offered him a choice: remain in prison, or join the army he had been arrested for questioning. Knowing this might be his only way out, Teklit accepted their offer and joined the military.

For six months, Teklit trained with the Eritrean army, living in both the constant fear of being returned to prison and the fear that remaining in the military would require him to do harm to other human beings.

"I did not want to kill anyone," he said, "so I ran."

Moving as fast as their legs could carry them, Teklit and a friend fled the army and made their way towards the Eritrean-Sudanese border. For two days, they waited to cross the heavily guarded border to what the young men hoped would be their salvation. When the time finally came for them to enter Sudan, they crossed the border running to avoid the gunshots of the Sudanese border patrol.

The moment he set foot in Sudan, Teklit became a refugee -- a person without a nation or a home. Arriving at one of Sudan's many refugee camps confirmed this status. The camp was sparse, with few resources to accommodate the countless individuals seeking shelter there. Just as in the Eritrean prison he left behind, disease ran rampant, and before long, Teklit contracted Malaria. He survived thanks to the kindness of his friend, who used his savings to pay for Teklit's medical care.

After his recovery, Teklit made his way to Cairo hoping to find a home for himself in Egypt. "I heard that they were kind to Christians there," he recounted, but Egypt had changed in the last few decades. Now, "they asked your religion before they asked your name," and "Christian" was no longer an acceptable answer.

So for much of his time in Egypt, when asked, Teklit said that his name was Mohammed or Ishmael to avoid unwanted attention. Knowing that he could not live like this forever, Teklit made the decision to go to Israel, which he'd heard described as a haven in the Middle East.

Escaping Egypt through the perilous Sinai Peninsula, Teklit arrived in Israel feeling safer than he had in ages. Even after a month of homelessness and sleeping out in the rain, he described Israel as "heaven." But now, after eight years of living as an asylum seeker possessing no clear legal status, Teklit views Israel with a mixture of gratitude and frustration.

While he has the freedom to speak his mind and practice his religion without fear of arrest within Israel's borders, as a stateless person it is difficult for him to find a regular job or attend university; nor can he obtain a visa to immigrate to another country. He faces a struggle similarly felt by the thousands of families and individuals fleeing from Syria -- as well as the less publicized flights from Sudan and other war-torn African countries . For now, he cannot return home, and until he gains legal refugee status -- something that is nearly impossible in Israel -- he feels, at least under law, that he is not a human being.

Unfortunately, as we've seen in the news over the last few weeks, many countries including the United States find excuses to avoid becoming responsible for refugees of war. Israel is no different. A few weeks ago, Teklit's appeal for refugee status was closed on the grounds that he failed to show up for both of his required interviews, when in reality, he showed up early for both interviews only to be turned away because his interviewer was "sick" or "out for the day."

As a young man in his late 20s, Teklit should be attending school or starting his career. Instead he is stuck. He has no rights, no legal identity, and nowhere to go.

Part of my program in South Tel Aviv focuses on helping African refugees live a better life in Israel, but we cannot change anyone's legal standing. All I can do is write; to share Teklit's story with the world in the hopes that someone with more power than I can help change refugee lives for the better -- in Israel and around the world -- so that no one will ever again say, "I am not a human being."

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My Heart (Still) Belongs to Birthright

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03/30/2016

My Heart (Still) Belongs to Birthright photo 1

"Tell me about your Jewish background."

There were days I asked that question what felt like 100 times, but each time the words left my mouth, I always anticipated what I would hear in return from the person on the other end of the line.

This past February, I worked as part of the Birthright registration crew for Shorashim, an amazing organization headquartered here in Chicago. I took my Shorashim trip to Israel in the summer of 2007 and the memories of that adventure still flicker brightly in the back of my mind.

The trip to Israel was my first taste of life abroad, an introduction to Israeli culture, to a culture other than my own. It was all of the things it promised to be prior to takeoff and much more. It was equal parts fun, mesmerizing, challenging and ultimately, uplifting. Those 10 days traversing across the land of milk and honey certainly left an indelible mark.

Registration entailed answering phones, reaching out, conducting a whirlwind of "brief five-minute phone interviews," and it was invigorating. An opportunity to simply talk to people about why they want to go to Israel, where they come from and what they're up to? Please. Sign me up. I'm chatty. It's a fact of my life.

Most people were perfectly pleasant. Some people really stood out. When I heard heartfelt stories of how they came into their Judaism, how their families immigrated to the U.S. or Canada, hearing the spirit and joy with which they regarded their Jewish upbringing thus far and how exciting the prospect of going to Israel for them, it was hard not be awed, even a little overcome by their passion and heart.

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Talking with so many young people from all over the country, I was reminded that it takes all kinds. You know? That unique, grounding feeling that everyone is so different, yet we're all the same. There is a powerful thread that ties us all together, an unspoken bond of growing up Jewish, of being Jewish, no matter if we are observant or grew up not knowing very much about the religion.

A spark exists -- dormant and waiting to ignite in some; brilliantly shining in others -- that unites us all; a preternatural understanding that defies articulation; knowing someone, without really knowing someone at all. I could go on. It's real, and it's special. It's not about being "religious" or "spiritual." It's the thought that in this world, it's somewhat of a feat just to "be" Jewish at all, in all of its lovely iterations.

To the kids (ahem, young adults) heading off to Israel this summer, this season and hopefully many seasons to come, I wish you all the luck in the world in discovering something small, or something huge, about what being Jewish means to you. The opportunity to visit the country can have a lot of implications, political or otherwise. But at this age, on the cusp of real live adulthood, focus on what's important to you and use that as the lens to view this experience. It doesn't need to be a serious, soul-searching journey. It could be the most fun you've ever had. It could be a religious awakening; it could be the exact opposite. The point is, make it yours.

Talking with would-be participants and sharing my stories of a trip eight years in the past felt easy and comfortable, as if I'd just returned from Ben Gurion Airport. To be able to breathe new life into a treasured moment in time is an uncanny happening, one that I'm really grateful for. It's also a testament to how things never unfold quite how you think they should, but it's the unexpected opportunities that can bring about the most contentment.

