OyChicago blog

What Kind of Jewish Food Are You?

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05/30/2014

What Kind of Jewish Food Are You? photo

Last week, I bought my first can of gefilte fish at college. Gefilte fish is one of those odd foods that I refused to touch as a child; now, its jelly-like, quivering texture fondly reminds me of home. Back at my apartment, I excitedly wrenched the top open and thrust the can before one of my friends.

In turn, he eyed the gooey, grey fish and wrinkled his nose. “Jewish food looks gross,” he said dismissively, and the conversation promptly ended there. My gefilte fish can was shuttered and quietly placed in the corner of the refrigerator, never to be critiqued again. 

This one little moment got me wondering, though — what exactly is Jewish food? 

It’s definitely not something I could summarize in a sentence or two. What kind of Jewish food are we talking about here? New York lox and bagels? Israeli couscous? Russian potato salad? 

Since leaving my predominantly Jewish suburb and going to college, a question that’s been nagging at me is, what do non-Jews think of Jews? What does the Hillel building symbolize to those who have never been there? How does the dry, flaky taste of matzah resonate with someone who has never had to eat it for a week straight? The question of Jewish food only made me wonder — do non-Jews think all we eat is gefilte fish?! 

I’ve found that a word that floats around campus pretty often is “coastie:” a wealthy student from either New York or California who lives in one of of the two private dorms on campus. There are plenty of coastie jokes that go around; the ideal “coastie wardrobe” packed with leggings, a supposed affinity for Starbucks, their proud reputations as “daddy’s little girls.” 

While most people don’t find anything particularly ominous about coastie jokes, there is some question as to whether these jokes don’t hint at anti-Semitism. After all, the private dorms were originally created specifically for Jews who did not have anywhere else to live on campus. “Coasties” are mainly defined by what they wear and how they talk, but the unspoken understanding is that they’re all mostly Jewish, too. 

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything especially hateful about the “coastie” jokes. In a campus that is not predominantly Jewish, it’s easy to slap on a stereotype — as it is with any minority. What’s important to realize is that like any group of people, the Jewish people are startlingly diverse. 

A quick glance at the Chabad website shows that there are Jews everywhere throughout the world; from Bogota to Beijing. You can travel the world and be surprised by how many Jews you find. You might also see that while some customs are similar, each different person has their own mannerisms, food preferences, wardrobe and priorities. 

The definition of the average Jewish person is as hard to nail down as the question of Jewish cuisine. If anything, cuisine is a symbol of how varied and diverse the Jewish people are today. 

Using food as a metaphor, then a falafel might be the exotic Israeli security guard you bat your eyelashes at from your tour bus. The fluffy challah might remind you of your rabbi, while a plate of babaganoush might make you think of your Moroccan-Jewish friend. The gefilte fish might be a goofy older relative— a little misunderstood at times, but stodgy and well-meaning all the same. Assuming that a gefilte fish is accurately representative of all Jewish food is as misunderstood as thinking that an

Argentinean Jew would act the same as a Jew from New York.

A few days ago, someone sent me a goofy quiz titled, “What Religion Are You Really?” Bored, I filled it out and was pleasantly surprised to get the result of “Hinduism.”

As a joke, I sent it to my same friend who had so quickly dismissed Jewish food earlier. An hour later, I got a message with his results —Judaism, of course. Maybe there’s a little more to the whole Jewish thing than he expected.

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Wooing a Jew in the Digital Age

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05/29/2014

Wooing a Jew in the Digital Age photo

I can safely say, until reading Tamar Caspi’s How to Woo a Jew: The Modern Jewish Guide to Dating and Mating, I’d never come across a dating advice book so specific to the Jewish experience. Caspi’s book covers everything from online dating to Jewish singles events to the taming of Jewish mothers.

Caspi, who is a syndicated Jewish dating advice columnist and also JDate.com’s official advice columnist and member advisor, takes readers on a journey, from her own revelation that she must mate Jewishly, to finding and wedding a Jewish beshert. Throughout her book, Caspi details the process of preparing oneself for love, finding love, and then keeping that loved one. She profiles several daters of varying ages and circumstances as case studies, to elaborate on her points throughout. After falling in love, facing heartbreak, and falling in love again, she offers a heart-felt guide for evaluating whether one is ready to get back on the proverbial horse after bad serial dating, or even after a heart-wrenching break-up of one’s own.

A new view on what to do to woo a Jew photo1

Photo Credit: © Tracy Renee Photography

Caspi also gives section-by-section advice on how to build the perfect JDate profile, understandably, because she works for JDate. Caspi, however, makes a misstep by failing to acknowledge the ever-growing presence of competing dating apps, and how they are changing the digital dating landscape altogether. I understood her choice to focus on the primarily Jewish dating outlets, but Jewish people are arguably using a combination of competing resources to find their mates. With each succeeding generation, communication between daters grows more complex with daters seeking instant gratification wherever they can find it—and it’s not difficult with increasingly affordable smart phones and thousands of phone apps.

Those seeking their mates are likely juggling dating profiles on multiple sites and apps. I think back to the 2005 film, Must Love Dogs, and it’s not that far from present-day online dating experiences, despite the rapidly changing digital dating environment. In the film, a divorced, 40-something Diane Lane (still more gorgeous than most 20-year-olds I know) seeks love anew via several online dating profiles. While we all aren’t 40-something, post-divorce, hot movie stars looking for love, the movie had an air of truth, as Lane’s character made several profiles with edited photos of herself, portraying various personas.

If we all had endless time and the appropriate lack of conscience, we could play a game of “Catfish” across numerous sites—and some do. That wasn’t necessarily Lane’s character’s intention, but daters approach the sites similarly today. Perhaps, the majority of modern-day digital daters aren’t trying to “Catfish” each other either (deceive each other online), but merely increase their odds, as Lane’s character attempted to do. (At one point in the film, she accidentally wound up on a blind date with her own father, so clearly no system is fool-proof.)

That said, if one is online dating, his or her inbox is likely inundated daily with matches and promotions from three to four sites or apps, if not more. With apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge, one’s phone sends reminders at the same time each day to check out the app’s latest matches. Both apps offer limited match offers per day, which brilliantly, keeps the user coming back for more. For instance, Coffee Meets Bagel only offers the user one match a day. If one has enough “beans” (points) from referring friends to the app, Coffee Meets Bagel might unlock a few more surprise matches. Similarly, Hinge offers a select number of matches a day.

The most superficial of the recently popular apps is Tinder, which offers endless choices from which to choose. Swiping “yes” or “no” (right or left, respectively) is a bit like playing a slot machine or a game of cards. When one has swiped in approval of a picture, and that same person swipes in approval, “It’s a Match” pops up on the phone, encouraging the user to chat or “keep playing.”

“Tinder works like walking into a room, looking around and subconsciously going ‘yes, no, yes, no’ while scanning people,” Tinder co-founder and CEO Sean Rad said in an Entrepreneur.com article.

“If you give someone across the room that look and they give you that look back, you’re now both responding in the moment and that’s a match,” Rad added. “It’s because Tinder does this so well that we’ve experienced exponential growth, all without spending a dollar on marketing and advertising, not a dime on user acquisition. It’s people.”

While Tinder might mimic real-life first meetings in one regard, it’s also akin to older sites, such as “Hot or Not,” a site originally used for ranking people based on their looks, or Grindr.com, which historically attracted those looking for casual encounters. 

Tinder has revolutionized technology-assisted dating, according to Time.com writer Laura Stampler in an article entitled, “Inside Tinder; Meet the Guys Who Turned Dating into an Addiction.” 

While traditional dating sites require extended time in front of a desktop computer, writing and browsing bios, Tinder responds to a mobile generation, Stampler said, “played in short bursts on the go.” 

“Smartphone apps have turned courtship into an addictive pastime,” posited Stampler in a companion article titled, “The New Dating Game.”

She goes on to say that Tinder both appeals to and reinforces millennial stereotypes.

“Tinder is one of a host of new mobile dating apps based on a system of snap judgments that function kind of like a game for millennials,” Stambler said. “We've been dubbed the hook-up generation, ambitious multitaskers who commit reluctantly and are obsessed with digital distractions. 

“This is both true and an oversimplification. These apps play to stereotypes while simultaneously perpetuating them,” Stambler added. “Because even if we typically marry three to four years later than Gen Xers, we still (eventually) want love, and it's too soon to know if this crop of dating apps will make finding it easier or leave us trapped in a new kind of flirting limbo.”

In How to Woo a Jew, Caspi suggests that perhaps we are too prepared before meeting potential mates, having dissected their profiles, and potentially researched them online before meeting. As a digital dating advice guru, she actually encourages daters to get off line as quickly as possible, set up a date, and actually meet.

Some consider desktop dating sites a fading venture (along with desktop computers, themselves), and like playing the “dating slots” with quicker, addictive dating apps.

Perhaps, Rad is correct, in that Tinder allows users to make a return to the dating basics. First comes attraction, then connection, etc. However, a lot is lost when users make snap judgments with little-to-no accompanying information. 

A newer app, JCrush, attempts to mimic Tinder, but hasn’t quite taken off in the same way. Similarly, JDate has improved its mobile capabilities, likely to compete with other phone dating outlets. 

However, Rad admits that he doesn’t think people join Tinder because they’re looking for something serious. 

Digital daters are thus left with a confusing pool of dating outlet choices, none of which, likely make daters better communicators or more equipped to find love. 

“Dating is nothing if not confusing,” Caspi writes in How to Woo a Jew. “I get tons of emails asking for help with conundrums such as, ‘He calls me regularly, but doesn’t ask me out,’ or ‘He texted me after our date but I haven’t heard from him since.’

“A majority of the blame belongs to the current popular forms of communication: email, instant messages, and texts. Not knowing the tone, the sarcasm, or the intent of a written message can be a cause for confusion,” she added.

When we treat dating like a game, which newer apps increasingly encourage us to do, we’re less likely to make a real effort—with something as simple as even picking up the phone.

With traditional dating sites, digital daters were already developing a window shopping syndrome, in which one scarcely read entire profiles and easily dismissed potential mates. Apps such as Tinder only exacerbate this problem. And, how do you get people to stick around in a world of seemingly infinite possibility?

I’m reminded of an episode of Sex in the City, in which Carrie pleads with “Big” to give their relationship a real shot.

“I've done the merry-go-round, I've been through the revolving door. I feel like I met somebody I can stand still with for a minute,” Carrie said. “And… don't you wanna stand still with me?”

