OyChicago blog

Top seven perks of living near your (Jewish) grandparents

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06/30/2010

Top seven perks of living near your (Jewish) grandparents photo

Bubzie and Papa

Growing up, I never lived close to any relatives. Sure, my family of four had its fair share of friends who certainly FELT like family, but the closest blood relation lived about 400 miles away.

This all changed the summer after I turned eight. That’s when my family moved from Plymouth, MN to Northbrook, IL. My dad’s company was relocating to Chicago, so we moved with it. I still remember the moment when we turned onto our new street, at midnight, seven and a half hours of driving later.

Who do we see on our driveway? My mom’s parents (aka my “Bubzie and Papa”), my great aunt Jane, my uncle Steven, and my mom’s cousins Ellen and Dana jumping up and down, in their pajamas, barely able to contain their excitement. You see, much of my mother’s side of the family lives in the Chicago area, and we had just been initiated into their group by finally living within ten miles of each other. A few years later, my dad’s parents (aka my “Grammie and Grandpa”) bought an apartment in Chicago, and for the first time ever, I had both sets of grandparents within driving distance.

Top seven perks of living near your (Jewish) grandparents photo 2

Grammie and Grandpa

I had no idea how this would change my life, other than being able to see my family more often. But, little did I know how awesome it is to live so close to my grandparents. And so, following in the Oy! spirit of top seven lists, I give you the top seven perks of living near your (Jewish) grandparents:

1. You have a built-in entourage for events.
When I was younger, my cheering section at dance recitals was one that could rival this year’s World Cup. While most other girls had their parents and siblings in the audience, I was that lucky girl who would sometimes have BOTH sets of grandparents yelling my name.

2. Holidays just got a lot better.
When the holidays roll around, make sure to set the table for 20! We never have a dull moment, never dread the prerequisite dinner that comes with certain times of the year. Our holiday meals are right out of a Seinfeld episode!

3. One word: leftovers.
After those holiday meals, where do you think all the extra food goes? Lunch, dinner, and snacks for the rest of week! And I’m not talking about just ANY leftovers, but delicious, home-cooked, holiday delicacies. I eat like royalty after the holidays!

4. You have someone to rely on.
If you are going out of town and need help with pets, house responsibilities, you need a babysitter or things of that matter, and your grandparents are able to spare some time, you know you can always rely on family. And that goes both ways! If they ever need help you can be there for them, too. Bottom line, you know you can always call on family to be there for you if you need it.

5. Speaking of calling, whenever you’re feeling low, who ya gonna call?
When I was in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and I wasn’t feeling well, sometimes my parents weren’t able to come pick me up. Instead of having to suffer in the nurse’s office at school, I knew I could always call my grandparents to drive me home and help me feel better.

6. Did I mention the cooking?
Not only does my Bubzie make the best food for holiday meals, but also random Sunday night dinners at my grandparents’ house are some of the best meals I’ve ever had. My Bubzie likes to collect cookbooks from all over the world, and she puts them to good use, always trying new dishes.

7. And the most important perk of all: you get to spend as much time as you possibly can with your grandparents!
‘Nuff said.

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The decade in Jewish comedies

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06/29/2010

Fade to black hats photo 2 

Every year since 2000, there has been at least one American comedy with a Jewish theme in the theaters. There has never been a decade with more, or more obviously Jewish, material on display on the big screen.

The first wave of comedies with overtly Jewish characters or themes came in the late 1960s, with The Producers, Funny Girl, and Goodbye Columbus, although those last two had their more serious moments as well. The 1970s brought us another interfaith-romance classic, Annie Hall, and the Western bromance The Frisco Kid. That decade also brought the first of a wave of Jewish nostalgia-comedies, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Aside from Private Benjamin and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the 1980s continued that long look back. My Favorite Year, Driving Miss Daisy, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, plus— by Woody Allen alone— Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, and Zelig… were mostly set in the 1940s and ’50s. This rearview-mirror mentality even persisted into the 1990s, with Mr. Saturday Night, Liberty Heights, and the lesser-known Genghis Cohn.

Which brings us to the decade now closing—the 2000s. In just 10 years, we have had comedies based on nearly every well-known aspect of Jewish life. Some were even about contemporary Jewish life.

Eight Crazy Nights and The Hebrew Hammer riffed on Chanukah, When Do We Eat? was set at a Passover seder, and For Your Consideration was a movie… about a movie… about Purim.

Turning (scrolling?) to the Torah, Year One’s characters included Cain, Abel, Abraham and Isaac. Did they skip over Noah? Not a problem; he was covered in Evan Almighty. What about the Big Ten themselves? The comedy The Ten was a series of 10 stories, each about what happens when one of the Ten Commandments is broken.

Romance, of course, is still a major theme for comedies, and this past decade brought us a woman fought over by a rabbi and a priest (Keeping the Faith)… a man introducing his fiancée to his very open Jewish parents (Meet the Fockers)… and a Jewish man on the rebound with his grade-school crush (Along Came Polly). All of which starred Ben Stiller. Then there were the romances with a Jewish woman who enacts a title of a certain Katy Perry song (Kissing Jessica Stein)… and a Jewish man whose mom is his girlfriend’s therapist (Prime).

Speaking of Steins, Keeping Up with the Steins was about a bar mitzvah. Wet Hot American Summer was set in a supposedly Jewish summer camp (although I didn’t notice anything Jewish about it). Goyband was about a boy band hired to play at a kosher casino, while Marci X had a Jewish woman running a rap label. And You Don’t Mess with Zohan was about an Israeli Mossad agent.

Then we had the movies in which the dysfunctional families were “Jewish”; perhaps they had Jewish last names or something, even if there was little Jewish content or context to their lives shown onscreen.  These movies included, In Her Shoes and It Runs in the Family.

So, the Jewish comedy movies output of the 2000s were voluminous, diverse, and even somewhat popular. They had only one overarching problem: the Jewish comedies of the 2000s tried too hard for not enough payoff.

They slathered on silly costumes, R-rated content, and even special effects instead of coming up with genuinely funny material. They didn’t tell compelling stories, many making the same mistake that SNL-skit based movies do— try to stretch a 90-second premise to 90 minutes. They didn’t create characters that viewers could identify with. They were mean and snarky, basing their “humor” on pain or embarrassment. And their dissing of Judaism itself was not balanced by any sense of pride in it.

None of these movies had Oscar-level material, like Annie Hall, which won in 1977, or Driving Miss Daisy, which won in 1990. None had Oscar-worthy acting, like Funny Girl, or even Oscar-nominated work, like Mr. Saturday Night, Private Benjamin, Goodbye Columbus, Broadway Danny Rose, or Radio Days. And none of the 2000s movies has the potential to become a Broadway musical, like The Producers or My Favorite Year.

None has had the warm fraternity of The Frisco Kid, the intellectual zing of Zelig, or the decade-defining influence of Duddy Kravitz. And while the current show Glee just featured a song from 1968’s Funny Girl, none of the Jewish comedies from the 2000s will be remembered even four years from now, let alone 40.

There were some well-made— even very good— movies this decade whose characters were, perhaps, Jewish. But the movies themselves, not so much. Are these— I Love You Man, American Splendor, Whatever Works, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Greenberg— “Jewish movies,” just because their protagonists are pseudo-intellectual, anti-romantic, cynical, neurotic curmudgeons who happen to be Jews?

Even Inglourious Basterds, adrenaline rush that it was, was not so much about Jews as it was about— in the words of its Southern-fried hero— “killin’ Nazis.” The main conflict was between a redneck and a Nazi; the only well-defined Jewish character was Shoshana, also fueled more by anti-Nazi revenge than pro-Jewish pride. If anything, the movie reminds us that more people than Jews hated the Nazis. (We can also add this to the list of Jewish movies that look at back then instead of right now.)
 
I can think of only one movie in the past 10 years that upholds the standards of the past. It is a romance with multiple— and relatable— Jewish characters, a discussion on Jewish values, and even a nod to the key role Jewish music producers played in classic rock. The film? Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. This movie, in the words of one of its characters, knew how to “bring the Jewfire.” No cartoony Zohans or Hammers, no Ecstacy-spiked kiddush cups, no bar-joke premises (“So a rabbi and a priest are in love with the same woman, see…”) Just a couple of 20somethings trying to connect while keeping their integrity, sanity, and friends. It could be the Annie Hall of its generation.