Oh! And if you're 18-26 and haven't been on Birthright yet, go, go, go! (P.S. Shorashim really is awesome. Believe me, I'll tell you all about it).

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When Parenting Begins Does Socializing Have to End?

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03/28/2016

When Parenting Begins photo

"How about that," remarked my friend Sharon to Rose and I as we were heading out the door, balancing a toddler, diaper bag and empty serving bowl, "I think we managed to have some sort of an adult conversation today."

She was right -- it was pretty novel to be leaving a meal with five adults and five kids under the age of five and realize we talked about anything of substance. And by sort of adult conversation, she meant that we carved out five minutes of non-kid related, uninterrupted conversation to talk about our recent trip to Israel. Those readers with kids probably understand the reason to celebrate this. But for those without little ones, let me describe how an afternoon like this typically works, so you can appreciate the milestone we achieved.

Let's use the example of going to a friend's house for a few hours over lunch on Saturday afternoon as an example. Here is how the time spent might break down in order of most to least amount of time spent on something. Recognizing that different parents always handle these things differently, I also indicated what more experienced parents do in order to make each of these pieces of the afternoon go more smoothly and free up time to actually eat and socialize as adults.

37 minutes dealing with interruptions from kids:

This comes in a variety of ways and ranges from asking for more of what is already on the table like grape juice, demanding to have something that's not on the table like chicken nuggets, or just making noises because food was dropped. Littler ones also like to bang on the table and toddlers love to grab their parents' arms with their hands that are covered in something sticky. For this reason, experienced parents don't wear long sleeves.

34 minutes trying to make sure that your child is eating.

This ranges from getting bibs to rolling up sleeves to cleaning up spills to cutting up food, encouraging more bites or reminding the kid to chew and swallow between bites. Experienced parents have actually given most of this up altogether, figuring if the kid is hungry the kid will eat.

24 minutes talking about poop, potty and diapers and all things about kids' biological functions.

This is actually how every conversation goes as a parent. All parents act this way no matter how experienced.

22 minutes getting everyone settled, arranged and set up at the table.

There are boosters and high chairs to juggle, seating arrangements to play with and questions about who can drink out of what type of cup. Experienced parents offer to help set the table.

19 minutes checking if that is my kid crying, yelling, making noise or just figuring out where is my kid?

This involves a lot of getting up -- usually mid-sentence -- to respond to cries and crashes from the other room. Experienced parents also know to fear unusual calm and silence. "Where's Johnny? It's very quiet in there. Oh here he is in the kitchen, helping himself to fistfuls of cake. How does everyone feel about fruit for dessert?"

17 minutes saying goodbye and getting ready to leave

This is because you have to look all over for shoes, toys, and collect all of your other things and change a last minute diaper after everyone is ready to go. Experienced parents pack light.

12 minutes eating

It's hard to believe that over the course of the entire meal that is all that is left for actual food consumption by the parents. Experienced parents eat a snack before they come and, as stated above, don't worry as much about their own kid eating .

9 minutes dealing with a big incident or meltdown (that feels like 90, by the way).

This can be a real tough part for everyone and experienced parents know better than to stare. Their kid actually does look like that when he acts up and staring like they have never seen a tantrum of that size only makes everyone feel worse about it.

All of that leaves about five minutes for having a grown up conversation about nothing related to children. If you are keeping tabs, that's about 3% of the total time spent. The reality of having young kids pretty much changes the paradigm of what it means to have social time. Looking at the breakdown above, it might seem that as parenting begins, socializing with other adults ends.

However, the truth about all of this is that I absolutely love it. I really wouldn't have it any other way. Children have a way of naturally breaking up every routine you could have possibly ever had. In my experience, the challenge of parenting is not to get on top of any type of routine but simply to embrace the idea that the structure you have set up for your family's day is subject to change at any second. Going through that day in and day out helps me to expect all of the unexpected challenges that come my way during the rest of my week when I am not actually parenting. It's a perspective that I hope stays with me long after my kids are grown and having to experience this as parents for themselves.

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My Son Came Home

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03/25/2016

Three teen boys running around with saggy pants and backpacks. One of them is wearing a black hoodie -- hood up, a bandana covering the lower half of his face. That kid has a gun in his hand. He's shooting it. The police are called. You know what happens next…

What happens next is I get a call from my son. He tells me his friend was being an idiot and shooting squirrels. Someone called the cops. Can I come pick him up? He gives me the address. It's not the address of the police station.

I am the first parent to arrive on the scene. There are two police Suburbans parked, their engines running. My son and his two friends are standing nervously. Two guns and a giant canister of ammo sit on the hood of one of the police vehicles. The officers are extremely polite. They tell me that the boy with the hoodie had been shooting his Airsoft gun and both my son and the third boy had not. They said the boys had all been cooperative. My son was free to go. Free. To. Go.

I found out later -- many days later -- that my son also had an Airsoft gun. A gun that was shifting anxiously in my son's backpack, while he was being respectfully questioned by officers. A backpack that was never searched -- a gun that was never discovered.

My son, at age 13, had just gotten a big dose of white privilege. A privilege that may have saved his life.

My son came home that day. He left his bed unmade and his towel on the floor the next day and the day after that, and the day after that. My son continues to have breakfast every Sunday with his grandparents. He still opens up a mouth about having to clean his dishes before going out with friends. He still takes too long doing his hair and regularly makes his brothers late to school. He got strep throat. He turned 14. My son came home.

Tamir Rice was black. He was 12 years old. He was playing with a BB gun in a park. He will never play in that park again. He will never celebrate another birthday. He was shot by an officer before he had a chance to explain his gun was a toy; before he had a chance to hide it in his backpack; before he had a chance to call his mom and say he needed her to pick him up; before he felt his nerves kick in worrying about what his mom was going to say. He'll never come home again.