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A Tale of Two Cookies

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05/28/2014

It was the best of cookies, it was the worst of cookies, it was the age of French treats, it was the age of Passover treats, it was the epoch of almond flour, it was the epoch of coconut, it was the season of $2 cookies, it was the season of why-even-pay-for cookies, it was the spring of taking a nice walk to a bakery, it was the winter of staying inside because these cookies are not worth it, we had all the cookies before us, we had none of the cookies before us, we were all going direct to a heavenly bakery, we were all going direct the other way…

Today’s lesson is a Tale of Two Cookies.

Friends, meet the macaroon.

A Tale of Two Cookies photo 1

A macaroon is a cookie made mostly of coconut that is often served as a Passover delicacy — or more like a Passover punishment. These cookies come in flavors like chocolate, chocolate dipped, almond, caramel, banana nut, red velvet, and more. The only reason I see for wasting the calories (approximately 97) is that it’s Passover, you’re hungry, you don’t know where your next meal will come from, and there’s an easily accessible box of macaroons nearby. (My apologies to the three of you out there in the world who actually enjoy macaroons.)

Now, let’s meet a more exotic cookie: The French macaron.

A Tale of Two Cookies photo 2

A French macaron (notice the spelling) is a small, light sandwich cookie with an almond meringue texture and jam or buttercream in the center. The cookies are usually colored with food coloring to match its flavor, which could be vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, raspberry, red velvet, pistachio, lemon, caramel, cinnamon, lavender, and others. These cookies are divine, but at a minimum of $2 for each tiny cookie, the magic of these cookies is also felt in your wallet. My favorite French macarons have come from Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston or Whole Foods, and I’m always on the lookout for other bakeries that do a good job with these treats.

I’m not sure why the makers of these French cookies couldn’t have thought of a different name for these little colorful sandwiches — the macaron/macaroon game is difficult and is hard to win with those unfamiliar with the difference. But now that you, dear readers, know the difference, go out, buy some French macaroons, and don’t be put off by the title. Happy eating, everyone!

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Garlic and Dill Pan-Roasted Taters

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05/27/2014

Growing up, springtime used to be my favorite time of the year. The birds seemed to chirp more happily, the frigid cold breezes turned into warm drafts and brand new baby potatoes emerged in all the farmers markets in my home town.

You see, to you this may not be a huge deal, but back in the old country where I was born, Moldova, food was available seasonally.  We did not have tomatoes in the winter, for instance, so we fermented them and canned them so we could eat them year round. Babushka (please refer to this post for more info on who she is and a proper lesson on the pronunciation) was the captain of fermenting and canning.

However, as many canning and fermenting specialties as babushka had, her cooking skills were hard to mess with. And of her many dishes, none beat her garlic and dill baby potatoes. These little baby potatoes were sweet and almost buttery in texture. (Of course it helped that babushka added a few tabs of butter in there to sweeten the deal.)

She made them ever so simply just by boiling these little new potatoes and then once they were drained adding in a healthy amount of chopped garlic, fresh dill and creamy butter. They were always served in the same pot they were made in so that they could stay warm. Everyone in the family always snuck a taste in before they hit the table while babushka wasn’t looking.

The house instantly filled with smells of dill and garlic and everyone always ran to the kitchen ready with fork and knife in hand to quiet the grumbles in their bellies.

Typically we had these on a Sunday early dinner, paired with mama’s famous shishleek (pork kebobs) and a simple salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions. It was a modest meal filled with robust flavors that enticed everyone to smile a little brighter and laugh a little louder. I can still picture us all sitting as a family on those Sundays, warmly laughing as the spring sun shined brightly through our vertical blinds.

Today, babushka’s potatoes are still one of my ultimate dishes and my most requested dish for my BBQs. However, I decided to put a little twist on them and instead of boiling them, pan roast them on the stove.

And the result?  The easiest and fanciest potatoes you will ever make.

New potatoes are for some reason hard to find in the states. And the ones I have found, were not the same texture. But these little beauties are to die for. They are adorably cute and their buttery flavor and color is out of this world!

Garlic and Dill Pan-Roasted Taters photo 1

A Twist on Babushka’s Taters - Garlic and Dill Pan-Roasted Taters
From Girl and the Kitchen

1.5 pounds baby Yukon golds
1/2 stick of butter, divided in half 
1/4 cup of dill 
5-6 cloves of garlic 
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. First we wash them.

2. Then we add them to a stainless steel pan. Do NOT use non-stick. You wont get the same coloring on them.

3. And we cover them with water and throw in 4 tablespoons of butter.

4. Turn on the flame to high and close with a lid. Once they come to a boil, let them cook COVERED for 7 minutes, then remove the lid and let the water evaporated. Do not turn down the heat.

5. In the meantime, get about a handful of some fresh dill and chop it finely.

6. Then grab about 5-6 cloves of garlic and mince it on your microplaner.

7. Now, go check on them taters. Most of the water should have boiled out and what is left is a muggy liquid. That's what you are supposed to be left with. It's just butter, water and some potato starch. Go ahead and insert a knife in. If if it goes in smoothly you are ready to roll. Grab your potato smasher and GENTLY press on the potatoes just so they pop.

8. Gently, gently...see how they just are a little cracked? That's what you want.

9. Let them continue cooking on one side for 6 minutes, then turn them over and let cook for 5 minutes on the other side. Add in your dill, garlic and the remaining butter. And, DUH, season with salt and pepper. Mix it all up…

10. And you will see GORGEOUS rustic, browned and crispy goodness. Yes guys, they are amazeballs.

11. If you are not serving these immediately, place a towel over the pan, then cover with a lid. They will stay warm for quite some time insulated that way.

Garlic and Dill Pan-Roasted Taters photo 2

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Non-Trivial Pursuits

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31 questions not trivial to us
05/22/2014

Non-Trivial Pursuits photo

I was cleaning out my parents’ game cabinet during Passover and found a deck of trivia cards from the 1980s. As I leafed through the questions, I soon realized that many of them were Jewish in nature. Now, this was not a Jewish trivia deck at all, but one that tested the player’s general knowledge — facts the question-makers felt everyone should, or at least could, know.

And if people in general should know these things about Jewish religion and history, how much more should we Jews know these facts about our own heritage? Right? So… do you?

Here are the questions, phrased just as the deck has them:

1. Name the Jewish New Year, celebrated in September or early October.

2. What does Yom Kippur mean?

3. What is the Jewish feast of lights called?

4. What is the first book of the Bible?

5. In the Book of Genesis, who lived 969 years?

6. How many people were on Noah’s Ark?

7. According to the Bible, where did Noah’s Ark finally come to rest?

8. What was the Biblical tower of many languages called?

9. What was Delilah’s nationality?

10. Name the last Judge of Israel, who anointed Saul as King of Israel.

11. What was David’s occupation before he became a warrior and king of Israel?

12. In what year were the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered?

13. Which book of the Old Testament is missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

14. In what year was the nation of Israel formed?

15. What is Israel’s legislative body called?

16. In what year was the Yom Kippur War?

17. Name two of the three countries involved in the Yom Kippur War.

18. Name the two Middle Eastern leaders who signed a peace treaty with President Carter in 1977.

19. Name one of the two countries which had a submarine vanish in the Mediterranean in 1968.

20. What canal opened in 1869?

21. In which play does Shylock appear?

22. What is the Italian word for the Jewish residential districts created in the Middle Ages?

23. Name the sect of Jewish mystics founded in Poland about 1750.

24. What Austrian physician developed psychoanalysis?

25. Who wrote “Das Kapital”?

26. What German business leader born in 1743 founded an international banking house?

27. Who wrote the “Foundation Trilogy”?

28. Whose will, in 1917, established awards in writing and music?

29. Which contemporary economist from the University of Chicago is known for his monetarist theories?

30. Which former Miss American became a consumer advocate?

31. As whom was the magician Erich Weiss (1874-1926) better known?

THE ANSWERS:

1. Jewish New Year: Rosh Hashanah

2. Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement

3. Feast of lights: Hanukkah

4. First book of the Bible: Genesis

5. Lived 969 years: Methuselah

6. People on the Ark: 8 (Noah, his three sons, and their wives)

7. Ark resting place: Mount Ararat

8. Biblical tower: Babel

9. Delilah: Philistine

10. Last Judge: Samuel

11. David’s occupation: Shepherd

12. Dead Sea Scrolls: 1947

13. Missing from Scrolls: Esther

14. Israel formed: 1948

15. Israel’s legislature: the Knesset

16. Yom Kippur War fought: 1973

17. Yom Kippur War: Israel, Egypt, Syria

18. Peace treaty: Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin

19. Lost subs: France, Israel

20. The Suez Canal

21. Shylock: Merchant of Venice

22. Jewish districts: ghetto

23. Jewish sect: Chassidim (or Hassidim)

24. Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud

25. “Das Kapital”: Karl Marx

26. Banker: Meyer A. Rothschild

27. “Foundation Trilogy”: Isaac Asimov

28. Writing awards: Joseph Pulitzer

29. Economist: Milton Friedman

30. Miss America: Bess Myerson

31. Magician: Harry Houdini

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Let It Go

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05/21/2014

I am a firm believer that you can’t nickname yourself. It’s too self-important. However, I think it’s fair game to reference yourself in your own mind however you like, and I will admit to thinking of myself on occasion as “the teen queen.”  

I absolutely love teenagers. I find them to be interesting, open and full of promise. For me, connecting with them has almost always been second nature. (It also helps that I seriously lack the level of maturity often associated with the average whatever-I-am-year-old.) It is rare that I struggle to connect with a teenager. However, I have met my match. 

This tween kid is not interested in my company. He doesn’t want to share with me. He does not think I am cool. He does not confide that he wishes his mom was more like me. No of course he doesn’t, because I’m his mom, and apparently, I suck.

It wasn’t always like this. I have enjoyed many years of looking pretty good to my kids.  And I can mark the transition, (to the day!) when I went from “awesome mom” to “donkey dung” in the eyes of my tween. 

It started like any other semi-normal day in our house: breakfast, the last-minute signing of school reading logs, assembling lunches, massive amounts of hair gel shaping the trademark mohawks, hurried goodbyes and I love yous and crazed barking as the bus patiently idling outside. It was nothing out of the ordinary, simply the typical chaos that follows a family of four kids and three dogs. But after school, therein began a new story …

Tween: “Can I hang out with someone today?” 

