OyChicago blog

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad

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06/30/2015

Last summer I decided to make a few changes in my life. I decided to eat super clean. And I realized that I am sick of being hungry. Anyone else?

I was constantly feeling guilty about eating too much, or too wrong or too many carbs or too much fat. It's enough!

I decided to make a permanent change. No more quick fixes. No more fad diets. No more pills! But most importantly, no more starvation.

The irony is that, I coach people on how to lose weight. And I am told I do a great job at it. And people get results! But somehow, for myself I feel I need to starve in order to look thin.

One day, while sitting through another mind-numbing meeting, I started scrolling through my Instagram account. And pictures of food after food after food started popping up in my scroll. And then I saw this.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 1

It was one of those moments where I felt myself awaken. This quote was so very simple. My greatest fears had been summed up into just a few words.

And as I pondered over my fear of failure, I found myself clicking on this person's profile and I was instantly enthralled.

Here was a woman who had transformed her body. In her before pictures she looked seemingly ordinary, but her story painted a different picture. She was so much like me. A girl who looked healthy and young on the outside but on the inside she was constantly worrying about every calorie, every morsel, every sit-up. Consumed with worry and fueled by her obsession to be skinny she turned to every fad including starvation and over-exercising.

Until one day she just got tired and stopped. She found a coach and he helped her change her life. Her after photo was beautiful. She was lean, strong and most importantly she looked to be genuinely happy.

I wanted to be genuinely happy too.

And so I spent the rest of the day emailing this girl back and forth. We understood each other. She told me her coach's name. Three hours later, I signed up with him and embarked on a journey that I hope can change my life for the better.

Being the loving and supportive husband that my hubs is, he bought me really cute workout pants and then said, "Now go and get fit!"

And I started running. Every day after work. I. Am. Not. A. Runner. I literally cheated every mile I ever had to run in high school. I hated it. But I followed my quote. I had nothing to lose, except fat.

So I turned on my Pandora, bought a Polar monitor, got a training app for running and I ran.

I walked a lot. I wheezed. I talked myself into it every minute. And I made myself a believer. Three weeks later I can run a lot longer than before. And I feel empowered. I feel strong. I lift weights too, heavier than ever. It felt fantastic.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 2

After years of working out, dieting, calorie counting and eventually going back to my normal ways, I feel uplifted and positive. I feel like I can and will succeed. And this is not a race. It's a marathon. And there will be set backs and road blocks. But we are human. We overcome, we power through and we achieve.

Feel ready to battle the world?! How about at least dinner?

As a chef, it's tough not to put butter in everything, but this is just the uphill portion of my marathon. Once I am running full speed ahead I can start getting back to my beloved butter. For now, we are just going to set it to the side.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad photo 3

Doesn't this just look gorgeous? Like confetti in a bowl! Vibrant, fresh and clean flavors make this salad one of my go-tos for a healthy side dish.You have healthy fats in your avocado, nice sweet carby corn and loads of cilantro and lime. It comes together in minutes and is a real crowd pleaser.

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad
From girlandthekitchen.com

Ingredients

2 corn on the cobb
1 large ripe avocado, diced
½ a red onion, diced
3 tbsp of cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced
salt and pepper

Instructions

1. First you need some roasted corn. I always soak mine in water right in the husk for about 30 minutes. Then I throw it onto a grill preheated to medium high and cook for about 20 minutes. Making sure to rotate every 5 minutes. Let it cool.

2. While the corn is cooling, dice up your avocado. While you are at it, dice your onion as well.

3. Chop up some cilantro as well. Roughly. There is no need for precision with that.

4. When the corn is cool, remove the husk and stand it upright and start slicing the corn off the husk with a nice sharp knife.

5. Place the kernels into a bowl with the avocado, cilantro and onions. Toss everything together with a spoon and season with salt, black pepper and juice of half a lemon.

Notes

You can also use frozen corn for this recipe. Just toast them up in a frying pan for a few minutes to get them charred a bit. Or throw them onto a sheet pan into a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes until golden brown.

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Grandma’s Three Lessons

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06/25/2015

Grandma's Three Lessons photo 1

Father's Day marked one month since my grandma's funeral. Her passing was the first loss of a close relative that I have experienced.  

Rabbi Steven Mason, the outgoing senior rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, explained to my family while we were preparing for my grandma's funeral that a person's emotions during a time of grieving can be like a roller coaster -- one moment you're crying and the next you're laughing at a memory of your loved one.  

He was right. I went through bouts of tears knowing that the Sunday morning brunches I frequently spent at Country Kitchen in Highland Park with my grandma, her caretaker, Elizabeth, and my father were now only memories. Then I would laugh at a memory of Elizabeth not being able to remember something, to which my grandma's response was, "join the club."  

My grandma was an incredible woman. Through her actions, she taught me how to be the best possible version of myself. So I want to share three lessons I learned from her.

Grandma's Three Lessons photo 2

Lesson One: Family is everything   

My grandma's world revolved around her family. She loved nothing more than to spend time with us. Through her genuine love, she's influenced me to spend more time with my family and be grateful for every moment I spend with them.  

Lesson Two: Embrace your femininity and never stop learning   

Even during her later years, my grandma never ceased to astound me with her impeccable sense of style, witty remarks, and thoughtful responses. She not only dressed with style, but she was also humbly brilliant. She's inspired me to be thoughtful in how I dress and act, so I always present the best possible version of myself.  

Lesson Three: Smile and laugh with life  

Every single time I saw my grandma, she was laughing and smiling. She handled with grace the twists and turns of her life. I'm so grateful to have watched this amazing woman face adversity with poise because she taught me that my reaction to life's curveballs is what defines me.

Thank you, Grandma, for being a model of who a woman should be and for teaching me to never stop loving, learning and laughing.

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Shakshuka: A Love Story

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06/24/2015

Shakshuka: A Love Story photo

Shakshuka! Shakshuka! Shakshuka! I bet you can't say it 10 times fast. You probably can't say it very fast more than once. I know it sounds like your new favorite curse word, but it's way more than that.

Shakshuka, if you're not familiar, is a Tunisian dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. If you've never heard of it, mazel, meet your new favorite meal. If you do know shakshuka, welcome back!

I happened upon shakshuka a couple of weeks ago while browsing through cookbooks. A gorgeous picture of eggs in a tomato sauce leapt off of the page and into my heart. It's the perfect breakfast or lunch dish to make to show off for friends. You can serve it with a mountain of challah and/or pita on the side. I've only ever made it for dinner, because I don't want to have to share it with anyone!

There are many reasons to make shaksuka. The absolute number one reason to make it is that it tastes amazing. The second is that it's maybe the easiest recipe you've ever prepared. I've been completely obsessed since I first discovered it just a few weeks ago. Did I mention that it's a one-pot meal? What is better than that?

Congratulations, your life is about to change.

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 jalapeños, seeded, finely chopped
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
2 teaspoons Hungarian sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices reserved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely crumbled feta
8 large eggs
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Warm pita bread

Remember! Cooking is fun and there is more than one way to get something delicious on your plate. If you're not in to jalapenos, maybe substitute green chillies. Don't like chickpeas? How about white beans. Get creative!

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeños; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Add chickpeas, paprika, and cumin and cook for 2 minutes longer.

Add crushed tomatoes and their juices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle feta evenly over sauce.

Crack eggs one at a time and place over sauce, spacing evenly apart. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until whites are just set but yolks are still runny, 5-8 minutes. Garnish with parsley and cilantro. Serve with pita for dipping.