I can't stop thinking about it. But I can if I want to. I'm not raising a black son. I don't need to teach my son -- my sons -- to keep their hands on the steering wheel when they get pulled over. I don't have to help my sons' white friends understand that the usual mischief boys get into can't be for mine because I fear his life may be taken in a "misunderstanding" because he's black. When the dispatcher comes over the radio saying, "Suspect is a black male…" somehow those words -- BLACK MALE -- strike such a fear, that a routine nuisance call can escalate to a child dying in a park next to his toy gun. The gratitude that my son came home is forever paired with shame. There can be no solace in injustice, even if my son came home.

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Not the Purim I Remember

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03/21/2016

Not the Purim I Remember photo

It doesn't take much to realize why I'm happy -- I've got a Purim grogger in one hand and a lasso in the other. I'm marching my way to shul in the same suede and tasseled cowgirl costume I've rodeoed into for the fourth consecutive year. I've got on a sheriff's badge and a when I walk into the front lobby, a man tips his striped "Cat in The Hat" hat at me and says, "Howdy." I tip my hat too, but don't say howdy back. I'm 9 years old after all, and still too shy to acknowledge outright kindness.

Sitting on mom's lap (because 9 year-olds are NOT too old for laps), my finger is expectantly wedged in the third chapter, the first time Haman's name is mentioned. That's the whole point of the holiday, right? To say this man's name, rattle a few boxes of rice and put on clown-noses, poodle skirts and Thing 2 wigs.

Mom tells me to get off her lap. She's been fasting all day, and must be feeling weak. Good thing I snuck some Shaloch Manot Oreos into my fringed-vest pocket. I'll give her one after the Megillah reading. On second thought, best keep the fact that I've been sneaking from our not-yet-delivered Shaloch Manot between me and my vest pocket. I'm a smart cowgirl, but Mom's a mom, so obviously, she already knows. Nine-year-old cowgirls aren't the best at hiding cookie crumbs. They're good at one thing though, making noise at the sound of Haman's name.

****

I've got Oreos in the pocket of my kilt and I'm waiting for this darn reading to finally be over. Yesterday, Laura's mom took us shopping at thrift stores to find a costume. We sifted through racks and racks labeled "WOMEN'S TOPS FINAL SALE," some with tags still on, others marked "lightly used." It's always hysterical finding bras and underwear at Good Will, though admittedly sobering to see someone put those items in her cart.

We paved our way through the hanger maze, and I found a used kilt I would only grasp between tweezer-like fingers. I remember Laura's mom saying, "Don't worry, we can put it in the dryer on high. That'll kill whatever's living on it." Comforting.

And yet I'm wearing the Scottish kilt, which is sucking in my growling belly. I hear Haman's name and shout like I am nine, not 17. Mom still lets me sit on her lap sometimes. It's fun being the youngest kid: she doesn't want me to grow up either and I'm okay with that. If she knew where the skirt -- now hanging on my hips -- hung only yesterday, she'd probably slide me off. In either case, the Megillah reading is just about over, and me and my kilt have got an NCSY costume competition to win.

****

The seven of us became friends early on in seminary. We are an eclectic group of two Chicagoans, two Brits, two newly Aliyah-ed and one Canadian, and we are running around Ben Yehuda and King George streets hunting for fluffy tutus, tinkering belly skirts, hair-dye and rainbow suspenders. We are each decked-out in different colors of the rainbow. I shotgun blue, because blue is objectively the best color. 

We spend the day delivering Shaloch Manot to our favorite teachers in the Alon Shvut community. I see a throng of people clustered in a Purim parade. There's a kid dressed as a jumbo milk carton, a gang of teens holding up a homemade Egged bus costume, an elderly man as the regal Pharaoh and an Ethiopian as a spritely blue fairy. I snap pictures, not of them, but with them, jumping into the parade and becoming one of the mass. My rainbow crew and I leave after an hour and half. We've got to get to our Purim Seudah where there will be platters of barbecued chicken and steak, fresh french fries, guacamole, and of course rounds and rounds of alcohol. We will go out on the sand-dusted balcony to snap a few pictures before heading to the busses. Boys will be drunk and flirtatious there. One will compliment my eyes, saying they're the lightest shade of blue he's ever seen. Then he will drunkenly crash his head into the pole he's holding and vomit in the back of the bus.

****

It's a couple days until Purim and I have to hold back the heartbreak. After months of searching the web for the perfect peasant top, feathered hat, striped skirt and leather corset -- no one will get to see the pirate costume I've impatiently been waiting to wear. I've got class Wednesday night from 7-10 p.m., which means I'll miss the Megillah reading. I can't afford to miss the class because I've reached an all-time low of 55 percent and the teacher isn't the extra-credit-giving type.  I'll be too tired after three hours of coding anyways, and likely won't see anyone in costume either. There's a women's Megillah reading Thursday morning that I'll have to skip and working in Annapolis twice a week means waking up at 6 a.m. -- too early to manage with a hangover. It feels as if Purim decided to skip a year.

Some Jews at work have mentioned that they may not come in at all Thursday. They say they want to "have some fun." Am I supposed to tell my supervisor, that different Jews hold a different level of observance? I feel conflicted by real-world responsibility to clock in the hours and a burning nostalgia to cloak up in a pirate cape. Every day as Purim approaches, my heart sinks as my dress-upportunity sails off in the distance. My boyfriend has already bought a plan B costume, but I'm too bitter to appreciate his excitement to be Daredevil for a day.

In coming to terms with my Purim-less week, I've decided to pack a pirate's survival kit to work: a bottle of rum (for a mini mid-day l'chaim), a grogger for when I read the Megillah to myself, and of course, a small stash of Oreos, because hey, some traditions don't die.