Me: “Sure. Who do you want to play with?”

Tween: “PLAY?” voice dripping with distain, eyes rolling dramatically to the back of his head. “Mom, you don’t PLAY. You HANG OUT! Gee-ze!” 

In this moment, I had an involuntary flashback to my own childhood. My mother was doing something wrong/saying something wrong/breathing too loudly and I was rolling my eyes to the back of my head like nobody’s business. Uh-oh.

I tried to recover. “OK. Hang out. Got it.” I nodded my head enthusiastically. “Sounds good.” He disappeared wordlessly into the bowels of his bedroom, preferring the company of his unmade bed, his overflowing dirty laundry basket and his Instagram followers to me.

The following day he stayed home sick from school. I felt bad he wasn’t up to snuff, but at the same time, this was my chance! I would be able to prove to my kid that I was worthy of the admiration and affection he had all but recently given me. But the enormity of it made me nervous, and when I get nervous, well – sometimes I overdo it. 

We found ourselves in the minivan with little sister in tow, so naturally we were listening to the Frozensoundtrack. It was (finally!) a warm Chicago day and I had all the windows down. Things were good and kid was feeling better with his eyes in a normal, unrolled position. But then …

I will defend myself by stating there is no way I’m the first person to spontaneously belt out “Let It Go” regardless of singing ability. So before I could contemplate the massive repercussions, I began singing my heart out. My son was a sport at first. So I sang louder, interjecting little riffs of goofiness here and there. Slowly, my kid began to shrink down in his seat. 

Tween: “Mom! Seriously, stop! You’re embarrassing me!” 

We came to a red light. Next to us was an attractive young woman in a convertible, top open, blasting rap music. When my kid spotted her, he basically melted into the floor mats while furiously attempting to close all the windows at once, the tears in his eyes being swished around by some frighteningly furious eyeball rolling. I thought we might have to beeline to the nearest hospital – or eye doctor.

Tween: “MOM!!! You’re THE worst! THE most embarrassing mom EVER!” 

We were home now and he was letting me have it. 

Tween: “What is wrong with you? Seriously!?” 

Me: “Um, nothing…” I replied weakly. “I was just joking around. I thought it was funny.”

(Now red-faced) Tween: “Well, you’re NOT funny! You’re embarrassing!” 

He began stomping full force up the stairs and then turned to generously add, “And I HATE your fake laugh!” Door slam. Then silence. 

Fake laugh? What the heck is he talking about? I don’t “fake laugh” – what does that even mean? Ask daddy! I NEVER fake laugh at his jokes. I perseverated for the next hour as my child undoubtedly contemplated life with a cooler, less embarrassing mother who could sing like Celine Dion. Or would it be Pink? What do I know being so decidedly uncool and embarrassing?

Our next car ride together was much more traumatizing, but not to my tween – to me. I was wearing a short sleeve shirt, tween sitting shotgun. At a red light I felt his eyes on me. I looked at him. “Whatcha lookin’ at?” I asked in my most totally coolest mom voice ever! He didn’t answer and he wasn’t meeting my gaze. To my horror, I realized he was fixating on my lunch lady arm squish. I tensed my arm muscles. Arm muscles refused to cooperate. Under normal circumstances I would have waved my hand in his face to break the stare, but that would have only given my squish the opportunity to demonstrate an uncontrollable interpretive wiggle dance, so instead I cocked my head. “Helloooooo…?” As my mouth lingered on the extra “O’s,” his gaze shifted from my arm fat to the hole in the back of my mouth where I haven’t found the courage to yet get a dental implant. I snapped my mouth shut. “What are you looking at?” I demanded. Tween said nothing. His eyes cased me up and down taking in my greying hair, my desperate need for a lip wax, the pimple on my chin, my sagging… well, my sagging everything. He slowly turned his attention to the road in front of us, a small, sly smile on his face. Is it “cool” to call your kid an asshole?

It’s a stage. And I know it’s completely normal. But it caught me by surprise. I must admit, I naively thought that because of all of my years working with teens, I’d get a hall pass with my own. But I know it doesn’t work that way. Teens rebel. And even though he’s my firstborn – the one I actually made people wash their hands for if they wanted to hold him; the one I carried an appropriately stocked diaper bag for; the one I gave perfect brain development to by delaying television viewing until after two years of age just like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends – he’s allowed. Even more than that, he needs to. He’s a good kid – an objectively wonderful kid. I’m proud of him. (Not to mention, he has totally perfected my teenage eye roll …)

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Nurturing the sparks

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05/20/2014

Nurturing the sparks photo

Pictured is a Music Jam, where people bring instruments or just voices and improvise, harmonize and learn the melodies of Mishkan prayer services. Photo credit: Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann

Over fifty years ago, when people were beginning to note a decline in Americans' interest in organized religion, one of my favorite rabbis of all time made this observation:

"Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit… its message becomes meaningless." 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, ladies and gentlemen. (And these words were tame compared to what he said about synagogue life, prayer, education, and the state of Jews' involvement in justice issues in America in the '60s). 

While of course there have always been people satisfied and happy with synagogue, Heschel stands as a defender and protector of the Jewish community, saying that if we're seeing declining numbers in our pews (and in the Pew study), we can't blame the competition provided by Netflix or sports leagues or yoga studios. We must ask ourselves how have we allowed a tradition that radiates light, humor, wisdom, moral challenge, fire for social justice, intellectual rigor, and spiritual inspiration to become boring and uninspired? 

The big question: How can those of us who care deeply about the current and future state of the Jewish people step up and make it more relevant and attractive? Not just doing better marketing (though that helps), but giving the product itself an upgrade and bringing Judaism into the 21st Century?

This is the question that drove me and the early supporters of Mishkan Chicago to gather for our first Friday night service in a Lincoln Park living room in September, 2011. 

Two years later, on any given Friday night, you'll see a scene that looks as much like a tent revival as like a Jewish worship gathering. Vocal harmonies, drum and guitar drive a rhythmic worship experience that has people on their feet, clapping, swaying. We study text together inhevruta (study pairs), and stay late into the night eating and drinking after services.

Our people come from across all denominational backgrounds from Secular Humanist to Orthodox, educated in different faith communities from Catholic to Quaker. Our people are black and white, gay and straight, trans, and cisgendered. Our people are radical progressives and conservatives and libertarians. You'll see couples who met on JDate and interfaith or dual-faith couples. You'll see a ton of single young adults, and a growing number of young families and baby boomers.

We daven (pray) in Hebrew, using a traditional liturgy. Our people tweet and post to Facebook after services to share pearls of wisdom said by a peer during their study, or to share a video they took on their phone during services, capturing the scene of 200 people engaged in ecstatic, soul-lifting prayer. Others walk home and won't turn on lights until Shabbos is over. Everyone sings, eats, drinks, and shares Shabbat.

What I'm saying is, in the words of my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula, our people are blenders and mixers and benders and switchers. You can't pin us down and say we're Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, secular or religious, that intermarriage or not keeping kosher are signs of disinterest in our Judaism. We show up where we feel inspired and connected, and don't if we don't. The bar has been raised for all of our organizations to meet this totally legitimate desire among Jews today for their religion not to be an heirloom, but a living fountain of inspiration.

When I say, "our people," by the way, I don't just mean Mishkan people. Mishkan people are reflective of the changing complexion of the Jewish community overall, and we would do well to begin to recognize how diverse our people are. Our people are not exclusively white and Ashkenazi, we don't necessarily think Borscht Belt humor is funny, and are politically in a different place than our grandparents, further toward the right and the left. We have complex feelings about Israel. We want to be in a Jewish community as diverse and spiritually alive as we are. And we will leave Netflix at home for that.

We need a different metric and language to measure what it means to be meaningfully Jewish. Light is being shone from many corners of the city through organizations beyond synagogue walls—Jewish urban gardens, queer yeshivas, alternative afterschool programs, young adult spiritual communities, alternative university engagement—and we need to recognize that light as relevant and meaningful, not just some flash in the pan. That light is sparking the next generation of Jews in Chicago.

As a young start-up in one of the strongest and most established Jewish communities in the country, I want to offer a plea to those who can nurture those tiny sparks. A part of Mishkan's success was the willingness of Rabbi Michael Siegel at Anshe Emet Synagogue to help us launch, along with a few visionary individuals who believed that we could help move the needle on Jewish engagement in Chicago. Instead of operating from a place of fear of what they could lose, they fearlessly encouraged us forward, and are now seeing people enter their building for Mishkan who would otherwise not connect with the Jewish community. Mishkan is honored to have received a JUF Breakthrough Grant, which we believe will have the same effect: Rather than shrinking one piece of the pie to grow another, together, we can expand the pie.

What would happen if we entered the future not from a place of fear of decline, but love and excitement about what's possible? 

Let's find out. 

Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann is the spiritual leader of Mishkan Chicago is an independent, non-denominational Jewish spiritual community in Chicago on a mission to engage, educate, connect and inspire people through dynamic experiences of prayer, learning, music and community-building. Find out more at www.mishkanchicago.org.

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A Big Summer for the Bulls

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05/19/2014

A Big Summer for the Bulls photo

The Bulls’ Joakim Noah fights for the ball with Kevin Love, who is looking for a new team this summer and could be on the Bulls’ radar.

This is the biggest summer for the Bulls since 2010, which was the biggest summer for the Bulls since 2000. And what did those two summers have in common? Big, game-changing star free agents were on the market; the Bulls courted them, and ended up with none of them. What do they have to show for those two summers? Ron Mercer and Carlos Boozer.  

And so begins the summer of 2014. ‘Melo, LeBron and Bosh can opt out. Kevin Love is demanding a trade. Big names are once again potentially on the market, and the Bulls are once again looking for a star. The way I see it, this summer could go a few ways. Join me, won’t you?  

Scenario 1: The Bulls convince Carmelo Anthony to take a major pay cut to play with a top-tier coach and a fully prepped roster of great role players and defenders. Melo comes to Chicago and becomes the 1A create-your-own-shot guy they have been looking for since MJ hung them up. If Carmelo knows whats good for him, he’ll take the kind of pay cut that will allow the Bulls to keep Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, which frankly, is the only way I see this happening, as Melo won’t want to go to another gutted team. But to partner with Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Gibson and Butler – that could be a very good thing. Carmelo isn’t perfect, but he may be exactly what this team is missing.  

