OyChicago blog

21st century mourning

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21st century mourning photo 

I received the text while I was at the gym, “Amy Winehouse died.” During the 20 minute walk from my gym to my home I thought about Amy’s music, how short her life was, how I had dressed up as her for Halloween a few years ago (as did a million other people), how sad it was that she never overcame her addiction and then tried to estimate the number of times I had listened to really her only album “Back to Black.” I’d guess 180 times in one year.

So when I got home and turned on my computer I wasn’t surprised but still a little taken aback about the vitriolic commentary about Amy Winehouse and how she did not deserve media attention because, among other reasons, she was a “crack addict” and a huge tragedy had just occurred in Norway.

When someone is controversial, disliked or detested, there is a new form of Negative Mourning. Their death becomes fodder for criticism of their lives, repeated in some form millions of times via social media. Not that no one has ever spoken ill of the dead, but the numbers of people who do and can now publicly, are almost deafening.

The flurry of activity on Facebook and Twitter about Amy Winehouse made me think about just how much public mourning has changed, even since 9-11 when Americans proudly waved American flags, watched a star-studded telethon, read the heart-wrenching New York Times biographies of those who were killed, and watched the funerals of the brave New York City first responders on cable news.

Can you imagine if 9-11 had happened in 2011 instead of 2001? What would it have looked like on Facebook or Twitter? What will it look like this year when we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy?

Public mourning has changed so significantly this century. Twenty years ago, one might publicly mourn by doing one, or all of the following: a. reading an obituary b. sending a card c. making a donation in the person’s name d. attending a funeral and shiva. In addition, in the Jewish community you might help make a minyan (10 person quorum) so that a friend could say kaddish, the traditional memorial prayer on the anniversary of a family member’s death.

In the event of a leader’s death, like Yitzhak Rabin, there were vigils held, sometimes for days.

Today, the death of a public or private person is up for lengthy discussion online. While there has always been “letters to the editor,” this sort of banter on the dead, outside of really important contributors to our society, is probably unprecedented in human history.   

The same is true for ordinary losses.

When two people who I cared for very much died this summer, I felt a need to publish two blog posts about them. I requested that the eulogist from one of the funerals post his words onto Facebook for those who hadn’t been able to make the funeral. All of these posts were welcomed and well received. Those who commented on them wrote beautiful notes, because these were two very righteous people. 

I’ve also seen others post news of a loved ones’ death, and receive tremendous Facebook support and condolences. My only concern is that do these people receive the same comfort that the traditional means of public mourning provides. Is the “RIP Mrs. X” the same as a phone call or a hug at a funeral, wake or shiva. Someday, it might be all we do. For now though, I think we have to consider whether the comment is really closer to doing almost nothing at all depending on the relationship. The same is true for something like Holocaust Memorial Day. Does clicking on a Facebook page or changing your status to dedicate it to 6 million who died in the Holocaust the same as attending a memorial service or going to a museum? I don’t know.

Next week there is Jewish Holiday called Tisha B’Av, which commemorates catastrophes faced by the Jewish people where there was tremendous suffering and loss of life. If you observe the holiday, it is carefully choreographed to feel sadness and hope for redemption.

If the holiday were to be discussed on Twitter, the dialogue would probably shift from the suffering of the persecuted to:

“It’s going to happen again if we continue Sinat Chinam.”

“Why do we still celebrate this holiday? Israel is a state now.”

“Did the prophets predict that this would happen anyways?”

I think because of social media we are losing our ability to authentically be sad, empathize, or celebratory without being flooded with other’s editorial commentary. I wonder what the world will be like if authentic emotion will one day be extinct. What will happen then?

The answer may be in the beautiful Amy Winehouse song, zichrona v’livracha.


Urban Fairytale

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Blair Chavis photo 

My sister’s favorite dinner conversation topic of late consists of her explaining to me, with an air of elitism, that she’s a member of “Generation X” and I’m a “Millennial.” Her theories about our supposed generational differences, and thus her superiority, derive from a combination of conversations she has had with friends, Wikipedia research and her obsession with author Jonathan Franzen’s 2011 commencement speech to Kenyon College.

Mostly, I think she and her friends—former Smashing Pumpkins- and Jesus Jones-loving grunge folk—like to sit around in their still-tattered flannels (now considered hipster—what great revenge on the formerly rebellious garb), and discuss how they are the scrappy generation, and those after them are not. According to my sister and her Doc Martin-loving cohort, members of Generation Y (who she insists are now miraculously Millennials) are lazy, need constant affirmation and happen to be great with technology. While I grew up with computers and I am comfortable with technology in ways that my sister has not caught up to, I resent, rather than resemble much of what “defines” a Millennial. I also don’t understand how I got lumped with the iCarly generation. Let’s keep Generation Y where I can see it, and leave the five-year-old computer wiz’s to the Millennials. My sister and I get into some fork slinging every time she brings this topic up with a smirk.

However, I will say that us, Generation Y-ers or “Millennials” (should you wish to accept that title despite birth-year discrepancies), are facing some new challenges. In a shortened essay reprint of Franzen’s speech in the New York Times, entitledLiking Is for Cowards, Go for What Hurts,” he described consumers’ affection/love relationship with their cell phones, and other social media devices such as Facebook.  

“Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship,” Franzen said, “in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.”

He said these objects of technology respond unquestioning to our needs in an indifferent natural world. In turn, he said our objects of love find themselves at odds with real love, and we humans, get a bit muddied about the concept altogether.

“Its (techno-consumerism’s) first line of defense is to commodify its enemy,” Franzen said. “You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love.”

Franzen cited the wedding industry, TV ads, etc. for responding to our desire for love with the push to buy things.

“A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice,” Franzen said. “And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving.”

Franzen went on to explain that technology allows us to exercise a narcissistic feedback loop that we could never play out with other human beings who won’t support an endless desire to be “liked” and have our egos stroked…or could we? 

Forgive me before I advance into a discussion, in which I tie in Franzen with a movie featuring Justin Timberlake. You’ve been forewarned.

Essentially, Franzen is addressing a technologically driven phenomena that has seeped into our social psyche—one which reinforces our narcissistic tendencies and simultaneously encourages us to avoid social challenges. It’s Ok to “like” something or someone, as long as you don’t have to commit to it—or rather, love it.

I would argue that the film industry, both a driver and reflection of social norms, is sending a similar message about modern, romantic relationships.

The cinematic seeds for this modern relationship paradigm perhaps were first observed in films like Pretty Woman, in which a prostitute was rescued off the streets by a cold-hearted millionaire, used for her “business,” and some where along the way she seduced and softened her millionaire into giving her the fairytale.

In many ways, Pretty Woman—a Cinderella/My Fair Lady combo packagedid not drift too far off the map from the original Cinderella tale. While Roberts’ character was bold and loud-mouthed, she knew her place, what with her lack of education…and well, prostitution. Let’s thank our lucky stars that debonair Richard Gere rescued her.

Somewhere along the way, with brilliant works of art such as Girls Gone Wild, The Girls Next Door, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Love and Other Drugs, women gained some societal permission to have casual sex without having to be prostitutes.

However, the modern alternative, as seen in films such as Friends With Benefits and its sister films, No Strings Attached and Love and Other Drugs, is in some ways equally deranged and sad. Some might hail these films as proof that women can have sex “like men,” casually and without consequence. However, if you read between the lines in the scripts, they can’t. Equally sad, you end up with a story about a guy and a girl who are so busy pretending to have no feelings, they’re both hurt, confused and miserable, until the guy wakes up near the end of the film and fights for his rescue/happy ending scene and sweeps the girl off her feet. What you have are Cinderella stories lightly veiled with a girl wearing “tough pants” until she puts on a dress at the end.