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Following the Masses

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06/23/2015

Following the Masses photo

I am not a big sports fan, partially due to growing up short and slightly overweight and partially due to growing up in a city without any professional sports (Wichita, Kansas). Our entire city pretty much followed college basketball. We did have minor league baseball, hockey and soccer, but Wichita State University's baseball team was the main attraction.

My lack of interest usually comes to the surface during the weekly Kiddush in my synagogue when people start taking about trades, winning streaks and fouls. I usually just nod my head in agreement.

My 15-year-old son, Eli, however, is a fanatic. I keep up with the scores, watch some of the games with him (and let him explain things to me) and try to bond with him. It's important to show interest in what our kids are interested in. I see from friends that there is a special bond between parents and children when it comes to sports. My son has been wise to me since he was 6. He knows that I'm not as into it as other dads, but he's cool with it. He sees that I make the effort and I hope there is something to be said for that.

I do, however, look for opportunities to experience the excitement. Two years ago we went the Blackhawks parade and this year, thanks to a really good friend, we went to the rally at Soldier Field.

We got inside at 8 a.m. and spent two hours just hanging out and walking around. As the stadium quickly filled up there was definitely a feeling of camaraderie as a sea of red spread in every direction. The shared energy was much more tangible at the rally than at the parade. It could be the fact that at the parade you just wait for the players to pass and then go home that the excitement is transient. At the rally you are there before the parade, watch the parade on the jumbotron, watch the players get announced, hear all the thank-yous, lose your voice as 60,000-plus people sing "Chelsea Dagger" (although I prefer their other theme song, "Keys to the City" by Ministry), then you join the flood of people and leave.

It's ironic that as a teenager, I was so against conforming and dressing like the masses. The blatant lack of individuality left a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, these days, I am just as guilty of conformity in dress -- well, in kippah -- as everyone is in my observant sub-culture. That being said, my son and I rocked our red jerseys. We cheered when the players came out and clapped after the speeches.

As I looked around, being part of the collective is what makes the experience something special. Sometimes the group is greater than the individual. It's that way in families, in school, in work, and in the way we connect with our Judaism. The unity among sports fans should be an example of how the diverse Jewish community should ban together for certain causes. Of course, easier said than done, but if you own a red piece of clothing then you're off to a good start.

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Dressing for the Date

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Not just the calendar
06/22/2015

Dressing for the Date photo

My winter coat and my summer dress are besties

A few weeks ago, people yelled at me because of my appearance and clothing choice.

It was Saturday, the 30th day of the month of May, and I was overdressed. In the morning, at synagogue, I wore a light jacket on top of a long-sleeved shirt, a skirt, leggings, and tall boots. In the evening, traveling to a wedding, I decided to go for my ankle-length down North Face "winter" jacket.

It was certainly a lot for May 30, and my friends had no qualms about telling me that.

"How can you be dressing like this? It's practically summer!"

"I can't believe you're wearing leggings and boots. It's May!"

At the wedding, there was a portable coat rack that traveled with us from the ceremony room to the reception room, and the whole night, it was home to a bunch of umbrellas and my ridiculous puffy jacket.

But I think I might have been the happiest person in Chicago that day.

Friends who ridiculed my clothing choice -- you are living in a fantasy world. You are living in a world where May 30 means "warm," where May 30 means "summer," where May 30 means "no jackets, no leggings, and just the warm, humid summer air and a cup of iced tea."

That world may exist somewhere, but it certainly ain't in Chicago in the year 2015.

How I wish I lived with you in this world! I wish I could be that girl who dresses for the date and whose bright yellow and pink outfit just screams summer and freedom and reminds you of that time when you throw your backpacks into your closet and get ready for a summer of stress-free fun in the sun.

But not me. I live in the world of "reality." I live in a world where, despite what the calendar says, Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor and wants to keep us on our toes. I live in a world where we are given tools to help us survive each day -- not just a calendar, but also websites like Weather.com that can magically predict the future and guide our clothing choices.

I live in a world where you're never safe to put your "winter clothes" in the cedar closet for safekeeping from March 1 until December 1 -- I keep my winter clothes hanging right next to my summer clothes, because, hey, with all the back and forth in the Chicago weather, these clothes have become buddies.

Oh, how I wished I lived in a predictable land beneath the equator, where weather was always warm and the attitude was always that of summer. But, living in Chicago, the best city on the planet, you have to deal with the good AND the bad. And, friends, let me tell you -- the bad isn't so bad if, when it's cold, you're wearing a down winter coat.

So if the weather gets chilly again this week, don't be a hero. Whip out your winter clothes. Time to bring back your pretty woolen scarves, your fleece-lined leggings and your funky futuristic gloves with the special fingers that allow you to be warm and cozy while texting on your cell phone.

I once wrote that summer is a state of mind; but that doesn't mean that if summer feels more like Siberia, we can't dress appropriately and be happy.

And hey, come mid-June, let me know if anyone wants to go sledding or have a snowball fight!

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The Catskills

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06/19/2015

This story was performed at "Oy! Let Me Tell You …", a live Jewish storytelling event, on June 3, 2015. Check out a live recording of this story here.

World's Greatest Dad image

I can tell you from personal experience that being a Jewish senior citizen in the summer back in the day was pretty fantastic. And you're probably thinking to yourself, how would a 24-year-old even know what it was like to live like a Jewish senior citizen from firsthand experience? And to that I would say, I'm 30 and thank you.

Let me just say that I am a relic. I am the last of what is known as one of the guests of the Dirty Dancing Kellerman era -- The Catskills -- otherwise known as the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Alps and Solomon County.

The Catskills photo

Some of you may be asking "What is this magical stateside promised land that I mention?"

Well, The Catskills are mountains in Upstate New York with a chain of resorts where mostly New York City Jews -- starting in the 1940s -- would come and vacation during the hot months.

Every summer, my family would pack up the car in Chicago, with my two younger brothers in car seats and a big rack on the roof with our luggage like we were the Griswalds -- without a TV or iPad or any electronic device -- and my dad would drive from Chicago, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and then to finally upstate New York.

At the time, I did not like car rides and usually one of us would get carsick daily. Since this was back in the late 80s/early 90s, my dad had one of the first police radar detectors that was 75% accurate and he still managed to get pulled over for speeding.

Even though these were long car rides, my parents still did their best to make it fun. We would stop along the way and stretch out these car trips to fun places including Mr. Rogers Land at Idlewild Theme Park in Pennsylvania, Sesame Street Place Water Park in Pennsylvania and Hershey, Pennsylvania. So pretty much, it was a long car ride until Pennsylvania but my parents did their best to make it entertaining.

The reason why we went to the Catskills was because of my grandparents -- my mom's parents, otherwise known as my Grandma and Papa. Just picture the ultimate Jewish grandparents and they were it. My papa was a tough man who owned a used truck lot on the south side of Chicago. He worked seven days a week, long hours, until the state made a law that truck lots couldn't operate on Sundays and then Sundays became family days. He was a man's man but had the gentlest way when it came to his family, having raised all daughters with old-fashioned rules on their dating habits, and a huge soft spot for his grandchildren. He only called my grandma "Babe" and my grandma was a blonde beauty who loved to play mahjong and gamble. My grandparents were fun -- in their later years they would drive out to the casino after midnight and come home at all hours of the morning. They were always out on the town on Saturday nights and loved a good, long car ride -- hence the annual drive out to the Catskills.

Growing up, it was Thursday nights with them, Sunday nights with the extended family and then Concord trips in the summer where they would have the room directly across the hall from ours and we would keep our doors open and just run back and forth between the two rooms so that we could model our outfits for them. This was because my mom could dress us all in the same pattern. We have a family portrait of all of us in American Flag attire but it was 1991 and what else do you expect?