The next decade of Jewish comedies needs to bring the humanity back to the plots and characters, set against Jewish life in the 21st century. There are plenty of aspects of today’s Jewish life that are yet unexplored in American comedies, from bat mitzvahs to Jewish campus life to JDate (which the series From Date to Mate is actually handling very well). And, with the population in general aging, there is an underserved market for AARP-friendly Jewish comedies as well— where is this generation’s Sunshine Boys?

The template for more humanized comedy exists in the work of the great new Jewish filmmaker Judd Apatow and movies like Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Adventureland.

So, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd, and Adam Sandler— we’re only going to give you a hundred more chances. Let’s see what you can come up with in the 2010s.

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Beantown!

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06/28/2010

Beantown! photo

I recently spent several days in Boston with my son Ari who is a student at MIT (much Jewish mother kvelling). Boston is an easily maneuverable city, unlike Chicago, LA or New York. You can get from point A to point B without much cab fare, train time or stress. I love the cobblestone streets and the monuments on every corner that I HAD to read much to Ari’s displeasure.

You cannot go to Boston without thinking about it’s nickname “beantown”— although I did not see one restaurant that served the sweet-creamy legumes. So, I returned from Boston craving beans, which are one of my favorite childhood summertime BBQ side dishes. I did not really think I was going to eat them in Boston, but had sort of expected to see some chef do a menu-play on the classic. But I guess I will be that chef! With July 4th and the long weekend ahead I decided to riff baked beans—bringing the classic dish into the modern age.

I left in the molasses, which is a remnant from Boston’s not so puritanical past in the rum trade. Molasses adds an earthy deep sweetness that brings out the nuttiness of the beans. I used Navy beans for both their ability to hold their shape as well as their historical use in the classic dish.

I added my two favorite pantry ingredients— pimenton and root beer. Pimenton is smoked paprika which adds an incredible complex smokiness that deepens the flavor of many of my favorite recipes. By adding the pimenton to the bean recipe, I achieved an off-the-grill smokiness and heightened the sweetness of the molasses. I also added root beer for sweet and slightly spicy layer to the dish. Of course you could just use tap water, but why would you when you have a flavor-packed liquid ready at hand? Serve this vegetarian dish with your favorite grilled foods or as a protein packed vegetarian entrée.

Sweet and Smoky Baked Beans

2 large red onions, cut into small dice
6 garlic cloves, minced finely
olive oil
½ cup molasses
½ cup ketchup (I prefer Heinz-organic)
1 cup root beer (do not use diet root beer)
3 tablespoons Dijon style mustard
2 tablespoons hot pimenton*
3 28-ounce cans Navy beans or Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 350 or preheat slow cooker to high

1. Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Lightly coat the pan with olive oil. Caramelize the onions until they are deep golden brown and have softened slightly (about 7 minutes). Add the garlic and continue cooking for an additional 3 minutes until the garlic is very fragrant and slightly softened.  Transfer the onions and garlic to a large casserole or slow cooker.

2. Combine all of the ingredients in the casserole or slow cooker. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes until the sauce is bubbly. Or cook in the slow cooker for 2 hours until the sauce is bubbly.

Serve with chicken, fish, burgers and dogs or anything!

*Pimenton can be purchased online at www.thespicehouse.com. Pimenton comes either Sweet or Hot. I prefer hot.

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Secrets of an injured trainer

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06/24/2010

Secrets of an injured trainer photo

My workouts used to be intense. I rested only when I needed it. The pace of the workout was fast, and I mixed in weight training with cardio. When it was over, I was ravenous and pumped. Fast forward three slightly painful years later.

My right shoulder has a tear in one of the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff. The impingement in my shoulder has gone from bad to worse. The pain in my right hip was also finally diagnosed. After an uncomfortable hour and 30 minutes sitting under an MRI machine with my feet taped together, I found out there are two cracks in my hip.

Sadly, I have to alter the intensity of my workout. The days of jumping on a box, throwing a medicine ball at the wall, and bench pressing are over— for now. What to do? How am I going to stay in shape?

I still workout five or so days a week.  I do a little cardio, body weight exercises and rehab type movements/stretches. The way I burn most of my calories? Training others. Yes, that’s right, I burn more calories training people then I burn in my own workout. Here are three workout tips that can help whether you are injured or not:

#1 Move around all the time. Even when you are not working out, go for a walk, garden, play with the kids, play catch, or vacuum. The gardening does not take place of your workout, it’s just another way to be active.

#2 Find out what your limitations are. If you have bad knees, maybe you need to bike not run. Go to a physical therapist and fix that ailing back or wrist. Once you figure out what you can’t do, stay away from that and find exercises you can do. I found out that rowing doesn’t really bother me, so that’s my cardio for now. If you are having trouble figuring out what hurts, take a notepad with you to the gym.

#3 Train your core! The definition of core varies from trainer to trainer, book-to-book, the simple definition of your core is your hips, butt, lower back and stomach. Core has been a buzz word in the fitness industry the past five years and the term is not going away. These movements help in sports and in daily life.  Exercises such as the plank, clams, or hip raises are all simple exercises to fit in your workout.

Working out is only part of the healthy equation.  Another huge part of the equation is diet! When I say diet, I mean the food you eat regularly, not some starvation tactic to drop a few pounds. Since I am less active then I used to be, I eat a little less crap. When I say crap, I mean sweets. That’s my weakness, I love a good cookie. I still eat them; I just eat half a cookie now. I really do not believe in cutting out foods you love, simply eat less of them. Here are a few other diet tips:

#1 Have a fat meal. Once a week, have a meal with the food you love. Keep in mind, if you love deep dish pizza or fried chicken that can be your cheat food, just pay attention to the portion size. A cheat meal helps keep you honest during the week. If you know on Saturday you are going to Harold’s Fried Chicken, then you will be more likely to skip McDonald’s during the week. A cookie is not going to kill you, but if you eat a few min-snickers in the office, a handful of M&M’s and a cookie it will add inches.

#2 Size matters! I alluded to this in the last tip, portion control is important. This is probably the single greatest cause of obesity, people eat huge meals and they eat them often. I’m not saying don’t eat a burger, I had one the other day and it was delicious. However, if the burger is the size of a cow, only eat a quarter of it. If you are at a restaurant known for big portions (i.e. Cheesecake Factory) ask them to only bring out half your meal and package the other half up to take home.

#3 Read labels. Whether you are in a grocery store or at a restaurant, either read the label or look online for nutritional information! The amount of fat, calories and salt in any sandwich or salad at Cosi or Corner Bakery will blow your mind. I’m talking 1,000 calories, 30 plus grams of fat and your total daily allowance of sodium in one salad! If you love a certain salad or sandwich, look for ways to make it healthier— cut the bacon, light on the cheese, dressing on the side.

#4 Eat more fruits and vegetables. This is the easiest way to feel good and look good. Fruits and veggies have fiber, vitamins, water and other nutrients that you just can’t find in most other foods.  Another great thing about this simple trick— these types of foods help fill you up.  Hit the grocery store and load up on apples, pears, broccoli, carrots and whatever else you like. The key to this tip, is to prepare the food right when you get home— cut up the carrots, peppers, pull the grapes off the vine— then it’s handy for preparing in recipes and snacks.

In the past three years I have maintained my weight through following these tips. If you ask my coworkers, they will tell you I do not starve myself or avoid cookies. I simply eat half of the cookie. And I still workout, it’s just a bit less intense. Being injured is frustrating but don’t let it force you out of your skinny jeans (for the record I do not own a pair of skinny jeans). For more tips, follow me on twitter @fitwithkrit.

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My encounter with Intro to Judaism—why it wasn’t just an easy A

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06/23/2010

This past quarter, I decided to take a religion class—well, I didn’t decide so much as I have to take a religion course before I graduate—and I was presented with two options.

I could take Introduction to Buddhism…or Introduction to Judaism.

Tough choice. If I took the former, I’d be learning all about a different culture entirely. Sure it would be a challenge—but it would be interesting, I wouldn’t be bored, and I wouldn’t feel guilty about wasting my parents’ tuition money. However, if I took the latter, I would be guaranteed to ace the class, right? I mean, I went through the whole Hebrew school ordeal and graduated at the end of seventh grade, I was bat mitzvahed, and while I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Jewish history I certainly know my fair share of the stories. I wouldn’t even have to really try; it’s an easy A!

