OyChicago blog

Cheers! Chicago: Can you possibly meet “The Right One” at a bar?

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Cheers! Chicago: Can you possibly meet photo

Well, can you? It’s a fair question, isn’t it? A bar seems like a practical place to meet someone, right? If we’re not there to blow off steam from the stresses of work or to hang out with friends, we’re probably there because we feel a little, well, lonely. And where better to have a beverage and socialize than the local pub? In fact, the word “pub” is taken from the phrase “public house,” which in reality operated more like a motel with a diner and bar. These types of social gathering structures have been traced all the way back to the Roman taverns and baths, and these days we have more leisure time as a society then ever before. As a people, we Jews embrace drinking as a function of prayer and thankfulness, not reckless intoxication or stress pacification. If you really think about it, since it’s a part of each Shabbat and many holidays, the Jewish people have been drinking together as a community for a long time. We are a merry people and are not afraid to show it!

But let’s get back to whether or not the bar can be a genuine place to find love for single Jews. Working as a single Jewish bartender in one of the hottest cities in the country, I have seen my share of successes and failures regarding the male-female interaction. Everything from buying drinks for the hottie at the end of the bar to watching guys write little cheesy love notes on the back of a cocktail napkin. I have heard lots of lines that would make your sides hurt and seen lots of obscene and rather intriguing behavior. I have even had the pleasure of watching two very drunk guys attempt to out-macho the other one and duke it out at the bar, trying to buy a drink for a hot brunette in a little pink number that just straddled the bar stool. Now I’ll admit it, I may be a very observant person by nature, sometimes just too observant for my own good. However, I am NO dating doctor or expert body language reader; having said that, I’ve tried nearly everything when it comes to interacting with the opposite sex myself. Blind dates, online dates, speed dates, “casually bumping” into old flames (shameful, I know), all the way down to just striking up a conversation with a cute stranger at a bar. Which one of those scenarios do you think is the easiest or has the best chance of success?

I can definitely tell you things look quite different from behind the sticks, where you are in a position to make drinks, hear and see everything that might take place, and manage the crowd, all while sober. Hey, we’re all there to have a good time, right? So why not be open to meet and have fun with some new people? Sure, it can be awkward to meander nervously toward a beautiful group of women by the bar and try to explain how un-creepy but interesting and fun you really are. Yes, it’s true: alcohol does lower the inhibitions, but I’m talking about the right one and not a one-night stand. Now, I am sure there are some of you thinking that it’s possible to turn a one-night stand into something serious, and you’re probably right. But the likelihood of that occurring for every guy or girl is ridiculously slim, which leaves most of us single people to go out without any expectations other than having a great time.

But my question to you is this: do Jewish singles act or treat the dating world differently than the rest when they go to bars, or are they like everyone else, just looking for a good time? Is it easier or harder for Jewish singles to meet in these settings? How do these chances compare to meeting singles at temple, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and holiday celebrations? I bet you if I polled 100 single Jews here in Chicago, most of them would not expect to meet “the right one” at the bar, but would reserve some judgment over whether or not it could work out should they meet someone they like. What are your thoughts?

Have you ever tried to pick up your local bartender? On the lighter side, I went to jewishjournal.com and found a blog by Merissa Nathan Gerson, host of AskYourYenta.com, titled “Are All Bartenders Perpetual Boys?” Her answer to a non-Jew’s question regarding dating bartenders and the bar scene as a function of social interaction is quite insightful. It even concludes with rays of hope for single Jewish bartenders, like me, by mentioning how even bartenders are prone to finding “the right one,” too! So go out to the bars, grab a drink and have some fun! Who knows what might be waiting for you there…



You are what you eat

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An interview with nutritionist Lara Field

You are what you eat photo

As a personal trainer, I get asked nutritional questions all the time. The thing is, I’m not a nutritionist—I’m just a really opinionated personal trainer. I do, however, have several nutritionist friends, so I went to one with an expertise in celiac disease to learn about allergies, organic food, and of course weight loss tips.

Meet Lara Field:
FEED is a privately owned pediatric nutrition counseling business founded in 2008 by registered dietitian Lara Field, MS, RD, LDN.

Lara has always had a passion for kids' nutrition. With over seven years experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and University of Chicago Medical Center, Lara has been invited to speak at national nutrition and medical conferences including the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.  She has been quoted in publications on her perspective on infant feeding practices.

As an advisory board and executive committee member of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, Lara always has been active in the celiac disease community. She frequently educates patients, family members, and nutrition professionals on the gluten-free diet.

Lara currently lives in Chicago with her husband, Tom, and their son, Tyler, who was born April 2008.  In her free time, Lara enjoys exercising and has completed three marathons, the2006 and 2009 Chicago Marathon and the 2007 Boston Marathon. She loves cooking and testing new recipes, and especially enjoys preparing foods for Tyler.

Ron Krit: Let’s start with food allergies. What are common food allergies and diseases?
Lara Field: Peanut, milk, soy, tree nut, wheat, eggs, fish and shellfish are the most common food allergies. Celiac disease [is another common allergy]. One in 133 people has this allergy of wheat, rye, and barley—10 times more common then diabetes. A new emerging disease is Eosinophilic Esophagitis, an allergic condition of the esophagus. Symptoms may include choking, or gagging on food, similar to reflux. Doctors first have you eliminate the common food allergies and then slowly re-introduce the foods.

Why are so many children so allergic to peanuts?
There is no concrete answer. Some call it the “hygiene hypothesis”— our desire to use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers are taking the healthy bacteria out of our bodies.

Organic foods are a huge market do we need to buy them to be healthier?
Pesticides are not good for you to ingest. With that said, not all food needs to be organic. Many people recommend foods with edible skin should be bought organic, such as apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries, and peaches. I buy organic whenever I can.

What about organic meat?
Probably a good idea, too—less hormones to put in our bodies. Long-term research is not available to determine how these hormones will affect us.

As a nutritionist, what are your tips for weight loss?
• Portion control and exercise, simple but true. You need both to be successful.
• Eat more veggies—they fill you up, they are nutritionally dense, and add more fiber [to your diet] to aid with digestion, and blood sugar control.
• More calcium in the form of low-fat dairy.
• Eat more whole grains. Read food labels and look for whole grain oats, whole wheat flour and fiber.
• Fiber is very important. It keeps us full and helps move food through our system.

What about supplements?
Mega-dosing is not necessary. Hopefully people are eating foods that contain nutrients and minerals. Taking a vitamin that contains greater than 100% of the Daily Value can be detrimental—you do not want to overdose, even on vitamins. Find a supplement that contains less than 100% of the Daily Value of most vitamins and minerals.

As a trainer people always ask me about the Atkins diet. What do you think of this all meat diet?
It’s not a long-term weight loss plan. It is not realistic to eat that quantity of meat without complex carbohydrates for life. Whole grains help with brain function, blood sugar control and general digestion. Eating a variety of foods is the best suggestion.

What’s your cheat food?
Sweet Mandy B’s! I like desserts. My trick, I just don’t buy them. I try not to bring sweet treats in my house.  Save these for special occasions such as holidays or birthdays. If you don’t keep it in your house it’s easier to avoid.
If you would like to learn more about Lara or to contact her, check out her  website . 


An Ode to Facebook

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Someone I know used to say whenever her phone rang, "Who could it be? All my friends are here!" That's how I feel when I receive a new friend request on Facebook. Facebook has changed my life. When I go to my list of friends, I feel surrounded by my life— past and present. I resisted joining for many years. When friends told me—  I would love it, had to get on it, and that everyone's doing it— I felt like I was being peer pressured into some kind of strange cyber-cult society. I claimed computer ineptitude. I said I was too old. I said I didn't have time. The truth was, I really didn't understand it. So one day, I don't remember why, after tons of nudging, I did it. I joined the wacky family of Facebook.

Things started slowly. But I was so honored to be found. The poor folks who found me in the beginning would write deep thoughts such as, "Hi! How are you? :)" And I would respond with paragraphs chronicling my life from birth up until that moment they wrote on my wall. Then folks just started coming out of the woodwork. The popular kid with the foot high Afro from grade school. People from my beloved YMCA swim team. Old roommates. Ex boyfriends. Old crushes. People who remembered me from a terrible sunburn I got on an 8th grade school trip to Florida. Boys I played spin the bottle with. Beloved neighborhood friends that moved away when I was too young to know how to stay in touch. Kids I had mentored as teens who were now married—  with kids! I started obsessing before bed about who I was going to "discover" the next morning. Occasionally I would slip out of bed in the middle of the night to see who I could find. And more importantly, to see who had found me.