In the film, an emotionally damaged girl who feels injured for caring too much, and thus shuts down that which is human in her, finds temporary comfort in a guy that lives a by a philosophy that caring is a weakness. The two trick themselves and each other into being happy, just for a little while. Isn’t it romantic? I’m not sure the women in this film have figured out what it means to be liberated and exist in a healthy, equal relationship. But, it certainly does not look like this. Women are confused; men are confused; I’m confused. I think the film does reflect ambivalence, both from women and men, about what “liberation” and gender roles mean today.

In real life, rarely do “friends with benefits” result in lasting love relationships. By definition, the emotion is left out, and the couple is in it for the physical. After the physical grows tiresome or strained, the “friendship part” is likely destroyed—that’s assuming a friendship could exist under such conditions. As with Franzen’s description of our relationship with technology, “friends with benefits” relationships satisfy our immediate needs without talking back. In these films, however, love impossibly comes from this place, which lacks in trust, what it makes up in instant gratification.

Most troubling, is our new ideal to be indifferent, meanwhile hoping love finds it way through our grasping in the dark. Is this how we now have to arm and protect ourselves? Where do we go from here?

In his article, Franzen argued that to truly open yourself up to love, you have to allow yourself to be ugly and see the ugly in your beloved.

“This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific,” Franzen said.

Franzen added, “The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.”

Franzen asserts that we can either step into the world to embrace the pain and the love, or we can stand on the sidelines and give love and life a thumbs-up.

My hope is that both women and men find a way to leap.


Does something smell fishy to you?

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Does something smell fishy to you photo 

The power of scent is a curious phenomenon. We are all familiar with the concept of “smelling fear.” But we can’t really smell it, because fear is an emotion, not a scent. We may see fear in someone’s eyes, or feel the tension in their muscles, but we can’t smell it. Yet, smell is so powerful that we often naturally align it with our emotions.

Sometimes when I get into a Chicago taxi cab, I feel as though I have crawled into an armpit and I grow so uncomfortable that all I can think about is a hot shower, regardless of my previous mood. Or, when I’m in the fragrance section of a department store, a whiff of Bulgari’s BLV Pour Homme brings me right back to a past relationship, one that unfortunately did not end well. Ironically, that bright blue, fresh, soapy scent sends me to a dark place, instantly dampening my mood. We constantly smell one thing and can’t help but feel another.

Smell can be dangerously deceptive. Something may smell good, but is it always? When I was in high school, I used to love Crabtree & Evelyn’s sweet and comforting almond scent – the first “fancy” body products I purchased for myself. However, when I became addicted to Nelson DeMille novels, I learned that deadly cyanide also has an almond scent. A scent that was once comforting, I now know may be dangerous. One of my friends from college told me that the smell of a special homemade vegetable soup always reassures her that she’s going to feel healthy. However, her sister, a dedicated raw foodist, grows ill just with one whiff of the cooked broth and dumplings. One sister’s medicine is the other’s poison.

Moreover, smell is always about control, whether or not it’s contradicting. As approximately 90% of taste, it controls how we perceive our food and it also controls the emotional pull on our memories. When I smell tuberose, I am brought back to Atlanta in 2005. After so many years, I wish the memories that get stirred with that one simple scent would stay dormant. Even though those memories aren’t negative, they’re emotionally charged, and the tug of tuberose from years past can spend my emotional energy in the present. The trouble is, I can’t help it – tuberose is permanently stored in my emotional archive.

What scents control you?


The voice within

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Jenna Benn photo 

This past week my voice went missing.
Without warning she decided to pack up and leave.
I feared I had permanently lost her in the woods, just outside of Traverse City, Michigan.

I looked for her on my long runs, but she was hiding.
I searched for her at night as I lay down to sleep, but she was absent.
I longed for her, needed her, wanted her.
She avoided me.

I had so much I wanted to say, but nowhere to put my thoughts, my feelings, my hopes, my dreams. I was overwhelmed by a sea of moments, but was unable to capture and share them.
My heart and mind swelled with emotions, yet I was unable to find the words to release them.

I was ashamed that after all these months of clinging to my voice, and reclaiming her, I let her wander off.
Was she ok?
Would she find her way back?
Would she return looking, feeling, and sounding the way I had remembered her?

This past week, as my voice quietly explored the world around me, I found myself lost in days that have become over-programmed, over-stimulated, and overwhelming.

After spending months in hibernation, I feel a sense of urgency to do everything at once, and as fast as humanly possible. I may have initially tiptoed into this new chapter, but now I am sprinting.

Remember when I said I wouldn't do this?
I need to not do this!

I believe this urgency is rooted in the belief that I need to take full advantage of today because I (we) are not guaranteed tomorrow. At the same time, as I continue to say yes to new projects, events, plans, relationships, I am feeling stretched thin. I am doing everything yet nothing at all.

As I left my house tonight feeling pulled in a hundred directions, I wondered when and if my voice would decide to return. As I unexpectedly watched my good friend perform with his band The Sons of Susan, a woman my age bravely left her table, got up in front of the band, and started "spontaneously" tap dancing.

Her feet provided the beat.
Her heart was there on the floor.
Her soul was exposed for all to see.

As she pitter-pattered her way through the song, I watched her, marveling at her talent, her skill, her bravery.

The beat she created was the calling I needed for my voice to return.

And so here I am, with the words I have been longing for, searching for, hoping for. As it turns out they were there all along, I just didn't know the song and dance I needed to unlock them.

As my days continue to fill up, and I try to negotiate how to live each day mindfully, I hope I can remember the sound of her tapping, the face of her bravery, and be reminded that my voice is never missing, it lies here within.


Going back to camp

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Going back to camp photo 

Every summer when my kids were young, I spent months gathering supplies for my kids to take to camp. In the early years, I actually ironed name labels in all of their clothing and painstakingly labeled all of their sunscreens, bug sprays, flashlights and other camp necessities. I thought that I was being Super Mom and that surely an award would be mine.

Well, a couple of visitors’ weekends and tours of cabins cured me of all of my obsessive labeling. Clothes heaped in corners, scary debris strewn showers and orphaned t-shirts and sweatshirts left hanging on tree limbs left me wondering why I had bothered.

At the end of the camp, the kids would arrive home, sunburned, bug bitten and happy and all of my fanatically labeled clothing was either lost or so scary that I would not allow it in the house.

This summer I packed myself up to go to Camp Chi. I am teaching Culinary Camp to groups of eager-young gastronomically inclined minds. I did not label my clothing, but I did pack sunscreen (which I have actually worn— unlike my children), bug spray, and a ton of recipes. I forgot my flashlight and did need it one night during a storm when we lost power, but other than that and a massive heat wave, I am having a blast. Camp is awesome!

The spirit at camp is amazing. The people running the camp are models of everything right in a world where many professionals are unhappy or dissatisfied in their jobs. These people rock! There is an infectious CAN DO attitude and a MAKE IT HAPPEN theme that pervades every corner of the camp.

I have been blown away day after day when challenges that seemed daunting were handled with cheerful enthusiasm. Storms and power outages— no problem.  Prolonged suffocating heat wave— no problem. One by one, difficulties are met and throughout everything, the campers are treated with respect and TLC.

