OyChicago blog

Cancer’s new home

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Jenna Benn photo

I am surrounded by a sea of boxes that serve as reminders of what was and what is. Each memory is individually wrapped, sealed tight and waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. Over the last few years, I have consolidated, purged, and deliberately parted with many of my material possessions.

In all of my moves I have made the difficult decision of what to take with me and what to leave behind.

This last June, ten days after leaving the hospital for a dangerous infection, I moved out of my apartment into a new one. I needed a fresh start— a new beginning— a new space that didn't remind me of cancer. My previous apartment had been painted in sickness, and wallpapered with pain. Last year when I moved from floor 30 to floor 29, there was a clear demarcation between the past and the present. I had closed the chapter on victim and was determined to write the chapter on thriving survivorship.

And in the last year, my hopes and dreams were not only realized but delivered ten-fold.

A few nights ago in the midst of packing again, I had a run in with cancer. This time she was not in my blood, but instead found twisting between expired prescriptions, worn out wigs, homemade scarves, and hats. She also had taken up residence in my previously worn surgical masks, plastic gloves and hand sanitizer. The memories of what was had resurfaced and soon enough I was on the floor in a sea of tears. As I lay still with those memories, I knew I had a decision to make.

That night, I chose to leave her behind.

I wasn't going to allow her to infiltrate my new space. I wasn't going to let her show up and ruin more moments. I wasn't going to let her take a lead role in this new chapter. And so as I prepare to move from floor 29 to a new home built for two. I decided to package up cancer and seal her in a tight little box, with no room to breathe. And there she can live amongst a sea of discarded memories, in a landfill somewhere far from here.


USY and Kinnus: An Unforgettable Experience

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USY logo

Along with being a fabulously handsome Oy! Chicago blogger, I am also the youth advisor for a USY (United Synagogue Youth) chapter here in Chicago. This past weekend, I embarked on a journey to Kinnus, the annual culminating regional convention where every April, about 200 energized USYers from all over the region come together, celebrate a year of awesome Jewish fun, and elect the next year’s regional board and discuss regional events, activities and any amendments to the region’s constitution.

Kinnus weekend truly is an exciting moment for Jewish kids to be able to experience such a strong, close Jewish community that encourages and nurtures its youth. This year’s group of high school students from our chapter were amazing to work with and spent lots of fun times doing mitzvah projects, collecting tzedakah, or just hanging out in the youth lounge and unwinding from the everyday pressures of life. From them, I learned that the value in USY does not just come from learning tefillah or engaging in Jewish learning or activities, but also making valuable and lasting relationships with other Jewish teens, in a fun and relaxed environment.

When I think back to my own experience in USY and SHMUSY (the Anshe Emet USY chapter), I chose not to run for any office because, at that time, I was a political pacifist and decided I would never get elected because I wasn’t that popular. I loved the chapter and that I could hang out with other Jewish kids every week and do something fun, sometimes even educational. We all had a great time and will remember it for the rest of our lives, especially those moments of prayer and reflection amongst hundreds of others just like me.

There is no more special feeling than being a part of a Havdalah circle: hundreds of arms draped over shoulders, bodies swaying to the rhythm of the melody, eyes fixated on the Havdalah artifacts and voices singing, proudly praising God, the miracle of Shabbat, and the promise of a wonderful week to come. As I look around the circle, my eyes adjusting to the darkness, I can see the faint glow of the flames flickering in their eyes, the kids entranced by the melody and bursting with joy and happiness as they hug their friends, new and old. When it came to USY and SHMUSY, I always said and believed, “The friendships last a lifetime, the memories last forever.”

As a USY staff member and Jewish adult, I have a greater and more sincere appreciation for these programs and communities. In the wake of a waning conservative movement, more must be done to protect and nurture the growth and development of our youth. I vow to become as involved as I possibly can. I look around our Chicago community and I see Jewish students wanting more, wanting to be involved and their desire and thirst for knowledge, for interaction with others like them, for the experience unlike anything else in this world. I am inspired by people like our CHUSY (regional) Youth Director, Julie Marder, who has dedicated the last five years to fostering the positive trends and changes within the Jewish Conservative Youth movement, and Rabbi Russo, who has dedicated his life to Judaism and has shown tremendous commitment and care for younger generations to model. I only hope that as I move forward as a Jewish educator I am able to instill the same values in the next generation and help usher a new, exciting and fun age of Jewish fun and learning!

So, this issue’s toast goes to all the CHUSY members and staff out there, past, present and future. Long live USY and long live Jewish education! L’Chaim!


Tasty Stir Fry

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Sesame ginger quinoa almond chicken photo

If you want a shock, Google your favorite Chinese or Thai recipe. The calories, fat and sodium are usually ridiculously high. As most would expect fried rice is not a health food. I created a similar taste with a drop of oil and a lot of flavor. Hope you enjoy!

I love this recipe it has a lot of protein, flavor, and fiber.

Sesame ginger quinoa almond chicken

2 chicken breasts (boneless skinless)
1 cup quinoa
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
Toasted sesame seed oil
Veggies: medium sweet onion, ½ cauliflower, medium zucchini
Agave nectar
Goat cheese
Spices: ginger, curry, pepper, kosher salt, garlic
Sesame ginger marinade (I like Ginger Company)

There are a million variations of this recipe I think the easiest way to make it is:

1. Marinade chicken with garlic powder, ginger and sesame ginger marinade (let sit while you start steps 1-3)

2. Pan fry onion in a large skillet with a drop of sesame oil, add cauliflower, and zucchini (you can also steam the zucchini and cauliflower)

3. While veggies cook pour chicken broth and quinoa in a pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes

4. Remove veggies, cook chicken on medium heat 6-8 minutes per side (until completely cooked), add a drop of all spices on chicken (you should not have to add any oil, the juices from the veggies and marinade on the chicken provide enough sauce for cooking)

5. Take out chicken, let cool, then cut, add another drop of sesame oil, almonds (smash them first in a baggie with a mallet), lightly pour agave nectar over almonds, a pinch of salt, add quinoa, mix, add veggies, pepper, ginger, kosher salt, add chicken back in

6. Serve in bowls, add a small crumble of goat cheese

Try the recipe, and shoot me a picture of it!


Tuesdays with Toolie

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Tuesdays with Toolie photo 1

The other day, I was lying on the couch catching up on some reading and Toolie jumped up on my chest to see what was going on. Then she started licking my face. Eventually, I got her to settle down and just lie on my stomach for a while. Feeling a little sleepy, I naturally dozed off and later woke up to Toolie licking my hand. It was asleep, though. She was trying to force her head under my hand so I would pet her, and since it was asleep, my hand just lay their limply. She just licked it.

Toolie's new hobby is standing on the back of the couch when I'm sitting there and proceeding to lick the top of my head. It's sort of a grooming ritual, I think. Toolie has other hobbies, too. Set something on the couch, the floor, or the table, and it is important that Toolie go and lay on that item of clothing, piece of paper or bag. No other spot will do for her except that exact spot that you placed something. 

She also likes to play string. That's her favorite game. It's where you dangle the string and she tries to get it. That's it.

Toolie is also up to date on the latest homeopathic medical treatments. After a particularly large meal (or really anytime) I might sit down to relax in the arm chair. Toolie aides in digestion by massaging my stomach with her paws. If only I could get her to give my shoulders a rub every now and then!

Tuesdays with Toolie photo 2


That series of letters was a sampling of what Toolie has to say about Oy!Chicago. As I write this part of the post, she has her butt on the computer, her stomach on my chest and her tongue all over my face. Am I allowed to print that? Because it really all just happened. 

Seven and a half years ago my mom found a stray cat that she couldn't keep. I was living with my sister at the time and I told her we didn't need any more animals. We had a dog, Pookie, and that was enough. Little Toolie came up and licked my hand. We decided Pookie could use a friend. I named her Toolie, she moved to Chicago and she's been my cat ever since.

Since then she has cried at the window almost every day when she sees me walking up to the apartment building. She "mew-isses" me. It sounds like she is saying "I mew-iss you! Mew-ake your way up here, quickly!" Usually, I run in and there she is at the door, waiting to play string. Most days, I get so wrapped up in the game, I don't even notice the vomit on the rug.


Can Chicago be the new New Jersey?

