OyChicago blog

Israel's 2013 World Baseball Classic projected team

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06/30/2011

Israel's 2013 World Baseball Classic photo 

It is early, but I’m already excited about 2013 World Baseball Classic that will feature Israel. Baseball is rapidly growing in Israel. The now defunct Israeli Baseball League still carries momentum with all the books being written about the experience. Also, there is a growing percentage of Jewish MLBers making the 2013 WBC a realistic and natural time for Israel to have a team. The Great Rabbino decided to take a quick peek at who will be on the team and lineup for the 2013 Israeli WBC team and also, what a team would look like in a perfect world.

DREAM TEAM  

1) 2B – Ian Kinsler (Rangers)

2) SS – Danny Valencia (Twins)

3) 3B – Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox)

4) LF – Ryan Braun (Brewers)

5) 1B – Ike Davis (Mets)

6) RF – Gabe Kapler (Free Agent)

7) CF – Sam Fuld (Rays)

8) C – Brad Ausmus (Recently Retired)

PITCHING ROTATON  

P – Jason Marquis (Nationals)

P – Scott Feldman (Rangers)

P – Aaron Poreda (Padres Minors)

RP – John Grabow (Cubs)

RP – Scott Schoeneweis (Recently Retired)

RP – Eric Berger (Indians Minors)

RP – Michael Schwimer (Phillies Minors)

RP – Craig Breslow (As)

BENCH  

Jason Kipnis – 2B (Indians Minors)

Josh Whitesell – 1B (Japan)

Ryan Kalish – OF (Red Sox Minors)

Ryan Sadowski – OF (Korea)

Adam Stern – OF (Brewers Minors)

Our Dream Team looks amazing and a team that could legitimately compete for the WBC title. But here are some things to consider.

1) Braun, Youkilis, and Kinsler will very likely be asked to play for the USA team, which they will accept. Youkilis might not make the cut for the USA team. If so, he would could consider playing for Israel. Breslow and Grabow will also potentially get calls from Team USA.

2) Some of these players will most likely not play for an all Jewish team. In that category, are Scott Feldman, Scott Schoeneweis, Sam Fuld, and Ike Davis. Davis and Fuld might consider it for the opportunity to play in the WBC.

3) There will more than likely be a few actual Israelis or Jews who have lived in Israel on the team. We will leave three bench spots open for them.

4) Some players might not want to play due to fear of injuries or their MLB team not allowing them to play.

REALISTIC TEAM (Projected Team)  

1B – Shawn Green (Retired) – Green has already gone on record saying he would consider playing for Israel in the WBC. Green would be more of a symbolic player and it would make a great story for his second book.

2B – Jason Kipnis (Indians Minors) – Kipnis most likely is too young for a spot on the USA team. He grew up in a Jewish area. It will be a great way for him to make a name for himself.

SS – Jake Lemmerman (Dodgers Minors) – The highest 2010 Jewish draft pick is just in AA. By 2013, he will be peeking and will be a vital part of this team.

3B – Danny Valencia – Valencia will be heavily pursued by the Israel team. As one of the only major leaguers on this team, it would be a good opportunity for him to can some spotlight.

LF – Gabe Kapler – Kapler just loves playing baseball so it seems like a natural fit. By 2013, he will be out of baseball and this will give him one last shot to prove himself.

CF – Ben Guez (Tigers Minors) – Guez is a solid minor league prospect who will have a spot on the Israel team if he wants it.

RF – Josh Whitesell – The WBC will give him great exposure to get back to the majors.

C – Brad Ausmus – While he retired a year ago, something tells me Ausmus laces up the pads to play in the WBC.

P – Jason Marquis – Marquis is key if Israel wants to compete. I am sure Israel will ask him to play.

P – Aaron Poreda (Padres Minors) – Poreda grew up with a strong Jewish upbringing. I would say he is the 1st player to sign on.

P – Ryan Sadowski (Korea) – Like Whitesell, it gets him great exposure.

RP – Eric Berger (Indians Minors) - AAA prospect should see the Majors soon. He lands on the team.

RP – Michael Schwimer (Phillies Minors) – Should have some MLB experience by 2013, but not enough to make team USA.

RP – Craig Breslow – Breslow could get be asked to play for the USA. But if he doesn’t, Breslow will be approached by Israel and I believe he would welcome the opportunity.

RP – Jason Hirsch (Yankees Minors) – Helps solidify a solid rotation.

RP – Jason Knapp (Indians Minors) – While he does not have a ton of experience yet, he is a top prospect in the Indians organization.

RP – Lenny Linsky (Rays Draftee)

BENCH  

Ryan Lavarnway – C (Phillies Minors)
Adam Stern – OF (Brewers Minors)
James Rapoport – OF (Cardinals Minors)

MANAGERS  

Head Coach – Art Shamsky – Shamsky will probably be the skipper. He has coaching and playing experience.

Hitting Coach – Ron Blomberg – The first DH of all time knows a thing or two about the art of hitting. The New Yorker had a great experience with the International Baseball League.

Pitching Coach – Larry Rothschild – The current Yankees pitching coach will for sure be asked to coach, why would he say no?

Honorary Coach – Sandy Koufax – Koufax will need to be honored and involved in some way. Well…he better be!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment.
And Let Us Say...Amen.

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The most important lessons

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06/29/2011

Cindy Sher photo 2 

I love graduation season.

That might surprise you considering most people dread attending graduations—the bleachers, the sweat, the boredom, the caps. But work with me here.

Graduation is that time of year when millions of students are given a fresh start in life. Commencement speakers impart their wisdom to grads eager and trepidatious to take on the world. And whether you’re graduating or not, it’s a fitting time to reinvigorate and take stock of our lives and where we’re headed.

Now that graduation season has just passed, I thought I’d dish out some of my own advice to this year’s crop of Jewish graduates.

In a 1997 Chicago Tribune article by Mary Schmich—usually wrongly attributed to an MIT commencement address delivered by author Kurt Vonnegut—Schmich’s number one piece of advice to grads is “wear sunscreen.” She says that the long-term benefits of sunscreen have been scientifically proven but that the rest of her advice really only stems from own “meandering experiences.”

Indeed, wearing sunscreen is smart. Here are three other nuggets of wisdom that I’ve accumulated along my journey so far.

1) You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This Russian Jewish proverb whispered to me by my mother throughout my life and passed down from her mother and her mother’s mother applies to everyone you encounter in life. We make a choice in the way we approach the people in our lives, both the primary players and the strangers we come in contact with each day just making cameo appearances.

Sometimes I’ll stand in the checkout line of a grocery store and watch a customer and clerk never smile at each other or even make eye contact, the shopper not even glancing up from an iPhone. Contrast those moments with, say, my recent visit to a shoe repair store where I shared a warm exchange with the man shining my shoes about Chicago politics and bad 70s sitcoms and we acknowledge one another as people. What an impact a human moment between strangers makes on the rest of the day.

2) Appreciate the blessings in your life, no matter what hand you’re dealt. I’m always amazed by the sense of perspective that certain people in this world possess, even those who face many hardships. I once read a study revealing that Africans are more optimistic than inhabitants of almost any other locale in the world, despite their poor living conditions.

Closer to home, my cousin, Ron, a brilliant Cornell University educator, received an honorary degree from Penn State this spring. In his commencement address, he spoke about his son Eric’s long battle with brain cancer, who died in his late 30s. Despite his health struggles, Eric maintained a bright outlook and sense of humor throughout his life, and managed to complete college and law school, work as an attorney, get married, perform comic improv at hospitals and senior centers, and have a daughter, and then a son—who was born after Eric passed away.

“The happiest people are not necessarily the people who are lucky enough to avoid problems,” Ron told the graduates, “but rather the ones whose ability to cope increases at a more rapid rate than their problems do.”

3) Tell the people in your life what they mean to you. I took these words of wisdom to heart during my interview with Jewish author Bruce Feiler, who recently spoke for the Chicago Jewish community about his book called The Council of Dads in which he asks six men in his life to act as father figures to his twin daughters in the event that Feiler succumb to his cancer. Thankfully, Feiler recovered from his illness and has been in remission for two years.

Why must it take a near-death experience or dramatic roadblock in our lives to take stock of our friends and family? Drop a note or have lunch with the people you care about and tell them why they are important to you.

Whether you choose to follow or ignore any of my advice, Graduates, do be sure to stock up on SPF 70 before hitting the beach.

Mazel tov!

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The Unveiling

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06/28/2011

The Unveiling photo 1 

This past weekend, at the Gay Pride Parade, Chicago got a taste of what it is like to see, breathe, and live in hyper-color.