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Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Meet Jews

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How I found more social success through YLD's LEADS in my 30s
03/17/2016

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Meet Jews photo

Anyone who knows me well would never imagine me quoting something football-related. I've never seen one episode of Friday Night Lights (much to my sister's chagrin), but I love the mantra: "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose." Many have adopted this phrase as a source of inspiration for coping with various hardships or they even channel it to win the big game. I think, with clear eyes and a full/open heart, anything is possible -- be it professional, athletic, or merely adopting a socially open attitude.

In our 20s, we're desperately trying to figure out who we are; in our 30s, we begin to come to terms with who we're growing up to be. Perhaps a cliche for good reason -- I think women really begin to find themselves in their 30s and I've just started that journey. I'm less afraid to speak my mind, and I find myself progressively fearless in pursuing outlets that truly bring me happiness.

My 20s were a more tentative time, both professionally and socially. As someone who grew up in Chicago's northern suburbs, it was easy to take my ready-made friend network for granted when I returned to Chicago after college. Like many home-grown Jews, I found my way back after a few years away. I eased into city life, surrounded by a combination of suburban, home friends and friends who had migrated from my Big Ten school. I spent several years in my 20s blending friend groups with other friends who went to nearby Big Tens, until our roots were nearly seamless. Additionally, I layered in friends from various jobs and social groups.

My last roommate, a non-Chicago native, found this city to be quite difficult to break into for the very reasons that made my return easy. I had a foundation dating back to my childhood. The Jewish community here is very tight-knit, and many of us grew up in the area -- newcomers don't know where to begin.

As such, it is fair to say that I was somewhat nonchalant about becoming active in the Jewish scene in my early 20s because I felt like I had already grown up in it to some degree. I cherry-picked events, while my roommate faithfully kept up with nearly every opportunity.

However, as friends pair off and get married, single ladies must inevitably keep refreshing their single friend network, or else they risk getting too comfortable on the couch in PJs, binging on Netflix.

A couple times in my 20s, I tried JUF's LEADS program with the expectation of, perhaps, collecting a few new friends and a new love interest. During those 20s trials, I knew one or two people in my group and we stuck to each other like glue. We lost out on the whole benefit of LEADS -- meeting new people. I made few friends through the program.

For those who aren't familiar, LEADS is a social series for young professionals comprised of groups of 10 to 15 people that meet in multiple neighborhoods around the city. Group members are matched based on age and location, and come together weekly for eight sessions to discuss and explore contemporary Jewish issues. After most sessions, all of the LEADS groups converge for a bar happy hour. The program is ideal for young professionals looking for new friends, newbies to the city and even couples who are looking to branch out.

I think those who might find the most immediate success from LEADS are those who are willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones. I've spoken with several friends who were new to Chicago, tried LEADS early on, and made some great, new friends from the program. Newcomers have to attend with an open mind to truly benefit from the program's network.

I didn't reap the program's benefits until I tried LEADS again this past fall. I've spent the past year re-grouping socially after a couple very close friends moved cities. I signed up for LEADS without a safety net -- I didn't sign up to be in a group with any existing friends. I decided to go in alone and see what happens. I also approached this experience without any agenda and truly wanted to meet some interesting people.

Luck met opportunity and this LEADS session was my best. I certainly can thank the fact that I had a wonderful group. But, I also think my success had a lot to do with my frame of mind and my open, "full heart." I shed my high school-esque need to stick to a built-in safety net and opened myself up to a handful of really fabulous people, many of whom I now spend time with on a regular basis.

I was actually on the young end of the group's spectrum, which consisted of Jewish professionals in their mid-to-late-30s. The group had a level of maturity, cooperation and warmth I had never experienced. All of us seemed to shed those 20s insecurities.

This LEADS experience created a snowball effect -- I am now more involved than ever in the Jewish community and attend regular events, often with the friends I made from fall LEADS. Not to mention, I've met so many new and interesting friends through the contacts I made from the group.

All of that early 30s self-awareness I've gained so far has also provided me with the right attitude and openness to let some really great, new people in. If we accept that we never stop growing, it's amazing who we might meet along the way.

"Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose."

Spring LEADS registration is closed as sessions begin next week, but for information about future LEADS sessions and other YLD opportunities, emailyld@juf.org

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Fit at 40 and Beyond

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03/16/2016

Fit at 40 and Beyond photo

I am not one of those people who think 40 is old. I'm a few weeks from hitting that milestone, and I'm not having a midlife crisis -- well, at least not yet.

I am, however, changing how I work out and eat. Long gone are the days of leg-pressing 800 pounds (my only weight-room brag), bench pressing, and carbo-loading. With minor hip and shoulder surgeries along with a broken bone in my foot behind me, I'm more cautious at the gym.

Here are a few hacks that keep me pain-free and fit:

Speed walking: Trust me, I never wanted to admit to speed-walking; I once guilted a client into running because I incessantly made fun of her power-walks. Now, I love it. It doesn't hurt my foot like running and I still feel like I'm getting my heart-rate up. If I'm not outside, I'm using a self-propelled treadmill because it's a more natural motion and you burn more calories doing it. My favorite is the Woodway because its surface is easier on your joints then the usual treadmill.

Workout prep: I warm up before workouts, and use a foam roll often. If I'm at the gym, I head to the sauna for five minutes before working out. It's a great way to warm up my muscles. After my hip scope, my doctor suggested it, and I'm hooked. When I get out on the gym floor I'm doing butt-kicks, high-knees, hip-swings, shuffling or some forms of yoga moves before I hit the weights. I use a foam roller after workouts, and if I don't have time, I'll do it at home while watching TV.

Body weight exercises are my jam (I think that's how kids are using that word)! I use a TRX often for rowing exercises and legs. I'm a huge fan of single leg exercises like squatting and deadlifting. Since my wrists are a little creaky I like to use a Perfect Pushup to perform pushups or use two dumbbells instead of putting my hands flat on the ground. I do pump some iron and use a lot of bands.

Recovery: I'm ok with being sore after a workout, but if I feel like I was hit by a car, I'll make sure to change my workout next time. I am also a huge fan of massages. I don't get them often enough, but if you can afford it, do it. Just make sure you find a good masseuse.

