OyChicago blog

RANSOM

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07/29/2010

The idea was hatched one incredible day in May. “What if there was a party and all the invites were actually ransom notes?” And so the party planning began.

My accomplices and I had our first top secret meeting and formed the outline for a top secret ransom note party. We would steal from our friends, send them ransom notes, and make them bring various items (mostly things that make for a good party, like frozen pizza and Solo cups, but also random things, like toy soldiers, watercolors and Metamucil) to a party in exchange for their stuff back.

For the next month we went around thieving. We didn’t take anything terribly important, but things people would probably want back, like a Wii remote cover, a framed photo, a stuffed animal, a sofa cushion, Duck Walk menus and the OC on DVD. We took things from ourselves to hide our tracks. Once enough items were secured, we sent everyone (including ourselves) ransom notes with cut out magazine letters. It went a little something like this:

NO COPS photo 1

HEY YOU! I HAVE YOUR ATHENS ROAD TRIP PHOTO ALBUM. IF YOU WANT IT BACK UNHARMED, BRING A CARDBOARD BABY AND YOUR FAVORITE BOOZE TO 3806 N. KENMORE AVENUE IN THE BASEMENT ON JULY 24TH AT 8. I WILL HAVE BEER. AND SOME CHIPS. I’LL BLOW THE PLACE UP!
RSVP TO:
  IHAVEYOURLOVEDONE@GMAIL.COM
GET UPDATES ON YOUR SHIT AT  TWITTER.COM/IHAVEYOURLOVED1

The day the notes were delivered we feverishly checked ihaveyourlovedone@gmail.com and twitter.com/ihaveyourloved1 for RSVPs. We got some great ones, like:

Unfortunately I will not be able to attend as I have a work commitment. If my loved one is Dan, please harm away… Also if you read your email as "I have your love done" instead of "I have your loved one" it makes you seem like a baker who makes heart shaped cakes.

and

I AM SORRY I CANNOT COME, KIDNAPPER. YOU CAN HAVE SUN CHIPS WHENEVER YOU LIKE, JUST STOP BY. WE CAN EAT THEM TOGETHER AND TALK ABOUT YELLING. AND YOUR GRAMMAR, MAYBE.

and

Unfortunately, I have a wedding that night so I don't think I'm going to make it. Also, nothing you can do to that sofa cushion is worse than what I've already done to it.

I had some gchat conversations with the ransomed, like:

Kari:  i'm just gonna tell you, sorry if i ruin the surprise
          someone took my doormat a few days ago, i was confused
          and then i got a letter addressed to me and dan
          and basically its being held ransom for a party in july
          i have to bring queso to get it back

and

Emily:  dude, did you get a letter in the mail?
me:      i get letters all the time
Emily:  emmy and i got this letter, it’s like a ransom letter
            and they have my ceramic turtle, it’s been missing for awhile
me:      kari was telling me something similar
Emily:  oh yeahh??
me:      doormat
Emily:  they have a twitter account and it said something about a doormat

I acted surprised and kept my knowledge and excitement under wraps. I had to remember what I had been told and what Kid Napper had been told because if someone asked if Scott was coming, I couldn’t answer truthfully with, “No, he’s going to his Grandma’s 80th birthday party,” because I, myself, did not know this information, but I, Kid Napper, knew all about it.

And then the accusations started rolling in. I was accused immediately, but kept placing the blame on other people. I’d say, “No, I didn’t do this, but I wish I had. It’s such a good idea! It seems a lot like something Steve would do. He’s got a lot of time to kill during work.” We took direct quotes from people’s Facebook pages and posted them on Twitter. We tried tweeting in a way that didn’t sound like us, which pretty much just involved TYPING IN ALL CAPS AND USING POOR GRAMMAR.

It was especially hard to lie to my roommate. We tell each other everything. She’s pretty much my living breathing external hard drive. When I’d need to meet my fellow Kid Nappers for planning meetings I’d put on workout clothes and tell her I was going to the gym, but actually go to someone’s apartment and come home at precisely the right time to make it look like I went to a class. I cleared the history on my internet browser after I used it each time. I couldn’t have her borrowing my computer and seeing I was logged in to Twitter as ihaveyourloved1.

I was anxious all the time, but I also had uncontrollable fits of laughter at inappropriate times. I couldn’t stop thinking about how we planned to have a chandelier fall from the ceiling when everyone got there and mannequins tied up with sacks over their heads and a tape recorder screaming “Help me! Help me!” and how we wanted one of us to dress in all black and wear a bunny head to hide their face.

On the ransom notes, we put the location as 3806 N. Kenmore Avenue, although we didn’t know anyone that lived there. It’s a weird creepy building we scoped out. In actuality we had no idea where to have the party and knew we’d be emailing a change in location, which we finally decided would be one of the Kid Nappers’ places. His roommate was out of town and not everyone had been there before. The update went a little like this:

WE'VE BEEN RATTED ON. WE HAVE TO CHANGE THE SPOT. MEET ME IN WRIGLEYVILLE. ON SEMINARY UNDER THE TRAIN TRACKS. WE'LL BE DRESSED IN ALL BLACK. IN CASE YOU'RE A STUPID SHIT AND FORGOT, IT'S THIS SATURDAY AT 8 PM SHARP. NO SOONER NO LATER. GOT THAT ASSHOLES? COME ALONE. OR WITH FRIENDS. IF YOU'RE LATE THERE WILL BE A SIGN HANGING UP WITH FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. JUST DON'T BE LATE AND YOU WON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT IT. OR YOU CAN CALL 440-***-****. SEE YOU SOON BITCHES.

KID NAPPER

*This letter has been modified to protect the accused and be a little more R and a little less X.

The phone number was actually Steve’s, who we had tried to blame earlier.

The day of the party finally arrived and I was so nervous. At 8pm sharp, no sooner, no later, we showed up under the train tracks. Us Kid Nappers also showed up, plain-clothed, and acting as normal ransomed folk. At 8:15pm sharp, our recruited fake kid nappers (who were friends of mine, but no one had met before) showed up carrying large sticks, dressed in black and wearing masks and wigs. They demeaned us and led us to the spot.

NO COPS photo 2

When we arrived, the truth finally came out, we confessed and the party commenced. It was totally amazing, naturally. I humbly think of it as “the party of the decade.” Then the Rumple Minze came out and all memory of the evening began to fade but seeing my friends reunited with their loved ones and the mess that was left in the morning proved the evening a success.

GOT SHIT TO SAY TO ME? WANT HELP WITH YOUR PARTY? TOO BAD BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. BUT YOU CAN EMAIL ME ASSHOLES.  IHAVEYOURLOVEDONE@GMAIL.COM

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Defining the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew

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07/28/2010

Exactly a year ago, I couldn’t have been doing anything more opposite than what I’m doing today.

You see, right now I’m sitting in my office in downtown Chicago, finishing up my lunch and typing away at my computer. One year ago, I was sitting by a campfire in a Bedouin tent in southern Israel after just getting back from riding camels and donkeys, surrounded by a group of people I hadn’t known before traveling with them halfway across the globe.

Exactly one year ago, I was nearing the end of my Birthright Israel trip.

Defining the difference photo 1

My birthright group, after making it to the top of a hike

Growing up, I had never really thought I’d end up going on a trip with mostly strangers to a place I had only heard about at Hebrew School and sporadically in the news. It had never really crossed my mind as something that would be important to me. But when my brother went on his Birthright trip the summer after his freshman year in college, he came back a changed person.

If you asked him how his trip went, he would declare it as the best experience, singing praises not just about the places he went to, but also the people he met and his newfound interest in his religion. Before he left, I would never have described my brother as religious. But he came back from his trip with an entirely new perspective on Judaism.

When it came time for me to go, I was steadfast in my denial that the same transformation would happen to me. Even if it happened to my own brother—the last person I would ever think of to undergo such a dramatic change—I was just looking forward to a free trip and meeting new people.

Defining the difference photo 2

After riding camels, exactly one year ago

I can tell you the exact moment that changed.

Well to be fair, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in time. Everything kind of blurred together after ten days of virtually no sleep and nonstop activity. But I do remember the exact words I heard someone speak to the whole group. Those words hit me with a realization that somewhere along the trip, I had made that same transformation my brother had three years prior.

We had all gathered together for one of our final tie-in sessions (where we would all talk about what we had experienced so far on the trip, our favorite parts, etc.) and someone said, “Being here, in Israel, can really make someone change their priorities from being a Jewish American to an American Jew.”

I had never heard of any phrase like that before. At first I was really confused; I mean aren’t those two classifications the exact same thing? But as this person explained further, they were actually the exact opposite of each other.

To explain: classifying yourself as a Jewish American means you are, at heart, an American citizen, always putting that as your top priority, and you happen to be Jewish too. To call yourself an American Jew shows you put being Jewish as your main priority, it is most important to you. And that, I realized, is what I had become—An American Jew.

I don’t know what did it for me, and when I asked my brother he couldn’t answer either. I think it was the whole experience—the combination of the people I met, the places we went, and the conversations we had. I found myself really invested in my religion all on my own for the first time in my life. No one was forcing me into it, I had no obligations to feel that way; it just came about on its own.

Now, I’m not saying I suddenly became an Orthodox Jew, praying three times a day, etc. But for the first time, I just really cared about being Jewish, and I felt a personal tie to it. I became proud of being a part of this religion.

These feelings didn’t end as soon as I returned home (albeit a week later than I had originally planned. I had met someone on the trip that I became close with, and ended up extending my trip with her to travel all around the country on our own schedule with some much needed sleep added in this time!). When I got back to school in the fall, I continued spending time with the friends I had made on my trip, and subsequently started meeting their friends. Before I knew it, I was going to Jewish events at both Hillel and Chabad on campus, hanging out with more Jewish people than I had ever known before, and even my friends from the previous year could see the change in me.

I had made the switch from being a Jewish American to an American Jew. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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Oy’s Pre-Fall Fashion Frenzy

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07/27/2010

fall_fashion_frenzy_golden

Fall fashions

Pre-Fall.  It’s amazing what those two little words can do when hyphenated. 

Those two teeny words have the power to bring me to a terrifying level of excitement, and then crush me, just as quickly. 