In the beginning, it was all kinds of fun, but it was driving my husband absolutely mad. He has said, on more than one occasion, that he is a Facebook widower. I think the worst part for him used to be the nights when I was so wound up by a "finding" that I would wax on and on about so-and-so who I had never mentioned in all the years of our married life together, but now we just HAD to have them over for dinner. I loved the memories that came pouring out of something so simple as seeing an old photo posted of me wearing a "Jungle Fever" t-shirt with bad hair and unkempt eyebrows. Ah. Those were the days!

When I was in college, I had many good friends. But there were two women who were my "besties." I lived in the Midwest and they both lived on the East Coast. I graduated before both of them, but we visited, called, and wrote to one another often. I started dating my husband and as time went on,  my two girlfriends and I grew apart. But still, I loved them and wanted to honor our friendship by having them stand up in my wedding. At the last minute, they canceled. More than 11 years went by without my speaking to them. It haunted me. I had come up with many theories and explanations. I had come up with the "If I ever see them again, this is what I'm going to say" speech. And then, two years ago, I saw I had a friend request.

There, silently, sat a picture of my old friend, now in L.A., requesting I accept her friendship. I did. Breathlessly. Right after that, I looked up my other beloved friend and saw that her current city was none other than Chicago, IL. I sent her a message and a friendship request. She and I met for a tearful lunch where I met her beautiful son and we made amends. Not that long after, I flew out to L.A. for a tearful dinner, my first martini ever, and an explanation that helped to heal an old, deep wound.

My college reunion is coming up. There is no way I would have ever even remotely considered attending if not for these two Facebook connections. You'd think after marriage, two dogs, and four kids that the heart gets tougher. You don't give the old hurts a second thought. You don't look back. And maybe, for some, that's true. But for me, Facebook has given me the opportunity to both look backwards and surge forward. And for that, I am very grateful.


How much for that dog in my browser window?

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How much for that dog photo

I have a problem with my new apartment. Namely, the possibility that I could have a dog there.

I am a dog person. I wanted a dog pretty much from the time I started talking. When I was 7 we finally, finally got a basset hound named Nora, who proceeded to slobber, cuddle, steal food and snore her way into our hearts for the next fourteen years. Losing her was awful, and we waited almost two years before bringing another dog into our family. Gus is now a 75-pound lovebug who bowls me over every time I go back to Ohio. I miss him terribly when I’m away; I’ve got two pictures of him on my desk at work, and every time I call home I’m regaled with the latest cute, ridiculous, aggravating thing he’s done.

Now, I am in love with my apartment. The windows are incredible, the neighborhood is quiet and tree-lined, the dishwasher is brand new and I’m itching to paint the walls. It is also, however, a third-floor walk-up with no elevator. Great news for my daily workout; less so, I’d assumed, for a heavyset creature with four-inch legs. Nora followed me everywhere up and down our three-story house when I was growing up, and Gus loves stairs too. (The sight of a basset hound coming down steps from below is a hoot, let me tell you.) However, basset hounds have short legs and long backs. I’ve read in some basset rescue websites that lots of climbing can be bad for the dog’s long-term health, and that rescue societies or shelters (both of which I strongly support as options for getting a pet) may not place a dog in a home like that.

There’s good news and bad news coming up. The good news is that Gus’s breeder keeps in close contact with everyone who owns one of her puppies. We get news, photos of new litters and, since she shows dogs, all the latest from the ringside. It’s like my own breed-specific feed of Cute Overload. This week she sent out a notice saying she had two female puppies available. I know my limits. I can’t have an eight-week-old puppy right now, no matter how completely wonderful she is. But I did write back to the breeder for some clarification about the stairs issue. Just, you know, to have in my back pocket.

The bad news is that basset hounds are fine on apartment stairs. The worse news is that the breeder has a nine-month-old female who may become available in the near future.

I can’t have a dog now. I know how much work they require, and how much time I would lose. I like my free and open schedule right now, and I like my quiet, clean, brand new apartment, all of which a dog of any age would destroy. But I am and always will be, to my deepest foundations, a dog person. My heart does the equivalent of a full-body tail wag every time I see a dog. I am doomed to be a dog owner in a year or two.

First, however, I have to move quickly and respond to the breeder. She could send a photo at any moment. My resolve to hold out is strong, but possibly not that strong.


Get your head in the game

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Why life coaching worked for me 

Not long after I had moved back to Chicago, my boss approached me with an idea. Business was going well at the sales company where I worked at the time. We were the #1 division in the company for sales that year and he wanted to acknowledge the key role I had played as a part of the division staff by offering to pay for me to see a life coach. The idea was strange to me at first so initially I declined the offer. It sounded a little too trendy and too good to be true. He asked me to think about it though, and consider how it might impact my life if I had someone on the sidelines to coach me. All great athletes have great coaches to keep them improving at their game—why can’t we do the same to keep improving our own lives? 

A few months went by and I started reflecting on where I was at in my life. I was overweight by more than 100 pounds. I had thousands of dollars of debt from credit cards, bills, and taxes. I was single and lonely. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going in life. Though I had good friends, a good job, and success in some areas of my life, all this other baggage kept bringing me down. I would come home feeling empty at night, like something was missing. Eventually, I figured, it couldn’t make things worse to try life coaching—things could only get better. So at the end of 2004 I started seeing a life coach.

Five and a half years later, it has made all the difference. I have created positive changes in all areas of my life. I lost 100 pounds, paid off all the bad debt, found love, and created a career path that I am truly happy with. I don’t want you to think that I am never unhappy or afraid. I still face challenges on a daily basis. The difference is that before I felt trapped and stuck. Today I find peace and confidence knowing that I have the power and ability to face fear and continue moving forward.

So in case you might be looking for any or all of what I have gained over the last several years, I offer five of the most influential principles I have adopted:

1. Acknowledgement
Start by focusing on what went right or you did right. Keep a journal, start a blog, write in a notebook, or simply say a list out-loud. What would you say to a friend that needed extra support or his/her spirits lifted? Say THAT to yourself.

2. Gratitude
Practice saying thank you when others help you or offer a compliment. Try to do this without an excuse, explanation, or return compliment. Just graciously accept and enjoy the feeling. At the end of each day write down 5 things you are grateful for. If things are going that bad, you can start with gratitude for the pen and paper to write the list… you’ll find more things the more you do it.

3. Get Quiet; Get Clear; Visualize
Close your eyes and spend time with the vision of who you want to be and the world that you would like to attract. Notice how you feel and what you hear, see, and even smell. Record your vision in some way. You can write it down, tape record, or draw a picture. You may just start by describing your ideal week.

4. Put Yourself First
YOU are the most important and influential person in your life. You spend more time with YOU than anyone else. You know YOU better than any person. Without YOU, you do not exist. How would you value someone’s time that you respected and held in high regard? Try scheduling your time that way. Don’t be afraid to say no to others, if they demand too much of your time.

5. Accept Where You Are and Move Forward!
Imagine yourself in control of your current situation. Both the good and the bad are there because you decided it would be that way. Play with the idea that you are perfect and experiencing everything perfectly. That is to say, that you are getting exactly what you need out of life right now. It is hard to be a victim with this perspective. This idea will help you to move forward, past fear. It allows you to say “What’s the worse thing that could happen if I just do______? Well, I could live with that, so it’s worth moving forward from here.”



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Austria photo

Recently my family received our second payout from the Austrian government.

There, in the form of a check, and a nominal one at that, was the government’s way of making amends for allowing the Nazis to confiscate the property of its citizens.

We got the first installment back in August, at the same time my son was born.  I thought it quite appropriate to use the money to pay for a mohel for Benjamin’s bris.  What better way to stick it to the Nazis than to welcome a new Jewish baby into the world?

In thinking about meaningful ways to use the second check, I’ve plunged yet again into my lifelong connection with the Holocaust.  Despite being two generations removed, despite not having all the details about my grandfather’s story of survival, and despite not knowing for sure where my great-grandmother ended up (though we are pretty sure it was Auschwitz), the shadow of the Shoah has always been lurking through my life.

