OyChicago blog

Thank you for being you

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05/31/2013

Cindy Sher photo 2

This is a letter to my future twin step-daughters, age 9, and my three nephews, ages 8, 5, and 2.

Dear Kids,

Thank you for being you.

Thank you for making me happier every time you smile, sneeze, laugh, dance, tell me a joke with no punch line, and find magic in the mundane things I take for granted like a train, the produce aisle of the grocery store, or even dirt.

Take a moment each day to appreciate all the blessings in your life. Before you get out of bed every morning, say “Modeh Ani”—I give thanks—thanking God for protection. Give thanks for the sun coming up each and every day. And give thanks for the clouds forming the shape of a unicorn, monkey, a penguin, or anything else you see up there.

Give thanks for being raised by people who love you more than anything and who only want the best things for you in life. And yes, be thankful for your brothers and sisters too, who you’ll appreciate more one day. When your baby brother pesters you by trying to play with you and your friends, he’s really telling you he loves you and how much he wants to be like you. Be thankful you have a sibling to share so many of life’s experiences with, but know that you’re special and different from anyone else in the world, even your siblings.

Try to learn something new each day. Whether it’s memorizing those multiplication tables, learning to tell time, or discovering heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Golda Meir, you will never forget so many of the lessons you learned in your early years.

I hope you’ll always appreciate how lucky you are to be members of the tribe, who know it’s how we treat each other that’s core—and that all the rest is commentary. Members of a tribe who value family, community, Torah, education, and deed. Members of a tribe of funny people, who recognize that with all we’ve been through, we have to laugh. And, of course, members of a tribe who make really good latkes, kugel, and mandelbread that you guys can never get enough of.

There are times when you’ll be sad. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make you never shed a tear of pain, but we know that’s impossible. Just remember when you’re down that, as the saying goes, “this too shall pass,” and the sun will shine again. Even when life isn’t perfect, try to put it in perspective and realize there’s always someone who has it worse than you. And, it’s the hard times that allow us to grow the most and become more compassionate, empathetic, fuller people.

Fear can be a good thing. Don’t let fear stop you from doing the things you want to do. They won’t seem as scary after you do them.

Stick up for other people. If you see another kid being teased, be nice to her. If you were in her shoes, you’d want her to stick up for you too.

Be generous with your time, money, forgiveness, smiles, and hugs.

Make Shabbat special.

Enjoy the simple pleasures of being a kid now. Look up at the sky every day, build sand castles, don’t get out of the pool until your fingers turn to prunes, eat ice cream, sing loud in the car, dance like nobody’s watching, read stories with happy endings about animals that talk, and laugh a lot every day. And, never stop doing any of those things, even when you’re all grown up.

Love with all your heart.

When you go out into the world, make your unique mark in the way only amazing YOU can. You have the freedom to be anything you want to be. Practice tikkun olam in whatever way is meaningful to you, and help piece back together our broken world. There’s a lot of repair left to do.

Don’t forget to say “I love you” often to the people you love most—and please know we love you back.

Love,

(Aunt) Cindy

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Thinking of Titles Makes Me Anxious (and Related Concerns)

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05/30/2013

Abby Cooper photo

I’ve always been a little anxious. In preschool, I was the kid who stood by the wall, scared of the toys, the other kids, and life in general. Today, I am much less afraid of toys (which is great, because in an ironic twist of fate I ended up teaching pre-school for a year) but my overall anxious disposition remains. I am the living, breathing, slightly taller and way less famous Mindy Kaling, often wondering “is everyone hanging out without me?” (Spoiler alert: they totally are.)

Glamour Magazine published an article in 2010 citing anxiety as “the new young women’s health crisis,” claiming more people – women in particular – are experiencing it now more than ever before due to several modern factors. While I don’t really see it as a “crisis,” I am concerned that we’re letting common misconceptions – rather than actual human experience – define this multi-faceted term for us.

Anxious women are often portrayed in the media like Liz Lemon when she doesn’t get her special sandwich: crazy. Frantic. Ravenous. Running through the airport like a hot mess trying to eat the replacement sandwich and get the guy at the same time. Naturally, this does not end well.

While I think most people can relate to this experience, (don’t we all have at least one ill-fated running-through-the-airport-eating-while-trying-to-fall-in-love story? I think yes) being anxious is less about the actions and more about the thought process. At the end of a day like that, most people walk away from the experience with a glum “aw man, I didn’t get the guy and I ate the sandwich waaay too fast. Oh well, I wonder what my friends are doing tonight” kind of attitude, but an anxious person might be more like “I didn’t get the guy and I ate the sandwich too fast and I’m never going to meet a guy or eat a delicious sandwich ever again EVER. My friends are totally hanging out without me, my apartment is a glorified box, and nothing is ever going to work out for me. Also, my effing bangs are never going to grow back into real hair. All is lost. Dramatic sigh.”

This is what my daily life felt like up until recently when I decided it was Time To Get a Grip and Get It the Heck Together Already. I have capitalized this so you understand that it was a Very Important Decision.

I want you to know that anxiety is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. Some would even argue it is a beneficial thing. I want to blog about how anxiety has contributed to my life in order to reopen the dialogue about real issues that a lot of people face. If we lessen the threat of stigma and judgment, people might be more open to sharing their experiences and be less embarrassed about their schtick, whatever it might be, knowing that it isn’t their fault and they’re not alone. After all, no one asks to be anxious – or depressed – or lactose intolerant, allergic to strawberries, etc etc. We all just take what we get and try to make the best of it. And that’s what I’m doing. 

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Post college life: One year later

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05/29/2013

Lauren Schmidt photo

Every so often, I go on a Thought Catalog reading binge to confirm everything I feel about post-grad/early 20s life. After skimming about 20 entries while trying to fall asleep the other night, I found a great entry, one that I was disappointed that I didn’t think of first. It was entitled "5 Things I Assumed I'd Have A Year After Graduating College."

Two weekends ago was the one year anniversary of my college graduation. What is exceedingly weird to me is that it doesn’t even feel like it’s been three months let alone a whole year since I graduated and left Washington DC for a new chapter of my life in Chicago. I am not sure if I should feel good about this or if it should lead me to have some sort of “what am I doing with my life?!?!” freak out, but the truth of the matter is that the past year has been surreal. Not surreal in the sense that life has been so amazing that I can’t believe it is happening, but more so that it doesn’t feel like much has happened. In reality, the events of the past year have been fairly momentous: I moved twice, started a new job, and had some memorable times in between. Nevertheless, as the author of this great piece explained, there are so many things that I thought would be the case right now. However, many of these things are so far from a reality.

1. The feeling of being older: I don’t even believe myself when I tell people I’m 23. When did I stop being 21? I don’t think it is fair and/or believable. Even with the responsibility of a daily job, the ability to do so many things on my own, and the privilege of living downtown, I can still barely believe that I am in this stage of my life.

2. All my friends from different area codes, living in the same area code: I will be the first one to say that this was a naïve hope. Of course, I always knew that my best friends from school would stay out east for the most part and just because I wanted to return to Chicago, this didn’t mean that everyone else felt the same way. Nevertheless, I had the slightest bit of hope that most of the people I liked from all the various experiences I have had up until graduation would somehow end up in the same city and it would be wonderful. All I can say is at least I have an excuse to travel now!

3. More opportunities to write: When I was nine years old, my Nana read something I wrote and told me I should be a journalist. Needless to say, I ended up writing for every school newspaper until I went to college, majored in journalism, and the rest is history. Except for the fact that I am not writing nearly as much as I imagined I would be. I would trade a features assignment for an excel spreadsheet any day.

4. Knowing what I am doing with my life: Honestly, I can muster up an answer as good as the next person during job interviews or when a distant relative begins to pester me about my life goals, but truthfully, I really have no idea what I want to do with my life. When it comes down to it, I love to write, I like to organize things, and I spend way too much time brainstorming feasible ways to return to Israel. The rest of my interests and/or goals fall into a gray area that lacks clarity and is filled with confusion.