Are you asking yourself, “What the hell is the girl talking about?” Do the words “Pre-Fall” not immediately register with you?  If so, I’ll refer to you as the “Shoppingly Challenged.” And for my Shoppingly Challenged, (or SC) readers, I’ll explain what is just so amazing and so devastatingly crushing about Pre-Fall. 

Pre-Fall is the time of the summer when all of the stores and designers release their fall fashions—holy excitement!  Come early July, I can’t wait to see what the stores are showing for fall, and take advantage of the summer sales.  I pre-shop the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale (arguably one of the greatest of the Pre-Fall sales,) look for my High Holiday outfits, and start figuring out how I’m going to save to afford all of the fall staples that I’ve been drooling over.  So this all sounds great, right?  Where does the “devastatingly crushing” part of Pre-Fall kick in? It kicks in NOW, when I think about the “fall” part of Pre-Fall.  Where did summer go? Why am I getting emails from my favorite stores about which sweaters and boots I MUST purchase this fall?!  I even woke up to an email in my mailbox this morning about a certain designer’s FALL-WINTER collection! Fall-Winter!  WHAT! What about tank tops and sandals, and teeny tiny skirts?  Ugh, THIS is the part of Pre-Fall that is awful.  It makes me feel like summer is slipping between my fingers before it even started! And it reminds me of everything that I need to buy this year for fall…. And for fall-winter.

Because I am Oy!’s resident fashionista (who is limited to a non-profit salary), I’ve come up with a list of stylish fall items that are still in my closet from last year, that are just as hot and trendy this year.  Hopefully my list helps to calm my nerves and yours, as the Pre-Fall stress sets in…

Shoes—Like last fall, boots are all the rage! We’re seeing boots of all heights, ranging from high heel clogs, to short booties—aka shoeties (pronounced shoo-tees), to flat riding boots, and OTK (over the knee) boots.  Most likely, the boots you bought last fall will be fine to wear again.  I can’t wait to break out my flat OTK boots and my shorter ankle booties. They were fantastic last year, and I know they’ll get me through another season!

Bottoms—Hurray! Super skinny jeans have not left the scene!  No need to replace your favorite skinnies!  Expect to see new skinnies in all shades of denim, including twill and military green—some even adorned with cargo pockets.  We’ll also get to re-wear our second-skin jeggings, or jean leggings.  Black or dark grey jeggings are a fantastic staple to dress up or dress down.  This fall, hemlines on dresses and skirts are short, like this summer… talk to your employer about that one…

Tops—Designers are showing a lot of feminine details, like ruffles and lace.  While you might not have pieces like this from last fall, a fantastic silk blouse with ruffles or unique details around the neck is a great investment piece! It can work at work, under a suit or cardigan, but can also work out on the weekends under another hot item for fall—the leather jacket! Snug leather jackets have been in for awhile now, and I don’t see them going anywhere—another great investment piece.

Handbags—We’re seeing a lot of top-handle handbags this fall. The cross-body bags from summer and spring are still in, so don’t panic about needing a new purse.  However, if you plan on splurging on a purse, feel confident in your top handle purchase, knowing that it is a classic design that will never go out of style.

Trendy Work—This all depends on the dress code at your office, but it’s easy to work trendy into your work wardrobe. I’m planning on buying several long sweaters, which will look great with skinnies, and are also work appropriate with a turtleneck, black skinny pants, and chunky heels or OTK boots.  On more conservative days, a ruffle-y silk top pairs well with a suit, or a cardigan and high-waisted skirt. 

In closing, savor the summer, and don’t let Pre-Fall stress you out.  Think of all of the exciting new fashions, awesome sales, and my tips for saving a few dollars by wearing pieces from last year.  You’ll look just as fabulous this fall wearing last year’s boots and skinnies with a new top. I promise.  As for the High Holidays, wear something great that will catch the attention of others if you get caught in a not-so-wonderful Rosh Hashanah sermon…

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Gazpacho 101

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07/26/2010

Gazpacho 101 photo

When the heat is on and you cannot bear the thought of turning on the oven, keep cool with refreshing gazpacho. Gazpacho originated in Spain as an afternoon snack. The true Andalusia version has almonds, bread, grapes, olive oil, vinegar and salt. Sometimes, anchovies are even added. It is peasant food that utilizes leftover ingredients. The bread soaks up the water, and then the mixture is pounded with a mortar and pestle. The gazpacho is creamy and refreshing.

The gazpacho that we know and enjoy originated after Columbus brought peppers and tomatoes to Spain. The secret to great gazpacho is not to let any one ingredient be more pronounced than any other. The whole dish should be in harmony— very subtle and delicate in flavor.

Be sure to use your best olive oil for gazpacho. Because the gazpacho is not cooked, the flavor of the oil is very important. I use an unfiltered, organic Spanish extra virgin olive oil. It is delicious and I only use it for salads, cold soups and finishing sauces.

When the weather is hot and you do not feel like cooking, you can still entertain with style. Whirr up several gazpachos, pour some sangria and enjoy.

Recipes adapted from my book JEWISH COOKING FOR ALL SEASONS (John Wiley and Sons).

Tomato Gazpacho

This is a version of the soup that we commonly eat here in America. It is refreshing and delicious.

4 garlic cloves
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 red bell pepper-seeded and de-veined
1 small English cucumber-peeled and seeded
2-3 pounds very ripe tomatoes
1 cup of soft bread torn into pieces-left over challah trimmed of crust will work nicely
¼ cup rice vinegar
Splash of sherry (optional)
⅓ cup Extra Virgin olive oil-use your best tasting olive oil
2 cups unsalted tomato juice
1 teaspoon pimenton*
Salt and pepper

1. Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until very smooth and the mixture is peach colored.
2. Cover the gazpacho and chill it completely before serving. Adjust slat and pepper to taste.
3. Garnish with: herbed croutons, chopped cucumber, fresh parsley, chopped egg, Extra Virgin olive oil, hot chilies, roasted peppers. Use your imagination!

*Pimenton is a Spanish smoked paprika. It is really not comparable to the paprika found in most grocery stores. It has a wonderful sweet smokiness essential to Paellas, chorizo and other Spanish delicacies. Pimenton can be found readily on-line or at specialty markets and at The Spice House on-line.

White Gazpacho (Ajo Blanco)

This is a version of the classic gazpacho from Andalusia. I love this version. It is beautiful in a glass bowl or a wine glass.

4 cloves garlic
1 quart of ice cold water
2 cups soft bread-crusts removed
6 ounces blanched almonds
2 cups of green grapes-peeled
¼ cup rice vinegar
Splash of sherry
⅓ cup Extra Virgin olive oil-use your best tasting olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Place All of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and the process until very smooth. Add the reserved water to adjust the consistency.
2. Chill the gazpacho until it is very cold. Garnish with toasted almonds, grapes and flat leaf parsley.


Green Gazpacho (from Axarquia in Malaga)

This is a gazpacho that really highlights the vegetation of the mountains in Malaga. This version is a “shepherd’s gathering soup”. I love the herbaceous flavor and bright green color. I feel cool and refreshed just looking at this gorgeous concoction.

2 cloves garlic
1 small bulb of fennel-fronds removed and saved for garnish
2 cups watercress leaves or favorite lettuce
¼ cup flat leaf parsley leaves
¼ cup mint leaves
¼ cup rice vinegar
Splash of sherry (optional)
⅓ cup Extra Virgin olive oil-use your best tasting olive oil
1 quart of ice cold vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender. Process until the gazpacho is completely smooth. Adjust consistency if necessary.
Chill the gazpacho completely before serving.
2. Garnish with fresh aioli, chopped mint, diced cucumber, reserved fennel fronds.

Gazpacho

This version is pure American and playful. I love cold food and am always looking for new ways to show off the flavors of food when chilled.

2 cloves garlic
3 pounds yellow tomatoes-or favorite heirloom tomatoes, roasted, peeled and seeded
1 cup yellow watermelon
⅓ cup Extra Virgin olive oil-Use your best tasting olive oil
¼ cup rice vinegar
Splash of sherry
1 quart ice cold water
Salt and pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Chill thoroughly before serving.
2. Garnish with watermelon cubes, diced tomatoes, aioli, flat leaf parley.

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Cheers! Chicago: A gin competition…and finding the right one, part 2

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07/23/2010

Cheers! Chicago: A gin competition photo 1

Before I get into my real post, I have some exiting news to share with all of you Oy!sters! About a month ago, I was chosen amongst young, Chicago online writers and bloggers to attend the unveiling of a brand new, American-made spirit called, New Amsterdam Gin at the Old Town Social Club.

For those of you unaware of gin, it is created similarly to vodka, but after distillation the white spirit is then infused and steeped with various botanical and citrus ingredients. Not only did we get our hands on the gin before anyone else in Chicago, each one of us writers also had the opportunity participate in a cocktail competition to find out who can make the best tasting cocktail using New Amsterdam Gin! We spent the night enjoying free finger food and complimentary cocktails from Old Town Social while we contemplated our recipes. How much fun is that?!

The competition was fierce, but the fun was never-ending! Check out the video to see how it all went down, and you may even catch a glance of me talking about my dazzling creation, “The Magnificent Mile”.  Now, I ended up in de-facto second place (there was only one grand prize), which is not too shabby. Alex Ott, the head mixologist for New Amsterdam Gin and the head judge for our cocktail competition, even mentioned to me afterwards that my cocktail reminded him of a lollipop he enjoyed when he was a child here in Chicago! Despite my runner-up standing, I had more fun hanging out with a group of Chicago food and drink writers at a great location with some amazing cocktails!

What more could I ask for on a rainy Tuesday evening? The hospitality was great from both Old Town Social and the fabulous people at DeVries Public Relations and New Amsterdam Gin. I highly recommend picking up a bottle of this incredibly smooth, easy to drink gin and add it to your home bar for just $13.99!

Cheers! Chicago: A gin competition photo 2

Now…on to my topic for this blog, dating in the most public and arguably the most awkward of social settings: the bar. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have seen and heard my share of both failures and successes of those braving the elements and finding love in the wilderness of the bar scene.

