OyChicago blog

“Most Optimistic”

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04/30/2015

Jessica Korneff photo

Slightly tucked behind some mothy Beanie Babies on my dresser at home stands a glowing, faux-Oscar statue. Below the elegant Oscar himself, the following superlative is engraved: "Most Optimistic."  

This is one of my most prized possessions. I won it at an awards ceremony during one of my final nights studying abroad in Jerusalem. I love this statue, and I love everything it represents and reminds me of. There's just one little problem -- it's not true.  

I might describe myself as people-pleasing, or generally cheerful, or even mostly happy, but I would never, ever classify myself as optimistic. This isn't a contradictory statement; the difference is based on time. Cheerful is how you feel in the present moment, while optimism or pessimism is how you feel about the future.  

"A pessimist confronted with two bad decisions," claims one Jewish proverb, "chooses both."

In my case, however, I'd say the pessimist chooses neither. When you're 23 years old, life sort of veers in whichever way you direct it. For me, this is puzzling -- every decision before had always been preordained or set upon some kind of prescribed, pre-approved route.  

"Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains," writes author Paolo Giordano.  

This thought haunts me. How can I possibly know which second will mold the future? Faced with big life decisions, I usually retreat and just let things unfold instead of plunging forward. Numbing anxiety about the future causes me to step quietly into the backdrop and let things happen as they may.  

By doing nothing, I may actually be choosing the most harmful option.  

Any decision can go wrong, but, as I've started to learn, not doing anything is making quite a decision in itself. Time goes by, even if you let events pass through by osmosis. Things are still happening and they're shaping into what's becoming your life.  

As it turns out, I'm definitely not alone in my outlook. In fact, we Jews are pretty famous for exactly this habit of pessimistic anxiety. We often see ourselves on the cusp of some mind-boggling, existential threat, and often, we're not wrong. Throughout the centuries, this tendency has carried over and made (some of us, at least) walk the world with a perpetual thunder cloud over our heads.  

Putting aside my self-proclaimed pessimism, I should point out that there may be a bright side here. Recent studies done at Ontario's Lakehead University have shown a correlation between high levels of anxiety and intelligence. While nothing is conclusive yet, this just one of several studies that shows a potential connection between the two. So at least we can quit worrying about that .  

I don't know for sure how much pessimism or anxiety has affected me. It's definitely caused some sleepless nights, and plenty of hand-wringing and anguished re-hashes of the past. It causes me to question the decisions I've already made, and to doubt the choices yet to come.  

But when I can, I sneak a glance back at my Oscar. It reminds me of a time when I was happy and fulfilled in Jerusalem, going to bed each night hopeful for the next day. If nothing else, it reminds me that I can conceivably be optimistic. At least, I can certainly try.

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A Little Harmless Gossip

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04/29/2015

A Little Harmless Gossip photo

I bumped into an old friend the other day on the El, a friend I haven't seen in a few years. He's one of those friends that appeared out of nowhere after college, after the dust settled from the four years of unfettered freedom and everyone re-descended back to their home towns. Now that we were seated on the train next to each other, he had nowhere else to go -- how lucky/unfortunate for him.

We didn't really know each other well in high school and we went to different colleges. We connected at the intersection of the post-grad merger of our respective friend groups. But, so often as friendships go, people grow apart and move on to new and different things. He's married now.

Anyway, after all this time, here's the first question he asks: "Have you met your beshert yet?"

What a question! I smile from ear to ear as I fall back into the rhythm of a silly conversation with someone whose humor I'm relatively familiar with. We talk about dating sites and then he asks about any gossip I might have.

To this I respond with a resounding, emphatic "no." Then I spoke the following words, which took me aback somewhat: "We're grown up. Of course I don't have any gossip."

A beat. I fawn over this moment of wondrous adulthood, then I swiftly end it when I bring up that an ex-boyfriend (a mutual friend) is dating a new girl, and I hope it works out for them, I really do.

Well, I tried. A noble effort, right? Everyone's a little bit yenta, whether we'd like to believe it or not.

I flutter back to his mention of a "beshert." The word brings to mind the very reason I'd bumped into him. I stayed late after work to run errands for a friend. She's getting married this weekend. She met her beshert long ago, in the usual way (a sorority/fraternity exchange). Very recently, she converted to Judaism in anticipation of this event, a decision she arrived at carefully and introspectively. Watching her discover this new-to-her religion phase is, honestly and truly, a very cool thing. It's hard to settle on one adjective that encompasses it. From my outside perspective, I find it so incredibly brave. It's such a personal decision; only she can truly know the magnitude of what it means and feels to her each and every day. One thing I'm certain of? I'm so excited to see her man stomp on the glass and make everything official.

As I bound off the train, a warm and fuzzy nostalgia wraps around me, bundling me up on the walk home. I won't see my long-lost friend for another few months to be sure, maybe at another wedding or perhaps on another El ride. But our little encounter made me think: everything old can be new again.  

Things fly by in an instant. We get new jobs, we embark on new relationships, we immerse ourselves in new activities. But the recent past lives and breathes in a way to remind us, if anything, you're never too old for a little harmless gossip, or to remember what it was like just graduating college, waiting impatiently for what the world will have in store.

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It’s not about the cookies.

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(Yes, it is)
04/27/2015

It's not about the cookies. photo

My favorite bakery is in trouble . The business is failing, and the owner has cancer. The bakery is called Lax & Mandel , and it's not in Chicago.

I'm from the suburbs of Cleveland, originally. Lax & Mandel is a kosher bakery founded in 1956 by Shimon Lax and Burt Mandel, who ran it until 1980. It has changed hands and even locations since then, but kept its original name. At one point , it was co-owned by the younger brother of a classmate of mine.

I went to this bakery as a kid. Walking into the aroma of fresh-baked challah was like getting a grandmotherly hug. Running into friends you haven't seen in a while, shuddering at the sudden rumble of the maniacal bread slicer, seeing kids light up when getting their own cookie, it's better than the candy store scene in Willy Wonka .

I remember the store being packed before Shabbat, with everyone mobbing the counter for the fresh-made challah -- still the best I've ever had. You'd take a ticket from a paisley-shaped dispenser with your number and wait until they flipped the big numbers over the counter to yours.

During your visit, the clattering old automatic bread slicer would interrupt all conversation for the 10 seconds or so it ran. It had these huge metal claws that would slash through a loaf like Wolverine while roaring like an angry bulldozer. As a kid, it terrified and fascinated me.

Your challah went into a plastic bag. Your pastries went into a simple white cardboard box, tied around with string. Then the Russian ladies with the white aprons and thick accents tallied your purchase by adding the items up in pencil - writing everything right on the paper box!

The bakery had these small, crumbly cookies they'd sell by the pound. Most had sprinkles, but some had cherries in the middle . If you were a little kid, the Russian ladies would smile with their crooked teeth and hand you one. When you were four, it was like winning the lottery.

Once, I took my then-six-year-old niece there. Our purchases included a pumpernickel loaf. "Why is that bread burned?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. "It's not," I laughed. "It's a kind of bread called a pumpernickel." She looked me straight in the eye and said, " You're a pumpernickel."

While home from college one summer, I was accosted by an elderly lady I had never met her before. She sized me up, then pointed in my face: "You're a Wieder boy, aren't you?" All the men in my family are clearly related, but I was still impressed.

