OyChicago blog

Felden-What?

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07/31/2013

Felden-What? photo

I have a confession to make: I flunked yoga in college. I know. Yoga. As in the one-credit easy-A class college seniors across America take during their last semester to keep their GPAs up and stress levels down.

Not that I blame my yoga teacher for this, but it was 99.7 percent his fault. I was a delightful student, thank you very much. I did a somewhat decent downward dog on a fairly regular basis. My plank was relatively straight and plank-like. But Mr. Cheeseman (actual name) had to be all, “excuse me, you only held your plank for 29.9 seconds instead of 30. You wiggled your pinky finger. You exhaled instead of inhaled. Twice.”

You know what, Cheeseman? One, it is creepy that you noticed the intricacies of my breathing when there were about a hundred people in the class. Two, you should have been thrilled that I even showed up and was rarely hung over, even though class was on Friday mornings. I also once had the opportunity to leave during meditation when I opened my eyes and saw Token Hot Yoga Guy sneaking out. He winked at me, a sign which I interpreted as an invitation to join him in The Great Yoga Rebellion of 2011, but I DIDN’T. So really, I should’ve gotten an “A+,” not a series of disappointed looks and a “strong recommendation” to do some extra credit. Not that I’m still bitter, but I’m not a fan, Cheeseman. You wrecked yoga and also cheese. You don’t deserve to be named after something so amazing.

So, after college I decided to take a little yoga break. I turned to other venues: spin class! But no, spin class was not going to work out. I somehow managed to fall off the stationary bike, earning a bruise that took up basically my entire leg and earned me the prestigious title of “The Only Person I’ve Ever Seen Fall Off That Thing in my 20 Years of Teaching Spinning.”

I did not return to spin class.

Luckily, I recently discovered a form of exercise that, like yoga, allows me to stretch out, relax, and enjoy some nice deep breathing. Unlike yoga, in Feldenkreis class it doesn’t matter if you do the movements correctly; you can do them however you want. Of course, you probably shouldn’t start doing cartwheels when the teacher asks you to move your head back and forth. And sometimes, I move my head back and forth for 29.5 seconds instead of the recommended 30 just because I can. I am such a rebel.

Feldenkreis was created by Moshe Feldenkreis, an Israeli physicist, in the 1950s. The exercise aims to improve functioning by increasing awareness through movement. The method believes that by noticing what you’re doing, you can change the way you move in order to use less energy, prevent injury, and experience a stronger mind-body connection.

I like the Feldenkreis method because it isn’t so focused on the end result. If you are one of the lucky ones who can touch your toes, a hearty Mazel Tov to you, but the Feldenkreis method wants you to stop and think about the journey both you and your body take during the process of trying to touch your toes. What happens in your shoulders when you try to touch your toes? In your neck? Does your breathing change? How can you make this movement less work for yourself? It’s fascinating that a lot of movements you think involve only a few specific body parts actually involve many more. And it’s truly amazing what you discover about how you do things when you simply stop to notice what you’re doing.

The classes are relaxing, rejuvenating, and I always leave feeling awesome (as opposed to majorly crabby and/or in need of major medical attention … silly spin class). There are dozens of certified instructors throughout the city, but if you’re able to go to Chicago Athletic Clubs, Gerry offers classes throughout the week in Lakeview, Lincoln Park and Evanston. He is a lovely man who will notice you’re breathing the exact right amount (no creepiness here) and will also not ruin cheese. Enjoy!

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Let's Make it Kosher, Dog

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07/30/2013

dodgers 

Last week I was at Dodgers Stadium for the first time. While I think my wife is starting to take a liking to my hobby of traveling the country to see baseball stadiums, we found ourselves in an awkward situation. At Dodgers Stadium, which is in Los Angeles—the second-largest Jewish community in the United States—we could not find kosher food.

Although I’m told the stadium does offer kosher alternatives, how is it possible that the Minnesota Twins can have a kosher cart but not the Dodgers? Luckily, the night we were there was Jewish Heritage Night, and there was a kosher stand where my wife could get her hotdog, but it left me puzzled.

My biggest issue with Judaism, across the denominational spectrum, is the inaccessibility of our religion. And kashrut, at Dodgers Staidum and other places, is in many ways the perfect example.

Since arriving in the Twin Cities, I have struggled with kashrut. I came from New Rochelle, N.Y. where there were three kosher restaurants, two kosher ice cream shops, a kosher grocery store and a kosher bakery all within a one-block radius of my apartment. Minnesota struggles to have any kosher restaurants; even Chicago, in my mind, does not meet the realistic needs and desires for kosher food.

Kashrut, like many other Jewish staples, has turned into a business. Most restaurants  cannot afford a full-salaried mashgiach (someone who watches over kosher food) or an expensive Te’udah (kosher certificate). When they do take these steps, they tend to jack up their prices to cover those costs, which adds to the already- rising prices of kosher meat or cheese. Eating kosher out costs families far too much.

Instead of being stringent on the laws of kashrut, should we not be stringent on making kosher food accessible? How can we as rabbis ask people to shell out money for the food regardless of quality? How can we ask people to live a modern secular and Jewish life when the choice is so often one or the other? Our hang-up is clearly that our food and utensils are being handled by the “other,” or someone less strict. And our fears have made it extremely difficult to encourage new Jews to take on this important mitzvah. It does not make much sense.

What I think does make sense is asking rabbis (I am perfectly fine that this decision is made in the Orthodox community) to find ways to hechsher (stamp of kosher approval) more establishments.

First, I would start small at ice cream shops and bakeries to help Jews in all areas keep kosher. Here in Minnesota, many of the Breadsmiths are kosher. Getting chains to sign on would be a major accomplishment. There are already ice cream parlors such as Menchies that carry a Te’udah (which is not accepted by all) and others receiving a Conservative certification from MSPKosher.com. How great would it be if Dairy Queen stores carried some sort of national label like Crumbs Cupcakes do? Try to convince Falafel Maoz in New York and other chains that can easily be kosher to carry a symbol and have local rabbis help in the checking of the operations.

Another approach is to offer a kosher menu in a not fully kosher establishment. This would be easier in chain restaurants or vegetarian establishment; like a local deli here in Minnesota called Cecils that carries kosher meat. There are obviously problems with this model, but there is also a lot of potential. We shun ideas like this because it is not what we have done. At the same time, very few people agree on the complexities of any Te’udah. Some people only recognize Orthodox supervision, some say Glatt Kosher or Cholov Yisroel, and there are issues like being open on Shabbat and the reputation of the Rabbi giving the supervision.

The fact is all of this discourages people from keeping kosher on any level and makes Judaism inaccessible. We need to stop pretending the biggest issue is the salt on the meat or which plant the food comes from and understand that our inability to offer an accessible option is the biggest barrier.

This post previously ran on JewishJournal.com, and some additional edits have been made.

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On Writing

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07/29/2013

ashley kolpak

Self-consciously, I sip some water and glance hopefully across the table. Nervous as can be, I rattle off carefully reasoned responses to a myriad of questions. Sitting in a job interview, what more can you do? The interviewer then surprises me with a question I haven’t heard in quite some time. He takes a breath in and inquires, “So, why do you like to write?”