From behind the counter, it sometimes appears like singles looking to mingle are treasure hunters hacking at the bramble as they meander through the dark  jungle that is dating. Now, just because the jungle can be fierce does not mean that there isn’t any treasure to discover, or exotic places to explore. Sometimes bars can be a great place to hang out and meet attractive and single people, but you have to know where to go and what times to be there.

Certain restaurants and hotels have cozy bars and lounges where young, single people can crash after work or even after dinner for a nightcap. There are bars that will even offer food, so you can eat and scope out the scene or if you're lucky, find yourself engrossed in a conversation with a complete stranger sitting next to you. Even if you are dating someone, you can still go to bars and have a fun time without feeling awkward. At Le Colonial, where I tend bar, we have a “date night” promotion on Wednesdays where you can bring a date and get discounts on bubbly and certain menu items. Since you can eat at the bar, you can pick a stool, pony up and enjoy some fabulous food and sparkly with your significant other. You can even pick a spot on one of the comfy sofas in the lounge and relax to your heart’s content. Who said that bars can’t be romantic?

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to witness a very special proposal at at my restaurant! As I saw the wonton desserts go out, I knew he was preparing to ask and wanted to see it for myself...lo and behold, he dropped to one knee and asked her! All the servers (who are female) were all choked up and as they left, everyone clapped and wished them a hearty congratulations! To think that they were introduced by mutual friends a few years ago at this very bar!

Seeing a couple at my bar enjoying fabulous cocktails and company always puts a smile on my face, and should give hope to those prowling around the dating jungle that, with the right attitude, good timing, and the right setting, anything is possible! So keep your head up, all you single people, and keep the stories coming!

L’Chaim!

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Does this make me look fat?

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Six steps to healthy eating 
07/22/2010

Does this make me look fat? photo

First off stop thinking that! Not many people have the shape they want, and everyone has one body part they wished was smaller. Step one: Do not refer to yourself as fat. And don’t ask anyone, what my sister asked me in 1995: “Am I fat?”

At the time, I replied,” No, maybe a little chunky but not fat.” Do you think she ever forgot that? Sure I could’ve handled it better, but I was 19 and dumb. Lose the entire fat thinking. It’s not about being a size 8 or 6, it’s about being healthy. I’m not suggesting you look in the mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…” Instead, switch your thinking to, “I’m going to be healthier!” This is the first step to actually being healthy. Once you decide to be one of those “healthy people” it will be easier to say yes to the gym and no to super-sized fries.

Healthy people do eat fries, they just eat a smaller portion. This brings us to step two: portion control is king. I recommend checking out this article from the Mayo Clinic. The website provides pictures and commentary. The biggest take away: eat more vegetables and less of everything else.

Eating healthy is not easy and that’s step three: plan your meals. Since you are now a healthy person, fill your fridge and pantry accordingly. If you know at 3pm you’re starving, have some almonds and celery handy. Take a minute before you grocery shop or visit a restaurant and think about a few things:

• What am I going to cook for dinner the next five nights?
• Do I have almonds, cheese, fruit, lean meat?
• Do I have fresh or frozen veggies at home?
• I’m going to order/cook grilled fish, chicken, tofu...
• I’m going to order/cook steamed veggies.

Making good eating decisions, is easy—following through is hard. That’s why you should reward yourself. Take one day a week and eat that cookie, have the ice cream, order dessert… As much as I love the combo of chocolate and peanut butter, each of my meals doesn’t end with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Step four: be an informed eater, and read the label/nutritional information! A while back I did an article about Cosi, Panera, Corner Bakery and the amazing amounts of fat and salt in their salads and sandwiches. If you don’t read the label, you are eating blindly. I’m not suggesting you google malodextrin, but look at what’s in your food. Some crazy dieters recommend only eating food with five or fewer ingredients, that’s difficult in this 100 calorie pack world we live in. Instead, compare labels and buy brands with lower sodium and fat. And remember, fiber keeps you full.

Sometimes, low salt means low flavor. That brings us to step five: spice it up! If you are cooking, instead of adding salt use other flavors. Garlic powder, onion powder, lemon, and celery seed are all excellent ways of adding a salty flavor without actually adding salt. Using spices also helps keep the fat content down. With the right amount of flavors, you can cut down on the use of oil and butter. You can also substitute apple sauce and pumpkin for butter and oil in recipes. My family says they can taste the difference between apple sauce and butter, but when I use less butter, no one notices (but that’s our little secret).

Now where’s the fitness advice? Well step six: workout hard! If you have 90 minutes a day free to workout, tell me how you do it. Most of us get 30-60 minutes. Make the most out of your workout by adding some high intensity exercise, like sprinting, jumping, or biking really fast. The most common question I get is, “What’s more important, weight training or cardio?” The answer is tricky, but for most people, weight training is more important. And I suggest you combine the two. When you are pumping iron, make every fourth exercise running, biking, jumping  rope… and then go back to the weight training. If this sounds confusing, email me at rkrit@fitwithkrit.com and I can explain in greater detail.

Now get back to work, grab a glass of water, and remember—you are a healthy person!

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Immeasurable

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07/21/2010

Immeasurable photo

Clarity. It all started out with a cooking class. Well, me and our Ethiopian nanny cooking together. So, it was more of a lesson than a class, which I think ends up making more sense.

We hired an Ethiopian nanny because I strongly believe that when you adopt internationally, you bear a responsibility to keep the birth culture alive in the heart of your child. Prior to our daughter's arrival last October, I picked up a small, unintimidating book entitled something to the effect of, "Amharic made easy." First of all, I would like to say there is no such thing. The alphabet is different and the sounds are completely unfamiliar, which makes them extremely difficult to pronounce without guidance. I was deflated. I had imagined meeting my daughter, scooping her up in my arms and exclaiming in a paragraph (at least) of fluent Amharic about our love for her, her beautiful eyes, the weather, etc. This was clearly not going to happen. Not even close.

Once I realized, despite my great intentions, that I was not going to be able to teach my Ethiopian daughter Amharic, I knew I needed help. I reached out to a woman I had met through the Ethiopian Cultural Society. I told her I was looking for someone to teach my daughter Amharic and someone to teach me how to cook traditional Ethiopian food. She recommended someone. That someone, Mendena, came over to meet us and she, along with her sister, Sinta, have become an extended part of our family.

So, now back to the cooking lesson. Here I stood, pen and paper in hand, ready to take copious notes. All the requested ingredients sat sprawled on the kitchen counter. There were empty pots sitting wide open on the stove, awaiting Ethiopian deliciousness to be cooked inside them. "So...," I began as I observed potatoes being hand peeled. "How many potatoes do you cut?" I asked. Sinta replied with a shrug, "Oh, maybe three, four or five." My eye twitched a little. My writing hand stood still. "So, four?" I asked again. (Four was in the middle of those two numbers, so that made sense to me.)

"OK," Sinta replied. OK? Hmmmm. Sinta turned the fire on under the pot. Thirty or so seconds went by. Me: "Um, there's nothing in there." Sinta: "We warm the pot before we add the oil." I smiled. I wrote down, Warm pot for 30 or so seconds prior to oil.  Now we were getting somewhere. Sinta added oil. Me: "How much oil do you put in?" Sinta: "Some." Some? Some?! Excuse me, but what the hell? I'm taking notes! A tablespoon? Two? Some? Some does not translate in the world of cooking and recipe writing. I’m not happy.

Fast forward. There were onions, garlic, and salt. There were diced tomatoes, cabbage, lentils, green beans and carrots. There were ancient Chinese secret Ethiopian spices. In time, three pots bore amazing smelling food. I looked down at my pad of paper. No measurements. Instead I had written stuff like some, add when necessary, a little bit, or a little while.

I thought over what had happened. The whole process of cooking this meal had taken about an hour and a half. The meal could have been cooked in half that time. An American version of the same dishes would have included measurements, how thick or thin vegetables would be cut, cooking times and heating temperatures. But what I came to understand was that here in my small kitchen, I had learned a big lesson about myself and how my culture was so very different from my daughter's.

Sinta was passing on to me the experience she had in her kitchen growing up in Ethiopia. She stood watching her mom cook. Just time and repetition as her guide observing her mom cook over and over again until she got it. I asked Sinta and she said there were no written family recipes. I told her I was shocked…and delighted. This was a very new way of being in my kitchen for me. I felt like I was being given an incredible gift that I now would have the opportunity to share with my daughter.

I don't know if everyone in Ethiopia cooks this way. My sense is, that yes, it's just the way of living there. They have a consciousness geared towards family and tradition with no sense of urgency. That’s their daily life.

Now this may be a shock, but as incredible as an experience as it was, this cooking lesson did not make me Ethiopian. But it did give me an opening to start thinking about my own rushed and impatient American ways. My need for definitiveness and tangible results rarely allows me to stop and live in the moment. I am always four steps ahead. I am rushing here to get to there, and then, I'm rushing back. I have taken the time since this cooking experience to cook this food with friends. And while I am cooking, I am telling them what I learned in the process of it all. And I am present with the food and its preparation. I enjoy the experience of cooking each individual ingredient with no sense of urgency to jump to the next step.

Right now, my daughter just drags her doll around the kitchen while I cook. Sometimes she sits on my foot. I look forward to the day when she stands next to me, learning from me something she would have learned in her birth country. But for now, I savor the moment and am content with the Ethiopian spirit of simply being present. Because "present" is just another word for "gift."

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The Top 18 Jewish Movie Soundtracks

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07/20/2010

Fade to black hats photo 2

There are lists of Jewish movies, and lists of Jewish music. But I haven’t seen any lists of Jewish movie music— music in the soundtracks of Jewish-themed movies— so I made my own. Rather than limit myself to a “Top 10,” I decided to go with another Jewish number: 18.

I soon became aware that there are really two kinds of soundtracks. One of original music or songs, and one of compiled songs. So I’ll get to the second kind in another post.

For now, these are the best original soundtracks for movies with Jewish themes, listed chronologically (please feel free to disagree vehemently— what did I miss, what should I have skipped?):

1. The Jazz Singer (1927)
This was the first “talkie,” and it was about the Jewish struggle with assimilation. It starred one of the greatest performers of all time, Al Jolson. He famously adlibbed, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” and then proceeded to sing the Kaddish and Kol Nidre alongside classics like “Blue Skies” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

2. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Today, “epic” movies are all sci-fi and fantasy. But once, they were literally Biblical in scope. The legendary Elmer Bernstein turns in a sea-splittingly rousing score.

