OyChicago blog

Oy Babies!

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Mazel tov to Oy!Chicago bloggers Jane Charney and Rachel Friedman on the births of their sons!

Ron Ariel Averbukh was born May 21, 2012 at 3:22 am, weighing 7 pounds, 5 ounces. He's perfect, and Jane and Max are completely over the moon. The first name is in honor of his grandfather Rakhmil, who passed away in January. The middle name is in honor of his great grandfathers Arkady and Lev (the latter means lion in Russian as does Ariel in Hebrew).

Colin Harrison Friedman was born on May 24, 2012 at 10:45 am, weighing in at 6 pounds, 11 ounces and measuring 20 inches long. He is a bright and alert little dude and looks forward to meeting everybody soon.

Colin Friedman photo 1

Baby Colin

Colin Friedman photo 2

The Friedmans

Moms, Dads and baby boys are all doing great.


Cheers Chicago! Summer is here

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Cheers Chicago! Summer is here photo

It’s the best feeling when spring gives way to the wonderful, fun filled Chicago summers. The warmth from the sun, the cool breeze off the lake, the faintest smell of lilacs and tulips peppered all across Chicago’s wonderful parks and public destinations. Keeping budget in mind, I have compiled a list of some public places you can explore this summer for free. So whether you are new to the area or have been living here all your life like me, I guarantee tons of fun hitting these spots!

Green City Market
Ah, nothing rivals this collection of local producers and farmers, gathering early each Saturday morning to display their finest products for all Chicagoans to see (and nosh!). Whether you are looking to supplement your own produce or pantry stock, or are just looking to kill some time, the Green City Market is a great place to be found. You may even see some familiar faces wandering around the booths, like Frontera’s Rick Bayless or Province’s Randy Zweiban, or perhaps Drawing Room’s chef Nick LaCasse, winner of the 2012 America’s Best Lounge (he was also on Bravo Channel’s Around the World in 80 Plates, Season 1).

The Beach
Who doesn’t like the beach? This summer promises to be one of the best for beach lovers looking to get their tans and play volleyball by the shoreline. Whether you are at 12th Street (formerly Meigs Field), 31st Street (of the Junior Lifeguard Chicago Area Tug-o-War), 63rd Street (Chicago’s oldest and largest beachouse), North Avenue (center stage for Chicago’s Air and Water Show every August), Oak Street (largest area of deep water swimming and SCUBA diving and home to the Oak Street Beachstro), or even North Shore’s Loyola/Leone (Chicago’s largest beach, I bet you didn’t know that!), you are guaranteed to have a blast. Don’t forget to drink lots of water and wear your sunblock!

Conservatories and Greenhouses
The Lincoln Park Conservatory boasts a Fern Room, an Orchid House and a Palm House to peruse. At Kilborn Park’s Conservatory, you’ll find the park district’s only teaching organic greenhouse! You can check out more information about them here. Don’t forget your camera!

Movies in the Park
Who doesn’t want to grab a picnic basket, some blankets, some eats, and just sprawl out on a park lawn while watching one of your favorite classic movies on a GIANT screen? How about with a few thousand other people? You can click here to download the list of all the movies playing at every park in Chicago this summer. Some highlights I plan to attend include The Sandlot at Oz Park on Saturday, June 16, Tuesday, June 19 at Fulton River to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the Chicago History Museum’s Park on Tuesday, July 31.

Navy Pier/Shakespeare Theater
There is so much to see and do, you can spend all day at Navy Pier. One of the major attractions is the largest reproduction of the original Ferris Wheel that made Chicago famous at the 1893 World’s Fair. And let’s not forget the Shakespeare Theater, where you can see Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare plays performed by some of Chicago’s finest actors.

Look out for my next installment, when I hit the town and show all of you Oy!sters how to get out and enjoy the greatest city in the world the way you want.

L’Chaim Chicago!


Thank You Chubby.

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Thank You Chubby photo

It has been a year since I was tied up, strapped down, locked in.

A year since I finished treatment, a year since I tiptoed out of the shadows and into the sunlight, and a year since I left the hospital for what I hoped would be the very last time.

In the past year, I have chosen to experience the world in oscillating states of hyper-color. These moments are cherished, savored, and readily accessible.

These moments give me strength, provide guidance, and most importantly provide hope.

On Thursday May 10—one year after finishing treatment—we held a Twist Out Cancer fundraiser in Montreal, a city that I called home for nearly seven years. In the last year this community nurtured and supported me in a way that I did not know was possible. With nearly 200 people in attendance, we were able to raise awareness and funds to help further Twist Out Cancer's mission, and perhaps more importantly, I was finally able to say thank you.

As fate would have it, the same weekend Twist Out Cancer touched down in Montreal, Chubby Checker planned to celebrate 50 years of the Twist.

That Saturday night, at the Rialto Theatre, I took the stage with the man that helped inspire a movement, with the man that has been the focal point of my narrative, with the man that has helped show me that "life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but it's about learning to dance in the rain."

As we twisted—cancer moved from center stage into the chorus.

As we twisted—the heaviness of the last year was lifted.

As we twisted—the pain that I endured softened.

Thank you Chubby for being a part of my past—but more importantly a part of my present and future.

Dancing with you was one of the best moments of my life.

You helped me find meaning in the suffering and for that I am incredible grateful.


Inter-something family

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Inter-something family photo

As the Jewish half of our relationship I am responsible for building the Jewish foundation of our home. My partner Mandi is completely on board but she doesn't have the experience or knowledge base to know where to start. She grew up in a Catholic family, and now embraces a deep sense of spirituality and belief in God, but does not practice a religion. Since I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, we are clearly an interfaith family, right? Mandi and I recently completed an online course on raising Jewish children in an interfaith family, which got me thinking about a lot of things like prayer and God and synagogues. The most surprising thought, however, was that we are not actually an interfaith family.

The class came at a crazy busy time for Mandi's work schedule and subsequently the rest of us, but this was also as good a time as any because life's not going to get any slower. I don't want to wake up one day with 12 year olds thinking "oh shit they don't even know what a bat mitzvah is." Now that our daughters are two, I'm starting to see just how speedy time can be. Our schedule is busy without even trying. Weeks flow together and already it is May and I still have things on my to do list from January (apparently not such important things). It's going to take a conscious effort to incorporate Jewish elements into our lives.

Going into the class I didn't have too many expectations beyond starting some conversations between Mandi and I about how we want to incorporate Jewish tradition in our family's life. Up until the class we read some Jewish books from the PJ Library, made certain foods for their corresponding holidays, and had some holiday celebrations with family and friends. The Passover highlights this year were Violet's and Autumn's enthusiastic clapping along to Dayeinu and then singing it on repeat for the entire week. So we're not starting completely from scratch; there's already some hamentashen in the oven.

Taking an online course has its pros and cons.

Pro: Scanning the discussion board at your kitchen counter while fixing dinner as two toddlers chase each other around the table, stopping each time around to make their dinner requests for mushrooms, olives, and ice cream cones.

Con: Not always finding time to go online, read the material, and contribute to the discussion.

Pro: Bringing together families from all over the Chicago area since there's no meeting location.

Con: Not really getting to know the other participants.

Even though we didn't get to meet everyone in person, reading other people's comments was my favorite part of the class. Hearing their questions and thoughts about God and Jewish services and prayers put all of those things in a new light. I was inspired by how other parents are so thoughtfully and intentionally incorporating religion into their families' lives. Reading how some families are working to celebrate the non-Jewish parent's favorite traditions (Christmas, Easter, Sunday services) made me realize that we don't have those same challenges in our house, not exactly.

We do celebrate Christmas in a secular way with Mandi's family – spending time together, exchanging gifts. But I also grew up celebrating Christmas with extended family this way. My mom converted to Judaism and Christmas was a good time to spend with her entire family. I love Christmas because of the quality family time we get to spend with so many people we love. So what does that make us – a second generation interfaith family? Even though I was raised in a Jewish home? Maybe it's more like something once removed, a second cousin sort of interfaith.

Despite our different cultural and I suppose ethnic backgrounds, Mandi and I are on the same page when it comes to embracing God, spirituality, and Judaism as the religion and culture of our family. Having the girls grow up with a sense of belonging to the Jewish community and its history is a priority for both of us. Mandi is perhaps even more committed than me, proclaiming on a regular basis that she doesn't want to be a culture killer. She reminds me to teach her as well as the girls so that she can be an active parent in their Jewish education.

Since I don't see us as practicing different faiths, the term interfaith family just doesn't fit right, a pair of jeans that doesn't hug in the right places. Inter-cultural has a snugger fit. We have different cultural backgrounds and upbringings that we're trying to incorporate into our family.