Simple enough question. My resume is full of odds-and-ends writing gigs, volunteer and professional. For a question so brief, it felt oddly personal. I took a beat, perhaps a few, and started, admittedly less polished than before, “Um,” I looked up, hoping for a little inspiration. “It’s just...it’s a forever thing. It’s just something I’ve always loved to do. It’s my passion....I’ve always loved writing.”

My short, staccato, nearly childlike answers probably weren’t the most articulate I’ve spoken in an interview. However, they spoke volumes about me; not just the business-casual clad person sitting in the chair, but the real me (to be delightfully melodramatic).

It’s the sort of question that reminds me how I first proclaimed to my teacher in third grade that yes, I would be a writer. I think back to junior high and high school where I honed my passion; to different writing opportunities in college and beyond. I’ve been enthralled with it all, from creating five-paragraph essays to writing news features.

Also, a conversation from a few years back comes to mind. I was in the midst of the post-collegiate job search and reached out to a former teacher, more to catch up than anything. He said something to me so simple yet so incredibly powerful. I was chatting about some jobs on the horizon, this and that. He patiently listened to me ramble on, but eventually stopped me short. He looked right at me and said nonchalantly, “Ok. These things all sound fine, but...you’re a writer.”

I doubt he realized that what he said mean the world to me. Like I said, I’ve always loved to write. But being a writer, embodying the noun rather than performing the verb, isn’t often how I would describe myself. He said it without a shred of doubt. “You’re a writer.” And from that day forward, I strived to feel that way. I strive to be a writer.

What he said was just a small thing, a bit of pithy prose. But it encouraged me, encouraged me to find faith in myself. That it doesn’t matter how good (or not so good) my writing is. All that matters is that I continue to write.

“Good, good,” the interviewer speaks up, snapping me back to reality. I continue; I delineate my writing experience, my other work endeavors. The rest of the chat goes swimmingly, peppered with other thoughtful questions and standard interview fare. I leave the office with my mind racing, still thinking of that question. I love to write for so many reasons. The answers all seem to stem from my earliest memories: I adore words. I’m enamored with metaphor and how language can be transformed so subtly. I’m entranced that with just a simple sentence, I can share what I think, feel, know and want to learn. It’s love. Pure and simple.

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Living J-Strong: Battling breast cancer during the craziest time of my life

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07/26/2013

Editor’s note: My dear friend Jamie bravely shared her story on a friend’s blog (Mommy's two cents) yesterday and the response was overwhelming. Her strength, love and positivity throughout what has surely been both the happiest and most difficult period of her life has touched so many people already and should serve as an inspiration to us all. As soon as I read her words, I knew I just had to share her story with the Oy! community. If Jamie’s story touches you, please show your support by following the link at the end of this post to learn how you can help and spread the word.
~Stef

Living J-Strong photo 1

Photo by Jeremy Lawson Photography

April was supposed to be our month. We both celebrate birthdays in April. We’d been on our house search and our goal was to buy something by April—plenty of time to close and move in before the wedding. Well, April was our month alright, just not remotely how we imagined.

April 1 - I get the weirdest, most skin-crawly sensation in my boob. I couldn’t describe it.
April 2 - It just isn’t sitting well with me, so I make a doctor’s appointment.
April 3 - Joe’s birthday. Some birthday, poor guy. I go to the doc, she tells me I am not crazy; probably a cyst, and I need to get a mammogram and ultrasound. Whoa. (Because work, tutoring, babysitting, teaching dance, planning a wedding and looking for a house weren’t enough to deal with…) THEN, a new house pops up on our search, so we cancel the birthday dinner, go to see it and put an offer in on the spot.
April 4 - We didn’t get the house. We did have the highest offer, but they went with the cash. Can’t blame them!
April 5 - Mammogram and ultrasound. Mammogram doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as the stories I’ve heard, by the way.
April 6 - Hair and make-up trials and some shopping for the wedding, birthday dinner, then out for drinks! Fun-filled day and night in the city keeping me distracted.
April 7 - I actually have no idea…
April 8 - Get the call at the end of my lunch break. The mammogram is suspicious; I need to get a biopsy immediately. Get home that night, letting everything sink in, and see that a house we LOVED but was too expensive lowered its list price.
April 9 - Go for biopsy in the morning, go back to look at the house at night. Put in an offer.
April 10 - Lots of waiting; waiting to hear about the offer, and for biopsy results. WE GOT THE HOUSE!
April 11 - MY BIRTHDAY! We may have lost the house on Joe’s birthday, but a week later, something to celebrate!
April 12 - Still waiting. Ten minutes into teaching my Poms class, the phone rings. I heard nothing else the doctor said besides the “C” word. I knew in my gut all along. I got off the phone and taught the rest of class. Poor girls, I just threw choreography at them without taking a minute to breath. Got in the car, and “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips comes on the radio. There it is—the eruption of tears the whole way home. I have breast cancer. I just bought a house. I have breast cancer. I just turned 29. I have breast cancer. I’m getting married in three months. WTF.

The next month, nothing changed. Not because I was in denial, but because life goes on. The only way to not break down and overanalyze and feel sorry for myself was to just keep going. Keep going to work every day, keep planning a wedding, keep tutoring and babysitting and teaching dance and going to wedding showers, with lots of doctors appointments in between.

It didn’t matter what any of those doctors told me, my mind was made up. I had to make my decision pretending there wasn’t a wedding in three months, because at the end of the day, my health and my future are more important than not being 100 percent perfect on our wedding day. There is too much life ahead of me to have to wonder if the cancer would ever come back.

I needed peace of mind, and to get that, I needed to have a double mastectomy. Even without getting the genetic testing results back (which I now have learned are negative, sigh of relief), my mind was made up and I told the doctors to schedule the surgery for as soon as possible, but to try and make sure I could be at my shower on May 11.

Success—surgery scheduled for May 13. Well for anyone thinking I was living in la-la land, don’t worry. I woke up on May 12 and it hit me like a truck. I finally broke. I think I got out a month’s worth of tears—my first time crying since finding out exactly a month earlier. I had been so strong and so positive. Strong—I didn’t know I had it in me, but positive is just who I am.

When everyone who cares about you hears such devastating news, they have no idea how to react. They take their cues from you. So out came that inner strength, because if I crumbled, so would everyone around me. I didn’t want to fall apart, so I certainly didn’t want everyone else to. Telling people was the hardest part. Nobody wants to blindside their friends and family left and right. It is emotionally exhausting, but I am a very open person, and I wanted to share. Even the most private people want to share, like Angelina Jolie. She made her announcement the morning after my surgery.

So, I am four weeks and one day post surgery and I feel great. The love and support in my life got me through and will continue to get me through. I feel so loved and blessed and everyone’s kind words and wishes and prayers and gifts were beyond appreciated. It is amazing how quickly someone can bounce back from such a major surgery.

I owe the initial part of my recovery to my motivation to stand up in a wedding just 12 days after surgery. One of my best girl friends was marrying one of my best guy friends. How could I NOT be there? Well, for anyone who knows me, they know my friends mean the world to me, so I was determined to be there. I must have been running on adrenaline, because I made it. I made it through the entire day and night. I stood for the entire ceremony and I danced the entire night—even with one of my drains still in, successfully pinned into a pocket sewn into my dress. I was surrounded by at least a dozen of my closest friends and I was celebrating the love of two of them. I may have taken a five-hour nap the next day, but it was all worth it.