3. Ben-Hur (1959)
Speaking of epic, and of Charlton Heston… Yes, this is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” but every character here who isn’t Roman is Judean. Miklos Rozsa won his third Oscar for this score. As Ben-Hur involved Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Roman themes, who better than the man who scored Jack Benny’s Hitler parody To Be or Not to Be, The Thief of Bagdad, and QuoVadis?

4. Exodus (1960)
Composer Ernest Gold won the Oscar for the theme for this one in 1960. It’s one of the themes that pop up in every list of “greatest movie themes of all time,” so why should this list be an exception? This is not about the original Exodus (see entry #2) but about a boat with that name trying to get into the nascent state of Israel with the help of Paul Newman.

5. Funny Girl (1968)
It’s Barbra Streisand singing about being another Jewish acting/singing star, Fanny Brice. It’s another assimilation story. It’s about people… people who need people. Babs won the Tony for the stage version and the Oscar for the film. Glee has already used two of its songs.

6. Oliver! (1968)
Dickens’ classic does not paint the most… affectionate portrait of our man Fagin. But one of the film’s six Oscars was for the music. And the soundtrack includes that anthem of Jewish holidays, “Food, Glorious Food.”

7. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
While many roles are identified with just one actor, Tevye was meaty enough to have Topol (who did the movie version), Theodore Bikel, Herschel Bernardi, and Zero Mostel all gain fame in the part. More recent assayers have included everyone from Harvey Fierstein to Alfred Molina. (But not Mandy Patinkin. Something is wrong about that.) Oh, and it’s the only klezmer musical, certainly the only one to get the Oscar for Best Original Score.

8. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Not too many songs, but memorable ones at that. There’s the theme— “He rode a blazing saddle…” There’s “I’m Tired,” which helped Madeline Kahn get an Oscar nomination for channeling Marlene Dietrich. And there’s the closing number “The French Mistake,” probably the only movie song with the Yiddish-ish word “tush” in it. Mel Brooks’ musical of his Producers would later win more Tonys than any other musical ever, and this is how he practiced. (Wait… is this a Jewish movie? Well, both these people and this person say so.)

9. Cabaret (1972)
Songs by the Jewish team of Kander and Ebb, who also gave us Chicago. The two main singers— Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (previously Katz)— won Oscars, as did the sophisticated music.

10. The Jazz Singer (1980)
Well, no, Neil Diamond can’t act… and Laurence Olivier, who can, famously lamented his involvement. But the songs were big hits, with three— “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again,” and the immigration anthem “America”— cracking the Top 10. As a bonus, there are versions of Adon Olam and Kol Nidre rendered in Diamond’s lush baritone. The soundtrack itself was nominated for a Grammy. It sold more than five million copies. Your parents have the LP in their basement.

11. Chariots of Fire (1981)
One of the most famous instrumental themes, period. Not just because its composer, Vangelis, was mostly a new-agey one, and not just because it innovatively used contemporary electronic instruments in a period piece. But because… well, now every time you see fast-action rendered in slow-mo, your brain goes: Da da-da-da daa-daa (chchchch), Da da-da-da daaaaa (chchchch). This artsy sports flick won the Oscar for Best Original Score.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
John Williams + Steven Spielberg= one of the longest-running, best-loved partnerships in movie history. And the rousing fanfare style of the Raiders theme is not at all repetitive of Williams’ own Superman score of three years prior, so why bring it up?

13. Yentl (1983)
Barbra again. Best Original Score. Yes, Papa can hear you.

14. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Ennio Morricone + Sergio Leone  = great matchup of composer and director long before the Spielberg/Williams movies. Mostly, they did Westerns, but gangster movies are somewhat city-based cowboy flicks, no? Considered one of maestro Morricone’s best scores, this was eliminated from Oscar competition on a technical point. If you liked Bugsy, or even if you didn’t, you’ll like this film, the closest Jewish movies get to The Godfather.

15. Schindler’s List (1993)
John Williams + Steven Spielberg again, only this time Williams is going somewhat klezmer (Best Original Score). Itzhak Perlman, who helped (re)popularize klezmer, performs the haunting theme, and it’s become a required piece for him to perform— mandatory at Jewish fundraisers. In the recent Vancouver Olympics, the Israeli figure skaters did a routine to it. It’s almost liturgy at this point. There’s also a Yiddish children’s song here, and the clarinet parts we done by old-school klez virtuoso Giora Feidman. Did you know that Billie Holiday’s on the soundtrack, too?

16. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Late Israeli singer Ofra Haza performs the song “Deliver Us.” Also, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey duet on the soundtrack… as do Steve Martin and Martin Short, together again for the first time. But it’s the Whitney/Mariah “When You Believe” that won the Oscar for Best Original Song— go figure. Stephen Schwartz (Disney’s Pocahontas, Hunchback, and Enchanted, but also Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked) wrote the lyrics.

17. Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
Yes, Adam Sandler has more songs in him than “The Chanukah Song.” And they are all about… Chanukah. Well, this movie is all about Chanukah, and the songs are all in the movie. The songs themselves are about stuff in the movie. If you have all three versions of “The Chanukah Song” on your iPhone, this is the next thing you need to get.

18. Defiance (2008)
This film the one about brothers who were not “basterds” but were in fact pretty freakin’ “glourious.” James Newton Howard took a break from scoring M. Night Shayamalan movies to compose this moody, almost Goth, soundtrack. The violin solos are by Joshua Bell. It was nominated for Best Original Score (beaten for the Oscar by Slumdog Millionaire, the movie best known for making me lose my Oscar pool that year because I thought Benjamin Button was going to sweep).

See you soon with the 18 best compilation soundtracks to Jewish movies.

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Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat

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07/19/2010

I was lucky enough to be one of the group leaders on a recent Shorashim Birthright Israel trip.  We had an amazing 10 days in Israel with all the necessary highlights—the climb up Masada, the dunk in the Dead Sea, the beach in Tel Aviv, the Wall in Jerusalem and more.  But what surprised me most wasn’t a tourist attraction at all.

Because this was a Chicago trip, we visited Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, JUF’s Partnership 2000 region.  JUF provides money, resources, and volunteers to help this community that sits off highway six, toward the middle of the country.

The region’s biggest claim to fame is that it is home to the largest Intel Factory in the world.  However, we were not there to look at computer chips.  There is an absorption center in Kiryat Gat— a place where new immigrants to Israel stay when they first arrive.  The center provides a support network teaching the language, culture, and life of Israel to the new olim.  We really found a melting pot of people living there from Yemenites, to Russians, to Ethiopians, all sharing the same falafel stand.

We were there to help.  There is a children’s center— think Israel’s version of a YMCA.  It’s a place where kids can go after school to play, relax, and be safe.  It keeps them off the street, away from drugs, and generally out of trouble.  It turned out to be one of the best two hours we spent in Israel.

Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat photo 5

Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat photo 1

The kids, who ranged in age from three to about 13, didn’t speak much English, but it didn’t matter.  You don’t need English to understand coloring, videogames, or breakdancing.  “When does the breakdancing start?” I asked.  “As soon as you clear this room, you guys interrupted it when you came in here,” I was told.  The crowd dispersed, the music started and an 11-year-old boy started spinning on his head.

Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat photo 2

Meanwhile, intense games of basketball started up on the basketball court and soccer in another part of the yard.  In another building there were board games, videogames and all kinds of arts and crafts.  Running around the entire property came two kids on the back of one our group members and three of the biggest smiles you ever saw.

Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat photo 3

Before we got to the center, one participant pulled me aside to tell me he didn’t really like kids and was disappointed we had moved around a hike that was originally scheduled for that time.  He also happened to be the first to grab a drum and bang along with the other kids while the music was playing.  “I thought you didn’t like kids?”  I asked him when we returned to the bus.  “I guess I didn’t know that I did,” he said.  He pledged to donate some of his old instruments to Kiryat Gat and deliver them personally.  He decided right then and there that he would return to Israel and spend part of his time volunteering for this wonderful community.

Breakdancing in Kiryat Gat photo 4

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It's a bOy!Chicago

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07/16/2010

It's a bOy!Chicago photo

Everyone here at Oy!Chicago would like to say mazel tov to Paul Wieder and his wife, Elisheva who are now proud parents of a healthy baby boy! He was born on July 15. Congratulations Paul and Elisheva!

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The perfect summer soundtrack

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07/15/2010

It’s summertime in Chicago: the perfect time for grillin’, chillin’, and One Tree Hillin’. Okay, so I’ve never actually seen One Tree Hill, but it sounded good. Summertime is also the perfect time for great music; and anyone who’s ever seen an outdoor concert knows that certain music just sounds better this time of year. Further, entire albums can have a distinct “summertime” feel. Granted, certain albums, notably anything released by Jimmy Buffet, force the good summer vibes so hard-core that it makes you long for Chicago in February. (I like cheesy tunes as much as anyone, but “Cheeseburger In Paradise” is the musical equivalent of a hangover. It lasts way too long, there’s usually vomiting involved, and you wonder why life can be so cruel at times.) All you Buffet fans who say, “dude, you’ve got to see him live to get it” can relax: I have. The show was okay but the Buffet crowd is weird. I recall seeing a teenager dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shot-gunning his dad’s Miller Light, singing along to every word of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw.” It’s always a classy scene in Tinley Park.

Every summer, there seem to be a few albums I go back to year after year to serve as my soundtrack to the season. In fairness, all of them are great all year round: only a few have any direct tie to the season. (In some of these cases, I might have gotten into this music in the summertime, and therefore they maintain a direct connection to summer.) Regardless, in the grand tradition of lazy-yet-still-hopefully-entertaining journalism, I now present a list of my favorite summertime albums/CD’s/mp3s/8-tracks to you, gentle Oy! reader.

A few thoughts before I begin.

1) Greatest Hits albums were not allowed while compiling this list. They’re too easy and I feel like including them would be cheating. And I walk around feeling guilty enough as it is.