I have to imagine that my semi-obsession is not unique among children and grandchildren of survivors and, that being the case, whether our fervor to “never forget” hasn’t hampered our ability as a community to make peace and move on.  By constantly reliving the past, are we creating an even heavier burden for our children to carry?

My great-grandmother, who refused to leave the country with her husband and son, was forcefully removed from her home, taken to live in a ghetto and ultimately killed in a concentration camp.

Money from the Austrian government cannot ever make up for the fact that her son grew up without his mom, in a foreign country, all alone.  But money invested in her great-great-grandchild’s Jewish education will provide one more opportunity for my family to say “we’re still here.”

And, hopefully, one more opportunity for us to make peace and move on.


Top seven perks of working to save the Jews

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I am a professional Jew.  I mean a Jewish professional.  Or both.

I have spent the past three and a half years working for Jewish communal organizations that do incredible work to help members of the community locally and overseas.  And while this sort of work isn’t for everyone, it has been a natural fit for me.

People ask me – where did you go to school?  What was your major?  How did you end up working here?  Well I can’t tell you that my college choice (Ohio University, less than 1% Jewish) or my majors (Political Science and French…essentially irrelevant) had much to do with it.

Honestly, my mother did what Jewish mothers do best – nagged me about getting an internship when I was in school – and the rest was history.  One internship, a summer at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland’s Community Planning department, led to another, and before I knew it, four years later I’m still here.

My positions have evolved – from doing research and assisting with fundraising projects as an intern at the Cleveland Federation, to managing volunteer programs as an associate with the Jewish United Fund, to finally managing volunteers and outreach at The ARK.

Now as you can imagine, people don’t choose a career working for a nonprofit to make the big bucks.  Not at all – especially in this economy.  But for every challenge that comes with any position at any company, ideally there should be reasons why you enjoy what you do.  Here are a few of mine, in no particular order:

1)  Working at a Jewish communal organization means that you are surrounded by likeminded, mission-driven people who share your passion for advocating for and serving Jews in need.  When you’re having a long, crappy day and nothing seems to be going your way, you know that you’re not crunching numbers and working for The Man – you and your peers are working for the greater good of the community.  Yes – it’s cheesy, but 99% of the time, knowing that what you do makes a difference really does make you feel better.

2)  Jewish geography.  We’ve all played it.  Jewish communal professionals live it everyday.  Just as in the business environment, networking is critical, in the Jewish workplace, connecting with people is like building a rolodex full of “-steins,” “-bergs” and “-mans” who believe in your mission and want to spread the word.

3)  Everyone has been there on a Friday afternoon that is moving much too slowly – the minutes are barely ticking by as the weekend approaches.  Not me – out at 2:00 p.m. on Fridays for Shabbat!

4)  Being a twenty-something surrounded by Jewish mothers and grandmothers, it’s seriously comforting when you’re not feeling good to have a (dozen) surrogate mothers who want to feel your forehead, tell you where to find the best chicken soup and remind you to get a lot of rest.  And when the holidays roll around, you have a (dozen) resources for tried and true recipes for everything from the lightest matzo balls to the perfect Passover kugel.  For those who live hundreds of miles from home, this is a huge perk.

5)  Speaking of food, there is a ton of it.  Everywhere.  Because we are a communal people, no holiday, birthday, day that ends in “Y” can go by without some yummy leftovers or sweet treat turning up to be shared in the kitchen.  Great for the taste buds, bad for the waistline.  You decide.

6)  We have tons of days off to honor Avinu Malkeinu – our Father, our King, the Big Guy upstairs – whatever you want to call him.  When Yom Kippur falls on a weekday, I don’t have to think twice about being able to get away from the office to go to services.  The office is closed.  For many Oy!sters, you are not worrying about this beyond the High Holidays in the fall, but for those who observe the plethora of holidays that us Jews celebrate, this perk just keeps on giving.  Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot – Jewish communal professionals get all of these days off and more.

7)  I know so many people who haven’t stepped inside a synagogue since the 7th grade when bar mitzvah season ended.  Others find their only connection to Judaism in a trip to Mannys Deli.  While I love a good corned beef sandwich and am not a huge fan of going to shul instead of sleeping in on a Saturday, I think it’s important as you find yourself in your 20’s and 30’s to allow Judaism to play some part – big or small – in your personal growth.  For me, it’s work.  For others, like Erin, it’s connecting with a local congregation.  Maybe you want to volunteer or make a donation to a Jewish cause.  You decide.


North v. South

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"So, are you a Cubs or a Sox fan?"

"No comment," I quickly and jokingly replied during my interview at Temple Anshe Sholom of Olympia Fields, the largest synagogue of only a small handful in Chicago's south suburbs.

I moved back to Chicago in 2008 to be closer to my family, becoming the cantor at TAS, and a north suburbanite working in foreign territory! As a product of Buffalo Grove and the northwest suburban Jewish community, in the last year and a half, I have come to know the south suburbs much better than I ever would have predicted.

My parents actually grew up on Chicago's South Side in the South Shore and Jeffrey Manor neighborhoods. I learned from them that Jews from these communities typically either moved north to Skokie, Evanston, and later, they ended up on the North Shore or in the northwest suburbs. Or, they moved just a bit south, populating suburbs like Homewood and Flossmoor. The majority of our congregants at TAS live in the "H-F" community, which boasts a wonderful, highly-ranked school district, lovely country clubs with top-notch golf courses (in fact, the 2003 U.S. Open took place at the Olympia Fields Country Club just a minute away from the temple), and some of the best ice cream in the world at Mitchell's Ice Cream Parlor in Homewood. Others live just to the west, in newer developments in Frankfort and Mokena.

I came to find very quickly that our community, and the south suburban Jewish community in general, is very tightly-knit. It often feels as if everyone knows each other, and many of our families still have two or three generations living in the area. And, when a south suburbanite speaks of "the north," lest you think Wisconsin, Minnesota, or dare I say Canada... No, they are likely referring to Skokie, Northbrook, or Deerfield, and they aren't too afraid to go there—although they often comment that north suburban dwellers are challenged by even the thought of driving this far south. Well, I’ve done this drive many times. On a few occasions, I’ve even driven from Buffalo Grove to Olympia Fields and back, and with some good music on the radio, it really isn’t that far.  Plus, you start to feel like you really know the whole layout of the Chicagoland area.

These days, the south suburban Jewish community is unfortunately struggling quite a bit to survive. They are feeling even more the reality that it is not at the center of Chicago's Jewish community to the north. The economy is surely taking its toll on the area, as the demographics continue to shrink. The local JCC is amidst a continual fundraising effort to keep its doors open, and the synagogues, including TAS, are making extreme and drastic cuts to keep the community going. It is not always a pretty picture, but there are still so many dedicated to keeping this segment of the Jewish community intact and alive. It has been a pleasure getting to know this “other-end” of Chicago's Jewish community and I will surely miss it—but this summer I am very excited as I begin my next adventure in Orange County, California. I will become the cantor of Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana, California beginning in July.


Memorializing sacrifice

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Memorializing sacrifice photo 1

Photo credit: Susan Wexler, HIAS

Every May 9, my grandfather would put on his parade uniform from his WWII army days, pin his many medals onto the front of his jacket and take my sister and me to a gathering of his regiment. Every year, there would be fewer and fewer of the men and women with whom he risked his life in the fight against the Nazis.

My grandfather was among them. He had been a student and did not have to go fight but volunteered for an infantry unit shortly after June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. He was a participant in the critical defense of Moscow in the winter of 1942, when the war seemed all but lost and German forces were mere kilometers away from the city. Injured in 1943, he limped for the rest of his life.

Since 1945, May 9 has been celebrated as Victory Day in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It’s a solemn yet festive occasion that commemorates the struggles and the sacrifices of the wartime and celebrates the lives of those who fought and came back.

Memorializing sacrifice photo 2

Photo credit: Susan Wexler, HIAS

As a child, I would look in wonder at the city – all dressed up in colorful flags and lights, with posters and slogans hanging everywhere. It seemed as if the entire population of Moscow was out on the street, presenting flowers to the veterans and waiting for the parade and the fireworks that ended the day. The day’s lasting impact on me is evident: The older ladies and gentlemen in military uniforms and with a multitude of medals on their chests still embody the word “veteran” for me.