Living J-Strong photo 2

Jamie and Joe at their friends’ wedding 12 days after surgery

I finally got that second drain out and probably took a half-hour shower. Two weeks of sponge baths SUCK! Then I started driving. We closed on our house and are officially moved in. I can’t go back to work yet because I can’t lift or reach. I am somebody who is incapable of slowing down, though, so I probably do too much all day long and end up with the most swollen armpits you have ever seen—stupid lymph nodes.

Speaking of lymph nodes, this isn’t the end of the road for me. I have to have chemo, followed by radiation. Now if you know me, you can guess what about chemo kept me up at night. Nope, it wasn’t my hair. It was babies. The thought of losing my fertility left my in tears for a week each and every night, literally crying myself to sleep.

The week had passed between getting my pathology results and seeing the oncologist. It didn’t matter what he said. He could only advise me, right? I was adamant about being able to retrieve eggs before starting treatment. I interrupted him about five minutes in and exploded, saying, “I don’t even care about my wedding, I just need to be able to have babies.” He asked when the wedding was, took out a calendar and counted … he not only told me I could wait until after the eggs, he told me to have a normal, perfect wedding and we would start treatment the week after. He was completely comfortable with this because the tumor was out, so at this point, chemo is preventative. I don’t think I have ever been more relieved in my entire life. Talk about making so many adult decisions all at one time though…

Almost immediately, I began giving myself fertility injections twice a day for ten days. I was then watched like a hawk until the timing was just right for them to retrieve the eggs, mix them with Joe’s swimmers and create embryos. Good thing I watched so many episodes of Giuliana and Bill. So my surgery was planned around my shower, right? Well the egg retrieval was planned around my bachelorette party. Do I have compassionate doctors or what?

It is going to be a long road, but by the time 2014 rolls in, I can look behind me and say that it is behind me. I know I wrote all of this using the word “I.” But I couldn’t have come this far without a great deal of support from so many people, but there are two in particular.

My mom has been at every single appointment with her pad of paper to take notes, asking all of the questions I never even thought to ask. She had to wash my hair and give me sponge baths all while I was a pain in the ass because I didn’t feel clean enough.

My husband is my emotional rock. When I wrote that I cried myself to sleep—it was in his arms while he wiped away my tears. We both found our inner strength from all of this bad mixed in with all of the good we have. The house and the wedding have been the most positive distractions to get us through and they more than outweigh the negative. Even before my diagnosis and surgery, we felt so much genuine love from everyone in our lives, and it has only grown. A year ago he asked me to marry him. I knew he was a keeper then, but these past few months have more than proven that I was right. He already knew what he was getting into—dealing with me the rest of his life. But what we have been facing is so much more than just your average anxiety-ridden, anal retentive girl. I am so lucky to have him by my side.

It wasn’t until now that I finally decided to make things fully public. The egg retrieval was June 25 and I am happy to say that Joe and I are the proud parents of six frozen embryos. We have options down the road but whether I carry these or a surrogate does, we know we will have babies of our own someday soon. Let’s see, did anything else significant happen since then?

Ohhhhhhhhh, that’s right… WE GOT MARRIED! On July 20, Joe and I tied the knot. If I had to describe our wedding day in one word, that word would be PERFECT. We had an amazing time surrounded by 261 of our nearest and dearest and never left the dance floor. The band was amazing, the photographer and videographers captured every moment and we can’t wait to see the pics and videos. Our planner helped the evening flow without any hiccups—unless you count my bustle. After about five times spent in the hallway trying to fix it, I said screw it, I want to spend my wedding on the dance floor, so I just held my dress until some friends had great alternate suggestions so that I could dance with two hands.

Living J-Strong photo 3

And I didn’t just dance—I shooped. If you know me, you know that Salt and Pepa’s “Shoop” is pretty much my jam. When I saw it on our band’s song list, I told them they not only had to play it, but they had to bring me up on stage. At first I think they were just humoring me, but they let me fly. (Check out the video from Evolution Films) I mean, talk about soaking up every minute of your wedding! I went the entire day and night without even thinking of the word cancer. The wedding was everything we dreamed of and then some. It was our blue wedding.

Speaking of blue, I did miss a step. The night before leaving for my bachelorette party, I got an unexpected email from some of my friends. It read as follows:

Our dear friend, Jamie:

We all wanted to let you know that we couldn't be more dazzled by you, and the way you've been handling everything that's been thrown at you with such poise and courage. You are so loved by each and every one of us, and we wanted to remind you that we're all there for you. For all that you’re going through, and all that’s to come.

Mr. Robinson came up with a brilliant way to do just that. Something that reminds us of your strength, and how much you mean to all of us. We made and have been wearing “J-Strong” bracelets to show our support, and wanted to share what “J-Strong” means to us:

“J-Strong” is Jamie, who is handling all of this with remarkable strength and grace, choosing to face her situation head-on instead of wallowing in self-pity wondering why. And “J-Strong” is Joe, who has truly been an unwavering support system for Jamie. Together they’re facing their future with bravery and optimism.

Jamie emulates positivity, spirit and grace. “J-Strong” is the way our friends and families are linked together in support and love for our strongest (and best!) friend in the world.

“J-Strong” stands for being UNITED and always TOGETHER – near or far.

Fighting through any challenges with laughter, strength and love. “J-Strong” demonstrates what we all know about you, and the band of support through this journey. We love you from coast to coast.

Attached you’ll find a picture collage of all of us, representing you. We will be printing this out as a poster for you to keep (no pressure to hang it in your new house). But the collage is just a beginning, and only captures a handful of folks – so as we continue to pass out the bands, people can send us pictures sporting “J-Strong,” and ultimately adding on to what we've created so far.

From: Andy, Julie & Noah, Scott & Melissa, Carter, Bill & Guiliana, Jeremy, Allyson, Cooper & Roxy, Caitlin & Jeff, Stacy & Josh, Stefie, Mike & Bialy, Dan, Elana & Ari, Josh, Adam, Melissa & Benson – and all of our extensions of family and friends – we love you and are inspired by you.

From the bottom of our hearts. You (and Joe) truly are the best thing.

Living J-Strong photo 4

Talk about goosebumps. And tears. Lots of tears. I was so touched and at SUCH a loss for words. Since receiving that email, the bracelets have begun to circulate more and more. Every time I walk into a room and see the bracelets on everyone, it is incredibly surreal to think, wow, they’re wearing that for me. I already felt so loved and so supported, but these J-Strong bands took that love and support to a new level. Joe, our wedding party, and several guests sported their bands on Saturday, and mine was pinned to my bouquet-- one of my many “something blues.”

So anyway, as I wake up today to a newsfeed filled with #jstrong, I feel the love even more. Today I start my journey with chemo. It is not one I am looking forward to beginning, but rather one I am looking forward to ending. It came way too soon (that’s what she said), but hopefully it will go by just as quickly. The honeymoon is over and it is back to reality. I am so glad that we have our frozen babies and our perfect wedding to remind us how lucky we are and how much worse life can be. Here goes nothing...

Click here to learn more about how you can support Jamie and Joe and get your own "J-Strong" band.

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Summer Cooking – Don’t Sweat It (Or In It)

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07/25/2013

Summer Cooking – Don’t Sweat It (Or In It) photo

At an Ina Garten book signing

Summer makes me lazy. I spend most of my time trying to tear myself away from Princesses of Long Island. I’m never very successful. I can’t help myself. I love that show and everything that follows it on Bravo. But my laziness doesn’t end at the edge of my couch: it extends right into the kitchen.