It’s not difficult to guess the choice I made. Obviously, Intro to Judaism beat out Buddhism. If you were a college student, you would have chosen the same way I did. I was loaded down with other difficult courses, and taking one easy course wasn’t going to hurt anybody, right?

So there I am, headed off to my first class of Intro to Judaism. I sit down with some people I know, and as we wait for the lecture to begin we all laugh and joke about how unfair it is that I’m taking this class while they—none of them Jewish—are going to struggle to learn and retain the information.

“You already know everything there is to know!” one friend laments.

“You don’t even have to GO to class, you could just come for the midterm and final!” adds another.

I laughed them off, but secretly agreed that this would be a breeze. Then lecture started.

And I was wrong.

I sat through that first lecture in shock. Where was this information coming from? It had to be true, since the professor who was teaching the course was Jewish. But why didn’t they teach us all this history in Hebrew school (it would only have improved my time spent there)? There were groups of people I had never heard of, periods of time that were completely new to me, and all the stories that had been ingrained into my mind my entire life weren’t being referenced…what was going on?

I quickly learned that this class was NOT going to be the easy A I had previously thought it would. It was as if I was learning an entirely new culture’s history altogether…why didn’t I just take Intro to Buddhism, where I at least had an excuse to be completely lost in the content of the class? But I had made my decision to take Intro to Judaism, and I couldn’t admit defeat after just one lecture. And hey, maybe it would get easier! Maybe after a few lectures we’d get into familiar territory and all would be well!

I guess I should let you know now that I’m a wishful thinker…sometimes to the point that I’ll convince and delude myself into thinking everything will turn out okay despite the hardships ahead of me. Sure this makes me a perpetually happy person, but it can cause some serious issues. Sometimes, the best course of action in life is to assess the possible outcomes of a decision and if the outcome is undesirable, then cut your ties and RUN. This is one of those times.

Too bad I didn’t follow that little nugget of wisdom. It would have saved me a lot of time and grief.

The next few weeks of class did not get any better. All these names and dates and events started to blur together in my mind. Who was Zoroaster? Who were the Amora? And what was theodicy? I was completely lost in my own religion, where I used to think I was the safest.

Not only was the content difficult, but also the worst part was the fact that everyone assumed I was having the most relaxing time taking that class. While studying as hard and as diligently as I possibly could for the midterm and final, everyone would come over to my table where I had set up camp to empathize about the hardships of studying with me—until they found out what I was working on. When I told them I was studying for Intro to Judaism, I received variations of this same question:

“Why?!?”

I tried explaining to my friends, over and over, how this class was all about obscure parts of Jewish history that I hadn’t learned before, but my justifications fell on deaf ears.

I think that was the first time I had ever been judged for STUDYING in my life.

Needless to say, I studied enough to get a grade in the class with which I was happy, but the journey to get there was not the smooth and carefree one on which I had been banking. On the bright side, I learned a lot more about my own religion’s history, and I feel a better sense of accomplishment knowing I didn’t just coast my way through a class. My parents can rest a little easier too, knowing their tuition payments are going to good use.

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A striking event for a cosmic cause

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06/22/2010

A striking event for a cosmic cause photo

As co-chair of the upcoming Jewish Child & Family Services (JCFS) Striking Event, I regularly find myself in the position of asking people to support a cause that’s important to me.  I can speak at length about the people the agency impacts and the quality of their services, but it wasn’t until recently when someone asked me why it matters to me personally, that I realized that the work of JCFS has, in one way or another, been a part of my life for many years.

Growing up in Cleveland, my mom and dad made the decision to open our doors to two teens in foster care.  I've never forgotten that experience and they have each left an imprint in my life.  How amazing for me that we were part of providing these kids the gift of a family—even if for just a short while.

During grad school, I had an opportunity to work at the Response Center, a place for teenagers and their families to go for help—whether for medical exams or counseling.  While there, two experiences really stood out to me—a teenage girl just looking for a place to fit in and an Irish family with a troubled teen.  I was able to help the girl realize that she wasn't on a good path and that people cared.  I worked mostly with the sweet Irish parents, who were having a difficult time connecting with each other, while dealing with their teenager at home.  Who was I to give them marital advice?  But I did and when our time together ended, they gave me a thank you gift of a plaque inscribed with an Irish blessing.  I still have it on my desk today and remember the impact I had on them.

Most recently I volunteered at a JCFS respite program.  Imagine having a special needs child...or multiple, who demands your attention at all times.  It can get very exhausting and maybe even wear on your marriage.  JCFS provides respite for these families.  I was happy to be a small part of giving them even a brief Sunday afternoon break.

In the end, though, it is not what I’ve been able to give that has been most meaningful, but what I have gotten back.  I’ve only touched upon some of the invaluable services that JCFS provides on a daily basis to so many people—the people that mean the most to us in our lives—our children, parents and grandparents, and who knows, maybe you.

I have the honor of serving on the board of directors for JCFS and co-chairing its upcoming “Striking Event.”  I hope you and your family will come out for a fun-filled day at Pinstripes, on Sunday, June 27 to learn more about this wonderful and important agency!  For more information, go to www.jcfs.org.

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My favorite XY chromosome

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06/21/2010

My favorite XY chromosome photo 1

My dad is one of those dads who is always forwarding things to me. Mostly his forwards are of funny pictures or terrible jokes or quirky news stories, but one time he wrote to talk about his genetic haplogroup.

My dad is not Jewish, though since he is from New York, people often think he is. My last name (Bergdahl), which most people can’t seem to place, is Swedish: it means mountain-valley, and was made up sometime in the nineteenth century, when my forebears decided not to be Andersons anymore. The reason I bring this up is because I like to kid people about my roots: I’m a Swedish-Irish-Lithuanian Jew raised in Appalachia, which is a little outside mainstream expectations.

The genetics appear to be even more interesting. My father’s brother signed up for one of those haplogroup analysis tests from National Geographic. Haplogroups are how geneticists organize ancestry analysis: one analogy likens them to branches on the Homo sapiens family tree. Certain DNA markers correlate to populations in certain geographic locations. When my uncle’s results came back, we found out that my dad’s family had an unexpected origin: its Y-chromosome is most predominant in Europeans who speak Uralic languages and live close to the Arctic Circle.

“What does that mean?” I asked him. “Does this make me a Lappish Jew?” (Lapps, Finns, Estonians and Samoyeds are examples of Uralic language-speaking peoples.)

“I wouldn’t go that far,” my dad said.

“Am I a Viking?” A Jewish Viking would be pretty cool, you have to admit.

I think he asked if I had ever found myself longing for reindeer. I may have told him I’d check to see if it was kosher.

The genetics on my mom’s side of the family, all Litvaks, are fascinating too. Not because she took a test, but because scientists have just published a massive study of the Jewish genome, if you will, and discovered some amazing things. Researchers took samples from 237 individuals around the world, each of whom had all four grandparents born in the same community, and compared their DNA. As it turns out, Jews really are something special: Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews all share common genetic markers, which point to a Middle Eastern origin, and are more closely related to each other than the communities in which they settled.

Here’s another amazing thing about this study. The researchers behind it hope that their analysis will provide a baseline against which to measure future studies about the origins of genetic diseases and hereditary cancers, not just in Jews but in everybody. Cooler than a Jewish Viking, I’d say.

My dad thought so too. Like clockwork, an article popped up in my inbox the day the study came out. Followed, of course, by photos of people who look like their pets. Love you too, Dad.

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iPhone envy

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06/17/2010

Eighteen months ago, there was nothing my husband wouldn’t do to get himself an iPhone.  Knowing that the phone was quite pricy, his wife was quite pregnant and his mortgage was, shall we say, significant, he realized it wasn’t the best economic investment.  The man spent a considerable amount of time strategizing ways to make the phone financially accessible.  In the end, he requested gift cards to the Apple store for every single gift-giving event that year, saved them all up, and by December, he was happily downloading apps and checking fantasy football scores.

Fast forward to today.  The husband has announced he is getting rid of his iPhone.  The reason?  He wants the newer iPhone.