Scenario 2: The Bulls take advantage of Kevin Love’s threat to leave Minnesota and put together a trade package that will likely have to include Gibson along with their 2014 draft picks and the rights to Nikola Mirotic. Kevin Love is a great player, but, I’m not sure if he is THE guy to put them over the edge, to take the ball in his hands at the end of games when Rose is being double teamed (assuming he still has a functioning body by that point). And it still leaves a major scoring hole with both their shooting guard and small forward positions.  

Scenario 3: The Bulls convince Nikola Mirotic, their 2011 draft pick currently playing for Real Madrid, to come over and pair with Rose, and we find out if he is Dirk Nowitzki or Andrea Bargnani. Those excited about Mirotic, remember this – they called Toni Kukoc the Michael Jordan of Euro basketball. And when he came over and actually played with Michael Jordan, all he lived up to was a solid sixth man with a very short shelf life. There’s a lot of unknown with this scenario.  

Scenario 4:  The Bulls strike out again, and end up with a couple second-tier free agents that tie up money and aren’t enough to put them over the top. Lance Stephenson comes to mind. This is the one scenario that CANNOT happen.  

This is a huge summer for the Bulls. After two full seasons of the “try-hard bunch” and two full seasons of injuries to our superstar with the $90 million contract, the fans are done being satisfied with “putting up a hell of a fight.” The Bulls need to be serious contenders. And if a big move is not made this summer, upper management needs to questioned. Between their rift with coach Tom Thibodeau and their inability to hook the top free agent, they deserve to be questioned.  

I cannot handle another season of watching a team that cannot score, that overplays their starters in meaningless games and plays without their best and highest-paid player. They cannot just hope Rose comes back and surround him with more role players. We cannot count on Rose being the man. Gar Forman and John Paxson need to get their big fish this summer, otherwise we may not be able to stomach one more year like this one.  

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Da Value of Being Da Coach

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05/16/2014

Da Value of Being Da Coach photo

Boy, did I respect Phil Jackson when I was a boy. Yeah, he had Mike, but watching him on TV or at Bulls games, you could tell he was a tough coach. I was in awe of how he was able to get so much from all of his players every single game. What I didn’t know at the time was how much effort and commitment Jackson had put into his own philosophy of coaching and mentoring, later writing a book to share that wisdom. When I finished reading Sacred Hoops at the ripe old age of 12, I resolved to become a successful head coach when I grew up – after I played for the Bulls and won three championships, of course.  

I have always believed that a young child or young adult can benefit greatly from having one or two mentors in their lives. In some circumstances, the mentors are both obvious and present, in the forms of our parents and teachers, or even close family friends. Then, for those that participate in competitive sports programs, there’s the coach. The quintessential mentor, a coach is in charge of and responsible for many things, including: his or her players’ safety and well-being, physical conditioning, mental acuity, soliciting maximum effort, encouraging commitment toward achieving a goal or overcoming an obstacle, behaving and acting respectfully, and exhibiting good sportsmanship. Coaches must also lead by example and show young athletes what it means to embody all these important qualities in order to become a better person. That’s a lot of weight on the coach’s shoulders, but nevertheless it’s an opportunity for those “teachable moments” in life to arise and to learn valuable life lessons.  

Many great coaches across history and time will tell you that it’s easier said than done. Even the greatest athletes and business professionals had mentors that either guided them to their successful ventures or inspired them to realize their potential.  

While my bar and bat mitzvah tutoring business is my primary form of mentorship these days, my passion for teaching has led me to explore other forms of mentorship. This fall and spring, I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a head coach for two middle school sports programs. I was excited and eager to jump right into my role, even though I had no prior coaching experience at this age level. Despite knowing more than enough about the sport to feel confident about my abilities to model and teach the mechanics, I was acutely aware that coaching is more than simply teaching skills and technique (we have YouTube videos for that).  

Any coach can show you how to shoot a free throw, or how to round the bases. But a good coach and mentor will teach you how to shake hands after every match; how to keep your head up when you lose; how to give everything you do your absolute best effort with no regrets; how  to build a strong desire to become a better human being.  

There is also an understanding that being a coach requires selflessness, to be willing and able to place the team’s and the players’ interests above your own desires and dreams. I cannot tell you how disheartening it is to witness mentors that set unrealistic expectations or resort to extreme measures when they have difficulty communicating with players. No matter what age, I’ve discovered that all players deserve and require a mentor who can understand the why and not just the how.  

I was initially inspired to try this by my two younger siblings, Jesse and Hayley. Jesse has been involved for many years with an organization that tutors and mentors high school students, and he continues to show support for those that are less fortunate and lack the proper mentorship and guidance. I’m so proud of him for leading by example and giving back in a way that promotes a positive and encouraging relationship between those involved.  

My sister was the one that suggested – a while ago, she likes to say – I reconnect with my alma mater and explore potential coaching opportunities. I didn’t have the time or the proper schedule to coach back then, but the idea stuck with me for several years, until the opportunity came knocking. Looking back, I’m grateful that I did it, and even more grateful that I’m surrounded with mentors that continue to reach out and offer guidance, love and support whenever it’s needed.  

So let’s raise a glass to all of our mentors, past and present, who made us who we are today. Anyone reading this article who has an opportunity to take on a leadership or mentoring role, I strongly encourage you to consider it. It will change the way you see the world and even the way you see yourself. I know it did for me, and I cannot wait until I have another opportunity to coach.  

L’chaim!

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Lending a hand to our brothers and sisters

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05/15/2014

Lending a hand to our brothers and sisters photo

The author (right) with his dad and brother, Mitchell.

Having a brother who is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum has profoundly shaped who I am today, both personally and professionally. It is the reason my law practice is limited to serving families of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, and mental illness.

My story, however, is not entirely unique. If you speak with siblings as often as I do, you will notice that most of us have seen our lives shaped by growing up with a brother or sister with significant special needs. Many have gone into social work, special education, or disability related fields in law or medicine. Even those who choose an unrelated field share something else deeply personal that keeps many of us awake at night: what will happen when our parents are no longer there to take care of our brothers and sisters, and it is up to us to do everything our parents have been doing for our sibling since before we can remember, or in my case, as a younger sibling, since the day I was born? 

As president of Supporting Illinois Brothers and Sisters (SIBS), the state chapter of a national organization called the Sibling Leadership Network, I have worked with many bright and ambitious fellow siblings to develop a support network for our fellow brothers and sisters, to help answer the questions they have, give them insight into what their future responsibilities might be, and to support them in their unique role as a sibling.

My brother, Mitchell, has been living in a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA), commonly called a group home, since he was 22 years old. It has given my sister and me tremendous piece of mind to know that he has a place he can call home with supports that allow him to live independently from my parents. While we know that someday it will be our responsibility to maintain close contact with his staff, and take him for home visits, that is vastly different than the 24/7 care that some siblings are suddenly finding themselves responsible for.

One of the greatest gifts that we, as a Jewish community, can offer siblings is "piece of mind"; by ensuring their siblings with special needs have the support they need to live and work independently from their parents. While there were few if any options for my brother, a Keshet Sunday School participant since the mid 1980s, to live in group home that was fully integrated into the Jewish community when he moved into his CILA more than 10 years ago, that is mercifully no longer the case.

Keshet, Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) have come together to ensure the existence of such services and supports through the Supported Community Living Initiative (SCLI), a project I have been fortunate to be involved in from very early on in the process. The Supported Community Living Initiative explores a sustainable, community integrated future for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. SCLI is administered by Jewish Child & Family Services, a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation. 

The SCLI focuses on person-centered planning, to provide and/or facilitate a full array of best practices, services, and supports for adults across the spectrum of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD), as well as across all socio-economic levels and religious levels of observance. This initiative also concentrates on connecting the community to residential and supported employment opportunities that already exist through both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. Libenu Foundation is one such organization in the Jewish community that has been a pioneer in establishing kosher CILAs in Skokie and West Rogers Park.

We have already seen residents of CILAs established under both Libenu and the SCLI attend events together including dinners and community outings. While it has not always been a smooth process, we are now seeing the young men and women in these group homes become fully integrated into their communities, they are becoming an integral part of their synagogues and local JCC's.

Knowing that our brothers and sisters are embraced by our community is immensely important to us as siblings. As it is said, kol yisrael areivim ze lazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another, may we continue to work towards the embodiment of that principal of Torah as we embark on this integral chapter in our community's service to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is ultimately a service not just to those individuals, but to their brothers and sisters as well.

For more information and updates about SCLI, visit www.jfcschicago.org/node/371. For specific inquiries email 

DisabilityHelpline@jcfs.org or call (773) 467-3838.

Benji Rubin is an attorney living in Chicago. His law practice is limited to future planning for families of children with special needs. 

JCFS is a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation.

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18 Things I Did Not Write About for This Blog Post

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05/14/2014

It seems that I’m always writing about things for Oy!Chicago. But I’ve noticed there are so many things I have not written about. I’d even go as far to say there are more things I haven’t written about than I have written about. Strange how that works. This piece was one I wrote at the 11th hour. Well, I guess really at the 23rd hour because I had to wait for the Blackhawks game to be over. Then I edited it the next morning at about the sixth hour, which is super early for me. This is getting far too silly. What isn’t far too silly is the following list of 18 things I did not write about. It’s just the right amount of silly. Enjoy!

1. I did not write about how now that I’m 27 I get to say for a full year that I’m chai and half years old. Heh heh.

2. I did not write about how, collectively as a society, we should know more about Albert Brooks and his fine collection of work. He’s like the Jewish Steve Martin.

3. I did not write about the local brewery, Revolution, that I’ve been obsessed with ever since I discovered them. I also may or may not be drinking some of their fine mead while writing this. “May not” translates to “yes, I’m definitely drinking that right now.”

4. I did not write about my mom, even though it does happen to be Mother’s Day today. See what I did there? It’s because every day is Mother’s Day. (Awwwwwwwwww.)

5. I did not write about my funny Aunt Rhonda even though she keeps trying to get me to write about my funny Aunt Rhonda but this should count as writing about my funny Aunt Rhonda, so I hope you are happy my funny Aunt Rhonda!

6. I did not write about how it’s quiet because it’s a little too quiet.

7. I did not write about that time my girlfriend’s sister ran over my foot with her car as I was trying to get in because I don’t want her to feel guilty by publicly displaying that that happened.