Years ago, Esquire magazine ran a story about American cities, and all the best places in each that only the locals knew. Lax was of the Cleveland entries. The writer noted that the pastry to get was the " high hat ," a cupcake with a cupcake-size dollop of frosting on top encased in a hard chocolate shell. Unfortunately, Esquire got it wrong; the high hat is overwhelmed by the frosting. The way to go is the chocolate-less Russian tea biscuit . It's death-row, last-meal good. The Dobish torte is also pretty amazing.

This is not the first time the bakery has been in trouble. It was closed for three or four years in the 1980s. In 2012, a car drove through the window. A large oven fire another time did $50,000 in damage -- a lot of, um, dough for a bakery.

Afraid they wouldn't pull through, I cut the notice about the fire out of the paper. My sister made a face at my nostalgia. Years later, when her favorite local department store closed, she called me with the news: "Remember when I made fun of you for being sad about a bakery? I get it now."

I pray that Lax & Mandel, and its owner, have a speedy and perfect recovery. If they want to save the bakery, they could probably have everyone in town write down their favorite memories of the place, turn them into a book, and sell it. I'd buy a copy, especially if the second half was a cookbook containing some of their recipes ... if only to help save the bakery. After all, it would be a sad world indeed if no future generation knew what a real Russian tea biscuit tasted like.

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Rediscovering My Faith

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How a Loyola University student embraced Judaism again through Hillel
04/24/2015

Repairing Our World photo

Religion. Never in a million years did I ever think I would become more connected with my Judaism. I came from a household of Russian/Ukrainian parents where religion was almost non-existent because of the restrictions on Jews in the former Soviet Union. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah once when I was five. I remember celebrating New Year's as a child, with a tree and the ever-symbolic Grandfather Frost, common non-religious Russian traditions. 

I found it hard to explain how I lost the little faith I was exposed to. Recently, during an interview, I was asked, "How did you get interested in becoming more involved with Judaism?" My response usually is, "I am communal Jew." However, I found myself blurting out, "I lost Judaism, and now I found it here at Loyola."

Not many people know about my past. In fact, I refused to talk about it once I got to Loyola. I transferred here in the fall of 2013 -- was it important to really talk about my story? Now more than ever, I think college is the time to talk about one's story. 

From my birth till the age of 10, I was raised in a psychically and mentally abusive home. My father subjected me and my entire family to cruel and traumatizing situations. I recall as a child praying and pleading for all the issues to end. I prayed every single day but nothing ever happened. At such a young age, I questioned why God would let bad things happen to good people. I didn't hear a response, and I lost my faith. When I was 10, my father kicked my mother and me out of our home. I thought, "Was this a miracle or God's way of punishing me?"

I reached my adolescence feeling that Judaism was never a part of my identity growing up. I had such a negative perception about religion, and I loathed the sight of any practice. I naively thought to myself, "Why would they do this? Nobody is listening!"

Rediscovering My Faith photo 1  

Adam Mogilevsky

Fast-forward 11 years. I am now the vice president of Hillel at Loyola, the Jewish student organization on campus. How? Honestly, it was all an accident. I walked into Hillel because a friend invited me, and the rest is history. I felt welcomed, and I was able to participate in Jewish holidays and cultural events and communal activities. I felt uncomfortable at first, but once I let my barriers down and encountered each ritual with an open mind, I became more comfortable, and I fell in love with the Jewish community. As I became more involved, I began to really understand the importance of embracing my religious identity. 

I began my position in the fall thinking about ways to improve Hillel's visibility on campus, and I ended up focusing most of my time building a sense of community among the students. They come from all backgrounds. Each student possesses amazing tenacity and spirit toward Jewish life. They have made me nothing but proud. Siting in Hillel and seeing the soon-to-be leaders and the freshmen having fun makes me hopeful for the future -- a future without anti-Semitism, a future where the Jewish population at Loyola will no longer be one percent, and most importantly a future where we become not just classmates, but family.

Rediscovering My Faith photo 2

Hillel at Loyola

I am also proud of Loyola's diversity. Twenty-seven years ago Loyola reached out to The Hillels of Illinois to begin a permanent collaboration. Wanting to promote a diverse community that promoted mutual respect and knowledge, and encouraging a broad understanding of faith as a part of a transformative educational mission, Loyola brought Hillel onto campus. This bold initiative move for diversity and supporting religious and cultural pluralism is one of the school's biggest strengths.

Every attempt to diversify the campus comes with it the beauty of differing opinions and beliefs, so it comes as no surprise that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has reemerged on campus.

This time, the resolution brought to the Student Senate requested the university divest from all companies (such as Boeing and Raytheon) that are militarily complicit in human rights abuses toward Palestinians. Their main target, as usual, was Israel. Not Iran, not Syria, not Lebanon, but Israel, the one and only true democracy in the Middle East. The resolution passed 16-15-2, and a week later the Senate President signed it. 

I, along with other anti-divestment advocates, stood up in front of the Senate and told them the ugly truth. With each passage of divestment on college campuses we see a surge of anti-Semitic activity. If the basis of the student government is to promote safety and ensure the well being of the community, how does legislation advancing personal political beliefs accomplish this? 

Various student groups have ignored any collaborative efforts to do bridge-building with Hillel. We have been ignored on issues of dialoguing, and some students have had anti-Semitic comments made to them. Even so, we sat through the last two Senate meetings where senators completely disregarded any existence of anti-Semitism on campus. 

Students on college campuses find themselves inundated and indoctrinated with one-sided information. It is up to us as Jews to combat this misinformation and educate the community about what Israel does and does not do. In continuing to educate students regardless of the outcome, and standing side by side, I wholeheartedly believe our Jewish community has grown closer because of this experience. I am incredibly proud of my community. We didn't give up and we fought 'til the end, as we will every single year if we have too. 

I am proud of my efforts to bring our small yet strong Jewish community together. Watching students experience their faith reminds me of how I found my faith again at Loyola and gained something that can never be taken away from me -- a stronger cohesive identity. 

As I reflect on my time at the university, I can only thank Loyola for everything it has already done to foster a Jewish community here, and I am confident that Loyola will focus on its recruitment efforts to insure that Jewish life will continue to thrive here.

Adam Mogilevsky is a senior at Loyola University Chicago where he is the vice-president of Hillel and an interfaith advocate. He will be graduating with a B.A in History in May.

To read more posts in the "Repairing Our World" blog series, click here .

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Remembering is Repairing

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04/23/2015

Repairing Our World photo

I think I hit my all-time tikkun olam high when I was 16. For the first time in my life, I left the North American continent and, with 16 other teenagers from my synagogue, traveled to the Czech Republic. I don’t think any of us quite understood the sheer holiness of the task before us, but that would quickly change, and change us for good.

Remembering is Repairing photo 1

Our group at the cemetery. I’m in the back right in the dorky Cubs floppy hat.

Our quest: visit the tiny community of Kolin, the original home of a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and came into the care of our synagogue in the northern suburbs of Chicago. There stood a Jewish cemetery, overgrown with weeds, the names on the headstones shrouded in rampant vines, a piece of European Jewish history that – like much else after World War II – had been discarded and forgotten.

After touring Prague for a few days, we arrived in Kolin armed with gardening tools and a fierce sense of responsibility. We were the third contingent of youth from our synagogue to make the journey, and it had been three years since the last trip – plenty of time for nature to erase the hard work of our predecessors.