During the Soviet era, the ruling Party used the holiday as a showcase for Soviet military might. But as children, my peers and I were oblivious to the larger geopolitical meaning of the day. We would revel in the chance to see smartly dressed soldiers marching in step, followed by row after row of tanks and other armored vehicles, with planes flying in formation overhead. Leaders of the hopeful democratic Russia did away with the parade tradition after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Vladimir Putin’s administration brought it back in the early 2000s. Since then, the parade has once again become the show-stopping centerpiece of Victory Day celebrations. This year, Israeli President Shimon Peres and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the 65th anniversary commemoration, while Polish, Egyptian, Turkish, French, and British troops took part in the parade.

Memorializing sacrifice photo 3

Photo credit: Susan Wexler, HIAS

But as I got older, I have come to realize the deeper meaning of the holiday.

In a country where only one in four men returned from the war without being physically harmed – no one collected stats on PTSD and other emotional illness at the time – May 9 remains one of the ways to recognize the historical significance of the fight and the importance of memory.

The Great Patriotic War, as it is known to all Russian-speakers, has left us a rich heritage of countless stories of heroism. The ruling Party used these stories to promote its agenda and to set an impossible standard to follow. The sacrifices endured by the people were only possible because they believed that they were fighting the ultimate battle, a life-or-death struggle.

Last week, ahead of the official commemoration, Chicago-area Russian veterans honored the anniversary in a series of local programs. More than 400 veterans and members of their families listened to dramatic poetry readings, sang songs and told stories at programs put together by Jewish Child & Family ServicesHIAS ChicagoCJE SeniorLife and Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center.

Memorializing sacrifice photo 4

Photo credit: Susan Wexler, HIAS

Every year, fewer and fewer veterans come to these events. Every year, they look around the room and sadly remark on the passing of a peer.

My grandfather died 14 years ago. He had the chance to tell his story – in fact, together with his fellow infantrymen and women, he wrote a short book (in Russian) about his experiences.

But some of the WWII veterans living in Chicago didn’t have that chance. Still, it’s not too late yet. If your grandparents were part of the war effort – whether in Europe, the United States or elsewhere, ask them about it. Let them tell you the story, so that the memory of their valiant actions lives on.


Mark your calendar…wedding season is here

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Recently, I feel like I’ve entered a new life stage.  I’m lovingly referring to it as the stage where everyone I know is suddenly growing up and deciding to get married.  I admit that I’m not handling the aging process very well— I’m terrified of turning 27 and unhappy about entering my late 20’s.  Bring on the Botox! I’m kidding, I think.  But, I digress.

Life is changing again much like it did right after college graduation— we are buying homes and moving in with boys, getting engaged and planning our dream weddings.  And some of you, you know who you are, even have your calendars marked to start trying for babies!

It’s a lot to take in.

I’m kicking-off my first wedding season in a big way— at my cousin Becky’s Memorial Day weekend wedding in Lake Geneva.  I’m honored to be her maid of honor.  It’s the first time (and possibly only time) that I will hold such a distinct privilege and I don’t want to mess it up!  In fact, Becky has fondly begun referring to me as a, “maid-zilla.”  I’ve yelled at the staff at David’s Bridal twice (you’ll have to ask her why, but they seriously deserved it) and during her makeup trial last week, I kindly told the makeup artist that she needed to learn how to correctly apply false eyelashes before my cousin’s wedding.  A few weeks ago, my mom and aunt threw a picture-perfect shower with my help, of course, and the bachelorette party this Saturday is going to be a blast!  It turns out I’m pretty good at bossing people around and planning parties.

What I’m not so good at, is writing my MOH speech.  Up till now, I really haven’t attended many weddings nor heard many wedding toasts.  I’m stressed out about striking that balance between funny, sincere, memorable and appropriately long enough, but not too long that I put people to sleep.  I need help and I thought of all of you, lovely Oy!Chicago readers, maybe you can give me some speech feedback or just share your own advice and stories for surviving wedding season.

(Just in case you were worrying, I’m making the bride promise not to read this story before her big day.)  Here’s what I have so far:
Growing up, Becky and I were sorely outnumbered and usually out-screamed by all of the boys in the family.  As the oldest grandchild on our mother’s side, Becky always held a special place in everyone’s hearts and all of the grandchildren looked up to her, but no one more than me.  Whenever our families spent time together on vacations or at holiday celebrations or even just hanging out at Papa and Uncle’s house (and later apartment), I had to be by your side.  I wanted to be just like you—  smart, tall, gorgeous, outgoing, a great athlete and swimmer....

In fact, I thought Becky and her friends were SO cool, that I tried to “honor” her old friend Tasha by naming my first dog after her.  I was five at the time.

Now the girls in this family, they like boys, and over the years, there have been quite a few.  But then Kevin entered the picture.  He seemed nice, kind of quiet and laid back.  I liked him, but I wasn’t fully convinced...

Until one night in late September 2007, Jason, my boyfriend, and I were out to dinner with Becky, Kevin and a few of their friends.  I believe we were at El Mariachi, a great Mexican joint in Lakeview.  The Cubs were playing that night in the restaurant.  At that point in the season, the Cubs were very close to clinching the NL Central playoff spot.  (Jason and I even had plans to leave early the next morning to drive all the way to Cincinnati to watch them play.)  But then, surprise of surprises (especially for the Cubs) they came back from behind to win the game and win their playoff spot while we were sitting enjoying our meal!  Well let me tell you, Kevin was one of the first to bolt from the table to run down the street to Clark and Addison where we all joined thousands of other young Cubs fans and celebrated the news that we were once again going to the playoffs!  Unfortunately, we all know how that story ended, but that’s when I knew Kevin was a keeper.  And I’ve enjoyed watching and attending Cubs games with both of them since.

Becky and Kevin, I have no doubt that you have a beautiful life to look forward to.  You are very fortunate to have found each other and I just couldn’t be happier for you two.

I wish you a lifetime of long conversations, laughter and lots of love.


Sean Wallis can't lose!

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Sean Wallis photo

Ever meet a guy who just can't lose? Well, Sean Wallis is pretty close. He won an IHSA Basketball championship at Glen Brook North High School and two NCAA DIII championships at Wash U. Wallis seems to win wherever he goes. A recent graduate, the north shore native is now weighing his playing options.

If I could give him advice, it would be to go play in an Israeli league and have a great time living in Israel. And knowing his playing record, he would probably come back with some hardware to add to his trophy case. Wallis is a really nice guy and surrounds himself with good people. (In fact, he is Facebook friends with my sister). Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to chat with him:

The Great Rabbino: You played High School at Glenbrook North High School basketball with Jon Scheyer. What was that experience like?
Sean Wallis: I've actually been playing basketball with Jon since he was in fourth grade and I was in fifth grade. Not only is he an incredible basketball player, but he's an awesome person too. He works harder at his game than anyone I've ever met and I couldn't be happier that he had the year he did because no one deserves the success more than him. I was lucky enough to get to go to Indianapolis and watch him and even celebrate with him after they won, which was an experience I'll never forget. High school basketball was an awesome time for me— not just because we won a state championship my senior year—
 but because we played in front of sold out crowds every night.

Who would win one on one, you or Scheyer? 
The summer going into my senior year of high school, we would go to this half court gym and play a best of seven series four nights a week. We probably played 100 games over the course of a few months and I won... approximately six or seven. That being said, I think he'd win if we played. I could definitely score on him here and there, but getting a stop is a really tough thing for me to do against him.

You were a part of both the 2008 and 2009 Wash U Bear Championship teams, what was that like?
It was incredible and two very different experiences. In 2008, I actually had a season ending broken leg in the third game of the season. In 2009, I was named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. While people say "oh, but it's D3," it is the same national championship trophy, we get the same hats and t-shirts, the same confetti raining down, and we're on national TV, also. I can't even begin to explain how lucky I am to have gotten the chance to play with such awesome teammates and win it all during my basketball career.

Why did you decide to play ball at Wash U? Did you have a chance to play DI?
Wash U was the best combination of basketball, academics and location. It had an undergraduate business school which was very important.   It also allowed me to play in an awesome conference where I could compete for a national championship. We visited more cities than a lot of DI teams— New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburgh— during the regular season, which was awesome. I had the chance to walk on at some bigger DIs and a few smaller DIs came into the picture after the state tournament my senior year, but I knew I wanted to use my basketball to get me into a great academic school.