Cold showers are also part of my routine after a workout. They wake me up and help cool me off so I'm not a sweaty mess when I return to work. When I have time, I'll take a bath in Epsom salt. I love getting in the water and I try to swim or at least walk in the water once a week or more during the summer. I also love Forrest Yoga. I recommend trying to find a yoga class you really like and mixing it into your routine once a week. On days I do not workout, I'll do a handful of yoga poses at home. Since my 4-year-old does it at school, it's a fun family activity.

Along with foam-rolling, I like to use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball to massage my muscles and bands for stretching. My only tip here is start easy and warm up the tissue before digging real deep. Kelly Starrett has a bunch of interesting videos online where he uses bands, rollers and balls for stretching. It's also important to listen to your body. If you have a tough workout planned but feel like crap, take it easy.

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Time: I could easily spend a few hours in the gym, but who has that type of time? With a full-time job, a part-time job, a wife and two crazy boys, I want to get in and out of the gym. I also move a lot throughout the day. I'll get up and do some stretching in my office. My boss is on to me -- he'll look at me in a meeting and know my subtle move is a stretch. Since I do not have a ton of time in the gym, I take little breaks when I work out and I am big fan of intervals. Interval training is when you increase and decrease your intensity level during the workout. A basic example: sprint for 30 seconds, and then walk for 30 seconds, repeat that for 20 minutes. This type of training has shown tremendous results for weight loss, and speed improvement.

Sure, I still want to look good in my Speedo (for the record, I don't really own a Speedo), but I'm training for life. I want energy to keep up with my boys and the strength to be able to toss them in the air for a long, long time.

If you're not exercising, get moving. Start slow and listen to your joints, whether they're antiques like mine or still young and fresh.

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Get real

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03/14/2016

Get real photo

Like so many other Jewish little girls on Purim, my big sister and I would both dress up for our annual Purim carnival as Queen Esther. The morning of the carnival, my mom would dress us in regal dresses, bright red lipstick, and a homemade crown or sparkly tiara my mom had bought for this very occasion--and only this occasion--so as to raise grounded daughters the rest of the year.

And in households down the street, the Jewish boys I knew would dress as the male hero of Purim--Mordechai.

Our costumes were a fun way to reinforce the attributes of these Jewish heroes who were brave, and stood up for what's right.

But then, after a couple hours at the carnival, we'd reach our Purim fill. The combs at the ends of the tiara would start to scratch the backs of our ears, the lipstick would smear on girls too young to pull off crimson red, and our bellies would ache from cotton candy and hamentaschen overload. At that point, we'd go home, take off our royal dresses, and return to our comfy play clothes--still brave girls--minus the fancy costumes. And being ourselves, it turned out, was pretty nice too.

Thirty years later, my generation of Queen Esthers and Mordechais are all grown up, but we're still working on taking off our masks.

For most people, learning to be comfortable in our own skin, becoming our authentic selves, is a lifelong work in progress.

In some ways, media today--particularly social media--has made it all the easier to don a mask. On Facebook, for instance, we package ourselves exactly the way we want the public to see us--as the shiniest, happiest-looking versions of ourselves. As we scroll through our newsfeeds of our friends' adorable babies and dogs, or better yet, the baby posed with the family dog, brides and grooms so perfect they might as well perch themselves on top of a wedding cake, and pictures of us sipping piña coladas on the beach, things look fantastic.

Yet, that's just it. Those pictures are fantasy. As someone once told me, "I wish I was having as much fun in real life as I am on Facebook." Because, come on, get real. No one's that happy all the time.

But it's not all fake. Despite the virtual masks we sometimes wear, society can be an easier place to be real and open these days than in the past--if we choose to.

As the world grows smaller, we're revealing ourselves and relating to one another in a way that often makes us feel less alone. In this age of sharing (and over-sharing), some of us are shedding light on the parts of us that aren't so shiny and happy all the time. In the world's biggest group therapy session, we're electronically sharing our emotional, mental, and physical struggles with each other more than ever before. We're bonding over our shared human experiences of love, loss, failure and success, spiritual growth, and purpose. We're more likely to admit that life isn't only sunshine and rainbows--and that makes each of us feel less alone in whatever we're going through.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about my mom's struggle with--and, thank God, her triumph over--bipolar disorder. My mom post garnered more "likes" and positive response than any other piece I'd written in 15 years. For months, people would approach me with their personal mental health struggles. Before that time, I had rarely spoken or written in a public forum about the previously stigmatized illness.

But then I figured times have changed and her illness is no longer shrouded in darkness, and it's something so many people are touched by. Plus, I realized that being open could go a long way in helping people face whatever hardships they're dealing with.

It's wonderful to teach our kids to embody the bravery of heroes like Esther and Mordechai, and it's exciting to dress up as someone else every now and then.

But when the tiara starts to itch and we grow tired of our disguises, let's remember that the best and bravest face to wear at the end of the day is our own.

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What They Don’t Teach You in School

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03/10/2016

What They Don't Teach You in School photo

Last weekend, a high schooler I work with asked me when I graduated from college. I told her 2012.

"Wow! That was soooo long ago," she said, without a gleam of sarcasm.

Was it? As I processed that it has been almost four years since I was last a student -- in the formal sense at least -- it seemed hard to believe for a moment. My days of late nights in the library, marathons of student org meetings, and, of course, happy hours and frat parties, however, seem exceedingly far behind me.

Still, as a young professional, I find myself reflecting on college and school in general quite often. As I wrapped up my conversation with this student, I started to think about what I learned in college, both within and beyond the classroom.

This also led me to think of all of the things that I wish I had learned, but never learned in any level of school. There are many professional and life skills more beneficial in our daily lives than physics and calculus, which I think I managed to never take nonetheless, but that is beside the point.

The skills that 20-somethings need to know go beyond what is conveyed in textbooks. Although I am fairly confident this is something every Millennial who enjoys crafting prose has touched upon at some point, I am beyond confident that it's still all too relevant, which is why I present to you my list of top 10 things I wish were taught in school.