2) I’ve picked one album from each of the last five decades, to help vary the list; and also because my tastes tend to lie more in the classic rock realm. Truth be told, it still tilts that way. Accordingly, if at any point this month you’ve uttered the phrase, “That song is totally my jam” when Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” comes on the radio, you might not agree with this list. Yeah, I like that song too, but what exactly does “that song’s my jam” even mean? What makes a song your jam? Sounds pretty selfish to me.

3) You may quibble with my argument that certain albums or songs sound more like “summer” than others. Sure, it may appear to be an inherently subjective claim, but please keep in mind that everything I write transcends mere opinion and is actually 100% correct and factual.

With that said, I now present for you the first (and I’m guessing last…)

TJ’S TOP 5 SUMMERTIME ALBUMS:

2000s: Wilco—Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Perhaps not the most daring or complex album by this astonishingly underrated band—certainly, a case can be made for “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” as their “best”— but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album which better captures the mellow, sunny, laid-back feel of a beautiful summer afternoon in each and every track. As both a songwriter and singer, Jeff Tweedy seems clearly inspired by a beautiful day on every song, and the result is an album that accomplishes the rare feat of being relaxed and “easy” without ever becoming dull. I can’t help but believe that if this album had been released in the 1970’s, it would be one of the best-known albums in rock. But in an era when the pop music chart is dominated by all kinds of auto-tuned awful, this album remains little known outside of the realm of Wilco fans. One listen and you’ll know why that’s the kind of travesty we haven’t seen since the term “hanging chads” was politically pertinent. 
Key Songs: Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky, Either Way

1990s: Ben Folds Five—Whatever And Ever Amen (1997)
If there were any justice in the world, the masses would know Ben Folds best songs the way they know the best songs from Elton John and Billy Joel, the two piano rockers to whom Ben is most often compared. As a piano player myself, I have gravitated to Ben Folds ever since I first heard this album in the summer of 1997. Perhaps that’s why it has such a strong summer connotation to me in the (hard-to-believe) 13 years since its release. (My God: thousands of teenagers have been bar/bat mitzvahed since this album was released! How is this possible? Has “Seinfeld” really been off the air that long? Has it been that long since the Bulls were good? Am I really at a point in my life where a call to the “Hair Club For Men” is a viable option?) The upbeat songs really kick, and the ballads are among Ben Folds’ best. He’s made other great records, but no other Ben Folds release feels more perfect for a hot, sunny day than this. (Plus, this record scores major Oy! points for utilizing a klezmer band on the song, “Steven’s Last Night In Town”. L’Chaim.)
Key Songs: Kate, Battle Of Who Could Care Less, Selfless, Cold, & Composed

1980s: TIE: U2—The Joshua Tree (1987), Huey Lewis & The News—Sports (1983)
The 80’s were a strange time for music. It was an era driven by record company executives whose formula to making a hit record was roughly spend lots of money, supplant actual drummers with drum machines, and make sure everyone involved (including the drum machines) had lots of cocaine. There are exceptions, however, including these two albums that were among the most popular of the decade. U2’s “Joshua Tree” is probably their most famous album, and the one that took them from being a great college-radio band to one of the most popular bands of all time. Twenty-three years later, it still holds up as Bono & the Edge’s masterpiece, so it’s no coincidence that the songs have remained among the band’s most enduring. This album makes perfect sense when played around sunset; indeed, when the crickets creep in on the album’s penultimate song, it’s as if all of the colors of summer have emerged from your speakers. Who cares if you’ve heard these songs hundreds of times? You’ve watched the sun set many times too, and that never gets old. Same goes for this album. 
Key Songs: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With or Without You”, “Running To Stand Still”

I won’t waste your time proclaiming the greatness of Huey’s “Sports” album, lest I sound like the guy in “American Psycho.” (Though, in fairness, I am holding an axe as I type this. Please don’t ask me if I have a rain coat.) I will tell you that it’s the right of any man in their mid-30s to love and appreciate this album and its greatness without having to explain oneself. Granted, the fact that a buddy and I saw Huey perform at Ravinia in the summer of 1996 and had such a good time that we got lost in the Ravinia parking lot for what felt like days, may have something to do with my perhaps overwrought Huey-respect. (That friend, who grew up a few blocks from Ravinia in Highland Park, will be reminded of this for the rest of our lives.) Point is, the album is great, and anyone who tells you it isn’t probably listens to an inordinate amount of Flo Rida. For those of us born around the mid-1970s, it’s a summertime party album. Sad, but true.
Key Songs: “If This Is It”, “Walking On A Thin Line” “Heart Of Rock & Roll”

1970s:  Stevie Wonder—Innervisions (1973)
After The Beatles and Bob Dylan, a great case can be made for Stevie Wonder as being one of the most important artists of all time; an obvious first ballot Hall of Famer. His streak of 1970s classic albums alone puts him on the very short list of all-time greats, but then when you consider the early part of his career, you realize that seemingly everything he ever recorded is a standard.  That’s not easy to do. “Innervisions” is perhaps Stevie’s most political album, one that takes on the urban decay of America, anger about Vietnam, and in one of the best songs on the album, Richard Nixon.

As a musical extension of its politically charged nature, the album deftly portrays a sweltering, humid, summer day in urban America; and it’s not always pretty. One of his mist enduring songs, “Living For The City”, includes a short sketch depicting a wide-eyed country type going to live his dreams in New York City. As he gets off a Greyhound bus, and is immediately (and unknowingly) caught up in the chaos and trouble of street life, the song just sounds boiling hot. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish in a strictly aural medium where the time of year is never explicitly mentioned. But that’s a testament to the brilliance of Stevie, and that’s how magnificent this particular release is. If this isn’t in your collection, it should be downloaded immediately. Put it on during a long, hot day and you’ll know what I mean.
Key Songs: “Golden Lady”, “Living For The City”, “Higher Ground”, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”

1960s: The Beach Boys—Pet Sounds (1966)
The Beach Boys, thanks to co-founder Mike Love’s heavy hand (and the absence of the brilliant Brian Wilson), have been reduced to little more than a state fair “oldies” act in the last 20 years; slogging out the same hits year after year to adoring fans who probably should lay off the Big Macs and/or see a dentist.  Don’t confuse that image of the Beach Boys with this, their finest and most accomplished album. It’s telling that after hearing this album in 1966, Paul McCartney felt challenged and inspired enough to come up with an obscure release called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (Indeed, McCartney has often remarked that his favorite song of all time is this record’s gorgeous Brian Wilson composition, “God Only Knows.”) For those of you who are rolling your eyes at the prospect of hearing the “Oldies 104.3” friendly-yet-way-overplayed Beach Boys standards, (“Surfin’ USA”, “Help Me Rhonda”, etc…) know that this might be their least hit-filled record. It’s one where the sum of its parts is far greater than its individual songs. (In fact, it wasn’t until many years after its release that it became widely regarded as a “classic,” because at the time of its release it wasn’t deemed as accessible as other Beach Boys releases) The themes of love and heartbreak show that Brian Wilson—who in complete control of this album—had grown up and was beginning to push the musical boundaries which would ultimately drive him INSANE. (That the album was not a huge smash would send Wilson into a depression from which he’d never fully recover.) But it’s the document of a musical genius at work at the top of his game; and its influence is still unquestionably reaching modern bands. (It’s tough to imagine the Fleet Foxes without this record.) Best of all, those delicate harmonies and melodies that were hallmarks of the Beach Boys summer sound are here in large doses, making this a definitive summer listen, and awfully close to musical perfection.
Key Songs: “God Only Knows”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Caroline, No”

RUNNERS UP: 
Every single Beatles album (though “The White Album” with its themes rooted in nature, is particularly summery), Bob Marley—“Kaya,” Beastie Boys—“Ill Communication,” Marvin Gaye—“What’s Going On,” Steely Dan—“Katy Lied,” Guster—“Keep It Together,” Led Zeppelin—“IV,” Neil Young—“Harvest,” The Police—“Synchronicity,” Rolling Stones—“Tattoo You,” Van Morrison—“Astral Weeks.”

T.J. Shanoff is a writer, director, and musical director at The Second City. T.J.’s Second City show, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” will be revived in a limited engagement this August at the  Metropolis Theater  in Arlington Heights.

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The things we take for granted

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07/14/2010

ARK logo

This morning, I woke up, and my eyes literally did not want to open.  Not out of exhaustion, but because they were so uncomfortably dry.  I attribute it to a combination of excessive A/C to combat this overbearing heat and my LASIK surgery 18 months ago that occasionally leaves me wondering if my eyes have been relocated to the Sahara desert while I’m still in Chicago.

I knew the solution before I even realized the problem.  I stopped at CVS on my way to work and picked up a bottle of eye drops.  I wasn’t paying a lot of attention as I grabbed them, and suffered a mini-bout of sticker shock at the register.  Sixteen dollars.  Ugh.  So I pulled out my debit card and begrudgingly handed it to the cashier while silently cursing at my eyes for being so difficult.

It really sucks that my $16 went to CVS and the jerks that make Systane eye drops, but let’s be honest, my bank account will survive.  When I go to the grocery store on Sunday to pick up food for the week, my card will not be declined.  I will have totally forgotten about this morning’s liquid gold eye drops ($16 for a .667 ounce bottle—imagine if you converted that cost to gallons like gasoline!?).  And in a few months, if my eyes act up and decide to hate me once again, I’ll probably rummage through my purse, wondering where I left those silly drops, and when they don’t appear, I’ll run into CVS again to grab another (expensive) bottle.

I’m lucky.  I know it.  While I certainly didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I could afford my prescription or grocery bill.  Nearly everyone feels broke in college, but my perceived poverty mostly affected my drinking habits (pre-game before the bars) and dietary choices (Out for dinner?  No way!—more like mac and cheese, my college staple).

And even now, with my husband in school full-time—yes, that means no income for two years—we have planned well and have enough cash stashed away so we aren’t frantic when the rent is due.  Sure, we’re not going out to eat as much as we used to and I’m trying to scale back on the shopping, but we’re fine.

Not everyone is that lucky.  And that has never been more apparent to me than in the past three months, since I began my new job at The ARK.  The ARK’s primary mission is to create a safety net for Chicagoland Jews in need by providing vital human services within a framework of Jewish values and laws.  The mission statement is vague, but I can paint a picture of what that looks like.