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 Can Chicago be the new New Jersey? photo

Jersey Shore. Jersey Couture. Jerseylicious. Real Housewives of New Jersey. House. Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Even Boardwalk Empire is about the early days of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ever since The Sopranos (which debuted in 1999), New Jersey has been a goldmine for TV shows… and ratings.

Put another way… my friend has a pre-teen daughter who wants to go to Hoboken for winter break. Why? To see the Cake Boss bakery, of course.

This glut of TV shows set in New Jersey is new. Before 2000, Jersey Shore was preceded by two MTV shows, Shore Thing and Summer Share, the latter debuting in 1998. And that was preceded by Down the Shore as early as 1992. On the non-reality end, 1984's Charles in Charge— which starred Scott Baio as a nanny (like Tony Danza in Who's the Boss, which debuted in the same year) was set in New Jersey… as was Tony Danza's Hudson Street.

But isn't Chicago just as interesting, just as filled with memorable types as New Jersey? Right now, The Good Wife and Boss are set here, both critically acclaimed shows. And there's, um, Happy Endings, Whitney, My Boys, Legally Mad, and the aptly titled The Forgotten. The longest-running Chicago show in the past 10 years? According to Jim.

There have been classic shows set here, after all— the first being The Untouchables (1959-63). In the 1970s, there were The Bob Newhart Show, Good Times, and the under-rated Kolchak the Night Stalker, which Buffy fans should revisit. The 1980s gave us the adorable Perfect Strangers and Punky Brewster, the too-adorable Webster, the moving Life Goes On, and the well, popular Married… With Children. That show, I never liked (it seemed like just a crasser Roseanne), but it did give us Futurama's Katy Sagal and Modern Family's Ed O'Neill.

The 1990s brought in Family Matters but also The Steve Harvey Show and Early Edition. Drama-wise, there were two very good medical shows that started in 1994, Chicago Hope and ER… and Sisters, which I think was better than Brothers and Sisters.

These days, Chicago could— should!— easily have as much screen time as, excuse me, New Jersey. So here are my proposals for TV shows set in Chicago. You'll notice that none of them are cop, lawyer, or doctor shows, either… because there are other things people do! [TV execs: if you use these, I want a royalty and a "created by" credit]:

The Daddy Files (comedy): A middle-aged, Royko-style columnist for a Chicago daily is fired. He tries to make a go of it as a blogger taking on government and business corruption, while also being a stay-at-home dad. At night, he blogs his gripes about being a dad, and this blog takes off.

Navy Pier (comedy): Shot with hand-held cameras, the intertwining lives and loves of a dozen twenty-somethings who work at various kiosks, stores, restaurants, and theaters at Navy Pier.

The Randee Simmons Show (comedy): Randee is a talk show host trying to change her show's tone from sleeze to life-affirmation… against the wishes of her producer, agent, and studio head, all of whom like her current high ratings.

I Must Love Stress (comedy): A general contractor tries to manage his crew and satisfy his clients, while dealing with the weather, his suppliers, and ever-changing regulations.

The Exchange (drama): A workplace drama set at the Chicago Stock Exchange. We see two rival brokerage firms and follow two young, ambitious traders as they make their ways up, and also the two CEOs and the huge decisions they must make.

Chicago Blues (drama): An old blues bass player makes the rounds of the blues clubs, always hustling for gigs. Along the way, he sits in with some of the greatest (real-life) names in blues as they come through Chicago. We also see the (former) Blues Festival from behind the scenes as he plays gigs for three straight days and nights.

Busiest in the World (drama): A mom finds it harder to manage her out-of-control teens, kids and husband than O'Hare Airport… the management of which happens to be her job.

Deep Dish (reality): The day-to-day function of a local, family-run pizza place, from the guy who hangs flyers on doorknobs, the delivery guys and the kitchen staff to the management.

First to a Million (reality): Two teams. One is made up of fresh college graduates. The other is all retirees. Each team of four has specialists in finance, marketing, IT, and administration. They are given seed money, computers, a basic office, and someone to handle the front desk. Then they race to start businesses from scratch. First team to clear a million dollars in profits wins.

Windy City Rollers (reality): We follow Chicago's female roller-derby team, at competitions and at home.

The Taste (reality): How The Taste of Chicago happens. We follow the organizers, a couple of participating restaurant managers, and the Park District crews as it all comes together.

Chicago has unlimited potential as a setting for television shows. By focusing on what's unique to our city, we can tell stories here that simply can't be told anywhere else. Even in New Jersey.


Meet Ian Goldberg, Haverford basketball player

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Miss college basketball already? The Great Rabbino is bringing you a college basketball player— meet Ian Goldberg a senior at Haverford who happens to be a big fan.

Meet Ian Goldberg, Haverford basketball player photo 1 

1. Please tell Oy!Chicago a little bit about yourself.
I'm a senior at Haverford College from New York City. I'm an Economics major and Anthropology minor. I finished my college career about a month ago and am in the midst of figuring out what I'm going to do next year. In the meantime, I'm focusing on my senior thesis and playing ball for fun.

2. When did you realize you wanted to and could play college basketball?
I knew I wanted to play college ball when I was a much shorter and skinnier version of myself in middle school at Poly Prep. I had played a lot of different sports growing up like most kids and I'd say around 7th grade I really starting focusing on basketball. I made the biggest strides in my game between my sophomore and junior year of high school and that's when I started getting some Division III looks. I attribute a lot of my success to my high school coaches and teammates who taught me the game and inspired me to work my butt off to be successful at the next level.

3. What was your experience playing at Haverford?
Overall, I am very fortunate and thankful for my four years playing at Haverford. I wish we could have had some more success, but the relationships I have formed have been incredible. My main objectives looking for a college were to find a top-tier academic institution and to find a team that I could play for. Although I had to have sports hernia surgery right before my sophomore season, I only had to miss one game during my career. My coaches and teammates placed a lot of trust in me to run the team and I tried to return to the court every year a better player.

4. What was your biggest accomplishment on the court?
My biggest accomplishment on the court was making it to the conference semifinals my junior season. With a few games left in the regular season, we got some big wins and clinched a playoff spot. We ended up winning the first round game by one, before falling to ranked Franklin and Marshall in the semis. Even though we lost that game by a close margin, I was extremely proud of my guys for battling and coming within striking range.

5. Do you see basketball in your future?
I haven't spent much time pursuing the opportunity to play, but it's something I have seriously thought about. I would definitely love to play somewhere if the right situation arose. It would be great to continue playing competitively in a new and challenging environment.

Meet Ian Goldberg, Haverford basketball player photo 2

6. Who is the best player you have ever had to guard? How did you fair?
The best player I ever had to guard would have to be 76ers guard Lou Williams. For the past two summers, Haverford has been the only Division III team in the Delco ProAm league in Philly. We had the chance to compete against top NBA and Division I talent. Lou definitely got the better of me, but I drew a couple charges on him and got some buckets too. He is lighting quick. It was an incredible opportunity to play against him.

7. Ever thought about playing in the Maccabi Games or in Israel?
Yes, I have thought about both and would love to try out and get an opportunity to play in Israel.

Thanks to Ian and the Goldbergs for reading. Good luck to Ian and I bet there is an Israeli roster with you jersey waiting.

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



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29 Nissan 5772 / April 20-21, 2012

Meet Rabbi Dan Horwitz, our newest Oy! blogger, who will give us a taste of Torah once a month and relate it to our lives.

Dan Horwitz photo

This week's Torah portion is Shemini – or is it?

In Israel, they actually are already on the next portion.  The reason for this is that outside of Israel, in traditional communities, the Passover holiday lasts for 8 days, while in Israel it only lasts for 7 days.  The 8th day of Passover this year was last Saturday – so while in Israel it was a normal Shabbat and Israelis read the portion of Shemini, outside of Israel it was still Passover, and a special Passover Torah reading was read instead.  A few weeks from now, we'll catch up by reading two portions, while those in Israel will read just one, allowing us to once again have our readings in synch.

I struggle a lot with the idea that not all Jews around the world are reading the same Torah portion at the same time.  I personally find great meaning in knowing that when I'm partaking in a certain ritual (say, for example, something as simple as attending a Shabbat dinner with friends) there are Jewish people all around the world who are doing the same thing I am, at the same time (allotting for time differences of course).  You would think that when it comes to the public reading of the Torah, the ancient rabbis would have been super concerned about having all Jews on the same page (literally). 