That online course got me thinking about a lot and gave us many great ideas for incorporating something Jewish into our everyday lives. I've got Jewish preschools on my list of possibilities for next year and the girls are learning to sing Hamotzi before dinner and the Shema before bed. Synagogue shopping will commence soon. 

I wish I could post an ad: inter-something family with two moms and twin two-year-olds seeks a synagogue with nice people, inspiring leadership and gluten-free challah. I haven't found a place to submit that yet, so in the meantime we'll just start at home and check out some family services in the neighborhood.


Warm it up

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Ron Krit photo 3

A crucial part of your exercise regimen should include a full body warm-up. A good warm-up helps joints, muscles and tendons get ready to move. Getting your body ready for exercise can prevent strains and other issues. If I don’t warm up, I have knee and shoulder pain. Of course don’t overdo the warm-up, and wear yourself out before you hit the weights, pool, bike or track.

A pre-workout warm-up is not 10 minutes on a treadmill—it involves dynamic movements to help prepare your body for lunges, squats, pushups, running…

I usually pick 3-5 of the exercises below to start a session:

• High knee running
• Skipping (yes, it looks silly but great for speed work)
• Butt kicks (try and kick your butt as you run forward)
• Shuffling (run sideways)
• Bear crawling
• Side bear crawl
• Walking lunge
• Walking straight leg high kicks (think Rockets)
• Arm circles

With my clients that have lower back problems I get them on the floor and warm up their abs and lower back. If you have any back or other pains check with your doctor before exercising. Here is a list of great exercises to warm up the core. I do each of these exercises for 30 seconds to a minute and repeat twice:

• Cat stretch: On hands and knees—lift and lower back
• Alligator: On all fours, bring one arm straight out, and bring opposite leg straight back
• Plank: Hold yourself up in a push-up position
• Side plank: Lay on side, lay on forearm-which should be perpendicular with body, lift your hips, stack feet on top of each other if you can
• Hip raises: Lay on back, lift your hips up and down slowly with feet on the ground

My favorite warm up for upper body workouts is push up walking. It’s a simple exercise that only requires space. You start in the push-up position (arms under shoulders, legs straight) and then move forward, back, and side to side without bending your arms or legs. Check out the video:  push up walk. If you have weak or sore wrists I would skip this exercise.

At the end of each session I spend 5-10 minutes stretching my client. This is more of your traditional stretching, where you hold a pose for 10-20 seconds. There is some debate on the effectiveness of this type of stretching (static stretching), but my clients enjoy it (probably more than the workout). I see it as beneficial and it gives me time to mix in other techniques that help increase flexibility.

Send me your warm up exercises or questions.



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Kamehachi photo

In 1967, Chicago was devastated by a massive snowstorm, the Museum of Contemporary Art was founded, and the Picasso Statue was dedicated in Civic Center Plaza.  What went under the radar was the opening of the alleged first sushi restaurant in the city.  The area in between Division and North Avenues on Wells Street was known as Old Town, and that's where Kamehachi of Tokyo first opened its doors.

The place was an instant hit and was frequented by celebrities and locals who had their first sushi experiences.  While Kamehachi of Tokyo has moved two blocks south to 1400 N. Wells and has opened up four other locations, the restaurant is still booming.

The Old Town location is the original and signature, so making your way downtown could be worth the trip.  By no means is Kamehachi of Tokyo the best sushi or Japanese in the city, however the place is part of our Chicago history so experiencing it before it's too late is worth the try.  Within two blocks of the restaurant are Second City, Zanies, Red Orchid Theater, and several other restaurants, boutique shops, and Kilwin's Fudge.  Although you may not need a reservation, they are accepted.

The new venue at 1531 North Wells Street has more of a modern twist this time around.  You'll walk into a the first floor lounge right off Wells Street and take a seat at a lit up bar with exposed brick and traditional drums hanging from the ceiling.  Fortunately, the upstairs lounge still exists but is only open Thursday through Saturday.  There is now underground dining where it's dark and roomy.  The new location also has space for private events.

First date?  Looking for an inexpensive, expensive-looking meal?  This spot has your back.  The Old Town location while being dimly lit is already known as a romantic first date place.  It is also conveniently located near several CTA station locations.

Looking for comfort food?  For some that may be pizza, Italian beef or mac and cheese.  My comfort food is the Nebeyaki Udon ($13) at Kamehachi.  If you are going for sushi, there are several different types of beginner sushi dinners that come with a chef's choice of maki, nigiri, and sashimi that vary in price but never go over $25.  If you are in for a challenge, order the Sushi Boat, a dinner that takes 45 minutes to prepare.  The challenge is $175 - $200 and features a beautiful array of, well, everything.

The history and Old Town locale make Kamahachi a must visit, at least once.  Next time you feel like sushi, give this place a try.


IF ONLY… Eleven stars I wish were Jewish

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I have been writing about Jewish celebrities for years now, and I have run into a problem. As I look through movie after movie, I keep running into the same names and, while I know these stars aren't Jewish, I kind of wish they were.

So here are the ones I wish were Jewish and why (I will also mention which actor is the closest we get to that ideal, so you can see how far off the mark we are in that area):

Tom Hanks

He's a giant mensch. His movies are some of the few that are both wildly popular and artistically worthwhile. He's capable of both painful hilarity and painful poignancy. And he is able to evoke history as a place in which people lived, not just a page in a textbook. The closest we got: Dustin Hoffman.

Robin Williams

If he isn't the non-Jew who has played the most Jews (turns out, that's John Turturro) he's in the top three. He's one of the few major comedians who don't belong to a minority group (the others include Steve Martin and George Carlin), but he's got the outsider-pathos thing down cold. He's one of the few who started in stand-up and ended up with an Oscar. Plus, he can pull off the accent and beard. The closest we got: Albert Brooks.

Jackie Chan

One area of moviedom in which Jews have been largely absent is action-heroism (at least since Harrison Ford's prime). If we want to claim an action hero, it's got to be the funny one. And it has to be a martial artist for two reasons. One, the two-fisted type typified by John Wayne went out back when Arnold took up politics, if not before. And two, half the Jewish teens I know are black belts. The closest we got: Steven Segal.

IF ONLY photo 

Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds

We only need one! Your choice… since I can't keep track of which one is which, anyway. All I know is that one or the other is always starring in a movie, and they are always the romantic lead and/or superhero, and they don't look like Jason Segel. The closest we got: James Franco and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Ellen Degeneres

I know, I know… she already belongs to a minority group. So? We haven't had a major female comic since Rita Rudner. We have Joan Rivers to live up to, dammit! And as far as sparkling, quick-wittted talk show hosts, here's what we have come up with: Charlie Rose, Larry King, Matt Lauer, and, um, Maury Povich, Geraldo Rivera and Jerry Springer. Nope, not Phil, Merv, Arsenio, Regis, Oprah, Montel, Dr. Phil, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett or Rachel Ray.The closest we got: Comics- Roseanne; Talk shows- Ricki Lake? Barbara Walters?

Alex "Jeopardy!" Trebek

He's a know-it-all, but you love him anyway. Dapper, quick-witted, and knows how to say it "en  Francé. The last great Jewish game show host was Monty "Let's Make a Deal" Hall. The closest we got: Howie "Deal or No Deal" Mandel and Ben Stein.

Sophia Vergara

So, she'd be Sephardic. I haven't listed as many women because when you already have both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson on your team, you don't want to seem greedy. But we do need some more, um, variety in the Jewish-star line-up.  Neither Sophie "Hotel Rwanda" Okonedo nor Bahar "Crash" Soomekh have been all that active lately. Besides, who would you rather suddenly turn out to be Jewish- Sophia or Ed O'Neil? I remember the rumors that Catherine Zeta Jones was going to convert to marry Michael Douglas; The Forward put her on the cover. Closest we got: Emanuel Chriqui.

Jimmy Kimmel

Aside from Jon Stewart, we have never had a Late Night Host. Nope! Not Jack Parr, Steve Allen, Letterman, Ferguson, Kilborn, Costas, Leno, Conan, Fallon… no one from Johnny Carson to Carson Daly. So we need Jimmy, the most Jew-ish of today's Late Night Hosts. Wonder what Sarah would think if he converted now? Closest we got: Chelsea Handler and Andy Cohen.

Joss Whedon

Look, Steven Spielberg is great and all, but he's kinda all done with the sci-fi thing. His latest movies, "War Horse" and "Lincoln," are part of his historical-war kick that started way back with "Empire of the Sun" or even "1941." Meanwhile, he hasn't directed a sci-fi hit in a decade ("Minority Report" was 2002)… and all he can come up with now is another (sigh) Indiana Jones and something called "Robopocalypse." Meanwhile, Joss is still full of great, new ideas. Closest we got: J.J. Abrams and Aaron Sorkin, who together make one Joss.