So anyway, living like a senior citizen as an old Yid at the Concord was luxurious. We would eat in the dining room where Tony, our waiter, would serve us silver dollar pancakes and grilled cheese at pretty much every meal. We would do water aerobics in the pool or play bingo or watch an artist do a painting, which literally translates to watching paint dry. There was nothing to do but to sit and enjoy and just be old together.

However, I was probably the coolest kid that there ever was because after our dinner with Server Tony, my parents would put my brothers to bed and I would get to go with my parents and my grandparents to the show. Every night, we would head down to the theater that almost looked like a cabaret -- or the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park -- where there were cocktail tables and you would sit and you would watch an act. Sometimes it was a magician (like in Dirty Dancing), sometimes it was a comedian (like in Dirty Dancing) and sometimes they would have really great musicians.

I remember walking through the main foyer where there was a daily polka band playing, and to this day, and I didn't know how but this man walked up to me and asked if I was Jennie Ellman. Now, this was before I knew anything about stranger danger and I was with my family and I answered yes, and he said something like I was selected to receive a gift by that night's guest performer -- Willie Nelson.

Now, I didn't know much about Willie Nelson except that this was a big deal for my mom who loves Willie Nelson, but I still have no idea how I got selected -- as I didn't have to carry a watermelon or anything -- let alone understood why a 5-year-old could win out of the entire resort.

Anyway, that night came and we left my brothers in the room and we went to the theater. I remember watching the first act and getting sleepy and then I remember Willie Nelson coming on stage, but that's pretty much all I remember. All I know is, I woke up the next morning and I had Willie Nelson's Farm Aid bandana that he wore to the Farm Aid benefit concert and it had Willie Nelson's autograph. I did not remember actually getting this, I didn't know how it came about. I was never a big drinker so this is really the only time I've ever really "blacked out" if you will, and I definitely didn't black out in this situation because I probably wasn't even five years old.

Sure enough, we got pictures back and there is my dad, onstage with Willie Nelson, and Willie Nelson was holding his FarmAid bandana and signing it, and there's my dad, onstage -- holding me -- a five-year-old sleeping Jennie. I actually slept through my Willie Nelson moment. So while Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Were Crying In The Rain" -- which is a Willie Nelson song title reference -- these hazel eyes were shut and sound asleep.

I always loved this story, but it wasn't until recently that I started loving it more. I was talking to my dad about this experience and asked him how I really got selected when he told me that he found a roadie crew member and asked him if there was anything that they were giving away that he could give to his daughter. The crew member gave my dad some guitar picks but then said that he may have something else and with that, the man came up to me and asked if I was Jennie (per my dad's information) and told me that I was selected. I had always felt special being randomly selected before in this story, but knowing my dad had his hand in the situation, and then also having those pictures of my dad carrying me while I was sleeping on the stage so that he could get me Willie Nelson's autograph, just proves how much my dad has always gone out of his way for me and has always tried to make me feel special.

So, looking back, these road trips were a strong foundation of what my parents had always tried to teach me, as we know, road trips are a great time to learn the adage of the "it's not just the destination but the journey" and all the spontaneity along the way, take time every day to enjoy the arts, and being together really could be the "time of your life" when you are with the people that are "Always On Your Mind" -- which is also another Willie Nelson song title reference.

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.

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Speaking Our Language

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06/18/2015

fathers day series 400

My dad is a pen collector, golf player, bookstore frequenter and gift shop enthusiast. My dad is a lover of philanthropy dedicated to many organizations both in the U.S. and Israel. He has inspired me to become involved in community service on campus and at home. My dad participates in Israel advocacy and has instilled a love of Israel in my family. My dad reads Hebrew newspapers to practice the language and books about Torah. Every Friday, he studies the Torah portion with a rabbi and blesses my siblings and me at dinner. He attends all dance recitals and basketball games. 

However, in my opinion, my dad's most special quality lies in the ongoing development of our "language."

Our "language" can largely be reduced to our sometimes witty, sometimes deep, and at times ridiculous use of words. We analyze words' meaning, sing them, write them, and read them, and speak them together in three different languages: English, Hebrew and Spanish.

"Jessica, what are you up to today?" my dad asked me early one Friday morning. When he asks me that type of question, I know that it's only going one of two routes: a technology request, such as scanning something for him or figuring out how to download songs onto his iPad. The other route is less commonplace and more special: requesting that I speak our language by writing a song or speech in collaboration with him. We have written many pieces together, usually centered on various celebrations or holidays. We always delighted my family and friends who were our ever-present audience. On this particular Friday, that was his request.

hochberg family

The Hochberg family, including Jessica (second from left) and her dad (second from right).

"I need to send you a draft of speech I wrote in Spanish," he said casually. Normally, I would smirk at my dad's utter randomness and at his unusual interest in odd spontaneous actions that seemed to have no cause. However, I knew the cause of this impromptu speech in Spanish. 

This past school year we hosted a high school foreign exchange student named Victor. Victor is from Brazil, and his family members had come to visit us for the week. My father, an accomplished high school debater and a frequent speech giver, decided to describe how fond we had become of Victor by delivering a speech entirely in Spanish. Although Victor speaks Portuguese, he understands Spanish, so my father deemed it necessary to create a speech in Spanish to deliver in front of our family and friends at our Shabbat dinner table.

Ever the adventurous speaker, my dad decided to use a language he had not spoken since high school to express his gratitude to Victor. Seeing as I studied Spanish in high school and college, I was more familiar with the grammar and vocabulary conventions. So, using my dad's insightful ideas and my knowledge, he and I composed a speech in Spanish. I also produced an English translation and we captivated our audience with our words. We read the speech paragraph by paragraph, alternating between Spanish and English. The audience laughed at the jokes, even when they were written in Spanish, and could tell our affection for Victor by the effort we put into our speech. 

Afterward, many of our friends congratulated us on our successful endeavor and asked us how we were able to execute such an undertaking. My dad gave me a characteristic, suffocating side hug, and with that we mutually understood that this was a special use of our language that would not be our last. Our writing team was as efficient as it was fun, and we knew that our "language" of writing was sacred and precious.

"Jessica what are you up to tonight for dinner?" my dad asked me over the phone some time later. I knew where this was going. Another adventure for the writing pair of father and daughter; this time, a song for a family friend's bar mitzvah, a parody of the Chicago Cubs victory song "Go, Cubs, Go!" replacing "Cubs" with "Ben." We'd composed the lyrics on a paper napkin at dinner, each of us switching off verses and bringing forth new ideas. We even decided to add costumes and accessories to our performance. The delivery of the song was successful, if you measure success in effort rather than musical talent, and once again I was squished into a side hug. This was our connection; our special skill that will always provide a common ground for both of us to flourish, side by side.

Whether it's listening to Taylor Swift endlessly in the car, analyzing the lyrics to a seemingly tasteless rap song for some deeper meaning, or knowing the lyrics to songs so well that we can both recite the ad libs and fake laughter by heart, my dad and I always appreciate words, deciphering their meaning and understanding how they can be used in a larger or more meaningful context. We love reading and writing in the languages we know, and learning new things about languages we do not know. We find meaning where there seemingly is none and share our deep understanding of the world with each other. No matter the language, no matter the place, my dad and I will always have that connection.

So I hope this Father's Day brings my dad some great new books, some new knowledge of Torah, and many fond memories of our endeavors as a writing duo.

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.