The portion of Shemini is the third portion in the book of Leviticus (the third of the five books of Moses), which is often referred to as the "priestly code," and which spends a significant amount of time focusing on "sanctification."  In Leviticus, we learn that speech carries significant power, stressing the need for us to sanctify what goes forth from our mouths.  So too, in Shemini in particular, we learn the value of sanctifying what goes into our mouths in the form of the primary kosher laws (in case you didn't know, we learn in Shemini that pigs are not kosher… sorry to disappoint!).

It is this idea of "sanctification" – of making otherwise ordinary endeavors into holy actions, which can help us cope with any feelings we might have of being out of synch in our lives.  While this week for me it's a literal being out of synch, as the Torah portion we read outside of Israel differs from the one being read in Israel, so too can we be out of synch, for example, when we've failed to celebrate a Jewish holiday in a way that's meaningful to us, when we stray from our inherited morals or values, and/or when we lose sight of the bigger picture.

The way to combat such feelings is by finding opportunities to make holy (if you prefer, to make "special") those things that might otherwise be ordinary.

The next time you sit down to a meal, rather than diving right in, take a moment to reflect on the food in front of you and how blessed you are to be able to eat in a world where many go hungry.  In doing so, you're elevating the meal, making the meal special.

If you're struggling to find the time to read a book you've been dying to have a chance to curl up with, pull out your calendar and set aside a certain amount of time each week, on a particular day of the week (might I recommend Saturday?), that you designate as "reading time."  In doing so, you're distinguishing between the rest of the week and a time especially dedicated to your personal relaxation and joy.

There is undoubtedly something to be said for all of the world's Jews being in synch and on the same page.  I would argue however that the ancient rabbis (who understood the implications of establishing certain holidays as 8 days outside of Israel) knew that literally being on the same page is nowhere near as important as all Jews being in synch with regard to striving to add holiness to our lives by increasing the number of elevated moments we experience, both individually and within community.

Looking ahead, try to consciously set aside a few moments each week that you believe have the potential to be elevated from the ordinary into something meaningful and holy.  And then, live those moments, knowing that you are without question in synch with Jews everywhere.


Me and Amtrak: a buddy comedy

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Me and Amtrak photo 1

Two straight days with no shower, no bed and no familiar faces. Don’t dismiss it as a vacation option just yet, though: it’s also one of the best ways to see the United States from the ground. Two weeks before Passover, I did something I’d been dreaming of for nearly a year— I bought tickets for the Southwest Chief, an Amtrak train that runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. The stops in L.A. and New Mexico were more than worth it, but the train is another adventure with a personality all its own.

I’ve done train travel before—a few times in Europe and once on another Amtrak route, the California Zephyr, which runs from the San Francisco Bay Area through mountains, desert, high plains and rolling prairie all the way to Chicago. No one who’s ever seen this from the ground could possibly call it “flyover country.” Train tracks bring you into areas you’d never see from highways or roads either. The Southwest Chief is like waking up in your own personal Western. The red dirt and the mesas and canyons and bleached cattle skulls are all real and totally engrossing.

Me and Amtrak photo 2

The views are magnificent, and Amtrak exploits that: there’s a viewing car with glass windows from the floor to the ceiling, where you’re free to sit for hours on end, watching the world go by. This experience is most relaxing when the car is empty, but there’s something pleasant about it even full of kids and conversation. For my part, I learned as I was packing that this is a good place to practice musical instruments, which tipped me into bringing my ukulele on the trip, which turned out to be a good decision. But you can learn a lot just by looking out the window by your seat (which, I might add, is nicer than a first-class airplane seat, even when you ride coach). For instance:

• Just saw a billboard for “Dodge City Vittles.” Have we been in Kansas all night?
• Just saw a truck go by that said simply “BEEF IS BEST” along the side.
• “Micro Beef Technologies”? What does that even mean?
• 3 AM and wide awake on a train through the desert in either California or Arizona. This is either country music or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Me and Amtrak photo 3

Pictures communicate the scenery much better than words. But you get another perk from traveling on the train: train people. The people-watching and casual conversations in trains are top-notch. The man who sat behind me from Union Station nearly to Los Angeles was on his way home after appearing on the Jerry Springer Show. I ate dinner with a veteran of Okinawa and a man returning to Joplin, Missouri, after the devastating tornados last year. I shared a seat (and snacks) with a lady who spent every other three weeks working on a Navajo Nation organic farm. I learned from many people why Kansas City is the best place to live in the Midwest.

I’d like to take a moment and give a shout-out to the station in Lamy, New Mexico, which is where you get off if you’re stopping in Santa Fe. Lamy is one of those hamlets where you can see most of it from the station itself. As I waited, any number of locals came by to visit the station agent and chat with each other. The station is home to a library, shop and small nonprofit bookstore, run by volunteers. The train was on a three-hour delay to avoid last week’s monster tornados, but I was more than pleased to enjoy this little slice of very small town living.

Taking the train deliberately seems to surprise people when I tell them about this vacation. Sure, if you want to get to your destination quickly, an airplane is much more reasonable. It certainly lets you maximize your time away: I spent about a third of my trip in transit. But if you’re looking for something with the pace of a road trip without the responsibility of driving, train travel is a lovely way to go. If you need a little more convincing, well... this is the view from coach:

Me and Amtrak photo 5

Me and Amtrak photo 4


Death by hypochondria

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or Ouch! My everything hurts


Adam Daniel Miller photo

I am probably going to die of a heart attack. Or not. I don’t know. I’ll probably have to wait until to find out. Most likely, my hypochondria is going to be the end of me. It may even cause that heart attack. I let my hypochondria run rampant so much that any time I feel anything out of the ordinary, I think “Hmmm, how’s this going to kill me?” Although, if I’m right even once, I win. Like the paranoid guy I follow home every night, we just need that one time to be justified.

Where my hypochondria apparently stems from is I always feel like I have chest pains. There are always little tingles and feelings of pressure that I don’t understand until I stop giving myself tickle massages. But after that, I do often wonder at what point of discomfort I would actually say to the person next to me, “Ahem. I do believe I am currently experiencing the sensation of cardiac arrest. If it would not trouble you in the least to fetch some assistance, I would be most gracious for the prevention of my demise.”

That’s really what hypochondria leads to. A fear of death. A fear of the unknown. Therefore, it’s difficult to say exactly what I believe about life after death. I don’t so much have a belief as much as a want. To sum it up in a sentence, I expect the worst and hope for the best. Like every time I visit my mother. Just kidding. Love ya Mom! However, I do like to say that I don’t care what happens as long as there’s consciousness after death. If I made that into a wish, I’d be sure to make that a little more specific otherwise there might be some bad catches and consequences to that consciousness. I don’t want to end up in the mind of a stick. That’d be quite a sticky situation. (Can’t believe I just wrote that.)

When I was in college, I went through a period of time where I had, what I liked to call, mortality issues. When I thought about my metabolic processes being history, I would get these waves of distress and foreboding over me that was uncontrollable. Strangely enough, I would never say that I got depressed. I was too preoccupied that this whole death thing applied to me too. (Joke lovingly taken from Steve Martin) The idea of infinite nothingness, albeit a thought when I’m conscious, is genuinely freaky. Coming to the realization that in this “worst case scenario” I wouldn’t, in fact, be conscious, had a surprisingly sobering effect. Thus came the next stage of my receptivity towards mortality.

I accepted death, I suppose. Of course I say that at 24 years old and in good health. Maybe wait until I’m about to die to see how I truly feel. However, death, as it turns out, is the number one killer of man. 100% fatal. More so than bizarre vicious grandma attacks. What I really accepted more was that without death, life loses its purpose. Getting limited time can force you do something great with your life. It gives you urgency. Personally, I know I want to leave some sort of legacy, even if in the most minute way. Hence I’m writing this and anything that potentially could and should survive beyond my lifetime. When it comes down to it, I need the whole ceasing to exist thing because I’m possibly more scared with the idea of living forever. My mind has difficulty comprehending something that isn’t finite. Everything must have a beginning, middle and end. For example, this sentence would be tough to comprehend without-

If it isn’t entirely apparent, I might be a little obsessed with death, but at least for, what I feel, are all the right reasons. Hence, again, I love to write. I face death head on because if I face it butt on I’ll probably get prostate cancer, as it runs in my family. I do half expect to get it. Or one out of six expect to get it. If I did end up getting cancer, it’d have to be colon cancer. I’m already prepared should the situation arise. See, I know I’ll be able to beat it (gotta have the optimism). And although they may have to remove a part of my colon, that’ll be just fine. Being that I have a degree in English, I’d have even more smugness in being able to say I’m one of the few people that knows how to properly use a semi-colon. Bah-dum chee! Not to mention that I would be able to refer to it as “butt cancer”. It just sounds softer, you know?