You were recently named DIII First Team All American, what was that like? Was it the highlight of your basketball career?
The individual accolades are a real nice honor, without a doubt. It always feels great to be recognized for the hard work that you put in day in and day out. But honestly, the highlights of my basketball career have been the championships I've won and the memories I’ve made with my teammates. There's nothing like celebrating in a locker room or at half court with a group of guys you spend so much time with.

What are your plans now that your collegiate basketball career has come to an end?
I'm still up in the air. I've been contacted by a few agents and even teams about the opportunity to play basketball professionally over in Israel. It is one of the premier leagues in all of Europe and being a Jew has its advantage, as I can obtain citizenship, and not be considered an "international" player. So that is one possibility, but I also am looking at different opportunities in strategy and management consulting in the Chicago area. Hopefully, I'll figure it out over the next month.

Living on the North Shore of Chicago, (we asked Colt Cabana this same question) what is your favorite Chicago Pizza?
Well, this is a tough question. I have grown to enjoy deep dish more and more as I've gotten older. When I was nine I told Mark Malnati, the owner of Lou Malnati’s, that I hated his pizza without knowing who he was. Even though it isn't very Chicagoan of me, I have to say that by far and away my favorite pizza is Barnaby's. Nothing beats it.

You have one Bulls player ever to take the final shot in a championship game, who do you let take it John Paxson or Steve Kerr?
Funny question considering I'd kill to have either of their jobs right now. Both hit NBA Finals game winners, Pax in Phoenix and Kerr against Utah at a game I was at, but I'd have to say Pax just because I grew up going to his camps and knew his son Ryan pretty well— love that jumper.

Any other Jewish college basketball players TGR fans should watch out for?
There are a couple of Jewish Americans I'd love to give a shout out to that are playing over in Israel professionally right now. Both Todd Golden and Ben Rudin have been really helpful in showing me the way and telling me about their experiences over there. Todd was a great player for DI St. Mary's (CA) and Ben was a big time DIII guard at Middlebury.

To read more about Wallis, check this out.

And Let Us Say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine  
For more from Jeremy, check out  www.thegreatrabbino.com .


Navigating the path from Miss to Mrs.

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Navigating the path from Miss to Mrs. photo 1

On the very cold night of January 25 at 9pm, outside the Planetarium overlooking an unobstructed view of the Chicago skyline, a sweet, handsome young man got down on one knee and proposed to his shocked and freezing girlfriend.

And she said yes.

By 10pm most of their friends and half of greater Chicago had heard the good news. First thing the next morning, they made it official by changing their Facebook status from “in a relationship” to “engaged.” And 30 seconds later, they had booked the wedding date, venue, band and photographer (okay maybe that’s an exaggeration, but my mom may be the world’s most efficient amateur wedding planner.)

If you haven’t caught on, this modern-day Jewish fairytale is about me and my now fiancé, Mike. I mean, I’m pretty sure every Jewish fairytale begins with “They first locked eyes across a crowded conference room at the JUF building” and ends with “and they lived happily ever after” right? (True story—we met while Mike was also working for JUF!) Even though our wedding is over a year away, the past few months have been a whirlwind of mazel tovs and celebrations, and talk of guest lists, bridesmaid dresses, flowers and my “vision” for my wedding day (that one always cracks me up).

And while my relationship with Mike may seem like a fairytale, trust me, I’m not a princess kind of gal. I’m not that girl who has dreamt of her wedding day since she was five—truthfully, I’d never really even thought about it until now. My only “vision” for my wedding day is of a room full of windows so the sun will shine in during the ceremony. My parents want a great band, where all of our closest friends will dance the night away. And as for Mike, all he cares about is that we serve baby lamb chops during the cocktail hour.

What I have been struggling with the most throughout this process is how to make our wedding feel meaningful, unique, and personal to us. With so much to do surrounding an engagement, it’s easy to understand how people get swept away in planning the big party and don’t really have time to digest what getting married really means. Every once and awhile, though, it hits me: “So,” I turned to Mike one day, “you’re gonna like be my husband?” And when our families came together for seder this year and my grandma referred to Mike’s parents as my in-laws, I suddenly realized that what was now two families would soon become one.

Navigating the path from Miss to Mrs. photo 2

Getting married is also about carrying on traditions, and not just traditions like registering for things like oven mitts and ice cream makers (I totally want one of these, by the way) and then acting surprised when someone buys them for you, or tearing up when you’ve found the dress you will wear on that special day (I’m just not a crier). It’s about really meaningful traditions—like getting married by the rabbi and cantor from my family’s synagogue, having my sister and my closest friends stand up with me, dancing the hora and the cha cha slide with my friends and family and walking down the aisle toward the greatest guy I know while trying not to trip on the train of my gown.

And then there are the kinds of traditions that go on long past your wedding day—like breaking the fast at my parents’ house on Yom Kippur with bagels, lox and tuna salad, or bringing back the Friday night dinners Mike had with his family as a kid. When Mike and I go from single to married, does that mean we also go from children to grownups? It seems to me that soon it will be up to us to figure out how to meld our families’ traditions together and make new ones of our own. And if we’re the ones to host the seder, does that mean we can’t sit at the kids table anymore?

Lucky for me, I have a great guy, amazing parents, and wonderful in-laws-to-be to help navigate the path from Miss to Mrs. And lucky for Mike, he has me!

Oh, and if we’re really lucky, we’ll get to carry on in the great fairytale tradition and live happily ever after.


You Oughta Know

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I met “Jake” the summer between our freshman and sophomore years in college.  He was tall, blond, sweet, smart, Jewish, and a total dork endearingly nerdy.  He sent me flowers and made me mix tapes of cheesy love songs.  I wasted many good college years on him.  We dated for five years.  We talked about the future together.  We had the kids’ names picked out.  We were certain that we would spend the rest of our lives together.

Flash forward five years, and the relationship was over.  The short story: he was an asshole we simply had grown into different people who saw the world in different ways.  We should have ended the relationship in year two, but instead we made the mistake of staying together to vainly try to recapture what was gone.  And the longer we stayed together, the harder it became to leave, in large part because I had so much time and emotion “invested” in the relationship.

It took me five years to learn that relationships are not investments.  There is never a guarantee that you will see a return—e.g., love, happiness, marriage—for your “efforts.”  Bottom line for any relationship—whether it’s 5 weeks, 5 months, or 5 years—is you are probably better off free to meet someone new who can give you what you need to make you happy, if that is missing from your current relationship.

While obvious, the painful truth is that so many of us stay in not-so-great relationships simply because we have been with a person for so long we can’t imagine life without him/her.  And we are afraid to start all over again.

That’s not to say that there is an acceptable time limit for couples to date.  As someone who is very happily married to a procrastinating idiot wonderful man she dated for 5 long years, I don’t believe that the length of time couples date to be an indicator of future married bliss. But, it can be a red flag to deeper problems.

I can’t tell you what you should do.  But I can give you some of the warning signs that I, and my friends, have missed over the years.  Maybe if we had listened to our mothers been more objective, we could have saved ourselves time and energy.  Such as:

• One of you has cheated.  Beyond the whole “can I ever trust this person again” question, if one of you has cheated that’s a pretty good indicator that someone isn’t happy in the relationship and is seeking what he/she wants in someone else but doesn’t have the balls to break up.  Or, you just might be with an untrustworthy asshole, and who wants to be stuck with that?

• Your friends and family hate him/her.  The people in your life are far more objective than you, and can see what you can’t.  

• You hate his/her friends or family.  Don’t underestimate the power of in-laws have to make you miserable. Ditto with his/her friends.

• You are more focused on the wedding than on what comes after.  Weddings are one day.  You are going to be stuck with him/her for the rest of your life.  And divorce is a very sticky and expensive proposition. 

• You are afraid you won’t meet anyone else, or anyone as “good”.  Fear is never, ever a reason to stay with someone.  No matter how old you are, no matter how low your self-esteem there really and truly is someone out there for every person.  Do not let all those negative statistics about marriage rates for people in their 30s or older scare you into staying with someone not right for you.

• The sex is bad.  ‘Nough said.

• There is emotional/physical abuse or he/she wants you to change.  Get out. Now.