As I drove past The ARK at 8:45 a.m. to detour to CVS, there was a line six people deep outside the building (we open at 9), waiting to take a number to see the dentist.  Most of them haven’t had the money to see a dentist in years and they aren’t just popping in for the regular old tooth cleaning and cavity check—they are treating infections, receiving free dentures, and having complex procedures.  And they are finally getting in after waiting nearly two months on the waiting list.  (Know any Jewish dentists?  We have about a dozen who volunteer their time in our dental clinic and it’s still not enough to meet the needs of Chicago’s uninsured Jews in need.  Same goes for doctors in the medical clinic!)

As I am typing this article at my desk, there are four volunteers in the food pantry helping clients of The ARK assemble their monthly food packages.  Most of the recipients of food from The ARK are already enrolled in Illinois’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that helps low-income residents buy the food they need for good health.  This governmental aid helps recipients get through about three weeks worth of groceries each month and covers only items that go in your mouth (think about things like toilet paper, shampoo, or diapers for your baby).  The ARK steps in to cover that gap and help our clients stay afloat by providing toiletries, paper goods and nutritious kosher food.  We’re Jews—we feed each other, it’s what we do.

Outside the entrance of the food pantry is a table where we place dozens of boxes of matzah each morning.  Local grocery stores donate it here by the boat-load once Passover ends (because who would really want to eat it when it wasn’t a mandatory holiday requirement?  I’m fairly certain that if I had to make a list of my top three least favorite foods, matzah would be number one).  The Passover Hagaddah describes matzah as lechem onim—the bread of the poor—and it was not until I witnessed the sheer amount of needy Chicagoans who take it home in July to feed their families that I understood why the moniker lechem onim really fits the bill.

Before I worked at The ARK, I imagined The ARK’s clients as elderly Jews and recent immigrants, but what is most baffling is that many of the people who frequent the pantry and the medical clinic look just like you or me—they are recently laid off professionals, elderly Jews who have outlived their retirement savings, mothers with young children, middle-aged suburbanites, and Jews from the former Soviet Union.  They are people from the suburbs and city and from all walks of Jewish life.  Most of them never would have thought that they would ever become a client of The ARK.

And I imagine that many of them never thought they would blink an eye at a $16 price tag on a bottle of eye drops.  Certainly puts life into perspective.

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My Shabbat dinner dream team

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07/13/2010

My Shabbat dinner dream team photo

Pictured in a photo circa 1978 is Cindy’s Grandma Tessie and Grandpa Harry—a dinner guest at her fictitious Shabbat dinner—her sister, Melissa, and the author, a baby at the time.

A hypothetical question
Here’s a question to pose to people around your Shabbat dinner table this Friday night: If you could invite anyone for Shabbat dinner, living or dead, who would it be? Like me, I hope you get to share Shabbat every week with loved ones—family and friends—but what if you had just one night to spend time with people you normally couldn’t?

I ponder this question from time to time and have come up with my fictitious Shabbat dinner guest list. These individuals would bring warmth, laughs, and engaging conversation to the table.

Harry Luck
Topping my guest list would be my Grandpa Harry Luck. While I was fortunate to grow up around three of my grandparents, my maternal grandfather died at age 75, exactly two weeks before my second birthday.

Though I don’t remember him, my family would share stories of Harry with me throughout my life. He had wit, intellect, and was a mensch. The second youngest of 10 children, Harry was born in a shtetl near Minsk, Belarus, in 1904. At age 20, he immigrated with his family to America. En route, they lived in London for a year, where Harry picked strawberries by day to make a living. An Englishman who wanted to learn Russian befriended Harry. A member of the Fabian Society, an intellectual Socialist movement, the Englishman took my grandpa to meetings, where George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell also attended.

Then, Harry moved to Wisconsin, where he eventually fulfilled a lifelong dream of buying a farm, becoming one of the very first Jewish farmers in Wisconsin. Soon, he met my grandmother; the young couple bought a dairy farm in Mapleton, where they also raised cattle, corn, two sons, and a daughter.

Yeshiva scholars would stay with my family to learn about farming before moving to kibbutzim (collective farms) in Israel. My grandparents were true Zionists. Long before the creation of the Jewish state, they invested a portion of their small savings in Israel even though it was a gamble on an uncertain future. Harry would say, ‘If this is worth nothing, then our lives are worth nothing.’

Irene Opdyke
Recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” for saving Jews during the Holocaust, Irene Opdyke was one of the first people to teach me about the meaning of heroism. When I was in junior high, my family hosted Irene, a Polish Catholic woman, at our home while she was in town for a speaking engagement.

During World War II, Irene worked for an SS officer on a villa as a housekeeper. Surreptitiously, she saved 12 Jews from capture, smuggling them into the basement of the villa without the officer’s knowledge. Eventually, the officer discovered her friends; he threatened to turn them in unless she would become his mistress.

In all, she hid the Jews for nine months, and one even gave birth while in hiding. After the war, Irene immigrated to America, where she lived until her death seven years ago at the age of 86.

Oseola McCarty
About a decade ago, I read an obituary of Oseola McCarty, an African-American washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Ever since she was a little girl, Oseola made her living washing and ironing clothes. She lived frugally, saving every penny she could. She didn’t own a car, opting to walk everywhere. She never married and outlived her relatives, putting away the money that was bequeathed to her.

At age 87, Oseola established a trust through which, at her death, a portion of her life savings would be left to the University of Southern Mississippi to provide scholarships for deserving African-American students in need. In the end, Oseola left approximately $150,000 to the students.

Darcy Pohland
When I was in college, local CBS news reporter Darcy Pohland welcomed me into the newsroom as an intern at the Minneapolis affiliate TV station.

Pohland, who passed away last winter at the age of 48, was bubbly, talented, and always smiling, despite an accident that almost took her life as a young woman. When she was in college, she dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broke her neck, causing permanent paralysis from the chest down.

And yet, she was one of the most capable people I have ever met. At CBS, I shadowed Pohland on news stories, some serious and others fun. She would drive us around town in a van designed to accommodate her paraplegia. Once, we covered a story about a Minneapolis boutique that sold funky clothes made of Astroturf and bubble wrap. Pohland coaxed me into modeling the clothes in an on-camera fashion show as part of the story. I had a ball during my fleeting time on the catwalk, twirling around for the camera, while Pohland cheered me on.
 
Adam Sandler
I realize one of these things is not like the other and that the final guest at my Shabbat table—alive and well in Hollywood—is a bit of a departure. But Adam Sandler, the Jewish movie mogul, comedian, husband, and father of two, could add a lot of levity to our dinner conversation.

From his early days portraying Theo’s friend “Smitty” on “The Cosby Show,” to helping Jewish boys and girls feel a little less alienated at Christmastime with his smash hit “The Chanukah Song” to playing a heartbroken 1980s wedding singer, Adam’s always been my biggest Hollywood crush.

In addition to his comedy career, he’s also a philanthropist. A few years ago, he donated $1 million to the Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire.

I think my grandpa and Adam would really hit it off.

Let’s eat
The guest list is complete. Now, who could do the cooking? I bet Julia Child would make a mean brisket…

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Celebrity BFF

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07/12/2010

I always wonder what it would be like to be best friends with a celebrity. Like Julia Roberts. She’s always talking about her BFF Paige, who seems to be a regular Jane like you or me. Can you imagine if your best friend was Julia Roberts?!?! I can’t. Would it be awesome—all the perks of the glamorous life without the stalking of the paparazzi? Or would it be fraught with the jealousy that often creeps into women’s friendships, but times a thousand because your friend is, um, Julia Roberts.

There are, of course, plenty of well-known celebrity friends. Penelope and Salma. Jennifer and Courtney. Cameron and Drew. But when you’ve got two ladies who are used to the spotlight it’s a whole different thing.

I have a close friend who is close friends with someone who is close friends with an A-list celebrity. (Got that? A friend of a friend of a friend—so, three degrees removed from me—is all kinds of a famous.) The friend of a friend (stay with me here Jewish geographers, the girl who’s friends with both my pal and the celeb) is getting married this summer. Which means the starlet will be in attendance, perhaps even with her equally famous partner. Every time I think about this wedding, I have a variety of thoughts at once:

1) So cool. I want to go to a wedding with famous people! Remember when Oprah and Gayle (speaking of famous BFFs) went wedding crashing?

2) Not sure if I’d want to share my big-day spotlight with a star who might inadvertently become the center of attention. A good friend—no matter how famous—wouldn’t purposely steal a bride’s thunder, but if, say, Madonna is at your wedding… I mean, come on. Who’d you be looking at? (Side note: When I was in seventh grade Howard Stern came to my friend’s Bat Mitzvah. He most certainly stole the attention of a bunch of 13-year-olds, and we weren’t even allowed to listen to his show.)

3) Maybe if she were my friend, I wouldn’t worry about her stealing my thunder. I’d just want her there, because we want to share those occasions with the people close to us.

4) How do you even get an address to send a celebrity an invitation? I realize this is a stupid thought. Famous people are people. They have homes, phone numbers. But still, if I’m sharing my various thoughts I might as well be honest.

There are certain understandings in BFFship. That you confide in each other. That you’ll reciprocate friendship overtures—whether it be offering a place to crash or extending an invitation to dinner. There is, I think, a certain expectation of regular or semi-regular communication. Would any of this change if your BFF is Angelina Jolie? Or Kate Hudson? (Or how about Jenna Fischer? Because I’d love to be best friends with her.)

Does anyone out there have a celebrity friend? If so, weigh in! Is it just the same as regular friendship, just with a few more cameras when you go out to eat? If you don’t have an A-list BFF, would you want one? Who? Think it would be fun or a hassle? Or is friendship the same no matter your level of notoriety? (Which brings up the whole other question of what if your celeb BFF got caught in a train wreck scandal a la Lindsay?? Drama drama drama.)

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

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A touching Israel experience

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07/09/2010

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Three Israeli teenagers joined the 23-member Chicago Write On group for three days during the trip.

Even almost two weeks later, I'm in information overload mode.

You see, I just returned from accompanying the sixth Write On For Israel cohort on their summer learning experience—in Israel. The two-week trip was a mix of touring and learning, and I'm still reeling from all the excitement.