We all have to die someday. Morbid and blunt, I know. But it’s one of the universal truths out there. Accepting it and dealing with it is one way to conquer death. Discovering the Fountain of Youth is the other. Knowing that, I do what I can with the time I got. It’d be nice to actively pursue the philosophy of doing what I want every second of every day, but alas, we live in a world where cash is very important. In case you didn’t know, the way you obtain this cash is you work long strenuous hours doing stuff you may not necessarily want to do. Then they give you money for doing the fun stuff you do want to do. Having enough of this cash can sometimes make you feel like royalty. In fact, there’s a saying that cash is king. And as we all know, it’s good to be the king. And I prefer cash in the form of the shekel. But I’m deviating from my point so that’ll be a blog for a different day. Or did I write that one already?


A hero’s story

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We Will Never Forget photo-400

This piece was originally posted on Oy!Chicago in April 2012 and has been re-published for this blog series.

When I was in junior high, my family hosted a woman in our home who was in town for a weekend speaking engagement. She was in her 70s at the time, blonde, and wore tailored skirt suits. Warm and gentle, yet strong, she reminded me of my grandmothers.

A hero’s story photo

Irene Gut Opdyke
Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I knew, even back then, that she was special, but I didn't realize how special until a decade later when I spotted her name at Yad Vashem on the list of "Righteous Among the Nations"—or "Righteous Gentiles"—non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In addition to her, by the end of 2010, Yad Vashem had recognized 23,788 Righteous Among the Nations from 45 countries.

As Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—arrives this week, it seems fitting to tell the story of this incredible woman who in one weekend taught me what it means to be a hero.

Irene Gut was born to a Polish Catholic family, the eldest of five daughters. When Russia and Germany invaded Poland at the start of the war, Irene was a 17-year-old nursing student. She joined the Polish underground to care for the sick and wounded, and she eventually became separated from her family. A group of Russian soldiers discovered her hiding in the forest with other resistance fighters. The soldiers beat and gang-raped Irene and then sent her to a hospital to aid the Russians.

In search of her family, she fled the hospital, but was soon captured by Germans, and sent to a munitions factory in Poland, where she collapsed from hard labor. Irene, a pretty girl with Aryan features, caught the attention of a 70-year-old German officer, Major Eduard Rugemer, who took a liking to her and assigned her to less taxing work in the mess hall. Amid the horrific conditions she saw of the Jews in the ghetto, she witnessed Nazi soldiers throw a baby in the air and shoot the child for sport, an image that haunted Irene her entire life.

Later, Rugemer employed Irene as a housekeeper in his villa in Ukraine, where her duties included supervising laundry service, carried out by a staff of 12 Jews. When she heard of plans to kill the Jewish employees, Irene insisted on hiding them in the cellar of the villa—smuggling them food and clothing—without the officer's knowledge.

One day, Rugemer came home early and discovered the hidden Jews. Irene pleaded with him not to turn them in, bargaining to become Rugemer's mistress if he would let them stay. She never told her Jewish friends how she kept them hidden, yet she did confess her secret to a priest, who urged her to turn the Jews in. But Irene refused.

In all, she hid her Jewish friends for nine months. When one of the hidden women became pregnant, Irene convinced the mother-to-be not to have an abortion. In 1944, Irene fled with the Jews to the forest, where the baby was eventually born.

At war's end, her Jewish friends helped her escape to West Germany, where she briefly met William Opdyke, an American working for the United Nations. Around this time, she also learned the whereabouts of her family: her father had been killed by Germans, while her mother and four sisters survived.

A few years later, aided by a Jewish resettlement organization, Irene immigrated to New York, where she bumped into Opdyke at a café. Only months later, they married and had a daughter, settling in Southern California.

It wasn't until later in her life—after hearing claims that the Holocaust was an exaggeration—that Irene chose to share her harrowing story, writing a book (with Jennifer Armstrong) called In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, and speaking for educational groups. In 1982, Irene was recognized as a "Righteous Gentile" by Yad Vashem. It was at that ceremony that Irene met the baby-by then a grown man-she had saved, who owed his life to her.

Irene passed away in 2003 at the age of 86. Two years ago, a show about her life, called Irena's Vow, played on Broadway.

There are certain people who come into our lives who are etched in our memory forever. Irene, for me, is one of those people. I only spent one weekend with her all those years ago, but I credit her with teaching me so much about compassion, empathy, and strength.

Irene is no longer here to share her journey, but I pledge to tell her story for her—and other heroes like her—to as many people as I can. I hope you'll do the same.


Team Katniss

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Team Katniss photo

On August 20, 2010 I experienced a life changing event.  I was told to read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  "Better than Twilight, not as good as Harry Potter" was the way it was described to me.  Being the fantasy book geek that I am, that's all I needed to know.  As early as the last sentence of the first paragraph, "This is the day of the reaping" I was hooked.

I don't even think I was finished with the book before I started recommending it to everyone I knew.  Now, few things give me greater pleasure than a successful book rec. (#dork).  And to my delight the positive feedback came flooding in.  Little did I know the trend that was beginning.  I don't want to take full credit for the 36.5 million copies of the series in print, its three year tenure on the New York Times Bestseller list, or Suzanne Collins' rise to Kindle's all time best-selling author...but I'd like to think I had something to do with it.

It was probably the announcement that Lionsgate Studios would adapt The Hunger Games into a major motion picture that vaulted it from a good rec. among avid readers and "young adult" fantasy/sci buffs into an international phenomenon.  Attaching 2011 Academy Award Best Actress Nominee Jennifer Lawrence to the lead role of Katniss gave the film credibility.  For all of us who love books but worry how our favorites will be adapted to the big screen, this provided a sigh of relief.  It meant that Lionsgate was taking the film seriously.  With this up and coming young star along with a top billed supporting cast, the movie officially had the social media feeds buzzing.

Unfortunately, with this buzz came the unnecessary amplification of the love story that to me is merely a peripheral theme in the book.  Much like "Twilight's" Team Edward vs. Team Jacob phenomenon, we immediately started seeing similar competition between Katniss' prospective love interests, Peeta and Gale.  Websites and Facebook pages sprouted, urging fans to vote for who would most qualify as Katniss' suitor.  But this need to quibble over "who's the best guy" really detracts from the themes of the story.  We love this book because we are angered by the inequitable differences between life in District 12 and that of the Capitol.  Katniss represents the masses, and her strength, courage, and most importantly humanity is something we all admire.  To focus on the theme of love in this book is to diminish the grander ideas such as equality and survival.

The novel is told in first person, so we hear Katniss' every thought, and this is how we grow to love her.  Her quick wit in dealing with some of the less desirable characters and difficult situations is portrayed well in the movie.  However, because the film chose to forgo the first person narration, it struggles to depict how methodical Katniss is in her thinking, how much she truly despises the Capitol, or that paramount to everything else, Survival is most important.  It is this last statement that is the central theme to the novel, not Peeta v. Gale as the movie studio or tween fan pages would lead you to believe.