This day, this parade, this experience, is the ultimate celebration of life. People from all over the world gather to celebrate diversity, difference, vulnerability, strength, and love. It's a day where we embrace our alter egos, which enables us to connect with our true selves.

As I have struggled to reemerge into the world, and become reacquainted with normalcy, I have also learned how to let my freak fly.

I have started to become more creative and perhaps bold with what I wear on my head, what I wrap this body in, and what I choose to present to the outside world.

Living in Boystown, a neighborhood that is predominantly gay, has allowed me to feel a sense of "normalcy" during a period that is far from normal. The more eccentric my appearance becomes, the more embraced and accepted I feel by the community around me.

The Unveiling photo 2 

Yesterday, as our float slowly made its way through the thousands of people gathered at the parade, Mel Malka, a fellow survivor, and I twisted out Cancer. We danced, jumped, and moved because we can, because we should, because we must.

Three weeks earlier, we were at a very different type of celebration. We were at the Lurie Cancer Center Survivors' Walk, wearing purple shirts, and celebrating our dance with cancer. Sunday, while wearing somewhat different attire, we continued to dance, to celebrate, to live loudly— because this is how we survive.

As we danced together and separately, I knew we both were thinking about how blessed, how lucky, how "blucked" we were to be there—together— in this sea of moments.

The Unveiling photo 3 

As the parade ended, and the overstimulation began to subside, I decided to take off my wig and publicly reveal my baldness for the first time. I no longer felt vulnerable or ashamed of what lies beneath, but rather felt ready to celebrate my difference, my journey, my alter ego, and my true self. I felt ready to unveil my baldness because those around me were so boldly embracing their own uniqueness.

I feel grateful to the brave souls that showed me how to celebrate and reveal what lies beneath. I will remember and cherish this day for the rest of my life. 

The Unveiling photo 4 

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Taste of Chicago, Jewish style

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06/27/2011

Taste of Chicago, Jewish style photo 

I have to drive past the Taste of Chicago everyday on my way to Spertus. While I am glad that the taste brings business to Chicago and that vendors have an opportunity to lure locals and tourists with their tasty fare, I have to wonder, what does the taste have for a Jew? I do not drink beer, I cannot eat the food. So, other than traffic nightmares, what does the taste do for me?

Well, it has provided me with some inspiration for summer recipes. As we prepare for one of my favorite holidays, July 4th, I have come up with some great Taste of Chicago-Jewish style recipes. The 4th of July is the holiday that we, Jewish Americans, should truly celebrate. This great country of ours allows us to live, pray and eat the way our religion dictates. That is truly something to celebrate. And, how do Jews like to celebrate? We eat!

While the lakefront fills this weekend with crowds swigging beer and eating corn on the cob, I will be enjoying the patriotic holiday, Jewish style.

Borscht Pasta Salad  

This healthy and riotously colored salad started out as a sort of food joke. It turned out to be as delightful and refreshing as its namesake ethnic soup.

Serves 6

2 pounds red beets + 1 pound for cooking the pasta
2 pounds golden beets
1 pound rotini pasta
3 large cucumbers, peeled and diced 
⅓ cup chopped fresh dill + extra for garnish
1 large red onion, diced
¼ lemon juice
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup sour cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350

1. Rub the beets with olive oil, and wrap them individually in foil. Roast the beets for about 45 minutes or until a paring knife can be easily inserted. Set aside to cool.

2. Grate the 1 pound of red beet into a large saucepan filled with water. Bring to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente (about 8 minutes). The grated beet turns the pasta a “celebratory” red color.

3. Peel the roasted beets, their skins should just slide off. Dice the beets. *chef’s hint: peel and dice the yellow beet first so your cutting board and hands will not be stained red from the intense “celebratory” red beet’s color.  

4. Toss all of the salad ingredients into a large bowl while the pasta is still warm. Chill the salad.

5. Before serving dollop with sour cream, if using, and chopped dill.

Chicken Noodle Salad  

Hot summer nights on the patio and sipping hot chicken soup is just so wrong. Digging into a plate of cool, refreshing chicken noodle salad is just so right!

Serves 6

2 cups chicken stock, (prefer homemade!)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 pound favorite pasta, I like to use a healthy whole wheat pasta for this recipe
3 celery ribs, peeled lengthwise into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
3 medium carrots, grated
¼ pound fresh green beans, cut into ½ inch segments
½ cup fresh or frozen peas
2 shallots, minced
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 small hot pepper, minced (yes, I put this in my chicken soup!)
For the vinaigrette
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon style mustard
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Garnishes: chopped parsley, chopped dill

1. Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a medium sauce pan and gently poach the chicken breasts until firm and cooked through (about 8 minutes). Remove the chicken.

2. Add the pasta to the chicken stock, carrots, green beans and peas and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and the vegetables.

3. Place all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together the vinaigrette and drizzle over the salad. Chill and garnish with parsley and dill before serving.  

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Finding our place in the Jewish community

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How my brother did it 
06/24/2011

Finding our place in the Jewish community photo 1 

A little while ago, my brother wrote a provocative article assessing the current climate of young Jewish leaders. You can read the full article here. I was thoroughly impressed with his commentary on young Jewish leaders and our generation’s declining Jewish engagement. There are several reasons why I like this article and why it’s so important to pay attention to what my brother is trying to say.

First of all, I have to say that growing up with him and my sister in our Conservative and Kosher household was very different than many of our friends and neighbors. We grew up a block from school and synagogue. We sang, read and wrote in Hebrew twice a day. Jesse and I wore kippot on our heads and learned prayers starting in third grade. At home, we lit the Shabbos candles as a family. Starting in high school, my father would email his weekly, “Two Minute Parshah” returning from services to enlighten us about the Bible’s lessons and make meaningful connections to our condition as a people.

The point is that all three of us (Me, Jesse, and Hayley) were fully immersed in our Conservative upbringing, and yet, Jesse never felt connected to his religion through these traditions and rituals we observed every single day. As young children and adolescents, Jesse was by far the most agnostic in the family; he once boasted of breaking Kosher his first week in high school by calling up my mom at work and asking her, “Guess what I’m having for lunch?” while waving around a turkey and Swiss sandwich. He would attend services and bar or bat mitzvahs like the rest of us, but I’m not sure if he saw them as anything other than obligations and disconnected rituals. I know for a fact that he truly enjoyed and loved his bar mitzvah, but unlike myself, he did not stay actively connected to the synagogue or the Jewish faith afterwards. He may not know this, but I was genuinely concerned that Jesse would grow up and marry either a very agnostic Jew or even a non-Jew and build a family completely divergent from our childhood. It would not only break my mother’s heart, but my own as well, because we were so connected as a family through our Jewish faith. The Jewish connection did not seem to matter to him as much, other than the family ties it created.

Then, Jesse went to college. At first, not much changed. He didn’t join a Jewish fraternity and he remained somewhat distant from the university’s Hillel. However, things began to change, when with my dad’s encouragement, Jesse decided to attend Passover services in Florence, Italy at one of the oldest synagogues and Jewish congregations in Europe. Okay, Jesse was very impressed. After graduation, Jesse then moved to New York City, far away from our family and our families’ synagogue— Anshe Emet. Coincidentally, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove also moved from Anshe Emet to the 5th Avenue Synagogue around the same time, so Jesse had some connection to Chicago and Judaism when he couldn’t make it home.

Then, without any pressure from the family, Jesse became actively involved in the UJA Federation in NYC. At first, I was pleasantly surprised. I heard about how much fun he was having and how many more people he was connecting with and building relationships with. I thought to myself, “it’s about time.” I knew Jesse would be able to find something Jewish to connect himself to and feel good about in New York. All is not lost. As his connections to UJA grew, I noticed his commitment to the movement was stronger than ever. He definitely eclipsed my perception of his faith when he signed up to staff a Birthright trip, rather than simply attend. Not only did he return with a stronger faith and connection to Judaism, but he found on that very Birthright trip a very intelligent, sweet and caring girlfriend whose faith in Judaism was much like his own.

Finding our place in the Jewish community photo 2 

He went on to speak at an event with Mayor Bloomberg and Matisyahu in attendance, and even had the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Charles Bronfman in his own home at a private fundraising event. I have never seen him happier, other than when he comes home to the family.