5. The ability to be decisive: I am the least decisive person ever. It took me hours alone to even think of what my fifth assumption for this blog post should be. Though it’s great to be easygoing about things, the ability to actually make decisions in a reasonable amount of time seems like a pretty integral part of being a functioning adult. There’s always next year…

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Real Talk with Gwyneth Paltrow

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05/28/2013

Real Talk with Gwyneth Paltrow photo

I’ve been thinking a lot about my BFF Gwyneth Paltrow. Our friendship is imaginary, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less important—at least not to me.

Ol’ girl is in clear need of a BFF. You’d have to be hiding under a rock somewhere or not have access to a computer to not understand why. One minute she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but then the next she’s saying something as punch-worthy as, "I would rather die than let my kid eat Cup-a-Soup."

Besties offer a tough love not often found in every day relationships and that’s exactly what I’m here to do.

Gwynnie? It’s time for a little real talk. Take a seat.

First? We can’t have you in a meme listing the 25 most annoying things you’ve said in the last three minutes. It just can’t happen again. I know that you can’t, “pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year,” but you could show the tinniest bit of compassion. Maybe you could accidentally be seen in a Wal-Mart on Long Island looking for a new compost bin? Even better, you could offer something on that cute little blog of yours that anyone who is making $25,000 a year has actually heard of or could afford. Oh, I know! How about a free $25 gift card from Target? That’d do the trick.

Second? You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, we get it. Your skin is flawless, your hair is perfect and you weigh about 12 pounds. What if you went in the opposite direction of all of that and made a movie where you are a frightful mess? Think less Shallow Hal and more Monster. We want some Charlize-style horror. No fat suits, just you as the ugly terror we know you can be. Come on. Lose a little of that control and show us your dark side.

Finally? You’re Jewish. You even claim to be the “Original Jewish Mother” with the way you force little Apple and baby Moses to eat. Could we get a nod to Jewish Cooking in the next cookbook for the love of Hashem? A kugel? Your Bubbe must have made a meal or seven for you. What did she make? Your favorite sugar-free Hamantaschen? Homemade jam? Can we get something like that? Pretty please?

Speaking of your cookbooks, they really are fantastic. They offer a lot of interesting dishes. You’ve got everything from roasted chicken to vegan cookies. Awesome, I know, but some of the ingredients listed look more like a scavenger hunt in Dean & Deluca than actual food.

I think it’s time you slum it a little and cook something out of a can. I’ve got a recipe for a cheap chopped salad that uses canned vegetables that I’m sure you’ll love. I’ll attach the recipe for you. It’s the perfect thing to go with your Blue Cheese Dressing.

GP, please know that I love and adore you. These are just a few ideas to help you through this troubling time. I’m here whenever you need a shoulder to cry on or a trashy meal made from a box.

My “slumming it” Chopped Salad:

INGREDIENTS
1 can black beans (or bean of your choice)
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can diced tomatoes
1 small (4 oz) tub of blue cheese crumbles
1 small onion chopped
2 cups of chopped walnuts
1 (6 oz) bag of baby spinach
1 (6 oz) bag of hearts of romaine

DIRECTIONS
There are no rules with this salad. You can pick whatever leafy greens or canned veggies you love the most and mix them together. I prefer to chop my greens because I like to be able to shovel the salad right into my mouth. Open the cans of tomatoes, corn and beans. Wash these veggies and let them drain in a colander in the sink. Toss these with your lettuce once they’ve drained. Add in your cheese, chopped onion and walnuts. Mix everything together well and you’re set.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Blue Cheese Salad Dressing:
(Adapted from My Father’s Daughter by Gwyneth Paltrow)

INGREDIENTS
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup Vegenaise
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (use the picante or mountain kind, not the dulce)
1/3 cup cold water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
Big pinch coarse salt
A few fresh grinds black pepper

DIRECTIONS
Stir everything together in a small bowl until mixed well. Drizzle over your favorite salad.

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Diaries of a Fourth Grade Teacher: Recess IS a Class

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05/24/2013

Diaries of a Fourth Grade Teacher: Recess IS a Class photo

Boy, do I love recess.

No, not Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (I love those too), I’m talking about those glorious moments, suspended in time, when school, stress and life seem to fade away, replaced with pure joy, energy and happiness. Schoolchildren burst from every seam of the school’s daunting brick overlay, pouring out like a crashing tide, instantly filling the playground with screams of joy.

Don’t you remember what your recess experience was like? The swing sets, kickball, relay races, socializing by the monkey bars. It was freedom. An escape. A glorious moment suspended in time.

At least that’s how recess felt to me when I was in fourth grade. It was one the best times to be a kid, plain and simple. You’re turning double digits for the first time. The world never seems more bright and shining than it does through a 10-year-old’s eyes, and that’s the way we should all see the world.

Recess has its athletic, social and emotional purposes. Kids need to get out and get exercise every day in order to promote a healthy lifestyle. But unlike P.E., which has a certified teacher and athletic instructor, recess has a mind of its own. In fact, I feel it’s its own class.

What? Are you serious?

To many of us educators, recess is perceived as a way to “let the kids vent some steam and get that energy out of their system,” so they can come back into the classroom focused and ready to learn. Some educators would even go as far as to vehemently disagree with my statement that recess is a class, one as important and necessary as any of the general studies subjects.

I didn’t even believe it at first. One of my professors at Loyola University required our class to read a book titled, The Politics of a Sixth-Grade Lunch. It mostly centers on a sixth grade teacher’s dilemma arranging his students for their in-class lunch, but many of the lessons taught about children’s interactions and developments regarding lunchtime were also expressed and analyzed for recess.

I thought to myself, “What kind of teacher would waste precious prep and planning time by spending it concerning themselves about lunch and recess?” As we discussed the book in class, I began to understand why recess was vital, and why budding educators like myself must fight to keep recess ‘alive.’

In my mind, recess can either have a ‘living’ effect on a child or a ‘deadening’ effect. In terms of ‘living,’ recess can be a time confidence and self-esteem building experiences. I’ve witnessed shy and withdrawn children in the classroom succeed during recess. I see children that normally do nothing except worry about themselves suddenly picking up other children that have fallen on the playground who are hurt. These are moments not to be missed by teachers, yet many are too preoccupied with their lesson plans and planning to spend the effort observing and reflecting on recess in the same manner.

There is the other side of the coin as well. When I see a child voluntarily sitting out of recess—the one or two times they are allowed outside to play and be free—I know that there are other forces at work on a playground besides children playing games and getting exercise. There are recess hierarchies and boundaries—sometimes ones that stretch across cultural and racial lines—that can really hurt and diminish a child’s perception of recess and of his peers, though it does build vital communication skills.

Recess can have a similar effect on an educator. I’ve seen teachers exasperated over the games the children choose or the methods students use to alienate, exclude or discriminate against other students. I see them huddled by the door, whispering and complaining to each other about what to do. They have practically no solution to rectify this, other than interceding and ending the game or punishing the children responsible. The children end up frustrated, hurt and ultimately disinterested in continuing to play.

So what can we do to promote recess and elevate it to the level of attention and respect it deserves? There are many educators developing fun and amazing recess interaction strategies that promote more interpersonal interactions with students of all levels of intelligence without the air of competition. I used to think that playing games that had no winner or loser were a waste of time and no fun to play, but after attending a few educator workshops and seminars focused on this aspect of education, I learned that with an open mind and a positive (and somewhat assertive) attitude, these types of games could (and would) catch on like wildfire. Parents at home need to be supportive of a positive, developmentally beneficial recess period and even be prepared to fight for its existence should it be threatened.

I have loved recess all my life. I still love recess. I will always enjoy recess, whether it’s supervising, organizing or even participating every once in a while. After all, teachers are in school, too, aren’t they? If my children are having recess—you’ll know where to find me! 

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The Power of Connection

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05/23/2013

Annice Moses photo

I could say what happened was purposeful. That it was a social experiment. A protest against the system. I could say I was joining the legions of folks like Ben Affleck who said he will live on $1.50 a day for five days to bring attention to folks living below the poverty level via the Live Below the Line campaign. And I think I could pull that off as the truth because I think you would believe me. But I am going to tell you the real truth because until this happened to me and my family, I only understood some of the work I do from a privileged distance. I had compassion but no experience.