I am not so cold-hearted as to think that Katniss does not have feelings for Peeta, however her will to survive is actually much stronger than those feelings.  (**SPOILERS from here on out**)  In fact, the highlight of this love story occurs in a cave where the two District 12 tributes are hiding, after the recent ruling that tributes from the same district may both be allowed to win if they are the last two alive.  Katniss then goes to find Peeta, not because she is in love with him, but because she knows that on a team she is more likely to survive.  In the cave, she kisses him, not because she has some undying urge to, but because she hopes it will lead to gifts from sponsors that will aid in her survival.  "If I want to keep Peeta alive, I've got to give the audience something to care about," says Katniss.  Nothing proves this point better than the climax of the story, when the Gamemakers announce that there may be only one winner, as opposed to their earlier revision to the rules, allowing tributes from the same district to join forces. In the book, upon hearing this, Peeta pulls his knife.  Reacting instinctively, Katniss nocks an arrow and aims it at Peeta's heart!  Here we see Katniss' survival instinct outweighing her feelings for Peeta.  And yet, this part was left out of the movie.  In the movie, upon hearing this momentous announcement, the two District 12 tributes, after just fighting for their lives for days on end; surviving burns, wasp stings, sword and knife wounds, starvation, dehydration...kind of just stand around wondering what to do.  Seriously?  Here's about five seconds that could have been added which would convey not only the severity of the situation, but would supply some real theatrical suspense. If anything the filmmakers should be playing up this angle.  So why leave it out?  "I can sell the star-crossed lovers from District 12..." Haymitch proclaims in the film.  Lionsgate apparently was on the same page.  But in attempting to pander to the coveted tween demographic, they totally miss the point. Those star-crossed lovers are supposed to fight to the death!  This is part of what makes the story so compelling.  Clearly the filmmakers were afraid that they would lose some of the tween audience because their beloved Peeta v. Gale saga would be replaced by the real theme of the story.  Survival.  

Omissions such as those and others could be the reason Director Gary Ross will not be returning for the sequel, Catching Fire, slated for release in late 2013. Ross decided not to sign on for "Catching Fire" stating, "As a writer and a director, I simply don't have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule." Reading between the lines we can infer Ross experienced similar problems with "Hunger Games".  Despite all my complaining, I still give the movie a B+.  I'm not so naive as to think an adaptation is going to fit my exact specifications, and this one comes closer than many.  I know I'll never stop being bothered by the Team Peeta v. Team Gale question, but upon being asked, I reply proudly and without hesitation "Team Katniss."


Stop with the just hooking up already!

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(I’m such a yenta!)


Stop with the just hooking up already photo

I need to rant a little this month…and I know this might come off controversial to some…but I’m really upset with my fellow 20- and 30- something single Jews— particularly of the male persuasion— who troll around Jewish dating sites looking for girls to hook up with and not date. What is up with this awful phenomenon! And what does it say about us as a people and a generation?

After months and months of convincing, one of my close friends recently decided to try out JDate. This was a big deal. She’d never wanted to go on a dating website before, preferring the more traditional ways of finding a mate, but really wanted to meet a nice Jewish boy and was having trouble finding him in a bar or through friends, so she finally relented. Unfortunately, her story doesn’t have a happy ending (yet) because every guy who reached out to her on the site seemed to want just one thing: a hook up. Even the one guy who did wine and dine her for a few weeks— it turns out it was all a part of an elaborate game for him— just wanted to get in her pants.

I know she is not alone in her experience. I’ve heard time and time again from other friends and acquaintances that somewhere along the way JDate (at least in Chicago) went from a place to meet a mate to a place to score. Another girlfriend of mine stopped her JDate membership all together and switched to a non-Jewish specific site where she can still search for Jewish guys. The breaking point for her was when a guy messaged her with the following: I’d like to get in your pants, are you interested?

Nice, right?

I don’t necessarily think sites like JDate are to blame for this hook up culture brewing in the city, and I get that this can happen anywhere on any site. In fact, I like JDate. My 40-something sister met her husband (second marriage) on the site and I have a friend getting married to the first guy she met on JDate this fall. So I know the site has worked for some and that’s why I was so gung-ho about pushing my friend to join. But I’m really sick of this all too common behavior I keep hearing about. It’s one thing to go out looking for a one night stand in a bar on a Saturday night— I get that and I’m not totally opposed to both parties opting to be slutty— but how do you justify misleading people who are paying for a membership seeking their beshert? It’s rude. It’s wrong. It makes you an asshole and I know karma will catch up to these people one day.

Fortunately there are some really great alternative Jewish dating sites out there that are geared towards people looking for serious relationships. If you’re single and up for expanding your dating horizons, check these sites out:

JWed: I recently just learned about this site and it sounds promising. JWed bills itself as a site that was created exclusively for Jewish-only singles who are ready for the life-long commitment of marriage. They have a screening process to keep those just looking for a hook up off the site— big plus in my book.

TheJMom: Full disclosure, I love this site and not just because I help out with their PR. The brainchild of Chicago siblings Brad and Danielle Weisberg, the site lets moms get involved in setting up their children. Now I know it sounds a little crazy, but the site came into fruition one day when Brad and Danielle let their mom sift through profiles on a dating site. A couple hours later, she had picked out 10 potential dates— they were impressed with her selections and TheJMom was born.

JMatch: Like JWed, this site bills itself for marriage minded Jewish singles. Not only is it a traditional dating website, but JMatch also has matchmakers on hand to provide more individualized attention.

These next two definitely skew towards the Orthodox crowd— where hooking up is probably not such a problem. But if you are religious and looking for a serious relationship, look no further than Frumster and Saw You at Sinai.

A quick Google search pulls up several Jewish dating websites— some I’ve heard of and others not so much— so next time you get discouraged know you do have options and check some of them out!


Why Regina Spektor is worth listening to – and not just for her music

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Why Regina Spektor is worth listening to photo

As soon as I heard her music around six or seven years ago, I knew Regina Spektor would become one of my favorite musicians. I had never heard anyone like her before, and was absolutely captivated by the beauty of her storytelling and piano-playing.

At the time, Spektor was not yet in the mainstream music world. If people knew about her, it was most likely because they were fans of The Strokes – the band for whom Spektor had been the opening act on the Room on Fire tour.

My own journey to discovering Spektor’s music was quite random – I hadn’t been listening to The Strokes, but a friend of mine was a huge fan. She asked me if I had ever heard of Spektor (I hadn’t) and I asked why I would have. As it turned out, Spektor and I had a lot in common – from physical attributes to the Russian-Jewish immigrant story, not to mention that I also played the piano. (To this day, I joke that if God had gifted me with a singing voice, I would be giving Spektor a run for her money.)

As the years went by and I kept listening to Spektor’s music (which I couldn’t stop playing on repeat), I started reading her interviews. What struck me even more than her talent for quirky yet beautiful song writing, was the pride in which she spoke about her background as a Russian-Jewish immigrant.

Spektor never changed her name to make it more Americanized (granted, it wasn’t too difficult to pronounce in the first place, but a quick online search will reveal how many famous people have changed their names, and other personal details, to whitewash their cultural heritage.) She embraces her family’s history, her own history, and is not afraid to speak proudly about being Jewish or facing anti-Semitism. She is not afraid to say that she supports Israel. That’s what I love about Spektor – that she is both an artist worth hearing and a person worth listening to.

Yet she never imposes or forces her beliefs on her listeners. Spektor’s music isn’t about her personal experiences or her religious or political beliefs – her songs are simply stories set to lyrical melodies, and spiced with her sense of humor. Yes, there are many literary, cultural and even religious allusions – but I would say that they are more for imagery than for anything else. Her songs are not political, and that is why I think Spektor is embraced by such a variety of people.

Of all her songs, I can truly think of one that could be construed as political or as genuinely expressive of Spektor’s own beliefs, and it isn’t kind to Holocaust deniers. It is called "Ink Stains" and the words are so heavy that I don’t even feel comfortable pasting them all here. If you want to talk about powerful lyrics, there’s no better example: You who accuse the dying of lying/You can't tell fake from honest crying/Argentina steakhouse, Swiss Bank gold card/Aren't going to help you where you're going at.

As a Russian-Jewish immigrant, I could not be more proud and grateful that there is someone out there like Spektor – a brilliant musician who is proud of who she truly is, and still sells out Radio City Music Hall. Just recently, she performed a benefit concert for the 100th anniversary of HIAS, or Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in New York, and vh1 recently named her one of the 100 Greatest Women in Music.

I am so appreciative of Spektor’s voice, the musical one and the personal one, and am extremely glad to see her receive the success the she deserves.

JTA recently wrote an article about Spektor, called "Amid mainstream success, Regina Spektor stays true to Jewish roots." To me, that headline sums it up perfectly.

Oh, and on a side note: a few months after meeting Spektor at a record store several years ago, I found out that one of my relatives is very close with her aunt. Small world!


Hey guy.