In case you missed my last post about the program, Write On is a two-year educational program that prepares high school juniors and seniors for the tough job of fighting Israel's public relations war on college campuses. The trip to Israel in the summer between 11th and 12th grades is a centerpiece of the program.

Beyond meetings with journalists, scholars and policy experts—and a brief interview with Knesset Member Einat Wilf—the trip featured several unique experiences. From journeying to Chicago's Partnership 2000 region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir in the northern Negev to meeting Israeli teenagers in the Golan Heights to a mifgash (encounter) with Israeli Jewish, West Bank Palestinian and Israeli Arab teens at a Jerusalem YMCA, the trip gave us a glimpse into the lives of real Israelis. As Esther wrote in her post earlier this week, too often we forget amidst reporting on the conflict in the Middle East that Israel is a real country, where real people live regular day-to-day lives.

The very first day of programming brought one of my personal highlights: a visit to the Nalaga'at.  The attraction, whose name means "please touch" in Hebrew, houses a cafe, a restaurant and a theatre. Beyond good food and moving performances, Nalaga'at is about providing a glimpse into the darkness experienced by blind people and the noiseless world of the deaf. 

At the Blackout restaurant, foodies select their meals before entering the pitch-dark room. Not even watches or cell phones are allowed inside, where the darkness forces patrons to use the other four senses without having the benefit of sight. Our waitress, Shelli, who had become blind as an adolescent, led us into the dining room and made sure we were comfortable at the table. The waiters (all blind) use bells to figure out their positions so they don't bump into each other as they serve the food.

As we ate dinner, we had to figure out how to tell how much food was on our plates, how to fill a glass without spilling, how to pass baskets and carafes without getting the food and water all over us. It was an exercise in teamwork and self-awareness. When you're sitting in complete darkness, you're forced the relieve the awkwardness by talking—so our table shared our reactions to the darkness, played word games and tried to liken the experience to anything else in our past.

No other experience comes close to the constant need to focus on what's going on around you when you can't use your eyes. It's about impressions and distant memories rather than fully fleshed-out images. For example, I kept thinking that I was able to see my hands. In reality, my brain was trying to compensate for the lack of vision by sending images to my brain. Given that I know what my hands look like, I was able to "see" them move even in total darkness.

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Eleven deaf-blind actors recall memories, hopes and dreams in “Not By Bread Alone” at Nalaga’at in Yafo.

But the unique experience did not end there. After dinner, blinking in the fluorescent lights outside the restaurant, we joined throngs of others for "Not By Bread Alone", a performance by blind and deaf actors, most of whom lost vision and hearing later in life because of a genetic illness.

My mouth gaping open, I was fascinated by the show. I felt a special connection with the actors, four of whom came to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. As the smell of freshly baked bread wafted over the audience, I watched the 11-member troupe re-enact memories, recall dreams and joyful moments from their lives. The show, which is poignant and humorous at the same time, had the audience clapping with delight after ever scene. But afterward, as the actors were bowing, I realized that none of them can see or hear our appreciation. Perhaps they sensed the vibrations coming from the clapping or their interpreters conveyed our pleasure through a special touch-sign language. That was the moment that struck me most and made me appreciate how many dimensions of perception I have at my service.

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A match made in Exodus

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07/08/2010

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A modern-day Moshe and Tzipora wandering a modern-day desert in Scottsdale

While watching The Ten Commandments in the week following Passover (my fiancé Mike’s tradition), we discovered something of biblical proportion—we share the same Hebrew names as Moses and his wife! Mike’s Hebrew name, not surprisingly, is Moshe and mine, Tzipora. Aside from joking that we were a “match made in Exodus,” I didn’t really think much more about it until now, as we reach the year countdown to our July wedding.

I recently started thinking about whether sharing our names with biblical heroes meant something—is it just mere coincidence or is it beshert?

A lot of things about my relationship with Mike do seem beshert. After college, we both had to struggle through some relationships that didn’t work out and make some difficult choices before we found each other. Mike, who seemed to know we were destined to be together from the moment we met at an employee health fair at the Jewish United Fund, patiently waited several months until I was no longer “in a relationship,” before picking me up with a nerdy work-related comment on my Facebook wall. From our first lunch date, when we “happened to run into each other” on our way to Potbelly, it seemed that all the pieces fit together perfectly. On the evening of our first real date, I remember totally surprising myself by thinking “this is it.”

Keeping this in mind, I decided I should look into this Tzipora thing—she was married to Moses for God’s sake, so she must have some advice for me in the marriage department.
 
Truthfully, at first I knew very little about Tzipora, aside from that fact that she was Jethro’s daughter, and therefore a pagan, not technically a Jew (at least not at first), and that she married the guy who receives the Torah from God. I know from The Ten Commandments that while Moses is a fugitive from Egypt, he comes upon Tzipora and her sisters near a well, fights off some shepherds who are giving the girls a hard time, and helps them with their work. When they return to their father, he is so grateful he promises Moses Tzipora’s hand in marriage.

I decided to consult with Rabbi Taron Tachman, who pointed out there are many parallels between our two stories. Mike, like Moses, is very patient. He waited until I was single just like Moses had to be patient while waiting for God to deliver the Ten Commandments. Just like Mike and I “happened to run into each other” at Potbelly that day, Moses and Tzipora “happened” to meet near the well. And speaking of wells, Moses picked Tzipora up at a well—and Mike picked me up at a (Facebook) wall. Okay, maybe that one’s a bit of a stretch.

While doing some more research on my own, I discovered there really isn’t much out there about Tzipora, except for this one curious incident at an inn in Exodus 4:24–26. As Moses and his family head back to Egypt to free the Hebrews and warn Pharaoh of the plagues, they stop somewhere to spend the night. This story is open to interpretation, but the common translation is this: God comes to try to supposedly kill Moses, possibly for not having circumcised his son. Tzipora, who gets this intuitively, because she’s cool like that, cuts off her son’s foreskin with a flint and God lets everyone be.
 
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this story or how this can apply to my future marriage. But it seems to me, that were it not for Tzipora, Moses may never have been able to “let my people go.”
 
In my googling, I also found an article in US News and World Report  about how Tzipora is totally underrated, calling her “the woman who stood up to God.” In the article, they also talk about the origin of the name Tzipora, which comes from the Hebrew word “Tzipor” meaning bird. One interpretation, the article says, is that she is given this name because she “would take flight with this strange man, Moses.”

The article quotes Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Harlot by the Side of the Road, about Tzipora’s role in Jewish history:

“In addition, Zipporah plays more than a supporting role in the future of the  Israelites. ‘Moses is God's chosen messenger, the most important biblical figure after Abraham,’ says Kirsch. Yet, Moses is at risk of losing his life, except for the intervention of Zipporah. The entire fate of Israel rests with her. ‘She, the pagan daughter of a priest, stood up to God,’ he adds…Zipporah is heroic, "decisive,  fearless, strong, the competent person in an emergency."

The Midrash praises Tzipora for her “piety, virtue and beauty,” which isn’t too shabby, and it seems to me that "decisive, fearless, strong and competent" are qualities I should strive for in my adult life. Maybe I’ll start by being decisive about our wedding colors, fearless enough to go up in the chair for the Horah and competent enough to finally call the photographer and set up an appointment already (sorry Mom). From there, on to bigger and better things like saving the Jewish people.

And as for Moses, well he’s no slacker himself. An Egyptian prince turned shepherd turned leader of the Jewish people leaves some pretty big shoes to fill, but Mike is as handsome as a prince and we are thinking about getting a puppy—does that count? Prince and all, Moses was definitely not perfect. As Rabbi Tachman pointed out, Moses was at times a real workaholic—I mean who was there to take care of the children while he disappeared on mountaintops for 40 days at a time? Tzipora! And while I do plan to support Mike in his career as an incredibly successful lawyer, I certainly won’t stand for him running off on business for 40 days at a time.

So what did I learn from the original Moshe and Tzipora? 1) Behind every great man, is a strong and competent woman. And 2) If I’m a bird about to take flight with my Moshe, even if we have to wander for 40 years, I think I’m ready for takeoff.

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The greatest Jewish basketball player who ever lived

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07/07/2010

Today marks my one year anniversary as The Great Rabbino. In TGR’s first year, it has been picked up by Oy!Chicago and the Jewish Journal. I was published in Schmooze Magazine. And I had a feature article in the Chicago Jewish News. I have created t-shirts, sold advertising space, and reached over 31,000 readers.

Maybe the best thing about being the creator of The Great Rabbino has been the opportunity to interview and speak with some amazing professional athletes and sport professionals, including: Yuri Foreman, Tal Brody, Colt Cabana, Craig Breslow, Sam Fuld, Bernie Fine, Paul Goldstein, Tamir Goodman Ron Blomberg, Steve Dubinsky, Nancy Lieberman, Brimestone, Chasyn Rance, Diamond Dallas Page (not actually Jewish, I found out), Jason Horowitz, Dane Diliegro, Brett Harvey, Yaniv Simpson, Maiya Chard-Yaron, Jason Bonder, Doron Kramer, Howard Megdal, Binnie Klein, Eliese Zukelman, Sean Wallis, Adam Carp, Tamar Katz, Tani Mintz, Drew Goldsmith, Steven Freeman, Josh Borenstein, Jeff Sugar, Jonathon Abramson, Dov Grumet-Morris and Ari Lucas...to name a few.

All of these sportsmen and women are great and have added to the Jewish sports world. But, in my opinion, none of them are as great as today's special guest interviewee. Today, on my one year anniversary, I bring to you a special exclusive interview with the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time... Dolph Schayes.

Truly, Dolph Schayes needs no introduction. Schayes is an NBA Hall of Famer and part of the 50 Greatest NBA Players list. Schayes was drafted in 1948 by the Philadelphia 76ers and he played until 1964. During his career he was a 12-time all star. When he retired, he was the NBA's all time leading scorer (19,249) and had played in the most NBA games (1,059). He was also the 1966 NBA Coach of the Year.

So check out my interview with the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time—the one, the only, Dolph Schayes (yes... the father of Danny Schayes).