 They are learning how to have fun without the day-to-day technology so pervasive in their lives. The kids are learning important life skills, making new friends, tolerating differences in others and just plain, being kids. I love it!

I urge everyone who has a chance, go back to camp. Go to a Jewish camp. Go to Camp Chi and hang out in the woods with some great people. Turn off the world for a week or two, teach some classes,  stand tall and proudly belt out the Birkat Hamazon after a meal , sing and dance your way to the lake, tie dye some t-shirts and come to culinary classes. We are making some great camp food— my way.

Take the heat out of summer: 

Sorbets are one of my favorite treats. I make them all year round, but especially in the summer. The farmers market offers inspiration for my flavors. Recently, the stalls were abundant with gorgeous tempting blackberries. Typically eaten out of hand, blackberries are fragrant and complex. Simple to make and a crowd pleaser, sorbets are perfect for summer or anytime.

Blackberry Sorbet 

1 pound fresh or frozen blackberries
12 ounces granulated sugar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Pinch of salt

1. Puree the blackberries, sugar and water in a food processor or blender. Try not to blend the seeds completely of the sorbet will be bitter. Strain out the seeds and any solids through a mesh strainer and discard the seeds.

2. Add the lemon juice and salt and mix completely. Chill the sorbet mix for at least 4 hours or overnight.

3. Process the sorbet in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions.

4. Store the sorbet in a container with a tight fitting lid in the coldest part of the freezer.

Garnish with cut up fruit, chopped mint, whipped cream, nuts.

Blackberry Cobbler 

I like simple rustic desserts in the summer and am not interested in fussing too much in the kitchen. This delicious cobbler is the perfect summer old fashioned dessert. Crispy crust and sweet tangy fruit make this a wonderful way to end a meal. Serve the cobbler with a big scoop of Blackberry Sorbet. 

1 ½ cups flour
1 ¼ cups sugar + ½ teaspoon
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons chilled butter or non-hydrogenated shortening (for pareve)
¼ cup ice water
3 pints blackberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
⅓ cup all-purpose flour

1. In a food processor, pulse the flour with the ½ teaspoon of sugar and the salt until combined. Add the cold butter and pulse 5 or 6 times, until the mixture resembles peas. Add the ice water and pulse 5 or 6 times, just until the pastry is evenly moistened.

2. Transfer the pastry to a lightly floured surface and knead just until it comes together. Flatten the pastry into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°. In a large bowl, toss the blackberries with the remaining 1 ¼ cups of sugar, the lemon juice, cinnamon and ⅓ cup of flour. Let stand at room temperature, stirring gently once or twice, until slightly juicy, about 15 minutes. Transfer the fruit to a round 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish.

4. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out to a ¼-inch thickness that is slightly larger than the baking dish. Drape the pastry over the berries. Trim the overhang to ½ inch and fold it under itself, pressing the pastry onto the rim of the dish. Crimp the edge decoratively and make several slashes in the center of the pastry to allow steam to escape.

5. Bake the cobbler for 1 hour, or until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is golden. Cover the edges with foil if the crust browns too quickly. Let cool for 20 minutes before serving.


Cheers! Chicago: SceneTap and the future of urban nightlife

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Ari Moffic Silver photo 

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, let me update you on a few things.

First, cellular phones can now do more than just send and receive phone calls and text messages.

Second, wireless internet capability has allowed anyone to share with the public not only what they like or do, but also when and where they do them. That way, one can see where people are in real time and even seek out the hippest and coolest places to hang out.

Third, we now have the capability of rating and critiquing places we visit and frequent, so we can aide others seeking similar journeys through urban nightlife and spend less time sifting through magazines, newspaper articles and other traditional information gathering sources.

Starting this past weekend, Chicago is showcasing a new Android and iPhone powered application called “SceneTap”. You may have read about it in RedEye last week or heard about it from a friend, but in case you haven’t, here’s the scoop. SceneTap is a mobile application that monitors bar, restaurant and nightclub scene activity in real-time. As their website and advertisements detail, users can track athlete and celebrity movement, win vacation packages and other prizes, observe how crowded or busy a place might be at that moment, or even check out the guy to girl ratio. Chicago will be featuring 50 bars in the launch party tonight, but I can guarantee you that more destination places will capitalize on this innovative form of real-time networking in the very near future. Each destination will also be equipped with a giant spotlight, so you literally cannot miss seeing it on your journey around town. Just look up at the sky and follow the white beams of light!

Here are some of the lucky 50 that will be lighting up Chicago’s skyline and cellphone activity (and some were even on my top summer restaurants list!). You can get the full list at http://scenetap.com/r/chicago.

• Wrightwood Tap
• Cans
• Benchmark
• Kirkwood
• Big City Tap
• Vertigo Sky Lounge
• Timothy O’Tooles
• Sheffield’s
• O’Donovans
• Shenanigans
• Duffy’s Tavern
• Redmond’s (Badger bar!)
• Casey Moran’s

So Chicago, keep your eyes peeled during the nighttime. With the help of SceneTap and Batman-like spotlights piercing the night sky, you will know where the best times can be fully enjoyed. Plus, you’ve got more than one reason now to lift your eyes to the sky! I know that I will be sure to use SceneTap over the coming weekends, whether I am seeking out bars with a particular brew on draft or try to find out where Jay Cutler might be dining. Who knows, you may even bump into a few fellow Chicago Jews out on the town!



Once Upon A Time… Part 2

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Once Upon A Time… photo

I really believe that my daughter Fray has no idea that we took a homeland journey to Ethiopia this past February. (Click here to read part one.) For all she knows– despite the repeated back and forth of:

Me: “We are going to Ethiopia!”
Fray: “Yes!”
Me: “You are FROM Ethiopia!”
Fray: “Yes!”
Me: “We ADOPTED you FROM Ethiopia!”
Fray: “Yes!”

We simply took a long ride to the park. I fanaticized we would get off the plane in Ethiopia and Fray would look around and proclaim she was home! She would se herself in all the faces that were similar to her own! She would weep tears of gratitude that her adoptive mom was so insightful, sensitive and courageous with assisting her in her adoption journey! No such luck. Fray was unfazed. She clung to her doll Mimi, as usual, pooped in her diaper and ate her goldfish snack.

We arrived at our hotel in Addias Ababa late at night. My mom and I sat in the hallway outside of our hotel room while Fray cried in the pack-and-play refusing to accept the pitch black sky as night-night time. I was crying too, because I had hauled a huge green duffel bag filled with donations of medicine, bandages, DVD’s, candy, soccer balls, crayons, markers, teddy bears and clothing that had been lost in the shuffle of people and bags in the airport. (Thankfully found a few days later with all its contents!) I think I was also crying because I was disappointed Fray wasn’t having some Lifetime Movie Moment, a connection with the African culture/people/soil. She was just pissed off in her pack-and-play like when we were on vacation in Michigan with my parents.

In the following days we got out and explored. The Ethiopian people were very loving and engaging with Fray. They were impressed with my preschool “mastery” of Amaharic. (It’s not often they hear white folks speaking their language.) My spirit started to rebound, I felt like I was doing right by Fray in their eyes. We went to the Mercado (the main shopping market) where I sifted through rows and piles of crafts looking for the things that would make our home in America feel more Ethiopian. I chose baskets and dolls and animals made of gamey smelling wool. I found bigger handmade dresses to replace the now too small dresses I had bought the last time I was in Ethiopia. It made me think about how much time had gone by and how much Fray had grown.