Disclaimer: Although I am fully capable of doing some of these things (Microsoft Office is my everything -- is that weird to say? Probably.), please know that if anyone asked me to do my taxes alone or change a tire, I would be more lost than Nemo.

1. How to do your taxes

2. How to change a tire

3. How to jump a car

4. How to make an effective budget

5. How to use Microsoft Office

6. How to effectively manage stress

7. How to unplug/disconnect from technology

8. How to understand insurance policies (yes -- all kinds, people need to know more)

9. How to invest your money

10. How to hang a picture without damaging the wall

I could probably go on for pages on things that I wish I would've learned in school, but I will leave you with this. Life skills are just as important as academic knowledge, and let's hope the next generation can collectively become more functioning adults. Until then, I am off to Google picture-hanging techniques or something like that.

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Purim and the Blame Game

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03/09/2016

Purim and the Blame Game photo

Esther beseeches King Ahasuerus to revoke his decree against the Jews

If someone pushed a button that released a fleet of nuclear missiles all over the United States and then quickly shot down each one saving everyone from utter destruction, would we call them a hero? Would everyone cheer for joy at their "savior" who saved them from imminent death and destruction and appoint them as the leader of our people for his great care and love of our nation?

No, we'd lock them up! The nerve of them to put us all through the horrifying traumatic experience of potentially we were all going to die! Who cares if they stopped it? It's their fault it happened!

All of this sounds very logical. Then we come to the holiday of Purim. We're all familiar with the story how Haman (Booo!!!) wanted to wipe out the Jews. He set up a date that every Jew in the entire land of Persia was going to be killed. Then Mordecai and Esther make this unbelievable divinely staged rescue of the entire nation, and everyone is saved.

But wait one minute -- we're skipping one step. The story actually says, toward the beginning, "When Haman (minor egomaniac) saw that Mordecai (our beloved protagonist) did not bow down and prostrate himself before him (serious narcissism issues going on), Haman was filled with rage (the ancient anger management groups weren't helping) … so Haman sought to destroy all the Jews throughout the entire kingdom …"

Wait a minute? The whole stage of destruction was set by our beloved hero? Yup. And we celebrate his victory for the Jewish people of stopping this destruction. Wasn't it all his fault?

We had another moment of blame opportunity in our history where things didn't go so well, all the way back in the beginning of the Torah. A quick recap: G-d says, "Don't eat the fruit." Snake says, "Eat the fruit." Eve eats. Adam eats. G-d confronts them, "Adam, what happened?" Adam says, "It was the woman." G-d says, "Eve, what happened?" Eve says, "It was the snake." And everyone gets punished happily ever after.

Why were they punished? Weren't they just pointing out the truth?

The difference between these two stories is all about taking responsibility. Adam and Eve had a choice not to eat, but they blamed others for their misbehavior. They didn't accept responsibility and they were punished.

In the story of Purim, the Jewish people could easily have shirked their responsibility for this decree of destruction and blamed Mordecai. But let's look a little deeper. Haman was angry because Mordecai wasn't bowing down. Why wasn't he bowing down? The Talmud tells us that Haman wore an idol around his neck. Everyone else acquiesced. Everyone bowing down was inevitably bowing to an idol, which constituted a complete abandonment of the most basic tenet of Judaism, our belief in one G-d. That belief was being put to the test. Mordecai was the only one who actually passed it.

Deep down, everyone knew this truth. Instead of covering up their angst and fears with blame, they took responsibility for their behavior They recognized that their bowing down was an abandonment of their faith and heritage. The Jewish people accepted responsibility and realized it was incumbent upon them to preserve Judaism for all future generations. Subsequently Mordecai and Esther led them toward a path of teshuvah, which literally means "return" but is better understood to mean acceptance of responsibility and a commitment to change.

This is a beautiful lesson of Purim. We have two ways to approach our challenges in life: We can look at our difficulties and complain about all the challenges we see, or we can accept responsibility for our reality and make a commitment to change just like our ancestors did.

There is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who wants to enjoy and experience the Purim spirit this year in Chicago. Join us at the Downtown Purim Lunch and Learn at noon on Thursday, March 24 at JUF building, 30 S. Wells St. There will be a reading of the Scroll of Esther, accompanied by a slideshow with translation, and insights to help us internalize the deep messages and lessons of our Jewish heritage.

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From Chicago to Jerusalem: Two Homes, One Memory

 Permanent link
03/08/2016

From Chicago to Jerusalem photo 2

Photo credit: Shahar Azran

Growing up in the Chicago Jewish community, I was raised with a deep sense of pride in our history. I was taught how to love my community and to love my city because of its rich cultural history. Chicago's Jewish community is marked by people who really care about each other and I knew growing up that I was never alone.

Since making aliyah and moving to Israel three years ago, I've realized how fortunate I was to have spent not only my childhood, but also my formative college years, in such a tight-knit place. Yet, in Israel, I feel a distinctly different sense of fulfillment.

One of my Jewish heroes, the educator and visionary Avraham Infeld, says that "being Jewish is like having a five-legged table" standing on memory, family, covenant, Israel, and Hebrew. Interestingly, Infeld refers to Jewish "memory," as opposed to Jewish "history," because unlike a history book, he explains that memory is a living thing driving us forward constantly.

Living in Israel, this sentiment proves true for me on a daily basis. I feel as though I am tapping into a living, vibrant communal memory.

Today, when I ride the bus in Jerusalem, the thousands of years of Jewish memory passing by my window are also pulsing through my veins, bringing me in and making me part of it. These quiet, passing moments help validate my decision to move to Israel, because at the end of the day, it was a choice I made -- and it wasn't easy.

I've always had a deep connection to Israel. I participated in Jewish life in ways that will sound very familiar to many of my peers. I was raised in a religious Zionist household, studied in Israel after high school, served as president and Israel Intern of my campus Hillel, and already had family and friends living in Israel when I made aliyah.

