OyChicago blog

Buying your first place

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06/30/2009

After living with stark white walls, slumlords slow to fix problems but quick to raise the rent, and hauling my groceries up 3 flights of stairs and down a long hallway, only for the bag to break right before I can get my door open, I’m ready for my own place.  (Ideally one where doing the laundry doesn’t rely on me having enough quarters.)

Sound familiar?

With housing prices finally coming down (and rents starting to go up as more people rent vs. buy), owning that little piece of grass (or, for you condo dwellers, sky) is tempting many first-time home buyers into the market.  You’ve probably discussed this at length already with your friends, your parents, and just about anyone else who will listen and are convinced that now is the time to buy.

Before you jump into the real estate game, here are a few more things to consider based on what I’ve learned as a condo dweller and current house hunter.  Good luck and happy hunting!

1. It’s a buyer’s market, but many sellers haven’t gotten that memo yet.  Beware of the sellers that are living in the past—you will know who they are because their properties are overpriced, and they are usually quite stubborn about negotiating.  (Hint: if a place has sold in the last few years you can probably see what the current owner paid for it on zillow.com.)

2. You’d be surprised how much orange-shag carpet and wood-paneling is still out there.  In HGTV land, everyone has updated their properties with shiny flooring and stainless steel.  In the real world, you will see more heinous décor than you thought possible. (Especially if you are looking in the ‘burbs.) The kicker is when the owner considers it updated (From what I ask? The 1800s?) AND worth extra money.  Be prepared for lots of black and white color schemes, pink countertops, and my personal favorite: burnt–orange stripes on the wall.

3. Your home could seriously hurt your social life.  For one moment, put aside all the practical reasons (tax breaks, etc.) that are driving you to buy your first place.  Instead, think about what makes you happy.  Are you willing to give up going out with friends? Vacations? Going to grad school?  Can you still do what you love (at least in moderation) if you buy your place?  If not, you might be very miserable down the line.  I’ve got plenty of friends who are in this exact predicament: owning a beautiful place that sucks all of their discretionary money, who have come to regret their decision.  Remember, the mortgage is about half of what ownership costs, then there are taxes, maintenance, fees…… oy!

4.  Beware of being the youngest person (or oldest) on the block.  I lived in a condo building for 10 years where the average age had to be 95.  On the one hand, I never had a noisy neighbor.  On the other, I learned a valuable lesson: old people can be really, really difficult to live with.

For example: One morning as I was innocently eating my breakfast bar in the elevator, I was curtly informed by an “older gentleman” that I was in violation of condo rules.  Eating in “common areas” was strictly verboten.  Consequently, I was fined $100.  Do you know how many Nutrigrain Bars I could have gotten for $100?

The moral of the story: when you buy a home or condo, you are buying into a community.  Old or young, make sure it’s one you will want to be part of.  (And I definitely recommend that it’s young, or at least, younger.)

5.  And, beware of being the only Jew in the neighborhood.  My current frustration with where I live is how far I have to go just to get challah.  If being connected to Judaism is important to you, either now or in the relatively near future, you will probably want to figure out not only where congregations are, but other things that contribute to leading a Jewish life.

6.  Before putting an offer in, ask some basic questions about the appliances and other ‘mechanicals’.   True, an inspection will reveal problems with your property, but it costs about $450 (if not more) and, should you walk away from the property, it’s non-refundable.  By asking some questions about how old, and what kind of condition things are in—from the refrigerator to the furnace—you can get a better idea of what you might be getting into before you make that offer.

7.  Don’t just assume renovations to the place were done legally.  I just dodged this bullet: a lot of people do work on places without permits or inspections so you have no way of knowing that the work was done up to code.  Once you buy the place, this becomes your liability.  So, before making that offer, ask the seller for proof of permits and inspections on any work done.  Also, if you are buying a condo, know that if you plan on doing anything to your unit, you will need the permission of the Home Owner’s Association (HOA) and they have all sorts of rules and regulations.  Which leads me to…

8.  Home Owner’s Association’s (HOA) can impose more rules and regulations on you than your parents.  You may be surprised about the rules that govern you—they can range to restrictions from when you are allowed to run your dishwasher (e.g.: not after 11 p.m. at night), to how much of your floors must be carpeted for sound, to whether or not you can rent out your unit.  If you can, get a copy of the HOA’s Guide of Conduct or any other information you can get about the place you might be living in.  And on that note, check out how much cash they have in reserve to cover an unforeseen building repairs or, in this economy, enough to cover lack of fees collected from other units.

9. Remember, this is just your first home.  Don’t sweat it being perfect.

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Getting my yoga on

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06/29/2009

Getting my yoga on photo

It’s finally summertime at Oy! and it seems like many of us have fitness and nutrition on the brains.  Well, I can’t resist adding my two cents…

Now that I don’t have to spend my workout time on long walks, I’ve been trying to diversify my workout routines.  While I’m quite sure that I won’t be joining Jacey at her Bar Method classes, I have been stepping out of my workout comfort zone and stretching into some yoga.

Why yoga you might ask?  I know it’s not some kind of new-fangled exercise a la the Bar Method, but well, I did just walk 40 miles and by serendipity a new, very different type of yoga studio, yogaview-Division, just opened right by my apartment in Wicker Park.

Yogaview-Division is the offspring of the popular yogaview-Elston, which has been offering yoga classes to Bucktown residents for many years.  The Elston location is considered one of the premier yoga studios in the country.  The opening of this second location is a direct result of the current economy it is the first donation-based studio in the city.  The owners believe that “yoga should be accessible to everyone” regardless of ability to pay so instead of charging a flat fee, they invite their class participants to give a donation that fits their budget

I arrived at the studio for a Monday night level 1-2 course.  I walked into the modern, airy room, and had to spend moment figuring out how to pay for my class.  There is a discreet table at the entrance with a small, dark rectangular box with a slit on top to deposit your donation.  That’s it.  No one knows how much you give and you’re welcomed into the class.  The hope is that those who can afford to give donate more and those who might not be able to pay as much, still attend. 

The studio is fully equipped with mats and other yoga accessories, so all you need to do to take the class is show up!  My class was an hour and fifteen minutes and involved a lot of standard yoga poses with a whole lot of repetitions of downward dog and plank position, a.k.a. my least favorite yoga poses.  I suffered through it and otherwise enjoyed the class, especially the relaxation part.  All in all it was a pretty good experience. 

Molly, the instructor, was incredibly nice and helpful.  She stuck around after class and answered questions.  I got some good advice on ways to stretch my bad knee.  And her stretches have really helped ease the pain.  There’s a wide range of courses for all levels, even one for expectant mothers, and instructors to fit any kind of work out personality. 

Now I must admit that yoga is not my favorite workout activity.  I work out, not to be physically fit per se, but so I can justify being a fat kid who eats too much ice cream.  And I just really like my elliptical.  I can hear Ron now, ‘you must diversify your workouts to achieve a higher level of fitness’ and I’m trying!  I am determined to keep up this yoga thing even though I’m terribly un-flexible and there’s way too many push-upesque poses.  Did I just invent two words?

Anyway, I’m not yet really convinced that yoga will help me lose any weight, but maybe it will help with toning.  Though it won’t help with is my ice cream addiction.  Yogaview-Division is located directly above Starfruit, a local Wicker Park ice cream and frozen yogurt joint.  A little yoga followed by some ice cream--there’s my motivation!

The suggested donation for a yogaview-Division class ranges from $10-$20, but the studio truly stresses the pay what you can policy.  Credit cards are not accepted at the Division location, so make sure you bring cash or check.  To learn more about yogaview and to access the class schedules, visit the site at  www.yogaview.com .

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Cheers Chicago

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06/26/2009

Cheers Chicago photo

Photo credit Tiffany O'Neill Photography 

As a bartender and a mixologist, I’m often asked by my patrons and even my colleagues some great questions about making drinks. So, I thought I would dedicate this blog post to answering some of those questions about the use – and abuse – of spirits. Then I’ll wrap things up with this issue’s Cheers Chicago Cocktail!

The most frequently asked question I get while pouring cocktails goes something like this: “So, what’s the difference between vodka, gin and scotch?” followed closely by, “which type of alcohol messes you up the most?” Both great questions. Each type of alcohol has a base ingredient from which the yeast feeds from to produce alcohol as a byproduct. There are several choices: whisky and vodka are commonly derived from wheat and barley, while wine and brandy are made from grapes. Rum and cachaça are derived from sugarcane and molasses, while sake comes from fermenting rice. The distilled spirit will only change color, however, if it’s aged in a wood barrel, which gives scotch its unique color, aroma and taste. Unlike other spirits, vodka is actually distilled to the ponit where it has no distinctive aroma, color or taste. Other than, of course, the various congener aromas (like fusel oil) or the subtle differences in texture in the water used (heavier french spring in Grey Goose, lighter Russian distilled water in Stoli, for instance), but only the very best can distinguish these differences amongst all popular vodkas. Gin starts as vodka, but uses a combination of herbs and botanicals in the distilling process to “cut” the harsh flavor of the distilled spirit.

As for which one “messes you up” the most, here’s the bottom line: the higher the proof, the less it takes to become intoxicated. The real question lies in how you consume your alcohol. For instance, a drink by itself or with water will be absorbed by your stomach wall into your bloodstream much more slowly than one complemented with a carbonated beverage such as Pellegrino, tonic, or soft drink. Therefore, even though the alcohol content may be comparable, those that drink with carbonation are more likely to become intoxicated more rapidly than other combinations.

Another question I’m often asked is: “What’s the best cure for a hangover?”At this point in the conversation, other people at the bar might chime in with a story about a night out and discover the very next morning some mysterious combination of ingredients that cured their sloppy hangover. While others might swear by water and ibuprofen before going to bed, or drink Gatorade, or even eat lots of greasy food. I am going to clear the air for any doubters once and for all: the ONLY thing that can CURE a hangover is TIME. Sure, doctors admit that they aren't entirely sure what a hangover is, let alone how to cure it, but they are sure of time healing all post-alcoholic wounds.