Lea Michele

Yeah, we thought so too. Turns out, she was raised Catholic, but is technically half-Jewish. But her voice! Oy, it's like buttah. Closest we got: Idina Menzel, who plays her birth mom.

"Weird" Al Yankovic

Used to be, we had a monopoly on novelty songwriters: Mickey Katz, Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Kinky Friedman. But ever since the '80s, Al has been the eclipse of the genre, blocking out the Sun so that no others can grow. Plus, many people already think he's Jewish because of his job and his name. Closest we got: Andy Samberg (Adam Sandler only has the one song). 

No, none of these celebrities are Jewish. And it's not like we don't have enough celebrities of our own. But sometimes, in a weak moment, I'll think about the holes in our batting order and think, "Oh… if only…"


The commencement coaster

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Andy Kirschner 2

I recently traveled a ways to make it to my youngest sister's graduation from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.  We listened to the commencement speaker give a rather frank assessment of what lay before these young, ambitious rookies to the American workforce.  He didn't sugar coat it; it's tough out there.  With all the daily buzz about the economic woes the world has faced and is currently facing, how do we best prepare the graduating class of 2012?

Is it right to stand up at a commencement address and give them the real story?  Does it help their hope and optimism to share reports and numbers that more than half of them are not expected to find full employment this year?  What does it say to them when we prophesize that many of their peers will be resigning to move back home with Mom and Dad this year and will likely be hanging onto those jobs waiting tables that helped them get through college? 

On the flip side, what would they say to us if we sent them off to the world with platitudes espousing the opportunity of the American dream and the ideal that they have the ability to do whatever they want?  Is it wise to share with them the stories of countless others who despite tough economic times were able to rise above, differentiate themselves and make millions along the way?  Is showering them with what's possible, just sheltering them from what's real? 

My college graduation was over 10 years ago.  I feel like I have taken several steps beyond that phase of my life.  Still, the opportunity to spend an afternoon at Berea College, in that place and time of commencement brought back a bit of nostalgia for me.  I remembered the thrill of completing years upon years of education.  It was a thrill in a very amusement park ride sense of the word.  After walking across the stage, I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach being the same feeling asdescending that first hill of a rollercoaster. Intellectually, I knew that the ride had been tested thoroughly and that the safety bar across my lap would keep my body firmly in place.  At the same time, through the shaking, screeching, and the wall of wind assaulting my face, I screamed out loud, fearful that I might not make it to the bottom of the hill alive, let alone to the end of the ride.  The juxtaposition between what I knew and what I felt at that time of commencement, helped fuel the thrill of the rollercoaster ride. 

There is an old cliché that life is a rollercoaster.  The post-college life might be bigger, faster and more intense than the ride in college.  At the same time, the rules aren't so different.  Stay in your seat, keep your hands and feet inside at all times and safely sit back to enjoy the ride.



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27 Iyar 5772 / May 18-19, 2012


Dan Horwitz photo

In this week’s double Torah portion, where we complete the Book of Leviticus by reading the portions of both Behar and Bechukotai, we are immediately introduced to the concept of the land resting.

"Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the 7th year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.”

Who knew the ground needed a break! It’s hard to remember sometimes that most of our ancestors were farmers, and that our major holidays (of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) have agricultural underpinnings.

After seven sets of seven years (49 years) there is a Jubilee year.

In the 50th year, the Jubilee year, the land rests and is returned to its original owners (with a couple of exceptions) and private debts are forgiven. I know quite a few folks who would love for the Jubilee year to be reinstated so as to extinguish their mortgages!

We stopped celebrating the Jubilee for a number of reasons. A couple of thoughts: (1) It was hard to keep count as a Diasporic people spread all over the place. (2) There was a rabbinic argument about when the 50th year technically started, thus there were conflicting opinions about when to observe it. It’s hard to have a society-wide phenomenon, where land holdings are returned to their original owners, if you don’t know when exactly that’s meant to happen.

Also – there were practical issues.

Every seventh year, we were required to let the land lay dormant, and to only eat what it naturally produced. We could not plant, sow, harvest, etc. The Torah says that God promised to provide enough food in year six to cover years six, seven and eight. If the 49th year was a seventh year, which it would be, that means that for both the 49th and 50th years, the Israelites would not have been allowed to grow food! While the Torah says that God will provide, having that kind of faith is admittedly difficult.

During the seventh year of each seven-year cycle, as well as in the 50th year, all debts were forgiven. If you were a lender, and you knew that all debt would be forgiven in the near future, why on earth would you lend anyone money, knowing you might not get it back? We see in our own economy today that having the ability to borrow money is essential for meaningful economic growth.

As you might expect, lenders were loath to lend when close to the seventh or Jubilee years, despite God’s explicit instruction to do so in the Torah (effectively making the potential lenders sinners). In response, Rabbi Hillel created a legal fiction called “Prozbul” that allowed for lenders to lend to others, even when approaching the Jubilee year, by creating a legal document that would accompany the interest-free loans (charging interest to fellow Jews is forbidden in the Torah) that stated that the loans were to be transferred to the courts, making the debt public, and thus not required to be released during a seventh year or during the Jubilee. Prozbul benefitted both borrowers and lenders – borrowers had access to cash, and lenders knew their money was safe. And yet, Rabbi Hillel created a system that explicitly went against God’s specific instructions!

In doing so, Rabbi Hillel established a meaningful tradition that has guided many rabbis in terms of how they make decisions. We look to the Torah, our texts and traditions; we look at the realities in the world around us; and we find a way to meaningfully and authentically blend the two.

But how can we find meaningful ways to blend the two in our own lives? Particularly if many of us don’t have a firm grasp of our texts and traditions?

We learn from Rabbi Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah that shares the “ethics of our ancestors,” that we as Jews are meant to set aside a regular time in our schedules for Torah study. Rabbi Hillel echoes Shammai, saying: “Do not say when I have free time I will study Torah, lest you not have free time.” Rabbi Hamnunah says in the Gemara that "[t]he first thing a person will be held accountable for on his day of Heavenly judgment is whether he fulfilled his duty of studying Torah."

While most of us aren’t really thinking about our day of Heavenly judgment, what we are thinking about is all of the work we have to get done this week, the errands we need to run, the room we’re meant to clean, the friends we want to spend time with, figuring out why the Tigers’ offense stinks, and the desire we have to read the third book of the Hunger Games and/or watch the season finale of Glee. With all of those things, how on earth are we meant to set aside time to continue our Jewish educations?

I have a secret to share with you. You may not believe it’s true, but I’m going to tell you anyway:

There is nothing more fun or more meaningful in the entire world than learning. Seriously.

The desire to learn is programmed into us as human beings, both naturally, and with some societal nudging. As babies, we take in the world around us and by trial and error learn what’s dangerous. In elementary school, we learn how to read and write. In middle school, we learn what it is to have a crush on someone. In high school, we start to really figure out who we are as people, and what we really believe about the world around us. In college we lay the foundation to achieve our professional goals. The pursuit of knowledge – and on a higher level, of truth – is our de facto motivator as humans. And wouldn’t you know it – truth is one of the ways we describe God. We end the Shema with the words “Hashem Elokechem Emet” – “The Lord your God is Truth.”

In the spirit of furthering my argument that learning in general, and Jewish learning in particular, is both fun and meaningful, I have some suggestions for topics you may like to study as you continue your Jewish education:

Did you know that there were several different ancient versions of the Torah, mostly differing by spelling, and that there are words that are traditionally read differently from the way they’re written?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Torah, Moses never actually says “Let my people go!” – rather, he tries to trick Pharaoh by having him let the Israelites go on a three day trip into the desert in order to have a festival to God, with the promise that they would then return?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Mishna, our legal code published around the year 200, there is a whole section about people who are “Androgynous” and don’t fit neatly into the category of “male” or “female?”

Go and Learn!

These are just a few of innumerable interesting realities begging to be studied.

Like Rabbi Hillel and his creation of Prozbul, so too do we have the ability, and I would argue, the responsibility, to meaningfully engage with our sacred texts, to be aware of the world around us and the events taking place in it, and to devote ourselves to finding ways to enhance our own lives and the lives of all we encounter by meaningfully and authentically combining the two. To do so, we need to commit to learning from our tradition and to learning about the world around us.

How do we know where to start when it comes to Jewish learning? In the words of our ancient sage Joshua ben Perachyah, also quoted in Pirkei Avot: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend. Utilize the rabbis and teachers you’ve formed relationships with. Reach out to new rabbis and teachers. Develop meaningful relationships with them and others. Make our tradition truly your own. Never stop learning.

Tzeh Ul’mad – Go and Learn.


The Human Voice at 100

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The Human Voice at 100 photo

I almost said no when my friend asked if I wanted to come, but in the end, how many opportunities do you have to celebrate a great man's 100th birthday? Last night at the Newberry Library, a packed house honored Studs Terkel on the centennial anniversary of his birth. We sang songs, listened to stories about the man himself, and ate cake shaped like his signature red checkered shirt. "This weekend in particular," said the host, "buy one of Studs' books and give it to a young person."