8. I did not write about the last time I read a whole book because my memory doesn’t go back that far.

9. I did not write about how I like to go where everybody knows my name – Pizza Rustica. It’s my place. Everyone should have a place. You should go to my place. Here is a link to my place. Maybe make it your place? Eh? Eh? Uggghhhhh.

10. I did not write about my beard because that amount of epic-ness can’t be explained in any proper series of words.  

11. I did not write about eating leftover Lou Malnati’s for dinner while watching episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because I did not want to make you jealous.  

12. I did not write about how Hot Doug’s is closing because that makes me too sad. But seriously….GO!!! GO NOW!!! WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!!!

13. I did not write about The Mathematics of Quantum Neutrino Fields because I have no idea what that is.

14. I did not write about my JUF News article about how much I love my family that you can read here because I don’t like to self-promote like that.

15. I did not write about how I’m never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you.

16. I did not write about my love of the new Nickelodeon iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because I did not want to reveal that I’m in my upper 20s and watching a kids cartoon show. Booyakasha!!

18 Things I Did Not Write About for This Blog Post photo

17. I did not write about how this is basically a blog about nothing because I’m not Jerry Seinfeld. And what’s the deal with that?

18. I did not write about my Twitter handle, @TheMindofADM, because why would I want to lead you to a wonderful place full of hilarious one-liners and continue your day with incredible entertainment?

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The pursuit of uncool

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05/13/2014

The pursuit of uncool photo

If you ask my wife and three kids (a boy, 14 and two girls, 11 and 7) if I am a good father, I'm not sure what they would answer. If you ask them if they think I'm a cool abba, they'll tell you that I used to be cool. Being cool is a choice. I spent, what seems like months, saying to my own children. "Kids, I really am cool."

I tried explaining to them about the glory of the 80s and how music was much better back then, especially the stuff that fell into the categories of college radio and punk. I tried showing them how a bunch of my friends all dressed differently than everyone else (we all mostly wore black…very original). I told my daughters that I had crazy hairspray and hair dryer skills that they couldn't even dream about. It was never a conscious choice, but during high school and the beginning of college I was seen as being "cool."

I know plenty of parents that go out of their way to appear cool to their kids. They might try to friend their kids and their kids' friends on Facebook, be up on the latest music, novels, and texting abbreviations. If that works for you and the relationship you want to have with our kids, more power to you. I eventually gave up and just accepted the fact that I was no longer cool. I stopped trying to be cool in their eyes.

It was much easier than I thought it would be. However, I found that the choice of not being cool opened up a whole new avenue of going out of my way to be uncool. I had thoughts of calling my kids' friends by nicknames that only I would understand. I had visions of interrupting play dates my kids had by doing the robot dance. To my family's delight, I rarely acted upon these examples.

What I did implement was a conscious choice to show my kids that I was cool. Again, I am far from a model parent, but this mindset has fostered a more positive relationship with my kids. This was much easier than I thought in some aspects. My wife and I have always stressed to our children that there are things our family does and it might be a little different than other what other families do. There are TV shows, music, and movies that we feel are appropriate and others that are not. These decisions do make me uncool, at times, but my kids have learned that my wife and I are willing to listen to their points of view and if we are swayed to their side it is solely because they have valid reasons and not because we are looking to be "those parents," the ones that propel the parent/child relationship with the fuel of coolness.

Rabbi Joseph Hurwitz (1847-1919), known as the Elder of Novardok (a city in Belarus) taught that, "When the world means nothing, life means everything." I have always looked at this quote as a message that we have to stand our ground sometimes. We shouldn't always do things that the masses are doing, especially if it goes against our value system. When we stop worrying about what others think is when we can have opportunities to do what we know is the right thing in life. This is something that we can't lecture our kids about; it is something that we have to show by example. I am no poster child for leading by example all the time. I am, however, blessed with three great kids who are learning the importance of doing the right thing, which is a foundation of Judaism. 

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Sunshine, selfies—and celebrating 30

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05/12/2014

Sunshine, selfies—and celebrating 30 photo

Recently, my dear friend and I celebrated her 30th birthday. Twenty-nine had included some of the happiest times of her life—getting married to an amazing guy—and yet was also one of the most difficult years of her life as she battled breast cancer. For just a few sunny hours, we put all that aside and became silly 15-year-olds again. We gabbed and giggled over lunch, shopped for cheap, goofy sunglasses, took kissy-faced selfies and got our nails manicured in bright colors.

These days, our lives are filled with happy occasions, like attending lots of friends' weddings and watching as they start families of their own, coupled with work and familial responsibilities, financial concerns and just general anxieties about what the future may bring. Life is just a little more complicated than it was when we were teenagers.

This year, most of my friends are marking their 30th birthdays. And in a few months, I will join the club. As cliché as it sounds, I've been thinking a lot about this turning 30 thing and what it all means.

I look at my friends—the ones I have known for nearly three decades and the ones who have come into my life at various points along the way. I'm amazed at their accomplishments—the careers they've built, the families they've created and the people they've become. I feel profoundly grateful for those dear, true friendships that have transitioned from childhood into adulthood and am equally thankful for the rich, new relationships I've cultivated. And I look back at dissolved friendships, both with deep sadness at the loss and with recognition that not everything lasts forever. 

I look at my family—my little sister who, though she is still a bossy seven-year-old in my mind, is now a doctor who will soon marry the little boy who has grown up before my eyes. I look at my parents with newfound respect at the lives they created for us and with renewed perspective as I contemplate starting a family of my own. I'm honored to be able to host my grandmothers in my home for holidays, creating their recipes and returning the favor after so many years.

And I look at my life: A growing, successful career with the same organization for over seven years, a wonderful husband, an adorable dog, a mortgage and a car—all the things that you think make you an adult when you're little. And yet, so often I find myself feeling more like that 15-year-old girl than the 30-year-old I'm supposed to be.

It's not that I'm dreading getting older, or turning 30—I'm looking forward to entering the next stage of my life as a 30-something. And I don't think I look or feel particularly old—I was recently asked while purchasing a video game for my husband for his birthday (are we grown-ups or what?) if I was indeed old enough to buy this game for ages 18 and over. I told the nice man behind the counter that he had made my day. 

I guess it's just that even with all of life's complexities and richness, I simply thought I'd feel more grown up by the time I turned the big 3-0. 

Then again, reflecting on that sunny afternoon with my friend, some moments in life have a tendency to make us feel a little too grown up—and every once in a while, whether you're 30 or 90, it's good to just let loose, take a selfie and feel like a teenager again. 

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Hey Jude...

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05/09/2014

I Love You Too, Mom photo

With my mom's birthday a few days away, and Mother's Day soon after that, I was thinking about how sometimes I forget to tell my mom how much I love her and how lucky I am to be her daughter. As a kid I used to say that if I were ever lost, I'd listen for her laughter and it'd lead me to her every time—and that's still true today. My mom isn't like anyone I've ever met. She's Judy.

Hey Jude... photo

She taught me how to sing scales and do demi plies.

She calls me Cindeleh.

She insists that labor with me—a 9 lb. 11 oz. bundle of joy—wasn't "too bad."

She ingrained in me that you catch more bees with honey, and that extra boxes of Swiss Miss cocoa and Kleenex should always fill your cupboards.

She rips out articles for me on topics about American presidents, Israeli society, merengue cookies, and the newest trend in spring dresses from The Wall Street JournalThe Forward, and Glamour—in equal number.

She loves a rousing wedding hora more than anyone else I've ever met.

She was the first to tell me about Golda Meir, Shirley Temple, Sholem Aleichem, and Mary Tyler Moore.

She said she learned what sexy was when she first saw Elvis on TV as a little girl, a notion that was reinforced for her when she later saw John Travolta in Welcome Back, Kotter—and then once again when she first laid eyes on my dad, the real love of her life.

She doesn't like to talk about the weather.

She taught me to care about the big stuff, and not to sweat the petty stuff.

She showed me how to make cherry soup, lamb chops with mint jelly, smoked salmon pasta, and rocky road brownies.

She'll sing "Wheels on the Bus" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" to her 3-year-old grandson for hours if it'll keep him smiling.

She laughs easily.

She helped create a children's siddur.

She instilled in me a love for our two countries—Israel and America.

She turns the car radio up.

She believes in social justice.

She battled and conquered a serious illness with strength, courage, and grace when I was a girl.

She sang Yiddish and American lullabies every night to my sister and me when we were little and now sings them to my nephews.

She always let us eat our cake before our carrots because that's just how she rolls.

She wrote a play as a love note to her parents who came to Ellis Island from Russia nearly a century ago.

She's still asking me why Facebook is a thing.

She's generous with her hugs.

She's a hottie.

She passed down to me a love for words, and for telling stories.

She taught me that Yiddish has no word for weapon.

She sends me cards in the mail and leaves me voicemails, both simply to tell me how much she loves me.

I love you too Mom. Happy birthday and Mother's Day!

For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.

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On the Cusp of Jewish Parenthood

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05/08/2014

I Love You Too, Mom photo

Last November, we were sitting across from Rabbi Shira Stutman from Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Her home office was wrapped in many books that created a sort of leather-bound coziness. Even before Rose and I took her class for interfaith couples, she had been one of our favorites and a wonderful resource for navigating our interfaith marriage. Now, we were meeting to share the news that Rose was pregnant – and we wanted to raise our child, our son, Jewish.

I was squirming a bit in my seat and not exactly breathing regularly, yet Rose seemed relaxed. Her smile was gentle, even as she explained the less glamorous moments for women in their first trimester. And even though she was feeling exhausted all of the time, she said she was very lucky that she and baby were happy and healthy. 

Rabbi Shira was perched on the edge of her couch, leaning on her knees, just bubbling with excitement for us. Her vibrant hand gestures and boisterous tone made it seem as though she might roll off the couch into a giggling fit at any moment. 

“So, I have a question,” she asked, settling down for a moment. “If the baby isn’t coming until May, why are you coming to me now?”

Without a pause, the words just erupted from my mouth: “Our parents are coming for Thanksgiving and we need to have all of the answers for them about how we will raise our kids.”

We were past the point of worrying about letting family members down, but we didn’t want there to be any bad feelings on either side of the family. It felt important to get answers and advice, so everyone felt informed, involved and included in the joy of raising our child. 

On the Cusp of Jewish Parenthood photo 3

Rabbi Shira walked us through everything and empowered us to make our own decisions. We learned about options for conversion, if that was something we felt was necessary given not all streams of Judaism would recognize our son as Jewish; she suggested synagogues for us to join – if we didn’t have one in mind – that would be welcoming of interfaith couples. You could tell by the way that the answers effortlessly and lovingly rolled off of Rabbi Shira’s tongue that we were not the only couple faced with these decisions. 