Jesse has experienced much of what we all hunger for in our journey towards connecting to God and to Jews in America and across the world. His volunteer work and dedication to UJA only proves that young, emerging Jewish leaders like him can make a difference. Yes, a deep-seeded Jewish upbringing does help shape perceptions a bit more, but organizations and groups like JUF and UJA provide opportunities for people like me and my brother to connect to young Jewish people wherever we are.

Oy!Chicago has provided for me a wonderful opportunity to engage with the young Jewish crowd here in Chicago, and I could not be happier or more proud of my faith and its strong, emerging generation.

“Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” At first, I don’t know if Jesse fully believed in this idea growing up. Now, I cannot imagine him feeling otherwise. However, Jesse would take it a step further and use this mantra to build meaningful connections to young Jewish leaders and strongly encourage them to volunteer, to get involved in a meaningful way. It is clear to me that Birthright was a life-changing experience for him and should remain that way for future young Jewish adults.

Finding our place in the Jewish community photo 3 

To my brother Jesse: I love you, and I am so proud of you for everything you have accomplished and everything you plan to achieve in the future. Your connections to the Jewish faith and your commitment to volunteer and help those in need is a remarkable characteristic that you have developed. You are an inspiration to me and to other young Jews out there - Chicago, New York and elsewhere - that want to believe that they can make a difference, that their voices matter. Keep it up.

Jesse found his place in his community and strongly urges all of us to do the same. I know I am. Are you?

L’Chaim!  

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What do I do with my exercise ball?

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06/23/2011

After the question, “Can I eat anything I want if I workout?” and “Do I do cardio or weights?” I get the question, “What do I do with my exercise ball?” My answer is a video. With help, I previewed a few easy exercises you can do with a ball. If you have a favorite exercise on the ball that I left off, please write about it below.

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Flying and Falling

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06/22/2011

Flying and Falling photo 

Life, death and life - mourning loss and building new nests at once.  

This past spring, if you looked beyond the white curtains and protective iron bars lacing our kitchen window, you would have seen a pair of mourning doves making their nest atop the storage cabinet on our back porch. Last year, they made a home in the same spot and their eggs fell. Cleaning up the crushed potential of a life was depressing. However, those hopeful birds came back and made their nest in the exact same spot. Does their name seal their fate? Will they always be in mourning? We watched closely as they prepared to lay their eggs. Autumn and Violet, now 18 months old, sat in their booster seats at every meal and were entertained by the fluttering, cooing, and flying away. We all learned the sign for bird. Now every time the girls hear one, their little thumbs and first fingers meet in repetition, pulling me out of my thoughts and reminding me to pay attention and notice the birds, too.

Last week, my uncle Chris fell from a bridge to the end of his life. He was only 45 years old, with two sons in elementary school. He coached both of their baseball teams. He and my aunt were still in love like they were teenagers, as one of his friends described at the funeral. My grandma is one of my closest friends. That she knows the loss of a child tears at my heart. That my aunt, a woman who embodies the word grace, knows the loss of her soulmate makes my throat contract. That my cousins know the loss of a parent, well, the sadness is great. There is no way to prepare for such a tragic accident. Unlike the egg shells I cleaned up from the porch, Chris was in the midst of a loving, generous, fun, and full life.

Around the same time the mourning doves were building their nest, I started to teach my daughters the skill of a deep, calming breath. I want to give them the tools to deal with the inevitable anxieties of life, and breathing deep seemed like a good place to start. We’re still working on remembering how to take that audible inhale and exhale when they can’t have the toy their sister is playing with at that exact moment, but we’ll get there. Connecting to this breath is healing, rejuvenating, centering. Now more than ever, these deep breaths remind me that I am alive, that my daughters are alive, and that there are no guarantees that we will go on breathing tomorrow. It reminds me to be in the moment, and each moment of life is a blessing.

When we came back home after my uncle’s funeral, it seemed wrong for the buses to keep rumbling down Broadway Avenue and the stores to keep selling on Clark Street, when someone we love is no longer there to witness it. But the world keeps running. We keep breathing. Life is still happening here.

This year we watched the mama mourning dove sit with dedication on her precious eggs, never leaving them alone in the nest. We watched those eggs hatch to reveal slimy little birds. We watched those babies grow fluffier and eventually we saw them fly away. They grew up so fast. I wish that Chris could come back and learn to fly like those birds. Instead, we are all looking at ways for his spirit to live on. To start, Mandi and I now tell our daughters every night how lucky we are to be their moms, just like Chris told his sons that he was lucky to be their dad.

All of these things – the birds on our back porch, the deep breaths by Violet and Autumn, and tragically losing a member of our family – all of these things remind me that life is meaningful yet small, short yet broad. When I am deep in my own thoughts of sadness and loss, my girls do something to remind me that it’s the people in our lives that make your life great. That paying attention and appreciating and offering something positive to the people around you – just like my uncle did – is what it’s all about. We make the best nest we can, in the place of our choice, and then one day we will fall or fly and either way the world will go on and we will become part of something much larger than ourselves. 

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Fade to black hats: Chasidism on film

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06/21/2011

Fade to black hats photo 2 

As early as 1923, the movie East and West depicted the stereotypes Chasidic and more modernized Jews had toward each other. In her earliest known film role, Yiddish acting legend Molly Picon portrays an assimilated American teen visiting her family in the Old World. Cultures collide and hilarity ensues, but it’s only funny until Molly’s prank “marriage” turns out to be a bit too legit for her to quit. One side seems not to take Judaism seriously enough… but then, those Chasidim just can’t take a joke.

Fast-forward to 1979. In one of his most under-appreciated roles, Gene Wilder plays an innocent, bumbling rabbi in the Wild West comedy The Frisco Kid. As our rabbi is forced to travel over land from New York to his shiduch in San Francisco, Harrison Ford’s Indy-like desperado takes pity on him and escorts him to his destination. Along the way, this bandit discovers his soul, and the rabbi finds tremendous inner strength due to his unshakeable faith. Captured by a tribe of Native Americans, he explains his relationship with God to them: “He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness... but He does not make rain!” (And, on cue: a thunderclap and downpour). “Of course, sometimes, just like that, He’ll change His mind,” the rabbi concludes. Despite the injustices he faces, he acts with dignity and within the bounds of the Torah. Still, we only see him alone, apart from the Chasidic world.

Not all Chasidic fathers choose to give their sons the silent treatment like the one in 1981’s The Chosen does. In this case, the dad ends up driving his potential-rabbi teenage son into a career of psychology (no kidding). The strictures of the ardently religious do not sit well with the freedom-loving youth/Americans/Hollywood. Sadly, this portrait of Chasidic life has unfairly colored the public’s view of Chasidism for decades.

Chasidic men fare a bit better in Yentl. While he cannot permit her certain freedoms, Yentl’s rabbi father does care about his daughter’s intellectual and spiritual development. And the man she falls for, Avigdor, is a decent, loving guy. But “rules is rules,” and Yentl can only embrace her driving intellectual curiosity about Jewish text if she escapes her Jewish context. She loves it so much she must leave it, and the Chasidic community loses a potential Nechama Leibowitz.

A more nuanced view of Chasidic families comes in an otherwise substandard film, A Stranger Among Us (1992). Melanie Griffith’s acting job— as a streetwise cop!— is nowhere near her Born Yesterday heights, and the murder mystery she has to solve is far less compelling than anything on the average cop show these days. But at least the Chasidic community is shown to be welcoming, multi-faceted, and if strict, at least not hypocritical. Also, even if it’s still not an entirely accurate rendition, the Kabbalah is explained here much better than in most places.

But A Price Above Rubies (1998) is an entirely vicious attack on Chasidism as being replete with men who are either ineffectual nudniks or predatory schmucks. And who suffers? The women. Poor Renee Zellwegger doesn’t get to pursue her dream of being a jeweler until she leaves their serpentine embraces for those of a decent, hardworking, non-Jewish man.

Kadosh (1999), an Israeli film, is even worse. A Chasidic couple is torn by their infertility (in an era in which medical intervention is available), and both the woman and her sister are victimized by the crushing patriarchy of their society. While A Price Above Rubies at least implies that maybe some Chasidic men, somewhere, may be redeemable, Kadosh insists that the very nature of Chasidic culture makes all of its men overlords and all its women servants.

The hero of 1998’s Pi is calculating, on a supercomputer he built, the last digit of that slippery number. He is being harassed by mathematicians and stockbrokers for inside info that will grant them fame and/or fortune, but also by Chasidic kabbalists, whose desperation to reveal the nature of God drive them to dog our poor hero into madness. They beg him to turn the Torah into an algorithm, believing that its pattern of letters, once decoded, will be the combination that unlocks the door to the Other World. Or something. Anyway, they are relentless and clearly care more for personal enlightenment than treating another human being with compassion or even decency.