This truth, (as many truths are), is embarrassing. It exposes me and my lifelong struggle with organization. One husband, two dogs and four kids later, I have gotten better, but at the same time life has gotten more complicated. And I’m not nearly perfect yet.

The day started like any other Friday. When I saw the bright yellow cardstock notice written in Spanish from (FILL IN THE BLANK) GAS, I didn’t pay much attention. I grabbed the rest of the mail and began sorting. Junk. Junk. Bill. Junk. Thank you note. Junk. And then I was back to the yellow cardstock.

I did take Spanish for a few years but I am pretty limited. If you want to say “let’s go to the beach!” or “I love swimming!” I’m your go-to gal. But I couldn’t translate “AVISO DE DESCONEXION DEL SERVICIO DE GAS NATURAL” I flipped the notice over to reveal, “NOTICE OF NATURAL GAS SERVICE DISCONNECTION. Natural gas was shut off on 4-26-13. Call us at…” etc.

I sat back confused. Then I got a bad, sinking feeling in my stomach. I shakily dialed the provided number while I located in a massive pile of mail an unopened letter from the gas company marked “URGENT” in red.

I feel the need to explain how this had all come to be. About three months ago, in an effort to make things more simple, (the irony is not lost on me) I switched to what I thought was auto pay for our gas bill. In actuality, I had only signed up for paperless billing, which turned out to be a huge pain. You need to enter all kinds of billing and account information, which when I went to pay the bill, I could no longer locate due to the aforementioned difficulty I have keeping track of important things. In addition, I currently have 148 unread emails. Things like “Gas customer connection” in the subject line don’t stand out as a thrilling read. So, long story short, three months went by and…

When I called customer service to pay the bill and schedule a day to restore service, the representative said the next available appointment was Thursday. That was six days from now. I was incensed that they couldn’t come out sooner and was told I could contact a supervisor early Monday morning.

That left me plenty of time to muster up the courage to tell my husband and to discover the relationship between gas and the heating of the shower and bath water. I showered at my neighbors’ and cooked breakfast on camping burners in my driveway. (Yup. The husband came around to seeing it as slightly humorous – albeit also incredibly embarrassing—and made chocolate chip pancakes and hash browns 5 feet from our back door our first sans stovetop morning.)

Sunday my parents brought over dinner to avoid another meal cooked on the blacktop. As we all sat around chatting, laughing, redirecting the poo talk for another time, I tried to forget my humiliation and put to the back of my mind the anxiety I had been feeling in anticipation of anyone outside of my inner circle finding out we’d been cut off due to non-payment. I pictured the pathetic looks, the whispers, the rumors of impending foreclosure of our home, the teasing of my kids… the list went on and on.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and this will all be over sooner than Thursday, or maybe we will continue to cook in our electric oven, take five-second cold showers and utilize the convenience of kind friends washing machines and dryers. But in the midst of all the chaos, I realize for us, this is just a temporary inconvenience. For others, for many others, this is daily life—waking up with a sense of shame, the stigma of poverty and impossible choices. My situation wasn’t financial, it was organizational. But there are many families having to make choices between food and shelter, heat and water. Many won’t have my same story and most won’t have my relatively easy solution.

I have thought about, talked about and worked at changing the system for many years, but I have never personally had to swallow it. It's left a bitter taste in my mouth and a sad feeling of shame realizing how far I've strayed from something I truly thought I was in the thick of. But it has also given me a renewed determination and dedication to continue to remind myself every day—tikkun olam.

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My Desk Made Me Fat

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05/22/2013

We are a nation with a gut. The US is one of the fattest countries in the world. We eat too much, sit too much, and exercise too little.

Rank Country % Overweight or Obese
1. Nauru 94.5
2. Federated States of Micronesia  91.1
3. Cook Islands 90.9
4. Tonga 90.8
5. Niue 81.7
6. Samoa 80.4
7. Palau 78.4
8. Kuwait 74.2
9. United States 74.1
10. Kiribati 73.6
11. Dominica 71.0
12. Barbados 69.7
13. Argentina 69.4
14. Egypt 69.4
15. Malta 68.7
16. Greece 68.5
17. New Zealand 68.4
18. United Arab Emirates 68.3
19. Mexico 68.1
20. Trinidad and Tobago 67.9

Source: World Health Organization

If you have accepted your spare tire like most Americans, you get to look forward to an increased risk of: 

• Heart Disease
• Cancer
• Prejudice

It’s sad but true: companies avoid hiring overweight people. Airlines are now requiring some people to purchase two tickets. Samoa Air went one step further and charges people based on their weight.

My Desk Made Me Fat photo 2

THE #1 EXCUSE: People do not have time to exercise.

I understand. If you have a time-consuming job, stay home with your children, work two jobs, are in school, etc. it’s hard to find the time for fitness. And of course with an intense television schedule it’s hard to find the time and motivation (yes, that was sarcastic).

You might not be able to get to the gym, but you can stand up, stretch, breathe deeply and sit back down! Recently there has been a plethora of articles on how sitting wreaks havoc on our bodies. I like the info graphic called Sitting is Killing You. More and more people are buying standing desks, or sit stand desks, or even treadmill desks!

My Desk Made Me Fat photo

Courtesy: OceanPointe Distributors Corp. Import - Export

MY RECOMMENDATION: Fit in fitness wherever and whenever you can.

You do not need a fancy desk to incorporate fitness into your office routine. I have been working on a video series with exercises you can do at your desk/office. If you cannot get away from the desk/computer/television, fit a few of these exercises in throughout the day. Check out Suite Series Part II below. If you can repeat the simple circuit three times throughout the day, that will be a great start. The industry standard line: Before starting this or any other exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor.

I know some people have trouble standing or cannot stand at all. There are a number of exercises you can do seated as well:

• Wrist circles, clockwise and counter clockwise;
• Knee lifts, simply lift your foot a few inches off the ground;
• Shoulder rolls, lift your shoulders up, back and down; and
• Belly breathe, fill your stomach up with air and slowly exhale.

There are a lot of desk exercises on the web. If you have a favorite, please send it my way. rkrit@fitwithkrit.com

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The Bar Mitzvah of My Bar Mitzvah

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05/21/2013

The Bar Mitzvah of My Bar Mitzvah photo

This year, May 20 was the most significant May 20 I had since the May 20 that was 13 years ago. For you see, on this May 20, it was exactly 13 years since my Bar Mitzvah, or as I have been saying, the Bar Mitzvah of my Bar Mitzvah. I should make that the title of this post.

What’s that? I already did? I’m so smart.

In most people’s lives (mine included) birthdays happen but once a year and yet every year, but the opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the Bar Mitzvah of my Bar Mitzvah only comes once in a lifetime. So this year, celebrating my birthday took a back seat. Okay, maybe just shotgun—I still like my birthday after all.

To be honest, celebrating my birthday seems silly since I had very little to do with my actual birth. I did however, have everything to do with my actual Bar Mitzvah. For my birth, I just showed up. For my Bar Mitzvah, I had to show up, chant Hebrew, dance the Macarena and make a 13-year-old ass out of myself. Given in those years I was always making an ass out of myself; for whatever reason I used to go around all the time yelling, “Hee haw!” Don’t ask why. And then later in high school I played Bottom in a Midsummer’s Night Dream and that obviously didn’t help the image. I still belt out a “Hee haw!” when the mood strikes.

In the 13 years since my Bar Mitzvah, quite a bit has happened. The first black President was elected to office, Gangnam Style replaced the Macarena as the most hated Bar Mitzvah song, and one of the most amazing ideas ever, the cotton gin, was invented. Seriously, if you haven’t had this gin that is made from cotton, do yourself a favor and try it now. It is, in a word, spectacular and in two words, spectacularly spectacular. Yes, this entire paragraph was just for that one terrible joke.

But the one thing that has truly happened in that time is that I have become a man. This was supposed to happen at 13, but when I became a Bar Mitzvah, they didn’t make me start paying for my own health insurance. I didn’t start doing that until last week. Now I truly am a man and I’m freaking out.