I personally found myself delving deeper into each answer with her, trying to ground myself in technical and halachic questions yet in reality digging deeper into more emotional and confusing places. I felt pulled in two directions between wanting our son to be recognized by all Jews yet not wanting to give in to the idea that are son wasn’t “Jewish enough.” At that moment, I looked away from Rabbi Shira to an empty corner in the room and hesitantly said out loud, “I guess this whole conversation is more about my own Jewish identity and the questions I still have about my own Judaism.”

Then it was Rose’s turn to share, she very calmly said she was looking forward to bringing a baby into the world and raising him Jewish. She reassured me nothing had changed for her – we would do what was necessary to raise our child Jewish in the best way possible. Then she leaned back on the sofa again, closed her eyes for a moment and gently sighed. It was not a frustrated sigh, but the kind that let me know that I could keep going around in circles with Rabbi Shira if I wanted to, but she had gotten what she needed out of the conversation. She was content and at peace. 

When I reflect on moments like these, I realize how wonderful a life partner and soon-to-be parenting partner I have in Rose. She was patient enough to let me vomit the last vestiges of my Jewish guilt to the rabbi, kind enough to come along for the ride while I wrestled with my own personal unsettled feelings about Jewish identity. She is loyal to uphold her commitment to join me in creating the Jewish home that will be a warm and inviting place for our children to live Jewishly. At the same time, she seems to intuitively know how to do this without denying her own non-Jewish identity.

Because of Rose, our children will understand patience, kindness and unconditional love. I also believe that with her help, our children will come to know Judaism as well as anyone with two Jewish parents.

Rose has been able to participate in our family’s Jewish traditions and observances in a way that is authentic to her. For example, Rose loves to be crafty, so for Purim she made her own costume and helped me create mine. During Passover, Rose helped with the crazy regiment of ridding our home of chametz and then took any non-Passover products she wanted to eat during the week to work. I have even noticed lately at Shabbat dinner that she has learned the words of kiddush

On the Cusp of Jewish Parenthood photo 1

This last year of anticipating parenthood has definitely come with some fun conversations. Since we are having a boy, Rose had to explain to her mom what actually happens at a bris, a.k.a. it’s not just a baby naming with bagels. And surprisingly, when everyone came for Thanksgiving, there was no interrogation. Our parents wanted to celebrate and make sure Rose was feeling well and taken care of. Most of the questions had to do with colors for the nursery and if we had thought about creating a registry for gifts – the concerns of eager, excited grandparents.

Over the last nine months, we have grown together, navigating this uncharted territory of almost-parenthood. Although technically we are not parents until our son breaths his first breath in this world, we have already begun to feel many of the pressures and joys that comes with being responsible for the life of another human being. We know we are not even close to being ready to bring a child into the world, but as most people have told us, we know that we will never truly feel ready. We accept that there is too much to learn, know and understand, and at this point it is happening no matter what.

On the Cusp of Jewish Parenthood photo 2

It reminds me of those moments where you are about to go on stage for the big scene in a play. It’s the night of the show: there is no more time for rehearsals, so you hope that you have prepared enough and the right words will come out of your mouth. You walk on stage, look at your partner, and connect, putting your faith in the intentions and emotions that you have set for the scene. 

For this performance – perhaps the most important one of my life – I couldn’t imagine being on stage with anyone else but Rose.

For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.

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Facing the Mommy Doubts

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05/07/2014

I Love You Too, Mom photo

Two years ago, as Mother’s Day loomed in the horizon, I was counting down the days. May 12 was my due date, the day after Mother’s Day, so I thought that for sure I would be celebrating the Hallmark holiday cradling a baby in my arms, fully embracing my new role.

As the days passed, I was hyper-aware of every twinge and shift, expecting to go into labor at any moment. And when Mother’s Day arrived, that baby was still firmly lodged inside me, showing no signs of an impending departure. Even though everyone I knew seemed to be having their babies early, my little munchkin had no way of letting me know he would be 12 days late. Twelve. Agonizing. Days.

So while I spent Mother’s Day walking (pacing) through the Lincoln Park Zoo with my husband, hoping to kick-start a labor that wouldn’t happen until my induction two weeks later, I remember having vivid doubts about what was to come.

Worrisome thoughts swirled in my mind: If I wasn’t patient enough to wait for this friggin’ baby to arrive, would I be patient enough as a parent? If I could barely survive through my pregnancy-related insomnia, would I be able to take care of a baby who was up a zillion times throughout the night? Would I be a good mom? Was I ready for this?

I’m sure there are other expecting parents and new moms with the same swirling doubts. The good news is that the answer is yes. Yes for me, and for nearly every other mom out there.

Would I be patient? Yes, but not every minute, and as veteran moms can attest, this is totally okay and very, very normal. Caring for a child is no small task, and whether you are dealing with your fourth night waking or your four thousandth tantrum of the day, there will be moments that you want to yell, to cry, to hide under your bed and daydream about your carefree pre-baby days. Patience is a skill that comes with lots of practice, and parenthood offers endless opportunities to hone your craft.

Facing the Mommy Doubts photo 1

Would I survive without sleep? This one is different for every mother, but what I have learned over the past two years is that exhaustion is relative. In my exhaustion with a newborn, I looked back wistfully on my sleep during pregnancy (which was terrible). When I was exhausted chasing a mobile baby all day, I looked back wistfully on the slower-paced days of his infancy when I was tired, but I could lounge with baby on the couch all day. When we faced sleep regressions and teething that brought back those night wakings in toddlerhood, I looked back thinking that his first year was a breeze compared to this new normal. Now that we have hit a sweet spot in the sleep department (knock on everything), I still feel exhausted from chasing a high-energy toddler day in and day out. Having a kid who rises with the sun (or even earlier) has taught me to function better on less sleep, and to maximize my down time efficiently so I can rest and recharge my batteries. 

Would I be a good mom? Honestly, I think it takes a lot of work for someone hoping to be a good mom and with the means to support her child’s basic needs to be a bad mom. The parenting world is littered with theories and strategies and philosophies about what makes a good mother: breast versus bottle; cribs versus co-sleeping; working versus staying home; to cry-it-out or not. All of these “mommy war” issues are fine and good, and really, the honest-to-goodness truth is this: if you love your baby, you’re already doing it right. All the apps and well-meaning offensive comments and viral blog posts that make you feel insecure in your parenting decisions – they don’t know you or your baby.

Even in the moments where you feel like a walking #momfail poster girl, know that in my greatest “momfail” moment, I watched my “not yet mobile” baby do a back flip off of our bed onto a hardwood floor and chip three teeth. And that little bugger survived to tell the tale (at least, he would tell it if he knew how to talk and remembered it happening – two things on my side right now!). We’ve all been there. Despite our best intentions, no parent is perfect. Accidents happen, and it’s how you deal with the hard stuff that matters.

Am I ready for this? All the books and classes in the world can’t prepare you for the transition that comes with your new role as a parent. But here is the secret that nobody knows. Ready? Everyone feels this way, and we are all figuring it out as we go along. There is no perfect time – you’ll never feel ready. But once it happens, you’ll figure it out as you go. You’ll build a village, seek out a support network and before you know it, this whole “mom” gig will be second nature.

Facing the Mommy Doubts photo 2

Pregnant and new moms: If you are facing any of these doubts, you are not alone. On this Mother’s Day, I am giving you permission to pat yourself on the back for a job well done (even if that baby is still in utero; trust me, I know it counts even then).

Are you expecting or raising a Jewish baby under 24 months? JBaby Chicago has delivered and is here to help Chicago's Jewish and interfaith families build a village together by providing access to resources both within and outside of Chicago's Jewish community to help new families navigate their early years together.

Find more information at www.juf.org/jBabyChicago or email me at rachelfriedman1@gmail.com. I would love to take you out for a cup of coffee (doesn’t every new parent need a cup of coffee?) to tell you all about how you can get involved!

For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.

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My Mom, AKA Superwoman

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05/06/2014

I Love You Too, Mom photo

A few nights ago, I walked into my building after a long day at work. My doorman, Fred, greeted me, as he always does, and I started to walk toward the elevators, as I always do. But this time he stopped me.  

“Hey, how’s your mom?” he asked.  

I smiled. Fred has only met my mom in passing when she has helped me bring things up to my apartment or come over to help me decide how I should decorate, but she is the kind of person that stands out to anyone who comes in contact with her – in the best way possible.

My Mom, AKA Superwoman photo 1

As I sit here trying to put onto paper how much my mom means to me, I am at a loss for words. All I know is that it is entirely possible for the funniest and wittiest person you know to be the strongest, most giving, caring, and accommodating person you’ve encountered as well. Over the years, I have said that my mom is our family’s superwoman, and anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her, interacting with her, and getting to know her would agree with me.  

I rarely write about this, but when I was 10, I experienced the worst day of my life. My grandfather picked me up from a slumber party and drove me home. There was an ambulance outside. I was confused; everyone in my family, besides me, was healthy. I didn’t see any sign of a fire or of a break-in. When I walked through my front door, I was immediately engulfed in the biggest hug my mother had ever given me. Something had happened to my dad, she said. I vividly remember thinking that he must have broken his leg or something like that, but as I looked around the entryway to see family and friends in hysterics and listened to the words that came out of my mother’s mouth, I knew this was not the case. My tall, strong, healthy dad had unexpectedly died in his sleep the night before.

I began to sob with confusion as the pain overcame my body. I closed and collapsed into our big purple chair in the living room. When I looked up, my mom was there, holding me and supporting me. Today, 14 years later, I know that whenever I am in a time of need, she will be there, a source of comfort, sanity and hope.

My Mom, AKA Superwoman photo 2

To be fair, my mom was always an amazing role model who was there for me and our family, but that horrific day was a turning point. Her life, my life, and my brother’s life could have easily fallen apart after that fall morning, but it didn’t. Instead of pulling her covers over her head each morning after and falling into a crippling state of sadness, my mom remained stronger than I could have ever imagined.  

There were so many things that my dad handled for the family that my mother hadn’t had to deal with before. She threw herself into these things and became an expert at them. Beyond raising two children, she started paying the bills, managing a financial portfolio, and making an infinite amount of large life decisions on her own, all while still grieving over the loss of my dad and coping with this void in her life.  