The very premise of the Israeli film The Holy Land (2001) would be laughable if it were not so offensive. Faced with a yeshiva student distracted from his studies by a surplus of horniness hormones, a rabbi instructs him to find a prostitute and get it over with already. Yes, really, that is the premise of the movie. Avatar was more realistic.

Luckily, Israel would produce, only three years later, the luminous film Ushpizin. Here is another Chasidic couple beset by infertility, but rather than turn on each other, they seek comfort in their faith and friends. They are further tested by the return of unsavory types from the man’s past. But the overall depiction is of a loving marriage in a caring community, in which hardships are willingly shared and mistakes easily forgiven. It’s easily the kindest depiction of the Chasidic community ever put on film, and should replace The Chosen as the go-to movie about Chasidism.

There is a Chasidic character in the 2005 stoned-Seder movie When Do We Eat? but that movie was as willing to make fun of everything as Blazing Saddles was, so to complain that this character was unrealistic is beside the point… or, perhaps, the point.

The under-known 2007 film Arranged has two women bound by, yes, arranged marriages; they meet each other as teachers in a public school. But one is Jewish… and the other, Muslim. If this film implies that forms of Judaism can unfairly control women, at least it makes the same accusations of other faiths, arguing that not Judaism itself but certain attitudes that span across cultures and countries are to blame.

The 2009 Belgian film Rondo is the Chasidic version of the classic “precocious child melts heart of grumpy old man” motif (seen from Shirley Temple films through Up). Thrown together in refugee camps during WWII, an assimilated youngster and his religious, crotchety grandfather slowly learn that the Holocaust has destroyed everyone in their family except each other. Then they learn how to be a family of two.

The movie that sparked this look into portrayals of Chasidim on film is the new release Holy Rollers. It is based on a true story about yeshiva students who became unwitting, then willing, drug mules. But which is the sadder part? That these kids were raised in such an insular environment that they had no clue they were committing a crime? Or that once they knew, they loathed their boring, restrictive yeshiva life so much that they kept going, just so they could have an adventure and a sense of accomplishment?

Coming in 2011 is the goofball comedy Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill. This time, it is not sex or drugs but rock ’n’ roll that gets the yeshiva boy to leave his smothering community and find himself in the big wide world. Evidently, the filmmakers knew nothing of the thriving world of Chasidic music, which has for decades supported dozens of successful rock and pop acts who also maintain their Orthodox lifestyle, from Piamenta to Matisyahu.

When looking for a plot involving a character shaking off a confining cocoon to emerge as a beautiful butterfly, a Chasidic setting seems to almost too handily suggest itself. In most films about it, Chasidic life is something to flee.

But where are the on-screen stories of the thousands of ba’al-teshuvahs who flee secular life for the Chasidic world? Who find the secular world empty, and the Chasidic one fulfilling?

Where are the stories of people who are born into Chasidic life and happily live in it? Where are the stories of Chasidic women who love their husbands and children, their communities and practices? Where are the Chasidic male characters who treasure their wives and treat women fairly?

And why do so many movies pit Chasidism against secularism, as if those are the only two options—what about other denominations of Judaism? Or within Chasidism?

Movies that unfairly depict Chasidism are still, after all, attacking a form of Judaism in the public arena, and this should concern us. Movies that mock Chasidic Jews are still denigrating Jews, and that should bother us as Jews.

What we still need is a good, mainstream, English-language movie that shows Chasidic Jewry fairly. Warts-and-all, fine… but more of the “all,” and not only the “warts.” Chasidim don’t need to be shown as perfect, just not perfectly imperfect.

Somewhere in between, like the rest of us. You know… human.

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My Facebook confessions

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06/20/2011

My Facebook confessions photo 1 

Facebook—some of us curse its very existence, while some of us let it consume us. Oh, I LIKE your last status about going to the post office. Yes, I am a FAN of my high school and I WILL ATTEND your birthday happy hour next weekend. Those of us who are on Facebook all have our reasons. It helps us keep in touch with friends in faraway places. It helps us keep tabs on those that are close to us. It keeps us from missing all the important social events and breaking news of the week. Do you know why I keep up on Facebook? Babies!

Whoa! Hold on, Mom! We are not going to have a baby anytime soon, but man, I love those Facebook babies! I guess it is my way of feeling like I am involved in the lives of all the children I could ever want without having to change a single diaper. I’m not baby crazy in the way that many folks my age want to have a baby because all of their friends are busy having babies. It’s just that from time to time (well really all the time) I need to smile and laugh out loud in a way that only those innocent souls under the age of five can make me do.

Post a status about your friend’s bachelor party and I kind of yawn, show me a cool video mash-up of your favorite song and I’m a bit intrigued. But show me a baby, and I’ll watch your latest video post of your baby dancing in the living room. Next thing I know, I’m poking my wife to wake her up in the middle of the night to make sure she saw this video of a baby splashing in the bathtub. Oh and I can’t LIKE enough of those posts about young children’s fantastic critiques of Mom’s driving habits from the car-seat.

When Facebook hit the big time, I was one of the first to jump on that “Facebook is a pathetic time-suck and complete waste of my precious time” bandwagon. I have to admit, though, I think my allegiance has shifted to the other camp. The other day, a friend of mine posted the latest (and most precious photo) of her three-month-old child sitting with her 98 year old great grandmother. I melted all over my keyboard gazing at this awesome expression of family and love.

My Facebook confessions photo 2 

But, my favorite baby to keep tabs on through Facebook is my one-year-old nephew in action! 

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Meet the Illini's Wes Braun

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06/17/2011

Meet the Illini's Wes Braun photo 

Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago there was one athlete everyone knew, his name was Ryan Hogan. Hogan played basketball at Deerfield and was a stud. I still recall stories of Rick Pitino arriving in a limo to Deerfield High School to get Hogan to commit. I played pickup against Hogan once, right around the time he left Iowa (transferred there after Kentucky). He was awesome, although I did take him off the dribble a few times. But since Hogan, athletes have been coming out of the area and making noise. Jon Scheyer and Jason Kipnis are perfect examples. Now meet Wes Braun. Wes, no relation to Ryan Braun, is the younger brother of my friend Jen. I saw on Facebook what Wes and the Fighting Illini baseball team had been doing and I knew I had to get an interview. Turns out Wes is a good guy, smart, a fraternity brother of mine, and becoming quite the pitcher. Below is Wes' story. It is safe to say The Great Rabbino will be following his progress. Maybe Israel's WBC team has found its closer.

1) Tell TGR a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Deerfield, Illinois. I was always pretty good at baseball and played it from the time I could physically hold a bat and throw a ball. In high school I played soccer for three years and baseball all four years. I was never the greatest athlete or most talented but always worked hard to earn playing time. I didn’t receive any division one college baseball offers so I went to University of Illinois for the education. I walked on to the varsity baseball team as a sophomore. I received my Bachelor’s degree in communication, which I had finished in three and a half years and am now pursuing my Masters in Business Administration degree. I am scheduled to receive my MBA in spring of 2012.

2) You went to Deerfield High School, like other great athletes including Colt Cabana and Jessica Gitles (my wife). How was your high school team and when did you know you had a chance at playing college?
My high school teams were up and down. We were always the underdogs even when we were a pretty good team; I guess that comes with being a small school. For example, my senior year we won our conference and still had to play in a play-in game to get into the state playoffs. We ended up winning the play-in game, but then lost to Stevenson in the first round of the playoffs. Personally, it was always an ambition of mine to play baseball in college, but it never looked like I was going to. Even though I was all-conference my senior year and went to the junior all-star game my junior year, I never seemed to be in demand for college programs. When I was going through the recruiting process, I did not get a lot of interest from large programs— specifically, no division one teams contacted me. I was in talks with a few division three teams, but I was trying to find a college that was a right fit for me academically as well as for baseball ,which was extremely difficult to find that balance. In the end, I chose to go to the University of Illinois for academic reasons instead of playing baseball at a division three school. When I got to U of I, I tried out for the club baseball team. I did not try out for the actual varsity-team my freshman year because I did not think I would make it. I was actually originally cut from the club team, but then after asking for an extended tryout I got another shot and was selected to play on the team. I did not get a lot of playing time on the club team, but I learned a lot and it was an incredible experience for me. After a year on the club team, I decided to try out for the real varsity team my sophomore year and out of the 50-plus people that tried out I was the only one to be selected. From there I was lucky enough to play for four years on the team.