What's the big deal? you may ask yourself. Who is this guy and why should I read him?

For one, they're amazing books that changed my life, but I understand if that's too hyperbolic to make much of a judgment yet.

Louis Terkel (yes, Jewish) moved to Chicago from New York in 1920, when he was eight years old. He helped his mother run a boarding house near Merchandise Mart, where he first made close study of the characters who would fascinate him his whole life. The boarding house was near Bughouse Square, where rabble-rousers attracted crowds year-round with speeches and calls to action. Studs is an alum of my alma mater—he got a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1932, but "there was some trouble passing the bar," according to our host last night (everyone chuckled).

He came of age during the Depression, and began a life of astounding engagement with the world. Studs was an actor, an activist, a radio DJ, a journalist, an oral historian, a gabber, a talker, a listener, an encourager. He talked to everybody and anybody, fundamentally committed to the idea that all people have a story to tell. He died on Halloween in 2008, just a few days before the presidential election. He and his beloved wife were buried together beneath a tree in Bughouse Square—or Washington Square Park, as it's officially called, right outside the Newberry Library.

Studs came into my life in 2009. I'd heard his name before that, but wasn't really sure who he was or why he was important. At that time, I was living and breathing Band of Brothers, the spectacular HBO miniseries about the 101st Airborne paratroopers who fought in WWII from Normandy to Bastogne to Berchtesgaden. I was reading every autobiography of Easy Company men I could get my hands on, not to mention Stephen Ambrose's original Band of Brothers book. At a bookstore in D.C., a friend shoved "The Good War" into my hands. "I'm not letting you leave without buying this book," she said. "You of all people have to read it."

When I finally cracked the spine (all of Studs' oral histories are doorstops), I was engrossed. No book has moved or challenged me quite so much as that one. Studs talks to everybody, and makes no judgment on any of his interviewees. We hear from SS officers, children who were in Hiroshima, POWs from Bastogne and Bataan, black soldiers who were hideously abused by the Army, journalists who covered the war behind enemy lines, women who worked at factories, crooks who ran the black market, Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps, draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, USO performers, high government officials, Marines who fought through Okinawa, Axis soldiers, Axis civilians, Hitler youth, spies, MPs, ordinary people… Studs lets those who lived it tell it for themselves, and in doing so, never lets us think that WWII is so simple as being "the good war."

This book floored me. All of his do. Read Hard Times, his oral history of the Depression, and tell me the things people said about the 1930s don't sound shockingly contemporary. Lest you think he's one of those "boring, serious" historians, you should know that while Studs takes on issues like race, poverty, age, death and war, he also brings you into the lives of vaudeville musicians, movie stars, sportscasters, rail-riders, comedians and numberless wonderful, joyous, fascinating people. Studs is epic and intimate in scope at the same time, and revels in it, and believes in it with all his being. His work so articulates what I want to do with my own life that, in searching for a career, I found myself asking, "How can I be Studs Terkel when I grow up?"

Again, I understand this may be a bit effuse and hyperbolic. It's easy to get that way about those world-altering experiences. I'll follow last night's example, and let Studs make his own case.

One of the speakers told us about a hotline the public can call, to either share their encounters with or experiences of Studs, or to talk about an instance in which listening has been important to them. The number is (559) 546-1661, and you can hear from other people at the Studs Terkel Centennial Celebration website. There will be more events throughout the next year, but I hope you can attend at least one, on your own time: reading and experiencing one of his books.


Saying Chai to the 18-year-old bar mitzvah

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Saying Chai to the 18-year-old bar mitzvah photo

When I was 13, I knew nothing. In fact, when it was 13 minutes ago I knew nothing. Even more in fact, when I started writing this sentence, I had no idea how it would triangle fish button. See? Knew nothing. The point is that when it came to my own bar mitzvah, I wasn’t aware enough to appreciate it for what it was. Hence, and I’ve felt this way for many years, I would have loved to have had the option to have my bar mitzvah at the ripe old age of 18. And while a lot of the following involves the celebration side to the whole thing, at the core it’s the reason for having that celebration, becoming a Bar mitzvah, which I wish I could do over again. Therefore, I urge you to at least say chai to the idea.

When it comes to my bar mitzvah, there is one thing that always comes to mind first. During my younger years, basically pre-chai, I wasn’t as social. At best I was a self-proclaimed introverted extrovert. And while many of the other mitzvahs of the bar and bat variety that I attended had a healthy mix of boys and girls, mine was sadly skewed. For when it came to the amount of girls at my own bar mitzvah, I only had…care to make a guess? Anyone?


Yup. Two. I can count that on one finger if I’m counting knuckles. So needless to say, I was a playa’. Now I have to mention that my fast dancing did, and still does, frighten the hell out of people. So I was lucky enough to slow dance with one of them. However, the media had a field day with this. Hence I have a slew of delightfully awkward pictures of me dancing with said girl in my bar mitzvah book. Her hands on my shoulders. Mine on her waist. About three feet between us.

Not only was the media there but also the entire extent of my extended family. In fact I have a very large extended family. Jews often do. And at the time, I really couldn’t tell you who half the people watching me try to keep my hormones in check while slow dancing were. Five years later that wouldn’t have been a problem. My bar mitzvah day was rough in that regard. I had to have my mom help me figure out everyone’s name. “Okay, who was that?” “Your brother.” “You sure?”

And to this day, I still get upset with myself about one particular item more than anything. The thank-you notes. Oh, yes. The thank-you notes. I wasn’t happy about having to do them. You could almost say I was less than thrilled. I wanted to put them off until somehow they got done by themselves. I wish I could go back and slap my 13-year-old self in the face and call him a selfish nincompoop. How in my right mind could I ever begin to complain about having to write a small, measly, yet heartfelt, thank-you note to each wonderful person who gave me a small check for doing something I didn’t entirely understand? It was the least I could do. Well, I suppose the least I could have done was nothing. But I received an abundance of checks with chais, double chais, quadruple chais and maybe even a few dodecadupel chais that I should have given so much more back. Being older would have helped me to appreciate that fact and who knows, maybe I would’ve taken the time to go to everyone’s place and thank them individually, cause that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Now for a serious paragraph. Okay, let’s be honest. Now for an as serious as I can get paragraph. I recently came back from a Birthright trip (which you should all go on if you haven’t and this may be the most serious thing in the serious paragraph) and when we were in Jerusalem, four of our group received the amazing privilege of having their own bar or bat mitzvah. At 13, the idea of even going to Israel had barely touched my mind. What an ignorant young man I was! What I’m getting at is the amazing envy I have for those lucky few who were able to do this. But it is a very happy envy as I truly couldn’t have felt better to at the very least be at a b’nai mitzvah in the Holy Land. I mean, having that privilege in Israel is astounding to me. I could have never thought that would have been something I would have wanted at 13. When I was that young, I could have never fathomed going to Israel as I was still scared to go to downtown Chicago, as ridiculous as that sounds. Given my experience in Israel, I wish I had the chance to have had the wherewithal to want to make it there for my bar mitzvah.

And you know, I haven’t even mentioned the brilliance of having a var mitzvah at18. I mean, hello! Or, chai! (Gotta stop that joke) Chai means 18 in case you missed the pun in the title and the sheer connection of that to the age of a b’nai mitzvah feels prefect. In general, at 18 you know your friends and your family a lot better.. Not to mention that the “themes,” and for some reason there are “themes,” would be so much better and actually attribute to the personality of the individual. No longer would I have to tell everyone that I chose a Power Rangers themed bar mitzvah because it was “morphin’ time into an adult.” But the one thing I might be most upset about, and I had a lot of time to go on this one, was that I didn’t even get to take advantage of the open bar. Although I guess I would have had to have been 21 and not only 18 for that one. Aw crap. I’m gonna have to rewrite this entire blog.


To have or not to have

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Marcy Nehorai photo 4

She looks at you with these eyes
that want love and you laugh so hard
at everything she wants to do.
She runs towards the garbage can, you laugh.
She tries to climb up next to you as you eat, her little head looking up through your legs, laughing with that cute little eyes and nose and mouth, as you laugh along with her.
How can you understand the power of having a child until you have one?
How can you understand the worth of having a child until you have one?
How can you postpone such an opportunity?
How can you weight the scales...
How can you, most importantly, go back in time, and do it again, do it right this time,
have all of those children you were meant to have
that you could have had
had you found the time
the willpower
the vision
to see her, standing there, laughing with you.
And you know that there is no greater love in the world,
there is nothing more cost effective in the long run,
but alas, we can't see into the future
and we can only guesstimate, now
what makes sense
as if logic was the way in which we wanted to live
as if at the end of the day our paychecks weren't really written by God.
But at the same time, it is also through look logic that we must live
how to care for ourselves
how to love ourselves
how to know what we need.
And therein lays the balance.
With all our options today,
to delay birth,
to delay life,
we must decide.
Not a moral judgment
or a rational judgment
but a delicate combination of the two
a judgment
at its very core,
based solely
on love.