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Cooking With Dad

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06/17/2015

World's Greatest Dad image

Behold the midlife crisis: a stark realization and critical time of change. Most dads turn in their sedan for a motorcycle and their North Face for a leather jacket. Some dye their hair and join the local band. But not my dad. I actually got lucky with my dad's "midlife crisis;" I saw him transform into a master chef in a matter of weeks.

When my dad discovered cooking it was like he had awoken a sleeping giant, one of a passion for and connection to food. My father cooked masterpieces sans recipes or direction like he was one with the ingredients. Whatever he imagined would materialize into a beautiful dish that my family (and our stomachs) gladly "tested."

Ever since then, cooking became our thing. It's more than a passion and quality time well spent -- it's a lifestyle.

My family background is Russian, and I'm technically zero generation. I was born in Minsk, Belarus, and I came here at the tender age of almost two. Nevertheless, my Belarusian culture greatly influenced my upbringing. One of my favorite parts of the culture (and any culture) is the cuisine. You are what you eat so there is no denying that food plays one of the most important roles in our lives.

There are many things I grew up loving that, let's just say, are probably on your "avoid" list to prevent a heart attack at the age of 40: meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner; mayonnaise as salad dressing; and baked goods galore. Don't get me wrong, there was also an emphasis on fresh and whole foods, but that wasn't really my cup of tea as a kid. I was lucky I grew up actively dancing and playing sports everyday; I never quite felt the wrath of "heavy" food.

As you get older, life becomes more static, yet more stressful. More than ever, I realized I needed food to fuel me, to keep me going and keep me feeling good from the inside out.

Around the time of my dad's "midlife crisis," he realized he too needed feel-good food. Not the sugar high kind but the "I feel like I can run a marathon" kind. My dad has always been very physically fit. Standing at 6 ft. 2 in., this is not a man you want to mess with. He can drop and give you 20 and casually do 15 pull-ups without really breaking a sweat. Fitness is one thing, however, but nutrition is a whole other animal.

Cooking With Dad photo

You see, a state-of-the-art car without fuel or a battery is useless. And fitness is nothing without the right fuel. So my dad and I found ourselves on the same mission: how to create foods that are both energy-fueling and something we're excited about.

Our eating habits evolved, and so did our cooking. Our diets began to mirror one another and there's nothing I enjoy more than bouncing ideas off of my dad. From smoothies to soups, salads to stir fry, and rice to ground turkey, we've helped each other perfect every single dish. We've really bonded over our appreciation for nutrition and our love of cooking.

Now it's something I'd love to share with all of you. A way to a man's heart, they say, is through his stomach, so on this Father's Day, there's no better way to say "I love you, dad" than preparing a hearty, healthy, dish.

Here are two simple recipes. Enjoy!

 

Very Berry Smoothie

One cup frozen strawberries

One cup frozen blueberries
3-4 handfuls of spinach
1 apple (any kind)
1 tablespoon honey
1-2 medjool dates
1½ cup of water

Directions:
Throw it all in a blender and voilà!  

 

The Perfect Brown Rice
Brown rice is a perfect and filling whole grain. This recipe gives it the consistency of fluffy oatmeal with your favorite rice-tastic taste.   

You will need:
1-2 cups of dried brown rice (depending on how much you want to make)
Water
Your favorite veggies (think carrots, onions, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, or zucchini)
Deeper pot and a stainless steel cooking bowl

Directions:
It's very important to soak the brown rice for 12-24 hours (at least try to soak it overnight) in room temperature water. The rice to water ratio should be about one to five: five cups of water for every one cup of rice.

Before cooking, pour out the water used for soaking and fill the bowl with four new cups of water for every one cup of rice.

You'll need a bigger pot and stainless steel cooking bowl that you can stack on top of the pot and close with a lid. Fill a quarter of the pot up with water and stack the steel pan/bowl of rice on top and close with lid.

Bring the pot to a boil and then down to a simmer. Now let it cook for an hour, and at that point throw in all your favorite veggies. You can also sauté the veggies before throwing them in to give it a slightly different taste. Let the rice simmer with veggies for another hour and it's done! You won't believe your eyes that this is brown rice when you see it. It's such a hearty dish and truly one of my favorites!

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.

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New Daddy Truths

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10 Observations after One Year of Fatherhood
06/16/2015

World's Greatest Dad image

When my 1-year-old son, Johnny, was born I remember lifting him out of the basinet at the hospital for the first time. Completely swaddled in a hospital blanket, he was a fussy 8-pound burrito. I was in love with and in awe of him. We all had high hopes for him and our newly started family.

A year later, we still have hopes -- we just haven't slept much. Needless to say, it's taken on a different meaning. This former 8-pound burrito is now a 24-pound giant jumping bean that never stops jumping.

New Daddy Truths photo 1

At the start of each day, he cries from the other room to wake us up, and my biggest hope is really that nobody gets hurt that day. Come bedtime, I smile when my head hits the pillow, knowing that we barely made it. My last thought before falling asleep is always, I don't know how we did it.

A few weeks ago I was sharing the plans for Johnny's birthday party with David, a good friend.

"You know I've always thought that we should be throwing these parties for the parents," he quipped. "I mean, you have kept another human being alive for an entire year. Congrats!"

David was right. Our life really had become about keeping this tiny, defenseless creature alive. I chuckled lightly, acknowledging the truth of his statement, while cynically recognizing that nobody was going to be throwing me any parties anytime soon. My party days are long gone, but I do have Father's Day to at least feel appreciated.

Over the last year, I've noted the ten biggest changes that come with first-time fatherhood, so for new dads or expectant dads out there, consider this some helpful advice.

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1. Everything related to your kids is now a hot-button issue.

Cloth diapers or disposable? You made a choice, and you are now an expert at defending it. You won't let anyone tell you that choice was wrong. Breast milk or formula? You don't even lactate, but that snarky comment on Facebook just got somebody unfriended. Government officials are thinking about cutting funding for schools, and you show up to testify. And don't let anyone get you started on parental leave!

2. Showering every other day becomes a reasonable goal (and is optional on the weekends)

There is a moment when you are getting ready to leave the house. It's probably to go to the grocery store, the park, a play date, etc. Somehow during the morning nap, you were sucked into returning an email, checking Facebook, or squeezing in an episode of House of Cards. Well, the baby's awake, happy, and you have a very limited window before all that goes away, so you gargle some mouthwash, wipe yourself down with a baby wipe, put on a clean pair of underwear and get yourself out the door.

3. Spot-checking your clothing for traces of snot, spit-up and anything that your child has eaten that morning is a regular practice.

Maybe you haven't showered yet that day, but it still means a lot to you that you keep up appearances, especially at work. You know that you have completely lost your mind, but your boss doesn't. Pro-Tip: if you can see it on your kid's shirt, then it is probably on yours too. You ask someone you trust if anything crusty has found its way to the back of your shoulder when you went in for that big hug at the daycare drop off. You keep a change of clothes nearby at all times -- for you, not the child.

4. Never in your life have you been so invested in someone else's biological functions.

Did he poop? Is he wet? Did he eat that? Can he eat that? He really shouldn't eat that, right? Did he nap? Is he sleeping? Is he breathing?

If someone came up to you to sniff your crotch or check your pants, you might kick them, but somehow this is completely fine to do to your kids. This is how you communicate with these tiny little poop machines who can barely stand up on their own, let alone tell you that it's time for a change.

5. When the kid kind of hurts, you quickly learn to help him shrug it off.

If your child falls in the forest and nobody is there to gasp, "oh no!" do they cry? The answer is absolutely not. Very quickly, you learn to shrug off minor bumps, trips, and bangs. It's amazing how these children can bend and bounce in ways that would put any gold medal gymnast to shame. Treating every fall like a crisis means you would never get out of the house.