3) Illinois has been known for its basketball and every five years its football---what is it like being a part of putting baseball on the map at U of I?
To say that baseball is not well known or supported on campus is an understatement. Whenever I would invite people to my games the first question was always, “where is the baseball field?” Our contribution this year has seemingly already put baseball on the map because I have seen more t-shirts and collectibles that say Illinois Baseball on them than ever before. It is pretty exciting to be a part of a team that went further than any other Illinois baseball team in the previous decade and I hope that this season just serves as a stepping stone for the improvement of our program.

4) How did the team do this season? What was your role?
After an incredibly slow start, we ended the season on quite a run, winning the Big 10 conference and then the Big 10 tournament. We advanced to the NCAA regional tournament for the first time in 10 years and made it to the regional championship by beating Cal-State Fullerton who was ranked top ten in the country and number one in our region before being defeated by Stanford. My role on the team was as the team’s closer for which I very much excelled. I was named third team all-big 10 as a relief pitcher as I only gave up one earned run in conference. That was the only run I gave up throughout my first 18 appearances.

5) What are you plans this summer?
This summer I am still looking to play baseball. It seems as if I have generated some interest in Major League teams and I am hoping to sign a professional contract soon.

6) Are you a part of any other clubs on campus?
Besides playing for the club baseball team my freshman year, I was also a member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity.

7) What are your future plans? Is baseball a part of them?
It is difficult to fully foresee what exactly my future plans are; however, I would like to continue to play baseball as long as I possibly can. With that being said, I only have one more year to complete my MBA program and after I have received that and no longer can play baseball, I would still enjoy being able to be a part of baseball in some capacity for my career.

8) If you could start a team with Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, or Kevin Youkilis who would it be?
It would definitely have to be Ryan Braun. Besides having a great name, he has proven to become one of the top players in the entire league right now in all facets of the game.

9) Favorite Chicago pizza place?
Although I am biased to Papa Del’s here in Champaign, I would have to go with Jake’s pizza in Northbrook because their BBQ based pizza is unbelievable. Although Bella’s stuffed crust pizza in downtown is a close second.

Thanks Wes and Good Luck.
And Let Us Say...Amen.

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Ten more ways to help your future family

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06/16/2011

Ten more ways to help your future family photo 

Board meetings may not be the stuff of epic sagas, but I’ve got an important and exciting announcement for you Oy!sters about something that happened last night. The Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders has just been authorized to expand its testing panel from nine disorders to 19. That sounds nice, you say. But why? What does that mean for me?  

It’s really good news. Every ethnic group in the world has some genetic mutations that increase risk for certain disorders or diseases (sickle cell disease in individuals of African descent is one; thalassemia in people of Mediterranean descent is another). Jews have a well-documented list of “our own” disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease or familial dysautonomia (FD), which can be passed on to children with heartbreaking results. They’re not unique to Jews, but thanks to a quirk of genetics, they occur more frequently in people with Jewish backgrounds. With the pace of science and technology accelerating at exponential speed, new tests to identify these disease-causing mutations come out nearly as quickly as scientists uncover new disorders.

When the Center began offering subsidized testing in the Chicago area in 2002, we could test Ashkenazi couples and individuals for Tay-Sachs disease, Canavan disease, FD and Gaucher disease. We knew there were more disorders for which we had no tests available, but by 2006, we were able to offer screening for nine disorders. Now we’ve seen another leap forward in carrier screening technology. The ten new disorders for which we can offer testing appear in our population with similar frequencies to the disorders we already cover. Thanks to the advancements in the testing process, we should be able to easily add new disorders as tests become available. We’re also very excited about the possibility of including some tests for Sephardic disorders, which are a whole different kettle of fish from Ashkenazi disorders. While Ashkenazi disorders tend to be more uniform in the population as a whole, Sephardic disorders vary by specific country of origin. If you’re of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazi ancestry, or if you’re not sure, our genetic counselor can help you decide on an appropriate panel.

This new technology won’t change some things. Mutation carriers are healthy individuals unaffected by the disorder itself, which means anyone of Ashkenazi Jewish descent will still need to get tested. Testing and knowing about testing can be a scary and nerve-wracking process, but it remains our best option for planning our reproductive futures. Genetic counselors are trained to help couples ready to have children figure out the best way to do that. Thankfully, that won’t be changing either.

If you want to learn more about Jewish genetic disorders, hereditary cancers, and screening and counseling options, including our subsidized education and screening programs, visit jewishgenetics.org and, if you haven’t already, sign up for our bimonthly newsletter. If you have any questions about the Center’s new expanded screening panel, including which disorders will be included, check back over the coming days and weeks for more information, or give us a call at (312) 357-4718.

So yeah: more than doubling our ability to help Jewish families have healthy children. Pretty exciting board meeting, right?

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The crazy test

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06/15/2011

The crazy test photo 

Last night, I witnessed one challenge that I will never choose to take part in. Ever. They called it the 999. Nine innings, nine hot dogs and nine drinks.

Now I love a good Hebrew National hot dog with a cold beer at a baseball game. But this, as Emeril would say, kicked it up a notch (or nine). To sum it up in one word: yucky.

Let’s rewind for a moment to give a little context. My darling husband is wrapping up his last week as a full-time graduate student. Final exams are finished, all-A’s have been earned, and with graduation now only a couple days away, everyone wants to spend as much time together as possible since they’ll be heading their separate ways in a few short weeks to resume their lives in the real world.

For most people, this means going out for coffee, going to dinner or even getting a few cocktails. When I heard that the entire graduating class of 2011 was taking a trip to the Cubs game during grad week, I was excited—it would be my first game of the season.

But in Business College, they are known for upping the ante. So when I heard about this challenge, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fourteen boys (men? boys? last night it was hard to tell…) gathered in the living room of our apartment instead of at Wrigley Field and took one last test before graduation. The crazy test.

Because this is a widely-read and classy blog, I will spare you the gruesome details (let’s just say that I am the best wife ever for simply tolerating this event in our brand new apartment), but I’ll give you the rules of the game, for anyone crazy enough to tackle this challenge, be it with beers or sodas (icky either way).

Each challenger must complete nine innings, with each inning composed of one hot dog and one carbonated drink. If you have nine drinks and two hot dogs, it only counts as two innings. This must be completed by end of the ninth inning of the game—extra baseball innings do not extend the time limit. First to the finish line wins (although really, does anyone actually win in a game like this?) Finally, no Tums and no getting sick for at least one hour after you finish.

Suffice it to say that our new Lakeview apartment survived (mostly) unscathed, but I’m not certain that we made many new friends in our building. The sheer volume of testosterone was astonishing, the strategies entertaining and the stories from the night ridiculous.

What baffled me most was that when other friends heard about the 999 challenge, they were actually jealous that they weren’t invited to participate (read: male friends only—no girl I know would willingly submit themselves to such disgustingness). And as word spread, many vowed to host a similar party later in the summer.

Are you game? I know I’m not.

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Spreading the word; when should pregnancy education begin?

 Permanent link
06/14/2011

The more I learn about pregnancy and labor, the more I am amazed at the process of the human body and the incredible strength of the woman who puts it all together and pulls it through.

How did I not hear of any of this before?! I wonder. And I tell the information I am learning to young, twenty something women in my community in Israel, and they breathe deeply in astonishment. Really? That is what our bodies can do? That is what happens? The baby is doing somersaults in your stomach? Can listen to us? Sucking its thumb? What?! And I wonder why this is the first time they are hearing this too, I wonder who is keeping all of this information from us, or why we are keeping it from ourselves.

I think we’re all ignoring the obvious facts; we’re watching that pregnant woman walking down the street and all we’re seeing is a shuffling, cute little lady with a big belly, breathing deeply, possibly glowing, if you catch her at the right time. But that is not it, not it at all.

The problem is that we are only seeing a pregnant woman. We are not seeing what is going on within the shifting blood cells and elongating intestines, the dynamic process that goes from a small egg composed of a combination of forty six chromosomes to an organism that hosts a beating heart. Where did that liver come from? And yet, there it is.

Spiritually speaking, Jewish thought says that an angel is inside of the womb, teaching the child Torah, which the child “forgets” once it exists outside of the womb, only to be rediscovered in the process that is the education of life. Beneath that “bump” is a real live creature, chilling and furiously expanding in nerve cells and cosmic leaps of intelligence. What is going on there? We don’t fully question it, because all we see is a belly.