Can you imagine what a clinical trial for a hangover would look like? I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I'd want to play along. Here's what doctors do know about hangovers. For starters, booze dehydrates. Alcohol blocks specific hormones in your kidneys that normally would keep you from racing to the bathroom. With each drink, you effectively lose more water than you take in— and that leads to all sorts of problems, like a searing headache. When breaking down alcohol, your body pumps out lactic acid and other byproducts that impede the production of glucose (sugar) and electrolytes (salts and other minerals that keep your body functioning properly). Hence that familiar weak, woozy feeling you get when you're hung-over. Here most people insert the “Gatorade” and “water plus ibuprofen” quips, which will in fact help your body re-hydrate and expel the toxins. Too much alcohol also irritates your gastrointestinal tract, therefore eating just about anything while you drink will ease the pain and slow down your body’s alcohol absorption rate. In the end, though, intoxicated people get the munchies, too, which will help the individual sober up more quickly. So, if you want the pain to end, you can try to slow it down, but you’ll eventually have to bite your lip and simply wait it out.
 
If I get the chance to introduce myself to my patrons, I’m often asked the origin of my name, which leads them wondering – out loud, of course – what makes something “kosher”. If they’re referring to the dietary restrictions, I share some facts with them as to what makes alcohol and all its derivatives kosher. For example, wine is made from grapes, and the Bible is clear as to what constitutes kosher preparation and production. For instance, the vines must be untouched by non-Jewish hands in order to be classified as kosher. Similarly, brandy, sherry, vermouth and champagne are direct products of wine and therefore need to use kosher wine to qualify. A little known fact: Southern Comfort that’s made in Ireland is kosher, while the one made in the United States is not. No reason for this is given. Mezcal and tequila are also kosher, so long as it’s without the worm (worms aren’t kosher, but believe it or not locusts are…gross.)

And now for your Cheers Chicago Cocktail of the month! This particular cocktail came to me by way of Forbes’ top 10 Summer Cocktails, and it certainly fits the summer theme! Enjoy!

The Goods:

3 ounces Bombay Sapphire gin
squeeze of fresh lime juice
2 tbsp Blue Curacoa
1 tbsp peach schnapps
1 tsp confectioners' sugar or one packet of Equal
lemon zest

Fill a martini glass with ice and water to chill it. Half-fill a martini shaker with ice and add the gin, lime juice, Curacao, schnapps and sugar. Shake well for at least 30 seconds. Pour out ice and water from martini glass, and poor in the mixture through a strainer. Garnish with lemon zest.

L’chaim!

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Are you really gonna eat that?

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06/25/2009

www.fitwithkrit.com
rkrit@fitwithkrit.com

Gluttony hides in a Corner Bakery Salad with 61 grams of fat (yes, a salad), or a Panera chicken sandwich with 1,000 calories. You could eat almost two nasty Big Macs instead of one Panera sandwich. Now if you think your fancy meal at a steak house is better, you’re wrong. Most restaurants don’t even list calories, fat, sodium, fiber...because if you knew how much fat was in your steak and potatoes, you might never dine out.

I’m not saying to starve or avoid dessert; I’m saying, eat smart. I LOVE sushi! I could eat it for every meal. But the savory eel sauce on the delicious dragon roll, is filled with fat, so instead of depriving myself, I’ll only eat it once a month. I’m not a nutritionist, but through my experience as a personal trainer I’ve come up with the following tips for dining out:

1.      Portion, Distortion. This first tip is based on a book I’ve wanted to write for years:
Size does matter. This one is pretty basic. The size of protein in your meal should be about the size of your fist. For most people, this is not very big. Pasta or mashed potatoes should be about the size of a deck of cards. Your portion of non-starch vegetables can be about double the size of your pasta.
2.      Doggie Bags are Cool. If you want the steak, the ribs, chicken parmesan…order it. Ask the waiter to cut the portion in half or split the meal and order a soup or salad. Restaurants like Cheesecake Factory have HUGE portions. Save yourself the calories and have them bring out half on your plate and the other in a doggie bag.
3.      Salads 101. Corner Bakery, Panera, and Cosi all have salad options, most of which are filled with sodium and fat. A few easy tips to save your waist line:

•        Dressing on the side
•        Hold the croutons
•        No BLUE CHEESE
•        Baco’s instead of Bacon
•        Cheese on the side
•        Creamy dressings are higher in fat
•        Vinaigrettes are usually the healthiest dressings
•        Fruit adds great flavors to spinach/lettuce salads
•        Add beans, chicken, turkey and other lean proteins
•        Spinach has more fiber than lettuce

If there’s anything special that’s unhealthy and you want it on your salad, order it on the side. If you want bacon or croutons, eat it, just add small quantities.
4.      Soups 101. Clear or vegetable broths are usually the healthiest. Ask if the soup is cream based or contains cream, if so, the small soup becomes a belly-buster. If you want broccoli and cheddar soup, have some, just order a cup instead of a bowl. Look at the sodium. I’m not going to lecture you on salt intake, but sodium is not healthy and many soups are sodium factories. This especially applies to canned soups and fast food restaurants. Broccoli and Cheddar soup (8 ounces) at Panera has 968 milligrams of sodium. Gross.   
5.       Steam. Butter is most restaurants’ favorite tool, and you know why? It tastes awesome. Butter is the artery clogging, heart attack causing fat, so ask for steamed vegetables or fish. Most restaurants will listen if you ask for light on the cream, butter, oil…
6.      Snacks. When you’re really hungry, you eat a lot. Many people figure, I’m going to Shay Fancy for dinner so I won’t eat a lot during the day. WRONG. By not eating enough food your metabolism goes into starvation mode and slows down. Eat! A healthy snack, apples and a handful of almonds, will help you from over-eating. If you need healthy snack options, shoot me a line. If you have a great snack option, share.
7.      Salt and Sugar. Sugar and salt are a chefs best friend (along with butter). Not only are they unhealthy but they are trigger foods. Trigger foods make you over eat. I’m not saying you can blame your love handles on salt/sugar but less in this case is more. Add less sugar to your coffee, fruit does not need extra sugar and try to avoid using the salt on the table.

I am not suggesting you skip fried calamari and apple pie and then go for a run. Listen to your belly. If your meal tastes really buttery, salty, or creamy, eat less, drink lots of water, and save room for a cookie…a small cookie.

Keep reading; next week I’m reviewing an arm band that tracks all the calories you burn and how much sleep you’re getting. I can’t wait!

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My secret to getting in shape this summer…

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06/24/2009

My secret to getting in shape this summer… photo

Jacey flaunting her new figure at a wedding

The dreaded moment that every girl fears came to me about a week ago.  I was standing in my room, looking for a pair of jeans, and suddenly it hit me that I only had one clean pair—the “skinny” jeans—and that’s not referring to the cut.  Like most girls, I have a section in my closet dedicated to days I feel skinny and a section dedicated to PMS and brownies.  (Let’s face it, we Jews like to eat.)  So, I grabbed them off the hanger and wiped off the dust.  I put one leg in, then the other.  I pulled them up, sucked in hard, shut my eyes, and low and behold…they fit!  All hail the Bar Method!  And just in time for summer!

For the past few months, I have turned into one of those crazy people who actually likes to work out before work.  I wake up at 5:15 a.m. in order to be at the Bar Method by 6.  What’s the Bar Method you ask?  The Bar Method is a revolutionary way to tone, tighten and stretch your body.   Located on Belmont and Sheffield, it looks like a sweet little place where lots of twenty-something females come to get in shape.  The truth?  The Bar Method = The Devil.  But, it’s a devil that works.

Each class is one hour long and begins with 40 knee lifts, definitely doable.  After that it gets a little tricky.  Starting with 2 and 3 lb. weights, they work your triceps- repeating tiny, 1-inch movements until the muscle gives out and you can’t do anymore reps.  This is continued with your thighs, butt, abs and more.  My favorite part is when they say, “Good shaking, Jacey!”  To me, the shaking means my muscles are saying “Why are you hurting me?!”  To them, it means that you’re only just getting started.  Trust me, you will shake.

While the workout itself is insanely difficult, the staff makes up for it with their cheerful personalities.  I have no idea how they do it, but those women are awake, friendly and ready to chat at 5:30 in the morning.  They make an effort to learn your name, and they will cater the class to your needs.  And, the moment you want to give up and crawl back into bed, they are there, cheering you on.

Insider tips:

- Reserve your spot online.  There will probably be a waitlist, but you will usually get in.
- If you know you are not going to go, cancel at least an hour before!  They charge you $20 for every missed class, and trust me, it adds up.
- Make sure they are aware of your specific physical limitations as there are variations to every move.
- Buy the socks!  They sell Bar Method socks with grips on the bottoms, and while it is not necessary, it definitely helps.

The best part about the Bar Method is that it works, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.  If you are looking for a new, interesting and effective way to get in shape for the summer, check it out!  You will feel really good, like me, when your size 4 jeans actually zip-up!

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If Only I Knew…

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06/23/2009

Karen Flayhart

Having only been a Mom for four months, I hardly qualify as an expert on the topic of pregnancy or motherhood.  But a lack of expertise hasn’t ever stopped me from doling out unsolicited advice before, so why stop now?!  So, in no particular order, here are a few insights from my own experience.  Oy!