So now I have to associate myself with concepts like adulthood, manhood and Robin Hood. Well, maybe not so much Robin Hood, but the other two are far too prevalent in my life to ignore. Well, maybe not so much manhood either, as I still eat Spaghetti-Os every other meal. But adulthood! Yes, adulthood. That’s one I can’t turn away from. I am an adult. I even have a beard to prove it.

I say this because I had always felt that I started legitimately retaining memories once I hit my Bar Mitzvah. Yes, hit my Bar Mitzvah. We got into a fight and I don’t wanna talk about it. Pre-13, my memories are few and far between at best, but once I hit that glorious day 13 years ago (again, still don’t wanna talk about it) I seem to have started taking my experiences and learning from them to allow myself to grow much more as a person.

Despite my constant attempts at the contrary, I am an adult. Maturity wise, not so much, but age and life wise, I unfortunately can’t deny it. I have learned pretty much every significant life thing in the past 13 years. And the fact that I call them “life things” shows how truly significant they are. Sure, there are things that have always and will always be with me, but most of my truly significant life experiences and understandings have manifested a lot more recently. I’ve always felt my Bar Mitzvah was a catalyst of sorts; I wonder if now, in celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of my Bar Mitzvah, if I may be approaching another catalyst of sorts. I suppose only time will tell, of sorts.

So even after getting to what I was trying to say with this piece, I’m still not entirely sure what I was trying to say with this piece. Truth be told, I came up with the title and went from there, neglecting to truly ground everything that followed in some sort of meaningful coherency. If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed the picture of me with my actual Bar Mitzvah shirt from way back when.

It was May 20, 2000. That’s when.

Having said that, thank you for reading. Check back with me in 13 years, when I’ll be celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of my Bar Mitzvah of my Bar Mitzvah!

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Hallelujah

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05/20/2013

The message came over Facebook late Monday night. “I just heard from his cousin. Josh took his own life last night. I am in shock. So sad.”

Josh was a good friend from college. After we graduated, I moved to Chicago, and he moved back home to Ohio. Over time, we lost touch. Sadly, the last time I remembered seeing Josh was 12 years ago, when we drove to Toledo for his brother’s funeral.

Now I found myself sitting at Josh’s funeral with more questions than answers. How does this happen? How could his mother, his sister, his wife, be forced to deal with so much pain? Could I have done anything to stop this? The priest shared some thoughtful insight:

“We have three choices when faced with a tragedy like this. We can be angry with God. We can choose to shut Him out of our lives and refuse to have anything more. I can understand why someone might feel that much anger from this. Second, we can protect God. We can say ‘God needed him’ or ‘he has gone to a better place.’ From my perspective, God does not need protecting, but some will take that perspective. But, we also have a third choice. We can do what we are all doing right now. We can come together, join hands and walk into this mystery side by side.”

It was the most compassionate thing that could have been said. He helped to make sense of what was happening and acknowledged that no one was claiming to know the answers. We simply chose to come together for this service as one and acknowledge the oneness of something more important than each of us individually.

Josh was a lover of music, and because music was such a part of who he was, his cousin looked to music to help everyone cope. She arranged to have two fellow musicians perform the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. All week long, nobody had known what to say. There really was nothing that could be said. She wanted to give us a word. Hallelujah means “praise God.” That weekend, it was the word we needed most. Hallelujah!

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Let's Bless Them All and Get Vashnigyered!

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Naso
9 Sivan 5773 / May 17-18, 2013
05/17/2013

dan horwitz headshot large

In this week’s portion, Naso, we find the language Aaron was instructed to use when blessing the Israelite nation:

יְבָרֶכְךָ  יְהוָה  וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
(Y’-va-re-ch’-cha A-do-nai v’-yish-m’-reh-cha)
May God bless you and guard you;

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
(Ya-eir A-do-nai pa-nav ei-leh-cha vi-chu-neh-kah)
May God make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
(Yi-sah A-do-nai pa-nav ei-leh-cha v’-ya-seim l’-cha sha-lom.)
May God lift up God’s face unto you, and give you peace.

[Numbers 6:24–26]

We find this blessing still being used regularly today. For example, this is the blessing traditionally offered by parents to their children at the Shabbat dinner table on Friday nights. It is often recited for a bride right before her wedding, and sometimes under the chupah as well for both bride and groom. It is part of the standard repetition to the Amidah, and thus for many years has been recited (or at least heard) by observant Jews on a daily basis.  

Is the blessing one that is familiar to you? 

If not, what are your initial reactions to it?

If so, does it hold any meaning or power?

Perhaps the power of the blessing comes less from the words themselves, and more from the fact that we know Jews have been offering this blessing to one another for over 2,500 years? For me, knowing that the words being offered are the same as those my ancient ancestors used and received is quite moving, even if theologically I’m not quite sure that those are the words I’d come up with if tasked with crafting a blessing to offer to my children in the future.

What is the value of offering a blessing today? Do we believe that blessings really contain any sort of power?

On a metaphysical level, many would argue that a blessing is a form of putting positive energy out into the universe.

On a more practical level, I know that before I proposed to my fiancée, I made sure to ask her parents for their blessing…

If asked to compose the words that you would use to bless your children, what would they be and why?

How do they compare to the blessing we’ve inherited from our ancestors?

This Shabbat, reflect on the power of blessings – both in form and function. Be in awe of just how far back in history some of our blessings go.  Resolve to explore meaningful ways to incorporate and when necessary, to create, blessings that speak to you today.

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My friend, Guy

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05/14/2013

Last year, while volunteering on MASA Israel Journey—Israel experiential programs sponsored in part by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago—in South Tel Aviv, I met an extraordinary friend named Guy. I volunteered with the African refugee community at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), a non-profit that helps refugees reach basic social services in Israel. Guy translated for me while I interviewed refugees for their visa applications and *UNHCR resettlement.

Guy is a young man from Darfur who lost his family in the genocide and fled to Israel. Each day, Guy told me his dream was to move to the United States and study at a college. Guy achieved his dream and in December he flew to the US on a student visa. This did not come easily, however. He worked hard and had the courage to ask for help from his friends around the world.

My friend, Guy photo 1

Guy, a Sudanese refugee, and Tamar, an associate with JUF Missions.

Guy recently started school at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, through a program at their Center for International Education. I’m sponsoring Guy in Chicago along with a Maya Paley, director of Community Engagement and Special Programs at the National Council of Jewish Women.

Most people ask me about my motivations in helping Guy since I’m young, removed from what’s happening in Israel, and living in Chicago. To be honest, I never saw it as an option to NOT help him. He may come from a completely different background than me—Sudanese, Christian, poor, and traumatized—but he became a very close friend who needed my support.

Guy arrived in the middle of winter with only warm-weather clothes. So, what was my response? Take action. I immediately contacted friends and family across the country to help me with clothing donations. I helped him get acclimated to Chicago (Guy’s first El ride was a loud and crowded experience) and helped him get situated financially.

My friend, Guy photo 2

My Jewish upbringing has given me the moral foundation for sponsoring Guy. Thanks to my parents, who’ve instilled in me the importance of gemilut chasadim, or acts of loving kindness, I’ve always had a passion for helping others. I grew up in a close-knit Jewish community in Milwaukee. My dad is Israeli so we always had Israeli family and friends stay at our home for long periods of time. I grew up sharing everything with my siblings, and we all leaned on each other for help. Throughout high school and college, I participated in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) and the UW-Madison Hillel respectively, which both focus on Jewish leadership, community service and tikkun olam.

After volunteering in Israel with the African refugee community, I settled in Chicago and found a job in the best place for Jewish communal work and charitable giving—the Jewish United Fund. I also spend my Sunday mornings teaching religious school to senior kindergarteners at Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue.

These experiences and positions have grounded my Jewish identity and me. I believe in tzedakah, doing the right thing, giving back, and helping those who are struggling.