Until you stop your friend in the street and you ask her what week she is in, and she responds 31 weeks, and she tells you before you even asked that at 31 weeks you can figure out exactly what position the baby is just by feeling around. Here, she takes your hand, see here is the back, and here is that elbow! And here… and you don’t want to be rude and take your hand away so you oblige politely, shocked, chagrined, amazed, and revolted, glancing around furtively out of the corner of your eye, uncomfortable with the squeamishly private information being disclosed.

Pregnancy is not consciously secretive or feared in our culture, but it sure seems like it is, with the amount of hush hush that surrounds it.

Because who knows anything about birth, who wants to know anything about birth, until you have to?

Yet, if you look at two highly grossing films in the last few years, two birth related flicks “Juno” and “Knocked Up” did astoundingly well, despite their very peculiar premises. It is as if the movie industry stumbled across a well- kept secret, that not even our conscious minds are aware of- that we are desperate to tap into this unbelievable phenomenon that is existence. You know it, I know it, we all went through that birth canal, we all want to see it to believe it, we all want to talk about it and yet…

If you really learn about birth, and you watch those hair raising live videos as the babies slide timidly or proudly into existence and watch the cells divide and conquer and grow and become a dynamic, brilliant, creature that is ever-changing. At those moments, it is much more difficult to be uncertain about the existence of a higher power.

Why is pregnancy education lacking until a woman enters the prenatal world? Would it not blow our minds constantly, make us appreciate human existence, focus our centers even more?

There’s something that that pregnant woman is carrying, and you better believe it is more than skin deep. You better applaud her in the streets next time you see her, at this incredible magic act she is performing that we are all witness to if we dare to think about what we are really looking at, below the surface.

Women are impressive creatures indeed.

Perhaps after the feminist movement proved what women can do (which is basically everything that a man can do), they also must go back to reemphasize what most women do do, which is that incredible, muscle churning, meditation breathing, laborious, incredible job we call “motherhood”.

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The Best Friend Bill of Rights

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06/13/2011

For months now, I’ve been anxiously awaiting Mindy Kaling's upcoming book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). Then, a couple of weeks ago, as if someone up there was looking out for me, a hearty excerpt of the book was posted online.

Also, because perhaps I needed further proof that Mindy Kaling and I should be besties (she and I have both cried to Paul Simon's Graceland!), there is a chapter entitled "The Best Friend Rights and Responsibilities." Basically it's a list of everything that is expected of a BFF, and everything best friends deserve. Said rights include: "I Can Borrow All Your Clothes," "We Sleep in the Same Bed" and "I Can Ditch You, Within Reason."

My personal favorite, though, is "I Will Hate and Re-Like People For You." Kaling writes: "But don’t get mad if I can’t keep track. Robby? Don’t we hate him? No, we love him. Okay, okay. Sorry."

This is real. Yes, of course, we all form our own opinions about the people in our lives. But if my best friend tells me that we love her coworker, and then one day tells me we hate her because she stole a promotion, and then we love her again because she was responsible for a raise? Sounds good to me. I can praise her or talk smack, just tell me how we feel today.

You can read the full excerpt here. The BFF section starts on page 15.

I've been thinking about it, and here are a few other best friend rights and responsibilities I would add to the list. You know, in case Mindy is asking:

• When you are wasted, I will make sure you get home safely.

• I will be at your wedding. I will do all the bridal activities I possibly can, and I will be excited about it. And if I'm not, you will never know.

• I'll try to help you see when you are being unreasonable, but I won't call you unreasonable.

• We might hold hands sometimes or walk arm in arm, but I am not so into that thing where BFFs kiss on the lips. Just seems unnecessary.

• I will dig into a pint of Ben & Jerry's/french fries/bottle of wine with you whenever you need to vent/wallow/celebrate/gossip.

What else? Take a look at Mindy Kaling's list, then let me know. What do you think are the most important best friend rights and responsibilities? 

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Take nothing for granted

 Permanent link
06/10/2011

When my husband called, I knew immediately from the tone of his voice that something was very wrong, and it would be very bad. And it was.

Our friend David—a man who can only be described as one of the 36 righteous people in the world—had suddenly collapsed that morning at work, and died. Gone. Gone the day after his son’s high school graduation. Gone the day before his son’s confirmation, and his daughter’s grade school graduation. Gone three days before he was to be installed as our Temple’s President.

Gone at just 50 years old, with so much to live for.

“Just 50.” If you had said that to me just 10 years ago, it would not have sounded so young. Perhaps if I were 27, and not 37, David’s death would not have rocked me to the core of just how fragile and fleeting life is. How young 50 is.

David was not in poor health. He was not overweight. He was not a smoker, drinker, drug or risk taker. Sure, he knew he could be healthier, maybe work out more. But where would he find the time?

In other words, he was just like me. Just like my husband. Like most of us, who never think such a tragedy would happen to them.

“You always think this stuff happens to other people, not to you. Take nothing for granted.”

Those were the word uttered by David’s 18-year old son during his eulogy.

“Live a healthy lifestyle, learn CPR, and be an organ donor,” was David’s wife’s message of love, care and concern to the more than 1,000 friends and family who came to say their goodbyes to David—a testament to his great kindness and generosity of soul.

Death is not fair or just. Some people will live to be 100, no matter what they do to their bodies. Genetics are a card you are dealt in life, and you have to play with it the best you can to stay in the game. Most of us have will need to fight to stay at the table.

There are no words to explain why. Why David? Why now? Why is life snatched away from good and pure souls, and given to those black of heart? Why this of all weeks when there was such happiness to look forward to?

There are no answers. There is only anger, shock, sorrow and fear. Anger at a world that is so out of order—at a God that feels so unjust. Shock that there will forever be an empty chair at every event, every meeting, every service, where David used to sit—and an empty place in our hearts. Sorrow for his family, friends, and all who knew him who will forever mourn their loss, that the world lost one of its brightest, kindest stars.

And fear. Fear that it could just as easily be my husband, my daughter, or me in that casket. At anytime, from anything: a heart attack, a car accident, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Take nothing for granted.”

The morning that David died—before I had even gotten the call—a friend told me the story of how, at the age of 28, she discovered she had an 8-pound tumor in her body. Doctors gave her a 20 percent chance of making it through the surgery alive. When she was released from the hospital, she quit the job she hated.

“Take nothing for granted.”

Soon after September 11, and the death of his friend Marnie Rose—who died at the age of 28 from brain cancer—my husband decided to leave behind a successful career in politics and go to Rabbinical school. He’s never looked back.

Life is just too damn short to be in a job you hate, no matter how much it pays. It’s too damn short to spend it with people who don’t treat you well. It’s too damn short to spend it the way someone else thinks you should live it—and not how you really want to.

“Take nothing for granted.”

Don’t take your life for granted, or the people in it.

Take care of your health. Learn CPR. And be an organ donor so others may have a chance to live.

May David’s memory be for a blessing.

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Kill it in the butt!

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Join Me in My Fight Against Lymphoma 
06/07/2011

Kill it in the butt! photo 

In the last 29 years, there have been a handful of occasions where I have felt fully present, fully alive, fully in the moment.

Yesterday was one of those occasions.

It is impossible to describe the magic that occurred June 5 at the 18th annual Lurie Cancer Survivor's Walk. Instead I will try to show you.

To introduce all of you Oy!sters to my story, here is my speech from that day:

Magic  

It feels so good to be here.

I am going to do my best to hold it together, but I make no guarantees, since I am fresh off of chemo, I am hypersensitive, I am emotional, and this is the most magical day of my life.

It is nothing short of miraculous that I have the opportunity to stand before you to share my story, to open my heart, and to let you into my world. Northwestern—thank you for the opportunity, I am forever grateful.

First, let’s a take a look around. Have you ever seen a more beautiful crowd?

To my cancer crushing warriors, adorned in purple, we know what it’s like to go to war, to fight with every last strength, and to face our greatest fears. I am honored to stand with you, and I am overwhelmed by your strength and your courage. My heart goes out to you.

To our family, friends, and loved ones, who have lifted us up, held our hands, wiped away our tears, and have served as our cheerleaders throughout our fight—we couldn’t be here without you.

And to the Lurie Cancer Center’s remarkable staff, you are angels who work tirelessly to help us survive, to make us comfortable during our darkest moments, and to give us hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

My Name is Jenna Benn, I am 29 years old and I am a proud survivor of Grey Zone Lymphoma.