1.  You can get pregnant on the first ‘try’, even in your 30s.  Be prepared for it to happen right away, and be grateful that it did.  And definitely don’t complain about it to your friends who are still trying.
2.  No matter how faint that line is on the pregnancy test stick, it still counts as a line. 
3.  Fellow commuters don’t care that you are pregnant.
Don’t be surprised when no one offers you a seat on the bus or train in the morning, or when an obnoxious pedestrian practically runs you over as you waddle your way down the sidewalk.  While some people are nice, don’t count on special treatment from anyone but your partner.
4.  It is normal to hate other pregnant women who are thin everywhere except in their bellies.  For someone like me who has struggled with body image all of my life, the weight gain was the hardest part about being pregnant.  It didn’t make it any easier to see pictures of pregnant models with thin arms and legs in all of the baby magazines, or not fitting into trendy maternity clothes in boutiques (seriously, where are these women from??)  I felt like crap that I gained a little over the 20-30 pound range my doctor recommended until I realized no one I knew gained less than 30 pounds.  My advice: try to focus on the health of you and your child and not on the scale.  It will take some time and effort, but the weight will come off afterwards. 
5.  If birth isn’t imminent, stop and get a pedicure on the way to the hospital with your husband.  This really worked wonders at relaxing my husband and me, and made for a good story.  Just let your doctor know that you are *ahem* ‘stuck in traffic’ and will be a little late.
6.  The only people who need to concern themselves about if you will go through labor with or without drugs are you and your doctor. Don’t listen to anyone else—that includes your partner.  You will be the one in pain (or not), all your partner has to do is go get the ice chips. 
7.  You might change your mind about working.  There is no way you can predict with 100% accuracy how you will feel once you give birth about staying at home, either way it’s a tough decision.  Just know that feeling conflicted, even if you previously were not, is normal and that whatever you decide, you and your baby will be O.K.  Nothing is ever written in stone, you can always change your mind later. 
8.  Your younger, single brother-in-law will look at your still-inflated belly a couple of days post-partum and ask when it will “return to normal”.  Yes, you may hit him (and anyone else who asks) and blame it on post-partum mood swings.   
9.  The pregnancy weight does not melt off just because you are breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding burns up hundreds of calories a day, so I thought the weight would fall off me in a few months.  However, thanks to an increased appetite and zero time to work out, this hasn’t happened for me.  Better rule of thumb: “9 months up, 9 months down”.
10.  You will cry out of sheer happiness when you look at your child’s face, even if you aren’t normally very sentimental.
11.  You will fear kids touching your baby.  Little kids love babies, and can’t keep their germy little hands to themselves.  This will put you in a tough spot if you have family or friends with young children who can’t wait to see the baby.  Just remember that you should….
12.  Never, ever apologize for doing what you need to do for your child or for your family.  As a Mom, it is your job to put the health, security and happiness of your child and family above all else.  If that means going back to work or staying home, or keeping little cousin Moshe away for a couple of months, you do what you need to do.

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‘Get a Financial Life’

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2009 guide offers tips to getting young people on financial track in tough economic times 
06/22/2009

‘Get a Financial Life’ photo 1

A poll* finds that 78 percent of people surveyed, between ages 20 and 39, know the name of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s daughter, but only 45 percent of those same people know the interest rates on all their credit cards. Young people need to learn to be more financially literate, according to Beth Kobliner, a Jewish personal financial expert living in New York City and a former staff writer for Money Magazine.

To make matters worse, people in their 20s and 30s—like other age groups—are facing severe financial troubles in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. For instance, 20- and 30-somethings are earning less than young people in the 1970s, adjusted for inflation; they’re drowning in debt; and they are the least-insured age group in the country.

In 1996, Kobliner wrote a practical guide to finances entitled “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in your Twenties and Thirties” (Fireside Press). Now, in a revised and updated edition, released this spring, Kobliner offers tools and solutions to helping young people get their finances under control in tough economic times, covering financial topics including debt, housing issues, banking, investing, taxes, and insurance.

This spring, just a few weeks before graduation, Kobliner traveled to Chicago and spoke with students at DePaul University, Loyola University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago, where she encountered many seniors frightened to face the poor job market.

Following her trip, Koblinger sat down for a phone interview with JUF News to discuss her new book, the financial crisis, and tips to help young people ride out the recession.

‘Get a Financial Life’ photo 2

Why did you originally write this book back in the mid 1990s?
When the book first came out, I was in my 20s and I had been writing for Money Magazine. I was an English major in college at Brown University. I really didn’t have all that much financial background. When I graduated, I started writing for a Jewish woman, [the late] Sylvia Porter, who was the first person, at least the first woman, to write about personal finance. Then, I got a job at Money Magazine. I realized that there were no books at the time for younger people starting out. Everything was written for people who already had stock, who already had savings. I realized there was a real need out there.

As you travel around the country today, including to Chicago universities, what are the biggest concerns you’re hearing from students and other young people?
A lot of them are so overwhelmed because they have on average $22,000 in student loans and many have much more than that. They also have, on average, $4,600 in credit card debt. They have a huge amount of debt and the economy is so bad right now that they are overwhelmed and can’t find jobs. It’s very stressful for young people. That’s why a record percentage of them are moving back home with their parents. Their parents are stressed because they’ve paid for, often, expensive colleges, and their kids not only can’t get a job but are loaded down by debt.

Young people also have to see this as an opportunity: Move back home, make some money, do some volunteer work that you may not have done otherwise, because maybe, when the economy does get better, that will lead in a direction that you wouldn’t have thought about. I am seeing young people thinking more about what they really want to do. The knee-jerk response in the 1990s was, I should go into investment banking because that’s a smart thing to do…A lot of people [in the past] chose a field based on money rather than what their passion was. One young person in Chicago recently said to me that he had more in common with his grandparents than his parents because his grandparents were from the Depression generation and they lived through tough times [like now].

You’ve done studies about young people knowing more about celebrities than their own personal finances. Where did we go wrong in society? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids about finances in schools from an early age?
One of the biggest problems is that we don’t address financial literacy. There are some basics that aren’t being taught in schools and if we did, it would make a huge difference. [Schools need to teach] how debt can add up and be a huge problem for people. If we educated people starting in junior high school, or maybe even in elementary school, it would not only make people more knowledgeable, but it would be a great way to teach subjects like math, because it’s so practical and it’s going to be used for the rest of your life.

How bad is the job market looking for recent grads?
The unemployment rate for people, ages 20-24, is 14 percent and the unemployment for the average general public is 8 percent. I have visited about 20 colleges in the last month and a half. I would always ask the seniors, “How many of you guys have jobs?” In a room of 100 people, maybe three or four would have a job. It’s really tough.

Are older people filling the jobs that graduates usually take?
Teen unemployment is at the highest rate since World War II. What’s happening is that people in their 30s and 40s are keeping their jobs. If a company can only keep a couple of people, they’re going to keep their older ones, who have more experience. The people in their 20s aren’t getting those jobs. Then, the college graduates, this summer, are going into what teenagers used do, scooping ice cream and lifeguarding, all the jobs that used to be classic teen summer jobs. So everyone is moving down a notch and a lot of people can’t find work at all.

What are a few of the preliminary steps young people should take to ‘get a financial life?’
If they are graduating and they have credit card debt and student loan debt, it’s really important to analyze what they have, because a lot of people have a mix of private loans and a mix of government or federal loans. The interest rate on federal loans is much lower than the interest rate on private loans. Credit card debt is usually the highest of them all. The goal is to pay off your highest rate debt quickly. Managing your debt is really important.

If you’re lucky enough to have a job, and if the company has a 401(k) or another type of savings plan, you must take advantage of this because it’s just free money.

The other thing is, if you can save a little bit of money, you want to open a Roth IRA, an individual retirement account. Even just putting a small amount can really make a difference long-term. The good thing is that you can withdraw money you contribute to your Roth IRA for any reason without paying taxes or a penalty. It’s a smart way to save because it will allow your money to grow tax-free for life. It gives you a lot more flexibility than you realize.

Also, if you’re on your own for the first time, and you’re moving back home with your parents, use it as an opportunity to save money, to save as much as you possibly can… [until] the economy does come back.
 
What can the Madoff scandal teach young people about finances?
It was so sad, especially for the Jewish community and it’s very upsetting to think about. It teaches everybody that tried and true ‘If something seems too good to be true, it is.’ The problem is that it goes counter to the notion that if you’re smart and research things and you shop around, you can get a good deal.

What did your parents teach you about saving money growing up?
My parents worked really hard—my father was a principal and my mother was a teacher. They didn’t have a lot of money and they saved a lot and that is something I always saw as a kid. That’s partly why I got interested in this field, not really from a money perspective but from a values perspective. In order to get into a good college, you needed to have enough money to pay for it. I don’t know if that’s called Jewish values or good values or just a hard-work ethic.

*The 2009 poll was designed and commissioned by Beth Kobliner and conducted by Harris Interactive.

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Baby steps

 Permanent link
06/19/2009

I never thought registering for baby items was something I’d do.  After all, if the general Jewish practice is to hold off on bringing baby stuff into the home until after the baby is born, isn’t it kind of missing the point to shop for the things you want in advance?

As a Jew with a Catholic husband, and a baby shower in the works, registering was pretty much a given for us.  At the same time, my pregnant Jewish friends all seemed to be doing it anyway, so I swallowed my Jewish guilt (fully realizing that I was feeling guilty for something I didn’t know whether or not to even feel guilty for – how Jewish is that?) and set a date with the husband.

Joe was excited to use the registry gun again, having become a pro after registering for wedding items.  I was excited to linger over the baby clothes, bouncy seats and pacifiers, daydreaming about having those items in our home, with our baby.

The first aisle we hit had about 30 different kinds of baby monitors.  Video monitors, monitors that vibrate, monitors with more than one handset.  Monitors for $20, and monitors for $200.  Joe looked at the options, looked at me, and said, “Should I call my mom?”

And that’s pretty much how the rest of our day went.

Joe (inspecting the health care section): Look, here’s an American Red Cross baby thermometer.  Let’s register for that.
Me: Oh, OK, but look, do we need to get an ear thermometer, too?  Or can we get that instead of the other one?
Joe: (blank stare)
Me: (frantically dialing my mom)

The overwhelming Wall of Bottles…the hundreds of different pacifiers…the endless displays of strollers…we had clearly entered another planet.  With every aisle, we were on the phone with one mom or another, or a friend with a baby – anyone who could help us decipher why in the world we would need both a swing and a bouncy seat.

By the time we made our way to the back of the store (halfway through!), we each collapsed on rocking chairs for a full five minutes before collecting ourselves, registry gun in hand, ready to check out bassinet sheets, changing table pads and tummy time play mats.  After a good three hours in the store, we felt no more educated about baby bathtubs than before, but you’d never know it by looking at the 74 items we’d registered for.