I interviewed my mom during my senior year of college for a profile piece. During our interview, she told me that she often used to reach for the phone to share something about my brother or me, or to ask my dad something mundane, like the name of something. She told me that it was these everyday things that she shared with someone that she loved for 16 years that she missed the most. I remember listening to her tell me this as I sat in my Washington D.C. apartment, miles away, as tears rolled down my cheeks, feeling heartbroken.

In that moment, I also remembered that as a developing person, I rarely felt that sense of brokenness. Even through tragedy, my mom made sure we never felt as though she was damaged beyond return or that our lives were hopeless, and that’s because we were not. We were always moving ahead as a cohesive unit. This isn’t to say that we haven’t had our fair share of ups and downs, but even through the worst moments in time, I always knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. For what felt like months after my dad’s death, my brother and I would pile into her bed at night and fall asleep next to her and I knew that somehow, someday, things would be okay.  

The truth is, things really are okay. None of us would have chosen for our lives to take this path, but we have dealt with the cards we were dealt, and I can only attribute this to my mom’s strength, determination and huge heart. As I will say time and time again because I can never be too redundant, my mom has been amazing through the simplest setbacks and hardest challenges.  

In that interview, I also remember my mom telling me that she thinks of my brother and me as her peers because we all grew up together. When my dad passed away, I was only 10, and my brother, Brian, was only six. There was (and still is) a lot of work to be done in terms of our personal growth, development, and whatnot, and my mom was (and still is) the guiding force leading us in a positive direction.

My Mom, AKA Superwoman photo 3

Although anyone who has come in contact with Brian and me knows that we are quite entertaining (mostly Brian, but hey, I try), we were very rarely easy to handle. Still, my mom never made it feel as though we were too much of a handful or a nuisance, even though I am sure at times we were. From health problems and arguments to more stressors than the average pair of siblings, my mom was (and still is) always able to help us with our problems, lead us to the best solution possible, and remain calmer than most people would be in any given situation.  

My mom will also do anything and everything for her friends. My friends and my brother’s friends absolutely love her; she makes them laugh infectiously and makes our house feel like a home to many. She is a wonderful daughter to my nana and demonstrates that best friendship between mother and daughter can thrive at any stage in life. Her relationships with my dad’s family members remain strong, and I am thankful that even with that large void in my life, she has kept not only our immediate family together as a strong unit, but also our extended family as well.  

I sometimes give her a hard time for not being calm, and I may tweet the absurd things she says, but the truth is, my mom is always the person who is there for me. She’s the one that I can call when I know I need an emergency root canal at 1:45 in the morning and I don’t know what to do (and for the record, when I did this, she drove to the city to pick me up in the middle of the night and ensure that I was alright), and she’s always my first call after I have had a horrible day and need someone to listen to my woes without judgment. She’s the first person my brother calls when a teacher is treating him unfairly, or when he’s battling a moral dilemma of any kind, or even if he has a funny story to share.

She once told me that she thinks she is a damn good mother and halfway decent father. Honestly, she is much more than “halfway decent.” She is my rock, one of my best friends, and truly the greatest person I know.

My Mom, AKA Superwoman photo 4

This Mother’s Day falls on my 24th birthday. I know you aren’t supposed to reveal your birthday wish, but all I wish for is that my mom knows how much she is appreciated, how much we love her, and how thankful I am for the incredible life that she has given me. Although I could’ve written this post in my typical satirical fashion without bringing up some of the hardships we’ve gone through, I know that divulging our family’s story makes it that much more meaningful.  

This is my first Oy!Chicago post that my mom hasn’t had the pleasure (or forced burden) of reading and editing beforehand, and that is because I wanted to surprise her. So mom, I hope you are surprised. I am glad I can reflect on what you have overcome and how proud Brian and I are of you each day. I love you with all of my heart and thank you for being the most wonderful person I know, and the wittiest superhero out there. Happy Mother’s Day!

For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.

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My Mother-in-Law, the Lioness

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05/05/2014

I Love You Too, Mom photo

Mothers-in-law have a bad rap. It only takes a simple Google image search to know exactly what I mean. The pictures you’ll see show women who are on average about 425 years old with gray hair. Most of the ladies are carrying a rolling pin or some other kitchen device and have an affinity for pink sponge curlers. I don’t know who made these terrible images synonymous with mothers-in-law, but I can tell you for a fact that they clearly never met mine.  

I don’t know what your mother-in-law is like, but mine is a lioness. That is, a lioness without pink sponges curlers or jostling wooden spoon. I say lioness and mean it in the best possible way. My mother-in-law takes care of business and is always the one to call when you’re in a tricky situation. She knows how to help and is as cool as a cucumber (usually). She’s as good with medical advice as any doctor, could argue politics with Hillary and makes a pot roast that would force a vegetarian to question his or her beliefs. It is no great wonder that she is the center of our family.

My Mother-in-Law, the Lioness photo

Jeremy (back row, second from right) and his mother-in-law, Sherry (front row, second from left), and their family at a wedding shower.

When you’re the bedrock of a Jewish family you have an intense list of responsibilities. Somewhere near the top of that list is being in charge of holiday meals. Each year we all gather for various holidays and watch as food appears as if by magic from the kitchen. It must have been magic my mother-in-law’s brow isn’t furrowed and she hasn’t broken a sweat. Maybe we’re having pot roast or her famous rainbow Jell-O. It could be a bagel brunch with the cream cheese she combines with chives just the way I like or her short ribs that I wish I were eating as I type this. All of it is good. All of it is full of stories. All of it goes on her wedding china.  

She’s had her china for 45 years and our family has eaten from those plates for just as long. Do you ever stop to think of a plate’s history? Not the history of dishes in general, but the history of the holiday plates you eat from each year? Who has carried that plate, eaten from it, laughed over it? Who will dine from those dishes in the future? Think about all of that history, all of that shared tradition. When you think of your dishes in this way they suddenly have a very different seat at your table. Those dishes become personified, the only silent member of your Jewish family.  

A few weeks ago I was helping my mother-in-law set up her dining room for our Passover Seder. We started talking about her dishes. They were $25 a place setting when she originally got them. It has been a while since I shopped for China but I’m almost certain it can’t be found for $25 a place setting today. Twenty-five dollars a plate was a crazy amount to pay 45 years ago. Her mother-in-law had to convince her that one day she would be happy to have those dishes. Somewhere in our reminiscing about the many holiday meals that have been eaten on her plates and how she collected the china slowly over time my mother-in-law said, “…and someday these dishes will go to you.”  

I was taken aback. The gravity of what she was saying was stunning. It wasn’t about those dishes. Those plates, though beautiful, are silly. Plates break. Plates can’t talk or hug you. They shatter. Those plates will eventually turn to dust like everything else. I wasn’t thinking of my mother-in-law’s china as I bit my lip to fight water from running out of my eyes. What she was handing me was much more precious than dishware. When she said, “…and someday these dishes will go to you,” what that translated to was, “you will some day be the tradition keeper for our family.”  

Keeping family tradition alive is a big responsibility, but we’re Jewish and that’s how you do. Not to mention, when the lioness speaks you do as you’re told and ask your pesky questions later. I’m not picking up those dishes tomorrow. I hope to not have to take them for 150 years, if only that could be. Until that day comes, however, I’ll be here watching and learning from my favorite lioness. You know the one. She’s the one without pink curlers and I hope every day to make her proud.

For more posts in the “I Love You Too, Mom” series, go here.

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That Teenage Feeling

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05/02/2014

That Teenage Feeling photo

My prom selfie, before selfies were even a thing.

Having spent three years of my life working with high school students, I believe I am qualified to make the following anthropological observation about teenagers:

They have a lot of feelings.  

Okay, okay. Anyone who's ever seen an episode of Glee already knew that. But think about it. Can you blame them? After all, consider that when you’re 14, every experience is still brand new. Every heartbreak hits you like a truck straight to the gut. Every song lyric seems to be speaking directly to you, putting the perfect words to all the feelings you're sure only you and Alannis Morissette (er—One Direction?) have ever felt.  

Looking back on our own high school years, most adults can probably understand why today’s teens have latched onto the refrain “it gets better.” Because when you experience the soul-crushing agony of loss or rejection for the very first time, you actually do wonder, will you EVER feel happiness again? Do people actually recover from broken hearts, or did you just miss your one and only chance at love?!?!?!?!?!?!?!1111  

The answer, of course, as I hope most of us who have made it through to the other side can attest, is yes – people do recover from broken hearts. It does get better. And while there is certainly a calm that comes with getting older and wiser enough to know that – to really know and trust that a lost love was not your last, that other people’s opinions won’t make or break you, and that time truly does heal all wounds – in a sense, with that perspective also comes a loss.  

Today, as I near my 26th birthday – a birthday in which I’ve officially passed all of the exciting milestones (legally voting, legally drinking and renting a car without a surcharge … which really wasn't that exciting) I have to ask myself: when was the last time I felt the exhilaration of being completely overwhelmed by raw, unbridled emotion?  

Sure, I’m glad not to feel utterly crushed every time a boy I like doesn’t like me back. There's nothing I miss about feeling desperate to have amazing plans every single weekend. But, when did I put up so many protective emotional barriers that I stopped getting excited about a promising first date? When did a night on my couch with a solid Netflix line-up become so much more appealing than a night out on the town, and all the promise and possibilities such a night might bring?  

I recently read about a study that said having new experiences makes people feel that time is passing more slowly. The study claimed to explain why our childhoods seemed to stretch on forever, but we feel the passing of our adult years more quickly with each birthday. As we get older, we experience the passage of time more rapidly, because fewer and fewer of our experiences are new – it takes less energy and brain space to process the same stimuli again and again. (For instance, the pattern of – 1. Receive mildly intriguing message on OKCupid. 2. Spend an hour making awkward small talk over drinks. 3. Never see the guy again. 4. Repeat. – has gotten pretty predictable.)  

Armed with this knowledge, as I ring in my 26th year on this earth and have begun to feel like I'm hurtling toward old age faster than I can keep up with, maybe the best “Fountain of Youth” gift I can give myself this birthday is simply to try more new things. Instead of stocking up on all the age-defying creams Sephora is trying to convince me I need, maybe the best (and cheapest) age-defying tactic is just to pledge to branch out a bit – to take more emotional risks. Be more vulnerable. Let more people in. Drink some caffeine, put my big girl pants on, and get my butt somewhere fabulous next Friday night, instead of letting it remain planted firmly on the couch in fuzzy pajama bottoms.  