Still, aliyah is an individual decision, and everyone has to make it for her or himself.

I have also realized that, like with any major life decision, whether it's graduating school or moving to a new city, you have to really want it in order to succeed. Otherwise, it can be too easy to get discouraged. That's just human nature. When it comes to Israel, people talk about the wars and the violence and the bureaucracy and the supposedly rude disposition of Israelis, but knowing these issues in the abstract versus dealing with them in real life are two different things.

No one prepares you for when the IDF enters Gaza and you have loved ones fighting there. No one prepares you for when terror attacks start happening on a daily basis, and you stop feeling comfortable wearing headphones while taking a walk or allowing yourself to doze off on the bus. And putting the waves of terror and violence aside, it's tough to prepare to take on a new identity of "immigrant," an identity I will carry for the rest of my life. I've been learning to embrace a new normal and everything that comes along with it as part of the journey. Just like Chicago, or any city, you can't have the good aspects without the challenging ones.

Ultimately, finding ways to remind yourself that you do, in fact, want to be in Israel is not as hard as you might think.

This country has a funny way of presenting us with striking moments of clarity and inspiration. I once had a cab driver who thought I was a native Israeli because of my Hebrew during the drive, only for me to get flustered and promptly forget the Hebrew word for "compliment." And I recall conversations with strangers on international flights that have reminded me that life is equally fragile wherever you are. Sometimes these moments will be fleeting, and sometimes they plant themselves firmly in your head.

One of those lasting moments came last April while I was working at Yad Vashem experiencing the national ceremony for Yom HaShoah, Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, for the first time. Each year, six Holocaust survivors are chosen to share their stories and light six torches symbolic of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah. One of the torch-lighters was Avraham Harshalom, who told his story about surviving the camps, escaping to Israel and fighting to establish its independence. After the ceremony, I approached Avraham in awe just to say "thank you." I thanked him not only for his service to our country and his contribution to Jewish memory, but also for the stark reminder that living in Israel, today, right now, is a privilege not to be taken for granted, and it's something that I want.

History can be documented and catalogued on paper, sealed in a book or put on a shelf. Memory, on the other hand, can be fuzzy at times - but it moves us and it's personal. That is why I live in Israel, because being here makes my Jewish memory lucid and enduring and alive and provides me with endless motivation to continue embracing this journey.

From Chicago to Jerusalem photo 1

Courtesy Katie Matanky

Katie Matanky is a proud Chicago native living in Jerusalem and working in International Relations at Yad Vashem. She made Aliyah on the 50th Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight, in 2013.

Learn more about the aliyah process at theSpring Aliyah Fair in Skokie on March 9.

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If I Had a Smartphone in 4th Grade

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03/07/2016

child smartphone

I recently learned that some elementary school-aged children are asking their parents for permission to download a smartphone app called Musical.ly. This app allows users to create their own lip sync selfie music videos that can be shared, liked and commented on across social networks.

Yes -- elementary school children. The ones in question are in third and fourth grade.

One parent told me that a friend of her daughter was sad because she made a video and nobody "liked" the video. Sure, we're all familiar with "likes" from our beloved Facebook, but a) most people I know didn't join Facebook until at least high school, and b) most people I know aren't recording selfie lip sync videos.

I can only imagine these poor girls, who probably shouldn't be quitting their day jobs (being a fourth grade student) to make these videos, probably the subject of teasing and maybe even that "nobody-liked-my-Facebook-post" feeling of loneliness. (Seriously, can more people please press "like" when I post my blog to Facebook? Please?)

These fourth grade kids have most likely not yet developed their public speaking inhibitions or their judgment about what is and isn't appropriate for the immortal Internet.

Boy, am I glad this kind of app -- or this technology in general -- wasn't around when I was busy trying to read about Ramona Quimby and Wayside School.

It makes me wonder … if this technology was around when I was an elementary school kid, what kind of videos of me would be easily searchable? App developers, take note!

Lia Does Her Homework. Join in once a week as you watch Lia work through math, English, and science assignments. Watch until the end for "extra credit!"

Lia Follows the Rules in Gym. You don't have to be the best athlete; just listening to the teacher and putting in a good effort is nice, too! Watch Lia's short videos as she studies the rules of soccer and shows up to class on time regularly.

Lia Plays Dress-Up. It's fun, it's wholesome, and it's not even Halloween or Purim! Jump into the costume box as we pretend we're princesses and Dorothy with our favorite friends.

Lia Gets Into a Fight. Not a fist fight, of course, but a petty elementary school girl fight! More enticing than Serial, this podcast will follow the ins and outs of which girls we're talking to this week and which ones we won't make eye contact with. Note: We NEVER talk to boys.

Lia Plans Her Birthday Party. What shall it be this year, YouTube fans? Should we have a jewelry-making party? How about a party where we jump into foam blocks at a gymnastics place? Or perhaps a pottery-painting party? Stick with us every step of the way as we tour venues, interview store owners and sample birthday cakes.

To the little girls hoping to become Musical.ly stars -- maybe just stay little girls a little while longer.

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Choosing a Name For Our Jewish Baby

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03/04/2016

Choosing a Name For Our Jewish Baby photo

Imagine this for a moment.

You are the creator of something completely new, special and unique. Your creation is about to come into the universe, and you are given the task of choosing the name. You have some ideas, but the moment to decide is rapidly approaching.

What do you do?

My heart skipped a beat just thinking back to the very first time I recall ever thinking of baby names. I was in second grade.

I was already over a year into a very serious relationship with a girl that I cared very deeply about and felt very close to (in case you were wondering, yes -- it was reciprocal). Anyway, we were so certain of a relationship lasting (spoiler alert: it didn't) that one day we were working on a list of baby names that we liked for our children.