Thinking about having to turn on my oven or even imagining an open flame on my stove-top makes me break out into a sweat. I’m not a fan of the heat and sweating is my least favorite thing. Admitting this out loud makes me sound like one of the Princesses! Perhaps they need a gay friend?

All of this laziness makes the summer complicated for me. What my aversion to sweat really means is that I’ve been eating a lot of takeout. A lot. It’s not pretty. I finally hit a wall last night when the thought of eating my 400th bowl of Kung Pao Chicken made my stomach dance. Instead of switching up my favorite Chinese order, I decided that it was time to work through my slothiness and hit my cookbook collection for inspiration. The challenge? Make something that isn’t a sandwich that doesn’t require heat of any kind or make me sweat.

Unsure if this heatless challenge were possible, I turned to the Barefoot Contessa. I randomly met Ina Garten a few months ago at a book signing. Well, that is if you consider someone signing your book in silence a meeting. Nevertheless, I decided that my favorite Jewess would save me.

I thumbed through her most recent cookbook Foolproof in the hopes of finding something sweat-free, healthy and dinner worthy. I passed recipes for cosmos and other delicious looking drinks. I paused for a moment weighing the nutritional value of lemon juice, Cointreau liqueur, cranberry juice and vodka. I finally turned the page and discovered Ina’s Easy Gazpacho recipe. You guys! It’s so good! It’s easy, sweat free and it pairs well with my couch. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Ina Garten’s Easy Gazpacho
(Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, by Ina Garten)

2 (28 ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, drained
4 scallions
¼ seedless cucumber, unpeeled and seeds removed
1 large red onion
6 garlic cloves
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
½ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 ½ cups tomato juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the tomatoes, scallions, cucumber, and onion in large pieces and place them in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the garlic and pulse until the soup is coarsely puréed. Place it in a large bowl and whisk in the vinegar, olive oil, celery salt, red pepper flakes, tomato paste, tomato juice, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1½ teaspoons pepper. 

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Going to Bat Against Anti-Semitism

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07/24/2013

Going to Bat Against Anti-Semitism photo

I was out to dinner on Monday evening when the bolded headlines of "Ryan Braun Suspended for the Remainder of the 2013 Season" flashed across the screens lining the restaurant. As a Chicago Cubs fan, it is always a bit of a relief when a scandal surrounds one of your greatest rival teams, even when the Brewers (even more so than the Cubs) need a greater miracle than the story of Chanukah to turn their seasons around. However, as an avid baseball fan in general and a young Jew, this headline is far from ideal.

For anyone who isn't familiar with this story, Braun, who is the left fielder to the Milwaukee Brewers, has been considered a star in Major League Baseball for the past few years. Listed amongst the 50 greatest current players according to Sporting News, he won Most Valuable Player in the National League in 2011, which is also when accusations of Braun using performance enhancing drugs began. Additionally, Braun, who is nicknamed the "Hebrew Hammer," was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. He has publically voiced that he considers himself a Jew and even a role model to Jewish children. This past Monday, the scandal that began in 2011 was brought back to the forefront of sports news when Braun was suspended without pay for the remainder of the season, due to the confirmed use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In the article "Ryan Braun's Jewish Disgrace" (sidenote: I would've probably chosen a different title because this doesn't really help our case), the writers explains, "we all cheered when Braun was on top of the baseball world. He is a poster boy, along with Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis, and Ian Kinsler, of a Jewish baseball renaissance over the past decade or so. Indeed, it's arguably been the greatest time for Jewish Major Leaguers since the period between the 1930s and the mid-1950s, when Hank Greenberg, Harry Danning, Al Rosen, and Sid Gordon starred on the diamond."

It is disappointing as a Jewish sports fan. It is disappointing as a fan of Jews in sports. It is, quite frankly, disappointing as a sports fan and as a human being.

Although the number of incidents surrounding performance enhancing drugs are countless in Major League Baseball, the second I saw this news, I knew it was inevitable that people would make this an issue of religion and anti-Semitism rather than what is: an issue of character, morals and judgment.

The next morning at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Midwest Office where I work, one of the members of our young leadership group forwarded me an article from the Huffington Post and wrote, "This country has its share of some really sick people." The piece outlined a slew of the top ten most anti-Semitic tweets about the incident. From saying that his ancestors taught him well to comparing him to Bernie Madoff to characterizing him with Jewish stereotypes such as being horrible at sports, being sneaky, cheating, etc., these tweets were a crystal-clear display of some sort of anti-Semitism being expressed on the Internet.

After reading the article, I was disgusted, but unfortunately very far from surprised. Upon further research (okay it wasn't that fancy, I just typed "Ryan Braun Jew(ish)" into the Twitter search bar), I found countless Tweets that used racial slurs, inserted "#Jew" after quite offensive remarks, and blatantly expressed anti-Semitic views such as "Ryan Braun is a Jew…what do you expect."

Then, I saw a Tweet that said something along the lines of how Jews were "too sensitive," which was as, if not more, disheartening than the offensive Tweets.

I know not every Jewish joke or pun is meant to be anti-Semitic. The thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook who posted that he was "Jew-cing" (spoiler alert: if your so-called pun is trending, it's not that original) probably didn't have the same intentions as, for example, the Hitler parody account (I can't even believe I have to refer to it as that because it's revolting that it even exists) that unsurprisingly mentioned the incident. It is hard to find the divide between blatant anti-Semitism and people just acknowledging a fact (he is Jewish), but with that being said, the reaction to apparent anti-Semitism is far from an overreaction.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's mission, amongst many essential undertakings, is to combat anti-Semitism. With an incident such as this at the forefront of news media, it makes me grateful that I work for an organization that strives to teach tolerance on a global scale. Unfortunately, about every week (if not more), some issue that is filled with hate is brought to my attention, usually forwarded to me from an Op-Ed from someone from Wiesenthal or a press release from the center. It is mindboggling how in the 21st Century these problems of our past are still so apparent.

I have heard the anecdote that "business is good right now" for organizations such as the one that I work for—I think I work in one of the only professions where this is the opposite of what you want to hear. When I see American young adults, probably close to my own age, expressing hatred that is assumingly backed by a lack of education as well as intolerance and prejudice, I am thrilled at the greater good that the work I do ultimately goes toward. Whether I am planning a fundraising event, working on spreading educational programming throughout Chicago, or even organizing an expense report, it is going towards a great goal. The reality is, as sad as it is to say, anti-Semitism is alive and well and I truly hope in years to come that the demand for posts such as these will fade away. Until then, I'm back to work.

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Those Blue-and-Yellow Box Store Blues

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07/23/2013

Those Blue-and-Yellow Box Store Blues photo

There’s no better setting for an existential crisis than IKEA. This one starts and ends with a TIDAFORS EDSKEN dark gray sofa.

I’ve been wanting a new couch for a long while now. Mine owes me no more favors: it’s comfortable and long enough for a tall person to stretch out on, but it was a Craigslist find in 2007 and now it eats people, so it’s time to upgrade. 