Jew-ish books worth reading

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Because my first post had absolutely nothing to do with Judaism, and Oy! just happens to be a Jewish blog, I thought I'd give a few recs of Jewish-themed fiction novels that I know everyone will love. If you're not very religious, or even not Jewish at all, don't worry, these are novels that all can enjoy, but do have either Jewish characters or Jewish themes. The summaries are all short and give no spoilers, only a taste of the joy you'll get from reading these books.

The Kill Artist photo

The Kill Artist 
First book in the Gabriel Allon series
Author Daniel Silva

In the first book of this incredible spy series, Gabriel Allon is an operative for a clandestine Israeli intelligence agency known only as "The Office." Able to blend in anywhere and handy with a Beretta as well as a paint brush, Allon poses as a world class art restorer trying to hide from his past until he's drawn back into a life of espionage to fight a Palestinian terror threat. Urged on by his famed Nazi-strangling mentor and father figure Ari Shamron, Gabriel Allon defends Israel and the world against numerous dangers. Throughout the series there are references to Jewish history and culture with Israel at the heart. Add that to the theme of Art and European history and this series could almost be deemed 'historical fiction' if it weren't for the fast-paced, page-turning writing that clearly makes each book a spy novel.

The beauty of this entire series is not just the action, or the exotic European destinations in which the characters find themselves in their attempts to save the world from terrorists of all sorts, but the ever recurring characters that we meet in each novel. I have grown to love all of them to the point where now, when I sit down with the newest installment, I feel as if I'm spending time with old friends. If you like "The Kill Artist," you'll have thousands more pages of these loveable characters to enjoy for a very long time.

Deal Breaker photo

Deal Breaker 
First book in the Myron Bolitar series
Author Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben pens the Myron Bolitar series. The title character, a charismatic ex-Duke hoops star and Harvard Law grad now heads MB Sports Reps, a start-up sports agency with a purposefully small number of clients. Though few, these athletes always seem to get into some type of trouble, effectively mirroring our favorite real-life athletes. Luckily for them, Myron cares so much about his clients' well-being he is willing to go to any length to keep them safe.  In the Edgar Award winning "Deal Breaker" when his newest client, a highly touted rookie QB, receives a phone call from an ex-girlfriend thought to be dead, Myron is on the case. Along with his waspy and wealthy but dangerous sidekick Win (Windsor Horne Lockwood III) and his female pro-wrestler assistant Esperanza, the team goes about their business as if they were detectives, following up on clues and talking to witnesses, often finding themselves in dangerous, life-threatening scenarios in the process. More complex than they seem on the surface, the characters keep their sense of humor, even when showing their underlying insecurities and vulnerabilities. Humorous and action-packed, the entire series will keep you turning pages. "Deal Breaker" has one of my favorite lines from any book or movie. See if you can spot it.

Really the only thing Jewish about these books is that main character is a New Jersey Jew with the stereotypical Jewish parents doting and nudging. Author Harlan Coben himself is Jewish, and holds high rank with me as he donated an autographed novel to my charity event for the Canine Therapy Corps and is also a good Twitter follow (@HarlanCoben). If you're not into sports or reading an entire series, check out one of Coben's many stand-alone mystery novels. All are excellent reads.

City of Thieves photo 2

City of Thieves 
Author David Benioff

Taking place during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the early 1940's, "City of Thieves" has the most serious plot line of any of the books mentioned here. That said, it's also one of the funniest books I have ever read.  Upon separation from his family, the main character, a Russian Jewish teen named Lev, is forced to fend for himself. And after an unlucky spat with the law, he is imprisoned by the authorities. Given an opportunity to earn his salvation by venturing on the oddest of quests, Lev has no choice but to accept the mission. To succeed means freedom. To fail, means death.  Through Lev, author David Benioff weaves his way through the difficulties of the time period, displaying the atrocities along with the miracles in a manner that can be both heartbreaking and funny simultaneously. It's a must-read for any Jew with ancestry in Russia, which means most of us.

If you recognize the author's name, it may be due to his success in the film industry. His first novel "The 25th Hour" earned him instant acclaim, so much so that he was asked to adapt it into a screenplay directed by Spike Lee and starring Edward Norton. From this stardom Benioff continued his career as a screenwriter for such movies as "The Kite Runner" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," taking a brief break from the big screen to release "City of Thieves" in 2008. Benioff's most current success is the hit HBO series "Game of Thrones" for which he shares the role of writer and creator.


Why I’m not quite ready to get an e-reader

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Why I’m not quite ready to get an e-reader photo

One of my co-workers recently came by my office to show off a new gadget. “It’s a Kindle Fire,” he exclaimed. Shining in the bright office light, I could see why it was such an attractive piece of technology – Internet, books, movies, music and more, all in one sleek, smooth tablet.

And while my co-worker was clearly exuberant about his new toy, I didn’t feel much for it.

Don’t get me wrong – like any 20-something, I enjoy modern technology. I have a slew of Apple products (okay, maybe three, but still), and I appreciate cool apps that tell me when the train is arriving, what restaurant will deliver a cheeseburger at midnight, and when my favorite musicians are coming to town.

But the tablet is one gadget that I haven’t given in to purchasing yet. It’s not really the tablet that I have a problem with, or else I wouldn’t have an iPhone, which does just as much, except on a smaller screen. My issue lies with the e-reader.

Whether it is the Kindle or the Nook, all e-readers evoke the same sentiment within me, and that’s discomfort. I admit it – I am uncomfortable with reading books in digital form.

As a writer, I feel a love for words that only other writers and bookworms may relate to. To me, the written word is sacred and the act of writing, almost a holy experience. Think of all your favorite authors or pieces of literature, whether ancient or modern: those books were all born out of nothing. Those writers created masterpieces by filling countless pages with carefully placed letters, words and sentences, each of them playing a specific role and holding a particular place. The meaning and the significance of the work as a whole depended on the placement of each character.

Yep, it’s that serious (for me, at least.) I may have exaggerated a little bit for dramatic effect, but the meaning remains the same. Writing has always been a visceral and physical experience, in addition to emotional. And while we still write on the computer by physically pressing on the keys, we rely on the digital technology to make those letters appear on the screen. A middle man is involved in the craft.

On the typewriter, at least, you were still responsible for the mechanics of placing the words on the page. And there once was a time when people used to dab quills in ink and then place them on paper in order to write, and there was a time even longer ago when you had to carve words into stone tablets.

No, I don’t want to start carving words into stones. Yes, I acknowledge and understand all the limitations with previous forms of written communication. My point is, you used to have to be physically and emotionally involved, truly connected, with the medium in order to write and create words. And with digitization, I am just afraid to feel removed or disconnected from the words that I read or write.

I love folding down my favorite pages on books, or seeing the color of the pages change with age. It makes me feel connected to the history that I share with that book, the same way I feel it when I open up old journals from my teenage years. Why do we like keeping old postcards or letters from loved ones? Because as people, we often connect most to what we can touch, and feel emotions strongest when there is something to physically hold on to.

Overall, I definitely see the benefit of e-readers. They save paper, allow you to read a different book as soon as your mood changes, and let you carry your favorite words with you wherever you go. I will probably end up purchasing one – someday. All I hope is that there won’t be a day soon when physicals books are gone forever.


Girls’ weekend

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Girls’ weekend photo

There is something so special about a reunion with your group of girlfriends. This past weekend, Sari, one of my dearest friends from college, came to visit. Most of us girls live here in Chicago, so Sari coming in made us complete for a short while. If we were guys, we would probably say something like “we’re getting the band back together!” but we’re not, so instead we go to brunch and shop.

It’s a little scary to think about the fact that I met my college friends 10 years ago. So it makes sense that when we hang out these days, things are a little different. We are older, we have jobs, some of us have husbands and boyfriends, we have crazy busy schedules, and like to get up early on Saturday morning to go to yoga.

But when someone comes to visit and the group is reunited, it somehow feels like we’ve been transported back 10 years. Even though we know a lot has changed, it suddenly feels, just for a little while, like the old days.

In college, I had my girls—a constant support system, guaranteed plans for every night, a group of confidants. And while we are for the most part still a very tight group, nothing really compares to the type of friendship and bonding that comes with living with your best girlfriends 24/7 in a college atmosphere. See, that’s the great thing about college—everyone is at the same place in life. There is very little to worry about except finishing your paper and what you’re going to wear out to the bar that night.