We took a trip to the care center Fray had lived in for three months. It is a beautiful, well maintained building with floor to ceiling glass in the main sitting area. This was where we sat with several other families one year and eight months ago, waiting to meet Fray. I remember feeling almost embarrassed— like arriving for a blind date, scanning the room and hoping you aren’t the only one looking for a match, feeling vulnerable, hoping you’re going to meet expectations. She was in overalls, all wide-eyed and silent.

Now Fray sat surrounded by kids watching a “Little Rascals” DVD I brought to the orphanage. The kids were fascinated that Mimi’s eyes opened and closed. I was fascinated by the ease of the interaction between Fray and the children. When it was time to go, she cried. Her tears filled my heart with joy. This had been a good place for Fray when she lived here. Somewhere inside, Fray could feel or remember this. She had belonged. For a time, it had been her home.

At some point during this journey, I realized there would not be an “ah-ha!“ moment for Fray in Ethiopia. She was not even three, yet. And that maybe the people that were saying she was too young to go back, too young to appreciate the experience, may have been right. But I also realized that maybe this time around, the “ah-ha!“ moment would be mine. Following my dream to my child, returning with her to her homeland, aware of what I hoped the trip would be and modifying it to what it in fact became. It was an adventure. Fray will have her moment with Ethiopia someday. And I will be there with her, hand-in-hand.


Mazel tov!

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Henry Krit photo 

Everyone here at Oy!Chicago would like to say mazel tov to Ron Krit and his wife, Erika, who are now proud parents of a healthy baby boy. Little Henry was born on July 18. What a cutie! He'll be doing push ups in no time. Congratulations Ron and Erika!


Myths about Judaism

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…that even we believe 

Paul Wieder photo2 

Any longstanding institution— from countries to heroes, from The White House to Coca-Cola— is going to be the subject of popular speculation and, ultimately, myths. Religions, including Judaism, are no exception.

As an avid partaker of such fare at The Straight Dope, Snopes.com, and MythBusters, I am well aware that such myths, even once “busted,” can persist for generations.

The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, for instance, is a forgery that has been proven to be one dozens of times, yet its virulent message is just that— virus-like in its ability to resist the serum of truth. Or even credulity. Say, for argument’s sake, that the Jews have been trying to take over the world. Well, we have been around for 4,000 years, and we are still not in charge… so maybe the world can let its guard down?

It’s not hard to see why we haven’t. Have you ever been one of four Jews trying to order a pizza? How could anyone even think we would have the cooperation it would take to dominate a planet?

There are persistent myths about Judaism that beggar belief, like that we have horns (thanks, Michelangelo!), and I hope those are finally dying off. And some, like the “blood libel,” that are mostly known by fringe fanatics. When Sarah Palin used the term recently, the media had to explain what it was before they could explain why it was offensive, which in a way I guess, is progress.

But there are some myths about Judaism and Jewish life that even many Jews believe. Like that you are supposed to put an orange on a Seder plate as a matter of tradition (as opposed to a symbol of protest against certain long-held attitudes, which it is).

Or the myth that kosher wine sucks, simply because the most widely available ones do. This would be like saying that some pop songs suck, so everything on the radio must (maybe not the best example). In fact, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of award-winning kosher wines from around the globe that stand up to any standard wines. Not surprisingly, many of these outstanding wines come from Israel, especially the Golan Heights… which some might say makes that spot worth fighting for almost as much as its strategic military importance.

Speaking of comestibles, some believe that food is kosher because it is blessed by a rabbi. Nope and nope— not blessed and not by a rabbi. The process is more like an FDA inspection than anything else. And the experts involved do not need rabbinic ordination to carry out their task, rather a deep knowledge of food science and production as well as the laws of kashrut. More details here.

The Internet is a double-edged sword in this regard. While many sites exist to debunk such myths, many other sites and individuals continue to spread them, probably more out of ignorance than malice. “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on,” as Mark Twain didn’t say. (In a rich irony, this great quote about lies is frequently misattributed; it was popularized by a Baptist preacher named Charles Spurgeon in 1855, who himself said it was an old proverb he’d heard.)

One of Judaism’s key strengths is its drive to ask and investigate. One thing we do at our Seders, even those without oranges, is encourage our children to ask questions and seek answers. So, when confronted with a stereotype or generalized statement or wild accusation that sounds just plain “off,” honor your tradition by asking, “Really?” and looking into it yourself.


Grappling with a Jewish murder

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Marcy Nehorai photo 3 

My mind is wrested, entangled, and unsure of how to fit this one together with the rest of my inner philosophy and understanding of the world. Thoroughly disgusted of course, trying my best to grapple with the reality while I simultaneously try to expunge those violent, repugnant images from my head of the murder of Leiby Kletzky allegedly by a religious Jew in the Jewish lands of Borough Park, Brooklyn.

How do we understand this? How do we walk away from this? Who do we turn to, who do we blame, who do we TRUST most importantly, when the one who allegedly victimized the victim was “one of us” was, even more so, a card carrying Shomer Shabbos religious Jew?

Where do we go from here?

A generalized decision could be come to, of course, such as, “Those religious people (in general) are messed up” or “those religious people (from the sect that the alleged murderer belongs to) are messed up” or “New York is super dangerous don’t move there” or…

And that would alleviate a certain feeling of discomfort, for we would have some type of conclusion that would help us understand the workings of the world. But is that all? Is there more action that we can take? A growing idea that will strengthen us at the end of the day? Allow us to sleep at night? Allow us to trust again?

At the end of the day, there is the interior and the exterior of the Jew. The body and the soul. The philosophy and the internalization. Don’t confuse Jews with Judaism, the statement goes.

As Rav Solovietchik, the famous brilliant leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America in the mid 1900s, resolved, when you don’t know what to do, wrap yourself up in the four cubits of Jewish law and hide out there. 

I go, when I have nowhere else to go, to the safest place in the world, the Book of Books, which is not corrupted by infallible human resilience. On this Friday morning, I’ll look within, because that’s all I can do, to strengthen my own understanding, my own values, and my own commitment. 

Corruption is everywhere. I know this is a freak accident, a freak occurrence. It’s nothing to do with Jews, or religious Jews, or New Yorkers. There are those who allegedly corrupt the system and the philosophy at every level, every stratosphere of human and Jewish existence.

I’m not pulling out my card carrying membership yet, because I didn’t join this group because I believed its members were infallible. I joined (well, okay, I was kind of inducted at birth, but I suppose in terms of my religious connection and association) because I believed in the cause.

In terms of our public image I am relieved that in general Jews are a good bunch, a supportive, encouraging, inspiring bunch who are behind so many revolutionary things going on in the world, and in general, I am deeply impressed by the Jews that I meet and I am proud to be called one. But that again, is a fringe benefit.

Will I feel so comfortable accepting a ride from a random Jew on the street? Will this play out in my head henceforth? Can a small minority of corrupted Jewish individuals change the trust factor of a vast nation?

Regardless, that’s not the point, though it would be quite sad if that was the case. I like feeling like I can trust fellow Jews. But I didn’t join because of the fringe benefits of free Shabbos meals and inside jokes. I joined because there was a root there.

What can we do? Mourn the loss, set up preventive measures, teach our children the right way, and dig down deep, into the deepest of deeps, the Book of Books, wrap ourselves up in the four cubits of Jewish Law. And stick around people and trust people who internalize the deepest of our values.

