OyChicago blog

Who is a Middle East refugee?

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Who is a Middle East refugee? photo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on May 18, 2009. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90/JTA)

I read an article this morning posted by Daniel Dagan written before President Obama delivered his big speech in Cairo yesterday.  Click here to read President Obama’s speech on Facebook in the form of status updates.  You can also watch a video of President Obama giving his speech.

Dagan is a Jewish reporter who was born in Egypt and was forced to leave his home as a child refugee— a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In this fascinating article Dagan shares many insights and anecdotes about his childhood and his multiple encounters with Mubarak and poses the question to President Obama, “Why don’t you ever mention me?”

Here is a short excerpt from the article:

I was in the reception line, among a row of political bigwigs and illustrious guests, at Mubarak's Cairo palace. A routine handshake, with a word of greeting in Arabic. Then I took Mubarak by surprise with the comment that I used to play on the property as a child.

But he simply didn't believe me, so I dipped into my vest pocket and pulled out my birth certificate. He read it out loud - in Arabic, of course: "Born at 1 Ibrahim Street, Heliopolis, Cairo..."

The president was almost left speechless. "Ibrahim? I know this street; it's just around the corner. So you grew up here?"

"Yes, I did," I confirmed. And I told him that the headquarters of his regime used to be called the Heliopolis Palace Hotel and was considered the most beautiful residence in Africa. When I was a child living in the neighborhood, I played there often, as the manager of the hotel, the Belgian Baron Empain, was a friend of our family.

Spontaneously, Mubarak invited me to stay in Egypt a little longer and to come back (which I did a number of times). To Rau standing next to him, he said with feeling: "Thank you for bringing an Egyptian brother with you."

DURING THAT BRIEF meeting I was too polite to react on the spot. But the dramatic events now unfolding in my native town offer a good opportunity to put a straight question not just to Mubarak and other Arab and Muslim leaders, but also to Obama: When you address the problem of refugees forced to leave their homes as a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict - as surely you will - do you intend to consider all the refugees affected by this ongoing confrontation? Why have you failed until now to mention the 1 million Jews who fled Arab countries and sought a new home in Israel? Why have you ignored the fate of these large, ancient communities across the Arab and the Muslim world that have all but disappeared?

Why don't you ever mention me?

Good question.

Many Jewish-Arabs (around a million) were forced out of their homes throughout the Middle East as a result of conflict with Israel beginning in the second half of the 20th century.  But we don’t hear much about them these days.  They are another piece to a large, complicated puzzle that makes up the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  I’m always searching for more knowledge and insights to add to my understanding of Israel and the Middle East.  If you, like me, are still trying to educate yourself on the issues, than I urge you to read this article in its entirety.


Eastern European Jews Meet Western Foods

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Eastern European Jews Meet Western Foods photo

As a twenty-something journalist living in Chicago, my daily rush consists of commuting, interviewing, writing and sometimes remembering to eat.

Despite the madness, I have a side hobby. I love collecting recipes, and one of my most cherished possessions is a huge cookbook I’ve been compiling over the past year. In fact, some friends poke fun that I bake to de-stress.

While I’m constantly searching for new recipes and drooling over the Food Network, I often forget the best recipes may be tucked away in my mother’s kitchen. Only around the holidays do I pause and smell the matzo balls.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed chef and Food Network star Gale Gand, a fellow Jew, for a story I wrote for the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal.com.

Gand is a north suburban native. She’s also executive pastry chef and a partner at a famous Chicago restaurant, Tru. Some might remember when she hosted the Food Network’s show, “Sweet Dreams.”

When we talked, she mentioned her new show, “The Heirloom Recipe Project,” scheduled to air on PBS Oct. 1. On the show, grandparents will teach their grandchildren a family heirloom recipe, and each week the show will have a different focus on cultural cuisine, Gand said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to make sure this stuff gets passed on because it is this sort of ethereal art form,” Gand said. “It’s hard to record.”

Gand gave an example of one story she encountered: After several failed attempts, a young woman asked her grandmother to show her how to make her babka recipe. As she took out her measuring cup for flour, the grandmother asked what it was. It was then that the young woman discovered her grandmother had been using a Jewish Yahrzeit glass to measure the flour.

“It’s like storytelling,” Gand said. “There’s an art form there that can only be passed down, person to person.”

Gand said it’s “crowded” in her kitchen; all of her relatives are in there with her.

Gand’s story got me thinking about my own family, and what recipes might be lost because my grandparents already passed away.

The dish racks in my parents’ home are filled with depression era plates, cups and silverware that we take out only for Passover. My Russian grandmother, Eda, on my dad’s side, lugged beautiful candlesticks on the boat to Ellis Island, and then on to Chicago.

Much like Gand’s story, Eda failed to write down all of her recipes, which spurred my mother to scoot Eda over to her house for demonstrations.

“She just knew them,” my mother said.

Eda didn’t use measuring cups.

“I would watch Eda scoop three handfuls of this and two pinches of that, and would write down, ‘three handfuls of this and two pinches of that,’” she said. “After all of the handfuls and pinches, voila—the best Russian beet borscht you’ve ever tasted!”