These days, we are all at different places in our lives—I have friends who are single, engaged, married, new mommies, students and professionals that run the spectrum from searching for the perfect job to being settled in a career. And that makes things a little harder on friendships. This is an anxious time for most of us—we are coming into ourselves as adults, dealing with real life issues and learning that though we walked together at graduation as a group, now our paths may take us in different directions.

I’m very lucky in that most of my friends from both high school and college live here in Chicago, except for a few very close friends who have settled elsewhere. And it’s weekends like these that remind me of just how amazing my friends are.

I guess the point of all this is that this weekend was kind of a wakeup call for me. A reminder of what I had, still have, and what I need to make sure never to lose. Yes, I’m married now, and yes my friends and I all have very busy lives as young professionals, but we should work to keep our friendships strong. And when times get tough, we can always get the band back together, bond over egg white omelettes, go out and have a good time and still wake up in time for yoga.


Welcome three new Jews to the NFL

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Mazel Tov to the newest Jew in the NFL, Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz was drafted early in the second round with pick #37 by the Cleveland Browns. The Browns believe Schwartz can play opposite Joe Thomas and block for both first round picks Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. Read more about Mitchell here.

In more good news for the Jews, immediately after the draft, the St. Louis Rams picked up Alex Hoffman-Ellis who I interviewed awhile back. See below for my interview with Alex.  Alex could make the team as a special team's player. Here is another piece on Alex.

Finally, the Detroit Lions signed Tight End Alex Gottlieb. Click here to read more about Alex.

And Let Us Say...Amen.

-Jeremy Fine

Washington State’s Alex Hoffman-Ellis photo

Washington State's Alex Hoffman-Ellis

Originally ran on Oy!Chicago on 08/03/2011

From time to time I miss a player. Last year I missed this guy, Alex Hoffman-Ellis. Good size, competitive edge. The Great Rabbino likes this linebacker. He has gone up against some of college football's best and here is what he has to say:

1. How did you get into football?
I guess the abbreviated version of how I got into football is that a lot of my friends from my freshman basketball team at Santa Monica High were playing, and I wanted to play that year, but my parents wouldn't let me. When they finally said it was okay to play my sophomore year, I became academically ineligible, and that lasted through my junior year. When I transferred to Hamilton High, I changed my outlook on how I approached academics and became eligible to play for senior year. Been playing since then.

2. How is Washington State shaping up for next season? What are your expectations for the team?
This coming season, we expect from ourselves nothing less than a bowl game. A bowl game victory really. We've got some solid leadership and some really good developments on the field as well as in the weight room and conditioning-wise. Guys are starting to develop more of a chemistry, as we've been getting together more frequently to sort of buildup that camaraderie amongst ourselves. I expect this to carry over on the field in terms of us trusting each and every person on this team to get their individual jobs done so that we can accomplish our goals and get W's as a team.

3. What will your role be?
I expect myself to lead this team if nothing else. I have as much experience as just about anyone on this team, and I feel like I'm a very dependable person for guys to look to in tough situations for guidance. All in all, I'm on that field to be both a vocal and physical presence, so I know what I've got to do, now it's just up to me to do it.

4. What is the highlight of your career?
I would have to say the highlight of my career was getting my first interception ever against SMU in 2009. I took it back 54 yards for a score, and it was also my first touchdown ever so it was a very surreal moment standing in that end zone with the ball in my hands and Martin Stadium going nuts.

5. Who is the best player you played against and what was going through your head when you saw him play?
I'd have to say the best player I played against was my redshirt year in '08 when we played against USC and their linebacking corps of Mauluga, Maiava, Cushing and Matthews. I just remember watching those four play the LB position that game (and that entire season, really) how it was meant to be played, straight downhill with an attitude and a purpose.

6. What is your Jewish life like? Did you grow up with a strong Jewish identity?
I never really felt that much of a connection to Judaism growing up. Having a Bar Mitzvah and playing in the Maccabi Games were the most Jewish things I ever did, but I never have been very spiritual. I attended Sunday school and Hebrew school up until 8th grade, but to me it was more of a place I was being forced to go. Being Jewish was more of something I identified with once I got up to Washington. Everybody up here is so religious and everything is prayer this, Jesus that. The team actually says a prayer in Jesus' name before and after games, so I feel almost pushed towards my Jewish identity more than as a voluntary thing. Although I am proud of my heritage, I don't have as big of a connection to it as I might like.

7. Did you get a chance to play against Taylor Mays? What was that like?
Yes, I played against him. I don't really remember much of him as an opponent, just that there was a lot of hype around his physical attributes and him falling to the second round in his draft class. Other than that, I don't remember much.

8. What are you goals when you graduate?
When I graduate, I want to keep training and hopefully (knock-on-wood) keep playing ball. Outside of sports, I'm thinking of writing. I write some poetry and short fiction every now and then, though I haven't made a move to get any of my work published. I guess I'm kind of going with the, "I'll just cross that bridge when I get to it" attitude.

9. If you could play for one pro team and/or coach who would it be?
That's a tough question, so I'm just going to go with my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers. Coach McCarthy seems like a very levelheaded, smart coach, Coach Capers has that defense really coming together, and seeing Coach Greene coach up the linebackers just gets me fired up.

Not Packers fans at The Great Rabbino, but big Hoffman-Ellis fans.


Matchmaking: Doggie-style, part I

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Matchmaking: Doggie-style, part I photo

"What characteristics are you looking for?" she asked us. "Umm, warm brown eyes,” we responded. "Loyal, friendly, likes to have a good time and play, not too big...and hypo-allergenic.”

No, this isn’t the beginning of some creepy dating profile story, but it is the beginning of a different tail. My boyfriend Jason and I are dog lovers. We’ve grown up with dogs in our homes and our parents still own dogs. We’d agreed over the past few years that having our own dog was something we definitely wanted, but like kids, not anytime soon. We dog sat from time-to-time and that had been enough of a dog fix.

But things have changed.

We recently lost a family pet in a tragic accident. Losing a loved pet is obviously heartbreaking and I personally had a really hard time with it. Not that a new dog would replace the old, but it could help. Also, Jason is able to work from home occasionally and could care for the dog and help get him or her accustomed to living with us. And with warmer weather on the horizon, the act of dog walking just doesn’t seem as daunting! Finally, my parents agreed to dog-sit whenever we head out of town this summer.

We agreed we wanted to adopt a dog from one of the local shelters. I’m allergic to cats and some non-hypo-allergenic dogs, but after perusing some of the pet shelter websites it appeared as though there were options for us out there. We went into the experience cautiously optimistic that we’d find the right fit for our family.

Well, we were wrong—doggie dating is hard.

The first guy we saw, Auggie, I really liked, but Jason wasn’t as big of a fan. The dog was only nine months old and very cute and small and he wagged his tail at us and sat, but that’s about all he did. The people at PAWS had nicknamed him “little old man,” and suggested he might be a better fit for a blue-haired lady than a young couple. Strike one.

Our second choice, Hermann, was a big hit with Jason, but my nose wasn’t as impressed. He was part schnauzer— not so hypo-friendly— but he was very cute, seemed to really like us and had that combination of just enough energy to run around and play and be a lap dog living in a city condo. I’d all but agreed to go permanently on allergy medication and buy special, super expensive hypo-allergenic doggie shampoo, when one of the PAWS attendants checked Hermann’s file and announced we couldn’t have him. Turned out he’d been returned the night before because city living just wasn’t for Hermann— he got too anxious in the apartment from all the city sounds and tried to attack other dogs on the street. Strike two.

At this point, we were feeling pretty defeated, but decided to give it one more shot and headed over to the Anti-Cruelty Society. There we met Jessie, an adorable poodle, badly in need of a good grooming and a diet. Jessie had recently arrived at the shelter— her owners no longer could care for her— and she was clearly anxious and afraid and feeling abandoned. Poor girl. We took her for a walk and while she liked my boyfriend, she was afraid of everyone else, including me. Strike three.

Three strikes and we were out. I was sneezy and itchy and feeling defeated. We really want to adopt— even with my difficult requirements— and we are gonna keep trying. Fellow Oy!sters, any advice? Have any of you had trouble finding the right fit for you? What should we do? What did you do?

Tail to be continued…


Bittersweet, Part 2: No longer bitter

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Four years ago, I wrote an essay for Oy!Chicago called “Bittersweet,” where I shared my frustrating dating experiences and my fear that I was living up to the name “Polly,” which literally means bitter. Even my Hebrew name, “Miriam,” means “Sea of Bitterness.” (I didn’t check in other languages. How much can a person take?) I ended the article by asking where one meets his or her beshert: On JDate, through set ups, at work?


In the luggage department at Macy’s in Old Orchard.

I realize this may not work for all single people out there, but for those of you needing luggage, we’ve just killed two birds with one stone.