We’re not divided anymore than we were before, at a spiritual level. At a physical level, cracks may be starting to show. The alleged murderer wore a kippah and looked like a religious Jew, but it doesn’t mean he embodies what it means to be a Jew, or a religious Jew, on a deeper level. And that is an important distinction.

I suppose, at the end of the day, when the shame and the shock of an alleged murderer from our own ranks shows up on file that is all we can do. Strengthen ourselves from within. The deepest place within us. And do the only thing that will make us spiritually stronger; learn more Torah, keep more mitzvoth. Connected from within. Even if I’ll think twice before taking a Shabbos meal from a random, Jewish stranger.

May the memory of Leiby Kletzy strengthen the Jewish people from the most important place, from within. And may us Jews, be cleansed from within so that we can feel safe superficially and intrinsically.

May this be a reminder that it’s not the clothes that we wear or the words that we say that make us who we are. It’s not the clothes that we should trust; it’s the deepness, the richness, the values, the Torah within. That’s the heart, the soul, of it all. That’s where our security lies. Who can we trust? The same God we’ve been trusting all of these years, through trials, tribulations, shock, awe, and ultimate joy and glory. And we don’t trust God because of what he’s wearing. We trust God because of who He is, who He stands for. Let us stand for the same thing.

May we never have to experience this lesson the same way again.


Keep calm and Potter on

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Keep calm and Potter on photo 

My “Cleansweep 7,” one of the dodgier brooms of the wizarding world, at a midnight book release for (I believe) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. 

The ones we love never truly leave us: this may be the most fundamental message of the Harry Potter books. Right about now, hundreds of thousands of people – millions, I’m not even kidding – are gearing up and bracing themselves for one final round of hoopla and goodbyes as the last film of the last book stampedes into theaters. We had a lot of valedictions and encomia in 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. But even then, we told ourselves that at least we’d have the movies. Moment of truth, readers: the time is now. Let’s get going with some Potter nostalgia.

I was introduced to the books in high school. It was the very beginning of my sophomore year, and one of the girls in the year below me showed me The Prisoner of Azkaban, which had just come out that summer. That was actually the first one I read, and I was naturally, totally hooked. Like any teenager, I did the most reasonable thing I could, which was get on the internet and immediately begin talking to strangers about it.

The thing about strangers on the internet is that they can create some wonderful, wonderful conversations. For instance, did you know that some clever person coined the term “Potterdämmerung,” a sly twist on the finale of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, to describe the ending of the series and the inevitable flame-out from distraught and disappointed fans? Have you heard about the Knight2King theory, in which wise and wonderful Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore is actually one and the same as ordinary, fumbling Ron Weasley? Were you ever tempted to try your hand at the food lucky non-Muggles feast on, only to find that butterbeer recipes actually exist? 

Phenomena and fandoms like Harry Potter can bring out the best, most inventive, generous and creative sides of people. I love the books and the movies, and certainly always will, but the community that formed around loving these stories is a marvel in and of itself. The energy, intellect and skill that I’ve seen poured into exploring J.K. Rowling’s world would floor both Hollywood and the finest universities. For the pure pleasure of talking with others about a story, people create videos, write fiction, draw comics, build models, design costumes, organize conventions, publish scholarly articles, animate cartoons, form bands, compose musicals and use any number of other outlets that many never thought they’d ever explore or accomplish before. The fact that Harry Potter and the internet did so much growing up together only intensified the process.

So, the series is complete and the movies are all here. But there’s a takeaway: just because it’s not about Harry Potter in the future doesn’t mean it’s not awesome to get excited about things like this. (I’ve totally got my ‘40s-style outfit ready for the Captain America premiere next weekend!) We shouldn’t limit ourselves. If Potter has changed anything, I hope it’s that the world realizes it’s great to get excited and engaged and inspired by what we love. And that it’s awesome to read an inches-thick book in one sitting.

I’ve seen a lot of my friends posting on Facebook or Twitter about how their childhoods have come to an end, how dressing up and lining up for the midnight showing last night means the real end of an era. I’ll admit, I got a little heart-clenchy reading all those updates. I’ve stood in line for a midnight book release or two myself; I’ve dressed up to see movies and met up with strangers from the internet to talk Hogwarts. But here’s another thing I hope Harry Potter has taught us: that it’s normal to be outstandingly passionate about the things you love, that there are many others like you and that it’s good to celebrate what you enjoy. All those skills and friendships you developed, all those conversations you’ve had, those are yours for life. So is this story we’ve gathered around. Magic is real, guys. How great is that?


Searching for a suburban mommy BFF

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Alyssa Latala photo 

I hope Rachel Bertsche, Oy!Chicago’s resident friend-seeker, does not mind me stepping into her territory in this post. I have been following her quest to find a bestie, and thought that by sharing my own mission, we both might feel together in our BFF-lessness.

I have to preface this by saying that I have close friends, and I have suburban friends, but I do not have a suburban mommy BFF. And I really, really want one. I fantasize about calling her up after our kids go to sleep and asking if she wants to come over and watch So You Think You Can Dance. We could go for a run (or a walk, let’s be realistic) as soon as the kiddos are awake, an hour when most of the world is still sleeping. We could blab on and on about our pregnancies, our husbands (how amazing they are, of course), and how to deal with the terrible two’s, without worrying about boring the other. We’d go to the park together, sign up for the same mom-tot classes, and generally have the best time ever.    

I have sought out this suburban mommy BFF all over the northwest suburbs. When Ben and I are at the park, or in a class, I strike up conversations with other moms. The conversation always (no really, always) goes something like this:

Me: How old is your son?
Potential SMBFF: 23 months.
Me: Oh, no kidding, mine is 23 months, too!
Potential SMBFF: Huh.
Me: What is his name?
Potential SMBFF: Jack (Note: the kids’ names are not always Jack, maybe just 2 out of 5 times).
Me: Hi, Jack! This is Ben.

At this point, Ben will either throw sand/a ball/his shoe in Jack’s face, drag me to the slide that is furthest from Jack, or hit/bite/kick me, all of which pretty much end my fledgling conversation. The other mom and I will wave goodbye when the first of us leaves, and I am left wondering whether I should’ve reignited our conversation, or if the onus was on her.

Maybe she didn’t agree with the way I disciplined my son when he chucked the shoe at her kid, and dismissed me as a potential friend. Or she disapproved of the way Ben chased after the geese by the lake, trying to kiss them, and thought I was a bad mom for laughing. Or she was bored by my generic pick-up line, and assumed I was uninteresting.  

Each of the non-friendings has ended with me on the phone with my mom, asking if she’ll hang out with Ben and me, and many prayers that my city friends will make their way to the suburbs sooner rather than later.

In a few months, Ben will be starting two-year-old preschool. I signed him up partly to socialize him, but mostly to meet other moms. The program runs for nine months, and when the moms transition out of the classroom, we are still required to stay on the premises. Essentially, we’re stuck with each other. It’s like the preschool is handing me my suburban mommy BFF on a silver platter – how could I not find her under those circumstances?

In the meantime, my teacher husband is home for the summer, keeping me entertained, though he’s certainly not a substitute for a suburban mommy BFF. He watches five minutes of So You Think You Can Dance before dismissing himself to more manly pursuits, but at least he’s open to helping me hone my mommy pick-up lines.


Take that Target!