As we angst about our upcoming new arrival, our parents and friends keep telling us that instinct will kick in and we’ll just know what to do with the baby.  We’re hoping that same logic will apply for all the “stuff,” too!

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How the Other Half Lives

 Permanent link
06/18/2009

It’s hard for me to keep quiet, even at a bridal shower, when I hear ignorance spreading thicker than chunky, vegetable cream cheese on a toasted bagel. In my opinion, it’s a courageous act to correct misconceptions. After all, who else will shed light on the truth? If not me, who? If not now, when?

So there I was, nibbling on cheese blintzes, surrounded by twenty chatty ladies I had never met. I overhear one woman across the table confide to her friend about a movie she had just seen; Kadosh by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, produced in 1999.

“I had no idea those Orthodox women were treated so terribly,” the woman shook her head in dismay, proud to be part of the liberated world. Her conversation collaborator nodded with her. Together they paused for a moment as if to mourn for their imprisoned religious female counterparts.

I couldn’t hold back from rolling my eyes and cynically laughing under my breath. “I saw Kadosh,” I blurted out. “I didn’t care for it.”

The noise of cream pouring into coffee must have drowned out my words, for the women seemed to miss my outburst. Luckily, this gave me a moment to breathe, reconsider, and join a different conversation at the other end of the table. There is a time and place, after all, I reasoned, for confrontation. If the main objective for the next hour and a half was clapping hands and giggling at the bride-to-be unwrapping tissue-papered pots and pans, this bridal shower did not seem to be the most suitable arena for intellectual discourse.

What better location than the Oy!Chicago blogosphere?

Kadosh is a fictional account of two women trapped in a religious community in Israel. One is forced to marry an emotionally abusive man she is not interested in. She ends up running away at night to be with her former secret lover. The other woman has been childless for ten years, and the tensions between her and her husband because of it are painful to say the least. The problem obviously lies in the structure of this oppressive religious society into which they had the misfortune of being born.

There are shades of truth I’m sure in the storyline, as there are people who corrupt the system in every strata of society. I could barely finish the movie, but not because of the women’s tormented life. The coloring of these women as powerless, miserable puppets who were a product of the religious system was hard to swallow. I live and participate in a religious community, yet never having come into contact with such a constrained culture as this cinematic depiction, I was skeptical to accept its representational authenticity.

Working with public high school students, I once had a teen speak with me in disgust about how all religious women shave their heads when married. I had to explain to her that though a very small minority, including in the Satmar community, apparently do shave their heads for various reasons, this is an obscure exception to general practice. Rumors about the religious community have a long history of lumping diverse groups of people into a single accusation.

I think about Aya de Leon, a profound spoken word artist who critiqued Apple Computer’s usage of Ghandi’s life as an advertising tool. She warned that we must be careful with who we let tell our stories and who we let control our pasts. Likewise, one should be wary of treating Kadosh filmmaker Amos Gitai as the premier journalist documenting the religious world.

The responsibility of examining authorship occurred to me as I pored over a recent Time magazine article about Mormons later that week. While I found that reading about the Mormon faith amusing, I couldn’t help but think that the same magazine writer could easily contort a bris ceremony to appear as pagan, bloodthirsty, buffoonery.

As a Jew who observes shabbat, kashrut, shomer negiyah, and tzniut, I would be classified as “Orthodox”. Yet I don’t emotionally/spiritually associate with the term—I’m not your typical “Orthodox Jew.” I am in and out of all categories. Some religious Jews find me too old fashioned when I refrain from singing in front of men. Others look critically at my Zionist convictions and casual conversations with the opposite gender. I am too strict and too lenient simultaneously for this Orthodox world.

Growing up in public schools and universities, I certainly did not always act or think as I do now. Yet people busily decide what types of people I am friends with and where I’ve traveled in life, before actually hearing me out.

Don’t let me stop you; listen as much as you want to these “anthropologists” who watch communities from afar and cluck at their primitive methods, barbaric rituals, and oppressive misogynistic designated roles. Or push yourself to interact with different communities and listen to their own explanations. Go for a meal, take a class, make a real friend of that world.

And for G-d’s sake, don’t invest your important time in this life watching Kadosh. Or watch it, but only if you desire a fictional tale that merely cynically impersonates a crevice of reality. Maybe it’s true, maybe there are communities much more right wing than mine that are emotionally strangling their women through their doctrines. It’s entirely possible they exist, albeit most likely as an exception and not a rule. Until I actually get to the bottom of it and speak to more people, you’re not going to see me wasting any moments of my life mourning for these “unfortunate souls”.

 I am starting to come to terms with many truths that are not always self evident; not all Time magazine articles, no matter how fancy the pictures, are completely objective, and not even Israeli filmmakers, no matter how much they love hummus, can claim a monopoly on the reality of  religious life. These shades of gray in a polarized world are critical for comprehension.

Who knew bridal showers would be so conducive for cognitive development!

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Sweet Home Chicago

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06/17/2009

Home Sweet Chicago photo

View from my window -- oh, Chicago, how I'll miss you...

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?”
 
Joni Mitchell must have been reading my mind.  Ok – so I wasn’t quite born yet when she wrote it, but she certainly said it right.  I’ve lived in Chicago now for three years.  I’ve been to the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.  I’ve meandered through the Lincoln Park Zoo, sunbathed at Oak Street Beach, and mastered the maze of bus lines and El tracks.  I’ve drunken my fair share of beers at the weekly street fests, seen the planes whiz by at the Chicago Air and Water Show, and witnessed the spectacle that is Flugtag – Red Bull’s flying machine contest on the shores of Lake Michigan.
 
Most of these things happened by accident.  I never woke and said – “I’m going to take advantage of all that Chicago has to offer today!”  But maybe I should have. There are so many things in the city that I've wanted to do and see and just haven't found the time.  I want to picnic and see a free concert at Millennium Park and learn to salsa dance at Chicago Summer Dance in the park.  I want to eat Greek food in Greektown, Indian food on Devon, and Chinese in Chinatown.
 
As we race toward July 31st – the dreaded date where nearly every renter in town is seeking to move into a new place to call home, or, if they’re lucky, bunkering down for another year in an apartment they love – I begin my countdown to the end of my Chicago residency.  I’m not going very far, just to Evanston, and I don’t intend for this to be permanent.  What’s crazy is that I loved the suburban lifestyle growing up in Cleveland.  LOVED IT.  I never wanted to leave.  Now, a few years later, I’m having mini-van nightmares and wondering how I can have a social life from a whole 13 miles away from downtown Chicago.
 
Luckily, Evanston still has a beach, a farmers market, a movie theater, a bunch of good restaurants and even a couple of bars!  So, in a handful of days (37, but who’s counting, right?), I’ll be northward bound.  I know I'll still have plenty of opportunities to head south, and I have a few great friends who will lend me their couches to save me a $30+ cab ride home late on a Saturday night.  But in the meantime, I intend to squeeze all the fun I can possibly have into my Chicago experience.  Any suggestions?

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Congregation Or Chadash: Continuing to Shine a New Light

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06/16/2009

Or Chadash logo

In honor of LGBT Pride Month, I thought I’d share some information about Congregation Or Chadash, Chicago’s LBGT synagogue, which will celebrate its 35th anniversary next year as a strong and vibrant community. Founded in 1975, Or Chadash opened alongside several other gay and lesbian synagogues, such as Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. These congregations created a community for members of the Jewish community who otherwise felt incredibly excluded.

Or Chadash started small, as just an ad placed by a University of Chicago student looking to gather other gay and lesbian Jews. It soon grew into a congregation, with a strong tradition of lay leadership, and a wonderful part-time rabbi for most of its years. Rabbi Larry Edwards, a highly respected scholar and educator (as well as a mensch!), is the current rabbi of Or Chadash.

Fortunately, these days, a whole spectrum of congregations have open and inclusive policies toward LGBT Jews, so a question may arise--what are the benefits of being a part of a community like Or Chadash? At Or Chadash, there is definitely a greater emphasis on the specific needs and interests of the community. Rabbi Edwards's sermons address current LGBT issues, and the congregation offers many ways to join the community through social functions, educational opportunities, and other avenues that create the feel of a small Chavurah. I saw this tightly knit community firsthand, when I met with the congregation's group of lay service leaders for an annual wrap-up discussion. It felt like being at a gathering of close friends, all who feel very drawn to this special community.

While Or Chadash is a long standing member of the Union of Reform Judaism, one will find that its membership is incredibly diverse in their backgrounds, a spectrum of those who grew up Orthodox to Jews-by-choice. One will also find variety in the types of services offered, as there is a more traditional Shabbat morning service monthly. It should be noted that Or Chadash's doors are open to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. A recent article in the Forward addresses Why Straight People go to Gay Synagogues and how much they can get out of LGBT congregations.

There are a couple of special events happening in the congregation in celebration of Pride this month. The World Congress of GLBT Jews will be meeting in Chicago, and has invited all those interested to meet its international leadership at a reception on Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at Congregation Emanuel (5959 N. Sheridan). On Friday, June 26, join the congregation for their annual Pride Shabbat. There will be a 7 p.m. cookout and an 8 p.m. service, both on the beach adjacent to the congregation. And, look for Or Chadash again this year in the Pride Parade on that Sunday. Last year, they marched alongside a cute little Smartcar!

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Green Mitzvah Mania

 Permanent link
06/15/2009

Green Mitzvah Mania photo 2

Green Mitzvah Mania at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, August 2008

It seems like the whole world is really into “going green” these days.  Everyone from Jewel and Walgreens to Bloomingdales and Barnes and Noble is selling their own reusable bags, hybrid cars are hitting the streets at rapid speed, and the new Whole Foods at Sheffield and Kingsbury has Chicagoans salivating at the idea of buying organic (even if it’s just an excuse to see this shrine to deliciousness – it’s unreal!).