• You have dated so long the length of your relationship has become the butt of many jokes, and you stopped laughing a long time ago.  At anything.  If your sadness about not getting what you need is overshadowing any happiness you are deriving from the relationship, it’s probably time to move on.  

• You are clinging to the person he/she once was, not is.  Or vice-versa. 

• You can’t agree on any major values—e.g., having kids, how you would raise said kids, etc.  Love doesn’t always conquer all.

Whatever you decide to do, know that it is your decision.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this isn’t about the length of time you date someone.  It’s about how happy you are.  Sure, it sucks when you get that phone call from your ex that he/she is getting married, and you are still single.  My recommendation for that: tequila shots and Alanis Morissette.  But you oughta know that you WILL find someone else; smarter, funnier, sexier, and yes, with less back hair too.


10 to End Cancer

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Josh 01

Less than a year ago, Josh Orenstein was living the life that is familiar to so many of us in our 30s. He worked hard as an attorney downtown, commuted on a CTA bus, frequented a bar now and again with buddies, dined out with a great girlfriend, hit the gym a few times a week, and uploaded a picture or two to Facebook.

And nothing has changed, because Josh was fortunate enough to catch cancer before it had spread and before he needed chemo therapy.

A former college athlete whose only health concern was a bad back from running track at Georgetown University, Josh noticed something was different last spring. After a couple of weeks, he became a bit more concerned than perhaps a typical 33-year-old because a close friend from high school had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2005.

Josh went to the doctor who told him it was probably nothing, but recommended an ultrasound to be on the safe side. Josh received the bad news at a happy hour that was later confirmed by his urologist.

Josh had testicular cancer.

“It’s one of those moments where you realize your number is up,” Josh said.

A few days later, Josh underwent successful outpatient surgery. He was walking the same night and only took three days off work. Worse than the surgery, he said, was watching and waiting to see if the cancer would come back or what kind of treatment regimen he would need.

During that time he was surrounded by his parents and his girlfriend, Madeline Choe.

“Madeline was with me through surgery,” Josh said. “She was incredible. My family has been crucial. They were extraordinary.”

Josh has also turned to God and Judaism as a source of comfort.

“I am not a terribly observant person,” he said. “I observe certain things, but I don’t observe others. There were moments of real fear. There were times when if I could have run away from it I would have. There were moments of terror. I was definitely praying. Whether I know there is a God or not, if there is I wanted His help. The next few visits to synagogue were meaningful to me. If God means anything to you, it means more in those moments for sure.”

Josh has an excellent prognosis. Although there is a 30 percent chance the cancer could return during a two year period, the survival rate is over 95 percent. This is a drastic shift from the 1970s when 80 to 90 percent of testicular cancer patients did not survive.

The increased survival rate is due to a chemotherapy regimen—the same treatment that allowed Lance Armstrong to win the Tour De France after his testicular cancer had metastasized. But Josh warns men not to mess around with their health.

“We’re not kids anymore,” Josh said. “We’re not too young for this stuff and it actually really does matter when you catch things and when you find them. It’s going to spread if you get it. “Josh promised himself that if he didn’t need chemotherapy he would do something to take up the time and energy he wouldn’t have had if he was going through treatments.

Once he received the good news, he was determined to fulfill his promise. Because of his bad back, he couldn’t raise money by running a marathon or doing a 200 mile bike ride, so he decided to do something more unique to give back.

He chose the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because of their fundraising prowess and the high percentage of dollars raised that goes to research and patient care.

With support from LLS’ Kayla Kovarna, Madeline and his friends Nathan Lundby and Joel Bush, he started 10-to-End-Cancer. The goal is to raise $20,000 by hosting events while Josh completes 10 challenges, including participating in The Polar Plunge, reading the 1,386 pages of War and Peace, taking a trapeze class, sweating through 105 degree Bikram Yoga, getting volunteers to swab for bone marrow compatibility, studying tap dancing, human figure (naked) sketching and skeet shooting.

Nathan said being involved with the fundraising has been inspiring.

“I’ve been impressed by people who don’t know Josh and really want to do things to help out,” Nathan said. “A lot of people are very generous and very supportive.”

Nathan has been most inspired by Josh.

“He’s been like a champ the whole way,” Nathan said. “He’s been a fighter with the cancer and it carries on into the fundraising. Once he got relief from his own situation, he put his time and energy into this. That’s impressive.”

Josh’s 9th, and most recent challenge is driving Cubs fans in a Chicago Rickshaw. The-10-to-End-Cancer Challenge has raised an impressive $16,000 in nine weeks. Josh wants your help in determining his last challenge.

In the comments section below, make your suggestion for his final challenge – the more outrageous and funny, the better. If he uses your challenge, he’ll mail you a 10-to-End-Cancer t-shirt.


Desperately seeking solidarity

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A few weeks ago, my friend invited me to a costume party. There were no witches or vampires. Instead, our task was to dress as a stereotype.

Ironically, while many of us seek slutty versions of everyday professionals for our Halloween costumes in October, my friends and I all went maternal in April.

When planning the intricacies of these costumes, however, professions were absent from our conversation.

After a shotgun trip to Target, in which we debated props in the baby and houseware aisles a mere two hours before the party, here’s what resulted:

One of my friends dressed as a suburban mom—a cross between the movie “Mean Girls” and the northern suburbs—in a one-tone velour jumpsuit with big sunglasses and carried around a paper Caribou coffee cup in one hand, and wine and a Sunset Foods shopping bag in another.

Another of my friends dressed as a Roscoe Village mom with a pregnant belly stuffed with scarves, and made her boyfriend wear a Cubs T-shirt and a baby harness, in which he placed a fake dog—after which, I reminded him he would be the proud owner of his own baby harness.

I dressed as a “desperate housewife” from the 1950s with a shirtdress, an apron, a rolling pin in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

One could say we were all a bit desperate.

In a conversation with my friend weeks later, we were puzzled why we all went there. Are most images of women in current day pop culture a bit desperate?

The TV show “Mad Men” glorifies the 1950s secretary. “Desperate Housewives” glamorizes loveless marriages in the context of white-picket fences. “Girls Next Door” makes it cool to sleep with Hef again. The proliferation of vampire shows and movies are making the victim/rescue fantasy all too present.

The images from these shows are somewhat antiquated. But then, there are “The Real Housewives,” which bring us right into 2010—or do they?

I am addicted to Bravo’s “The Real Housewives” series. The show, no matter what city we’re talking about—New York, New Jersey, Atlanta and Orange County—I watch them all. These women fascinate me.

In New Jersey and Orange County, for instance, many of the women scarcely appear to work and rely on their men for their bling and nanny tuition.

In New York, some of the women work, but I also get the sense that others are living happily off of their divorce settlements. When they’re not busy planning charities for bragging rights, off shopping or getting liposuction, they say hello to their children.

Alex McCord, married to the very metro-sexual and foreign Simon van Kempen, gets heat from the other housewives for how close she and her husband are; they go shopping together, and namely, raise their children together.

In this season, McCord took particular issue with Jill Zarin for poking fun at her young boys, and essentially her parenting skills.

Meanwhile, Zarin has been promoting her new book on the show that she co-wrote with her sister Lisa Wexler and mom Gloria, called “Secrets of a Jewish Mother.”

In a “Watch What Happens Live” post-episode recap, host Andy Cohen interviewed Zarin and Gloria in a light-hearted segment called “Good for the Jews,” where he asked them questions like whether Jon Stewart was good for the Jews.

I would argue that Zarin, the only visibly Jewish housewife on the show, is bad for the Jews.

Repeatedly, viewers are reminded of the wisdom Zarin supposedly received from her mother growing up, yet she appears to have taken nothing from it.

She is unforgiving, a yachna in the worst sense, petty and bossy. Like a suffocating Jewish mother stereotype, she smothers her friend Bethenny Frankel and outcasts her when she feels rejected. Granted, Frankel is often no prize.

Zarin is somehow missing that playground etiquette. The others are guilty of this behavior as well, but the level to which she cannot forgive and forget is actually disturbing.

When I first started watching the New York series, Zarin, the only self-proclaimed Jew on the show, stood out to me. It was like I watching a compilation of so many Jewish women I’ve known in my life.  There are times when I feel bad for her, commiserate with her and laugh with her; at other times, I am angry with her.

That anger is complex and perhaps, interests me most.

Generally, I am angry that this show is shining a spotlight on and glamorizing women who have all the resources in the world and choose to turn against each other out of frivolity and pettiness.