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Take that Target photo 

What is the daily inner work of the contemporary Jew? How do we, as the Passover Seder demands of us, become liberated human beings? How do we use our things, like our precious hard-earned money, to prove our dominance over the burdening pressures of the complexity of this world?

Entering the store yesterday, I felt confident, with an internal sense of clarity and aloneness. The type of aloneness that is so satisfying because you feel absolutely sure of what you want and what direction you want to go.

For there is nothing more frustrating than that sense of inner confusion, indecisiveness, of when you have these two dresses in front of you and you must pick one, but you don’t know which, and the detailed scenarios try to offer their opposing arguments to you simultaneously in your brain, erratically uncooperative with one another:

“Well, you know… That wedding is coming up…”


“You have the PERFECT earrings for that one”


And back and forth. And forth and back.

Until your mind in desperation, unable to reconcile the two, shrugs hopelessly, “I don’t know! I can’t decide!”

And you randomly grab one, ferociously approaching the cash register, hopelessly despondent.

“Yes, this one” you growl at the woman, unsettled, uncertain, and defeated by your own indecisive mind. “Just charge it,” you say.

I don’t know. The three most painful inner words of the English language.

Perhaps this is the real daily challenge of the contemporary Jew. We are not bound in chains. We can read our Torah in the streets and dance around. And laugh loudly. And declare we are Jews. And be powerhouses in the workplace and, etc and etc. The world is our oyster (the mock kosher version, of course).

That is not our avodah, our work, our task in this generation.

Of course, it would be easiest to just say- who cares? What’s the big deal? Just choose anything. But if we can be confident in the littlest of decisions that we make, in our daily, quaint and seemingly insignificant interactions with things and people, how much more so with the enormous decisions and values of our lives. To live as a Jew from the bottom up. To be careful and certain and confident about every little seemingly inane thing.

Money exists in a potential state and we, overcome with glee or crippling ferocity, are forced to decide what to do with it. A Jew and his money. It is not how much he has, but how he uses it.

The things that you own, after all, own you, the doctrine goes. But must it be true? How does a Jew remain dominant over his possessions?

Is it your divine responsibility to buy things that make you happy? Do you look heavenward and ask for more? Do you find it in unexpected places? How much do you indulge? How much do you scrimp? How much do you give to others? Where is your balance?

Perhaps our work is that subtle sense of empowerment, that ability to make those small, gut decisions, to be led by that inner light that says- pick this, drop that. Use it. Enjoy it. Be satiated. Indulge. But not one more drop than necessary. And to find the real, permissible, extravagant balance within ourselves. To walk out of the Target triumphant rather than overtaken. To own our things and not have our things own us. To feel certain of what we want. To be able to listen. To ourselves. To know how much to keep to ourselves and how much to give to others.

Perhaps therein lies our (sometimes unglamorous) triumphs. Perhaps therein lies our inner liberation.


Can a man and a woman be best friends?

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Rachel Bertsche photo 2 

In the early days of this blog, I addressed one of the most obvious friendship questions: Can a man and a woman be best friends? 

At the time I was staring down the barrel of a year-long friend quest. Actually, by the time I wrote this post, I was almost through month three and had no new male friends to speak of. I was on the fence regarding the whole When Harry Met Sally debate.

Over a year later, I’m still unclear. It seems a question worth revisiting, at least in the wake of my search. In all my friending, I made one—count ‘em! one!—platonic straight male friend. I met him when I joined LEADS, the JUF social group for young Chicago Jews. He was the leader of my group and lives around the corner from me. So we hung out at our meetings, which were weekly for about two and a half months. These days we see each not more than every couple of months, but I’d certainly consider him my friend. We text every now and then, and have lunch sometimes when he works from home. It’s all very exciting.

There’s absolutely no sexual tension in this relationship. He’s met Matt, he’s only known me as a married woman, and, most importantly, we’re just not each other’s type. Being friends is a no-brainer. And Matt’s certainly not jealous. (As I mentioned in the previous post, Matt’s not the jealous type. So much so that sometimes I have to ask “aren’t you at least a little jealous??” I mean, come on.)

The only other guys I’ve become independently friends with since moving to Chicago were either 1) co-workers or 2) gay. I had a few “work husbands” during my 9-to-5 days, though it’s perhaps worth pointing out that each one switched jobs not long after our office-marriage began. Coincidence, I’m sure.

Despite these friendships, I still don’t think I could have met a straight man this year who could have become the kind of best friend I’m looking for. Daily phone calls or emails, weekly playdates? What I know is that when I hear of a woman whose best friend is a man, I wonder. I’m not saying they’ve all had, you know, relations, I’m just saying that it’s the natural question. And I’m not sure I want a friendship surrounded by that much speculation and grey area.

I guess my new take is that a man and a woman can be just friends, but it’s the rare case. A true deep, meaningful friendship between the sexes is tricky and might be asking for trouble. What you may think is platonic, after all, he might think has the potential to be more.

(Though, to be clear, that’s not the case in my new friendship. That’s for real platonic. Just to clear that up.)

What say you? Man, woman, newly acquainted, just friends. Possible? Or no?


Potty mouth

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Potty mouth photo 

People’s neuroses truly reveal themselves in the bathroom. For such a dirty place, it is quite sacred. The bathroom is a temple where the walls have ears and people go for confession. They go to think, listen, talk—and if they cannot talk—write it down—on the walls, stalls and everywhere in between. The public bathroom is where neuroses go to live and privacy goes to die. Peeing in the potty is a marker for socialization when we are young, and talking by the potty is a tool for tolerating adulthood.

You might call me a water closet anthropologist. I am not sure if I am a pioneer in my field, but I have been contemplating WC’s for some time. I have always found them to be odd composites of social anxiety, yet refuges from all that is self-conscious—after all, we do do our business in there. Lately, I have been contemplating them because the women’s bathrooms in my office building are perplexing.

I have spent about a year observing the comings and goings of a dark-haired girl with too much perfume and her strange behaviors in her natural habitat, a.k.a. the bathroom. A trip to the women’s bathroom in our wing rarely failed to ignite a story about Dark Haired Girl. Before pushing the swinging door through a full rotation, one first acknowledged her presence through scent. Dark Haired Girl was often found either preparing food in the bathroom sink, or preparing herself. For what? We will never know, but imagined scandals ensued.

Dark Haired Girl works for a company in the office adjacent to ours. She often could be found draining tuna cans in the sink. She might otherwise be spotted with enough makeup and hair products laid out on the counter to supply a professional makeup artist, complete with a curling iron. Often, my co-workers and I observed her curling her hair and hair-spraying, applying perfume, applying a full face of makeup from foundation to mascara, or changing into booty clothes or booty gym clothes. The time of day and her actions rarely proved predictable, which left a few female officemates and I utterly confused—particularly because she works in a small office, which appears to consist mostly of pudgy, middle-aged men. For whom was she dressing? Why did she make lunch in the bathroom? The story of Dark Haired Girl became an ever-evolving, oral folklore, repeated each time with new conclusions drawn. Why is Dark Haired Girl putting on full makeup at 11 a.m.? She must be meeting her lover for lunch somewhere? Why is Dark Haired Girl curling her hair at 3 p.m.? Her secret lover-boss must be coming in.

Recently our company moved offices within the building to a different floor and we already miss Dark Haired Girl. She has been replaced in our new bathroom by a woman who repeatedly sprays the bathroom stall and wipes it down with Lysol before and after she sits down. It is just not the same. Toxic? Yes. One of the stalls also has a shady lock and more than one of us have had a traumatic moment when we could not exit the stall.