For me, this wave of environmentalism has crashed on top of my office.  In the past several years, we’ve received countless calls about volunteering to help the environment.  The TOV Volunteer Network strives to connect potential volunteers with opportunities that suit their interests and availability, and for me, this means working with bar and bat mitzvah kids, recent graduates, professionals of all ages, retirees, stay-at-home moms, and anyone else you can think of who might ask “How can I get involved and help?”

Volunteering for the Cook County Forest Preserves or lending a hand at the Lincoln Park Conservatory are a couple of clear answers. Getting your hands dirty.  Diving in head first to surf the green wave. 

But what about the not-so-obvious answers.  Sorting donations at a consignment shop means that clothes that might have ended up in a landfill will now go to someone in need (or those lucky people who shop in thrift stores and somehow find the coolest vintage clothes for, like, 50 cents…).  Same goes for shoes – next time you’re at Fleet Feet getting new sneakers, bring any old shoes collection dust in your closet and an agency called Share Your Soles will take those last-season shoes and give them to children and adults who have never owned a pair of shoes in their lifetimes…or even better, volunteer to wash and sort those shoes!

In response to communal interest, TOV initiated a program (or shall I call it…a surfboard) called Green Mitzvah Mania, a calendar of one-time eco-friendly volunteer opportunities, and this year, we’re at it again!  Check out the link for the details – the first project is on June 18th!

But repairing the world – or as us Jews like to call it: tikkun olam – doesn’t have to be a scheduled volunteer project.  It can be as easy as making changes to your everyday actions, like recycling, using public transportation, or changing your next light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb.  Or become an advocate by reaching out to your congressman.  

I know that not everyone out there is ready to catch a ride on that giant green wave…but if you are, TOV is happy to give you a surfing lesson!

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The Ultimate Doubleheader: The Ultimate Dilemma

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06/12/2009

The Ultimate Doubleheader: The Ultimate Dilemma photo1   The Ultimate Doubleheader: The Ultimate Dilemma photo2

It’s been over a year since I first saw on the Cubs’ schedule that they would be playing the Minnesota Twins June 12th-14th, 2009.  I immediately put the dates on my crackberry, and started calling around to see who was interested in getting tickets to the games.  How exciting, my two favorite baseball teams playing each other!   Awesome, right? WRONG.  No sooner had I purchased my tickets, when I began to stress. Do I root for the Twins, the team I grew up with, or the Cubs, the team I have grown to love since moving to Chicago two years ago?  Do I cheer for Joe Mauer, Minnesota’s hometown hottie, or Alfonso Soriano, as I sit (hopefully) in his left-field bleacher section?  Most importantly, do I wear my authentic 1987 World Series Twins shirt, or do I wear my cuter, newer, mass-produced, way more generic Cubs shirt?

Before I moved to Chicago, many people asked if I would abandon my Twins and become a Cubs fan. “Oh hell no,” was my reply.  But after experiencing Wrigley on a hot summer day, the bleachers, the die-hard fans, and of course, the Old Style beer, my response is now, “I’m a Cubs fan— unless they are playing the Twins,” which luckily for me, rarely happens.  Until now.  Now I am faced with this horrible decision of who to cheer for come Sunday.  Am I a traitor if I root for the Cubbies?  Am I not fully embracing my new home if I root for the Twins?  Is there a way for me to cheer for both of my teams?  If only I were more domestic and had the skills to create my own jersey by cutting up a Twins shirt (NOT my World Series shirt) and a Cubs shirt and sewing them together.  As you can imagine, I’ve lost many hours of sleep over this dilemma.

To me, the Twins symbolize home, my grandpa Mel— the biggest Twins fan ever, many great memories, and my borderline obsession with stalking and/or marrying Joe Mauer.  But the Cubs represent my new home, new friends, a new stage in my life, and brace yourselves Minnesotans— outdoor baseball!  Also, I’m proud to mention that I do not have any unhealthy stalking fantasies about any Cubs players.  I’m not sure if this ambivalence to become a fan of a team other than the team I grew up with is normal, or if my hesitation to abandon the Twins indicates a secret longing to move back to Minnesota, but either way, it leaves me feeling torn between my old life in Minnesota, and my new life in Chicago.

The Ultimate Doubleheader: The Ultimate Dilemma photo3

So here I sit, just days before the game, and I still don’t know what to do.  I will always, always love my Minnesota Twins, but is there anything better than being able to sing, “Hey Chicago what do ya say the Cubs are gonna win today!”  Yeah, I don’t think so. 

It looks like I’ll be making up my mind about who to cheer for as I get dressed for the game on Sunday morning.  And, if you see me in the bleachers in my Twins shirt, don’t pour your Old Style on my head, because I just may be wearing a Cubs shirt underneath.

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A bookish confession

 Permanent link
06/12/2009

I admit it. I’m a snob. A literary snob, that is.

Growing up, books were everywhere. What little extra room was available in my parents’ apartment was occupied by floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with tomes as varied as The Secret Garden and an obscure pre-revolutionary edition of Little Women to the complete works of Lev Tolstoy and Shakespeare. The shelves at my grandparents’ place were similarly crowded.

Some kids might balk at books as birthday presents, but I relished them and was never short for requests. For my seventh, my grandparents gave me an “Adventure Library”, a set of historical adventure novels. The collection is one of my prized possessions, and I made sure that it made the trek from Moscow to the United States when we moved in 1996.

As a child I’d consume books, constantly looking for new titles. One memorable experience had me reading Nabokov’s Lolita at the tender age of 12. Guess how much I understood of that one? Having re-read it as a college student, I realized that I had skipped important parts of the book simply because I did not find the philosophical musings of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert interesting. But to an adult’s mind – while still disturbing – the parts I skipped are the heart of the book.

Despite entirely missing the point of a book because it was not age appropriate, I have not been prevented from continuously attempting to gobble up at least three books at a time. That has been true most of the time – with the exception of my time in graduate school when every spare moment was devoted to digesting academic jargon.

My fascination with literature of all kinds has so far proven a double-edged sword. I often judge people by whether they have read a certain book or not. There are Russian novels that I consider hallmarks of the culture and having read them indelibly marks a person as a member of the intellectual elite. See, that’s where the snobbishness comes in.

Admittedly, I haven’t read all 100 books on Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels” list or Time Magazine’s “100 Greatest Novels of All Time” collection. But at about three-quarters of the way through, I figure I’m pretty close.

P.S. If you need recommendations, I’ve been on a memoir kick, reading about Jews in Arab lands: André Aciman’s Out of Egypt and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharksin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. Both are intensely personal stories of growing up Jewish in Egypt and moving to the United States. There’s something fascinating about reading of another person’s journey to America.

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Following IDF Soldiers

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06/11/2009
Ever wonder what it’s like to be in the Israeli army? Israel Defense Forces are renowned throughout the world for being one of the most organized and most efficient military structures. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been following five Golani Brigade soldiers through basic training and the trials of getting used to life in the army during their three-year mandatory service. The brigade, which has earned a reputation for its die-hard spirit and initiative, is a microcosm of Israel – moshavniks, Tel Avivians, yeshiva students and new immigrants. Each soldier profiled in Haaretz had to deal with different challenges, both expected and unexpected, during the first weeks of boot camp, including learning to set the watch by that of his superiors.
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I always forget Iran’s a “democracy”

 Permanent link
06/11/2009

My Middle East history professor prophesied back in 2005 that Ahmadinejad would never win the Iranian presidency because Iranian youth, who she believed were the key to the election, were in fact, progressives and would come out and vote against him.  She was certainly wrong about that prediction—while many may not have voted; a lot of youth supported Ahmadinejad and helped him win that election.  (Side note - this professor was wrong about a lot of things, but that’s a whole other story.)

Well, another election is upon us and there’s been a lot of talk in the media once again about the role of youth in this new election.  It goes without saying that as a Jewish American, I hope Ahmadinejad is defeated and that the country elects the most moderate of the candidates with the help of the 70 million people in Iran under the age of 30.  But, I’m not going to hold my breath.  Iran doesn’t have any independent polling, so it’s hard to predict who will win the election. 

There are four candidates this year, Ahmadinejad, who I’m going to the call the radical.  His fellow conservative and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei  and two moderate candidates, former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi and former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karoubi.

I dug around and here are a few articles speculating about the role of youth in the 2009 election.
 
Anti-Ahmadinejad human chain stretches across Teheran.

Khatami urges Iranians to help create 'miracle' by electing Mousavi.

There’s also a good op-ed piece from CNN about the role of women in the election.  Khatami urges Iranians to help create 'miracle' by electing Mousavi.

One more op-ed about the pro-Israel lobby, Will pro-Israel groups miss Ahmadinejad? 

And if you’re still interested…Dateline did a large piece titled “Inside Iran” a few nights ago that’s quite compelling.

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“If you Will it, it is no Dream?”

 Permanent link
06/11/2009

Max Feinberg died in 1986. His wife, Erla, died in 2003. Max, whose family came to America to escape anti-Semitism in Russia, was a dentist. Sound familiar? At a glance, they could be anyone’s Jewish grandparents. Before they died, Max and Erla devised trusts which they would use to dictate the proceeds of their respective estates concurrent with their wishes. Max’s estate contained an interesting provision which is now known as the “Jewish Clause.” Here it is, quoted it in its entirety:

“A descendant of mine other than a child of mine who marries outside the Jewish faith (unless the spouse of such descendant has converted or converts within one year of the marriage to the Jewish faith) and his or her descendants shall be deemed to be deceased [emphasis added] for all purposes of this instrument as of the date of such marriage.”

So, when Max and Erla had five grandchildren, and only one of them married a Jew, the four would-be beneficiaries of Max’s estate sued for their inheritances after Erla died. (Read a Tribune story from last year for all the sordid details) The trial court found for Max’s grandchildren, and the court of appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling in a 2-1 vote. According to the Court, public policy encourages marriage, and the Jewish Clause “tends seriously to interfere with or inhibit the exercise of a beneficiary’s freedom to obtain a divorce or the exercise of freedom to marry by limiting the beneficiary’s selection of a spouse.”