Our focus and determination to clear off as many graves as we could kept much of those days a blur, but I will never forget reading names, names that might otherwise have been forgotten, or huddling together to say kaddish at the graveside of people who had no one left to say kaddish for them. It was on this trip that I learned firsthand the meaning of the Pirkei Avot quote, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimenah – “it’s not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” The solace in knowing that time would undo all our labor was that another group of teens would come along and continue it, and our legacy would endure.

Remembering is Repairing photo 2

The row of graves a few of us worked to clear early on in the day

Remembering is Repairing photo 3

The row of graves after we finished clearing

Well, three years later our synagogue teens returned, and what they found nobody quite expected. The cemetery had been completely cleaned up by the proper Czech authorities. When I heard the news, I chose to believe it was the work of our previous trips that finally made the someone take notice and commit to maintaining the cemetery. This was a different feeling than simply engaging in a couple days of mitzvot. This was what raising awareness and affecting change felt like. This was tikkun olam.

As far as making a difference goes, I think most of the 17 of us who unearthed a part of our Jewish identities while cutting, pulling and scraping the cemetery clear of weeds would still rank that trip as the most powerful volunteer experience of our lives. Yet more than a decade later, many of us have chosen difference-making, fulfilling paths. Four of us from that trip, myself included, became youth group advisors (one led a future trip to Kolin), a handful of us work for Jewish non-profits (again, myself included) and a few have chosen helping professions. And that’s just what I know, or what Facebook and LinkedIn tell me.

Reflecting on the trip today, I realize that repairing the world is not about accruing successful and meaningful volunteer experiences, but about making a commitment to the work that needs to be done in this world once you see a part of it that is broken that you know you can help fix. I’m a little sad that the current upkeep of the Kolin cemetery will prevent future participants from sharing in my same experience, but to say it takes away from the tikkun olam value of the trip would be missing the point. Witnessing, experiencing – and in this case, remembering – are all part of that commitment.

On Yom HaShoah last week, my old youth group advisor – old as in a long time ago, not old as in age (you’re welcome, Larry!) – shared our group photo from the trip. His intent was to honor the day by remembering the work we did to remember others; what I remembered was how proud I was of that experience, of how it affected me in a way I did not know I could be moved. More importantly I remembered the difference I made that summer, the differences (however smaller) I have made since, and the differences I am still capable of making.

This June will mark the seventh Congregation BJBE youth trip to Kolin, and my cousin will become the fourth member of my family to help keep alive the memory of the Jewish community there. He too will pray in the Kolin synagogue, now a museum, and feel the connection to these people whose lives were stripped away from them. Hopefully, he too will look back on his path 12 years later and realize he’s done more to repair the world than he thought.

 To read more posts in the "Repairing Our World" blog series, click here.

 

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Making a Difference, L’dor Vador

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04/22/2015

Repairing Our World photo

“Would you be willing to donate to the Muscular Dystrophy Association?” I was taught to say holding a can out to shoppers walking out of local stores. Rather than being the shoppers, like most moms and daughters, this was many times what I would do with my mother on weekends. My parents became involved in the organization when one of their friends had a family member suffering from the disease. 

“Why are we picking up people who are waiting for the bus?” I would ask my dad. “Because it doesn’t look like the bus is coming for a while and they look like they need a ride,” he said, not afraid to pick up strangers. When I learned how to drive, the refrain became, “Go pick up (fill in the name of a person from our synagogue who had no family in the Chicago area) and bring them here for dinner so they aren’t alone.” 

This is how I was taught to contribute to making the world a better place. 

When I was in seventh grade, I asked to borrow our synagogue’s Purim carnival games to host a fundraiser for the MDA (and this was long before mitzvah projects were a bar/bat mitzvah requirement). In high school, I became president of my temple youth group. At the University of Illinois, I became president of Hillel, where I met my husband, Mark. His parents were also involved in leadership roles both in and outside of the Jewish community (a legacy he continues today on the board of Sinai Health Systems and of a senior housing building in our community), and I think that’s part of what drew us together.

Making a Difference, L’dor Vador photo 3
Carla and her oldest son, Jeremy, at a Planned Parenthood rally.

When it was time to choose my profession, I saw my parents, who served as the presidents of many organizations, as examples. I also admired the youth advisors from the organizations I was involved in (USY, NFTY, B’nai Brith). So I decided that my passion was in social work.

For the last 32 years, I have worked for Metropolitan Family Services, one of the oldest and largest non-sectarian agencies in Chicago, and I have the privilege of knowing I’ve helped at least one person every day. The abused and neglected adults with disabilities and older adults that I serve as supervisor of an Adult Protective Services program sometimes say they prayed for help and I came. That is a pretty nice feeling. Like the old saying, “to the world you may just be one person, but to that one person you might be the world.”

I have brought in help for overwhelmed caregivers, cleaned bathrooms so someone wouldn’t get evicted, assisted hoarders in making their homes safer, held the hands of people as they were dying and even participated in the mitzvah of burying someone, all as part of my job to make a difference in someone’s life.  

Social work is not the kind of job you can easily leave at home, so my children have often overheard me talking on the phone to clients. They would ask me how so-and-so is doing and I would tell them (of course keeping everything confidential). But children observe more than listen, so it was important that we go out and volunteer in the community. Our favorite experiences have been working at the JUF Uptown Café on Christmas Eve, putting together and delivering Maot Chitim boxes on Rosh Hashanah and Passover and making lunches for the homeless before Sunday School (ok, not always fun, but a good learning experience …).  

As someone who was once a young adult and who now has young adult children of her own, I have learned the importance of looking to the generations that came before to see what really matters in life. What has been passed on to us is most likely what we will pass on to the next generation. My children took notice of when their parents and grandparents gave of their time and money, and now I am so proud to watch them bring the Jewish value of making the world a better place into practice in their lives.

Making a Difference, L’dor Vador photo 1
The Frisch family at a 2015 Keshet dinner.

My youngest, whose bat mitzvah theme was “Making a Difference,” became involved in activities serving children and young adults with disabilities because of a good family friend with a disability and is now studying to be an occupational therapist for children with special needs. My middle child, an engineer, is on the Junior Leadership Board of Keshet and the Auxiliary Board of Our Place of New Trier Township, both organizations serving those with special needs. Our oldest chose Brandeis University because of its social justice emphasis and worked for Planned Parenthood for four years.

Making a Difference, L’dor Vador photo 2
Carla’s daughter, Naomi, with her zayde, Lester Jameson (z”l), after receiving an award from New Trier Township for her work with people with disabilities.

This is what L’dor Vador is all about: Jewish values being passed down from generation to generation. There is no better way to make the world a better place than by sharing it with family.  

Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next generation brings to the table. 

To read more posts in the "Repairing Our World" blog series, click here.

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My Legs Were Praying

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04/21/2015

Repairing Our World photo

Last month I found myself on the side of a highway outside Montgomery, Alabama, with a group of 300 strangers. We represented three countries, 29 states, and hundreds of personal stories and purposes that brought us together.

The event was the 50th Anniversary Walking Classroom, an immersive educational experience commemorating the 1965 March for Voting Rights. We replicated the 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery that 300 activists and faith leaders marched to shed a light on racial injustice and break down the significant barriers to the ballot box that African-Americans faced almost a century after they were legally allowed to vote.