It was an impressive list. On one side of the paper was a list of girls' names, in purple or pink, and the other side had boys' names, drawn in blue. I don't recall all the names on the list, but it grew over time, with her and I exchanging the list between each other like a secret note. I smile remembering how she would pass me in the classroom and, on occasion, whisper something like, "I like Jacob," just to remind me which way she was leaning if it was going to be a boy.

Those were the days. It wasn't so hard back then to think of great Jewish names for children. Playing House is playing House, but as a husband and a father-to-be, it was not as I had imagined it as a second grade kid.

When my wife, Ashley, and I were considering names for our daughter-to-be, we were faced with that big decision for the first time. We had talked about it a lot over the course of our relationship and discovered a lot about what names mean to both of us. We both shared deep connections with loved ones who had passed, but now that having our daughter was imminent, the question was whether or not we could come to an agreement.

Early on, Ashley was not shy to point out that there was also the child's Hebrew name to consider, which she said she was more than happy to defer to me if she could choose the English name.

Nice try, hun.

Of course she was only joking, but she knew this was going to be a big deal for both of us, and it was nice that she respected what value the Hebrew name would bring to our child. We also wanted to enjoy the experience and savor the journey we were taking together. So, we did like any good Jewish parents would do and started going through every Jewish baby name book our parents gave us, while adding our favorites along the way, Jewish or not. 

We zoomed across countless websites that poured over every detail and described every back story and origin for the name you could possibly think of. We talked to everyone, and I mean everyone -- I even polled my then-third grade class for their favorites.

Now, figuring out how Ashley and I were going to come together to make this decision was another challenge. After soliciting more advice, we went with an idea where we started in separate rooms and each wrote our own lists. Then we exchanged lists in the same room and circled the ones we loved, crossed out the ones we absolutely could not negotiate, and left the rest as options.

I confess that it took me much longer to draft my list than Ashley, because I think she already had her list in her head for a long time, but the plan worked. When we swapped lists, it was astonishing how close we were to agreement, and there wasn't one name that both of us agreed we had to have. So we went back and forth on a handful of names, all the way through our move out to the suburbs weeks before the delivery, even into July 4th weekend, which was more than a week before the due date. At that point, the only thing we were both in agreement over was to not decide until we met her -- whatever felt right among the choices we both liked would win.

Well, she couldn't wait to get her name, because on July 5, 2014, our daughter came into the universe healthy and with eyes wide open. In time (about 10 minutes later), we looked at each other, then at our daughter, and knew in our hearts what she would be called.

We introduced her to our families as Emma Bayla, named after my grandfathers Edward Silver and Samuel Edward Moffic, and Ashley's grandmother Barbara. Her Hebrew name, which we also chose together, is Adiya, meaning "G-d's Jewel." We couldn't be prouder and happier with our decision, though in a way, we believe she chose it for herself. This weekend she turns 20 months old, and happily squeals her name loud and proud, "Emma! Emma!"

As for our son coming in April -- well, that's a whole other blog.

Until next time, L'Chaim!

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Saffron Yogurt and Garlic Marinated Chicken

 Permanent link
03/03/2016

Saffron Yogurt and Garlic Marinated Chicken photo 1

Every Sunday morning, I sit down in front of my steaming cappuccino and plan my menu for the week. It's a piece of my week that I look forward to. Typically, I'm overwhelmed with ideas thanks to my daily Facebook feed of bloggers, but every once in a while I get stumped -- and it is typically when I get to the word chicken.

Chicken breasts can get quite blah after a while. Plus, considering it is the only animal protein (other than fish and eggs) that I allow in the house, I have to be creative!

On one of those Sunday mornings, I chose to sip my cappuccino in front of the TV as I watched a riveting episode of the Shahs of Sunset, a guilty pleasure of mine. It just so happened that in the latest installment of the Shahs, they were sitting around an ornately decorated table in the reunion special. And as they threw one jab after another at each other, I was distracted by the gorgeous food on the table. Yellow rice. Grilled meats. Yogurt sauce. This all reminded me how very much I love Persian cuisine.

In the summer, I frequently grill up chicken tawook very similar to Azita's joojeh kebob. The yogurt gives the chicken a perfectly delicate texture and a slightly tangy flavor. It's fantastic on the grill.

But of course I found a way to improve this.

I used a yogurt marinade along with lots of garlic, onions, cilantro, parsley, lemon juice and salt and pepper. I also added some gorgeous saffron that gives this dish a distinct yellow color.

Saffron is really pricey, but fortunately you will only need a few threads. And Costco recently started carrying it for a nice price. If you cannot find saffron, you can cheat and add some turmeric to the mix instead to give it a nice color. 1 tablespoon or so will do.

Saffron Yogurt and Garlic Marinated Chicken photo 2

Saffron Yogurt and Garlic Marinated Chicken
By Girl and the Kitchen

INGREDIENTS

2 pounds of chicken breast cut in half so they are thinner (you can also use boneless, skinless chicken thighs but use 3 pounds)
1½ cups of yogurt
8 garlic cloves
1 large onion peeled and cut in half
½ a cup of water
8 threads of saffron steeped in a ¼ cup of water or 1 tbsp of turmeric
a handful of cilantro
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons of butter
more olive oil for frying

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Before adding the saffron to the chicken, you have to steep it like a tea in hot water. It will start to release it's beautiful golden color.

2. Place yogurt, water, garlic, onion, saffron or turmeric, cilantro and lemon into a blender or a food processor and pulse until smooth. Taste for salt and pepper and add as necessary.

3. Place chicken cutlets into a sealable bag and add yogurt mixture on top.

4. Close the bag and swish the mixture around so everything is evenly covered. Let stand for 60 minutes to 24 hours.

5. Place butter and olive oil into a pan, ensuring that the butter melts.

6. Over medium heat, fry the chicken on one side for about 5 minutes or until golden brown.

7. At this point, you can either turn over the chicken and cook on the other side or place into a 450-degree oven for 5 minutes.

8. If grilling, cut the chicken into large cubes and marinate. Then place on skewers and allow for it to grill for 6 minutes on each on a high flame.

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