Grey Zone Lymphoma, is a rare blood disorder that affects less than 500 people in the United States. This Cancer has features of both Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

In December 2010, after months of fatigue, weight loss, flu like symptoms and night sweats, I knew in my gut that there was something very wrong. I went to the gym, thought I had lifted a weight improperly, and quickly went to my orthopedist to be checked out….A couple hours later over dinner at my favorite childhood restaurant, I was told that I had cancer. They had found a large mass in my chest.

For those of us that have heard the three words, “You Have Cancer,” we know what it’s like for time to stand still, and for our lives to be profoundly changed in just one moment.

That night, I decided that I was going to fight this disease with the tenacity in which I wanted to live.

I was determined to kill cancer in the butt. There was no other option. Later that evening I started a blog called Kill it in the Butt, which became a space where I could process my thoughts and feelings, communicate with family and friends, and connect with all types of survivors—not just cancer survivors.

While waiting for results from a biopsy, I was desperately looking to regain some type of control. During my wait, I scheduled an appointment with Northwestern’s Oncofertility Consortium to explore my fertility options. While I knew that cancer was going to rob me of many things, I was unwilling to accept that it could also rob me of having children. I want to be a mother. I want to have children. By exploring fertility treatments, I was able to think about life after cancer, which not only gave me hope but it helped fuel my fight.

On January 21, I began an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s regimen called R- Epoch, requiring a five-day in-patient stay every 21 days, for six rounds.

On May 10, after multiple surgeries, scans, four blood transfusions, and over 720 hours of chemotherapy, I completed my sixth and final round.

Ten days later, as my immune system began to rebound, I was eager to reenter the world and return to work for good. On May 20, six months to the date from my initial diagnosis, I came down with mind numbing pain that started in my abdomen and radiated down to my toes. I was told that I had contracted Gram Negative Rods, a potentially fatal bacterial infection, where minutes mattered. I urgently returned to Northwestern Hospital, the institution that I trust with my life.

There I was again, at what I refer to affectionately as “Hotel Prentice,” on the 16th floor—on the floor I swore I would never return to. Thankfully, I was once again surrounded by my medical team. These miracle workers were again at my bedside, this time working on overdrive.

Fighting against the clock and fighting for my life, I remained at Prentice for another five days. I left on May 23, for what I sincerely hope will be the last time.

It has been an emotional journey.

While I willingly accepted the fact that cancer would cause unavoidable physical changes, I was unwilling to allow the disease to rob me of my voice. For the past six months, when I could not talk, I was communicating. There were moments when I was quiet, but I was really screaming.

As I desperately tried to find my voice and struggled to be heard, I realized that I needed to embrace cancer in order to beat her.

I learned that is impossible to beat cancer without holding on to hope.
I learned that in order to overcome this disease I had to use all of my past experiences, all of my triumphs and disappointments, as ammunition in my fight.
I learned what it feels like to be so close to the finish line but unable to actually cross it.
I learned what it feels like to repeatedly fall down, and still continue to get back up.
I learned that I love and appreciate my family and friends in a way that I didn't think was possible.
I learned that there is a fine line between vulnerability and strength.
I learned that my desire to live is stronger than my pain.
I learned that my mind is stronger than my body.
I learned that just because I faced death once, doesn't make facing it for the second time any easier.

Throughout this journey I had to figure out creative ways to hold on to my spirit. I held on to my spirit through writing, through singing at the top of my lungs, and through dancing every day alone in my room. In my blog, I opened up and wrote about my deepest fears, hopes and dreams; yet still found myself disconnected from the world around me. I felt that while I was on pause, everyone else was on play.

So I decided to change the rules. I chose to twist my way through cancer. During the days when I was immuno-suppressed and I couldn't be out in public, I admittedly was feeling incredibly lonely. I decided to post a video of myself doing the twist alone in my room, and challenged my readers to meet me halfway. I asked them to send videos of themselves so they could join me on the dance floor. Sure enough, they videotaped themselves, welcomed me into their homes and offices, and joined me.

As we twisted, I was able to tiptoe out of the shadows, reconnect with my body, and eventually reclaim my spirit.

Today, I hope you will join me in twisting out cancer. I hope you won’t leave me hanging all alone on the dance floor.

I hope you will twist with me, because together, we have the power, to inspire, to provide hope, and to one day find a cure.

Thank you.

To read more about Jenna and twisting out cancer, check out her blog http://killitinthebutt.blogspot.com/ 

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Chef Laura is the Kosher wedding whisperer

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The ins and outs of planning the menu for your perfect event 
06/06/2011

It is full blown wedding season and nervous brides and grooms all over the world are tying the knot. Many more are planning nuptials and are making themselves, their families and friends absolutely crazy.

The details for planning the perfect event are mindboggling and the options these days are abundant. Planning your fantasy event needs some TLC and since you only get to do this dream day once, you really want to do it right.

I have the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of sitting down with families and listening to their ideas and visions. Sometimes parents and engaged couples agree, but more often than not, they are in polar opposition of each other.

I have had parents request a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish menu and have the kids begging for modern, more global food selections. I had a European Ashkenazi bride marrying an American Southern Sephardi groom, the parents not speaking to each other during the menu planning because one wanted schnitzels while the other wanted bold flavored Sephardi cuisine. We compromised and had stations brimming with both styles of food instead of a seated dinner.

I have many brides who aren’t interested in the traditional wedding cake, only to have their mothers secretly emailing me for cake flavors and design options. Last summer, I had a father waving frantically at me from across the room wondering why there wasn’t any lettuce on his salad course, which was not a salad at all, but a gazpacho trio!

Basic Boot Camp for planning the perfect wedding menu:

1. Have a conversation, or two, with all the parents before meeting with the caterer or any of the vendors. Even if the engaged couple are paying for the event, it is nice for everyone to be “heard” and for some compromises to be made.

2. Attention all brides and grooms! You two need to be in agreement before you start the planning process. I had a tasting with a couple who fought the entire time about the menu. It was like two different wedding concepts were being tossed around. I ended up giving them a time out before we finished the tasting. I was afraid we were never going to get to the wedding.

3. Often, in order for everyone to be happy, you need to alter the style of the event. Instead of a sit down dinner, you do stations. You can switch from a traditional wedding cake to a dessert buffet. You can add a small symbolic cake instead of a full blown cake. There are so many ways to do a wedding; there is room for everyone to feel comfortable and happy.

4. That being said, it is the couple’s wedding and they get the final decision. Sometimes, not everyone can be happy!

5. Have fun with it. Personalize the event with your own touches. You do not have to do the same wedding as all your friends. Create your own theme and do something that is as unique as your relationship. Chef’s note: I like it when the couple asks me to write a menu for them based on their vision. Trust me, chefs like to create menus and will add some TLC to their own creations.

6. Enjoy the process. There are many details and minutia, but the end result will be spectacular.

A perfect marriage of flavors
Chick Pea Tagine with Crispy Chicken Schnitzel

Crispy chicken schnitzel marries seamlessly with fragrant chick pea tagine. A casual summertime supper that weds 2 delicious cuisines. Serve the duo with a crispy salad and bread.

Serves 4

For the tagine

1 small red onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 medium fennel bulb, julienne
2 cups cooked chick peas
¼ cup chopped pitted dates
¼ cup chopped dried apricots
¼ cup sliced dried figs
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch of crushed red chilies
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chicken stock or water
Kosher salt and pepper
Garnishes: cilantro leaves, mint leaves, preserved lemons, crushed cumin seeds

Preheat oven to 325

1. Sauté the onion, carrots and fennel, in batches in a large sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium high heat until the vegetables are browned (about 5-7 minutes). Transfer the vegetables to a Dutch oven.

2. Add the remaining ingredients to the Dutch oven and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 1 hour until the liquid is mostly absorbed the vegetables are soft.

For the schnitzel

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to ¼ inch thickness
About ½ cup
1 cup flour, placed in a shallow pan
2 cups panko bread crumbs, placed in a shallow pan
2 egg whites, whisked with 2 tablespoons water, placed in a shallow pan
Zest of 2 lemons
¼ cup chopped parsley
Kosher and freshly cracked pepper

1. Heat a large sauté pan with ½ inch of oil over medium high heat. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper.

2. Dredge the chicken breasts in the flour, then the whisked egg whites and finally into the panko bread crumbs.

3. Gently put the chicken breasts in the oil and cook on one side until they are golden brown and crispy (about 3-5 minutes per side). Turn the breasts and cook the other side until brown.

4. Transfer the browned chicken breasts to a parchment lined pan. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and lemon zest.