Now, I understand some level of germaphobia in the bathroom. You won’t find me preparing tuna sandwiches at the bathroom sink. I won’t touch the toilet brush in my apartment with a 10-foot pole—thankfully, my roommate will. I had a friend in college who would not keep her toothbrush in the bathroom because of its proximity to the toilet. We have all got our shtick.

I am amazed, however, at what people will do in public bathrooms, from stripping down their clothing in the common area and offering tampon instructions through the stalls, to revealing their deepest, darkest secrets and having a good cry, nervous breakdown or temper tantrum. The entire life cycle of a female-female relationship can be witnessed in a women’s bathroom, from inception over a lent tampon, to destruction over a drunken bar mistake revealed.

Due to gender restrictions and social mores, my knowledge of public bathrooms is almost completely confined to the female experience. My knowledge of men’s bathrooms is limited to what I see on television shows, to stories about politicians foot-tapping in airport bathrooms, to local anecdotes and my occasional sneak into men’s bathrooms when the women’s bathroom line is too long—an inevitability. (I could go into a diatribe about male foot-tapping as evidence that men don’t communicate as effectively in bathrooms as women do, but I digress.) My male coworker reported that men’s bathrooms tend to be dirtier, which I can confirm. He said he went through his boyhood with a fear (perpetrated and perpetuated by television) of having his head dunked in a school toilet. He also said men’s bathrooms are prone to their own share of awkward conversations, particularly when men try to talk to each other while at the stalls. For instance, he recalled entering a men’s bathroom at a Mexican restaurant and being grilled by his stall-mate about his Mexican heritage in Spanish. He’s Jewish.

However, I still believe women reveal more in the bathroom to strangers and to each other. Men, while they pee side by side, are afraid to really talk. For instance, this past weekend I went to a local bar to meet a friend and stepped into the women’s bathroom. As I walked the short distance to the stall, I witnessed one female bartender comforting another who had been wronged by her man. I listened to her tears as I entered the stall. When I returned to the then-vacant sink to fix my contact lens, a new drunk girl entered the bathroom. Without asking my name or what was wrong, she proceeded to lecture me on the benefits of Lasik surgery, which led to ramblings about her leg vein surgery. After emerging from the stall, swaying, she tapped me, and told me her male friend cheated on his girlfriend with one of her friends. “Can (I) believe it?” No, I cannot.

In junior high and high school, the girls’ bathroom is where you caught up on your vital news or became the subject of it. In adulthood, women share news with you that you wish they would keep to themselves.

Also in grade school, and in college, you could read the news on the walls and on the stalls. In high school, bathroom walls were Sharpie-scribbled with “Jenny *hearts* Bobby” and “Tina is a slut!” In college, my favorite stalls were in the library bathrooms. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the orientation tour guides touted our undergraduate library for its ranking as one of the best pick-up spots in the country by Rolling Stone magazine. As such, I used the ladies’ bathroom to touch up my makeup, fluff my hair and catch up on my reading in the stalls. The stalls produced the likes of 20-something Harlequin novels or Judy Blum books about girls losing their virginity, calling each other out for their wrong-doings and revealing sad details about their personal lives. Each visit to the girls’ bathroom felt like I had spent an hour on the Post Secret site.

Snarkiness aside, women need this space, this private time, this forum to vent their issues, let it all hang out, adjust their bras and Spanx and complain to their girlfriends. Sometimes you just need a mirror, a tissue and a friend. The women’s bathroom is the last frontier, the last public girls’ tree house with “no boys allowed.”


You know you just got back from Israel if …

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You know you just got back from Israel if photo 

I’m used to the jetlag by now. After all, I’ve traveled to Israel four times over the past 18 months, each trip about a couple of weeks. When I got back most recently—about 10 days ago—my body sprung back almost right away, after only a couple of days in the sleep-for-12-hours mode.

But my mind seems to be in Israel mode, still. If you’re like me, you’ll know the symptoms of Israel withdrawal—sometimes, they don’t leave you for weeks.

Here’s my top 10 list of ways your friends and family will know right away that mentally, you’re still in Israel:

1. You want to say slicha & todah instead of excuse me and thank you to strangers who are blocking your way onto an El train or who kindly held the door open to you. Actually, skip the last bit—door holding isn’t exactly Israel’s national sport. That would be eating (see point #4).

2. You want to eat everything with your hands. Israeli street food notwithstanding, scooping up that mascarpone with your fingers might not go over well with your hosts.

3. You expect a stranger to stop you in the middle of the supermarket aisle to give you the third-degree about your life—and give you sound practical advice about it, too.

4. You think it’s weird that hardly anyone shops at outdoor markets. While at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem on a busy Friday afternoon, my colleagues and I managed to procure a full Shabbat lunch for 37 people: pitot (30 for just 10 shekels), several kilos of cream cheese, labane and hummus, fresh locally grown veggies, the ripest plums, apricots and cherries you’ll ever taste, and a wealth of burekas and rugelach at world-famous Marzipan bakery.

5. Your fingers keep forming themselves in that unmistakably Israeli wait-just-a-minute gesture—no, not the middle finger. For those not in the know, “rega” is one of the most useful gestures: It works for every situation, from keeping a conversation partner from responding in the middle of your soliloquy to stopping a car while your group of 32 17-year-olds slowly crosses a busy intersection. (In this case, you also have to employ another unmistakably Israeli gesture – spreading both hands wide on your sides to express the classic “nu, what can I do?”) Here’s how to rega with the best of them: reach out your hand, with thumb, index and middle finger pinched together. Couple this with a stern look.

6. You wonder at the lush green grass and trees in your neighborhood park. Having been to Israel in practically every season, I know that it’s a land that can be lush and blooming. But mid-summer isn’t exactly a green season. Still the desert is a beautiful place, and Israel’s early kibbutzniks recognized the potential of the land.

7. You turn off the water as you’re lathering up in the shower. Water is a major issue in Israel: Wars have been fought over this precious natural resource. With just two major sources of water—the Kinneret and underground aquifers—Israel depends on its citizens and visitors to help conserve water.

8. You have to remember to put on a suit to go to work—if that’s the kind of job you have, of course. Only the people in the Foreign Ministry wear ties to the office, and that’s because they deal with diplomats from more rigid cultures. Israelis tend to be carefree about their office attire, with casual ruling the dress code.

9. You are still searching for at least one sidewalk café that’s as welcoming and yummy as Café Bograshov or Café Oliv or Café Amelia in Tel Aviv. The cafés open early and welcome hungry visitors late into the night. You can laze about with your paper or your computer or just people watch or hang out with friends. As a friend pointed out, the best cafés are where a waiter will take your order and bring the food to you and leave you alone without jumping on you to vacate the table for the next customer. (Chicagoans: any recommendations for this erstwhile café dweller?)

10. You don’t even notice but you keep steering every conversation to the topic of Israel. Even if you’d been there multiple times before, there’s much to discover about the land and its people in each subsequent trip.


Joplin Jews

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Joplin Jews photo 1x

Look closely at the photo and you will see the only room left standing in Paul’s house, where he and his family survived the deadly twister that tore much of Joplin, Missouri apart, was just a closet.

Paul was among many who lost their homes that fateful Sunday afternoon. And like many in his community, he’s deeply grateful just to have survived. But there is one thing that makes Paul different from many of his neighbors: he’s Jewish.