Guy came to my doorstep in January and I have not given up trying to help him. The Jewish community I’ve created for myself throughout the years, filled with family, friends and colleagues, have given me the strength and courage to help Guy. He is an amazing person—forthcoming, inspiring and gentle. He speaks highly of Israel—despite the hardships for the African refugee community—and the safety he found there. Some days I’m overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility in sponsoring Guy, but I remind myself that I’m doing the right thing by helping this remarkable person.

Like some of my family who survived the Holocaust, Guy is a survivor of the Darfur genocide and I’m grateful to have him in my life.

Read Guy's story here.

For more information on Guy’s story, email me at tshertok@gmail.com.

Masa Israel Journey is a joint project of the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partners, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod-UJA.

*UNHCR stands for The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Tamar Shertok is an associate in the Missions department of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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In my words ... (Guy's story)

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05/14/2013

In my words ... (Guy's story) photo 1

Guy survived the Darfur genocide and found refuge in Israel.

What I have been through is not something one can ever forget. I come from a very poor family, but I believe I have a future: I want to help my people and make Darfur a safer and better place for all people from that region of Sudan. It was my dream to study since I was kid, but I have faced many challenges along the way. I survived the genocide in Darfur.

I came to the United States as a student both because I wanted to study and because I needed a safe place to do so. I was born in 1986 in a village called Mara in Darfur with the name Abdelhamid Yousif Ismail Adem. I am the second of four brothers and three sisters. I recently discovered that one of my brothers is alive, but I do not know whether the rest are alive today. After seeing people being killed in the name of religion, I converted from Islam to Christianity. With this change, I decided to change my name to Guy [JOSIF].

My parents were farmers who cultivated fruits like citrus. We owned cows, goats, sheep, horses, and camels. We were self-reliant. There were around 2,000 people in our village; all of us were farmers. Before the genocide happened I used to help my father and mother in the farm when I returned from school. Unfortunately, I had to stop attending school after grade six. My parents could not afford the fees.

In 2003 our lives changed indefinitely. The war broke out in Darfur and my village was looted and burned. We remained with nothing. One afternoon in August, 2003 we were having tea together and my brothers were playing in front of us. Suddenly nine people with Sudanese military uniforms came into our compound and started beating us. Our village was attacked by around 200 members of the Janjaweed. They came on foot, horse, camels, and cars with machine guns and Kalashnikovs, shooting at every human being in sight. They burned all the houses in our village and took the cattle. I got a chance to escape, but never saw my family again.

In my words ... (Guy's story) photo 2

While running I met some people from the UN Mine Action office and they stopped and asked me where I was going. I told them that my village was burned and that I left my family there. I told them I was not sure if the villagers survived. I was afraid. I stayed with them while they hid me in their car and went to my village. They saw that everyone was killed and they could not find my family. They took me to their main office in Khartoum where I started working with them as a security guard. There was one man who supported me to go to the Evangelical school in the evenings. I studied from class one up to class four. I continued to the Young Men’s Christian Association Centre then to Abraham Higher School in Bahre where I sat for my high school examination and succeeded.

I began studying at Juba University, Khartoum. After one month, the government created a plan to arrest, imprison, and torture the students from Darfur or South Sudan. Some of my good friends were killed. I was arrested for three months and put in prison, tortured, and beaten. They asked me what I was doing working with the UN. I was released and arrested again and again. The man who had helped me from the UN wrote in the newspaper that he had helped a displaced person from Darfur who had no family. In the article he explained that I was arrested a few times and that bad things had happened to me and he requested my release. The security men released me and told me that I had one week to leave Sudan.

I traveled to Egypt by train where I spent one month before finding people to help me get to Israel. In the evening we were taken by a small bus to a Bedouin camp where I stayed for nine days. We were 23 people from Darfur and Eritrea. Thirteen got killed in front of our eyes; only ten survived and arrived in Israel. The Egyptian border patrol shoots at people randomly. People arrive in Israel with bullet wounds, families are separated at the border, and others lose their lives there.

After all this, I was looking for a place where I can be safe to study and do something for future generations. My dream is that with an education I can create change. Education is the key to life, but in Israel it was too hard to go to school. I was accepted to the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois and have been studying there since January, 2013.

Here in the United States, I can get the education I need to help my people back in Darfur.

Read a story by Guy's sponsor here.

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Not Just Kid Stuff

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Reclaiming the Holidays for Adults
05/13/2013

Not Just Kid Stuff photo

First, you are a kid, and you experience the Jewish holidays on that level: costumes and graggers on Purim, The Four Questions and afikomen gifts at the Passover Seder, and dreidels and latkes (and more gifts) at Chanukah.

Then you go to high school, and want nothing to do with anything child-related. Then you go to college, and major in cynicism with a minor in irony… and want may have nothing to do with anything religion-related.

Later, you have a kid and begin to revisit the holidays, trying to re-create the fond memories from your own childhood… or create new, positive ones. But once again, you are relating to the holidays on a child’s level— and then on a grandchild’s level.

The result? At no point have you had— or taken— the opportunity to explore the highlights of the Jewish calendar as an adult. This is a sad, but preventable, situation.

Each of the Jewish holidays has a historical lesson and a deep, metaphysical meaning. They relate to seasons of the Earth and seasons of the soul. They connect the ancient stories of defeat and victory with the struggles we fight today. They are set aside for introspection and celebration, for connecting with family and community, but also reconnecting with ourselves.

I went to a talk before Purim one year. The rabbi spoke movingly about Esther’s struggle against discrimination— as a woman and as a Jew. It really made me wonder what else there might be, hiding behind the paper-plate masks of my childhood view of the holidays.

Now, I love my kids, nieces, and nephews, and I love having the Seder with them every year. But part of me has longed to go to a Seder for grown-ups, which is why I was really glad to attend the Downtown Seder this year at City Winery.

I am writing this now because it is time for Shavuot. One reason this holiday— which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, no less— is under-appreciated is its lack of well-known rituals. There is no shofar to sound, no matzah to break, no menorah to light.

But lesser-known that they may be, Shavuot does have its practices, including eating dairy foods, decorating the synagogue with greenery and staying up all night studying. This practice is called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot.”

And this year, it will once again be held at Anshe Emet Synagogue from late May 14 to early May 15, and all are invited. The evening begins with a panel of rabbis from across the Jewish denominational spectrum, with a time for questions afterward. Then, community scholars host a selection of discussion groups— a new set every hour— until sunrise, with snacks and coffee available to help you stay awake! The event concludes with a walk to Lake Michigan, and morning prayers said by the light of the sun rising over the water. If you have never been to a Tikkun, I urge you to go. If you have, then you will no doubt be back, and I will see you there.

While enjoying the holidays and passing them on are important activities, we also need to drop the dreidels once in a while and study the meaning and lessons of the holidays on an adult level. We must wrest the holidays from the sticky hands of our kids. If we don’t, we risk seeing Judaism itself as merely childish.

And so, fellow grown-ups, let us reclaim the Jewish holidays. The Downtown Seder, Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Latke-Hamentash Debate, and even Beef and Bourbon in the Sukkah are great, but only the start. So below, let’s start talking about how else we can study, honor, and celebrate our Jewish holidays— like adults.

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Personal Style Redux

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05/10/2013

Personal Style Redux photo

A couple months ago I wrote about "pushing the fashion envelope" and taking risks with personal style. This post is meant to be a slight addendum to that one.

I agree with all that I said back in February, and I definitely think taking fashion risks is empowering, but since writing that post, I have reflected more on my personal style. I have realized that there's a uniform quality to it, and actually, I’m learning to really embrace it. I’m proud of how I express myself through fashion and what makes me comfortable in the work place and in the rest of my life.

I’ve realized when I was younger, especially in college, I had a lot of mental space to devote to constructing one-of-a-kind outfits in my head and spending significant time in the mornings putting it all together. This was more or less a hobby of mine but, alas, cannot be right now. I have a lot swirling around in my 28-year-old world here in the city and my reality is that I do not have a lot of time I can devote to coming up with the perfect outfit day after day after day. I need easy, chic and simple pieces at the ready to mix and match and throw on, allowing me to easily construct an appealing outfit in a short period of time. I may not wear the most revolutionary, perfectly orchestrated combinations of clothes and accessories every day, but my ensembles are chic and effortless, and multi-purpose—transitioning nicely from day to night.