My Legs Were Praying photo 1

Photo credit: Albert Cesare

“Like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, we marched toward the Red Sea, and we were on our way, not knowing what was before us,” wrote Amelia Boynton Robinson, one of the organizers of the 1965 marches.

Raised in an interfaith home, social justice is one of the things that ultimately attracted me to Judaism. Reading about how many young Jews flocked to the March on Washington and risked violence on Freedom Rides and at Sit-Ins filled me with pride and a sense of obligation to ensure civil rights for everyone.

I’ve always thought that activists have this moment where they make a choice between what is easy and what is right – and I’ve wondered when my choice would present itself. It turns out you sometimes need to take the first steps of a journey before you realize that you’ve already made your choice.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched next to Martin Luther King, Jr. as the crowd swelled to 25,000 upon reaching Montgomery in 1965, connected faith and activism when he wrote that, “for many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

That line has always spoken to me, but miles into the walk I began to feel it on a deeper level. Deeper than my blisters and sunburn, louder than the spirituals we sang in the pouring rain, I felt in my bones throughout those five days of marching that I was doing something meaningful and holy.

My Legs Were Praying photo 2

It was good I had my legs to pray, because I was left speechless more often than I could have ever anticipated.

When a foot soldier who marched in 1965 embraced and thanked me for honoring her march 50 years ago, I was speechless.

When I crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, without danger or hesitation, I was speechless.

When Amelia Boynton Robinson drove alongside us one afternoon on the highway outside of Selma, I was speechless.

When I stood at the memorial to Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman to die while protesting during the Civil Rights Movement, I was speechless.  

When our 300-person march swelled to thousands on the last morning, as we filled block after block of downtown Montgomery and assembled in front of the capitol, I was speechless.

After the formal program ended, I walked up the steps of the capitol, and found the podium King stood at while giving his “How Long? Not Long” speech 50 years before, down to the day. I laid my hands on it, took hold of this piece of history that had supported a man who lived and died for freedom and equality, and prayed for the strength to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

My Legs Were Praying photo 3

I work with young people for a living, and I see it as my responsibility to create a world for them that allows them to learn and grow, and where it is safe to be themselves. When I read about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, I think about the 17- and 18-year-olds that I love, and about the endless potential they have to influence the world and effect change, something stripped from young black men with alarming frequency.

Last week I was leading a Rosh Hodesh group for high schoolers at one of my synagogues. The maintenance staff had turned on the alarm, forgetting we were in the basement, and we set it off while looking for Nutella on a snack break. The alarm blared through the building and alerted the local police. I calmly explained to the responding officer that I was there to run my group, and that I was very sorry that this is the third synagogue I may or may not have set an alarm off at in my four years working with congregations. He took my name, thanked me for my time, and left.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, would that interaction have gone differently if I had been someone other than a 5 ft. 4 in. blond woman? If I were a different race or gender, if I appeared physically intimidating, how would the officer have approached me? If I had been leading a group of five 15-17 year old young black men, instead of white Jewish girls, would he expect one of us to be armed? To have broken into the building, instead of being on a mad hunt for some Nutella? The teens I work with can usually be approached by a police officer and feel safe. They receive the assumption of good will, rather than a weapon drawn on them.

On my first night in Selma, I sat down at dinner across from Harrison, a black 13-year-old. Because I spend all of my time with teenagers, and am socially awkward around my peers – like a 13-year-old – Harrison and I became fast friends, and I spent a lot of miles talking to him. We quizzed each other on Harry Potter trivia. We shared in the woes of being an only child and how we felt it probably wasn’t too late for our families to adopt brothers for us. We raced Fitbits to 10,000 steps each day, and we shared photos of our dogs on Instagram. It was no different than getting to know my teens at home in Chicago.

A week later, Harrison’s mom posted this to Facebook: “Today's homeschool lessons include where to put your hands if the car you are in is ever pulled over and how to ‘yes sir’ even when you know you're not wrong.”

It has never occurred to me to teach my teens deference to authority. In fact, I sometimes worry I’m going to get angry phone calls from parents for helping to raise radicals that I put out into the world with the express intent to make social change. I take joy in teaching them to be agitational when it comes to community organizing – to shake the system until it notices them and can’t help but hear their voices. And I’ve never thought that it could put them in fatal danger.

That is entrenched racism. That is privilege. That is why I walked and thought and prayed my way from Selma to Montgomery; it’s not enough for only my teens to be safe. Emma Lazarus wrote, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Repairing the world requires activism on behalf of everyone. Social action is just that – action. It comes from a life of movement, continuing to put one foot in front of the other, praying with our legs, marching toward justice. 

To read more posts in the "Repairing Our World" blog series, click here.

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No Shame

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04/20/2015

Repairing Our World photo

More than one out of every 100 deaths is by suicide. That is more people than die in car accidents. And more than 80 percent of Americans diagnosed with clinical depression are not getting any treatment for it. Studies have shown that one of the key barriers to people seeking treatment is the stigma associated with mental health.  

My name is Miriam Ament and I am dedicated to breaking the stigma associated with mental health through my organization, No Shame On U.

No Shame photo

More than a decade ago, I went through a major depression. I couldn’t get out of bed, felt helpless, hopeless and alone and couldn’t undertake simple tasks. In addition, I faced stigma and isolation from some friends and relatives who didn’t know how to handle me or the situation. When I was at the worst point in my depression, a good friend of mine called. “I only want to talk to you when you’re happy,” she said, “so let’s not talk again for a while.” I never heard from her again. Fortunately, I was able to successfully treat my depression with professional help.

Two years ago, through a charity auction, I had the opportunity to go to lunch with legendary actress Glenn Close. She founded a mental health organization and was very open to talking about it. I had never spoken about my history of depression with anyone who was not already aware of it, but I felt compelled to tell Glenn my whole story. She was amazing to talk to and it was so freeing. In turn, she told me a story about how on a visit to an Ivy League school, a Ph.D student approached her in secret to tell her she was living with severe depression but was afraid to tell her colleagues for fear of the impact it would have on her career.

My immediate reaction was “that needs to change.” I knew it was time to take my experiences and the challenges I faced and become a force for normalizing the mental health conversation.

Shortly after our meeting, Chicago media was buzzing about then Chicago Bear Brandon Marshall; not only on the field, but also off it. He was using his platform to share his story and raise awareness for mental health. The Brandon Marshall Foundation was looking for volunteers, so I started volunteering and loved being a part of making such a difference in mental health. From that I knew it was time to change careers and devote myself full time to mental health awareness.

After receiving a Fellowship from JCC PresenTense Chicago, I launched No Shame On U so that no one should be ashamed to get help in the Jewish community and beyond. My goal is for the people who need the help, to seek it, for family members and friends to know how to provide proper support and for lives to be saved.

Last October, I was interviewed by WGN News for a segment they were doing on National Depression Screening Day. For the first time, I talked publicly about my mental health history and as scared as I was to open up, I knew that my story had the potential to impact an untold number of people. The segment led to a cover story for another Chicago publication, helping further the reach of my story beyond what I ever imagined.  I never would have thought 12 years ago that I would be where I am and have the confidence to speak out.