My friend Krista is moving into a one-bedroom apartment, and needs a lot of big furniture. I found the TIDAFORS when we hit up the Schaumberg store in June. I fell in love. It has everything I need from a sofa: it accommodates my height, its armrests are great neck rests and its cushions haven’t been destroyed by untold hours of sitting, lounging and afternoon napping.

A new couch is a big investment, but this weekend I was ready. I’m famously bad at outfitting my living space, yet the nesting event horizon has now been crossed. I might be in school, but I’m not in an undergrad tenement anymore. I want a new couch – I deserve a new couch! I just turned 29; I’m allowed to get nice furniture. (IKEA still qualifies as nice furniture to me.)

Krista had rented a ZipCar, so we had to be mindful of time, but thanks to our June expedition, we pretty much knew what we wanted. We gave ourselves about 90 minutes to work our way through the stock floor, pulling what we needed from Aisle 36, Bin 12, ad infinitum and wheeling our oversized flat-packed items back to the checkouts and beyond.

One problem arose, neither anticipated nor investigated: The TIDAFORS EDSKEN dark gray sofa was not in stock.

Three more TIDAFORS EDSKEN dark gray sofas would be arriving on Monday, and five more would arrive on Friday, if we wanted to come back.

Anyone who has been to IKEA knows that around hour five of the endeavor is when all those artfully organized showrooms and useful-yet-inexplicable implements and inane Scandinavian nonsense words tip over from thrill into madness. Could I come back? Could I bear to haul up to Schaumberg again? Would it even be worth it, if I don’t know where I’ll be living in January?

That last part is the actual crisis. I graduate from Northwestern University’s masters program in journalism in December. I came to Chicago in 2002, as a first-year at the University of Chicago, and have lived here ever since, save for an ill-advised post-college foray into the San Francisco Bay Area and the requisite crash-and-burn afterward in Ohio.

I love Chicago. I love it in my marrow. This city gets me, and I mesh with it like I don’t with other places. I’ve gotten so much better about taking advantage of it, learning how to swing dance and commuting by bike and developing opinions about improv. In these months at Medill, I’ve gone into neighborhoods I’d never seen before, and never would have seen: Albany Park, Little Village, Noble Square, Portage Park. Just recently I spent an hour or so at Buckingham Fountain (the hour was 8 to 9 a.m.), and got completely, joyously soaked with my classmates when the spout shot up and blew our way.

I still feel like I just got here. But I graduate in December, and I don’t know where my work will take me.

In some ways, I admit this is exciting. There is something tantalizing about fresh starts and new cities. Many of my classmates are coming to Chicago cold, and they get to enjoy it for the first time. There really is something to that.

It still hurts my heart to think about, though. And this was my feeling as we raced through IKEA. Patrons of IKEA are arriving. They’re settling in. They’re nesting. You don’t buy a new couch if you’re just going to leave soon. CRÏSIS.

It seemed like a sign, not to come home with that TIDAFORS. I did brood about it on the drive back, and that evening too. Maybe my Craigslist couch could do for another few months. Maybe it’s better just to wait.

I’ll tell you something, though, that I didn’t realize prior to this trip. The difference between paying for delivery from the Schaumberg store and paying for delivery online is only $40. And if there’s one thing this city has taught me, it’s that, in the end, putting off nice things only means you’ve denied yourself something pleasant when you didn’t have to.

We didn’t succeed with the TIDAFORS, but something else came home with me: a wall clock (PUGG, I think). Yesterday I hung it on my dining room wall, which has been empty since I moved to this apartment in 2010. Maybe it’s ticking down the time until I leave, but it’s also reminding me to stay in the moment. December may be coming, but I don’t have to pull up anchor yet.

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Wedding Watch 5773

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07/22/2013

Wedding Watch 5773 photo

Remember those hilarious MADTv skits with the ‘STORM WATCH’ anchors? While the world was still adapting to the 24-hour news cycle, a comedy skit put news into perspective by interrupting their program with ‘updates’ on this massively scary storm, which was really just a loud booming voice proclaiming, “STORM WATCH!!” while the panicked anchors tried not to lose it.

How about awaiting a verdict in a controversial, nationally recognized trial? I followed the trial of George Zimmerman closely and anxiously awaited for the jury’s ruling after two days of intense deliberations. I believe HLN called it “Jury Watch.”

Or, what about the more recent “Royal Baby Watch,” which culminated today in the birth of William and Kate’s baby boy. The whole world was hanging on the every word of every newscaster perched outside St. Mary’s hospital in London the baby was to be delivered. You can imagine the excitement and anticipation.

That’s how I feel right now. Wedding Watch, 5773. It’s on, it’s been on, and it will continue to be on until the day before my wedding. So, I bring you the first of three “Wedding Watch 5773” installments. Here we go!

In two months and six days (or as my wonderful fiancée Ashley loves to point out – 68 days to go!) I’ll be “tying the knot,” and I have been on Wedding Watch 2013 for quite some time now. Since our engagement last Sep. 15, the wedding has unfolded from a mere thought into reality. Planning is a complex, tedious and arduous task to undertake and I have to commend my fiancée and her mother for putting all the time and effort into creating this elaborate and exquisite wedding.

After countless hours, the bulk of the planning is done. Invitations have gone out and the fabulous food tastings have been completed for both the cake and the reception. The rings have been chosen and inscribed with the Hebrew words, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” or “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine,” an inscription my parents had on their wedding bands.

From the outside (and inside, I guess), every logistic seems to be coming together and in order, yet I can still sense Ashley’s stress and anxiety as she continues to meet with the wedding planner, discuss options with her mother, choose photos for the rehearsal dinner montage, and brainstorm honeymoon destinations. In the last 18 months, both of my siblings have gotten hitched, along with Ashley’s sister, which makes this Wedding Watch really extend all the way back even before our engagement. We had a great time and a wonderful turnout at our engagement party, and Ashley’s shower was a huge hit. We got lots of great goodies, some of which we have already put to good use. I should know, I busted out the ice cream maker the second we got it!

Speaking of wedding invitations, Ashley and I invited over 300 people to our wedding. Insane, right? I mean, Ashley and I were okay with eloping, really … (our parents would’ve killed us though) … oh well, it’s too late now. Seriously, though, I am so excited to share this amazing milestone with so many wonderful friends and family. Our family has been very blessed with bubbling personalities, ambitious careers and exciting milestones like these to share. It’s amazing to witness how people can come together and share in a special occasion; it really makes you feel like you’re on top of the world with a whole new outlook on the future, starting a whole new phase in life with such a supportive circle around us.

Let’s also not forget that I need to look my absolute best on that day, so that leaves the tux shirt and beer belly out. For the last two months I’ve been making sure I keep my face (and rest of my body) in good shape. I have had tons of support, including great outlets for exercise. Most notable are my frequent bike rides along the lakefront to and from beach volleyball games and visiting my dad to go shag some golf balls out in the park. Ashley’s wedding planning also gives me a chance to spend quality time with Rebbe, the cockapoo wonder dog that has dramatically changed both of our lives. (He’s one and a half now!)

It has not been easy to maintain, believe me, but I remain persistent and committed. I’ve been tracking my food intake (yes, everything—even the sugar-free Werther’s candies to curb my sweet tooth) and exercise output with a free online app, and I’ve hooked up with a trainer to train as often as my schedule allows. But I think the biggest lifestyle change in preparation for the wedding has been the late-night snacking. Anyone that knows me knows I love two things: sweets and staying up late. A 10 p.m. bedtime and 6:45 a.m. wakeup call are, shall we say, a bit of a stretch for a natural insomniac. But some calisthenics, tug-of-war with the puppy and a loaded protein shake for breakfast have really turned my opinion of early mornings around.