As someone who could care less about cell phones, and typically forgets to bring her phone along as she leaves the house, this revelation was quite staggering.

After the months of longing, the year of saving gift cards, how is it possible that he can simply toss it?

He says the new iPhone is faster.  He can multi-task with it.  He likes that it’s more powerful.

He wants the new phone because it’s cooler.  It seems that most people agree with him.  In just one day, 600,000 people pre-ordered the new iPhone.  And that number is likely lower than what Apple could’ve sold, since an unexplained web malfunction caused AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive wireless provider, to halt online pre-orders.

Six hundred thousand people who have not seen, held or used this phone have scrambled to get on a pre-order list. This despite the fact that a January Consumer Reports survey of 54,000 consumers ranked AT&T last among wireless providers in 19 of the 26 major cities included in the study.

I marvel at Apple’s complete and utter power over us.  And I wonder what those 600,000 people are going to do with their “old” iPhones.

I posited that question to my husband, who told me he’d give it back to AT&T.  When I casually suggested that instead, he should give it to me, he looked at me like I was crazy.

“You don’t need an iPhone!”

But Apple told me that I do.

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Moses couldn’t, but you can

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06/16/2010

Shorashim logo

For the past month I have been in Israel working for Shorashim and meeting with all of our Chicago community groups who have spent 10 awesome days seeing Israel with Israelis.

The past several hours I have been sitting in my friend's apartment in downtown Tel Aviv preparing Shabbat materials for a special Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim trip called The Israel Challenge. The Israel Challenge will include the same elements of any Shorashim trip and as a bonus, 10 challenges similar to those you might see on a reality TV show. The winners won’t become MTV stars or Bravo-lebrities, but they will receive gift cards to Uncle Dan's.

The challenges will not be revealed until the day of the events, so I can't speak of them here. However, I can tell you that my responsibility is coming up with a Shabbat-friendly challenge, which has led me to delve deep into this week's Torah portion: Chukat.

God tells Moses that he cannot enter the land of Israel because, seemingly, he hit a rock. Moses’s lack of faith in God ends his 40 year arduous journey through the desert with the worst punishment ever: Moses is denied entrance to the Holy Land.

The punishment does not seem to fit the crime and thousands of commentators from the ancient to the modern have multiple theories. The two most prevalent are that  Moses’s punishment was for previous wrongdoings and the striking of the rock was the last straw or that Moses was no longer fit for leadership of the Jewish people, therefore it was time for his journey to end before they crossed into Israel.

As I compile sources and read, I take a break and walk downstairs to Dezingoff Street to buy Schweppes Rimonim (carbonated pomegranate juice!!!) and am overwhelmed by the heat, the sounds, and the smells of what is downtown Tel Aviv.

There was no Tel Aviv thousands of years ago when the Bible was written. But I can't help but think of the fact that Moses, this great political prophetic figure was not allowed to enter the land of Israel, yet I fly here twice a year. Thousands of Birthright Israel participants are afforded this opportunity thanks to Jewish Federations across America, many generous philanthropists and the state of Israel.

Perhaps every person who comes to Israel brings Moses with them in their heart. And although he was not allowed to enter the land, almost anyone else who wants to, many for free, can and I hope that you will do so soon.

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The 30-year picture show

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06/15/2010

The 30-year picture show photo 1

When my husband turned 30 in late April, his whole life flashed before his eyes.

Well, actually, it was just a slideshow of pictures―at least one for every year―that I put together as a surprise for his birthday.

There he is at four, in short-shorts and a striped T-shirt, the colors lost to the glory of black-and-white film. Or wearing his dad’s Soviet military cap. Or hanging out with his grandparents on the wall of a Middle Ages wooden fortress. Or striking a cool pose in a leather jacket or on top of a skateboard. Still later, the photos show him surrounded by computer parts or talking on his cell phone as he’s preparing for a photo shoot on our wedding day.

The 30-year picture show photo 2

I had seen—or taken—some of these photos, but many were unearthed for the first time. They’d sat in an album at his parents’ house for quite a bit without being peeked at. The yellowed pages of the album were a testament to just how many years my other half has lived.

My mother-in-law carefully peeled the photos off their pages and sent me a large package of snapshots about a month before my husband’s birthday. I scanned them in, touched up some of them to get rid of the scratches, and arranged them in a PowerPoint presentation. That was the easy part.

The 30-year picture show photo 5

I chose to ignore the hard part and instead of writing cheeky captions to each photo, I simply put the year on each slide. But I couldn’t quite escape the storytelling part of the project. As the slideshow displayed snippets of my husband’s life so far, I told stories about many of the pictures―where they were taken, how old he was, what he might have been thinking while looking at the camera. That last part was totally fictional, of course.

As I was putting the slideshow together, I laughed at the sight of the cute little boy in short shorts and I smiled at the 21-year-old I fell in love with. It made me relive some very happy memories, like picnics in the park, our wedding, trips abroad, concerts and get-togethers with friends.

And now, all the old photos from the Soviet era are digital, so we don’t have to worry about the paper yellowing or disintegrating. More than a fun birthday surprise, this was about preserving memories.

The 30-year picture show photo 4

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MWF Seeking BFF: The Second City Factor

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06/14/2010

Rachel Bertsche photo

I am a Married White Female searching for a Best Friend Forever.

It’s not that I don’t have best friends, mind you. It’s that I moved to Chicago three years ago to be with my now-husband, and my closest friends live in New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Everywhere but here.

I’m looking for someone to invite over to watch The Biggest Loser or to text “pedicure in half an hour?” on a Saturday morning. To me, that’s what BFFs are. Not just people who know your innermost secrets, but the ones up for grabbing a bite on a whim because they love being with you just that much, and getting together feels easy and natural rather than a chore you need to pencil in.

When I tell people, specifically women, about my quest, they usually say one of two things: “That’s the story of my life!” or “That’s so funny!” The distinguishing trait between these two groups is what I’ve come to call the Second City Factor.

It’s in the second city after college where you find yourself trying to recall the skills you initially picked up in the sandbox. Friendships don’t fall in our laps like they did during summer camp or college. In the post-graduate world, making friends is as tricky a dance as dating—am I coming on too strong? When can I call her again? Did she like me, or did she like like me?

When early 20somethings first leave school for the big city, they’re surrounded by other real-world freshman in the same boat. Everyone’s a novice in the workforce, looking for buddies to drink, gossip, and go to the movies with. They’re all relatively new in town (even if you’re back home, there’s a good chance you’ve been away the last four years). A bunch of first-timers in the full-time workforce, unfettered by college classes or midterm papers, in that doe-eyed conquer-the-world mindset. Making friends is easy—everyone’s more or less looking for the same thing.

The decision to move to the second post-college city, however, is usually made independent of friends. No matter if you do it for love, career, family, or school, the second move is on your own terms. And given that you’ve probably got a few post-grad years under your belt, you’re not guaranteed a sea of new-in-town friend prospects this time. The buddies you’re looking for often have BFF saturation. There are no openings for new applicants. ( The Philosophy of Friendship  author Mark Vernon told the BBC the number of true close friends a person can have is between six and 12. This doesn’t always leave room for the new kids). So my friends who’ve found themselves in towns where they’d never imagined setting up shop tell me my story rings true. Suddenly, they’re floundering in the search for that certain someone, despite having been surrounded by plenty of perfect someones all their lives.

And those friends and I are in good company. The latest census data is not available yet, but according to the 2000 census, over one-third of all movers between 1995 and 2000 were young adults (defined as those between the ages of 25 and 39). About 75 percent of young, single, college-educated adults reported moving in that time period, while 72.3 percent of young, college-educated married adults did. That is to say, there are a lot of second-city dwellers out there. And a good majority of my friends who haven’t moved might be consulting this column in the next decade.

If my theory holds true—if most of those blessed with Second City Syndrome are on some sort of BFF quest (granted, perhaps not as explicitly as I)—there are probably a lot of women wandering around their neighborhoods, eyeing prospective ladies for Sunday brunch or Saturday evening cocktails.