When I wrote my last post, I was struggling with accepting how my life has evolved and impacted my fashion choices. But since then, I have embraced my current reality and have actually given myself a pat on the back. I’ve learned how to manipulate fashion into something quick, simple, but still very chic, and I’ve set this system on re-peat for day-to-day dressing ease.

Ladies, below I have listed things I’ve learned women need to invest in for effortless, chic style throughout any season. Add to these items a few trendy accessories and you will never have to stress about how you’re going to look if you oversleep and have a half-hour to get out the door for a packed day of work and social commitments.

- Silk blouses in a variety of colors
- Pearl earrings
- The perfect, go-anywhere skinny jeans
- One-to-two pair(s) of neutral and very comfortable ballet flats
- A statement watch
- A classic durable hand bag like a Longchamp Le Pliage tote
- Wide-leg, light weight trousers
- A pair of nude pumps
- A well-cut vest you can wear instead of a jacket during transitional weather, or in the winter as a layer or in the summer with a tank.
- A classic trench coat

Even if the items I have listed above do not fit your personal style, what I have learned and can really apply to anyone’s life and personal style: embrace who you are and figure out how to fit fashion into your life; do not worry about how to fit your life into fashion.

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mrweilstyle

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Life After JUF

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05/09/2013

Life After JUF photo

It’s very weird sitting down to write this blog post for Oy!. For one thing, I’m not writing from my office, instead I’m at home sitting on my bed with my dog (who is barking) by my side and writing from my personal laptop. And for another, I’m not your managing blogger anymore. I’m experiencing some writers block, but I know I have to produce something because otherwise I’m one of my bloggers who I’ve spent the last five years yelling at (not really) for not turning their posts in on time!

I've been thinking a lot about what I want to write for Oy! post my career at JUF and Oy!Chicago.

Do I write about my new job?

It's good. I'm starting to feel settled in my new roles. And my lovely seatmates have figured out I talk a lot— mostly to myself— and they still seem to like me.

Or do I write about what it’s been like to return to the corporate world after spending the majority of my 20s at a non-profit?

It’s a change for sure— obviously. There is a big difference between working at a quickly growing company at the forefront of its industry and a century-old non-profit.

I could probably write a whole blog post about how my personal Jewish community has reacted to the news of my leaving JUF.

What I want to write about is how I’m making plans to stay involved in the Jewish community. But how am I? Well, I’m really still trying to figure that out.

One of the deals I made with myself— and my former co-workers— when I left was that I’d stay involved as a lay leader. I guess you could argue this blog post is a start at that, but so far I haven’t really given much thought (or action) to my ongoing involvement. I do want to sit on the other side of the fence and use my knowledge from my professional days to make a difference.

But how?

Do I join a JUF board or committee? YLD seemed like a natural fit, as does the newly formed Birthright Committee spearheaded by one of my favorite JUF people, Elizabeth "JUF" Wyner.

Or do I go back to my college roots (I majored in politics and history) and try and get involved in our wonderful Jewish Community Relations Council? Maybe do some Jewish advocacy work?

How about a JUF-supported agency? Jewish Child and Family Services or SHALVA both definitely interest me. That would be something relatively new, but also still within the fold.

Or do I do something really removed from the JUF world? And go volunteer for ADL? Or NECHAMA?    

So many options. So many opportunities. Where do I start?

Clearly I need to spend some more time adjusting to my new reality before I make any decisions. I still feel too much like a Jewish communal professional to really move on as a lay leader. But at least by publically stating my intent here, I’ve taken that first step.

And if anyone has any advice or suggestions, I’d gladly like to hear them.

I know this has been a post of many questions and not much else. But that’s where my brain is at right now. Hopefully, I’ll have more to say next month, but for now, I’m signing off, Oy!sters. 

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The Fall of ‘JewBall’

 Permanent link
05/08/2013

The Fall of ‘JewBall’ photo

Around the country, Jewish basketball is growing rapidly with tournaments, the Maccabiah Games and even websites such as Jewish Hoops America and Jewish Coaches. But while high school and even the college ranks continue to grow, the last few years in the NBA that brought us hope for sustained Jewish basketball on a professional level have quickly evaporated.

A few years back, there was a resurgence of Jewish NBA talks. First was the emergence of Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born athlete to play in the NBA. Right behind him was Lior Eliyahu, who had been drafted earlier and had his rights traded in hope to land on a roster. Graduating from college were NCAA champion Jon Scheyer and Virginia standout Sylven Landesberg, both who were promising second round (potential first round) picks. David Stern stood atop the NBA totem pole as the commissioner; Lawrence Frank was given a second chance as a head coach in Detroit and Larry Brown was with the Bobcats. Plus, we had a bona fide player with staying power in Jordan Farmar. This on top of several NBA players who had gone to Israel to play and many college stars heading to Israel to hone their skills. And who could forget Amare Stoudemire's pursuit of his Jewish heritage and Lebron James' meeting with a rabbi. All of this is in a tight two-and-a-half-year window.

Since then, much of it has crashed. Both Brown and Frank are gone from the NBA coaching scene and Stern will be stepping down very soon (to be replaced, however, by current deputy commissioner Adam Silver). Farmar has landed in Turkey after a tough run with the Nets and Eliyahu never made a roster. The undrafted Landesberg has moved up to Maccabi Tel Aviv, but he has yet to get more than a summer league spot on an NBA roster. Anthony Parker, the player who benefited most by coming to Israel to play, has retired. Scheyer has given up on playing at at the top level and recently joined the Duke coaching staff. And of course, Stoudemire is not Jewish and Lebron never converted.

This leaves us with Casspi, Israel's golden boy, who in his rookie year took the league by storm and looked to be an elite athlete. Now, Casspi, limited in minutes and productivity, has been rumored in trades once again and faces the idea of going back to Israel. While Israel might be the best option for his career, it would certainly hurt Jewish basketball as a whole with no player in the NBA for Jews to rally behind. The only other option is the potential of Davidson's Jake Cohen, who will have to prove himself over the next few months for an NBA team to use a pick on him. Realistically, Casspi's stay in the NBA is important, not something calculated by minutes, but with hope for Jewish ballers everywhere.

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Show Choir Confessions

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05/07/2013

Show Choir Confessions photo

The other day, it came up in casual conversation that yes, in my younger days I was a member of a Jewish show choir. As a matter of fact, I was involved in two show choirs during my high school years: one through school, plus the aforementioned crew of lovely singing Jewish boys and girls, all of us aged roughly from 12-18. I was so totally Glee long before Glee ever happened. Oy.

And can I tell you something about my experience as part of a Jewish show choir? I might not have told you this then, but—I loved it. Sure, some performances consisted of singing at synagogues in front of kids around my age, which was pretty intimidating for a high school freshman. But, our group also got the chance to perform at one of my very favorite venues: nursing homes, senior citizen centers, you name it.

Ever since I sang with my fifth grade class ("Catch a Falling Star" is the tune that comes to mind) at a local nursing home, I've loved the opportunity to sing for others and see the smiles appear in the crowd. I'm terribly sentimental (ahem, I'm a sap). I know. It suits me.

I can vividly picture many Saturday mornings driving along 94 with my dad, being dropped off at performances all across the north of Chicago. At the time, I didn't think too much about my involvement in the choir, other than I loved to sing, I enjoyed meeting new people and it was an awesome outlet for my adorably hammy, expressive self.

More than 10 years later (gasp), I can look at my time spent singing songs about nearly every Jewish holiday, tunes about the Jewish people coming together after the Diaspora, celebrating Shabbat and the importance of the Shema and other integral prayers with a heaping helping of appreciation and pride. I've always been animated and had a flair for the dramatic, and I felt right at home with the Shining Lights. I might not have known it then, but those experiences consisted of some of the sweetest and most surprising ways I connected to Judaism in my younger years and helped shaped my thoughts and feelings about my religion today.