6. When the kid really hurts, that's when it really hurts you too.

Then there are moments at the doctor when he has to get three shots and you kind of want to punch the doctor for sticking him. Or he's sick, yet you calmly say the words, "okay now, just let it out … you're okay," while the little one projectile vomits all over you. When the fever spikes well above 100, and the kid just isn't himself, you have the will to stay with him all night just to make it better.

7. You compare your kid to every other baby you ever meet.

You swore that you would never be "that dad." You promised that you would let your child grow naturally and become the person that he wants to be. That all went out the window as soon as you found out that "Ethan" started crawling last month, and your kid can't even roll over. Naturally, it goes the other way too, usually at doctor check-ups. Ninetieth percentile for height -- that's my son, the future basketball player! By the way, his head circumference is off the charts, so he's likely to be captain of the team and a genius!

8. You get excited about the prospect of work travel because you sleep so well away from home.

Work is going to send you out of town for a few days to meet with some important clients. In the past, you would have scheduled in some extra time to meet up with friends, catch a show and take advantage of the night life. As a new parent, however, all you want to do is watch a movie at the hotel at a high volume because you don't have to worry about waking anyone up, then sleep through the entire night.

9. Then you get weepy when your spouse and kid drop you off at the airport.

You were excited about the high thread count on those hotel sheets, but now all you can think about is how quiet, lonely and empty the room is going to be without your family. Your head down, you try to make it through airport security as fast as possible, hoping to have time to call and say goodbye again before boarding. In the hotel, you end up watching a movie at a volume so low you can barely follow the dialogue, just because it makes you feel at home to keep the noise down at night.

10. Even though it's the most disruptive thing that has ever happened to your life, you couldn't be happier about it.

Being a father is not a constant stream of smiles and giggles, but that doesn't stop you from pulling out your phone to show them the latest pics. When an old woman smiles at your baby in the stroller or a young couple tells you how they love your baby's (insert hair, smile, sausage legs, outfit, laugh) you find yourself smiling the rest of the day. This bundle of joy has changed everything and most of it for the better.

It's been a long year of keeping this creature alive, and you couldn't be prouder. Maybe it's nothing like you hoped it would be at the beginning. Yet somehow, it's still everything that you always wanted.

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.

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My Stay-at-Home Daddy

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06/15/2015

World's Greatest Dad image

As Father's Day approaches, our minds turn to the men who raised us, and -- as is customary -- we honor them with barbeques and fishing poles and colorful greeting cards that sing. But this year, I will break from my traditional gift-giving practices and try something new: a story for my dad.

While I admit, this choice is slightly influenced by the pitiful state of my bank account, I prefer to think of it as one of those "it's the thought that counts"/"it's perfect because my child made it" scenarios.

So, Dad, sorry there's no tackle box this year, I hope this story will do!

---

I don't think Joel Cohen ever dreamed of becoming a stay-at-home dad, in fact, I'm sure of it. If you somehow were able to go back in time and tell his 20-something self that he would spend his 40s making sock puppets and grilled cheese sandwiches, he would look at you like you had six heads.

You see, when he and my mother met in the late 1980s, Dad's life was all about classical music, contrary to the statement made by his Ringo Starr haircut. His life revolved around his roommates -- the percussion instruments set up in his living room. Dad practiced day and night, worked day and night too, tirelessly looking to become the best musician he could be. At times, his devotion was endearing; others, it was mildly concerning. Suffice it to say, my grandmother was elated when he brought home a girl instead of a drum for Shabbat dinner.

A few years later, my parents tied the knot and became the first Jewish couple to get married at the Chicago Athletic Association. The mahogany ballroom popped with touches of pink (that matched the bridesmaids' dresses) and the halls rang with the sound of the wedding march that Dad wrote especially for the occasion.

They had carefully planned everything for their new life. They sold their condos and bought a cute little house in the suburbs. Mom went to work each day at the American Cancer Society, and Dad worked the odd morning and evening hours of a professional musician. He picked her up each day from the bus stop at the corner and they walked home together. This system held true all throughout Mom's pregnancy and resumed shortly after I came home from the hospital, seeing as maternity leave was not yet a legal standard in the workplace. And the next thing my parents knew, without really planning it, Joel had become a stay-at-home Dad.

My Stay-at-Home Daddy photo 1

He said it was a great aesthetic improvement when the drums moved into the basement to make room for my bright pink dollhouse in the living room. He learned how to brush curly blonde hair but never quite built up a tolerance for the associated melodramatic screeching. Dad invented fanciful stories about my toys on our way to preschool and playdates and quickly won over the mothers of my classmates who didn't believe that men could provide the same loving care as their stay-at-home counterparts.

As I got older, story time evolved into science projects that destroyed the kitchen and hours spent arguing over math homework and music lessons. My daily refusal to practice for band made him emotionally short circuit, but he cheerfully ate the loaves of banana bread I made each week, something my mother was especially grateful for when I began experimenting with ground cloves and peanut butter. Even more impressive than Dad's culinary daring was his willingness to go to Walgreens and buy me pads when Mother Nature unexpectedly came to call. Bless him -- he always remembered to get the ones with wings.

Now that I'm grown, quite a bit has changed. I drive myself to playdates and buy my own pads, but I still ask for Dad's help when I'm testing out a new recipe, or learning a new song. I still call him for directions even though I have GPS on my phone and ask him questions that Google could easily answer. He remains one of my favorite shoulders to cry on and I love that he bombards my inbox with pictures of cats to brighten a rainy day.

My Stay-at-Home Daddy photo 2

So, with that said: Happy Father's Day, Daddy! Thank you putting up with me. You are a hilarious friend and playmate and an excellent parent. You keep me sane and you make me crazy. You make a mean "Frappuccino" and I'm very proud to call you mine.

To read more posts in the "World's Greatest Jewish Dads" blog series, click here.

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Cravings and Contentment

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06/11/2015

Joshua Marder

My son and I have reached a new milestone. We can learn together! I'm not referring to math or science, of course, but Torah study. We open up the Torah together, start reading and -- here comes the best part -- we start blasting questions at each other left and right.

Why did Moses say that? Why did the people respond this way? Isn't that an extra word? What's the Torah trying to teach us with this verse? And we start to make a list of our questions together. Then, after we fully prepared our masterpiece of critique, we go back over the list and start looking for answers through deeper analysis of the text, searching our ancestral commentaries, and through our own reflection.

So I want to share with you an example of the latter, an answer that came from a joint father-son reflection on last week's Torah portion.

On Shabbat afternoon, my son came to join me for our study time in the local Chicago Community Kollel (a place for advanced Torah study). We began our critique. The three verses we were scrutinizing came from Numbers (11:4-6), which takes place as the Children of Israel were in the desert on their long journey from Egypt to Israel.

The verses talk about a group of people amongst the Children of Israel who were beginning to crave meat. They start complaining about where will they find meat and describe all the fantastic food they were fed for free in Egypt. Perhaps you even thought of one of our questions, "there was no free food in Egypt! They wouldn't even give them hay for their bricks! What are they talking about 'free food?'" (If you're interested, Rashi's medieval commentary addresses this question). In the next verse as they describe their craving for meat they say, "But now, our life is dry, there is nothing…" We asked a simple question, "What do the words really mean when they said, 'life is dry,' or in Hebrew, 'nafshenu yevesha?'"

To answer this question, we utilized an exegetic technique of searching for where the word yevesha, dry, appears in the Torah to understand its true meaning. Interestingly, the word first appears in the depiction of the third day of creation. Before there was any life on the land, it says, "the yabasha, dry land, was revealed." We started to think about what the world looked like before there were any animals, flowers, people, or plants. It looked like an empty and desolate existence.