Here’s how it happened for me: In December of 2006, my mom asked what I wanted for Chanukah, and I decided on a new carry-on suitcase. I assume this was a premonition of checked-bag-fees-of-the-future. Cut to: Me checking out luggage at Macy’s, where I ran into someone I’d gone out with a few times. He was with his cousin Vic and Vic’s kids. Incidentally, my mom’s best friend, Diane, was related to them and had set me up with Vic’s cousin.

So, Vic’s cousin and I said “Hi,” commented on how weird it was to run into each other in the suburbs when we both lived in the city, and that was that. It took over 18 more months to realize that this was a life-changing encounter.

2007 brought the usual: dating on and off, hope, anticipation, despair, online stalking. By the fall of ’07, I was officially on strike from dating. I’d just turned 36 and needed a break. I focused on fun things. Well, I focused on things: work, family, friends, and the realization that I didn’t have hobbies. Why didn’t I have hobbies? Should I buy some puzzles or something? I signed up for JUF’s Young Leadership Division Summer Mission to Israel in the summer of 2008. Not exactly a hobby, but something fun to do.

A week before the trip, Vic e-mailed me. He’s from Chicago, but lived in Israel for many years and travels there several times every year to see his kids, who moved there with their mom in 2003. We’d written a couple times since first meeting, but we’d never talked. He heard from Diane that I was going to Israel and wrote to wish me a great trip and offer a few recommendations, like: “Get the Jerusalem mixed grill, just don’t ask what it is.”

When I got back, I wrote to thank Vic for his suggestions (I was vague, not wanting to confess that I had, in fact, asked what Jerusalem mixed grill is and, after I stopped gagging, gagged again).

Later that summer, we talked on the phone. He invited me sailing (he has a hobby!). We jabbered all the way to the boat in Waukegan and all the way back, and haven’t stopped talking since.

As I mentioned, Vic has kids. At that time, they were 10, 11, 13, 15 and 16. Yes, he has five kids. Take a moment and let that sink in.

We had the standard challenges; it’s always hard for kids when their parents are dating. I understood that because I went through it myself when my own parents were dating and then re-married. But there was more.

His kids are Orthodox and, after living in Israel for years, prefer to speak Hebrew.

I am not religious, and after living in America for years, I prefer to speak English. I do know some Hebrew, though. After years at Camp Ramah, I can say, “Please pass the jelly,” during breakfast. While impressive, this ceases to be useful once the jelly is successfully passed.

And there was another challenge: Vic had dogs. Plural. I am not a dog person. I never wanted to kill them, I just didn’t ever want them ever to be anywhere around me, ever.

I wasn’t the only one to adjust; Vic had to get used to me and my People-reading, 30 Rock-watching, pop-culture-loving ways (I guess I did have hobbies after all!). How did we deal with these challenges? Communication, patience, humor, and respect for everyone involved. Was it really that simple? No. But he’s the love of my life, and nothing we dealt with was bigger than that.

In March of 2010, Vic’s oldest daughter came to visit from Israel. Together, they proposed to me downtown at “The Bean” in Millennium Park. He asked, “Will you marry me?” followed by her asking “Will you marry us?” It turns out that she came in to represent the “L5” during the proposal. Beautiful, right? Are you crying? Because I was crying.

Vic and I got married on Aug. 1, 2010. I started graduate school at Loyola later that month, and in May I will graduate with my Master’s degree in Social Work.

Bittersweet, Part 2 photo

As graduation approaches, I’ve been reflecting on all the changes in my life and wanted to share our story. I’d always heard, “You’ll find “The One” when you stop looking.” I don’t believe that. I’d stopped looking plenty of times, and remained single until the time was right. Which leads me to the second thing I’d always heard: “Timing is everything.” I do believe that. You never know where or when you’ll meet your beshert. You may have already, but just don’t know it. Just remember two things: Be open to everyone you meet, and Macy’s has a really good luggage selection.

Polly Levy Levinson currently lives in Glenview, and after receiving her MSW in May, hopes to work as social worker in the healthcare industry. 


Snacks on a plane

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Snacks on a plane photo

The air travel industry is not popular with consumers. Or rather, it is popular, because people want and need to travel. However, from buying tickets at outlandish prices to long lines at security, followed by the security x-ray and partial pat down, (after which they rifle through your bag because of the bottle of water you forgot was there, followed by a second screening of your now water bottle-less bag) one can get a little cranky. Even at the gate, the crowded, weary travelers endure being begged over the loudspeaker to check their carry-on bags. (Instead of the begging, why not just let people check bags for free at the counter?)

But while I could go on all day about the annoyances of air travel, I would like to praise my flight crew yesterday. It’s so easy to complain, but also important to give thanks when appropriate.

At 4 p.m. Central, I boarded a flight from Boston Logan to Chicago on United. Before I stepped on the plane, everything I wrote above happened, and honestly, besides the pat down, it didn’t faze me at all. As the United employees are begging for bags to be checked over the loudspeaker a little nudge in my stomach tells me to buy a book quickly in case the flight is delayed. (I forgot mine at home).

We depart a couple of minutes late, and then the plane is off. However the 2.5 hour flight soon becomes a 3.5 hour flight as weather delays in Chicago are apparent. The flight approaches from the South, then the West, and finally touches down.

When we land the very friendly pilot lets us know that we cannot approach the gate because United has removed all of its employees from the gates and baggage area for fear of being struck by lightning.

That’s when I start to get anxious. I’ve heard stories about people being stuck on the runway for hours and hours without being able to go to the bathroom, and no food or water.

But what could have been a terrible experience was averted because of the pilot and the flight crew. First of all, the pilot communicated with the passengers throughout the delay. He gave us updates when he had them, and also told us when he didn’t have them. The flight crew put on an action comedy movie and handed out headsets. They gave us water and pretzels. There was no issue with using the bathroom or getting out of our seats. Their main goal seemed to be making us comfortable. At hour 3 on the ground, I did ask the flight attendant if they had ever considered bringing out CTA buses to get us. She smiled, but her eyes flashed, you are starting to lose it. I still think it’s a good idea.

At 3.5 hours, the pilot gave us the good news, we would be pulling up the gate (the last one in the C terminal) and everyone clapped.

As I walked through O’Hare last night completely exhausted, I saw about a thousand people there waiting for their flights to depart or waiting in the cancelled ticket line. I was thankful for our flight crew and even more so that I was home.

Well, home after an hour ride on the backed up Kennedy Expressway.

But at least not on a plane.


The fictional girl

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The fictional girl photo

Oy, I am knee-deep in teen literature. I just read Twilight and The Hunger Games, back-to-back.

I tried to shield myself from the Twilight-obsessed for as long as I could muster. I blame my co-worker, with whom I frequently discuss favorite television shows at work. I admitted to her that one of my must-see shows is The Vampire Diaries, and she forced the Twilight book into my hands. I'm shamefully old to be watching a CW show about teen vampires, werewolves and witches, but I can't help myself. There is a part of me that will always be 13 years old. The Vampire Diaries merges my nostalgia for those Dawson's Creek days when I was a young teen, with my adult fascination with vampires. It just so happens, Kevin Williamson created both shows.

I've only read the first book in each of the Twilight and Hunger Games' series so far, and my fascination already runs deep. I can't stop talking about them. I respect The Vampire Diaries and Dawson's Creek for their use of strong female characters, despite a somewhat clichéd and slow-as-molasses love triangle plot. The female protagonists in these shows are intelligent, self-aware and wise beyond their years. (It's also worth noting that The Vampire Diaries, like Twilight, began as a book series, though I have not read the series.) While reading Twilight, however, there was a part of me that wished leading lady, Bella, would just meet her demise already.

I'm not the first person to ever connect the dots between vampire stories and puritanical ideals. Still, the pairing was glaringly obvious in Twilight. The 13-year-old in all of us can relate to Bella's teenage vulnerability, obsessive boy crush and utter clumsiness in front of Edward. These are the aspects of the book that drew me in, along with the mystery around the beautiful and super-human "family" in small town Washington. However, I'm not 13, and many of the book's readers likely are. In my opinion, as an early introduction to romance and relationships, this book fundamentally fails, and teens won't necessarily have the tools to question why. In my perfect world, high schools would incorporate women's studies courses in their curriculums and teach this book as a cautionary tale.

In many ways, I think Bella and Edward's relationship mirrors that of an abusive relationship. Bella always watches what she says around him, fears angering him and suppresses all wants and needs of her own to keep him in check. Bella is the gatekeeper of Edward's uncontrollable urges. It's Bella's fault when Edward loses his temper; it's her fault when he cannot control his sexual urges; it's her fault when he cannot control his "hunger." The book is one step away from a Lifetime movie about rape victim blaming. The book unfolds as a sort of Adam and Eve story, in which Bella becomes enamored with Edward, her allure is too strong, and he can't help himself but to be around her. She is thus to blame for putting herself and her family in danger—a reason for which she must be protected. Edward vows to protect her at any cost, but she must abide by his rules, and dare not tempt him.