There's one connection that comes to mind that I will never forget. After one of our shows in the city, an elderly woman approached me and asked if I was Israeli, to which I replied, "I'm not, but my father is." Dad was hanging back after the show to shuttle me back to the north burbs, so I quickly asked him to chat with this woman.

As it turns out, she and he were born in the same town in Israel. She left Israel many years ago, after her son had been taken from her in an act of war. At that time, I knew about Israel, but the intricacies of the conflict were nothing I yet understood. As my Dad relayed this story to me I felt overwhelmed by a wave of sadness, but also felt an interesting sort of warmth in the connectedness of the moment. This woman had never met me, and I was somehow familiar to her. She had an innate feeling that our paths had somehow crossed, which was in some ways true. Now, that could be very far away from what she had in mind when she asked me offhand if was Israeli, but her friendly forwardness made an impression on me.

Growing up and learning about Judaism at Hebrew school, I always carried a sense of pride that my dad was from Israel. Growing up, I knew that my family had emigrated from Eastern Europe to Israel (and later to Canada). I knew that my grandfather fought in the war for independence. But what did I really know, about what he went through, what anyone went through? The older I got, the more interested in Israel I became.

I went on Birthright and I continued my Israeli education after the fact. My first job after college I worked for an organization in support of the Israeli Defense Force. I learned more than I could have ever imagined about the army, Israel and the spirit of those who fight for what they believe in. As I gathered trivial facts about army bases and brigades, as I spoke with many Israelis about their lives—from their mundane ups and downs to their defining triumphs and tragedies—my perspective broadened and my feelings for Israel strengthened.

I always assumed I joined that unique show choir on a lark, because it was another outlet to sing, dance and do all of those things I loved so dearly when I was younger. Now that I'm older, I realize how special it was to express my creativity in a way that both connected me to my religion and allowed me to share that connection with others. Perhaps it led me to discover more about myself, through my further learning beyond high school and through my first professional experience. Who knows? But after all of these years, I can hum a little tune, and it takes right back to that very certain time and place.

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Spring Fling

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05/03/2013

Spring Fling photo

Spring has sprung in Chicago. Buckingham Fountain was turned on this week and the city is alive with buds budding and blossoms blossoming. Green City Market opens next week and I am beyond excited!

Each spring, I make my produce plans with promises of meals to come and ingredients to play with. I can’t wait to watch the market go from some very basic radishes, spinach and spuds to eggplants of every color, peppers guaranteed to make your cheeks flush and berries that perfume the air.

We are blessed to live in a city surrounded by farmland and with enough people who purchase from farmer’s markets to keep them happily stocked. Before Passover, I taught some cooking classes in nearby states that are not as fortunate. I was surprised to hear that many communities not far from Chicago do not have such markets.

I am even more surprised when I talk to local Chicagoans and hear that they have never been to the markets. I am not sure why anyone would not support these markets, but here are some really good reasons why you should shop at the Farmer’s Markets.

Farmer’s Markets serve as a way for people to purchase locally grown produce and to connect with others in the community.

Farmer’s markets have the ability to shift the economy and change community dietary habits by providing seasonal produce.

According to Farmers Markets of America, customers drawn to farmer’s markets shop locally for three main reasons: food quality, better prices and a great social atmosphere.

There is no question that the food purchased at the market tastes better and is of better quality and just in case you were wondering what to do with some of that great produce, here is a quick and easy recipe adapted from Julia Child.

This sauce is perfect for asparagus or any vegetable you find at the market. Enjoy!

BLENDER HOLLANDAISE
Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I (Knopf, 1961)

½ pound unsalted butter
6 egg yolks
4-6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper

1. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until it begins to foam, 15-20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, put egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and pepper into the jar of an electric blender. Cover, and blend on high speed for 2 seconds; then, with the motor still running, gradually add melted butter in a slow, steady stream through hole in blender lid, leaving milky solids behind. Adjust seasonings.

3. Keep the sauce warm (I transfer the sauce to a metal bowl and put the bowl over a pan of WARM, not hot, water.

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Girls in the City

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05/02/2013

Girls in the City photo

I began mentally preparing myself for 30 the minute I turned 26. The further I climb into my 20s, the more I find myself looking back.

I recently spent an evening out with old high school friends at the J. Parker, a tiny but trendy bar-restaurant atop the Hotel Lincoln, trading memories and exchanging tidbits about old classmates' whereabouts. Our evening of cocktails and conversation left me feeling somewhere between old and young; invigorated and drained. Perhaps a BuzzFeed.com article I found recently best describes our state of being, Life In Your Early Twenties Vs. Your Late Twenties.

My friends and I lamented that at times we feel we've squandered our 20s: we haven't traveled enough; we haven't let go enough; we've been too career-driven, etc. During that time in our lives when we have supposedly had the most flexibility to pick up and move to different cities or change our life courses in a fleeting moment, we haven't necessarily grabbed ahold of those opportunities.

Time seemed to move like molasses when I was in high school and college. Each year had an epic quality and defining expectations. After graduating from college, the years progressively lost that sense of definition. Perhaps it's different for those who move immediately on to graduate school or get married young. But, for others who lunge forward into the single working world, life takes on a completely different pace. The 20s can be frightening, exciting, ridiculous and altogether exasperating.

When my friends and I discovered Sex and the City during our undergraduate years, we were convinced we'd found the holy grail of womanhood. No television show or movie from our generation had ever deeply examined the female experience from a female perspective so honestly and cleverly. Sex and the City re-awakened a socially acceptable dialogue about sexual experience, feelings in the work place, relationships and more. Sex and the City had a national, and perhaps even global, resonance with women (and some men). I could sit and watch the show as comfortably with my girlfriends as I could with my mother, and all would find it equally enjoyable.

Sex and the City was to women what Seinfeld was to the general populous—a catalogue of human experience to which one could refer at any moment. To this day, I still reference various episodes of the show when recounting dating experiences. While each of the four characters represented a definitive female point of view, the composite of these women encompassed much of the female experience. Together, these four women were every woman; together they represented the hopes, fears, insecurities, and dreams of every woman.

Sex and the City examined the lives of women in their 30s. For women in their 20s, this show was relatable, but also a glimpse into a distant future 10 to 15 years away. That glimpse into our future, 30-something selves was unattainably stylish, witty, and heart-breaking. The show acknowledged and spoke to an ever-growing population of single women in their 30s trying to navigate their way. How those women got there, however, was unclear.

We 20-something women had yet to find a show that examined surviving our present—until HBO's Girls. If you are old enough to have seen Sex and the City in its entirety (and then the edited version in syndication), and still find Girls relevant to your life today, you are probably hovering precariously in your late 20s, as I am. I don't quite feel like I fit into Carrie Bradshaw's world, yet I've grown past some of the early-20s angst of Girls' character Hannah Horvath-while still clinging joylessly to some of her growing pains. Many friends my age similarly feel a kinship to the relatively new HBO series, as Girls only recently finished airing its second season. We have yet to see the complete evolution of the characters' and their respective journeys.

Various articles have drawn parallels between the two shows, and it's not surprising that they should. Both shows are based on female writer protagonists accompanied by three loyal friends with strong personalities. Both groups of women struggle in search of their identities, their careers and loving mates.

Sex and the City had a classic, cinematic element of escapism, with Carrie—a newspaper columnist—impeccably dressed down to her multiple pairs of pricey Jimmy Choo shoes. The show painted a glamorous love story about female friendships and living in New York City, upheld even when the characters' own love stories were more trying.

Conversely, Girls opens its first season with Hannah—also a writer—begging her parents for money in order to survive in New York. She and her early-20-something friends are getting by, sometimes with the help of their parents, and other times accepting odd jobs, including clerical work, babysitting gigs, ushering at a restaurant and working at a coffee shop. Girls character Shoshanna Shapiro—the younger and Jewish equivalent of Sex and the City's WASP Charlotte York—lives a seemingly cushy, yet neurotic, life as a college student, funded by her parents. However, the rest of the characters find themselves floundering financially in a very expensive New York City—often at odds with their ability to survive within it.