While Illinois law favors Max’s grandchildren, the lone dissenting Justice of the appeals court said that most states have upheld provisions like the “Jewish Clause” in Max’s trust. “[A] testator [Max, in this case] has the right to make the enjoyment of his bounty dependent on the condition that the recipient renounce, embrace, or adhere to a particular religious faith.” A New York court held that our Constitutional right to freedom of religion is intended to protect us from government intrusion on religion, and not to limit the right of a man like Max to  pass on his property as he pleases.

The Illinois Supreme Court will soon hear the Feinberg case.

Even without all the legal details and the specific effects of Max’s Jewish Clause, the case raises some interesting questions:

Should someone be allowed to restrict who gets his or her assets upon death based upon who they marry? If Max is allowed to “stiff” his grandkids for marrying non-Jews, should someone also be allowed to stiff his or her descendants for marrying someone who is black or a member of any other group that he or she doesn’t like? Most of us want to say no. But I can relate to Max, or at least understand where he is coming from. His family came to this country to ensure their own survival and to escape anti-Semitism. After working and saving his money, Max sought to provide a tangible incentive to his grandchildren to carry on Jewish traditions. That being said, Max’s Jewish Clause seems kind of harsh to me. Encouraging in-marriage is one thing, but deeming your grandkids legally dead (for the purposes of inheritance) when they marry non-Jews is another.

What do you think?

Read the official opinion of the appellate court here.

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Breaking the Cycle

 Permanent link
06/10/2009

Breaking the Cycle photo 1

Grand Canyon

I often feel like a walking contradiction.

I went to a theater camp for six years and was president of my BBYO council in high school, but am now terrified of even opening my mouth in a business meeting with more than three other people.

I know that if I watch any crime show after dark, when I go to sleep that night I will more likely than not dream that I was the victim in the most recent episode, and will sleep fitfully at best. And yet, I am currently obsessed with CSI: Miami, and will watch two or three episodes in an evening after getting home from work.

I’m terrified of regaining the 50 pounds I lost a few years ago, and yet if you put donuts, biscuits, ice cream, popcorn, corned beef hash, brownies, pretzels, nuts, cheese, or even a jar of peanut butter in front of me, I will lick the plate/bowl/carton/jar clean.

I refuse to cross the street against even the flashing “don’t walk” sign, or outside the crosswalk, and yet I’ll hurl myself out of a plane at 120 miles per hour from a height of 12,000 feet? That’s right, this past April I went skydiving.

Perhaps most ironically of all, I wrote an entire post about how my long, long, long list of fears had paralyzed me long enough, and how I wasn’t going to let fear and anxiety keep me from living my life any more, and promptly decided that I was not going to post it.

Because once more, I was afraid.

I was afraid to admit to the world (and, even worse, my mother), that I don’t have it all together.

I was afraid to admit that there are days when I can’t bring myself to do anything after work other than eat a few bowls of Cheerios for dinner and watch TV for three hours before crawling into bed.

I was afraid to admit that there are times when I’m so paralyzed by fear of not doing a good enough job at work that for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m unable to do ANY job. I stare at a blank Word document. Or I write a sentence, read it back to myself, erase it, and start the process all over again.

I was afraid to admit that my fears aren’t just idle fears anymore, that my perfectionism and desire to live up to everyone’s expectations are no longer simply a quirky byproduct of being raised in a middle-class Hyde Park family.

No, that ship sailed a long time ago.

What I was afraid to admit to my mother, my father, my brothers, my friends, my boss, my colleagues, all of you Oy!sters out there—and to myself—was that I’d spiraled back into depression.

But here’s the thing. I know I’m not alone in fighting this particular demon.

Breaking the Cycle photo 2

Sunrise over dead sea from Masada

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for individuals between 15-44, and it affects approximately 14.8 million American adults—6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older—in a given year. It is estimated that women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression.

Add to that the findings from a National Mental Health Association survey that 54% of people believe depression is a personal weakness, and it’s no wonder that the same study found that 41% of depressed women are too embarrassed to seek help. All told, 15% of depressed individuals commit suicide.

Those are staggering statistics. And yet if depression is so prevalent—last night during a single episode of the Rachel Maddow show I saw commercials for Pristiq, Cymbalta, and Abilify—why are we all so afraid to talk about it?

So here’s where I end my cycle of contradictions.

Here’s where I stand up to myself, to my own fears, and to the rest of the world, and say that the time has come for those statistics to change, and the stigmas, too.

Here’s where I admit that I may not be posting my original piece, but that I’m not going to be afraid to be the (slightly imperfect) person I am anymore. I’m not going to hide my battle with depression, because it’s not something shameful.

It’s a medical condition, just like diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, or cataracts; you wouldn’t shame your next door neighbor for his cataracts, would you? You wouldn’t be ashamed to admit to your mother that your arthritis was making your backhand a little less powerful on the tennis court, would you?

I’m not going to ask you to share your own stories in the comments, because I know how deeply personal mental illness can be—though of course you’re welcome to share if you’re so inclined.

I’m not going to ask for your pity or sympathy or to cry on your shoulder—my pity party ended a long time ago, and I’ve got a great therapist to listen to me whine and blather on and on for an hour every week.

I’m not going to ask you to donate money to specific mental health organizations, or to lobby your local representatives in favor of or against specific legislation related to mental health issues, or to sign up for any number of mental illness/suicide awareness events that are being held in the Chicago area in the coming months.

But I will ask you to take the time to learn more about depression (and mental illness in general).

I will ask you to understand that just because someone is depressed, it doesn’t mean they hate their life, or they’re permanently unhappy, or you need to preface every conversation with them with “how are you? Are you okay?” (That’s not to say that there aren’t situations where additional concern is warranted, but I think you understand what I’m saying).

I will ask you to be honest with yourselves and—in a textbook case of “do as I say, not as I do,” since my family is reading about this current struggle of mine for the first time here on Oy!—your loved ones.

Don’t become one of those NIMH or NMHA statistics of people who would shame others, or who would neglect to seek help for themselves.

Don’t be afraid to admit to yourself that you’re not perfect. None of us is, as Jacey and Dana touched on recently, and Cindy wrote about last fall after interviewing Leslie Goldman.

Don’t be afraid to confront your fears and stand up to stigma.

Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re afraid.

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“I have to live with a booyyyy?!”

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06/10/2009

“I have to live with a booyyyy?!” photo

Stef and Mike—new roomies!

You know that episode of “Friends” where Monica’s about to move in with Chandler? When she turns to Rachel and with a look on her face that says both I-can’t-wait-to-live-with-the-person-I-love and I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-live-with-this-slob-who’s-going-to-leave-the-toilet-seat-up, whines “I have to live with a booyyyyy!?”

I get it now.

About three weeks ago, I moved in with a boy—my boyfriend of over a year and a half, Mike.

The decision to move in together was not a rash one. I have a very strict rule that you should not sign a yearlong lease with your significant other until you have been dating for at least that long.  But when we knew both of our leases would be up in June 2009, moving in together just seemed like the obvious, and right, thing to do.

 Leading up to the big move, I had no apprehension whatsoever. I was excited to be able to see him every night, excited to feel settled and grounded, excited to move on to the next phase of our relationship. I expected the transition to be smooth—why not? The rest of our relationship has certainly been that way.

We found a small but beautiful one bedroom in the city, managed to agree on furniture that was nice and affordable and fit all of our clothes into our small but mighty walk-in closet—no easy feat for a boy who wears three pairs of socks a day and a girl who…well, and a girl. We decorated and built furniture, and dreamed of bbqing on our tiny balcony and snuggling on our comfy new couch to watch our way too big TV—if we could only agree on what to watch…

And so it began. He likes to go to bed early—I like to stay up late. He likes to cook meat in the kitchen—I don’t want to clean it up. I like to watch quality television like “Jon and Kate Plus 8” and “So You Think You Can Dance” –he wants to watch “Man vs. Wild.” I have to leave my hair straightener out on the bathroom sink to cool down—he wants it out of his way to make room for his beard trimmer. And the list of trivial disagreements goes on…

At first, I got frustrated—and a little freaked out. Why wasn’t everything perfect? What if these little fights turn into bigger ones? What if this didn’t work out? 

One afternoon, after a discussion about where to go to lunch escalated into a full-blown fight— amid my irate stomping around and door slamming—I looked over at Mike and smiled at the horrified look he was giving me. I love that “Man vs.Wild” watching, meat cooking boy. Finally, I was able to put things in perspective.

 I decided then it was time that I stop fuming about the stupid stuff and start to appreciate all the good stuff that comes along with living with a boy—like, there is always someone to take out the trash, reach things up high and kill spiders! (okay, maybe that stuff is trivial too, but it’s still useful!)  And after a long, busy day, we both have someone to come home to, a shoulder to lean on, someone to make us soup when we’re sick, a built in plus one for weddings and parties. 

The other day, after many dizzying hours of picking out furniture at IKEA, Mike suggested that we get a set of Shabbos candles. And a few days later, I went to my parents’ house to pick up the mezuzah I had bought years before in Venice, still in its original packaging because I had been saving it for the right time.

Sure, there will always be trivial disagreements when two people try to meld their two living styles into one, but the really cool part about all this is that through putting together this apartment, we are starting to build our life, together. Maybe all these little fights are just practice for some of the bigger compromises that lay ahead of us.

And even though we’re just renting our tiny one bedroom, for the first time since leaving our parents’ houses after high school graduation, the place where we eat, sleep and watch TV is starting to feel a lot more like home.