And then there are those who graduated college, headed for New York or DC or what have you, and never left. When I tell them my plan to actively seek out a BFF using whatever means necessary—I’ll pick her up at a book store! Approach her at yoga!—they say “That’s hilarious,” with a tone that’s two parts pity, one part “atta boy!” and one part “you’re kind of a loser.” They don’t know the awkward pain of leaving a friend-date unsure if you’re supposed to hug or handshake (hug!), the frustration of having no one to drag along to a wedding dress fitting at the very last minute, or just how not-the-same it is to talk on the phone once a week to the best friend with whom you used to grab a bite twice a week.

They judge, for now.

They’ll change their tune when they find themselves unpacking the linens in their second city, strategizing how soon is too soon to ask the stylish neighbor to drinks. (Hint: Give it a week.)

Read more about new Oy! blogger Rachel’s quest to meet her new BFF.

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Summer reading

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06/10/2010

Now that hockey season is over (woohoo Blackhawks!), The Real Housewives of New York concludes tonight, Team Motorboat crossed the Avon Breast Cancer Walk finish line last Sunday and I have no more weddings till the fall, it looks like I’m finally going to have some free time!  (At least until I leave for Israel in three weeks.)

What’s a girl to do?  Catch up on my summer reading.  I LOVE to read—my office at home is an overflowing mess of bookshelves—but I rarely find the time between all my activities and my TV shows to read, so this summer I’m dedicating my free time to books.

Here’s my list of books to read by the pool this summer.  Feel free to make your own recommendations and post them at the bottom:

City of Thieves  by David Benioff and  The Help  by Kathryn Stockett - I already read these two, but they were both so good, I had to put them on the list.

City of Thieves photo

In  City of Thieves , “A writer visits his retired, Jewish grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad.  His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather reluctantly consents.  The result is the captivating odyssey of two young men trying to survive against desperate odds.”

The Help photo

The Help  is the story of “three ordinary women” who take “one extraordinary step” in 1962 Mississippi.  Stockett steps into the lives of three very different individuals, Skeeter a white, twenty-two-year old, single, college graduate; Aibileen a black maid who is raising her 17th white child, while her own go neglected; and Minny, Abileen’s best friend, another maid “who can’t mind her tongue” in front of the “white folks” and lands herself in lot’s of trouble.  “These women …come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk…Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.”

The Glass Castle: A Memoir photo

The Glass Castle: A Memoir  by Jeanette Walls - This is the story of Jeanette Walls who grew up in a “nonconformist,” “nomad” family with parents who preferred art and alcohol to a roof and food.  In the first page, the reader learns that Jeanette is now a successful New Yorker living on Park Avenue while her mom is a homeless person.  Jeanette spots rifling through the garbage from the windows of her limousine.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo photo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  by Stieg Larsson- I’m having trouble getting into this book, probably because there are lots of Swedish names and places and it gets confusing, but I’m determined to get through it.  This is the first in the award-winning crime novel trilogy, which became best-sellers only after the premature death of the author in 2004.

Little Bee photo

Little Bee  by Chris Cleave - My family frequently trades books and I just received Little Bee from my mom who loved it.  According to Amazon, this is the story of two women whose lives collide one fateful day as they each make decisions, which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.  The ending is supposed to be particularly powerful and unexpected.

Fly Away Home photo

Fly Away Home  by Jennifer Weiner - I recently got introduced to Jennifer Weiner.  I’m not a big chick lit fan, so in the past I shied away from her books, but I’m fully converted.  These books are a guilty pleasure— written about wonderful women, all of them Jewish, who are easy to relate to and root for.  Her next book, out this summer, is about a woman (who strongly resembles Silda Spitzer) who after decades of marriage learns that her politician husband is having an affair.

The Bedwetter photo

The Bedwetter  by Sarah Silverman - Now that the big news is out the bag that Sarah Silverman will be performing at this year’s YLD Big Event in the fall; I figured it’s a good time to read one of her books.  The Bedwetter is her most recent work and I’m hoping it brings the laughs.

My Fair Lazy photo

My Fair Lazy  by Jen Lancaster - Stef introduced me to local Chicagoan Jen Lancaster.  Her books are hysterical and terrifying all at the same time.  In fact, I’m afraid of running into her in the city and ending up in one of her books!  The Chicago Tribune describes Jen as, “bitchy and sometimes plain old mean but…absolutely hilarious.”  Also, her newest book contains several shutouts to another Oy!Chicago blogger.

The Red Queen photo

The Red Queen  by Philippa Gregory - Ok, so the Red Queen actually doesn’t come out until the Fall, but I love historical fiction and I love Phillippa Gregory and I’m counting down the days till I get my hands on this book.  If you read The Other Boleyn Girl (or saw the movie) than your familiar with Phillappa Gregory.  Gregory re-imagines the lives of female heroines who lived in England during the 15th and 16th centuries.  The Red Queen is the second in her news series about Elizabeth Woodville and the Plantagenet family.

Pride and Prejudice photo

Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austen - This is my favorite book of all time and thus earns a spot on this list.  I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a dozen times and I plan to read it again this summer.  If you never read Pride and Prejudice in high school, then you sorely missed out.  It’s a timeless classic that belongs on any reading list.

Happy reading!

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I love the game “whatever happened to...”

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06/09/2010

Think about it. Whatever happened to...Chris Shelton? Whatever happened to...Bob Hamelin? ...Dana Barros? ...Austin Croshere?

I know all of those players are "one-hit wonders." But seriously, what happened to those guys? I think there is one person in particular that many Chicagoans wonder whatever happened to the most…that man is Jerry Krause.

Jerry Krause was responsible for putting together six championship Bulls teams before dismantling the dynasty. Many people blame Krause for Jordan's departure and the Bulls' failure to be a serious threat ever since. But give credit where credit is due. The man was a visionary when it comes to talent. Krause drafted Scottie Pippen, Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Jerry Sloan, and Elton Brand. He surrounded Michael Jordan with Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, and John Paxson. He later traded Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman. He knew talent.

But before Krause was picking Hall of Famers for the Bulls he was a baseball mind. He worked for the Chicago White Sox helping acquire Ozzie Guillen, Greg Walker, Kenny Williams, Ed Farmer, Greg Luzinski, and who could ever forget Tom Seaver.

Once Jordan left the Bulls they quickly began to crumble— wow Ron Mercer and Corey Benjamin did not live up to the hype. Krause left Chicago and found himself back in the baseball world. He began scouting, what he does best, for the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners, White Sox and the New York Yankees and Mets. But now Krause is back home in Chicago. The White Sox recently named Krause the Director of International Scouting. Krause will be in charge of restructuring the way the White Sox scout and head up recruitment in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

It is good to see Krause back home. Hopefully he can help bring five more White Sox rings to the city of Chicago.

And Let Us Say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine
For more information on Jews in Sports check out  www.thegreatrabbino.com .

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A Tribute to Charlotte York Goldenblatt

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It took seven years, but finally she’s a Jew!  
06/08/2010

A Tribute to Charlotte York Goldenblatt photo 4

Putting aside the notion of writing a blog entry of real importance and meaning today, and while trying not to be too critical of Sex and the City 2 (which, I thought was a horrible movie), here are a few positive thoughts about my favorite of the four SATC women, the lovable, sweet, graceful, gorgeous, Charlotte York Goldenblatt.

As you might imagine, to seekers of Judaism, in particular young female conversion candidates, Charlotte is someone with whom many identify.  Her story of meeting Harry and converting to Judaism resonates, inspires and provides direction and comfort through unknown territory.  More times than I can count, I have heard statements from conversion candidates like: “Yeah, that’s just like when Charlotte was converting!” or “Hmmm… my last Christmas at home; just like Charlotte’s!” or “Wow, Rabbi Tachman, you are so nice and welcoming at this first meeting!  I came to Temple Sholom thinking my experience would be more like Charlotte’s!”

Charlotte: [meeting a rabbi for the first time] Hello, My name is Charlotte York and I am interested in joining the Jewish faith.
Rabbi: Sorry, we're not interested.  [closes the door in her face]

And like Charlotte, conversion candidates have sometimes wondered aloud why their significant other, who is so dead-set on marrying a Jew, doesn’t seem to take his own Judaism very seriously.

Harry: I'm not kosher, I'm Conservative.
Charlotte: I'm conservative, too!
Harry: Yeah, well, MY Conservative doesn't have anything to do with wearing pearls.