Specifically, I am frustrated that some members of the Jewish community, who also have all the resources in the world, are doing the same thing.

I think that Jewish women can sometimes be each other’s harshest critics.

I’m concerned too that America will be Zarin’s harshest critic. She is the star of many of the verbal boxing matches on the New York show. Being Jewish, I can have compassion for Zarin; there is something about her personality that I understand. But I worry that viewers living in areas with few or no Jews are receiving her differently.

I also have trouble with the fact that America is celebrating these women who are hungry and desperate and clawing each other’s eyes out, despite the fact that we are living in a world where white-picket fences no longer bind us and marriages do not have to define us.

In the words of Wendy Wasserstein at the end of her play “The Heidi Chronicles,” Heidi said, "I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women…It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought that the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

What about this fascinates America? Does it bring us back to our grade school and middle school days with fights on the playground and in the hallways? Is it somehow validating to watch grown women pick at each other?

It begs the question whether we ever truly “grown up?”

My friend, who is Jewish, said to me about Zarin, “[I] might hate the stereotype, but I’m more comfortable around Jills.”

Do we have to be “comfortable around Jills” or can we defy the stereotype altogether?

I would argue we have a choice: We can live the stereotype or we can break it and be better for it.


My Cubs Journey: How a bar mitzvah student taught me to appreciate a seemingly detestable team

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My Cubs Journey photo

Ever since moving to Chicago, I have tried to understand this city’s inconceivable fascination with the Chicago Cubs.  Here’s my story:

Opening Day:

Moving to Wrigleyville from NYC in mid-June, I failed to realize it’s called Wrigleyville because it is near WRIGLEY FIELD.  With such a location comes parking nightmares, horrible traffic jams, and obnoxious fans who in their drunken stupor, scream out their frustrations as they pass my apartment building late at night.

My first Cubs game:

Going to my first game, Cubs vs. Mets, I was shocked to see the loyal Cubs fans’ reaction to witnessing their team give up 11 runs in one inning.  THEY THREW GARBAGE ON THE FIELD.  Garbage!!!?  Thrown onto what was supposed to be “sacred ground?!” What kind of fans do this!?  Is this, I wondered, the meaning of “The Friendly Confines?”

Taron strikes out big time:

I am not proud of this one:  After weeks of trying to find new friends here, I was invited to join a great bunch of people for dinner at Navy Pier.  As we ate, I noticed one of the guys constantly checking his phone.  “What are you doing?” I asked.  “Checking on the Cubs game,” he said. The Cubs game, really?  “Are they in some kind of playoff?”  I asked.  “Not yet,” he said.  It was then that I inadvertently blurted out blasphemous words that I now realize should have remained private.  I said:  “Why is everyone so damn obsessed with the Cubs?  They haven’t won in like what—a hundred years…they never win now…and they are never ever going to win the World Series…You are all wasting your lives.”  And if that wasn’t enough, I most stupidly continued:  “Why don’t you root for another team in the area…like the Cardinals…at least they can win!”  While I had said these words with love and concern to my new potential friends, trying to save them from inevitable heartbreak, they interpreted my gesture as a beanball being thrown at them.  I never heard from them again.

Blocking the plate:

As a Chicago rabbi, I often hear the following sentiments spoken about a deceased father:  “One thing we can say about Dad was that he loved the Cubs.  That’s all he ever talked to us about. If the Cubs won, he was so happy—he’d buy us all ice cream, and we’d celebrate.  But when they lost, (and they lost a lot) everyone in the family knew to stay far away from Dad—wow, did he get mean!  (Rabbi, don’t write that last part in the eulogy, ok?)  So sad that Dad never got to see them Cubbies win a World Series.  It would have been the highlight of his life.”  When I hear such sentiments, sometimes I can’t help but think to myself:  “Too bad Dad didn’t root for the Yankees, what a much happier home-life everyone would have had!”

The home field advantage: 

I have heard members of Temple Sholom warmly refer to Wrigley Field as “The Other House of Worship” and it was from members of the congregation, in particular a certain bar mitzvah student named Ben, that I was finally able to understand and appreciate why so many people are so devoted to this team.

The Rookie steps up to the plate:

Ben is a smart, kind, easygoing, determined kid with a great sense of humor.  What I first noticed about him was that he always came to Temple with his head covered—not with a kippah or yarmulke—but with a blue worn-out baseball cap with a big red “C” stitched on the front.  As he told me, Ben has been a Cubs fan from as far back as he can remember. Even when he was three years old, he rooted for the Cubs.

First pitch:  He swings and connects!

Over the course of a year I got to know Ben while studying and helping him to prepare for his bar mitzvah.  Between D’var Torah writing and Torah chanting we’d take breaks and talk about the Cubs and Judaism.  As the year progressed, the more Ben spoke about his love for this team, the more I began to understand the appeal of the Cubs and how being a devoted Cubs fan is like being a devoted Jew.

The ball goes flying upward…

For Ben, being a Cubs fan taught him how to believe in something even in spite of terrible odds.  (Ben once joked that “what the Cubs have in common with Judaism is that, just as there’s a minority of Jews, the Cubs have a minority of wins.”)  Being a Cubs fan also taught Ben about having hope and faith. And being a Cubs fan taught Ben about patience and determination and persistence and that sometimes one has to chop onions and cry a bit.  (Chopping onions was Ben’s chosen job while volunteering at the Temple’s soup kitchen, the Monday Meal) And one more thing—being a Cubs fan taught Ben to be himself regardless of what anyone from St. Louis, NY, or anywhere else, might say.

The baseball is going, going…going…

I can respect these sentiments.  And for the two of us studying together it was easy to compare being a Cubs fan to being a Jew.  Like being a Cubs fan, being a Jew requires a great deal of hope, faith and belief.  Plus, I read a good article that says that both Jews and Cubs fans have wandered in the desert, believing with steadfast faith that one day they will reach the Promised Land.  And being a Jew means sometimes chopping onions and crying about our troubled times or chopping onions with joy to make latkes.  It also means being proud of who you are and being unafraid to stand up for what is right no matter what others say.

The ball is over centerfield…

Of course, just as it is inconceivable to expect to enjoy and succeed in playing baseball without knowing how to play the game, it is equally difficult to expect the same from Judaism.  To succeed in Judaism, to enjoy it and to learn how Judaism can help us lead better lives and become better people, one needs education, dedication and practice.

The ball flies out of the park!!!!  Home Run!!

Today, though Ben no longer wears his Cubs hat daily, he remains a devoted fan.  At the same time, his deep dedication to Judaism is exemplified through his participation in Temple Sholom’s Crown Family Hebrew High School program and youth group, through attending Shabbat services with his family and through his continued efforts as a Monday Meal volunteer helping to feed the hungry.

I wish there were more people like Ben.  I can’t tell you how many people in their 20s and 30s tell me that they haven’t been back to synagogue since their bar or bat mitzvah.  Once, a long time ago, they stepped up to the plate and hit a glorious single, but ever since that day, for them, the Jewish game is over and done.  No point in playing.

And here, I can’t help but think of the former New York Giants’ player Fred Merkle who in 1908 in a notorious game against the Chicago Cubs, left the field before the game ended thereby losing the game for himself and his entire team.  What a shame!  And, at the same time, I can’t help but reflect upon my own errors and strike outs over the years—like how I let my initial frustrations with the Cubs blind me from the reality of how great it is to be a fan of this great team, whether they win or lose.

Luckily the season always begins anew and there’s no better time than now.  Let’s get out there and play!  Let’s love the game!  Sure, sometimes we will strike out or be frustrated.  But other times we will swing and connect in such a way that our lives will be transformed for the better.  We WILL hit homers, maybe even Grand Slams!  Because after all, what we are talking about is indeed a way of life.  Who knows?  Maybe this year, will be our year: This year in Jerusalem, this year as World Series Champions!


Why I think YOU should join a synagogue

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When I became a Jew, the first thing I did was join my synagogue. It was an easy decision, socially if not always financially. I’d already been attending Emanuel Congregation for three years. It was my Jewish community, and joining, I felt, was as much a part of my Jewish identity as finding the perfect mezuzah or complaining about matzah on Passover.