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In college, my roommates and I made an annual practice of exchanging Hanukkah gifts before we went home for winter break. My roommates were both in serious relationships for a majority of the time we were in college, whereas I dated around. One year, my roommate bought me "Mr. Wonderful."

Hey guy photo 1

Mr. Wonderful has a lean body, a pronounced jaw, a perfect head of hair, giant feet and hands and a sparkling smile. I forgot to mention, Mr. Wonderful is also about a foot in height and battery operated. When one squeezes Mr. Wonderful's hand, he says all the right things.

I found Mr. Wonderful in the depths of my closet. His batteries are low and as a result, his slurred speech resembles a cross between a drunken sailor and Barry White. Here's what Mr. Wonderful knows how to say:

1. "You know, I think it's really important we talk about our relationship."
2. "Let's just cuddle tonight."
3. "Oh, you look so beautiful in the morning."
4. "No, you don't look at all fat in that dress. How could anything make you look fat?"
5. "Aw, can't your mother stay another week?"
6. "Hello darling. Have I told you I loved you lately?"
7. "Did you have a hard day, honey? Why don't you sit down and let me rub your feet."
8. "You're going shopping by yourself? How about if I tag along and carry your bags?"
9. "Actually I'm not sure which way to go. I'll turn in here and ask directions."
10. "I love you."
11. "Yes dear."
12. "You've been on my mind all day. That's why I bought you these flowers."
13. "You know honey, why don't you just relax and let me make dinner tonight."
14. "Why don't we go to the mall? Didn't you want some new shoes?"
15. "The ball game really isn't that important. I'd rather spend time with you."
16. "Here, you take the remote. As long as I'm with you, I don't care what we watch."

According to Amazon.com, you too can have your own Mr. Wonderful for the cost of anywhere from $6.99 to $84.99. I am not sure when and why he got so expensive. However, his package does promise, "He always knows just what to say!"

Now, add "Hey Girl," before any of Mr. Wonderful's key phrases, and you'll be amazed at how Mr. Wonderful shows an uncanny resemblance to Ryan Gosling—or the Ryan Gosling Tumblr meme, that is. Proudly, I can say my plush Mr. Wonderful with a plastic head was ahead of his time, before the Ryan Gosling meme ever exploded across the blogosphere. However, I have to admit, I'm obsessed with the Goz.

If you've been following Pinterest, Tumblr, or really pay attention to what's happening on the Internet at all, you've probably run into a Ryan Gosling meme. According to the Huffington Post, the "Hey Girl" trend originated from the blog, "F*** Yeah! Ryan Gosling."

I didn't catch on to the meme until the feminists took hold of Goz and the "Feminist Ryan Gosling" Tumblr blog evolved, featuring a series of feminist theory flashcards using various steamy and/or sensitive pictures of Gosling saying forwarding-thinking theories about women and gender stereotypes. I got a little choked up/turned on seeing Gosling in this feminist context. Match his fabricated feminist persona with his role in the film Crazy, Stupid Love—in which he had rock-hard abs and wooed Emma Stone's character with a Dirty Dancing move—and I was sold. (For the record, I was never a Notebook convert.)

After the feminists started showcasing Gosling in this sensitive and evolved light, everyone seemed to want a piece. Now you can find "Hey Girl" Ryan Gosling Tumblr sites for puppy lovers, librarians, biologists, teachers, crafters, food bloggers, Silicon Valley geeks, typographers, Jews (check out the latest Passover Gosling memes) and more.

With news that Gosling not only stopped a street fight a few months back, but also recently saved a British woman in New York from getting hit by a taxi, he's basically the sexy messiah. I joined women across the country when I died a little bit inside reading the news, wishing it was me. Gosling has reached a God-like status, and none of us is really quite sure how he got there. 

As Jezebel.com writer Lindy West wrote after Gosling's taxi save, "…how is Ryan Gosling even possible? And how much longer can he keep up this bonkers trajectory of increasing human perfection?"

"Just to recap: He's stupid handsome, just quirky-looking enough that it's not annoying," West added. "He's masculine, but not threatening—like a bro that you actually want to hang out with. He's funny. He's feminist. He wears t-shirts THE BEST. He breaks up fights and keeps the streets safe."

West goes on to point out that he's actually a great actor too (despite his squeaky clean start in the Mickey Mouse Club). 

In some ways Gosling has overshadowed George Clooney in the sweltering Prince Charming department. He's not old enough to be a sleazy bachelor and doesn't date Vegas waitresses (that we know of). Gosling, by no Tumblr efforts of his own, has become an ordinary superhero for women; a champion among dudes; a guy that gets us—or so we've projected upon him.

I was having the old "buy the cow" argument with my mom the other day about women moving in with men before marriage. You know, "Why buy the milk, when you can get the cow for free?" She argued men are being handed everything on a silver platter (companionship, sex, house chores) and then they don't have to work for their meal (or marriage). To make matters worse, she argued, they're just immature. I can't argue with that. But, the cow metaphor makes me a little sick. However, I do agree men aren't set to commit like they were in her day. I also know couples who have lived together for years and then split up. I still believe living with someone is knowing someone. And knowing someone takes time and self-adjustment. I read a Wall Street Journal article a while back that posited that we actually fall for our emotional opposites—for some reason we like the challenge—and each member of the couple has to adapt to how each other receives emotional attention in a positive way.

The Gosling memes have become an arena for women to laugh at themselves and their own quirks and interests. They've also become a bit of a sounding board for women to express how they wish they were appreciated. Women are essentially building the perfect man—or Mr. Wonderful—through this meme form of expression. The fact that so many women have caught on and made it theirs speaks to something—something we feel like we're missing. Messiah Gosling has become a vehicle for the voices of women.

We want someone who loves us for all of our quirks—loves us in our element. We want a mate that thinks we're fabulous when we're engaged in something we are passionate about, be it biology, teaching, cooking, crafting, geeking out or just being ourselves. We want Mr. Wonderful. No batteries necessary.


What happens in Vegas…Part II

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What happens at TribeFest… photo 1

It has been over a week since my return from TribeFest 2012 in Las Vegas and I am still in shock.  I have not fully processed my experience, and to be honest, I am not sure I ever will.  Let me explain. 

(read What happens at TribeFest Part I here)

On March 24, I left Chicago and headed for Las Vegas for the very first time.  I had heard all the crazy stories and seen pictures, yet, as I saw the strip upon my arrival, I was shocked.  Now, you may be thinking, it is only Las Vegas.  But let me clear something up…it was not ONLY Las Vegas.  TribeFest 2012 was a gathering of over 1,500 young Jewish adults from across the country to connect, explore and celebrate being Jewish.  Maybe Las Vegas or 1,500 Jews alone would not have been so overwhelming, but put the two together and you have one totally shocked young Jewish professional….ME.

What happens in Vegas…Part II photo

Now that I am home, I am trying to process the whole experience.  For three days, I participated in sessions with dynamic leaders in politics, entertainment, music and art.  Speakers ranged from celebrities like Rachel Dratch and AJ Jacobs to social activists like Jonny Imerman and Rochelle Shoretz.  TribeFest 2012 was aimed at engaging the next generation within the Jewish community.  So what does that mean?  I am not sure I have it all figured out, but here are some of my thoughts:

Wow!  Young adults actually care!

At 7:45 a.m. on March 26, I showed up to what I thought would be an empty room.  It was early for anyone's standards, but for Las Vegas, it was only a little after bed time.  To my surprise, approximately 600 others joined me as we boarded buses and headed off to Las Vegas schools and spent the morning reading with children.  Not only did participants get up early that morning, but they stayed up late every night talking about politics, fundraising and their Jewish identities.  Participants debated which city was the best (of course Chicago outweighed any competition), which amazing agencies should be given more money, and yes, even what club to check out next. 

For years I have heard that my generation does not care, that we are self-absorbed and do not think long term.  Yet, 1,500 participants say otherwise.  My generation does care; we just might show it in ways different than those before us.  WE CARE!  We care about our past, our present and our future.

While alone, we can make a difference, together we can change the world. 

Talia Leman, the 17-year old-founder and CEO of RandomKid, a non-profit to educate, mobilize, unify and empower youth, showed the participants that one person can make an difference, but a community can change the world.  She stated, "When we believe in the power that we each have, we have the greatest power of all."  If one 17-year-old girl can inspire youth around the world to donate $10 million to hurricane Katrina relief, imagine what 1,500 young Jewish adults can and WILL do!