It became a little more complicated with Eda’s chicken soup, when she would measure two soup bowls of water for every pound of chicken. Every time my mother makes the soup, she complains it’s not as good as Eda’s; she says it’s missing one major ingredient, schmaltz—Yiddish for chicken fat.

In my grandparents’ day, fat was of little concern.

“Eda never skinned the chicken or skimmed the fat,” my mother said. “That soup was the real thing.”

My mother and I thumbed through her mother’s cookbook, unraveling another thread of stories.

My grandmother, Bubbe Debbie, kept a carefully organized, leather-bound book with recipes cut out from magazines dating back to World War II. The recipes reflected food rationing of items such as meat and sugar. Intermingled were American recipes, and European delicacies from her mother. She included magazine pictures depicting luxurious kitchens of the 1940s with happy housewives in aprons serving their families. This recipe book provides a fascinating window into that era.

On a less gourmet and schmaltzier note, my mother, and her mother before her, considered crusty rye bread spread with a thin layer of rendered, cold chicken fat a fine after-school snack. Her mother kept a jar of schmaltz in the fridge at all times.

“Don’t dare forget rubbing the ‘kanuble’ around the crust,” my mother said. “Kanuble” is Yiddish for garlic.

It gets worse.

My mother told me my that grandmother made “grivenes,” or what she referred to as “Jewish popcorn.” This so-called popcorn is fat kernels that burn off from chicken skin.

I suddenly imagined myself as a descendent of the family in that commercial where the father and children each have a stick of butter in their baked potatoes.

My mother and I discussed several other family favorites such as Eda’s challah and fried matzah recipes, as well as Debbie’s cholent recipe—akin to a slow-cooked dish that one might make in a crock-pot. It heats for about 24 hours so that Orthodox women can turn on the oven before Shabbat and have a feast when the holiday arrives.

The piece de resistance was my mother’s tongue recipe. As a child, she claims, I refused her tongue dinner. I couldn’t recall—I must have blocked that memory out. I vow to this day that I will never put bovine tongue on my tongue.

I learned about many funny quirks in my family’s culinary history, and I’m grateful that we have captured some treasured recipes on paper.

My mother had one take-away message: The key to authentic, Jewish cuisine is SCHMALTZ.


Walking to save “The Girls,” Part II

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Walking to save “The Girls,” part II photo 1

This weekend, you won't find me at any of the many street festivals or pub crawls.  I won't be celebrating birthdays with friends at the bars or shopping on Michigan Avenue.  Nope, this weekend you'll find me painting the town pink with the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.  You may remember Cheryl's story about our "training" (yes - the word training belongs in quotations, since our Yoberri stops and leisurely strolls along the lake didn't always qualify as training).  Well, training time is over, and we've raised a ton of money - nearly $11,000!  The big weekend is finally upon us!

This weekend, Jacey, Abby, Cheryl and I will be walking a marathon and a half with over 3,500 others to raise funds and promote awareness for this cause that has impacted so many women in our lives and around the world.

I don't think it would be out of line for me to guess that almost everyone who follows the Oy! blog knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer.  This will be my third year walking with Avon, and it's a cause that's very close to my heart. My participation began in 2007 when I was seeking a mitzvah project that could offset the materialistic undertones of planning a wedding.  David and I wanted to find a way to give back as our friends and family were showering us with gifts and well-wishes.

Picking the cause was easy for us.  My aunt Cindy is a two-time survivor, and my mom's friend Peggy was just wrapping up treatment.  David's grandmother Lotte has battled breast cancer twice in her lifetime, and his mother Carolyn lost her hard-fought battle when he was just six years old.  For us, writing a check just wasn't going to be enough. 

My sister and I walked together in 2007, and by the end of the weekend, I was dragging a bum-leg behind me and wondering why I signed up in the first place.  In theory, walking 39 miles doesn't seem so daunting -- it's only walking, right!?  Wrong.  After hobbling on achy legs for a week after my first Avon Walk, I shocked myself at the realization I came to:  I wanted to do it again.

Walking to save “The Girls,” Part II photo 2

In 2008, I signed up to do the walk on my own.  My friends who had seen my blisters from the year before were intimidated by the physical side effects and the seemingly-high fundraising minimum of $1,800.  Last year, with no training partner and a brutal winter that didn't seem to end until early June, I did the walk without training and with no walking partner.  By the end, my hip joints throbbed, and I waddled through those last few miles at what seemed like a one-mile-an-hour pace. 

As I was trudging down Lake Shore Drive toward the finish line, a woman and her daughter came up from behind me and asked me if I was alright.  Emotionally and physically exhausted, I explained that I was having a tough time finding the motivation to keep walking alone through the pain.  The woman, who had seen the tag on my back recognizing those who I was walking in honor and memory of, looked me right in the eye and said that if Carolyn could see me now, she would be so proud.  Tears welled up in my eyes as they told me that I was no longer alone. 