We then took our new meaning of the word "dry" as depicting an empty and desolate existence and applied it to our verse. They found themselves craving a desire for something they seemingly couldn't have. And once they were in a place of wanting something that they couldn't receive, they felt as if "our life is dry," an empty and desolate existence. Why? They were living through miracles every day! They just escaped horrific slavery not too long ago. What changed?

The answer is that one thing changed. They now felt a craving. They now desired other things that they couldn't have. This was too hard for them.

When we want something that's not within our ability to have, we begin to feel "dry" even though we're objectively not. I gave my son an analogy to explain our discovery in the text. It's like when a little child comes home happy from school with a big smile across his face. He remembers that there are popsicles in the freezer, and he asks for one. When his mother says no, all of a sudden his whole mood changes. He gets very upset, frowns across his face, and eventually he might even throw a tantrum. What happened? He was just super happy two minutes ago! The answer is what the text is telling us here.

We can easily lose sight of the good and beautiful things around us when we are consumed with cravings for things that are beyond us. We start to feel like our lives our dry, desolate and empty, even when they aren't. I then explained to him that big kids and even grownups are the same way. We can easily get consumed by what we don't have and lose sight of what we do. And the way to combat it is by focusing on what you do have, to be excited about the wonderful gifts you're given on a regular basis.

As for me, I will try to focus on the precious opportunity I have of being able to learn meaningful Torah lessons for life with my son.

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Thanks, Chicago—for three generations to love

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06/09/2015

Thanks, Chicago-for three generations to love photo 1

Dear Chicago Jewish community,

It's been five years since I called Chicago home, having moved to Miami upon experiencing a family tragedy. Then, I had no idea that JUF would be the source of two of my life's greatest blessings: my husband Michael Rosenburg and father-in-law, Kenneth Rosenburg z"l.

It was a JUF-sparked friendship that led to my 2005 life-changing introduction to Michael. I went on a JUF Ben-Gurion Society mission with Amy Winick. She soon began dating someone; he took her to a Shabbat dinner where she met Michael, and said to him then and there, "I have a girl I'm setting you up with."

Our relationship, which began with our dating, evolved into a friendship. Years later, it deepened with the shared grief of each having lost a parent prematurely. And then, when Michael visited Miami in July 2011, it unexpectedly deepened further.

After a whirlwind, long distance romance, we were married in November of 2012. One year later, we were overjoyed to discover that I was expecting our first child. From the pregnancy's beginning, Michael was the consummate husband and father -- protector of my well-being, fulfiller of my every craving, and fierce researcher of all items that would ensure the baby's safety -- from strollers and car seats to new tires for our vehicles. I carried our child, but my husband carried me -- with humor, affection, and the sweetness that's inherently Michael. Only he could make me feel so loved in my biggest, most swollen (read: third trimester in the hot Florida summer) months.

Since our son Noah arrived last August, it's been a crazy ride. We initially had a few medical issues to resolve. Thank God that is all behind us. But in those first trying months, Michael's calmness, coupled with his ability to care for a healing preemie and healing wife, were nothing short of heroic-all while managing a full work portfolio, maintaining the highest regard from his colleagues and serving on the board of our synagogue.

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Earlier this year, we elatedly learned that I am pregnant again. This time, the demands are greater as doctors instructed me not to lift our now 9-month-old son. Without missing a beat, Michael assumed an even more significant hands-on role on nights and weekends. I live in awe of how he balances his demanding career with the demands of our family. I live in awe of his interaction with our child -- the playfulness, affection, and attentiveness to all aspects of Noah's development. I live in awe of how blessed I am to share a life and family with my amazing husband.

Michael's devotion to family and responsibility to community come from a home that nurtured it. My in-laws set wonderful examples as parents. And while I never had the fortune of knowing my father-in-law -- I am privileged to do so spiritually through Michael's anecdotes and actions. It allows me to continue developing a relationship with his father. And that will enable me to help our children grow to know and love their Papa Kenny.

One of the greatest gifts Michael has given me was under our chuppah. To include Michael's late father and my late mother, Naomi, in our wedding, we privately expressed to our Rabbi, for him to share during the ceremony, what our respective parents would have loved about our spouse. It was then that I learned of the JUF connection and passion for community that bound Ken and me.

In my 10 post-college years in Chicago, I immersed myself in JUF leadership opportunities through YLD, National Young Leadership Cabinet, the TOV Volunteer Network and Hillels of Illinois. Ken, a busy attorney, was quite immersed himself -- sharing his heart of gold with JUF since 1973, when he initiated the first communal residence for the elderly. He participated in the first Melton Jewish Leadership program, chaired numerous initiatives including the JUF campaign events at Yehuda Moshe and the Northside Lawyers' Division dinners for years, and served on JUF's Financial and Education board.

Thanks to JUF, for the gift of our meeting, Michael and I will celebrate his first Father's Day as Noah's daddy. Thanks to JUF, I celebrate a connection to a father and grandfather whom I never met, but greatly cherish. And of course, I celebrate my own wonderful father, David Kudish -- Noah's Zayde -- who introduced me to JUF and has always been a vibrant example of Jewish communal responsibility for me to emulate. I am forever grateful to all.

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Wisdom for Grads

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06/08/2015

Wisdom for Grads photo

The author (right) dancing a hora -- as her mom always advised her to do -- at a dear friend’s wedding.

I just love graduation season and all its hopefulness: The sweet scene on a beautiful spring day of a graduate clad in cap and gown hugging proud loved ones on the street. The "places you'll go" words of encouragement promising big things for grads on greeting cards, books, and diploma-gripping teddy bears near the cash register at the bookstore.

But most of all, I love the wisdom that extraordinary people impart to the graduates.

As we grow older, and move further away -- ahem -- from our graduation year, the lessons keep on coming if we let them. In fact, if we're doing it right, I'd bet most of us are more open to hearing those lessons now than when we were in school.

I'm constantly collecting nuggets of wisdom to guide me on a life's journey filled with joy, light, meaning, and love. I piece together lessons wherever I can find them: from reading, from rabbis, from TED and ELI Talks, and from friends and family members.

In fact, the best piece of wisdom I ever heard came from a commencement address delivered by my cousin Ron, a brilliant Cornell University professor. In his speech, he spoke of his late son Eric's long battle with brain cancer. Despite his health struggles, Eric -- who passed away too young, in his late 30s -- always maintained a bright outlook and sense of humor about life.

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

Here are a few other lessons I've gathered along the way -- lessons that come in handy no matter when you marched to "Pomp and Circumstance"…

Tell them.

Tell the people in your life what they mean to you. After all, life's short, and we won't always have the chance. Jewish journalist and author Bruce Feiler, who survived cancer, advised this guidance in his book The Council of Dads. Why, he asked, 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 even a text message, or make a lunch or margarita date with the people you care about and tell them why they matter to you. 

Be amazed.

As the great Jewish sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: "Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up every morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed."

What a beautiful way to see the world. There's so much stress, routine, and noise in daily life. Let's try to be more mindful and intentional in how we live -- and be present. Every so often, let's put down our phones, breathe, and observe the beauty that infuses so many moments of our day -- if we just let it.

Own it.

Take up space in the room. I attended a Jewish women's empowerment seminar a few years ago, where we discussed this concept, and then the theme resurfaced in Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, advice to women on how to succeed in the workplace. Just recently, I watched the number one most viewed TED Talk, delivered by Amy Cuddy, who gives a fascinating lecture on body language and how exhibiting confidence physically can make you feel more confident on the inside. While women, in particular, could heed this lesson, this advice is directed to all people: Who you are and what you have to say matter. Be confident, look confident, and don't apologize for who you are. Own it.