The book becomes a creepy and tentative game of chicken between the two of them, in which Bella is convinced she has met her love, her reason for living—her future matters not. And because she has urges, feelings and desires, she must risk her life. Bella is at Edward's mercy because she knowingly entered into danger (desire). She'll live, if she listens to him and doesn't get ahead of herself. Twilight is like a disturbing how-to manual for the abstinence movement.

As a latecomer to both Twilight and The Hunger Games, reading them one after another offered an unexpected opportunity for comparison. Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss, is the anti-Bella (not to be confused with antebellum). If I were teaching one of these mythical high school women's studies courses, I might follow my Twilight lesson with one on The Hunger Games. In a stripped-down, post-apocalyptic world, in which there is no time to idly fantasize, Katniss' actions are a product of instinct, obligation, integrity and intelligence. In some ways, she is the prototype to which all teenage girls should aspire—and thank goodness, some do. I wish I had this book as a teenager. Many books I read in school and for pleasure had detached male protagonists, to whom I could scarcely relate. Katniss is a far cry from Holden Caulfield.

The book is purposefully vague, as Katniss navigates survival and love. I believe author Suzanne Collins didn't want to make The Hunger Games a cheesy romance novel (though I don't know yet about books two and three). She makes the book about Katniss and her ability to stand on her own against all odds. The story dances around coming of age themes, in which Katniss begins to question her feelings about her fellow tribute, Peeta, but her curiosity never consumes her—if it did, she would die. In fact, Katniss "plays" the game by pretending to be in love, and models being in love by drawing from clichés and memories of her parents, never having experienced the adult feelings herself. Katniss is not offering a loveless world, but one in which intellectual autonomy plays a leading role. By comparison, Katniss must feign love to survive; Bella must forfeit her free will for love.

Both of these books represent a sort of clash or crossroads girls and women face today. Many still buy into the fairy tale, in which the woman must be rescued. Others are ready to see women take on the world using their brains…and perhaps, a bow and arrow. At 13, I wanted a cleverly scripted fairy tale; my adult self knows better.


Nautical trends for spring

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Nautical trends for spring photo

Is it just me, or has nautical become a rather consistent annual trend come spring/summer? I’m actually a big fan of the nautical trend, and I’ll go into why, but I still find it a little funny that it has become so wide-spread and mainstream over the years. I mean, clearly the vast majority of Chicagoans are running off to our yachts on the Cape come Memorial Day weekend! (I jest). However, I did go on the occasional Martha’s Vineyard trip during college and there is no doubt that this trend has become so popular with good cause. There is something undeniably crisp and clean, preppy, yet very trendy about the navy and white stripes, anchor motifs, etc.

Hence why I believe the trend has set sail across the country and not just in traditionally “nautical” ports of call like Cape, Nantucket, The Vineyard, Maine, etc. Navy blue (and other shades of blue, although I always prefer navy) and white are universally classic and co-ed colors. Since they are also traditional nautical colors, the trend seems to be a nice fit for the color combination. Second, come spring, I think we all can agree that summer cannot come soon enough. What says “summer” more than boats, the ocean, and the crisp and salty sea air? Throwing on my white jeans for the first time with a striped boat-neck t-shirt really gets me in the mood for a fabulous season. In anticipation of the good summer-times ahead, I suggest you do some spring shopping to stock-up on classically nautical, but ever-so-fashionable wardrobe enhancements.

1. I LOVE this silk blouse and something tells me I will not be able to resist the purchase. At first I thought all of the anchors were a little much, but we always need a little fun in our wardrobe. J. Crew tends to be my go-to store to throw a little nautical punch into my closet.

2. I recently purchased this Ella Moss tank from Anthropologie in blue. The blue stripes provide that nautical vibe, but in a more quiet way. I plan on wearing it with wide-leg denim trousers and a white blazer.

3. I have been meaning to purchase an over-seized knotted rope necklace for some time. It’s a quirky exaggeration of the boating knot, making a stylish statement. This website by jewelry designer Allison Hertzberg offers many rope jewelry options.

4. Gentleman: You’ll be thankful if you take the risk and sport some Nantucket Reds or seersucker pants (I like the seersucker from Brooks Brothers). You’re also sure to look hot sporting one of these.


Celebrate Cinco De Mayo with some delicious treats

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Celebrate Cinco De Mayo photo 

Chef Laura's Guacamole

As a snack this Shabbat, I am serving guacamole in honor of Cinco De Mayo. I love this creamy, healthy condiment and look for any excuse to shmear it on challah, tortillas, and my favorite enchiladas.

The secret to good guacamole is simple: the ingredients should be ripe and really fresh, and each bite or scoopful should burst with flavor. This means no powdered garlic allowed and lots of tasting, to make sure the flavors are well balanced.

Contrary to popular food myth, leaving the pit in the bowl of guacamole will not prevent the avocados from oxidizing and turning black. To ensure that your guacamole stays green, cover the guacamole with plastic wrap or parchment paper and lightly press the wrap directly on the surface. Then go ahead and throw out the pit, or plant it.

Makes 2 cups

3 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
2 medium tomatillos, diced
6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
¼ cup diced red onion, diced finely
½ jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced very small
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 radishes, diced very small (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Suggested accompaniments: crispy tortilla chips, jicama strips, cucumber slices, radishes, carrot strips

1. Place the avocados into a large bowl. Add the lime juice, extra-virgin olive oil and garlic.

2. Mash the mixture with a potato masher or fork until it is mostly mashed but some chunks remain. Add the tomatillos, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and radishes, if using. Stir them in to combine. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with your choice of accompaniments.

Quick Ancho Chile Sauce for Enchiladas

I make a lot of moles and enjoy the long process and especially the final results. But, when I need a quick sauce for enchiladas, I go for an abbreviated version. This sauce is quick and delicious.

Normally a sauce like this would be made in a molcajete (Mexican mortar and pestle) and the cook would spend hours grinding the ingredients to a velvety constituency, I am going with a blender this week!

10 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded (reserve the seeds)
1 cup oil
3 tablespoons of chile seeds, toasted in a dry pan until medium brown
8 cloves of garlic
½ cup raisins
½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
Reserved soaking water from chiles
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
1 package corn tortillas

Suggested filling for tortillas: favorite cheeses, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions and peppers, or pulled chicken or brisket for meat preparations

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Fry the chiles, in batches, for about 10-15 seconds until they are dark red and puffy. Transfer the chiles to a large bowl filled with cold water. Soak the chiles for about 15 minutes. Transfer the chiles and about 1 cup of soaking water to a blender. Add the remaining ingredients except the chocolate and process the sauce until it is finely ground and has a thick-saucy consistency (you may need to add more water).

2. Heat a large saucepan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium high heat and add the sauce at once. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 10 minutes. Add the chocolate and season to taste.

3. Dip a tortilla into the sauce, lay the tortilla on a board and add about 2 tablespoons of filling, roll the tortillas and nestle into a casserole. Top with additional sauce. Bake for 15 minutes before serving.

Light and Crispy Churros

My son Jonah loves these light and crispy Mexican crullers. They are delicious and addictive. I serve them for desserts and an occasional breakfast. The dough is easy and can be made a couple of hours ahead of using.

Of course the churros are best right out of the frying pan, but they are delicious and I have never had anyone turn them down several hours after frying.

I serve the churros with chocolate dipping sauce or fruit preserves.

Yields 24

1 cup water
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup butter or canola oil for pareve
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Oil to fry the churros in-I use canola oil

1. Bring the water, brown sugar, salt, and butter (or oil) to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the flour. Stir the mixture until it forms a tight ball of dough.

2. Place the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix it until well blended.

3. Add the eggs one at a time with the machine running, being sure to incorporate each addition before adding the next. Add the vanilla.

4. Fill your pastry bag with the churro recipe dough and attach the largest star tip you have.

5. Heat 1½ to 2 inches of vegetable oil in a 10 to 12 inch frying pan to 375 degrees F. In a separate dish mix the ¼ cup sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

6. Test your oil by placing a small amount of dough in it. The dough should bubble up right away and start to brown.

7. Once the oil is hot enough, squeeze some dough into the oil about 4 inches long. I used my finger to release the dough from the star tip. Careful not to burn yourself.

8. Cook 4 or 5 churros at a time. Cook them about 1 minute and turn them over with a slotted spoon. Cook an additional minute or two until they are a golden brown color.

9. Remove the churros with the slotted spoon and place them on a paper towel-covered plate to absorb excess grease. While still warm, roll each churro into the dish with the sugar and cinnamon until coated.

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