Now, as I prepare for my third annual Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, I hope that the mother-in-law that I never got to meet is smiling down on Team Motorboat.  Perhaps she'll be able to convince the Big Guy to defer the rainstorms in the forecast for the weekend.  My mom and her friend Peggy - now a two-year survivor - will be volunteering, and many of my friends will be joining me and my teammates for a couple miles along the way.  Each year, I hope that this will be the year that they find the cure for this disease that seems to strike Ashkenazic Jews at an unusually high rate and endangers women everywhere.

If you're curious about how the walk is going this weekend, follow Oy! on Twitter -- Cheryl will be tweeting updates on Team Motorboat's progress.


Emma’s Birth: Taking My Cues from the Ethiopians

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Emma’s Birth 1

My next door neighbors at Tabor Absorption Center, Israel, 1994. The grandma, of blessed memory, used to cover one nostril and blow her nose directly onto the linoleum floor with astounding nonchalance. Of perhaps greater relevance, the mom (seated) permanently changed my view of childbirth.

When it came time to deliver, my Ethiopian neighbors used to squat, yelp, yelp some more, and pop out those little babies. Then and only then would they call for an ambulance. At least, that’s what Benny the security guard told me, and he should know. He witnessed it five times.

Eight years later, the scenery had changed. Benny the security guard was now my husband and the view out our window was no longer the hills of Upper Nazareth but the sloped embankment of some not-so-scenic El tracks in southeast Evanston.

It was our turn now. Benny and I were ready to procreate. At least, we’d successfully deceived ourselves into thinking we were ready. And we remembered our former neighbors.

If Ethiopian women could squat, yelp and deliver -- why should I subject myself to the Western world of obstetrics-gynecology, in all its induced, episiotomied, caesarian section glory? Hadn’t I successfully turned a roundoff, back handspring, back flip the summer before fifth grade?  Hadn’t I, at age 28, ridden my bike 500 miles in five days with only modest butt-chafing? Hadn’t I mastered Pilates teasers and other abdominal torture? My body was made for this.

That’s what I told myself.  But the truth is, part of me longed for a nice silent, sterile C-section.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but skinny girls hate their bodies, too. You know those kids in the gym locker room who changed their clothes without giving anyone a glimpse of their underwear? That was me. I won the Silent Camper award at overnight camp (where, it goes without saying, I showered during off-hours). I wore XL shirts on my 120 lb. frame from age 12 to 21, simply as a distraction. (No, I didn’t think I was fat – just ugly.) I walked around my entire junior year with my right hand plastered to the side of my face in an attempt to hide three small moles (as if, that didn’t draw attention). I even sneezed silently.

So the thought of making loud, guttural noises up and down a maternity ward – with my ass hanging out – held no appeal.

Here’s how I got over it.

Not one for secrets, surprises, or superstition, I told pretty much everyone I was pregnant within days of conception and then got busy preparing myself. The first person I told, on the train approximately 46 minutes after watching that little blue line appear on the pregnancy test, gave me the name of his midwife.

Debi Lesnick, CNM. To Debi, I was never merely a uterus, an inconvenience, or an imminent complication. I was a person – a wise, strong, capable person on an extraordinary journey – and I felt cared for. So much so that I kept her business card in my wallet and bedside drawer for the next five years.

Debi told us about a class in Andersonville taught by Mary Sommers. For six consecutive weeks, Benny (the security guard turned husband turned doula) and I learned the ins and outs of natural childbirth. He learned how to apply counter pressure, both on my back during a contraction and to any doctor pushing pitocin. You need to know enough to know what’s right for you at any given moment.

So I had my team – Debi, Mary, Benny. And I had my inspiration – the Ethiopian women of Tabor Absorption Center.

But sisters, I’m not going to lie to you. Squat, yelp and deliver, my ass. My former neighbors were clearly not having their first babies, sunny-side up, weighing in at 8.3 lbs. It hurt like bloody hell.

After 13 hours of back labor, uninhibited nudity and bodily fluids (because really – who gives a fuck when it comes down to it), one bite of purple popsicle in the labor tub, 90 minutes of pushing, and plenty – believe me, plenty – of loud guttural noises, Emma Sigal was born with her hand plastered to the side of her face. And Benny, the proud abba, cut the cord.

While I took pride in my Pilates teasers, flips, and marathon bike rides, nothing compared to childbirth. I had grown a person from scratch.

Emma is now six; her sister just turned five. And with two little girls watching, I try to send the right messages about beauty, about bodies, about strength. It’s hard to begrudge your barely B cups after they’ve nourished two kids to toddlerhood. What’s a few stretch marks, when you know why you stretched? Diapers trump vanity, contractions give you strength.

Not that I’d deny that at 2:41 this morning, my daughter woke me up to cover her and on my way back to bed, I ducked into the bathroom to get rid of a few pesky chin hairs.

The sad thing is, Emma – at just six – already engages in a daily battle to straighten her bouncy curls. Some days, she complains about her unibrow and moles and rounded belly. They’re beauty marks, I tell her. Your body is just right, I tell her. Look how fast you run.

Emma's Birth 2

Dana and Emma, making noise.

Three days after Emma was born, I wrote a poem in my journal. We’ll call it hormone-induced, if you don’t mind.

I found my voice.
I found my heart.
I found my strength.
When I had you.

Someday I’ll tell her about the Ethiopians. And electrolysis.

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