Just dance.

My mother is one of the wisest people I know, and she imparts advice to my sister and me through her super lovable Jewish mom lens. One of her favorite things to tell us is "I hope you dance," referring to a popular Lee Ann Womack song. My mom, who was a ballerina as a young woman, figuratively and literally hopes we dance -- even though her transmission of amazing ballet skills to her progeny didn't quite take. But, no fancy pointe work is needed for the hora, says Mom, and she encourages us never to sit out this traditional Jewish circle dance.

"The better the hora, the better the marriage," she's proclaimed to us often. At my sister's wedding, I remember the guests hoisting my parents on chairs, and my fearless mother clapped to the rhythm of a fast-paced Hava Nagila, feeling zero need to hold onto the arms of the chair. My mom's wish for her girls, as most parents wish for their children, is for us to grab all the joy that life has to offer-and a big part of that joy is a dizzying, sweaty hora.

Got some wisdom to impart to the grads? Email me at cindysher@juf.org and I'll post your advice online.

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Mopey and The Beast

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The story of my worst summer ever
06/05/2015

This story was performed at "Oy! Let Me Tell You …", a live Jewish storytelling event, on June 3, 2015. Check out a live recording of this story here.

Mopey and The Beast photo

I was 13 years old when I had the worst summer of my life. It wasn't awful because of what happened though; it was awful because of what didn't happen. And when you're 13, what doesn't happen to you is just as worse if not 500 times worse than what does.  

It was early July, in the year 2000 and I was looking forward to another summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, a Jewish summer camp, not a prep school or an insane asylum. It is an amazing place, and it was going to be my third summer there, and my first time going for four weeks and actually feeling like one of the older campers.  

All I had to do was bide my time for the first four weeks of the summer in whatever my parents signed me up for. This was usually some "teen" day camp program or "summer school" class so that I wouldn't be home alone all day scarfing goldfish crackers and watching MTV.  

To help curb my anticipation, the previous summer I started keeping a journal. I found a random notebook in my drawer; on the cover a picture of the Coca-Cola polar bear flying through the air on a snowboard. I'm not sure what compelled me to journal, or why the tiny Coke bear book. I clearly needed somewhere to dump my pubescent thoughts, and must've thought the Coke bear was the least conspicuous place. That year I began my journal on the Fourth of July and counted the days until camp, usually a little less than two weeks. And as the summer of 2000 approached, I was excited to continue my new tradition.  

On July 4, 2000, I detailed the exploits of my afternoon at Deerfield Days, my village's annual Fourth of July carnival and parade. As a 13-year-old, my patience for this charade of an "exciting day of family fun" had worn thin, so I thoroughly and scathingly critiqued this innocent festival. I scoffed at the low-budget rides, uncovered the scams posing as carnival games and smugly reduced the parade to a pointless procession of bagpipes and candy.  

After jotting down that we were on our way to my great aunt's Fourth of July party, however, the journal stops. I didn't even finish the day. The next page is dated in the fall.  

You're probably thinking that if that summer was the worst of my life, I would've have taken it out on the pages of the Coca-Cola bear journal. Well, I guess it was too agonizing to even rehash privately on paper. So, allow me do my best to fill in the gaps.  

A few days later, my parents and I ventured down to the city. I had a check-up scheduled with an orthopedic specialist and because any visit to the city from the suburbs warranted "making a day of it," we would afterward check out the Taste of Chicago. This was a normal doctor's check-up for me: every so many months I went in for x-rays ever since I'd had surgery to get rid of a non-cancerous bone cyst in a high-risk location on my left hip the summer after fourth grade. The cyst had started to grow back a couple times since, and follow-up procedures had not been effective at replacing it and strengthening the weakened bone, which if not improved could shatter or impact my growth. Usually, the update was "looks good, let's keep an eye on it. And you should avoid high-contact sports." It was great for getting out of gym class.  

But when the doctor looked at my x-rays this time, it came with the worst news one can ever receive at a hospital -- if one is a naïve, innocently self-centered 13-year-old boy:  

You need to have outpatient surgery, and you can't go to camp this summer.  

I balled like a baby. Literally. I probably hadn't cried that hard in front of a doctor since emerging from the womb. This was life-shattering news. I would've probably only cried half as much, if at all, had the doctor said, "we need to amputate your leg with a circular saw, but you can go to camp."  

As we left the doctor's office, I became a non-verbal pouty toddler. My feelings only snowballed as the reality settled in. I dragged myself through Grant Park, eyes welling up as I imagined my friends making new memories and having the time of their lives without me. Not even the smoky musk of Robinson's ribs and droves of sweaty people overpaying for mediocre street food could cheer me up. I was in mourning. I needed to mourn for the friends I wouldn't see, the pranks I wouldn't pull, the girls I wouldn't crush on.  

Noticing how miserable I was, my dad was desperate to turn my spirits around. He promised we would go on a fun vacation after I recovered from the procedure. This was, of course, no consolation. A trip with my parents and 8-year-old brother was never going to replace camp.  

In the following days, I wrote a couple camp friends heartbreakingly melodramatic emails that basically read, "I tragically must inform you I will not be at camp this summer. Have so much fun, dear friend, try not to forget me." Then I braved my way through what was either my fourth or fifth surgery. Shortly after, my dad revealed his plan. The four of us would embark on a road trip to -- Cincinnati.  

Cincinnati. As if the pangs of a summer lost could be quenched with foot-long chili dogs. Might I have at least been consulted in deciding what kind of vacation would best distract me from self-pity? When I asked why, it turned out my dad's selling point was Kings Island, an amusement park. Well played.  

I didn't exactly love amusement parks in the way normal American children did. I liked to study the roller coasters and track them down with a park map, not, you know, ride them. I just liked being immersed in the sounds, sights and smells of uninhibited bliss. At Six Flags Great America, I was the kid riding the carousel and eating funnel cakes. I would crane my neck up at those big looping coasters with a paralyzing uncertainty. Disney World was more my speed -- I had a certain level of confidence that the Happiest Place on Earth would not betray me.  

Kings Island was an in-between of sorts. It was, at the time, a Paramount theme park, which meant it had rights to all the Nickelodeon television shows, my childhood jam. I believed that I had aged out of NickToons by this point in my life, but I was by no means an adult.  

At the park, the first thing we did was ride a family coaster called Beastie, a diminutive version of the park's famous wooden roller coaster, The Beast. It was pretty fun for a family coaster and it got my adrenaline going. Walking around the Nickelodeon area afterward, I found myself caught in between. I was 13. I wanted to distance myself from the kiddie attractions, but I was still terrified of actual roller coasters. Yet after the Beastie, these two polarizing forces could not coexist much longer.  

I think it was my dad that helped me finally break free, surprisingly enough. He is not a roller coaster riding fanatic either. Like most things my brother and I ever asked him to do as kids, he always had a medical excuse. In this case, given his scoliosis, a roller coaster would surely leave him crippled and incapacitated. Who would drive us home then?  

But if anything gets to him, its nostalgia, and his fond childhood memories of wooden coasters at Chicago's old Riverview Park were rushing back to him as we came upon the towering stack of timber that comprised The Beast. In its heyday in the '80s, this was the longest, tallest and fastest wooden coaster in the world.  

When my dad said he would go on it if I went, I considered this Beast. It did not go upside-down, and it was more than 20 years old. And if my dad was willing to forsake his chiropractic health and actually go with me, I wouldn't be alone. So I went.  