No Shame photo 2

As a result of the media exposure and NSOU’s social media presence (more than 10,000 Facebook followers), many, many people have reached out saying the impact No Shame On U has had on them. One of the more touching comments I have received after responding to someone was, “Thank you, so much, for your informative and potentially life-saving reply!”

No Shame On U is disseminating information daily to raise as much awareness as possible. In addition, we are planning an inaugural event this fall where we hope to reach even more people. If you or someone you know is going through a rough time, please know that you are not alone.

Here are some free resources: If you are in crisis, or know someone who is, please call 24/7 hotline: 1-800-273-(TALK) 8255 OR text 741741 for a 24/7 crisis text line – a live, trained crisis counselor receives the text and responds quickly OR go to www.imalive.org for 24/7 online crisis chat.

For additional resources, go to:
www.feelingkindablue.com (online support network 24/7)
www.7cupsoftea.com (FREE anonymous and confidential conversations with trained active listeners)
www.helpyourselfhelpothers.org (online self assessment tool)

For more information, please go to www.noshameonu.com, Facebook.com/NoShameOnU or @NoShameOnU

To read more posts in the "Repairing Our World" blog series, click here.

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How to Be a Good Roommate

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Three key words to remember while living with another
04/16/2015

How to Be a Good Roommate photo

The melodies notifying you that your laundry is dry and your dishes are clean ring like a relaxing chime. Although there are machines to empty, you feel in no rush because you’re on your own clock. That’s one beauty of living alone: You don’t have to worry about emptying a laundry machine, so your roommate can clean his or her week-old dirty garments. I’ve been living this way for two years.

Well, kind of.

Ever since attending college in the city, I convinced my parents to let me live in their city pad until my graduation. So, this time in my life is very bittersweet. I recently graduated from college, but I’ve been asked to vacate the premises by mid-May. I guess you could say I’m part of my parents’ spring cleaning.

In all honesty, I’m looking forward to moving out. I love seeing my parents when they come downtown on the weekends, but I can’t wait to have a place I can call my own.

Well, kind of.

I’m moving in with one of my dearest friends who I’ve known since birth – literally. I haven’t lived with someone for a while, so, naturally, I’m a bit nervous. Since I’ve been living alone, I haven’t had to worry about someone else’s needs. And I’ve heard the horror stories about best friends who become roommates and now they’re no longer speaking.

To avoid a friendship meltdown, I’ve compiled a list of words I want to live by during this very exciting adventure.

Respect

I read on one of my favorite career websites, The Muse, that you should immediately complete a task that would take you approximately 30 seconds. These tasks include washing dishes, taking out laundry from the washer and dryer and taking out the trash. By doing these small tasks, you’re – for one – doing your part as a respectful roommate, but you’re also acknowledging that your roommate has chores he or she needs to complete. There’s nothing worse than having a roommate who never takes out the trash or takes days to empty the laundry machine.  

Empathy

Right now I’m reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. According to the book – and, I’m paraphrasing – we believe that by bringing up every issue we have with someone, we’ll feel better. In fact, we’d feel better by doing the exact opposite. By focusing on the good in life, we feel good.

Your roommate might be doing something that’s frustrating you. He or she might be, for example, leaving his or her work projects everywhere on the kitchen table. You think he or she is being passive aggressive by leaving the area so dirty, but they might not know it’s even an issue. By politely asking your roommate, let’s say, if they don’t mind reorganizing their work before going to bed so you can eat your breakfast at the kitchen table, you avoid an argument over a misunderstanding.

Fun

This is the most important word to live by. You chose to live with this person because, hopefully, you have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company. Make sure to enjoy the time you have with your roommate because before you know it your lease will end. Take walks around your neighborhood to discover restaurants, parks, stores and markets. Spend a night on the couch eating takeout and having a drink while watching a movie or TV show you both love. By spending time together, you learn about each other and grow a bond that lasts past the lease date.

Now, all that’s left is a mezuzah!

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Wear. Share. Repeat.

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04/16/2015

Wear. Share. Repeat. photo

When spring rolls around, we all get that itch to clean, spruce and purge our clutter. I’m so busy these days, I scarcely have time to update my spring wardrobe, let alone clean out my already too-packed closet. When cleaning out our homes, our first instinct might be to donate clothes or household items to Goodwill, a local resale shop or another charity, which I often do when moving — donating tons of items in bulk. However, the task of cleaning out one’s place can be made easier with small cleanses every few months.

My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression. I’m convinced her experiences somehow translated to how she raised my mother, who basically can’t throw away anything. This resulted in my mom’s insistence when I was young that I get use out of every article of clothing my older sisters outgrew. It has also resulted in a storage unit containing far too many of my sisters’ and my childhood relics. To this day, my mom can’t even bake without grabbing every granule of sugar dropped onto the counter while measuring.

While I find my mother’s baking habits endearing, she has also instilled in me an irrational fear of throwing away anything. The promise of good friends, cheap wine, and free loot in the form of a friends clothing swap, however, somehow temporarily shakes me out of my hoarder’s neurosis every few months.

I have a group of seven or eight girlfriends with whom I gather every couple months for a clothing swap. We alternate hosting at our various apartments, and much like with a book club, the host provides treats and wine. Each of us contributes a bag (or several) of items we want to swap, and we take turns auctioning off our old treasures for verbal dibs.

Admittedly, there are some heated debates over certain articles of clothing, but we all go home with tons of new things and some satisfaction that we’ve gotten rid of the old. Often, I end up going home with more than I got rid of, but at least they’re new items I’ll be wearing or using in the next few months. Older clothes, shoes, books, or movies aren’t helping me at all if I’m not using them. If I receive a new dress, pair of heels, sweater, or even a kitchen whisk that I really needed, at least it’s taking up space in my apartment with purpose.

Evidently, we don’t limit our swaps to clothes. We essentially bring anything we’re trying to get rid of, from jeans to evening gowns, as well as purses, coats, shoes, books, DVDs, music, kitchen utensils, electronics, and even strange items, such as jumper cables—my favorite latest score in our April swap.

As someone who hoards a bit, I actually find it really satisfying to give my beloved possessions to a beloved friend. Plus, it’s really fun fighting over new finds. Not to mention, members of our swap group unabashedly re-swap items once we’re tired of them, so I’m never stuck with something for too long if I don’t want it.

If you love a good bargain (and there’s no better bargain than “free”), or you just can’t part with all of your favorite clothes at once, I definitely recommend the clothing swap route. You can part with your oldies, but goodies, slowly and you get to hand them off to a great new home where you know they’ll be cherished and used.  

I don’t know where I’d be this spring without a bunch of new tops from my girlfriends –and those ever important jumper cables.

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Networking in Your 20s

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04/15/2015

Networking in Your 20s photo

In your 20s, you’re a step above the naivety of your teen years but a step below the complexity of the rest of your life. It’s at this stage in our lives we have a realistic future ideal, but we may not have the final blueprint down.

Our 20s are some of our most formative years. If you think about it, it’s kind of crazy how much can change in this one decade. You go from studying to graduating, interning to working, renting to buying, dating to marriage, and maybe even starting your own family. It’s a steep life learning curve. So how do we manage this change? We leverage our past and apply what we’ve learned to our present and future. And just like that, you continuously build onto your foundation, block by block. Networking works the same way.