Harry, as you will remember, enjoys eating pork chops, and when Charlotte goes through the trouble of making him a fancy Shabbat dinner, he is more interested in the baseball game on TV,  to which she complains:

Charlotte: I gave up Christ for you.  You can't give up the Mets?

Also see here.

And, though Kashrut and Shabbat observance may not be Harry’s top priorities, he is a kind, caring, supportive, loving mensch, a person who believes in God, and is a character who represents us Jews well.

Charlotte: [hearing the front door open] Hi, honey.  I'm a bad wife.  I ordered Chinese.
Harry: I got something from China, too.  They're giving us a baby.
Charlotte: What?  How?
Harry: I guess God remembered our address.  We get her in six months... and here she is.  [hands Charlotte a photo of the baby]
Charlotte: [smiling through tears] That's our baby.  I know it.  That's really our baby!

With all this being said, I can’t help but reflect on Harry’s offhand comment at the wedding in Act One of SATC 2.  When Charlotte announces that she is going to look for a “nosh” Harry quips something like: “It took seven years, but finally she’s a Jew.”

I would argue that Charlotte always had a Jewish soul in her, and despite the very poor writing for this latest movie, Charlotte’s Judaism holds strong.

What makes Charlotte Jewish more than anything else, I believe, are her Jewish sensibilities which have been exhibited throughout the show.  Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Charlotte values the sanctity of marriage.  She is the only friend to chastise and shame Carrie regarding her adulterous affair with Mr. Big.

2. Charlotte, like my Bubbe, knows how to put a curse on someone:

Charlotte: [to Big in first movie after he leaves Carrie at the altar] I curse the day you were born!

I imagine one day Charlotte will use other, more colorful, Yiddish curses such as:

Vifil yor er iz gegangn oyf di fis zol er geyn af di hent un di iberike zol er zikh sharn oyf di hintn.
“As many years as he’s walked on his feet, let him walk on his hands, and for the rest of the time he should crawl along on his ass.”

3. Charlotte follows the directive from the Mishnah not to judge the quality of the wine inside of a flask based on what the flask looks like on the outside.  Although Charlotte is not initially attracted to Harry, she is won over by his good heart, his kindness toward her, and his obvious love of her.

4. Charlotte is very traditional and reverent:

Charlotte: [whispering to Samantha] Could you please not use the f-word in Vera Wang?

5. Charlotte, like Jews over the centuries, is always hopeful and optimistic despite overwhelming odds:

Charlotte: [when she has trouble conceiving] We're not barren, we're reproductively challenged!

6. Charlotte is familiar with Jewish humor and can joke like an old Jewish man:

Samantha: Tell me why we're going to this again?
Carrie: She's an old friend going through a breakup.  We're being supportive.
Samantha: On a Friday night?
Charlotte: She tried to kill herself!
Miranda: It was six Advil!
Charlotte: On an empty stomach!

7. In SATC 2—like Rebecca of the Bible—Charlotte falls off a camel.  Of course Charlotte doesn’t know how to ride a camel because she wasn’t Jewish in time to qualify for a Birthright trip.  I think there is another connection between Charlotte and the name “Rebecca,” but let’s not go there.

8. Charlotte learns, perhaps from the Torah, but also from her own experiences that one should not interpret events as omens:

Deuteronomy 18:10-14 “…don't let your people practice divination or look for omens…”  After her failed marriage with Trey that began when she interpreted a chance meeting as an omen, she warns Carrie in the second movie not to do the same:

Carrie: We [her and Aiden] bumped into each other halfway across the world—it means something.
Charlotte: I think you are playing with fire.

9. Charlotte, like many Jews, is good at worrying:

Carrie: What makes you think something bad is gonna happen?
Charlotte: Because!  Nobody gets everything they want!  Look at you, look at Miranda.  You're good people and you two both got shafted.  I'm so happy and... something bad is going to happen.
Carrie: Sweetie, you shit your pants this year.  I think you're done.

10. Charlotte, despite having endured many hardships, including a tireless search for her knight in shining armor, a failed marriage, trouble conceiving, and later feeling overwhelmed with motherhood, is full of gratitude and love of her family and husband:

Samantha: Relationships aren't just about being happy.  I mean, how often are you happy in your relationship?
Charlotte: Every day.
Samantha: Every day?
Charlotte: Well, not all day every day but yes, every day.

Well, here’s to you Charlotte York Goldenblatt.  L’chaim!  May you and Harry, Lily and Rose know peace, kindness and goodness.  May you continue to inspire and guide potential Jews by Choice throughout the world.  And may you and your three friends be blessed with a much better script and story when SATC 3 one day arrives on the Silver Screen.

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Top seven perks of being a working mommy

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06/07/2010

Top seven perks of being a working mommy photo

Sometimes, we working moms could use a little reminder of some of the less obvious perks for working “outside the home.”  Because no matter why we work (e.g., couldn’t pay the bills otherwise), how certain we are about our choices, or how happy we are with our lives, there are days when being a working mom can be rough.

There might be days when you’ve had a really bad day at the office and are questioning why you work at all, or are so exhausted from your schedule that you fell asleep on the train and missed your stop (again).  And let’s not mention the days when your child sobs when your nanny leaves more than when you did in the morning, or has undertaken a “first” and you missed the moment.

So in the spirit of my fellow Oy!sters who have brought to you the many perks of being a Jewish professional (here and here), I give you the top seven perks of being a working mommy:

1. When your child’s menu yesterday included corn, chances are the “outcome” in your child’s diaper will be dealt with by someone other than you.  I confess, there are certain foods that I will only serve at dinner, knowing that when the “rubber meets the road” the next morning, I will be nowhere in sight.  (My nanny, a smart woman, has figured this out and keeps hiding the corn.)  Will I someday regret missing some of my child’s firsts—new sounds, first attempts, etc.?  Absolutely.  But I will never regret missing some of those—and I quote my nanny here—“big big BIG poo poo” diapers.

2. When someone asks you to do something you don’t want to, saying “I’m sorry—I can’t as I have [insert work excuse here] this week” sounds much better than “I’m sorry, but I’d rather gnaw off my right arm than [insert task here].”  I really do wish I had more time to volunteer, but when most activities require my presence during the day or more time than I can realistically give, it’s not going to happen.  To all the stay-at-home parents out there—you have my deepest gratitude for the countless hours you have devoted to the school and a myriad of kids’ activities.  Bless you.

3. You not only have a reason, but a real need, to shower and wear something other than sweat pants every day.  Sure, this can be a problem on the days when your wardrobe choice is either a pair of pre-partum pants that are still too tight, or a skirt—and you haven’t had enough time in the morning for the past 2 weeks to shave your legs.  But it doesn’t stink as much as when you haven’t showered at all for two weeks and your husband suspects that taking out the dirty diapers won’t solve the odor problem in the house.

4. You get a lunch hour.  In theory, you have one whole hour to do with as you please each day.  You can use this valuable time to run errands, get a haircut, or even—dare I suggest—catch up with what is going on in the world.  This is precious, precious time.

5. You have a captive audience to tell stories about your child to, and who will usually listen politely for a few minutes.  When your genius child has done something amazing on Saturday, chances are you have run out of friends, family and Facebook pals to tell by Sunday.  But come Monday, you have a whole new crop of victims to bore.  And as a bonus, if you work in a sizable office, chances are you have valuable network of experienced parents who are willing to impart some of their parental wisdom to you.

6. You get to see the sheer joy and excitement on your child’s face when you get home.  Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—beats that thrill of seeing your child light up when you walk into the room after a long day.  It completely redefines “Happy Hour.”

7. You get to hear your first name throughout the day, and it’s not from a sarcastic teenager.  From what I’ve heard from my friends, a sense of loss of ‘individual identity’ can be one of the hardest parts about staying at home.  My daughter is the center of my universe, and I love spending as much time with her as I can.  I treasure every single minute on the weekends and my days off.  But I also know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be happy if my identity was wrapped up in her.  In the office, I get the opportunity every day not just to be “Lindsay’s Mom” or “Mrs. Stoller,” but me.  (And they are actually willing to pay for that.  Go figure.)

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Finding faith: Where I fit into America’s changing religious landscape

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06/04/2010

Finding faith photo 3

For many people, religion is something you’re born into. You are brought to Sunday School, maybe to youth group, and from there you either stick with it or diverge. But if you’ve gone religion shopping, you’re not alone. A study recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44 percent of American adults have switched religious affiliations at some point. I am now in the process of becoming one of them—but that wasn’t until I got to NU.