After four minutes of huge hills and tight turns through acres of wooded terrain, everything changed. I didn't go on another roller coaster that entire day, but conquering that one beast was enough.  

When we got home I spent hours looking at theme parks on the Internet, imagining myself on all the roller coasters at every Six Flags park in the entire country. It was a matter of days before I begged to go to Great America. My dad grudgingly agreed to take me, though he would later infamously complain about the park food and service, write a letter to Six Flags, not get a response, and refuse to ever go back again.  

We took my friend Michael, a more seasoned roller coaster rider who used to live up in Gurnee. To break me of my upside-down fear, we decided to ride Demon together, one of the older and tamer looping rides in the park, with only four inversions, according to the Six Flags website.  

After some easy rides, Michael and I boarded the roller coaster car and pulled down the overhead restraints. My palms got sweaty as the train rolled out of the station and into the tunnel. No going back. Up the chain lift hill we went toward the first drop; a towering black steel loop waiting for us at the bottom. As we began to fall forward, I distinctly remember screaming, "LET'S DO THIS!"  

It was easy. Painless. If only I could've remembered to apply this lesson, to scream those three words at every drop, twist and loop of my teenage years, and beyond. But I can say there wasn't a second on that ride, or while riding The Beast, that I was thinking about not being at camp. Somewhere along the way, I learned something we all still struggle to accept, even as adults, that even the worst of circumstances bring with them new opportunities. And life rumbles on.  

But enough of what present day Steven thinks about that summer. I'd like to share with you what 13-year-old Steven had learned after all that.  

October 8, 2000  

The reason I stopped writing about the countdown to camp was because of the fact that I never went. My leg. I curse the day I found out I had to go in for surgery and miss camp, which I was looking forward to all summer. However, I climbed great heights and had I gone to camp, I wouldn't be the same person I am now.

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What’s Your Wealth?

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06/02/2015

What's Your Wealth? photo

What is wealth? Have you ever really thought about it? Or more importantly, have you ever thought about what wealth looks like for you?

I think about it all the time. I believe wealth is very ambiguous. It's not an exact science. In fact, it's actually very subjective. There's no right or wrong answer. That's because it encompasses many different things for different people.

These characteristics make wealth very special and personal. It's what I define and make it. It's not society's definition; it's not my parents' definition; it's unique to me.

Take a moment and be mindful. Get in tune with your thoughts and imagination. Ask yourself one very simple, yet complex question: what does a wealthy life look like to you?

If wealth were an equation, what would yours include? Here are some ideas to get you started:

- money/high salary
- luxury car(s)
- house/mansion(s)
- high-end clothes, shoes, jewelry
- fame
- power
- unlimited travel
- freedom/flexibility
- family
- health
- happiness
- peace

Does your list include all of these? Some? None? The point is that your ideal wealth is yours. Too often, we get lost in the noise of our environment, people's external opinions, and even our internal judgments.

For example, it was embedded in my head from a young age that I really had four choices: accounting, engineering, law or medicine, and that these paths were undeniably more promising than the alternatives, such as becoming a movie director, writer or artist. While this may be true in some forms of measurement (money, prestige, stability), wealth is not always this perfectly measurable thing.

Now more than ever, there's this modern shift of wealth from being a tangible, material destination, to an intangible feeling of meaning and fulfillment.

We all place value on different things. That's what makes us human; that's also what makes us unique. Yet, too often we follow one definition.

We're taught that if we do things right, we will be rewarded accordingly. If we just get straight A's, go to a good college, get a job out of school, and work hard towards our career goals, wealth is this present wrapped up with a pretty little bow waiting for us at the end of the yellow brick road.

And so, we follow this plan: this list of rules and pre-determined life milestones. We stay on pace, keeping track of the notches on our belts. And soon enough we'll get there, this mystical place, right?

Then one day, we wake up. To a small degree, it might feel like waking up from a coma. We live life, and yet we really forget to live at all. Life becomes second nature just like breathing or walking. Today becomes yesterday; tomorrow becomes today; every day passes without intention, like muscle memory.

Isn't it interesting that the future is always picture perfect, and hindsight is always 20/20? But what about now? We tend to neglect the now. Because we just assume the now will eventually amount to said picture-perfect future. But how can it without a clear understanding of what we want, and how we're going to get there?

Sometimes we're too afraid to observe and reflect, because we're scared of what we may discover.

We tend to lose sight of the truth and honesty we once had, a very, very long time ago, as untainted kids. So one day, we finally do wake up and realize that we have these "accomplishments" and these "things" that are supposed to embody wealth, yet there's this uneasy, unfulfilling feeling that has gotten too loud to ignore anymore.

And more clearly than ever, we realize that our attainment of true wealth is directly tied to our feelings of happiness and fulfillment.

Wealth does not always look like a big house with a white-picket fence in perfect suburbia, and yet sometimes it does. Some find wealth in material things or in their job. Some find it in giving back. These are all different definitions, and yet produce the same feeling of wealth for different people.

Your definition of wealth can be ever transforming. Are you the same person as you were five years ago? A year ago? Probably not. And neither is your idea of wealth. Before, wealth could have meant owning that pair of shoes you were dying to have, or maybe it was making six figures at that high-powered job. But now, it may be having a creative outlet, your own business, or maybe a family.

And that is exactly what the wealth equation is: your unique combination of variables. It could be a few to hundreds. However many you'd like.

Let's go back to our fond memories of algebra class. If wealth was an equation it might look something like this: "X + Y + Z = wealth." X might be financial freedom; Y might be family; and Z might be happiness. Or it might be a never-ending equation because the reality is that there are a lot of things that can bring us wealth.

The key is really the first step: defining wealth -- your equation, your plan, and your destination.

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If a Cookie Could Talk

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06/01/2015

If a Cookie Could Talk photo

If your favorite cookie could talk, what would it say?

An Oreo might warn you, "I'm more addicting than cocaine!"

A Specialty's Bakery Semi Sweet Chocolate Chunk Cookie -- a personal favorite -- would beg, "Split me, I'm 440 calories and have 21 grams of fat!"

An oatmeal cookie might plead its case with you, insisting, "I am higher in fiber than the chocolate chip and have less calories."

Or maybe the cookie would ask to be eaten. It will be happy if its purpose is fulfilled.

OK, I have a slight sugar addiction. I try not to cave in to it unless the treat is amazing. My office etiquette is to have one bite of something if a sugar pusher insists, and if it's delicious, I will come back for seconds. Sugar may not be more addicting than cocaine, but it's the downfall of many diets.

Check out this video of three people giving up sugar for one month. I am not suggesting you try it too, for a month or even a day, but developing a strategy to eat less crap is a key to health. Here are a few suggestions:

- Partner up with a friend
- Schedule a cheat meal each week
- Prepare healthy snacks (cut up fruits a veggies, nuts, seeds..)
- Become a dessert snob

Along with eating less sugar, you should read food labels. Sugar is hidden in many packaged food. Sometimes it's by a different name; check out this list of sweeteners devised by marketers and scientists. Don't be fooled into thinking you can have an extra serving because the cookie uses agave nectar instead of cane sugar.

As a trainer, it pains me to admit this, but diet is just as important as exercise, sometimes more so. Exercise is essential for health, but you cannot eat whatever you want because you're "active." Running 10 miles a day doesn't mean you can polish off a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Eating all that ice cream might not wreck your six-pack, but sugar is a leading contributor to obesity in children and adults and linked to numerous health issues.  

Instead of being a sugar pusher, become a veggie pusher. Carrot sticks won't disappear quickly from the candy bowl, but it will be appreciated, at least by me.

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