It’s amazing to think that I am on my way to being 30 and approaching the best shape of my life, and now I have many reasons to continue to work hard to stay in shape. I know that Ashley is doing the same to make that wedding dress feel lucky she’s wearing it. Either way, I am awaiting that day when I see the most beautiful bride walk down the aisle, in her gorgeous wedding dress that I have not yet seen, to begin our married life together.

Well, that’s enough kvetching for now, I’ll be back next month to preview more exciting stories and experiences to share about the wonderful world of wedding waiting (say that five times fast!). I still have my vows to write, my bachelor party, and of course, discussions about the honeymoon destination. I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life: 68 days and counting!

L’Chaim! 

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Graduating from my “senior year of life”

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07/19/2013

Graduating from my “senior year of life” photo

Lia at her Northwestern University graduation in 2009 

A little more than four years ago — on June 20, 2009 — I wore a purple cap and gown, walked across the stage, and received my diploma from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

I have officially been out of college longer than I was in it. As I began thinking about this fact a few weeks ago, I came across my senior column that I wrote for the Daily Northwestern, published June 15, 2009. Here’s what I wrote:

Workaholics Anonymous

In a college quarter with no classes, I seemed to do a lot of learning. Thanks to a few AP credits, I was able to complete school at the end of Winter Quarter.

Students always joke about what college would be like without professors and midterms, and I got to live it firsthand. I spent 12 weeks doing interesting things I wish I hadn’t waited until senior year to do.

Throughout college, I’ve taken some great courses. But sometimes we get so wrapped up in the lectures and the grades that we forget about the other learning opportunities that this school and this city have to offer.

It took me four years to discover how nice it is to read a book at Norbucks [the Starbucks at our student center] — for fun. It took me four years to convince myself that you can exercise more effectively at Blomquist [one of the NU gyms] if you’re listening to music — not highlighting in a course pack. After four years, I learned the benefits of walking along the Lakefill, getting paid for participating in Kellogg [School of Management] studies and going to Cubs games with my brother.

I started going on “adventures” into Chicago, searching the web of vibrant neighborhoods for the best brunch restaurants, ice cream stores and cheap shopping areas.

At Northwestern, I majored in journalism and minored in Hebrew Studies. I’ve studied economics, cosmology, marketing, drawing, statistics and comparative politics. Over the past four years, though, I’ve also been lucky to be able to study late-night milkshakes at Kafein [coffee shop in Evanston], Century 12 Evanston Theatre, volunteer trips, the Purple Line, the third floor of Norris [student center] and 30-hour dance parties [NU’s Dance Marathon].

Now, we graduate college, but did we do enough? Did we meet enough people? Did we spend enough time exploring the exciting, new and different places surrounding us?

It may have taken me four years in college to learn the importance of those things; but it won’t take me four years to figure it out in the “real world.”

Whether we’re going to an international grad school or taking a job here in Chicago, it might be good to occasionally try to act like we’re taking a quarter off.

We should study hard for the LSAT, but stay on the beach for an extra hour before we do. We should prepare presentations for our clients, but then invite our freshman-year roommates for coffee. We should be excited about our first paychecks, but we should not be afraid to spend part of them on something we’ve never done before.

I hope to live my life like Spring Quarter 2009, staying on my toes and supplementing work with culture and excitement.

So next year, seniors, any time we have a free Sunday — even if the weather disagrees — let’s go on an adventure, exploring something new.

-Lia Lehrer, Medill senior

Graduating from my “senior year of life” photo 2

Page of the Daily Northwestern from June 15, 2009 where Lia’s article appeared 

Until I found this article in my parents’ basement a few weeks ago, I had completely forgotten that I wrote it. But somehow, I think I had it in the back of my mind this whole time. Somewhere, a little mini 2009 Lia has been whispering to me: Go. Do. Explore.

In the past four years, I’ve had two great jobs (at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El and now at Temple Jeremiah), finished my first year of grad school (at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership), lived in an amazing neighborhood, made a lot of new friends, and have been to a dozens of summer street festivals. I’ve seen Broadway plays and improv shows, tried new restaurants and discovered my favorite local coffee shops. I’ve traveled to new places around the country and around the world. So far, it’s been a blast — and there are so many more places to explore, people to meet, and things I want to do.

So, Lia of the past: As I graduate from my “senior year of life,” thank you for reminding me to keep going out there, visiting new places, and exploring the unknown. Here’s hoping that all of you, dear friends, will join me on these adventures for many years to come.

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Dieter’s Dilemma

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07/18/2013

Who doesn’t want to feel better, sleep better, and look leaner? We all do, and these are the promises of many diets.

The current popular diet is the Paleo diet. This diet recommends you eat the food cavemen ate, back when there was no means of processing food. The foods you can chow on are:

• Meats (unprocessed, containing no nitrates, sulfates, or MSG)
• Vegetables
• Fruits
• Olive oil, clarified butter
• Tree nuts

Dieter’s Dilemma photo 1

There are a few limitations in the fruit and vegetables categories such as white potatoes are a “no” but sweet potatoes are a “yes.” There are countless websites and blogs that discuss what to eat and what not to eat. Here are a few items you should not eat on this diet:

• Dairy
• Legumes
• Grains
• Gluten
• Soy
• Sugar

There are hundreds of other diets, out there and even more miracle pills to help lose weight. Pills scare me more than the diets. Anyone remember Fen Phen? It was touted as a wonder drug, then people died and the FDA pulled it from the market. And this happens all the time. There is no wonder pill or magic diet to drop weight. Using a very scientific approach, the problem is three fold:

1. Start tomorrow syndrome
2. Lost all the weight? Party time!
3. Quitting

People who say they are going to start on Monday, start tomorrow, etc. … never end up starting the diet or pig out until they start the diet. How many times have you been next to a friend with a doughnut (or insert any sweet treat) and said, “Tomorrow no more cookies.” Tomorrow never comes, and if it does come, they cut out sugary treats for weeks, maybe longer and one day they it turns to party time.

Food parties happen all the time.

Dieter’s Dilemma photo 2

You hit your weight goal, it’s your birthday, anniversary, Thursday… people regress. It’s normal to eat a treat. The trick is limiting how often and the size of that treat. Food addicts especially have trouble controlling their portion in the face of trigger foods; salty or sugary foods trigger your body to want to eat more.

And people quit on diets for numerous reasons, the number one reason being they did not lose enough weight in the first two weeks. That’s right, if people don’t look a cover model after two weeks, they want to quit. That’s why I say, DON’T DIET.

You heard me. Do not diet. Unless you have a doctor working with you for health reasons, dieting sucks. It usually does not work. Weight Watchers is great because it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Eat a cookie; just don’t eat the whole box. Weight Watchers tracks your food and tells you, “hey, you ate too much crap today, eat less tomorrow.” I am over simplifying, but the majority of us can lose weight and feel better with small changes:

• Pack trail mix, fruit and veggies with you
• Carry around a water bottle (and use it)
• Take the grapes off the vine and in bowl (my wife makes fun of me for this but it makes healthy snacking much easier)
• If you struggle with diet, hire a dietician
• See a doctor if you have gastrointestinal issues
• Start cooking or cook one more meal a week
• Buy more fruits and vegetables at the store

If you are struggling to lose weight, the easiest thing you can do is log your food. Spend two weeks writing down everything you eat. That usually leads to great self-discovery. Remember, one doughnut every now and then is ok, but just because you live near Do Right, Donut Vault, Dunkin Donuts, Firecakes…does not mean a new flavor a day. Eat smart.