“Networking” gets thrown around as a buzzword all the time. That little voice in your head is always yelling at you to attend every possible professional event under the sun. You start to feel like it’s a dreaded full-time job. This word sometimes has a negative connotation because networking may feel forced, uncomfortable and robotic even. That is, until you change your perspective.

Just think about it. Your network already exists and it’s at your fingertips, merely a call or message away. Whether it be school clubs, football games or birthday parties, you’ve already created a wealth of memories. Who were/are your friends in these moments? In school and in our early professional years, we have this luxury of forming truly genuine bonds. It’s not your paycheck or connections that interest others – it’s you. Sadly, the older and further along in our career we get, the more we start to question the motives of the people seeking our friendship. So take advantage of the sincerity of your relationships now.

Look no further than your group of friends. Sure, we all may be at the bottom of the corporate food chain right now, but we won’t be there forever. You and your friends will go on to become managers, presidents, partners, founders, CEOs, CFOs, etc. These are the decision-makers. Decision-makers impact change. Collaboration opportunities, new business ideas, and new roles begin to emerge. And friends help friends. You’ll be naturally inclined to keep your inner circle in the loop and seek their guidance.

Also, remember young people have a lot going for them. We are never freer at any future point in time than right now. We have minimal responsibilities, low expenses, high energy, and lots and lots of time. Take advantage of it because you’d be lucky to ever feel this free again. So call your friends back, go to happy hours, grab dinner, meet to watch the game, go out, and continue making memories. Trust me, you will have some awesome stories to talk about in the conference room in 20 years.

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Goodbye, Peanut

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Tillman’s departure from Bears marks the end of an era
04/14/2015

Goodbye, Peanut photo

The Charles Tillman era has come to an end in Chicago as the creator and master of the “Peanut Punch” made his windy city departure official, inking a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. The signing marks the end of Tillman’s 12-year stay in Chicago, which included two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. The move will reunite Tillman with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who ran the defense in Chicago from 2004-2006.

While Tillman will go down as one of the best defensive backs in franchise history, the last two seasons have been frustrating for the veteran. A torn right triceps two seasons ago kept Tillman out eight games and he went on to miss all but two games of last season after suffering the same injury.

Tillman, Lance Briggs and Roberto Garza were the only remaining starting position players left on the roster from that 2006 team (kicker Robbie Gould still remains), and with Garza’s release and Briggs all but gone, this marks the end of an era for the Bears and their most successful defense since the 1985 “Monsters of the Midway.”

The truth is, everything started to change when Lovie Smith was fired at the end of 2012. That season was also the last for Brian Urlacher, whose tenure with the Bears came to a rocky end when his agents proposed a two-year contract for $11 million to the Bears, who came back with a take-it-or-leave-it deal of one year at $2 million that Urlacher decided to leave.

To call the break up between Urlacher and the Bears unfriendly would be an understatement, and with the hiring of Marc Trestman in 2013, the Bears marched out two of the worst defenses in franchise history in consecutive seasons. The defense never truly believed in Trestman or defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who failed to provide the team with any kind of defensive prowess or identity.  

And while it is easy to focus on the bad ending with Urlacher, the unrest with Briggs last season and the injuries that have plagued Tillman the last couple seasons, it is important to not only acknowledge but also to celebrate the great Bears teams on which they played significant roles. The defense carried the team during Tillman’s time in blue and orange, with the defense priding itself on forcing turnovers and scoring points. It wasn’t just one of the team’s strengths, it was a necessity. With struggling offenses led by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears relied on defense to win games and they consistently came through, often scoring more points on defense than on offense. This defense was not as good as the ’85 Bears or even the ’63 Bears, but they did lead a team to a Super Bowl. It was a special team and Tillman will no doubt be remembered as one of the pillars of that group.

Through all of the drama of the last couple seasons, Tillman has remained a consummate professional. He was not only a hero on the field, but in the community as well. The Charles Tillman foundation has given more than $1 million to families in need. Tillman won the NFL Salute to Service Award in 2012, and in 2014 received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.

Letting Tillman walk was probably the right decision for the Bears, who are trying to remake their defense, but his leadership will be missed. A new era is starting in Chicago. How this next chapter will look has yet to be seen and who will lead them forward is still a question mark – but hopefully they can learn from someone like Tillman, who always led with passion, dedication and class.

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What’s new

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04/13/2015

Lia Lehrer photo

“Hey, how are you? What’s new?”

“Oh, not much, what’s new with you?”

“Nothing new here.”

“Yeah, same old, same old.”

“Things are good.”

“Well, glad nothing’s new, it was great talking to you!”

That conversation was a disaster. And how many times do all of us have this same dialogue over and over again? It’s an empty pleasantry and a waste of everyone’s time.

Here’s what I’m tempted to say when asked “what’s new,” none of which actually make for good conversations:

“Well, I took my dresses to the dry cleaner yesterday, so it’s always nice to wear a clean outfit.”

“I usually get my turkey sandwich with mayo, but today I asked for pesto mayo, and it was a good addition.”

“Not much is new, but recently I’ve been craving jelly beans.”

Not the best, right?

The nosy, inquisitive journalist in me would like to offer a few suggestions for those frequent moments when you want to make conversation but just don’t know what to ask.

• “What projects are keeping you busy this week at work?”
• “Tell me about your most memorable meal this month.”
• “First thing that pops into your mind — what’s the best book you’ve read this year?”
• “How was your weekend? How did you spend your Sunday afternoon?”
• “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today?”

Let us all join together and attempt to eliminate the pointless, useless question of “what’s new” — and instead, we can find some questions that are interesting and actually much easier to answer.

Except … in one instance.

“You’ve got some snu on your shirt.”

“What’s snu?”

“Not much, friend, what’s snu with you?”

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Matzah, the Holocaust and the Jewish Drive

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04/09/2015

Matzah, the Holocaust and the Jewish Drive photo

Chicago YJP at Auschwitz-Birkenau on a Poland-Prague trip. 

After the Nazis had fled Bergen-Belsen knowing their demise was imminent, Izzy Starck and some friends searched the Nazi barracks to find a bunch of rifles. They were starving – that wasn’t what they were looking for. Nonetheless, they decided to take them for safety’s sake. Then, while taking in their first breaths of freedom as they continued their search for food, they saw a Nazi SS guard they recognized from the camp running with suitcases.

They surrounded him with their rifles. As the devil’s elf pitifully begged for his life, no one felt mercy for his wicked soul. They had all lost so much to his blood-stained hands and all of his fiendish comrades. One of the friends said to Izzy, “He deserves to die. Shoot him.” Izzy agreed and responded, “You’re right. Go ahead.” One by one, they all agreed he deserved to die, and they all told the next person to shoot him. But no one could.

It wasn’t a lack of desire for revenge that stopped them. As Izzy explains it 70 years later, “Maybe it just wasn’t in our genes? It just wasn’t in our blood to kill.”

Despite all the horrific atrocities they had been through, they kept the Jewish fundamental concept in mind – we build. That’s what we do. After so much destruction, they had a tremendous yearning to build. No more destroying. As Izzy Starck told us, “The revenge I have against Adolph Hitler wouldn’t come from killing an SS officer. It comes from four of my kids living in Israel and my 40-plus grandchildren.”

It comes from a lifetime of rebuilding the Jewish people and heritage.