Thanks to my parents, I had been pretty much doomed from the start. My mother was raised Lutheran and had since rebelled against organized religion, and my father, a bona fide, bar-mitzvah’d Jew, hadn’t had time for Yahweh in years. So when my brother and I came along, they scrambled to find us a religious home. My mom found what she thought was the perfect compromise: Unitarian Universalism. Absent any concrete creed and with an emphasis on individual beliefs and human rights, it seemed just wishy-washy enough to fit us. Plus the flax-munching, Birkenstock-wearing stereotype fit my family’s neo-hippie vibe pretty well.

But when the First Communion wave hit and my girlfriends hit their first religious milestone, I envied their dresses as well as the formality. By the time confirmation and the bar mitzvah scene rolled around, I had had enough of the laid-back environment and wanted some pomp and circumstance. After pleading with my youth group advisor for some kind of ritual I could invite my friends to, he let us go through a “coming of age” ceremony. I was pumped, until we all walked in, sat down cross-legged on pillows and began writing stream-of-consciousness essays.

It wasn’t that I minded Unitarian Universalism; I loved the people, the intellectualism and the freedom. But it never felt like a real religion to me. Growing up unable to define myself by my faith left me craving the heritage and identity that comes with being a part of an established community. It was always the most starkly apparent difference; from the charm necklaces I didn’t get to the holidays and services I didn’t have. I never felt culturally connected, I had no ancestors or traditions to respect and learn from — hell, I didn’t even know how to pray.

The only taste of traditional religion I had were Jewish holidays with my dad’s family. Everything about it warmed me: the big family coming together, the long, rich history, and the constant reminders of how far we had come and how united we were as a community. When we read prayers in Hebrew, I felt like I was doing something more real, more meaningful. I remember looking ahead at the English translations so I could understand the Hebrew I was to recite. There were rituals, customs, traditions and most of all a distinctive culture I wanted to be a part of. I began to realize how at home I felt.

Having the freedom to find my own beliefs let me figure out exactly what I wanted from religion: a structured doctrine, something to turn to for support, and with a clear outlined belief set I agreed with. I researched Judaism more deeply, and talked to Jewish relatives and friends about what their faiths meant to them. The more I heard people talking about their deep love and commitment to the tenets and the ideals of Judaism, the more I began to think it was for me.

During my senior year I started reading the Torah, expecting, at the very least, to take it for its metaphorical value. I was so comforted and invigorated by the philosophies it expressed. The teachings, the stories, the ideas about valuing family, tradition and your Jewish identity—I now understood why so many people had died to protect it. Later that year I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and for the first time I felt truly connected to my heritage. I had never felt so spiritually alive as I did that day. As devastating as the content was, I left feeling so hopeful and proud to think I could count myself as a member of such a strong lineage.

Realizing that I had found a religious home was one of the happiest moments I’ve had. I studied the faith deeply over the summer, but had no opportunities to attend services, since my parents didn’t go and there weren’t any synagogues nearby. So heading into freshman year at NU, I nervously signed up for Hillel’s Freshman Fest. It was a great experience and an amazing start to my new identities—a college student and a converting Jewish adult. Although I was terrified I wasn’t “Jewish enough” and wouldn’t fit in, the Mel Brooks- and Jackie Mason-centric upbringing my dad had enforced got me through it.

Since coming to NU, I’ve met with rabbis from both Hillel and Chabad, and have continued to study on my own and occasionally attend reform services. At a time when most students’ religions are so worn to them that they’re already wearing off, I’m still just starting to fall in love with mine. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

This post first appeared in  North by Northwestern  on March 4, 2008.

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Adventures with autocomplete

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06/03/2010

Adventures with autocomplete photo

Autocomplete is a feature of search engines and other programs that guesses what you are searching for after you type in the first couple of letters. The guesses are based on the frequency of the searches among all users of the search engine. Used in reverse, one can see what the frequency is of search terms.

For instance, when they look up the word “Jew” or “Jewish” on Google, what are most people looking for?

JEW
Before I even typed a space, Autocomplete started guessing at what I wanted to search for. It suggested “jewelry” and “Jewel,” the grocery store.

The Jewish-related searches were for “Jewish holidays 2010” and “Jew jokes.” It might be safe to assume that mostly Jews are looking up when the Jewish holidays are. Well, I suppose HR departments and people who schedule conferences might need to know this information, too; with the year as one of the keywords, it seems clear they are looking up only when the holiday is, not what it celebrates.

As for “Jew jokes,” Jews certainly look up Jewish jokes. My dad is a big fan of the site Old Jews Telling Jokes, for instance. But really, Jews would look up “Jewish jokes,” no? I’m thinking anyone who looks up “Jew jokes” wants to laugh at Jews, not with us.

JEW (followed by a space)
First, again, the searches that turn out to have nothing to do with Jews. There is a fish called a “jewfish”; its native Australian name is the “dhu” fish, and people heard this as “Jew.” I could see why people would look that up, like they would, say, “Norman Jewison” or “Jerusalem artichokes.” (That film director is not Jewish; that plant is from New England.)

As for “Jew town Chicago”… I must say, I have lived and worked in Chicago’s Jewish community since 1994 and have never heard this expression. Chinatown, Little Italy, and Ukrainian Village, yes; Jewtown, no. Anyone know the way to… Jewtown? Should we look for a place with lots of people with a “Jewfro” hairstyle?

Again, “Jew jokes” is popular search. And I was surprised but not shocked to find JewTube, a parallel to YouTube. Speaking of Jewish jokes and videos, “Jew eat yet,” is a popular search. This is a line from Annie Hall, showing how Woody Allen’s character is overly sensitive to anti-Semitism, almost willfully mishearing the innocent question “Did you eat yet?”

Turns out, Woody might really have something there. Many Jews look up celebrities to see if they are Jewish, so the search “Jew or not Jew” is not necessarily troubling. But Jew Watch is. This is a virulently anti-Semitic website that catalogs the names of Jews of achievement in order to prove we are working together to take over the world or something. Hey, Jew Watch: If we Jews have been around for 4,000 years and haven’t taken over the world yet, you guys can probably let your guard down. Sadly, another popular search is for the Nazi propaganda film Jew Suss.

JEWS
The not-about-Jews entry this time is the “Jews harp,” a small, twangy instrument that somewhat resembles a Biblical harp; the name may also be a mispronunciation of “Jaw harp” as that is where you put it to play it.

Two of the Autocomplete findings are “Jews for Jesus” and “Jews killed Jesus,” so there you go. Perhaps someday, these people will realize that we Jews are, to borrow a phrase, just “not that into” Jesus, either way. An organization called Jews for Judaism, which helps deprogram Jews taken in by cults and missionaries, is also a popular search, thank goodness. But then that’s balanced, too, with the search “Jews against Zionism.”

Three of the findings are for “Jews in.” Specifically, “Jews in Hollywood,” “Jews in America,” and “Jews in Holocaust.” Just in case that last one was not clear enough, another popular search is “Jews killed in Holocaust.”

JEWISH
“Jokes,” again. And “holidays” again, but this time also “calendar.” That’s kind of nice— people wanting the whole calendar to really plan their year of upcoming Jewish days. And then people are looking up “Jewish religion,” which is fine. If people have questions, at least they are bothering to look up the answers.

One of the Top 10 most popular searches Autocomplete finds with “Jewish” is “Jewish United Fund,” which is very nice to see, as I work here. Another is Jewish Vocational Service, and while it is likely so popular because is it so necessary at the moment, we’re all grateful it’s there since it is needed so much.

JUDAISM
“Holidays,” yet again. Well, we do have a lot of them, and they don’t all fall on Mondays.

Also popular with this word are the keywords “beliefs,”  “facts,” and “symbols.” There are popular searches for both “Judaism history” and “Judaism today,” and even “Judaism afterlife.”

And “Judaism founder.” Um, that’s Abraham. This was a question?

“Judaism vs. Christianity” is here, too. Anyway, all perfectly welcome searches; let people find out, if they are curious.

All of these matters, as it happens, are addressed by Judaism 101, a wonderful— and quite comprehensive— intro-to-Judaism website.