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Walking to save “The Girls,” Part III

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06/09/2009

If you’ve been following along, (see Walking to save “The Girls,” Part I and Part II), you know that the four of us, Team Motorboat, have been “training” for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and last weekend, all our hard work paid off when we crossed the finish line after walking nearly 40 miles for boobies! Since you couldn’t all walk along with us (you lazy bums, you!) enjoy some of our favorite highlights from the weekend:

Top 10 Moments from the Avon Walk
10. Adult trick or treating…a.k.a. getting candy from cheering strangers at the cheering stations/rest stops and not feeling guilty about eating any of it
9. Abby and Cheryl using the port-a-potty for the first time

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

Abby and Cheryl hating on the port-a-pottys

8. The Aleve cheer…Give me an “A,” Give me an L,”….”What’s that spell?” “ALEVE,” “What do we want?” “ALEVE,”  “When do we want it?” “Now!,” “Why do we want it?” “Because we hurt!” (cheer was later modified to include V-O-D-K-A and P-E-R-C-O-S-E-T as the walk progressed)
7. This guy

Walking to save “The Girls,” Part III photo 3

Cheering on the Avon walkers…apparently he lost a bet

6. Jacey learning the end of the state song…Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, WYOMING!
5. Singing Lean on Me under the bridge with our fellow walkers
4. Making a friend named “Big Redd” who was smart enough to bring a battery-operated ipod speaker for our listening entertainment.  Singing every song we could possibly remember any of the words of to pass the time and distract us from the pain in our muscles and joints.
3. Limping through the COLD rain around mile 20 on Day 1
2. Our guest stars/walkers…a BIG Thank you to everyone who came out and walked with us!!  You kept us motivated and you kept us moving through the pain!!
1. Going through the finish line!!!!

Walking to save “The Girls,” Part III photo 4

Abby and her mom (the speed racers) going through the finish line!

Walking to save “The Girls,” Part III photo 5

Cheryl, Jacey and Rachel going through the finish line!

Facts and Figures
Number of Orthodox Jews watching us walk through their neighborhood on Shabbat = 36017610 (not really, but lots)
Total amount raised for Avon Chicago walk = $7 million
Amount raised by Team Motorboat = $10,929
Number of Chicago participants = 3,200
Miles walked = 39.3
Amount of Aleve taken = 30
Home-made pink ponchos worn = 9

Walking to save “The Girls,” Part III photo 6

Pink poncho power!

Number of women in our lives affected by breast cancer = 8
Blisters popped = 7
Team Motor Boat member s= 5
Knee braces worn = 4
Ice cream stops rejected by Cheryl = 3
Value of the walk, participants and dollars raised = priceless

Favorite Slogans
“Motorboat this!”
“Save second base”
“Save mardi gras”
“I’m a boob man (worn on a one-sie by a baby)”
“Save a life grope your wife!”
“Windy titties!”
“Making cancer my bitch!”
“Yes we cans!”
“Breast we can(cer)!”
“Save our ABC’s!”
“Go Chicago Cups!”
“The Real Housewives of Northern Indiana (We clean, we cook…we walk for Tracy)!”
“Blisters don’t need chemo!”

Want to join the fun next year? Learn more about the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

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Blame HGTV

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06/08/2009

karenhousing

The “American Dream” may be on sale, but l’m still struggling to afford it.

From the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I became completely obsessed with buying a house in the suburbs.  (The nesting instinct makes you do very strange things.) With visions of white-picket fences dancing in my head, I set off on my quest throughout the North Shore for that perfect, charming little ‘starter-home’ under the delusion that I would happily be able to take advantage of a *'buyer’s market.'

One year later, after increasing my housing budget and reducing my expectations, my search continues.  Hell, it was easier to produce a human being than it is has been to find a single family house in good condition, that doesn’t have a train running through the back yard, or a toilet in the laundry room to serve as the second bath, in my price range.  (Imagine the efficiency: fold your laundry while going to the bathroom!)

Granted, my price range is laughable compared to the average cost of homes in the area, but at twice the national average cost of a home, I’d hardly consider my budget unreasonable.  Rather, I’ve come to the difficult conclusion that perhaps the problem is my expectations.  

When I began searching for a home, I envisioned the average-American middle-class family home that I grew up in. But each time I walked into a home that was probably the same size, with the same amenities, I found myself contemplating how I could rehab or add onto the home, to make it “normal” according to—what I think are--today’s standards.

It’s not the price of houses that are the problem.  It’s my perspective of what is “normal.”

The room I spent my childhood in is the size of my walk-in-closet now.  My family shared the one full bathroom upstairs, a thought that is unthinkable now.  Blame HGTV or TLC, but the fact is that many Americans have bought into the idea that we must have a room just for our TV, a separate playroom for our children.  Even those of us who don’t have this—or know anyone who does—are led to believe by what we see on TV that most people do.

The “bigger, better and more expensive” attitude has appeared in virtually every materialistic aspect of our society.  When did jeans start costing $300? Sneakers $200? And who the hell needs a desert-army vehicle to take little Timmy to and from soccer practice? 

When did our wants become our needs

Every generation wants to be able to achieve more than the one before it, but who dictates that this achievement is to be measured by materialistic acquisitions? At what point do we measure our standard of living by what we do, not by what we have? 

This is not to downplay the real problems and concerns that so many people have in today’s economy.  I should be ashamed at complaining that I’m having a hard time finding a home, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have.

Nor do I mean to diminish the immense frustration that my generation feels just trying to attain the same quality of life that our parents have.  From education to housing, to the amount of taxes taken out of our paychecks, it seems that the cost of everything has gone up.  And factor in things that we have to pay for that our parents didn’t—cable, cell phones, Internet service.  Granted, none of us would die without these, but we’ve become so dependent on them that we no longer know how to live without them. (Imagine how many crackberry addicts would need rehab.)

But when do we say no? That even though whatever new product or technology is available, we don’t need it?  When do we stop one-upping ourselves?

My frustrating housing search has made me step back and take a look at my priorities and what is really essential in my life.  I will never again buy a handbag that costs more than what I have given all year to charities.  I have vowed to set a positive example for my daughter, and for my non-Jewish family who already mistakenly thinks that most Jews are rich. 

In short, I’m changing my view of the “American Dream”.  While I still won’t buy that  “cozy, great opportunity starter home”—real estate jargon for a really small, overpriced shithole—I’ve come to grips that my life will not be diminished in any way because my kitchen doesn’t have an island.  I don’t cook anyway.    

*Author’s disclaimer: I realize the North Shore isn’t exactly middle-class, believe me, if it wasn’t because my husband’s job demands that we live in the area, we wouldn’t be looking to buy a house there at all.  I’m not crazy, just screwed.   

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Reunion

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06/08/2009

I have a friend who claims that hell is being a teenage girl. I beg to differ: hell is being a pre-teen girl. Seeing photos of my chubby, pubescent self still makes me flinch, and bra-shopping still gives me flashbacks. What could be worse than the junior high years, when you didn’t fit in and nothing fit?

The answer is: having a REUNION of your junior high school class.

This is the dark side of Facebook. Ex-lovers crawl out from under the woodwork, you get banal hourly updates from your friend’s cousin’s wife, and former classmates whose names you have happily forgotten reappear on your computer screen, eager to reminisce. And now, to plan a reunion. Seriously.

At first I thought they were kidding.  Then I began to receive multiple invitations and daily updates to entice folks to attend.

In my mind, I take inventory of the possible replies:

#1:  Dial 1-800-GET-A-LIFE

These people are actually debating which is their favorite bar in the godforsaken suburb where we grew up. Did none of them ever venture beyond the local mall? Apparently high school really WAS the best time in their lives.  

#2:  I would rather put needles through my eyes.

You all were mean as hell. I wish you no harm, but also don’t wish to think about you. Ever.

#3: Can’t wait!

You see, there is potential satisfaction to be had.  The former classmates appear to be balder, fatter and less well-adjusted than me. Some married badly, or never married at all, and I have a sweet husband. Many seem to have wandered from job to job, whereas I have a career I’m reasonably proud of.  Most appear worse for the wear, while I am reaping the benefit of having had oily skin then, which is: no wrinkles now…

Nah.

The bottom line is that I really don’t want to have a beer with the girls who stuffed me into my locker 35 years ago, or do shots with the guys who called me “four-eyes”. Heaven is being comfortable in your own skin, and hell really was being a pre-teen girl. And I have no desire to visit.

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Why THE HECK I became a Rabbi

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06/09/2009

Why THE HECK I became a Rabbi photo 2

Imagine you and I are seated together on an airplane. You, a complete stranger to me, try to strike up a conversation. I, a rabbi, try to do everything I can to avoid the subject of what I do………my “calling.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am very proud to be a rabbi. I feel blessed, privileged, and honored to maintain such an important communal position. It’s just that sometimes when I say “I’m a rabbi,” strange things happen. Like people get all weird. There is astonishment, shock, bewilderment, anger and sometimes even excessive glee. Some people ask me “Why don’t the Jews believe in Jesus?” Others rant about “how ALL RELIGION is evil.” Still others, upon hearing I am a rabbi, start covering their mouths after uttering a swear word. (I #$% hate that!)

The list of crazy possibilities of what might happen when I say “rabbi” is truly endless. And while these and other conversations may be interesting to my seat-mate, when I’m stuck in a flying metal can for three hours, such discussions do not always make for an enjoyable flight.

On the other hand, there have been many other times when blurting out to a stranger “I’m a rabbi” has led to meaningful, interesting, and heartfelt conversations. Like the time someone told me about how, as a radiologist he self-diagnosed a life threatening situation which would have certainly killed him within the hour had he not had access to the equipment and tests that indicated that he needed immediate emergency surgery. (That story still gives me chills!) Sometimes saying “I’m a rabbi” enables me to help a random person cope with a challenging life situation and sometimes I can help others see Judaism (or their own religion) in a more positive light. In such situations, an otherwise seemingly “chance” meeting seems “Beshert,” and it is me who learns something valuable from the encounter.

Often the question is asked of me: “Why did you want to become a Rabbi?”   While this question is usually asked out of sincere interest and from a place of kindness, there are occasions when I wonder if what is really being asked is: “Why THE HECK did you want to become a rabbi?” Or to put it another way: “Why would anyone want to do something like that?” Because to my inquisitor, the notion of dedicating one’s life to God, Torah, and the Jewish people seems so ridiculous, so unfathomable, that no one in their right mind would make such a commitment.

In moments like these, when seated on an airplane next to someone who carries this approach, I have been known to avoid answering the question by creating a diversion: “HEY, LOOK THERE IS A MAN ON THE WING!!”  Luckily, you, my dear airplane seat-mate, are not a person with such an attitude. And since you have read this far, you no longer are a stranger. So for you, I will tell my tale.