Yes Toto: there ARE Jewish people in Joplin, Missouri. And it’s a swell community, too.

For three years, my husband served as a student Rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin—a reform Jewish congregation with about 40 families. (Congregations that cannot afford full-time clergy may employ a student Rabbi who visits the congregation once or twice per month & fulfills other duties.) And during that time, I had the privilege of coming to know the community—which I can only describe as extraordinarily committed to living, learning and being Jewish.

And as you can imagine, in a place like Joplin, that’s not always easy.

It’s not easy when you come home to swastikas scrawled on the front of your house, or that your local baker chooses to decorate his store with neo-Nazi paraphernalia.

It’s not easy when your kids grow up and permanently leave—lured away by opportunities in big cities, where having matzah for Passover doesn’t require special advance ordering—places where it’s just not as ‘hard’ to be Jewish.

And it’s not easy when classes of students from the local Ozark Christian College attend Friday night services (always graciously welcome) to ‘study’. They try and do mean to be respectful—but how do you explain to a curious Christian bible student that it’s never really ok asking if we fear hell.

For three years, I saw first-hand how members of Joplin’s Jewish community were determined to practice Judaism—no matter the challenge, far the drive, or easier not to affiliate. And I was humbled.

For those of us that live in big cities with sizable Jewish populations, it’s seems incredible that Jewish people are found in cities and towns that we’ve never heard of—let alone been to. But it is not the existence of Jewish communities in these places that is incredible, but that in them you can find some of the most dedicated people committed to Jewish life, learning and community.

In McGee, Arkansas—where my husband had his first pulpit—I met people who literally drove 300 miles just to be able to attend high-holiday services, or say Kaddish for a loved one.

In Joplin, I saw near 100% turnout whenever the Rabbi was in town to attend Friday night shabbat services.

And now, I’m watching from afar the strength of a community that—despite some having lost their homes, their jobs, their very way of life—somehow pull together to help those that lost more.

Joplin Jews photo 2x

I believe most of us know on a superficial level that it’s “easier” to be Jewish in a city like Chicago where we have access to Jewish community, culture, and education. There are numerous advantages to living with a large Jewish population. But what we might not know is what we might also be missing.

There are times when I long for the intimacy that comes with a smaller community, and the increased importance that everyone has as a community member—just by identifying with that community. In that respect, it’s easier to feel closer to the community.

And while I confess, I do not have the desire to live in a small town, or small Jewish community, I wish I could bottle the enthusiasm, appreciation, and pride found in the small reform Jewish communities of McGee and Joplin. Big city life has left many of us too jaded, dull to the privileges we enjoy.

Soon after I learned about the twister in Joplin, I emailed the congregation. Paul was the person to write me back, and in his email was not one word of his own loss, but his assurance that no lives were lost, the building remained, and that they would—as a community—go on.

I think that says a lot to the values and priorities of the Joplin community—values that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of here, and maybe embracing more of myself. (I know, shocking, I’m not perfect.)

However, the jaded, city girl in me does hope that the afore-mentioned local bakery was wiped out. That would be my silver lining.


Dear Nonsense, I missed you.

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Jenna Benn photo 

Last night I gathered up the courage to go on a date. It wasn't my first date, but maybe my third or fourth.

Dating before Cancer was tough. Dating after Cancer is a whole new obstacle course. I'm new at this— really new at this.

Can someone pass me the rule book?

At what point do you share that you had Cancer? At what point do you admit you’re bald? At what point do you admit you could have died?

Is this first, second or third date talk?

What about those who already know? If you Google me, you will see me bald— put the pieces together and realize that I used to be sick.

Anonymity isn't really an option and I am ok with that.

I have been front and center about my disease from the beginning, and I believe it has given me a tremendous amount of strength in the process. I don't regret for a heartbeat that I have been open and honest about my hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations— it's who I am.

But getting ready for a date is different. Sure I stress (briefly) about what to wear, where to go, what to do, but what is the main focus of my anxiety is my wig.

Is he going to be "weirded out" by what is on the top of my head? Can he see past this $20 banging number or is he hung up on the color, the length, and the fact that it’s fake?

Cancer survivors don't choose to get Cancer, and we certainly don't choose to go bald. But this is our lot and we must deal with it.

If I don't wear a wig, and choose to go bald, will I scare my date? Baldness for many represents sickness, weakness, and defeat as opposed to victory, strength, and resilience. The way I view my baldness today is still constantly changing and evolving.

So where do I fit and how do I navigate this new world of dating?

Last night, my date couldn't get past what was on my head, and failed to see what was in my heart. I was admittedly upset about it, but here is the great thing about Cancer, it leaves you with no room for bullshit. Before Cancer I would have gotten upset about the disparaging comment and replayed the scenario over and over in my head. Now, I realize that the comment was not only insensitive, but it's just nonsense.

Stressing about dating, as opposed to death, is what a 29-year-old single girl should be worrying about.

So here's to nonsense, here's to bullshit, here's to life— I missed you.


Mazel tov, Breglettes!

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Mazel tov, Breglettes photo 

Congratulations to our blogger-in-chief, Stefanie Pervos, who got married this past Sunday to occasional blogger, Mike Bregman. Mazel tov, Breglettes!


Finding Lauren Spierer

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Finding Lauren Spierer photo 

Every day I come home from work and one of the first things I do is check Twitter or Facebook to see if she has been found.

Lauren Spierer has been missing since the early morning hours of June third from Bloomington, Indiana. She is 4’11, 95 pounds, blonde hair, and blue eyes. She was last seen wearing black pants and a white tank top. She has a heart condition that requires medication.

Reading Lauren’s story during the first days of press coverage, her name and her face immediately inspired me. My first instinct was to post something on Shorashim’s Facebook page to be one of the thousands of people who were spreading the word via social media. Shorashim has many IU Alumni and the thought crossed my mind to try this method.

Lauren’s story became even more compelling to me, when we realized she had participated in a Shorashim organized trip during her spring break this year. There she was, on Facebook, with her sister, working the soil in Israel. We contacted her Israeli guide who had already heard that Lauren was missing, and was stunned and shocked by the news.

Still, 28 days later, after the massive searches by the kind Bloomington community have ended, I check every day to see if she has been found, to read what the latest news is about her, to see if any more of her friends have talked to the police.

And I am affected, really, I am thinking about this all the time when I’m not working. And I wonder, where’s Lauren? I feel terribly for her family. I wish I could help them.

I’ve tried to understand my own fascination with Lauren. It isn’t out of malice or even like a “rubber necker” watching an accident on the Kennedy.

Just now I looked at Facebook. Fifty of my friends, I’m assuming very few of them know Lauren, are fans of the “Find Lauren” page.

So what’s the deal? People go missing all of the time, why is Lauren keeping me from sleeping? Why am I thinking about her when I have a big trip coming up this week to Germany and Poland? Why are my friends and acquaintances also seemingly thinking about her? Why is there a woman, who has never met Lauren, who is dedicating hours to posting tweets on Lauren to keep her in the social media sphere.

Some have suggested that’s it’s because she’s a pretty white girl, and if she was a minority, less people would care. I don’t think that is it.

I think it’s because many of my Facebook friends at some point or another were some version of Lauren Spierer partying at a large university. Many of us went to IU, and remember the poor decisions we made and how our only saving graces were good friends, and even better, luck.

We all hope Lauren is reunited with her parents and that they can return home with peace in their hearts.


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