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Good, Bad..but mostly Ugly: The Cubs & Sox at the All-Star Break

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07/17/2013

We’re all still holding on to the Blackhawks’ amazing Stanley Cup run. You can’t walk down the street a day in the city without seeing someone in a Blackhawks Stanley Cup Championship T-shirt or hat. The Chicago sports wire is littered with stories about Derrick Rose and his ongoing recovery, as well as the Bears new-look offense and the future of Jay Cutler.

And all the while, two professional baseball teams who call Chicago home are midway through their seasons. And it is really hard to care. Both teams sit under .500 and at or near the bottom of their respective divisions. Neither team appears to be gearing up for a second-half playoff run, so, what has caught our attention on the North and South sides so far this season? Let’s take a look.

Good, Bad..but mostly Ugly photo 1

Chicago Cubs – 42-51

The Good: The Cubs have been very clear that they are not playing for this season, or even next (or next, or next…). Their plans are long term, and most of the players theoretically included in that plan are not even on the major league squad yet. So the good for the Cubs has nothing to do with the players on the team, but rather what the front office is doing. They unloaded Carlos Marmol (which might be the move of the year), and Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano have both played well enough to lift their trade stock as high as the Cubs could have hoped. They drafted Kris Bryant with the second overall pick, and have signed a long term deal with Anthony Rizzo. They have a young starting pitcher and possible future ace in Travis Wood, who was selected to the All-Star team after an impressive first half, even though it isn’t shown in his record due to the Cubs’ wretched bullpen and lack of run support. And Starlin Castro, who started the season playing well below expectation, has been playing extremely well over the last month, batting over .300.

The Bad: Everything else. The Cubs’ bullpen has been atrocious. They lead the NL in “Blown Saves” with 19, and their offense has the third-worst On-Base Percentage. And in spite of Castro’s recent surge, the overall offensive production from he and Rizzo have been extremely disappointing. They often struggle to score runs, and outside of Rizzo, Castro and Soriano, have yet to find consistent starters at any other position.

The Outlook: Don’t expect the results to be much different in the second half of the season. It will be worth noting the continued progress of Rizzo, Castro and Wood – as well as what the Cubs do leading up to the trade deadline. And although I doubt they bring guys like Solar or Baez up this season, they would be worth watching should the Cubs give them a shot in the majors toward the end of the season. Otherwise, do your best to keep your eyes on the front office, and off the field.

Good, Bad..but mostly Ugly photo 2

Chicago White Sox – 37-55

The Good: Chris Sale and Josh Phlegey have given you something to cheer about. And Adam Dunn appears to have found his power again. But none of those things have added up to wins. The good seems to end there on the South Side. See: The Bad.

The Bad: Jake Peavy getting injured was a huge hit not only to the team this season, but to their chances of getting good trade value for him. The White Sox are at the bottom of the league in “Runs Scored” and second to last in OBP. The have also committed the third-most errors in the American League, and are second worst in “Wins.” And what may be worst of all, they have made no attempt to improve the roster to make a second-half run.

The Outlook: Unlike the Cubs, the Sox don’t appear to have a long-term plan. Instead of gutting the team and building from the bottom, the appear to want to stand pat, adding little pieces here and there over the last few seasons in hopes that improvement will just come. But they have a roster full of players too good to bench, but not valuable enough to trade for quality prospects. Their manager decided not to sign in extension, and has seemed uninterested in managing this team (and who could blame him?). They don’t appear to be developing their future in the minors and don’t appear to be looking to trade for players to help them improve in the short term. The White Sox have mostly stayed in contention in recent years, but, it is coming up on almost 10 years since their World Series and it might be time to take a page out of the Cubs’ book for once and start thinking about their future.

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Dear Mom

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07/16/2013

Dear Mom photo

Dear Mom,

I hate camp the beds are so hard I can’t sleep the cabins r moldy the food is crap stale pasta and moldy salad there are bats in the showers and if I don’t where shower shoes I get warts I love u and if u love me you’ll rescue me from hell soon

Love BJ :’(

This was the first letter I ever received from sleep-away camp. After one day. Did I freak out? Did I demand a conference call with the director—wait, no—the founder of camp? Did I insist on a refund plus $500 for future therapy sessions to address the psychological harm that the rabid flying bats in attack mode leering at my naked child in the shower have surely caused? And dammit, I had just gotten my kid to eat salad! The moldy lettuce thing could cause quite a setback. No. No, I did not do any of these things. (However, I admit to some level of disappointment with my son’s letter: the massive run-on sentence, absence of punctuation and the misspelling of the word “wear”…)

I do not remember my first day of sleep-away camp. I do remember my last. I was sobbing as “Uncle Fuzz” soulfully strummed the guitar with his eyes closed and head raised toward the stars and sky singing “The Cats in the Cradle” as we had our final campfire of the summer. And I remember the middle part of camp: staying up late gossiping about the cute boys; polar bearing into the freezing lake; riding horses; seeing a snake and nearly peeing myself; laughing so hard in my cabin after a major overload of sugar from someone’s cleverly hidden stash of candy that I did pee myself; a skunk smell at night that I not only got used to, but grew fond of, and the friends. Friends I remained pen pals with for years.

Did I have a crappy first day at sleep-away camp? Like I said—don’t remember, don’t know. Probably. My son and I share a very high expectation for things and are easily disappointed when they aren’t exactly what we want them to be. And after all, camp is not school or work—it’s not a have-to. It’s a want-to.

And so, when my kid went to sleep away camp, he—and I—was expecting a lot. For my kid to give up any amount of his summer lounging time and leave us (and probably more importantly to him, his new puppy) is hard. His saying goodbye to the creature comforts of home (which mainly translates into having his phone, a TV and a toilet he doesn’t fear sitting on, as well as his friends and homemade Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast every morning) is tough stuff. He’s a kid, so he’s thinking this camp better be really, really good.

As for me, after all the research, cash and my personal reassurances, I’m thinking this camp better be better than good. This camp better be GREAT! But come ‘on! It’s the first day. And although I did cringe reading about the wart-juice infested shower floor, (I even absent-mindedly touched my feet where plantar warts had once lived thanks to the YMCA pool showers) I’m not panicking—yet.

I believe myself to be a well-intended parent with activity sign-ups for my kids, and I always consult my kids ahead of time when the idea is mine. Admittedly, some of the choices I initiate fare better than others. Signing up my Play-Doh-throwing child for ceramics? Good choice. (Great choice actually—we’ve found he’s gifted with clay.) Signing up the palest child in the world for an all-day outdoor sports camp in which he spent 99.9 percent of the time in the sun and/or on a black concrete slab? Bad, bad choice. I had a tomato for a son that summer. But I’ve learned to celebrate the hits and forgive the misses because how else are my kids supposed to figure out what they might love if I don’t give them the encouragement, opportunity and space to explore it?