What happens in Las Vegas should NEVER stay in Las Vegas!

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) President and CEO Jerry Silverman said it best when he stated, "It is not about just being at TribeFest, it is about taking the energy, the conversations and the excitement and bringing it home.  It is there that the real work begins." 

Got it?  Good!  Now stop sitting here reading and go change the world!


Too young to diet?

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Sharna Marcus photo 2

A couple of weeks ago the blogosphere, twitterverse and day time TV world went ballistic over an article written by Dara-Lynn Weiss in the April issue of Vogue Magazine about how she had put her seven year old daughter on a diet and her strict methods of enforcing the diet’s rules.

I began reading the comments and some of the heartbreaking essays about women who never recovered from their own childhoods of being forced to diet. Throughout my inventory of the internet to read more and more about this issue, one thing did cross my mind, it was clear that most of the bloggers, tweeters, and even some of the reporters on the talk shows never read Ms. Lynn Weiss’ article. They were ready to damn her based on brief quotes and others’ opinions.

So I’ve wanted to write about this article, I decided I wouldn’t until I actually read the entire article. Today at lunch, I snuck off and for the first time in my life bought a copy of Vogue and read. (Does anyone want a Vogue, by the way?)

One of the reasons I became so interested is that by the time I was 17, I had probably been on at least 15 different diets. There are many more salacious details I could and won’t recount for you here, but suffice it to say, my issues with food began from the age of seven (or earlier). I have never had a normal relationship with food, and maybe I never will. This toxic relationship has depleted me emotionally, physically and financially.

Given all of that, I have some sympathy for the demonized Ms. Weiss because she has similar food issues to me, as she recounts in the piece, and they are not fun. Also, therefore, as she admits, helping a child who was overweight and eventually obese was an almost impossible task. Ms. Weiss did facilitate her daughter to lose 16 pounds, but almost every commentator would agree that her methods were questionable and that her daughter is at high risk for an eating disorder down the line. Again, Ms. Weiss admits to this. If anything, her article is honest.

By age three, Ms. Weiss’ daughter did develop disordered eating, although it’s not labeled that in the article, just described. Her daughter’s pre-school teacher told Ms. Weiss that her daughter did not “self-regulate” her food intake and Ms. Weiss said she would eat adult size portions. I just wish at that point Ms. Weiss would have inquired as to why this was true, rather than begin the process of worrying (maybe even obsessing) about her daughter’s future obesity. Why was her daughter so hungry? She ruled out metabolic problems, but what was causing her hunger physiologically or more likely psychologically, and how could she work on finding a healthier replacement for whatever the food was compensating for. Yes, even, perhaps especially these questions should have been asked for an overweight three year old.

As someone who hopes to have kids in the next few years, I have already started to think about and address these issues. How will I feed a child when I don’t know how to feed myself? What I’ve figured out is to look to my brother and sister-in-law, who seem to do a great job with their kids. They taught them about nutrition as fuel from an early age and have fed them as such. They allow them to eat sweets, but in appropriate portions and in moderation. They try to make sure that their kids have plenty of time to be active indoors and outdoors. (They also live in the city).

I write this the day before Passover, a difficult night for anyone with issues with food given the feast that takes place at the Seder. And although I’m not certain that Ms. Weiss is Jewish, if she is, I hope that she can look at the Haggadah and figure out a way to be freed from the yolk of eating issues and help her daughter do the same. And instead of giving her daughter a look (if you have ever gotten the look, you know it) if she takes an extra helping of charoset, instead schedule a nice long walk together in Central Park over the weekend.


A table for two

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A table for two photo

I’d been circling the cruise ship looking for my family before I gave up and seated myself alone with a plate of cooked carrots, egg salad, lettuce, tomato and a glass of water. I was feeling sorry for myself. I don’t like eating alone. It makes me feel sad. I also was convinced no one was looking for me, which felt even worse.

“You were in the hot tub yesterday.” I turned my head towards the voice. Two seats over from me was a man who looked to be in his mid-60s, his face reddened from the sun. I scrunched my eyes at him and then I remembered.

“Oh. Right. Yeah,” I replied.

“Yeah, I was there with my grandkids and you were there with your kids,” he said.

“Right, I was. So you’re here with your family?”

“Yup. Here with my grandkids, my three daughters and my son-in-law. I’ve taken them on four cruises. But this is the last one.”

“Last one? Why? Had it with cruising?”

“No. I’ve had it with my family not being appreciative. I got one of my kids a brand new car and they said, ‘Thanks. I hate the color. Can you take it back?’ And this morning, I took my grandson mini golfing and he didn’t like how it was going so he threw his golf club down and left me there. My daughters, they, I dunno. It’s not that they disappoint me. I try to point them in the right direction. I say, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ Do they listen? Of course not. They do what they want. And then they get into trouble. So I learned a long time ago, don’t let people in too close. Like my grandkids. I love them to death, but I’ll always keep some space between us, because if I let them in too close, I’ll get hurt. Yeah. I learned that a long time ago.

"The other night on the boat my girls all took a picture together. They were all dressed up. They looked so beautiful! I had to fight like heck not to cry all over the place. I thought to myself, this is so beautiful! I felt so happy. I told them, ‘You gotta get me a copy. I need that picture!’ Because, you know, that picture looked like everything I ever wanted. And then my daughter told me the picture would be better if my son were in it. I told her, maybe someday. Maybe someday he’ll get it together and he’ll be in it. But for now, well, he’s in jail. It’ll be four years in May and then he’ll be out. I saw him once. Once. This past Christmas Eve I saw him. And I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe… maybe some kind of remorse. So he said all the right things, but I could tell from his body language he wasn’t remorseful. He wasn’t sorry. Maybe he’s been hardened from the whole thing. I dunno. But I know I wished he’d seemed sorry. More sorry then he acted anyhow.

"I grew up tough. Both my parents were tough. Lots of violence and yelling and that sort of thing. Not a lot of love in my house growin’ up. My daughter told me she didn’t want me to be involved with her kids the way my parents were with mine. My kids don’t remember them. When I was a kid, I barely saw my grandparents. You’d see ‘em once or twice a year and they’d take you out for a malted and you thought they were the greatest. It was really special because otherwise you never saw them. Once or twice a year – that was it.

"My youngest daughter, when she was just a little girl she got cancer. And that changes you. Let me tell you. That changes you in a second! And so I spoiled her. She was my little girl and she was my easiest and I spoiled her. I didn’t think I spoiled her too much, but I dunno. Then when she turned 17, in the first two minutes she met this boy and I said to her, in front of his face I said to her, ‘Really? Are you joking?’ But she was blinded by this guy and he said, ‘So? And? Who are you?’ And he stuck around. He stuck around until I got rid of him. It took me beating the guy silly.”

“He left?” I said.

“Yeah he left! He’s in jail! And he’ll be there for a long time. And I went to jail getting rid of him. I’ve done my job. I’ve done the best I can. It’s upsetting when your kids make the wrong choices. It’d be OK if it wasn’t for the worry.” He said.

“Well, people who don’t want to worry shouldn’t have kids, right?” I said.

“Yeah. That’s the truth. I wish I’d read that book before this all started.” Laughter.

“I know I’m a lot younger, I’m not a grandparent and you’ve had a lot more living than me for sure. But speaking to you as a daughter, I think if you go back to the moment you saw the picture of your girls, and you tell your girls how much love it brought up in you, that feeling will stick with them. You seem like a good man with your guard up for good reason. But I can tell you, hearing a dad say what you said to me, it means something. It can change things. It can make things better. It’s not too late for things to be different.”

“You know… geeze! I haven’t talked about this stuff in, I dunno… years! Well, I always say after the last family trip, ‘This is it!’ No more!’ But then halfway through the year my daughters start talking about a trip again and I say, ‘Eh, what the hell!’ and I give my oldest my credit card and tell her to plan it all. Then the bill comes, I pay it and everyone’s had a nice vacation. Like I said, I did the best I could. You’re a good listener. So, what’s your deal?”