1) Tell TGR a little bit about your playing days?
I loved the game...I played at NYU. Being tall definitely helped and I continued to develop. I got good and got some recognition. I received a scholarship to college—that was very helpful. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I made it into a professional career. My career lasted 15 years longer than I thought it would. And I coached a little bit.

2) What was it like seeing your son Danny play?
It was wonderful. He played for 18 years, which is two more than me. At the time, it was a more difficult position because he went up against Jabbar, Shaq, and Olajuwon. It was a credit to his team and himself that he lasted for so long, which proved he was valuable.

3) Who was the greatest player you ever played against?
Oscar Robertson was the best player I ever played against. But I played with some great players like West, Cousy, Pettit, Chamberlin, and Russell.

4) Who is the greatest player who ever lived?
You cannot really say who the best player who ever lived was, [but] Oscar is on that short list. Jordan, Russell, Wilt, Kobe, and Lebron are probably on there too.

5) What was it like being named to the top 50 greatest players list?
It was a wonderful pick from my point of view. To be in the same group as Magic and Bird meant a lot. It was certainly a proud day. When you realize that that team covered five to six decades and the pickers recognize the players from all those eras. I was lucky enough to be in the early days. I will tell my grandkids and they can be proud of it.

6) What does Dolph Schayes do today?
I own some property in Syracuse. I also own some toilets. It keeps me busy managing and owning these things. I am an avid basketball fan. I like the college game. Basketball is the greatest game in world with best athletes in the world. I also have a wonderful family that I spend my time with.

Thank you to Dolph Schayes for the great interview.

One year down in the books. Thank you to everyone for reading.

And Let Us Say... Amen.

For more information on anything and everything Jewish in sports check out www.thegreatrabbino.com 

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Apartment-dweller abroad

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07/06/2010

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Esther, world traveler, at age six.

I am a homebody who loves to travel. By the time you read this, I will have switched modes from nester to nomad, hopping a plane with a dear childhood friend and spending a significant portion of July in Spain, Italy and Israel. The closest I've ever been to Spain was Toulouse, France, when I was 4; in college I was the only one in my Italian classes who had never been all'Italia; and the last time I was in Israel, the Gulf War had just ended, so it's been a while.

People want to hear about what I'm doing this summer, and the range of reactions has been all over the place, particularly the moment I say I'm going to Israel. Some are thrilled that I'm about to experience it essentially for the first time, and talk about how much they love it and where I absolutely have to go. Others get nervous: their smiles turn to grimaces, and they tell me to be careful, or they make anxious jokes about my timing or the Israeli government. Some people I just don't tell.

The last thing I want is for this trip to be political. I was talking to my cousin on Skype about it, and he said, "People get so caught up in the symbolism of Israel they forget it's a real place where real people live." This is the Israel I'm most excited about seeing. I remember bits and pieces of it from before: the okapi at the Biblical Zoo, the playground near my aunt and uncle's apartment, the bus ride through the desert, and perhaps most aggravating for a six-year-old, being told I couldn't come on an afternoon trip because it was too hot out and I would get dehydrated. Now that I'm older, it'll be a different experience.

I'm less wary than I was a month ago, though I'm not completely at ease either. A month ago the world (and Helen Thomas) was raging about the flotilla, and in many of the spaces where I go to unwind or socialize, it was hard not to feel awfully alone. I'm worried about reports that more flotillas will set sail as soon as the World Cup ends (just about when I'm arriving). I'm unsettled that my aunt keeps reminding me to stay in touch before we come, since things can change so quickly. But then I remind myself how worried some friends and family were when I moved to Chicago. Seven years later, I'm still fine. If I keep waiting for the perfect opportunity to visit, I'll never get anywhere.

As I write this, I'm fretting about other things. Will I be able to clean my apartment before I leave, which I've been putting off? Will I make it out of Target with most of my travel budget still intact? Will I make my 6:25 a.m. flight at O'Hare? Will I forget that one vital thing that will make or break one leg of the trip? Will the hostels forget our reservations?

It wouldn't be an adventure if I could plan everything, though. My friend and I are going to have an absolute blast. And I'm very much looking forward to seeing my family again. One thing that's its own attraction, though, is the ability to come back and talk about Israel myself. Though I anticipate a lot of shopping and other fabulous experiences, that one may turn out to be my favorite souvenir. Catch you on the flip side, Oy!sters: for now, I have to check my packing list again.

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July 4th reflections

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Why I'm proud to be an American

07/02/2010

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I was born in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, two weeks before July 4. My grandmother crocheted me a gigantic red-white-and-blue blanket, the size of a comforter. I thought of that blanket a couple of days ago when my great uncle passed away. At 97, he was the last of my grandmother's generation. I did not know Uncle Bill very well, he moved from South Bend, Indiana to Santa Cruz, California long before I was born. His sister, my grandmother, spoke about him as if he was the most famous physician in the world. Until adolescence, I thought I was related to the greatest doctor in the United States.

While I'm sure my great uncle was an excellent physician, I don't think my grandmother marveled or knew anything about his technical skills. What was amazing and thrilling to her was that she had a brother who was so incredibly successful.

Both he and my grandmother (and their five siblings) were first-generation Americans. According to family histories, my great grandmother came from Kolomyya, a town in the present day Ukraine, a place conquered by different kingdoms and empires over the centuries.

I am not exactly sure why my grandmother's family moved from there in the early 20th century, probably for better economic opportunity. However, had they remained they would have been murdered in the Holocaust.

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Family photo circa 1927

When my great grandparents came to America around 1910, they settled in South Bend, Indiana. They were extremely poor. My grandmother attended school until she was old enough (age 12 or 13) to drive a truck to and from Chicago to pick up fruit to sell in South Bend. Any extra money that they had went to pay medical bills for my grandmother's oldest sister. Eventually anything else, and it wasn't much, went to support their brother who went to medical school.

My grandmother's siblings have all had children, and the successes that we have achieved in this country would be astounding to the girl who owned two dresses in 1920 in South Bend or to her grandmother in Kolomyya.

I am proud of my family's Jewish roots and proud of the American Jewish community's steadfast and vocal support of Israel. And while I am very proud to be Jewish, and I work every day to show my love and support for Israel, on July 4th I remember my grandmother and think about how lucky I am to be a U.S. citizen.

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Holy Horah!

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07/01/2010

As for many Chicagoans in their mid-20s, for me, this past spring and early summer has meant two things: weddings and moving…and, well, more weddings. While moving is a time when one must decide which memories to hold onto, weddings are a time to make new ones. All of these events have cycled me through a strange whirlwind of emotions and nostalgia.

I began this wedding-moving-wedding journey as far back as April with a bachelorette weekend in Miami, followed by standing up at two weddings in Las Vegas and in Denver (a week apart), two moves—my own and my parents’ move—with another wedding coming up in July. As half-Jew Chelsea Handler would say: What a “hot mess.”

Aside from realizing my hatred for bridesmaid dress tailors, airline blackout dates and red-eye flights after long nights of wedding-related debauchery, I also realized how much I missed my friends and how much our lives have changed in a matter of four years since college. Instead of gabbing on about cute boys in our com arts class, we found ourselves gossiping about the latest engagements and knock-ups; instead of stressing about what we want to be when we grow up, we’re actually out there working—and praying our plans pan out.

My trip to Miami offered a reunion with friends I hadn’t seen since graduation and awakened a side of me that I missed. I remembered what it was like to have a night out with the girls that felt like a true escape. Work was thousands of miles and several days away. I could be myself with people who knew me inside and out, because we’d spent days and nights romping around Madison, WI in college.

The wedding in Las Vegas took me back nearly eight years. My college roommate of four years married the boy she met in our dorm freshman year. My other old roommate and I recounted years' worth of memories in our rehearsal dinner speeches. I talked about sitting in my pajamas in the dorm room counseling the now-groom on how to woo the bride. After eight years, their families are like extensions of my own—particularly because they’re Jewish. Their extended relatives knew my life story, though I’d only met them a couple times. It was such a wholesome, hamish love fest set in wild Las Vegas. It felt as though I had taken much of the couple’s journey along with them, making their wedding an unexpectedly emotional milestone. Yes, I sobbed.

The Vegas wedding, and also the one in Denver, while wonderful, also made me a bit sad. I realized I was closing a chapter on our friendships, on our youth, on our carefree days. First comes love, then comes marriage, then come babies…

I also began thinking about how little we actually change, despite these milestones. Just this week, I snail mailed one of my bat mitzvah invitations from 1997 to my friend in New York City. She was curious to see it after our late night chat in Denver before the wedding, during which we reminisced about our bat mitzvahs. We compared notes about the food, dessert table, theme and giveaways, and we agreed we wish we could burn the photos, which immortalized our awkward selves at 13.

Similarly, I spent a recent evening with friends watching a “Say Yes to the Dress” marathon and making boxed chocolate cake, which we dedicated to Bethenny Frankel of the Bravo TV shows “Bethenny Getting Married” and “Real Housewives of New York.” On the cake, we wrote in blue icing, “Mazel Tov Bethenny.” (We’re still debating sending the photographic evidence to Bravo.) I hate to say this, but our evening was not a far cry from my teeny bopper evenings spent with friends, giving each other makeovers and reading “Seventeen” magazine.

Now home from the first batch of weddings, I’ve found myself sifting through Prince and Billy Joel cassette tapes and Luke Perry posters at my parents’ place as they prepare for a move. The process of going through old things has been excruciating because my Jewish mother has instilled in me an irrational fear that I cannot throw things away. One day, I might need that Prince tape, one day…

My friend, who is Jewish and also moving, said she too has an irrational fear of throwing old items away. We’ve decided the neurosis is a remnant of our Jewish immigrant relatives who had to leave at a moment’s notice and take everything they could carry on the boat. My mother and I have argued about throwing out a variety of things away—her answer is always, “Save it for my grandchildren.”

If I’ve learned anything from this milestone whirlwind tour, it’s that memories shape who we are: Some fit in cardboard boxes, others tell the story of how a bride and groom met and some are just small steps in our development. While I can’t say Prince changed my life, many of those friends I spent long nights with pouring over “Seventeen” magazines, or baking cakes are part of this crazy journey. I’ve realized too, that it’s OK to let some memories and experiences go, to make room for the new ones. And if all else fails…there’s always storage.

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