I became a rabbi in part as a response to growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan as one of the only Jewish kids in my public school. For me, a profoundly influential religious moment occurred when, in the midst of a holiday art project, my 3rd grade teacher announced the following: “Today we are now going to make Christmas wreaths. Everyone here is Christian, correct?” (This, in my PUBLIC school!) Upon hearing the teacher’s question, my fellow students, my dear friends, all turned their gazes upon me as I sat in the center of the room, trying not to be noticed.  And then, with their pointer fingers extended toward me, they excitedly exclaimed: “He’s not Christian! He’s a Hanukah!!”

Let’s just say that I was not pleased.  After all, it had only been three days (THREE DAYS) since my mom had come into the class, told my friends the story of Hanukah, fattened them up with latkes and donuts, and basically bribed them to be nice to me with delicious chocolate gelt. Sure, letting my mom “out” me as a Jew was my choice, and I don’t think my friends meant me any harm. And yet, truth be told, the experience left me feeling like the loneliest Jew on the planet.

As time passed, thanks to my parents’ positive Jewish modeling and some good heart-to-heart talks, I eventually embraced and took pride in my Jewish identity. No longer did questions like: “Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving?” or “Are you guys all rich?” or “Do Jews eat carrots?” make me bristle. Instead I started to enjoy answering such questions. Soon I began to see myself as an “ambassador to Judaism.” Being an ambassador meant that what I said and what I did really mattered. It also meant that I needed to know as much as I could about that which I was representing. No, I didn’t score any converts, (I didn’t try) but I didn’t get beat up either.

As good as this “ambassador” role was, I found myself often longing to be among others who understood me. I pined for people who knew the secret Jewish handshake, people who also had “Dayeinu” stuck in their heads, and people who, like me, knew the truth about Santa. In time, I found my “peeps” at Jewish summer camp, youth group, synagogue and in college. In a sense, it was this search for my people that led me to the Rabbinate. And what I found while searching for Goldsteins, Schwartzs and Cohens was a profound love of God, Torah, Jewish texts, rituals, music, ethics and values, Israel and more. At the same time, I realized that Judaism has something important to say about how we lead our lives.

BTW-the decision to become a rabbi didn’t come easily. I agonized for a long time, wondering if I was right for the job or if it was right for me.  It seemed to me that I had the right personality to succeed, I just wasn’t so sure about God. After much soul searching, praying, and writing, I finally decided to apply to Rabbinical School and though I still have lots of questions, (Thank-God) I know I made the right choice.

There’s so much I love about being a rabbi:  I love people and being a rabbi means getting paid to be a mensch.  I love having the chance to encourage, teach, and to inspire others to do good in the world—like working at Temple Sholom’s weekly soup kitchen, or building a house in New Orleans to help flood victims. I love sharing with others Jewish texts which teach us to be more moral, holy and ethical people and help us to improve our relationships. Being a rabbi also means having the honored privilege to be invited into people’s lives during some of their most joyous moments—like standing under the chuppah with a couple while officiating a wedding—(How cool is that?) and it means extending a hand of support to a family in their darkest moments when the ground suddenly crumbles beneath their feet.

Quick story—recently in the midst of a happy celebration of my birthday in Michigan I received a heartbreaking phone call informing me of the tragic death of a young person.  It was clear that I needed to return home immediately to comfort the family. As you can imagine, this call was the last thing I wanted to receive on my birthday. And yet, as strange as it may sound, this phone call, received on my birthday, served for me as a ringing reminder of why I was born, and what God has called me to do on this earth. (I hope I am doing a good job!)

Admittedly I don’t always succeed and sometimes I find myself awake at night thinking about what more could be done. What keeps me going is the sustaining comfort of our loving and caring God and my faith in the power of Jewish tradition and community. My own losses too have made me even more aware of how God, community and tradition can be a source of comfort in times of need. For example, I had only been at Temple Sholom a month when my own younger brother and only sibling died suddenly. I will never forget the kindness and caring of the Temple Sholom community who at this time barely knew me. To be a part of this Temple during those trying times felt to me and my family as though angels had descended upon our broken-hearted home and had enclosed us in the loving shelter of their wings.

Listen—I could go on and on about what I love about my “calling.” Were there more time, I might talk about having a relationship with God or how praying, studying and being an active part of a Jewish community can make such a positive difference in one’s life. I’m sure there are a hundred other topics I could discuss as well, but alas, I think the plane is landing soon.

Anyway, I haven’t yet had a chance to ask about you! What do you do? Why THE HECK do you do what you do? What stirs your soul? Please, please tell! I am interested, I mean come on, you read this whole long essay—you are so nice and patient….now talk!!

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Who is a Middle East refugee?

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06/04/2009

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.

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Eastern European Jews Meet Western Foods

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06/04/2009

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.

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Walking to save “The Girls,” Part II

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06/04/2009

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.

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Emma’s Birth: Taking My Cues from the Ethiopians

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06/02/2009

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.

EMMA
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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20 things I didn’t learn in Hebrew school

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My mom forwarded this email to me earlier today…some of them are pretty funny, enjoy.
06/03/2009

1. The High Holidays have absolutely nothing to do with marijuana.

2. Where there's smoke, there may be salmon.

3. No meal is complete without leftovers.

4. According to Jewish dietary law, pork and shellfish may be eaten only in Chinese restaurants.

5. A shmata is a dress that your husband's ex is wearing.

6. You need ten men for a minion, but only four in polyester pants and white shoes for pinochle.

7. One mitzvah can change the world; two will just make you tired.

8. After the destruction of the Second temple, God created Nordstroms.

9. Anything worth saying is worth repeating a thousand times.

1 0. Never take a front row seat at a Bris.

11. Next year in Jerusalem The year after that, how about a nice cruise?

12. Never leave a restaurant empty handed.

13. Spring ahead, fall back, winters in Boca.

14. WASP's leave and never say good bye; Jews say good bye and never leave.

15. Always whisper the names of diseases.

16. If it tastes good, it's probably not kosher.

17. The important Jewish holidays are the ones on which alternate side of the street parking is suspended.

18. Without Jewish mothers, who would need therapy?

19. If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. But if you can afford it, make sure to tell everybody what you paid.

20. Laugh now, but one day you'll be driving a Lexus and eating dinner at 4:00 PM in Florida.

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How will the Facebook generation teach the Holocaust?

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06/01/2009

The 20 and 30 something liberal Jews of today partake in Jewish practice to whatever degree it suits their needs. Be it dating, eating, drinking, traveling to Israel for free, the overwhelming sentiment is “What can Judaism do for me?”

This is a post modern phenomena and to some degree a successful one. Jewish continuity has been achieved to some degree via dining on free Shabbat meals, cheering l’chaim at the Chabad house, and traveling to Israel via Taglit-Birthright Israel programs.

Whether or not this kind of Judaism can be sustained given the current collapse of the economy is unclear. What is clear is that unless a 20 or 30-something finds Jewish identity advantageous to their broader life goals, it disappears with perhaps the exception of an extended family occasion.

It’s hard for me to preach the benefits of Jewish practice, as although I am committed to Jewish education, community and Israel, I make my hellos quick or avoid saying them at all to the observant friends and acquaintances walking down Broadway at about 12:30 p.m. every Shabbat and holiday. Last Friday, you would have found me holding a Walgreens bag with self tanner to even out my crazy tan lines from my most recent trip to Israel and my observant friends were heading to eat cheese lasagna on Shavuot.

Despite my own lack of an observance, there is an issue within the Jewish world that is causing me great alarm and I’m afraid that modern day narcissism will get in the way of its preservation in the memory of future generations—the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust, that’s the most remembered thing ever.”

True, numerous museums are dedicated to the subject including a new one in our backyard. But as Holocaust survivors pass away and Jewish identity fades, I can’t help but wonder how our generation will respond to commemorating the tragedy that befell six million Jews.

While all of us learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew school, camps, day schools and even public schools, how many of us are actually willing to prioritize the transmission of the horrors of the Holocaust to future generations? There is nothing visceral to gain from teaching about the Holocaust. In fact, it’s quite horrible and depressing.

As a generation of people who won’t do things just because we have to, how will we prioritize teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to our children and our neighbors’ children?

Whatever our generation’s norms are, they can’t continue when it comes to passing on the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations. Those of us who identify as Jews, no matter our observance or interest, must take on this responsibility. Because if we won’t no one else will, and it is our responsibility to make sure that the Shoah never happens again. How you approach this is up to you. There are many avenues in which to transmit Holocaust studies. You have to choose one that you are willing to do (museum donations, meeting with school officials to see how they tackle the Holocaust in classes, telling the stories of survivors, working on behalf of organization to prevent and fight other genocides).

We can’t be the generation that screws this up. We must remember. Even if it’s not fun. Even if it’s not easy. Even if we don’t directly reap the benefits.

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Get Szady back

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06/01/2009

Did you read about the local Catholic schoolteacher who was just fired for showing an AIDS prevention video?

Patrick Szady has been teaching at a Catholic grade school for 32 years, and has been showing his students an AIDS prevention video for the last decade. Time Out: The Truth about HIV, AIDS and You is a 16-year-old video featuring physicians and such subversive celebrities as Magic Johnson, Tom Cruise, Paula Abdul, Luke Perry, Arsenio Hall and Neil Patrick Harris. And Szady was fired for showing it to his kids.

In 2009? Really?

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, I helped establish the State Health Department’s AIDS Unit, and I recall that time with searing clarity. I remember religious leaders who forbade condom use, preaching that anyone who engaged in the sin of non-marital sex deserved whatever their fate might be.

I honestly thought we had passed that epoch of ignorance and hate. Apparently not.

Can you think of a response that is more antithetical to Jewish law, to the dictate that we must preserve life above all other commandments?

I’ve joined the Facebook Group: “Get Szady Back”, just on principle, and urge you to do the same.

It probably won’t get this quiet hero his job back.  But it will let him know he’s not alone.

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