On Passover, we lovingly eat our matzah. The matzah has two seemingly oppositional meanings to it. At the beginning of the Seder, we declare, “This is the bread of affliction.” This is the bread of oppression. It is the bread of destitution. Matzah is made of the same flour and water as all bread. What makes this particularly destitute bread? The answer is it didn’t rise. Not letting your bread rise is a choice a destitute man makes when he doesn’t care about taste anymore. Life isn’t worth living. Who cares if the bread is moist, soft, and risen or dry, rough, and thin? That’s the despondence of destitution. The slavery we remember of our ancestors was a destitute existence. And the matzah is apropos to the occasion.

However, we later proclaim that matzah is symbolically the bread of freedom. We recall toward the end of the Haggadah how the matzah reminds us of the speedy exit our ancestors took from their bondage, how they did not have time to delay and their unrisen bread testified to their haste. Thus, the same symbolic object juxtaposes these two polar opposite points of the Seder: oppression and freedom.

But how could this be? Doesn’t the matzah seem to naturally befit oppression, and the freedom symbolism is a bit of a stretch? How about just leaving the freedom symbolism to the four cups of wine and calling it a day?

The answer is seen in the story of the liberated Jews from Bergen-Belsen. You see, in Judaism, freedom is not really about luxury. Of course, free people have luxuries, and we express ourselves as royalty at the Seder night accordingly. But that’s not the full picture of what it is to be a free Jew. True freedom is the ability to build. We aren’t just seeking pleasures for the sake of fulfilling base desires. Some may even call that simply transferring the slavery to one’s body. We are looking to build. We want to build our nation, ourselves, and our heritage.

True, tasteless food is the bread of a destitute man. But there’s another man who eats tasteless meals. When a huge business tycoon is going in to work to seal the deal on a big project, he leaves the house that morning in a frenzy. He doesn’t have time to sit down to a fancy breakfast. At best, he just grabs whatever he can while rushing to the door and eats on the go while working out the final details of the project on his way to work. So too, we the Jewish people are huge business tycoons. But our business isn’t simply making big financial projects; we are looking to build our nation, ourselves, and our heritage. We don’t have time or energy to focus on petty rising food, revenge on Nazi blood, or any other detail that doesn’t help us on our mission. We are looking to build.

Therefore, the matzah is apropos as a sign of freedom. It’s a symbol that reminds us of how we handle our freedom. We seek to build. We seek to create generations to come, to build the generation we’re in, and to grow in our own spiritual strength. This is the way of our people. It was the way of our people upon their liberation from Nazi hell. It was the way of our people over 3,000 years ago from horrific slavery. And it is our way of building through all times. In every generation, they will come upon us and attempt to destroy us. But we will stand up to them, and we will build.

This piece was put together based on a lecture given by Mr. Izzy Starck at the recent Chicago YJP Poland-Prague Reunion. To find out more about the next Poland-Prague trip with young Jewish professionals and other upcoming events, email Rabbi Josh at josh@chicagoyjp.org. You can also find other stories of Mr. Starck’s experiences in his autobiography.  

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The Seder Plate of Me

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04/08/2015

The Seder Plate of Me photo

Passover is one of my favorite holidays. My third favorite, in fact. One element I enjoy is the Seder Plate and the items we put on it. In general, we Jews like to use symbols – or in the case of Passover, food – to represent things. It’s why, especially during this holiday, if I walk past a fellow Jew all I have to do is shout, “Represent!” and they know exactly what’s going on.

But this whole abundance of representation can sometimes feel antiquated in tradition (TRADITION!!!!). What we have now is great, but I figured that it might be interesting to delve into what a modern version of a Seder Plate might have on it. But then taking it one step further, so as not to get in the way of tradition (TRADITION!!!!), I further figured a Seder Plate that represented me might be more interesting, and fun, for you, the attractive Oy reader to, ahem, read. Now, I know that this could be a huge plate if I really took the time to fill it up, so even if it was simply a sampler platter, I wonder what would be on the Seder Plate of me … of me … of me …of me …

Doodly-doo! Doodly-doo! Doodly-Doo! Doodly-doo! Doodly-doo!

Hi. Not sure what that was. I thought maybe something would happen. Anyway, here’s what would be on my Seder Plate if it were to represent some small iota of who I am in no particular order from least to most important. Enjoy!

SpaghettiOs  

Well, this one is pretty obvious if you know me. SpaghettiOs are pretty much my staple. Much stronger bond than my paper clip. But what SpaghettiOs represent to me is a bit of how I will never completely grow up, hopefully in a good way. It’s like my Rosebud. It always reminds me of the innocent times in my life and it’s a part of me I never wish to get rid of. It lets me know that despite all the stress of my life and the hectic day to day goings on, there’s a part of me that truly hasn’t changed in over 20 years, and I really like to hold onto that.

Huh? What? That Rosebud reference just ruined Citizen Kane? Oh, woops. Should have said “spoilers.” Sorry everyone!

A video game controller  

This is representative of all that I love when I just want to shut off my brain. These days, video game systems not only play video games, but they are my Blu-ray player and my streaming device as well.

Now, when it comes specifically to video games, I always like to say that they are a lot like books. This is because, for me, they usually take roughly the same amount of time to finish but they are truly an interactive and immersive experience. It’s the games with good stories that truly capture me and while many other people will go through the same story, I get to take away my own interpretation of the material. And with my favorite games, I revel in the chance to revisit those great worlds again and discover new things while reliving familiar yet exciting stories. Also, just like books, the movie is never as good as the video game.

A Blackhawks jersey  

Hockey holds most of my passion for professional sports. Well, that and curling. But my love for hockey represents something very important to me, and that’s the bonds with others it has helped me forge over the years. Some people seem to not understand sports, but at their core, sports brings people together. Specifically because of hockey, I have a much closer relationship with some of my closest friends, my brother and my father. Not that I needed any additional help, but there it is. So a Blackhawks jersey, to me, symbolizes some of the greatest experiences and memoires I’ve had bonding with others, and that is tough to beat.

Also, the Blackhawks are going to the playoffs for the seventh year in a row. Cue the “Chelsea Dagger.” Eh beh deh.

Portillo’s Chocolate Cake Shake  

There’s no symbolism here. These are just awesome and I want them on my plate. Or maybe it represents that I am awesome!? Yes. Yes it does. But you are awesome too. You are a Portillo’s Chocolate Cake Shake!

Mel Brooks  

Yup. I want to put Mel Brooks on my Seder Plate. If anything, he represents my humor, which is a very significant part of my life. I love to make people laugh (like hopefully you have been doing while reading this, I hope, I hope, I hope) and I use humor to get me through times of difficulty. And really, my sense of humor is a gigantic element of who I am and Mel Brooks has been a humongous influence on my life. He is possibly the greatest person I’ve never met but his influence makes me feel that, with humor, I am the king. And it’s good to be the king … of my own Seder Plate.

The Orange

I’m keeping this one on my plate. The symbolism of the orange is too wonderful. It’s some darn good symbolism in fact. Specifically, it looks at the idea of fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. I may have stolen that phrasing but it was really good phrasing, so sue me. I have a wonderful diversity of people I care very deeply for in my life, and the idea of including everyone, no matter what their race, gender, creed, religion, sexual orientation, anything, is absolutely one of the strongest feelings I have about absolutely anything. So yes, that orange is sticking around on the Seder Plate of me.