JEWRY
Autocomplete again assumes I meant “jewelry.” But “Jewry” is a word. I’m not going to make you look it up, as the Wiktionary definition— itself a popular search— is short: “Jews in general; the Jewish population of a locale.”

Then Autocomplete found “Jewry church.” OK, I’ll bite… turns out there is a St Lawrence Jewry, which is not just any church but “the official Church of the Lord Mayor of London and of the City of London Corporation.” Why is it called that, you may ask? “St. Lawrence was first built in 1136 in the east end of London in the old Jewish quarter.”

CONCLUSIONS
What does the Jewish world look like, through the looking glass of Google? Why, it’s full of jokes and holidays!

Also, there is a desire to know what names are Jewish, and which people of power and popularity are Jewish— both to kvell in their achievements and to “watch” them (Yes, we must make sure that Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand don’t… take over the world.)

There is an ongoing concern over the relationship of Jews to Jesus; the idea that Judaism exists solely in opposition to other faiths is untrue and unfortunate… but understandable, given our perpetual minority-population status.

The other thing that struck me is the disconnect in the searches for “Jew” and “Jews”— as in people— versus “Judaism,” a religion in the abstract. The searches for Judaism were rather substantive, asking after “history” and “facts”… while the searches for “Jew” were somewhat frivolous (“Jewfro”?). But, in case anyone was wondering— yes, we do more between our “holidays” than sit around and tell “jokes.”

We look up more jokes online.

For more fun with Autocomplete, check out  Autocomplete Me , the site that inspired this trip into the mind of the Web and its users.

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Top seven perks of being a non-Jewish Jewish professional

 Permanent link
06/02/2010

Want to know something about me? I’m not Jewish. I’m the only goy on Oy! I’ve had several different jobs since moving to Chicago three years ago and the majority of those jobs have been Jewishly involved somehow—I assisted a photographer who mainly shot bar/bat mitzvahs and Jewish families’ portraits, I worked briefly at a JCC and now here I am working for JUF News. Something about the Jewish people is continually drawing me back in.

I was inspired by Rachel’s post about being a Jewish professional, so I thought I’d give my own list of the perks of being a non-Jewish Jewish professional:

1. There are so many holidays! What do they all signify? Why do I get four days off for Succoth? I have no idea, but I’ll take any paid vacation I can get. Plus we get out early every Friday.

2. I reap the benefits of said holidays when everyone brings in leftovers the next day.

3. Because I’d much rather be forever in blue jeans. What does Neil Diamond do when he has extra tickets to his shows? He gives those extra tickets to JUF. I got 9 free tickets to the best concert of my life.

4. It’s ok that my blog posts don’t discuss religion, except of course when I became Reverend Lindsey Bissett.

5. Kosher tacos and kosher potato chips. Delicious. Enough said.

6. I met Frankie Valli at a JUF event. Booya.

7. If ever I’m having a terrible day and can’t see the fun in sitting inside when it’s beautiful out, I know that ultimately I’m doing good and helping others in the world. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

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Just one bite

 Permanent link
06/01/2010

I grew up in a very adventurous household. I did not know it at the time, but we were really different from other families. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and from all outward appearances we were probably very typical. My father was a pretty average suburban dad with one eccentricity—he liked to travel the world with food. He was an incredibly adventurous foodie, way ahead of his time. Today I watch Andrew Zimmern eat bugs, worms and dumplings with strange unidentifiable fillings on the Travel Channel and I realize that stuff is old hat for me and my brothers. I was doing that when I was a kid decades ago. You see, not only did my dad like to explore the world with strange comestibles, but he took my brothers and me with him.

Whether we were home or traveling, Dad was out looking for something unusual. No ordinary suburban chop suey hole in the wall would do. My father schlepped us in the station wagon to China Town to some off the beaten path restaurant where he would insist on ordering what the Chinese ordered. The Imperial Banquet was not for us—we got the authentic food, the secret menu that never actually appears in the dining room type stuff. My father would announce, “now, this is a true Chinese food just like the Chinese eat.” My brothers and I would suspiciously eye the unfamiliar items on our plates and I used to wonder why we couldn’t be normal and just go to McDonalds like everybody else I knew. The rule was you had to try it—at least one bite. There was no sense arguing. It would not have gotten us anywhere. Once the food was on the plate, we were committed to one bite.

When I was a teenager, I realized that while my friends were having the “San Francisco treat” for their adventurous dining thrill, I was all but force fed escargot, eel that had been dispatched moments ago, rattlesnake, kangaroo, turtle, bear and all manner of slimy creepy crawlies. I had traveled the world by the time I could drive, at least one bite from everywhere.

Recently, I was surprised when one of my kitchen staff was nervous to try sweetbreads (veal thymus gland). He had gone to culinary school, his resume said that he wanted to be a chef and he certainly seemed enthusiastic about working in a kosher kitchen. But my goodness, the hesitation went on forever. Just try it! Pop it in your mouth! Why so nervous to try something new?

This is not the first time I have seen adults afraid to try something new. I was, and still am, surprised when people don’t take the chance to rouse and challenge your taste buds presents itself—why not? 

Most of us go about our work days in a fairly routine manner. We probably are not that exciting at home either, so when you can add a little moment of zest or culinary thrill to your day—carpe diem guys! 

I guess I am a lot like my father—at least in terms of how I approach food. All those years of “just trying a bite” really made an impact on me. I have chosen to make culinary thrills my career. I cannot wait for the next new thing and I am all over experimenting with flavor combinations. I love fusion foods and often congratulate myself when I correctly identify the next big thing.

I keep kosher now and it is slim pickins when it comes to new tongue titillating goodies. I have to look for ways to combine flavors and textures. But, boy am I out there looking! After a long day in the kitchen at work I can frequently be found in my home kitchen trying new recipes. I cannot get enough new flavor, aroma and texture.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and have come up with a few reasons why folks are afraid to try something new.

1. Folks are used to certain flavors and while they may be experimental in everything else in life, they do not want to risk what they view as a potentially unpleasant taste.

2. People get in a comfort zone and have to be taken by the hand to venture out. But, usually once they get out of the zone, they are happy!

3. People don’t want to have to think about what they are eating, but new and exciting flavors force you to pay attention. Folks want to satisfy a physical need, not ponder their dinner. (I typically do not like these people!)
There are probably several other reasons, but I think I hit the major list. If you are someone who falls back on one or more of the reasons listed above, I urge you to do what my father always said and “just try a bite” of something new and different.

Cardamom Dusted Lamb Chops with Vanilla-Bean Red Wine Sauce

While lamb chops are not really all that “out of the box” for many people, perhaps a recipe with flavors typically used in pastry recipes will up the ante? Or, cooking lamb may be a new thrill for some home cooks and that is as exciting as just trying a bite. For adventuresome foodies, just the name of the recipe will quicken the pulse. For newbies, trust me. Cardamom and vanilla are BFF’s and the lamb is the perfect vehicle.

Serves 2 as an entrée or 4 as a tapas portion

For the lamb

1 rib lamb rack, fat cut off (ask your butcher to “French” the rack)
olive oil
1 tablespoon of freshly ground cardamom seeds
Salt and pepper

For the sauce

olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 bottle of fruity red wine (I like Pinot Noir)
1 vanilla bean, scraped-reserve the pod
1 bouquet garni of: parsley stems, thyme sprigs and fresh bay leaf
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper

1. In a small sauce pan over medium heat and lightly coated with olive oil, sweat the shallot and garlic until they are translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the wine, scraped vanilla bean and pod and bouquet garni. Simmer over low heat until the mixture has reduced by 2/3.

2. Strain out the solids with a mesh strainer being careful to press in the solids to extract all the liquid. Return the strained wine to the saucepan, add the chicken stock and reduce the sauce by ½ or until the sauce lightly coats the back of a wooden spoon. Adjust season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 350.

3. Place a medium sauté pan over medium high heat or heat a grill to medium high.

4. Rub the lamb rack with olive oil. Dust with ground cardamom and season with salt and pepper.

5. Place the lamb in the sauté pan and brown on all sides.

6. Before serving, place the browned lamb rack in the preheated oven and roast for 7 minutes for medium rare or if grilling, lower the heat to medium and grill for 5-8 minutes for medium rare. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before cutting the rack into individual chops.

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