Growing up in a religious Christian home in Kansas, not going to church was never an option. There are six churches within a quarter mile of my parents’ front door and the message was clear: Find the one that works. Shop around if you must, but find a church and go to it. In a small town, community is everything. To this day I have no idea what folks who don’t go to church do in Colby, Kansas before noon on Sundays.

Synagogue membership, I’ve found, doesn’t play that same role in the Jewish community. I’m 30, childless, and unmarried. Many times I’ve felt that synagogues don’t really want me at all, and I think many other young, single Jews feel the same. When I get married, they say, when I have children, when I’m ready to sit on the religious school board or complain about the parking lot, then I’ll join a temple.

We hear a lot of talk these days about the decline in our Jewish population due to intermarriage and apathy. I blame the apathetic relationship between my demographic and our synagogues. What better time to find a spiritual community than when you’re unburdened by the compromise necessary for marriage? What better time to discover your own Jewish identity without regard for the strength of the children’s Sunday morning curriculum?

Technology allows us to find like-minded Jews all over the world to blog with, tweet at, or Facebook. Classes and study programs, often subsidized, allow us to study Jewish texts and history alongside our peers. Independent minyanim are popping up to fill the perceived spiritual void left by synagogues that market their programs to couples and families.

But none of these takes the place of a synagogue. As Jews, we are our own small town, and community is everything. As worldly and cosmopolitan as some of us are, as different in observance or practice, we need each other.

A synagogue is a community. A flawed, frustrating community that needs us—our views, our opinions, and our uncomfortable, unfamiliar child- and spouselessness. And we need that community, if only, as it sometimes seems, to serve as a model of what our Jewish community has been, not what it can and will be.

The men and women who form the core of my Jewish family here in Chicago, many of whom I’ve met at and through Emanuel Congregation, are often, like me, converts or from interfaith families. We celebrate holidays together and with our congregation. We circle our wagons when trouble brews and stir the pot when things begin to feel too complacent. We serve on committees, teach in our religious school, and wrestle with temple politics. But our deepest bond, to each other and to Emanuel, is that we need each other, and we know it.

Check out my synagogue Sunday, May 16 at an event featuring comedians Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm. They will be joined by musician Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the show “Comedy, Q’s and A’s.” Get discounted tickets for Oy!Chicago readers. Use discount code "OyChicago".


Countdown to Mother’s Day

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Countdown to Mother’s Day photo

This is the first time in many years that I do not have to work on Mother’s Day—woohoo!

I have been excited for months. I kept cautiously checking the calendar at work, each time confirming with myself that “no one books an event on Mother’s Day.” True enough, no one booked an event. I have the entire day all planned out.

I envision a trip to my favorite gardening store where I will glide down rows of potted herbs, flowers and my favorite rose bushes (I have a weakness for rose bushes). I will be wearing my brand new wedge sandals that are not even broken in yet; and yet somehow I will glide. (Of course I can barely walk wearing my wide base orthopedic kitchen shoes, but still, I can see myself gliding.) I have on my new “tall drink of water”-turquoise blue cotton dress, and I remember to wear my 70 SPF sunscreen lest I turn lobster red. Of course it is sunny and a perfect 70 degrees in my fantasy.

The day continues with my artful planting of herbs, baskets of brightly colored flowers and this year’s heirloom rose bush. Then, I saunter off to my favorite salon for a well-deserved mani/pedi and eventually wind up on the couch sipping mimosas and eating some homemade French pastries made by the team of my husband and youngest son Jonah who will wait on me hand and foot.

Here is the reality—I am making brunch at home. The weather does not look good on the extended forecast. I have a huge event the next day at work and any alcohol will totally wreck my system for days. My new shoes will cause blisters and cripple me for a week …I do, however, have the day off and my mother is flying in for a few days. So here is the menu. PS—all of these recipes are also perfect for Shavuot.

Tortilla Espanola (potato and onion Frittata-Spanish style)
Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon shmear with mini bagels
Fresh Fruit
Crepe Cake with vanilla bean pastry cream and raspberry preserves

Julia Child’s Crepe Recipe

This is a perfect recipe and works every time. You may need to try out a couple of crepes until you get the feel of your pan and range. The crepes can be made one day ahead of assembling the cake and can be stored overnight, covered in the refrigerator or frozen for up to one month.

1 cup flour
2/3 cup cold milk
2/3 cup cold water
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan

1) Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate at least one hour.

2) Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.

3) Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.

4) Cool on a plate as you finish making the rest. You can stack the crepes-they will not stick together.

This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.

Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream

This is a basic recipe that you will turn to over and over again. The fragrant, sweet pastry cream can be used as a filling for cakes, éclairs, homemade doughnuts, shortcakes etc…It can also be thinned out and used as a topping for any dairy dessert. This is one those recipes that can be used as a base and adapted. You can: add melted white or dark chocolate, infuse jasmine or your favorite tea into the milk, and add ginger or lemongrass …you get the idea. Oh yeah-this recipe is DAIRY. Please do not try to make it pareve. It is perfect the way it is and will lose all of its integrity, not to mention flavor, if made pareve.

2 ¼ cups whole milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 vanilla bean split, lengthwise

1) In medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, and cornstarch.

2) Transfer remaining 1 3/4 cups milk to heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean and the seed and the pod to the pan. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar sink undisturbed to bottom. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.

3) Whisk hot milk mixture, then gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture-this is called tempering. You want to do this slowly or you will have scrambled eggs.

4) Return to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod, and whisk cream until smooth. Transfer to bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until cold, about 4 hours. (Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on surface, up to 3 days.)

Raspberry Filling

1 cup purchased or homemade raspberry preserves

1) Strain out the seeds using a mesh sieve.

2) Assemble the Cake

3) Place one crepe on a cake plate. Lightly brush the raspberry preserves over the crepe. Spread one tablespoon of pastry cream evenly over the crepe. Layer another crepe on top and continue with preserves and pastry cream until the final crepe has been added. Leave the top plain.

4) Chill the cake for 2 hours or overnight to firm up. Top with fresh whipped cream and berries.

Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon Shmear

The flavors of the salmon really pop when combined with horseradish and lemon. I like to garnish the shmear with wasabi peas for a fun twist on the horseradish theme. The shmear can be made two days ahead of serving and stored covered in the refrigerator. Be sure to use Wild Salmon. The flavor is incomparable.  I like to pile the shmear onto a platter and arrange the garnishes around it. I serve the shmear with mini bagels. 

½ pound Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon (can be purchased at most grocery stores or fish markets), chopped finely
2 tablespoons purchased or homemade mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon style mustard
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Suggested garnishes: wasabi peas, sliced red onion, sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, capers, fresh herbs, cream cheese,

1) Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Tortilla Espanola

Spain’s famous egg, onion and potato omelet is my favorite “go-to” dish for brunch, summer Shabbat lunches and simple dinners. The trick to the dish is all in the timing. A perfect tortilla has a semi loose or almost custardy center with the outside layers set and firm. Delicious!
Serve the tortilla at room temperature or chilled.

Equipment: 12-inch Teflon sauté pan

1 cup olive oil
1 pound waxy potatoes (such as: new potatoes, Yukon Gold or white boiling potatoes) peeled and cut into medium dice
1 large Spanish onion, cut into medium dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
10 eggs, whisked
Salt and pepper

1) Place a medium saucepan, with the olive oil, over medium high heat. Fry the potatoes in batches (be sure not to over crowd the pan) until the potatoes are translucent and can be easily pierced with a paring knife (about 5 minutes per batch). Transfer the potatoes to a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2) Fry the onions in the same manner. Add the garlic to the last batch of onions and fry the garlic just until it is softened but not browned (about 1 minute).

3) Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl; add the cooled potatoes, onions and garlic. Stir together to combine. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.

4) Heat a 12-inch non-stick pan over medium low heat. Lightly grease the bottom of the pan with some of the frying olive oil. Add the egg mixture and stir occasionally until the eggs are almost set and there a medium brown crust at the bottom of the pan (you can see the crust by gently inserting a silicone spatula between the “set” eggs and the side of the pan).

5) Here is the tricky part! Place a plate, wooden cutting board or jelly roll pan on top of the pan. Invert the tortilla on to the pan. Then, slide the tortilla back into the Teflon pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Allow the tortilla to cool in the pan before transferring to a serving plate; the tortilla will continue to cook in the pan. The tortilla can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 days.

Serve with tossed salad, fresh fruit

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