So there you have it, the Seder Plate of Me! And while I could have countless additional items on my Seder Plate (local craft beer, gummy Coca-Cola bottles, a symbol for the pursuit of voice acting, etc.), I have to ask – you awesome Portillo’s Chocolate Cake Shake you – what would be on the Seder Plate of you? Represent!                         

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Matzo Musings

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04/07/2015

Matzo Musings photo

Passover has always been my favorite Jewish holiday. Not for the funky food – and definitely not for the candy fruit slices that taste like Tums – but for the people. Passover, more than any other holiday, has been a special time to for our family and friends to congregate.

When I was a little girl, Passover meant a visit from my cool older cousins in Colorado, an annual event that brought me so much joy, I’d start countdown calendars in the back of my school notebooks months in advance.

My sophomore year of college, Passover meant renting a house in Portland, Oregon with my great-aunts, my grandmother, and an assortment of cousins. Between Seder prep, we went on walks through the green spring rain and taught my 90-year-old Great-Aunt Zera how to use an iPad. (Aunt Zera loved the device so much, she went out and bought one as soon as she got home.)

Last year, Passover meant a new chapter in our family narrative as we held each other close and celebrated Pesach without my grandfather for the first time.

This year, Passover meant broadening our social and culinary horizons. In a feat of love – and possibly madness – in addition to welcoming new friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to our Seder table, we prepared a vegan, sugar-free, and gluten-free friendly dinner to make sure that everyone in attendance had plenty to eat regardless of their dietary restrictions. This endeavor  to let “all [vegans] who are [definitely] hungry come and eat” led to the sitcom-like moment of watching flax seed matzo balls dissolve in the boiler and learning that not all brands of margarine are, in fact, dairy-free – a realization that led to a few last minute trips to Jewel.

While the details of Seder each year have always been a surprise, the question of where I would end up for the next Passover never troubled me because I knew I’d be with my family. But it seems like Passover 2016 will pose even more than the traditional four questions, because next year, I’ll be in Israel.

Yes, I, the girl once cripplingly afraid of change, will be moving to Israel for the year to study and intern in Tel Aviv, and I couldn’t be more excited!

But, I can’t help wondering what being away from home for so long will mean. I wonder how I will change individually and Jewishly. I wonder how I will grow as a friend and as a thinker. I wonder, especially, who I will meet, what I will experience, and what the faces at next year’s Seder table will look like. Right now, imagining next year’s Seder is like looking at photograph with the human subjects in silhouette. So close, I can almost smell the Tsimmes, but far enough out of reach to leave my questions unanswered.

But like the four questions, my queries do have answers – I just don’t know them yet. But, I guess that’s one of the fun parts of Passover – and life. You never know how dinner will turn out until everyone’s at the Seder table.

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Path of love

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04/06/2015

Path of love photo

It's hard not to get worn down by the steady stream of hate flooding our newsfeeds.

We're consumed by images and rhetoric in the media of human turmoil and strife—a world crying out for repair. Every day, we're reminded that we share a world with people whose evil knows no bounds. They hate us. They hate all humanity and civilization.

We, the Jewish people, in particular, are feeling the heat—but what else is new? The bad guys reject the values we hold dear—learning, light, love, and knowing that what matters most is the good (the acts of loving kindness) we do in the here and now.

We've seen violence recently against Jews in Belgium. France. Denmark. Argentina. Har Nof. Stabbings on Jerusalem buses. Swastikas in West Rogers Park. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement on campus, distorting the Israel narrative, including in February at my alma mater, Northwestern University. The threat of a nuclear Iran. The list goes on and on and on.

We know there are many people who want to see Israel—and, in fact, all Jews—wiped off the planet.

But for all the darkness and heartache, let's be mindful that we've been through worse. The Jewish people have survived thousands of years of combatting hatred, persecution, and tsuris—and we always make our way out of the dark and into the light.

For all the bad, we see hope too.

After the shootings in France and Denmark, a group of Muslims encircled a synagogue in Oslo, Norway, on Shabbat, creating a "ring of peace," protesting anti-Semitism and violence against the Jewish people.

I heard from Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas founder, at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. After growing up in Hamas, Yousef left the family business to work undercover for the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, where he forged a deep friendship with his Shin Bet handler along the way. The information Yousef gave to the Shin Bet exposed Hamas cells, prevented suicide bombings and assassinations of Israelis, and helped Israel track down militants.

The subject of a recent documentary, The Green Prince, and author of the autobiography, Son of Hamas, Yousef—who has relocated to the United States and cut off ties with his family back in Ramallah—embodies a gentle, beautiful soul. He told us that he believes in loving people, no matter where they come from.

Yousef's story shook me to my core. When we're born, we all start off innocent. But then we learn either to love or to hate. It horrifies me when I see images of small children of terrorists bearing weapons and following their parents down paths of violence and destruction. Changing their hearts and minds, breaking that cycle of hate, is nearly impossible. And yet, Yousef chose the path of love.

It's people like him who give us a ray of hope that one day we will live in peace.

Jews in Chicago, in Jerusalem, and around the world have been sitting down for Passover seders. Right now, as in so many other times in Jewish history, the plagues of hate, evil, and violence occupy our thoughts, along with frogs, hail, and pestilence.

"In every generation," we read on Pesach, "they rise up against us to destroy us."

Pharaoh tried. Hitler tried. And most recently, in France, in Denmark, and in many other places around the world, evil people keep on trying.

But they will never destroy us. They will never break our spirit—they will never break us.

Am Yisrael chai!

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Jewish Sports Headlines – April 2015

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04/01/2015

Jewish Sports Headlines – April 2015 photo

Every year at the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Jewish basketball coaches get together to give out the Red Auerbach Best Coach Award. This year's nominees include: Larry Brown, Southern Methodist University; Steve DeMeo, Northwest Florida State College; Scott Garson, The College of Idaho; Matt Gordon, Phoenix College; Larry Shyatt, University of Wyoming. Congrats to all the nominees.

Speaking of the NCAA, former Duke Blue Devil and Chicago native Jon Scheyer has found his way back to the Final Four, this time an assistant coach. And while he did not make the tournament, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has received glowing praise after turning around the school’s basketball program. Auburn made a late run, but of course ran into the mighty Kentucky Wildcats.

In baseball news, one of Jewish baseball's all-time greats, Al Rosen, passed away. Rosen played for the Cleveland Indians; he was a four-time All Star and the 1953 American League MVP. The Indians will honor Rosen all season by wearing a #7 patch.

On a lighter note, Toronto Blue Jays player Kevin Pillar injured himself sneezing. The incident was made famous when Jimmy Fallon poked fun at the injury on The Tonight Show. But the joke is on everyone, as Pillar will finally be an opening day starter.

Jewish baseball-lovers will also be happy to hear that Jason Marquis has made it back to the Bigs after what could’ve been career-threatening surgery. He will be in the Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation. Meanwhile, Joc Pederson is second in home runs in all of Spring Training with six. He is not only making his case to make the team, but probably beat out veteran Andre Ethier as the starter.

Finally, as we prepare for the NHL playoffs and MLB Opening Day, the NFL Draft is around the corner. Iowa running back Mark Weisman’s draft stock has risen and there’s hope that he will be a late round pick. Good luck to Weisman!

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