5. About 7 minutes before serving, cook the chicken breasts in the preheated oven until cooked through.

6. Serve the schnitzels on a platter with the Chick Pea tagine and garnish with lemon slices. 

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Excavation

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06/03/2011

In the next month or so, I will have a “roommate.” And although I have had roommates before, I haven’t had one in seven years and never one of this sort.

To prepare, I have been going through old things and throwing out what I need and don’t need to make room for said roommate and his belongings. However, he won’t have many belongings, so this task isn’t actually physically necessary, but more spiritually so.

Cleaning for me is like losing weight. If I plan to do it, I never will. So I take advantage of spurts of energy and motivation (which is usually just procrastination of something else I don’t want to be doing) and go through the large plastic cartons I must have bought from Target years ago.

I hate moving, and for someone my age who is not married, I haven’t moved all that much. But when I moved seven years ago I felt like a fugitive. Very quickly, I had to leave a place where I was living with roommates (one of which was my brother who was getting married and moving into a house with his wife) to find somewhere to live and settle in. The funny thing about this is that for at least six months prior, I knew I’d be moving, but I thought I’d be moving to Israel with my then fiancé.

So when I moved out of my brother’s condo in June of 2004 I didn’t clean out much of anything, just placed unnecessary remnants in plastic containers, and I have maintained this pattern since. I’m not a hoarder or anything, but as I sort through the big plastic boxes of documents, bills and sometimes random items, I’m forced to confront my past.

Since I started cleaning (which was embarrassingly enough last August—I know, I know, like I said, it’s not my strength) the boxes are (not surprisingly) stacked in order of years like an archaeological dig. This is accidental, because if I had an organizational prowess, I wouldn’t have the stacks in the first place. So today I cleaned 2007. What I found (of interest):

1. My parents’ trusts
2. All of the manuals to my kitchen appliances and car
3. A pearl necklace. The box makes it look like it’s valuable. Who gave me a pearl necklace in 2007?
4. A wrist radio that I worked out with (I know that sounds like 1997, but it was in there).
5. The medal from riding the M.S. 150.

Recently, my roommate-to-be explained to me the process of construction in Israel. (I knew this already, but because he is a tour educator he sometimes adds interesting facts, which he did.) Because there are so many artifacts, all construction is stopped and delayed if any antiquities are found during the process of digging. Once the site has been properly excavated and recorded, construction can continue. This makes the process of building anything in Israel long and arduous.

So, it makes me laugh to hear people complain about the amount of time it took to open a Trader Joe’s on Clark and Diversey, just as it makes others laugh that it’s taken me seven months to go through four years of boxes.

What can I say? I guess I’m on Ramses II's time table.

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A new chapter

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06/02/2011

I am filled with glee in anticipation of Chicago’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest June 4 and 5. I can’t wait to smell the books, sift through rows of old postcards and albums and surround myself with a bunch of lit geeks, just like me.

Admittedly, I’m a bit like that blonde in the Amazon Kindle commercial—I am stubborn about retaining my right to fold down the pages—and I don’t care if “there’s an app for that” or will be soon. I’m not yet ready to cave and buy an e-book-reader.

I worked for a large-scale newspaper and experienced, first-hand, the growing pains newspapers are grappling with as they adapt to new technology. I now work for an online publishing company editing food sites, and we don’t even bother with a print edition.

In fact, I attended BlogHer Food 2011, a food bloggers’ conference (nerdy, yet delightful) in Atlanta, GA last week, and food writing giants such as Molly O’Neill talked about the future of magazines and cookbooks: The future is in e-zines and e-cookbooks, and this history is being written right now. I could bore and/or inspire you with why the Internet has democratized how we consume information and all you need to do is start a blog; or I could lend you my sob story that every journalist is telling about how we’re befuddled and upside down about the whole thing. But, I won’t. If you’re already reading Oy!, you understand at least some of the bigger picture that is modern media.

On one hand, I embrace all of this change. Want a news story on five platforms? Sure! The nerd in me actually gets excited when I overcome new challenges in HTML coding. My manager smiles and nods when I do a little happy dance in my desk chair.

However, I still love my books—actual printed books, with pages—and my cookbooks, for that matter. No Kindle, iPad or cell phone is going to fully replace the relationship I have with the actual printed word. And while the book’s demise is imminent, I’m still holding on.

The sensory experience of handling an actual book is very dear to me. I love the moldy smell of old books. I could pick out the smell of a synagogue prayer book amidst a sea of smells in a second. As a Bat Mitzvah, I cherished watching the ritual unraveling of the Torah; handling the wand on the delicate parchment and reveling in the Torah’s artistry. Are we going to eventually use e-readers instead of prayer books in synagogue? I certainly hope not.

I have affectionate childhood memories of going with my mom every summer to sift through damp, musty books at the Brandeis book sale at Old Orchard mall (now called Westfield) in Skokie. I’d find odd poetry collections or random books from the 1960s and 1970s with overly dramatic titles. Just last year, my friend returned from the sale with a 1970s’ era edition of Joy of Sex and I was so thrilled for her—disturbing as that edition now is to a modern reader.

I grew up in a household filled with tenderly-worn, hand-me-down books I’d receive from my two older sisters. I also loved going to my elementary school book sales and picking up books with crisp pages and vibrant pictures for my mother to read to me before bed.

To this day, I am protective of the sense of ownership I feel in handling a book’s pages, folding them down to hold my place, feeling through pages read and eagerly anticipating a book’s ending with the weight of 300 pages in one hand and two pages in the other.

I have an emotional connection to the library I’ve collected. I feel that it tells its own story about me. I held on to many books from college courses that I felt shaped my thinking today. I want to display those books proudly on a shelf for others to see. I also collect cookbooks, and love the story they tell with my scribbled notes, cooking stains and photographs. An iPad or Kindle just won’t do.

Just as my bookshelf is a record of my history, so too is the actual printed word a record of our collective history. Call me old fashioned, but computers, hard drives and servers fail. What if backing up ultimately fails us? And, don’t even get me started on photographs…

I understand the benefits of the e-reader devices for their light-weight handling and portability. I don’t deny the value of wasting less paper and placing fewer burdens on the environment with production and printing presses. I also know that we live in a world in which everything must be accessible all the time and the book is no different.

But, what kind of readers are we becoming with this technology? Will we skim everything like we skim articles on the computer? Is there no time to pause and soak anything in, just for an hour? Will we all be far-sighted from these screens by the age of 30? Perhaps.

Meanwhile, I’m going to soak in that musty smell this weekend, and fold over those pages until I can’t anymore. 

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Single in Chicago

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06/01/2011

Michelle Well photo 

My single friends and I often complain about the limited selection of single men in Chicago. In reality, there are plenty of them, but it can take what seems like forever, and several heartaches and breaks, to meet the right ones. The trouble isn’t meeting men, we meet them all over—at the gym, at the bars, through friends—but after the first couple of dates or even several months of dating, the relationships usually end due to lack of chemistry, commitment phobia, or lack of communication. I can continue rattling off the list of reasons for break-ups and sometimes, there doesn’t always have to be a clear reason, that’s just how dating goes. But, I have started to wonder, how and when should we expand our dating pool?

We spend quite a bit of time complaining about the selection of singles in the city, but perhaps it’s our long list of dating requirements that is significantly narrowing the dating pool.

I am certainly guilty of being selective, but recently, I have started to further consider the criteria for my own selectivity. Frequently, people choose to search for the perfect match within their same religion, culture, or past marital status (divorced? children?) due to familiarity, comfort, and acceptance within their family. This makes a lot of sense and perhaps seems to promise a smoother, more seamless marriage. However, I have seen first-hand that there are still plenty of homogeneous couples who, regardless of these similarities, struggle. In fact, just like any other pairing, only a portion of these marriages last. It’s well known that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, so even if we wind up in a homogenous marriage, our odds will always be 50-50. Marriage is hard work. Which makes me wonder: Do we sometimes set such firm boundaries for ourselves that we inadvertently de-emphasize other important traits that Mr./Mrs. Right should possess and share with us to ensure lifetime happiness? Furthermore, should we be willing to widen our pool and date beyond initial religious and cultural boundaries to expand our options in finding the perfect emotional and intellectual equal?

Of course, it’s possible to find someone who matches up religiously and culturally, and fulfills all of our other relationship needs, such as shared morals, hobbies, ambitions, sense of humor, intelligence, respect, and sense of accountability, too. But considering that marriage is a challenge no matter what, as we date and search for our life partner, if we are lucky enough to have the rare experience of meeting someone who loves and accepts us for who we are, does it really matter if they meet that long list of requirements? Maybe it’s time we all take a leap of faith. 

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