At the end of the day, maybe we all have something to learn from those surly, mercurial teenagers, whose lives seem like constant rollercoaster rides between laughing and crying and screaming and laughing again. Maybe we could all stand to spend a few hours curled up in bed letting Celine Dion tell us, and only us, that our hearts will go on. (Seriously, CELINE GETS ME YOU GUYS.)  

Because while opening ourselves up to new and unknown experiences may cause pain – maybe even crushing, gut-wrenching, incomprehensible pain that feels like it will never end -- it may also be the only way to open ourselves up to the biggest thrills, and the greatest possible joys.  

And no matter how old we are, isn't that what life is all about?

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Summer Movie Preview 2014

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What to watch and what to watch out for
05/01/2014

Weather can ruin a lot of things, but it cannot touch the summer movie season. Every year, from the first weekend in May until the second-to-last weekend in August, without fail, summer blockbusters arrive one by one. Even if you’re not into inflated-budget studio films in which robots, monsters or aliens level entire American cities, summer is still for you; it is the only time for reliable comedies, and it practically overflows with those slightly magical coming-of-age indie films.  

But if your brain is still fried from the winter, you might need some help. That’s where I come in with this summer movie preview. I’ve broken down the films into five major groups: movies to mark on your calendar, movies with upside, movies with something to prove, movies to be skeptical of and small movies to put on your radar.

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 1

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Movies to mark on your calendar  

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2) – It’s not getting raves, but it’s the first summer movie and fans and critics are so far liking this more than the first rebooted chapter starring Andrew Garfield. Concerns about villain overcrowding affecting the script are legitimate, but the entertainment value appears wickedly high.  

Neighbors (May 9) – This comedy pits frat boys (Zac Efron, Dave Franco) against new parents (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) in a war of getting even when the two become neighbors. The movie has gotten excellent reviews since it premiered at South by Southwest.  

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23) – Bryan Singer, who directed the first two “X-Men” movies, got together the original “X-Men” cast with their younger selves from “X-Men: First Class” for the biggest “X-Men” movie yet. The story involves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) traveling back in time to stop an event that will lead to the destruction of mutant kind.  

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6) – Adapted from the best-selling novel, this movie features new “it girl” Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”) as a teenager with cancer who falls in love with a fellow cancer survivor. The script comes from the writers of “(500) Days of Summer” and last summer’s coming-of-age hit “The Spectacular Now.”  

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Boyhood (July 11) – This indie project is something film nerds like myself have been following for a long time. Richard Linklater filmed this movie over the course of 12 years to capture the physical growth of a boy and his family. This groundbreaking effort has gotten outstanding reviews at festivals thus far.  

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11) – The 2011 summer hit “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” surprised everyone, and buzz is high for the sequel, even though we’ve yet to see much. The story supposedly involves the human survivors of the simian virus battling Caesar (motion capture Andy Serkis) and the apes.  

Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1) – Marvel Studios’ summer film comes in unusual, irreverent form with this take on a lesser-known comic about a ragtag group of intergalactic “heroes.” Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) makes his action hero debut along with Bradley Cooper voicing a CGI raccoon and Vin Diesel voicing a tree alien whose only line is “I AM GROOT!”    

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 2  

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Movies with upside  

Godzilla (May 16) – A reboot of the infamous Japanese kaiju necessitates some skepticism, but the trailers have been mind-blowing in scale, and director Gareth Edwards’ under-seen “Monsters” offers proof that this version, starring Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson could turn the “cheesy monster movie” stigma around.  

A Million Ways to Die in the West (May 30) – Seth MacFarlane earned carte blanche with “Ted,” but can he strike gold with a comedy Western, a genre that typical falters at the box office? Don’t expect “Blazing Saddles,” but a cast with Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris and Sarah Silverman among others hold promise.  

Edge of Tomorrow (June 6) – Tom Cruise and sci fi go hand in hand these days. He plays a soldier in the future who relives his death on the battlefield again and again. Eventually he teams up with Emily Blunt, and each day they train harder and harder to change the outcome of the battle. This high-concept action film could get confusing fast or be fascinating – at least the talent is there.

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 7

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June 13) – Hiccup and his dragon Toothless won over audiences with charm and sweeping 3D sequences, but that was four years ago. The film will surely be a box-office smash with very few animated movies out this summer, but can DreamWorks deliver a quality sequel?  

Deliver Us from Evil (July 2) – Last year we got a rare mid-summer horror hit in “The Conjuring.” Proven horror director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”) and stars Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez and Olivia Munn are all good signs this film based on the account of an actual NYC police officer could offer a similar change of pace.  

Jupiter Ascending (July 18) – “The Matrix” directors Andy and Lana Wachowski deliver this ambitious sci-fi/fantasy tale about an ordinary Earth woman (Mila Kunis) fated for greatness and swooped off on an adventure by a genetically engineered Channing Tatum. A film with this much imagination will either be a franchise-starter or a total failure.  

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Aug. 22) – At long last, Robert Rodriguez got around to a “Sin City” sequel almost a decade in the making. It looks like from the teaser that he hasn’t skipped a beat, but we still don’t know much about this movie. On the other hand, it’s star-studded and the buzz will surely grow.    

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 3  

Maleficent

Movies with something to prove  

Maleficent (May 30) - A “the story you didn’t know” version of a Disney film through a villain’s eyes has lots of geeky promise, especially with pitch-perfect casting in Angelina Jolie. Yet after the disappointment of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and mixed reaction to “Oz, the Great and Powerful,” this rich CGI fantasy world movie has something to prove.  

22 Jump Street (June 13) – Yes, the first one was hilarious, and I like directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller enough to trust in this sequel to some degree, but when was the last time you saw a great comedy sequel? They are so rare, that it’s hard to put high expectations on this movie.  

Jersey Boys (June 20) – Movie adaptations of hit musicals are usually awards-season material, so what’s “Jersey Boys” doing in the summer? The music sure is catchy, but the bigger question is can Clint Eastwood bounce back? He hasn’t made an excellent movie in some time now.

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 9

Transformers: Age of Extinction (June 27) – With Shia LaBeouf gone and Mark Wahlberg now the face of the franchise, is this the “fresh start” fans wanted or the same big, loud, dumb Michael Bay routine with new actors? These films have always been technically impressive, but the plots have been garbage. And as much as I loved Dinobots as a kid, I’m not sure how that they’ll work in an actual story.  

Get On Up (Aug. 1) – Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) will try and change up the pace of the summer once again with this James Brown biopic. How impressive that star Chadwick Boseman can play baseball legend Jackie Robinson and the king of soul? He’s a true talent, but as much as the good pieces are in place, this is more likely than not another by-the-numbers music biopic given the August release.  

Let’s Be Cops (Aug. 13) – Fans of TV’s “New Girl” will delight to see Coach (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Nick (Jake Johnson) on the big screen in this comedy about two friends who score authentic police uniforms for a party and soon realize they can get away with impersonating officers. It’s a shot in the dark, but this could be a surprisingly funny comedy.    

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 4  

Blended

Movies to be skeptical of  

Blended (May 23) – Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore reunite for the third time, but considering “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates” were actually charming, the cliché doesn’t quite work here. Anyway, Sandler’s films have been awful of late, so the only hope is that he’s gone for more heart given the family tone of this story of a single dad and mom whose families are stuck together on an African vacation.  

Hercules (July 25) – Dwayne Johnson is one of few worthy to take on the lion mantle of Hercules on the big screen, but Brett Ratner is far from the ideal director for an epic fantasy action film (movie geeks despise the man). The teaser trailer looks good, but manage your expectations.  

Sex Tape (July 25) – The team behind “Bad Teacher,” including stars Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz, in the story of a husband and wife whose sex tape goes viral. When the whole reason your movie has a plot is because of “the Cloud,” there’s reason for concern, as easy to enjoy as “Bad Teacher” was.

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 8

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Aug. 8) – People were very sensitive and accusatory when word of this reboot first broke given the way producer Michael Bay described it, and with Megan Fox as April O’Neil, few plan to take this reboot seriously.  

The Giver (Aug. 15) – My 7th grade self would’ve been all over this adaptation of the Lois Lowry novel with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in supporting roles, but it seems the only reason this classic dystopia film got on the fast track is because of “The Hunger Games.” Expect people to take a critical lens to this adaptation.  

The Expendables 3 (Aug. 15) – The old action stars are back with the familiar faces and new ones in Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas and Mel Gibson as the villain. “The Expendables 2” turned out to be a good bit of fun, but how many times can you ride these old dogs?  

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 5  

They Came Together

Small movies to put on your radar  

Chef (May 9) – Actor/director Jon Favreau pulls together an exciting cast in one of those indies so full of names (chief among them Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson) you wonder if it’s really an indie. After losing his job for being too avant garde, a chef (Favreau) starts up a food truck.  

The Double (May 9) – Jesse Eisenberg stars in British director Richard Ayoade’s take on Dostoevsky’s novel about a man whose doppelganger suddenly comes into his life and he’s more outgoing and charismatic. The film has gotten respectable reviews since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.  

They Came Together (June 27) – David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “Role Models”) crafts a biting satire on romantic comedies starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. Does it get better? The film received strong reviews at Sundance.  

Begin Again (July 4) – Mark Ruffalo plays a troubled music exec and Keira Knightley a singer/songwriter who could turn his career around. Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green also star. From the director of the musical movie “Once.”

Summer Movie Preview 2014 photo 10

Wish I Was Here (July 18) – Zach Braff has yet to repeat the achievement that was “Garden State,” and while critics have not been impressed with his latest, fans at Sundance took a liking to this story of a dad who decides to home school his children and their adventures in the process.

Magic in the Moonlight (July 25) – Woody Allen’s newest film stars Emma Stone and Colin Firth and involves a swindle of some kind. We don’t know much else as of yet, but as with any Allen film, it could be amazing or a total waste of time.

Happy Christmas (July 25) – Joe Swanberg, whose last movie, “Drinking Buddies,” was a Chicago favorite, revealed his latest movie at Sundance, about a 20-something (Anna Kendrick) who crashes in Chicago with her brother and sister-in-law and their young child and shakes up the family dynamic.

Love Is Strange (Aug. 22) – John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a gay couple of nearly 40 years who after finally getting married, are forced to live apart when one is fired from his Catholic school job. Early festival reviews are glowing.

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