Sex and the City's Carrie is impossibly composed; Hannah is impossibly disheveled. Carrie's wardrobe inspired a nation; Hannah's incessant nudity makes a nation squirm before its television. Both shows undoubtedly push the boundaries of sexual expression on television. Sex and the City's escapist Hollywood veneer and Girls' often jagged and awkward approach both resonate with modern women.

That said, both shows, which claim to be about the women, steadily focus on the men. Sex and the City's premise is an ongoing quest for Carrie and her friends to find true love. Similarly, seemingly career-driven Hannah and her friends find themselves derailed by the happenings in their love lives—and often clinging to dysfunctional romantic relationships in the face of other difficulties. The reality of these 20s and 30s years, however, is an ongoing tug of war between self and the search for one's mate. In an age when most women are not simply going to college to obtain their "MRS" degree, the journey to finding both professional and romantic fulfillment is both complex and bumpy.

Both shows adopt a female perspective to explore family relations, female sex fantasies, STDs, pregnancy scares, dysfunctional dating, abuse, band-aid marriages, and more. So much is learned about these "girls" and women through how they choose and mis-choose their men. The confusion and pressures we "girls" experience as we try to catapult ourselves into womanhood, at times seduces us into settling, suffering disappointment, and then finding ourselves forced to press the re-set button.

I appreciate that Girls sets a less glamorous and more realistic tone for what girls can expect in their "adult" 30s. At the same time, it also abandons a core loyalty shared by Carrie and her female soul mates. While female friendships are not always as idyllic as those shared by Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha, the cold and selfish abandon carelessly dealt between Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna sends the message that friendships are expendable. No television show can fully prepare us for how quickly the gap between the 20s and 30s closes. Thankfully, real life girlfriends are there to catch us when we falter.

And, when in doubt, there's always MTV's Teen Mom, which provides invaluable validation for our life choices.

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The 23 List

 Permanent link
05/01/2013

Lauren Schmidt photo

Once upon a time in the 1990s, Blink 182 eloquently shared with the world that "nobody likes you when you're 23." I am turning 23 in approximately 10 days. Let's hope they were wrong. 

The only slightly appealing thing about this milestone (or lack thereof) is that 23 was Michael Jordan's number, so at least that's something I can fixate on for at least five to ten minutes and hope will bring some sort of luck…

Jokes aside (just for this sentence though because I would never agree to that long term), I most definitely have many goals that I want to accomplish in the next few years, and what better time to reflect on this than the lovely month that I was born in.

23 THINGS I WANT TO DO IN THE NEXT 2-3 YEARS

1. Go Back To Israel At Least Twice: It physically (and emotionally) pains me that it has almost been two years since I was last in one of the most magnificent places on earth and I am seriously yearning to go back to the homeland. Whether it is through staffing a trip, a short-term (or maybe even longer-term program) or on my own, it is truly important to me to return as soon as possible.

2. Run A 5K: Although I am just an inch short of six feet tall, my athletic abilities are limited to none. As an uncoordinated asthmatic, the idea of running a 5K seems like a bit of a joke. However, there are so many new, fun options such as the color run, which is motivation enough to try. However, this means that I should probably learn how to run without looking like Phoebe Buffay. It isn't that  far-fetched, right?

3. Go On A (Few) Road Trip(s) With Best Friends: I absolutely love road trips. I have no problem being in the car for countless hours, especially if it is with quality people. The trip in the works right now is from NYC to Cape Cod with my best friends from my semester abroad. Not only am I excited to see the cape, but also the journey will hopefully be as good (if not better) than the destination.

4. Go to Patagonia: Have you ever Googled Patagonia? If you have, and still have no desire to go, I a) don't understand you as a human being and b) do not believe you. In other words, Patagonia easily looks like one of the top 10 most gorgeous destinations I have ever laid my eyes upon and I must go. Plus, my Spanish that was once mildly decent is getting horrible, so a trip to South America will hopefully help this problem.

5. Stop Biting My Nails: Biting my nails is my worst habit and a really gross one in general. I have gotten better because you can't use fun nail polish colors without nice nails, but I need to end this habit once in for all.

6. Stay Off Facebook For at Least a Week: Facebook can be great, in terms of sharing pictures and staying in touch with old friends, but more so, Facebook is awful. From people's statuses about mundane details that I couldn't imagine anyone else caring about to wall posts that could easily be communicated through text, email, or G-d forbid conversation, Facebook is kind of the worst. Nonetheless, I am addicted to it and a week without Facebook seems both nearly impossible and much needed.

7. Go to the Grand Canyon: Ever since the Graham Canyon episode of the Rugrats premiered in the early '90s, this has been a dream of mine. If you are smiling to yourself right now, you are someone I would like to be friends with because Tommy Pickles is a boss.

8. Go to Greece: Watch Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I won't even say anything to those of you who wouldn't want to go after watching it because it is impossible.

9. Attend a Music Festival: I have a love-hate relationship with this idea. I love music. The majority of my college admittance essays were about my dream to write for Rolling Stone and the idea of listening to many great bands in the sun over the course of two or three days sounds incredible. However, the crowds, certainty that I will cross paths with some crazy folks, and monetary commitment makes this a toss-up.

10. Yearly Mother-Daughter Trip: Last year, I went to Vegas with my mom, two of her two best friends, and their daughters. This was a really fun trip for all of us and inspired me to want to do this more often. We are currently in the process of planning our next adventure, hopefully to Nashville, Tennessee.

11.  Read At Least One New Book Each Month: I do not read enough. I'm embarrassed to even say what the last three books I read were (except for the fact that I am currently reading The Prime Ministers  by Yehuda Avner, which is not only a serious piece of non-fiction, but a book I'd recommend). The good news is that with a lovely little invention called the Nook, reading is so much easier.

12.  Actually Make The Recipes I Have Pinned: I am addicted to Pinterest. It is seriously the best thing ever (besides Twitter and Buzzfeed). With that being said, the amount of recipes I have "pinned" is closely reaching 200 and I think the amount of recipes that I have made has not surpassed two. You do the math-I have a lot of cooking and baking to do!

13. Get Over My Fear Of The Dentist: I seriously hate the dentist more than anything. I have anxiety even writing this. I need to get over it. Now.

14. Finish Decorating My Bedroom: I moved into my apartment in December. Ask me if I have bought my sham pillows, put actual pictures in my already hung-up picture frames, and fixed the disaster that is my closet? Of course not. Watching the entire series of Boy Meets World, reorganizing my kitchen, creating new cocktails, and watching Pitch Perfect  once a week is obviously  the most productive way to spend my time. Hopefully this one will only take two or three more months, rather than years.

15. Take Ulpan:  I want to be fluent in Hebrew. As of now, even with four semesters of Hebrew under my belt, I doubt I could carry on a conversation that lasted more than a minute or two.

16. Fall in Love: This is cliché and I am completely aware of it. Additionally, this is probably the goal I have the least control over. I guess I can start by actually paying for a JDate account and adding more to my profile than my height, one picture, and that I don't want to meet anyone who smokes cigarettes. Progress.

17. Go Camping:  Maybe it's because there is something amazing about sleeping under the stars or maybe I just am having trouble thinking of legitimate goals? Either way, a camping trip definitely makes the list.

18. Find an Organization I Really Love and Volunteer There at Least Once a Month: This spring, I participated in Leads, which is a program through JUF's YLD. We had a seminar about volunteering and it made me realize that even while working for a nonprofit, my hands-on volunteering time could stand to be increased.

19. Go One Straight Month Without Exceeding My Mint.com Budget: For the sake of my bank account, this one is a must.

20. Organize My iTunes Library: Right now, my iTunes is chaos. Whenever I download new music, I just add to this chaos. Because of this, I always end up listening to Pandora. This leads me to use up my free Pandora hours each month, which leads me back to my iTunes that is still a mess. Maybe I should just use Spotify?

21.  Publish an Article in a Major Publication: I love writing. I miss writing. I want to write more and I want people to read what I write.

22.  Try One New Restaurant a Month: Chicago has a great food scene. Not embracing it just seems plain wrong.

23.  Create My Retirement Fund: Out of all the things I procrastinate doing, this is probably the worst of them all….

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