I see my son about five feet from me at the dessert bar. I call him over with my other three kids trailing behind like ducks in a row. “Can I sit on your yap?” my daughter asks. “Yes, you can sit on my ‘yap.’” The man smiles and makes small talk with the kids for a few minutes before standing up to leave. “Well, I guess I’ll go find my family.” the man says. “It’s been a real pleasure talkin’ to you. A real pleasure…” And with a wink and a smile, he was gone.

Hand and hand go the joys and pains of life. No matter how hard we try to shore ourselves up, we get hurt, we get disappointed, we disappoint, we have regret. But living is about all that. It’s messy. And it’s wonderful. Sometimes we’re sitting alone, feeling sorry for ourselves when we realize we were never really alone at all. Sometimes you just need to make a little space at your table for a stranger to be reminded. To be reminded that hope floats.


Spring fashion fever for men

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Spring fashion fever photo

Two months ago, I promised to write about men’s spring fashion as a follow-up to my women’s spring fashion post. This proved to be more difficult than women’s because I’m much more tuned in to women’s wear and accessories. Nonetheless, I enlisted the help of my boyfriend who, luckily, is an amicable and fun shopper and I noticed a few great looks to help carry guys through the spring and transition them into summer.

We went on a shopping excursion this past weekend and then, like last time, I perused my various daily emails from stores to select a handful of key seasonal items (not necessarily frugal, but also not astronomically priced) that can get Chicago men (or really men anywhere!) through this spring classically, but with a little edge.

Here goes:

1. No one can argue that Burberry is classic and always a smart choice for a casual yet pulled-together look. Also, I absolutely love a guy in a nice button down. What makes this one so special is that it’s linen and therefore more relaxed looking than the typical Oxford shirt; which is the perfect look for spring/summer. Check out this Burberry shirt on Bloomingdales.com.

2. As we continue on, you will notice that I use examples from Club Monaco often. I love Club Monaco because its look, for men and women, tends to be consistently versatile with attractive neutral tones and fabric weights perfect for layering. Check out this sharp sport coat. It can be worn formal, as CM says, to a wedding, but I also think it looks great tacked onto a shorts outfit for a casual night out on the town (see model example). I love this sport coat because it gives the same spring/summer look as the classic linen blazer, but is more tailored and fitted than linen.

3. Hats are big this season! They add nice finesse to an otherwise ordinary outfit. My boyfriend and I went to the Gap this weekend where he tried on various hat options. He eventually settled on their soft newsboy hat in “true black” but we liked their overall selection.

4. Lastly, also from the Gap are these classic but slightly edgy slim fit khakis which come in multiple color options. Unfortunately, I could not get my boyfriend to try these on (I think “slim fit” seemed scary) but I still recommend them for a crisp and clean, yet fun spring/summer look. The “roseberry” and “crystal blue dusk” colors are my favorite and in my opinion, the most versatile.


Through sharing comes hope

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Jenna Benn photo

This past weekend 550 young adult cancer survivors, supporters, caregivers and loved ones gathered in Las Vegas to listen, learn, support, and grow.

Our hope was coupled with fear.

Our strength was coupled with fragility.

Our honesty was coupled with insecurity.

While cancer may have been the reason we were brought together, she was also responsible for tearing us apart.

Are you in treatment?

Are you in remission?

Have you had recurrence?

Are you cured?

We were labeling, categorizing, and inevitably separating each other into manageable groups.

And as we separated this disease into her many shades of grey, it became apparent that it was the desire to make change, the desire to live in spite of cancer that united us, that guided us, and instilled a sense of community and hope amongst a sea of strangers.

As we were repeatedly stripped down to our most vulnerable selves, we confronted our darkest fears, and tiptoed into our hopes and dreams.

The same disease that left my body after two rounds of chemotherapy, took a brother at the age of 34, and a daughter at the age of 26.

The same disease that brought me strength and clarity, caused others repeated pain, devastation and hardship.

It was one conference but not one voice.

It was one disease but not one outcome.

It was one journey but not one story.

As a young adult cancer survivor it is my hope that we continue to share our stories, continue to share our voice, and continue to give a face to cancer.

Through sharing comes strength, through sharing comes bravery, through sharing comes community, and through sharing comes hope.

I hope you will join me.


Cheers Chicago: Sweet beginnings

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Cheers Chicago: Sweet beginnings photo

My brother and me with our lovely sister

This issue, I have something very special to toast!

On March 24th, the first day of Nissan 5772, my sister Hayley married her longtime boyfriend and best friend, Brad Kessler. It was an enchanting weekend at the Four Seasons here in Chicago, and it began with a long, monotonous wedding rehearsal. Yay.

All the boringness aside, I always wondered what it was like to participate in a wedding. I have not been to many in my adult life, let alone been a part of one. It was a great experience and I really felt a part of something special the whole weekend. The hotel was so accommodating and exquisite, the wedding party itself was full of caring and happy friends and relatives eager to celebrate the union, and the bride and groom were on cloud nine. It was as if time was suspended, for just a little while, to allow these two to soak up every bit of this magical moment. You could see the sparkles in their eyes the whole way through. It was worth the long rehearsal, the tux purchase and fittings, the myriad of speech drafts. I was so glad to be a part of it.

The rehearsal dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab was quite a memorable experience, to say the least. To make a long story short, when one of Brad’s longtime best friends and groomsman gave his speech. When he began, many of us at the bride and groom’s table, including the bride and groom themselves, exchanged nervous glances, wondering where this speech was going. This particular friend of Brad’s was known for pranks. He didn’t disappoint.

A loud voice was heard from the back of the room. We all turned to look as a man dressed and sounding like Martin Luther King, Jr., walked to the front of the room, reciting word for word the famous “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the whole group. There he was, a stranger giving an amazing rendition of this famous speech, while the best friend stood in the background, looking cool, nodding his head and interjecting with the “mmm-hmms” and “oh yeahs” you’d expect. The rest of us were caught between listening intently and trying not to crack up. Apparently, this was Brad’s favorite speech and it was his best friend’s tribute to him. As touching as it was, we were all certainly caught off guard. The man finished his speech, we all gave him a standing ovation, and the night continued.

And the party...let’s not forget the party! Since the wedding was so late, we did not finish the ceremony until close to 9pm! As we exited the ballroom to wait patiently for the resetting and the band to set up, everyone got to enjoy some tasty appetizers. They went fast! Mac and cheese balls, mini sliders, truffle french fries and mini corn dogs were some of the awesome bites offered. Everyone was having a great time mingling and enjoying themselves. As time passed, I noticed that the busiest areas of the room were where the bars were, and that got me very excited.

Now, all of my avid readers would know that no celebration of this magnitude would be without a specialty cocktail to match. I was honored when Brad and Hayley asked me to create a cocktail to celebrate their nuptials. I thought back to one of our recent couples’ dinners and recalled how much the two of them loved to drink sangria. From that recipe, combined with inspiration from the traditional Spanish sangria, “Sweet Beginnings” was born. You can make this at home for yourself or for any summer occasion. Notice that the sparkling wine used is Spanish as well, keeping to the rustic traditional theme as much as possible. I hope it brings as much joy and happiness as it did to the bride and groom. They absolutely loved it!

Sweet Beginnings (recipe for 10)

1 bottle (1.5 liters) dry Spanish red wine (Shiraz, Rioja)
⅓ - ½ cup brandy (blackberry preferred)
⅓ cup Cointreau
2 tablespoons honey, TO TASTE
2 nectarines or peaches, pitted and cut into wedges
½ pineapple, diced
12 strawberries, cut in half or diced
2 kiwis, diced or thinly sliced
2 apples, skin on, diced (optional)
1 ½ cups fresh orange juice
3 lemons, juiced
2 limes, juiced
Ice cubes
CAVA sparkling wine
Garnishes: diced fruits stirred into the sangria: lemon, lime, peach, strawberry, orange, pineapple, apple

In a pitcher, combine wine, orange juice, brandy, cointreau and sugar; stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in fruit (not garnishes!). Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 3 hours (or overnight). If left overnight, strain old fruit out and add fresh fruit garnishes and stir well before serving. Serve in punch bowl. In individual servings, fill half the glass with ice pour sangria, then top off with 1-2 oz of Cava.

So, to my sister and her husband: I am so happy for the two of you and wish you all the happiness you can imagine and a long and healthy life together as a couple. L’Chaim!

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