So, I see this first day of camp S.O.S. letter as a test, a test for us both. Do I want my kid to have the best two weeks ever? Of course I do. Did I feel a sad, sinking sensation in my heart when I first read the letter? Yes I did. Was there an itty-bitty part of me that wondered, just for a moment, if my minivan that is on it’s very last legs of existence, could make a frantic, pedal-to-the-metal drive up to rescue my kid from his suffering of cardboard mattresses, bad food, bats and looming foot warts? Yup. But it was just for a moment. Because he’ll be OK. Even if he ends up coming home with more war stories than triumphs, he’ll have survived. And so will have I. And anyways, the kid has his rabies shot.

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Act As If

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07/15/2013

Act As If photo

When I worked in sales we lived by the motto to “act as if” you were the level above your pay-grade. If you were a sales rep, “act as if” you were an assistant manager; if you were an assistant manager, “act as if” you were a branch manager; and so on. It’s an idea that has stuck with me to this day.

As we muddle our way through the entry to mid-level professional world, it is tough to know exactly what we are supposed to do in order to move up. Many careers don’t have a clear path outlined for us and fewer still have the directions spelled out to get down the path. Many of us want to advance, take on more responsibility and receive the perks and benefits that go along with it. The challenge is how to figure out the finesse and nuances of climbing that ladder.

This is where “act as if” comes in. Who are the professionals that have proven their success at the level above you? By the way, no matter how successful you think they might or might not be, they had to have gotten at least something right to earn the right to be at that level. What is it exactly that they got right? Notice everything about them, by the way. How do they dress for work? How early do they start working and how late do they finish? With whom in and out of the company or organization are they spending most of their time?

Now that you have identified some role models, ask yourself, how can I change my day to day working style to “act as if” you are already at their level? What are the important projects and tasks that are the key to my future success? What would I be doing differently if today I were promoted to that next level?

Of course, if you are completely unsure on how to get started with all of this, it is completely fine to reach out for help. Author and entrepreneur Jason Seiden suggests that this is how you “Make Your Own Breaks” in his book How to Self Destruct, Making the Least of What's Left of Your Career.

Look up that role model of yours in the company directory. Shoot them an e-mail, call them or just ask next time you bump into each other in the elevator. Tell this person you admire the work they’re doing and would love to learn more about how they have found success at the organization. Offer to buy a cup of coffee sometime so that you can pick their brain. People love free coffee and giving their opinion, so it will be hard for your role model to say no.

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I’m My Own Ancestor

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Devarim
6 Av 5773 / July 12-13, 2013
07/12/2013

Dan Horwitz photo

This week’s portion, Devarim, kicks off the last of the Five Books of Moses.

Most of the book is Moses’s final speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, in which he recaps their travels, battles and the various miracles they witnessed.

One of the most interesting parts of this portion is Moses’s use of language. In particular, he frames his storytelling as: “I did this, and then you (collectively) did that.” What’s strange about his choice of language is that the men he’s addressing were not alive for a good chunk of his historical accounting, and if any of them were, they were under age 20 at the time any of the reported events took place. And yet, he chooses to address the collective as having been present, and as having been responsible for the victories and defeats the nation faced along the way.

I imagine that while the new Israelite generation might have appreciated being lumped in with their parents when their parents did things right, I also have to imagine that they struggled when they were chastised and lumped in with their parents when it came to their parents’ shortcomings.

Can any of us honestly say that we’d be comfortable being held accountable for the faults of our parents?

Why would Moses lump the current generation in with the past one?

Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised, given the other instances we’ve found of such grouping in the Torah. For example, we should remember that God (as portrayed in the Torah) isn’t always happy and smiling, and is willing to hold children accountable for the sins of their parents:

“You shall not bow down to them [idols] or serve them; for I am a jealous God, punishing the children of those that hate me unto the third and fourth generation.” [paraphrase of Exodus 20:4].

So too, we’re reminded that the Exodus from Egypt did not happen just to/for our ancestors:

“And you shall tell your son on that day: It is because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” [paraphrase of Exodus 13:8] (sound familiar from Passover?)

We’re meant to view ourselves as having gone out of Egypt and experiencing what our ancestors did, and so too, we’re potentially held accountable for the actions of those who came before us. What gives?

What are the benefits of a collective, cross-generational identity?

Do you think the way we currently act in our lives and communities would be different if we envisioned ourselves as part of a collective — spanning generations — rather than as individuals?

Much has been written about us being part of “Generation Me.” Perhaps for those who came before us, who experienced struggles different (and arguably greater) than our own due to being Jewish, the collective identity piece was a bit stronger…

This week, reflect on your identity and how you view your relationship to others.

Meditate on “kol Yisrael arevim ze la’zeh” – “all Jews are responsible for one another.” Does this concept resonate with you? Why or why not?

Commit to living a life that your children, and theirs after them, will be inspired by; leave a legacy they are anxious to inherit, and a narrative they willingly and joyously adopt as their own.

Shabbat shalom.

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Ramblings After Year One

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07/11/2013

Ramblings After Year One photo

Sometimes I say "I just graduated" or "I recently started working," and now that it's a little over a year later, "just" and "recently" gotta go, and frankly it kind of sucks.

Now I know that transitioning from the greatest four years of your life to the probably not-so-great beginning working years of your life was NO EASY FEAT. And I put that in caps because I think sometimes people underestimate the drastic lifestyle overhaul. The wounds of a recent graduate are raw, but now ours are just scars. As we get older and fully immerse ourselves in the working world, college gets further and further away. Like anything in the past, the small details become increasingly difficult to remember and we are no longer the new meat in the office, but just an average employee where there’s little distinction if we’ve been out of college for two years or for 10.

I've survived the first year, but what next? The answer is both simple and difficult. We know, we knowww that we're working for the rest of our God-given days (until we retire or abscond with a billionaire), but what's next has to be more than that. After freshman year comes sophomore year and after junior year comes senior year, but what's after year one in the real world? Are years two and three repeats of year one? I cannot tell you how much I despise change; it was even stressful when my room was painted a new color. I know—like c'mon Gabi.

The irony of it is that after year one, I am welcoming change with open arms. Sometimes I think I get so focused in a routine that I am missing out on life! Okay, that's dramatic but in a weird, toned-down kind of way it's partially true. As I ride the train to work everyday I see the same people, sitting in the same seats, reading the same papers. Usually I think these people are my heroes because I just don't know how they do it year in and year out, but sometimes there's this little part of me that worries that life actually might pass me by while I'm sitting in the same seat reading the same paper.

I am seriously cheesing out right but get over it, cheese is delicious.

Sometimes it's good to take mom's tacky, clichéd advice and dive head first into something new and unexpected. Deep breath—I’m moving to a new city where I know no one, to start a new school I know nothing about. If I learned anything from my first year out of college besides how to fix the copy machine and mail an overweight package, it's that change doesn't have to be the awful new room color I thought it was.

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The Constant Change of Consistency

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07/10/2013

Adam Daniel Miller photo 2

I rewrote the title of this post more than two dozen times. The one that you see, that’s actually the first one I wrote which is actually rather fitting. See, I had a revelation recently. Well, not so much a revelation as I had a bit more free time on my hands one weekend with nothing to do, hence I was a little bored, and therefore may have been thinking too much after having noticed my Super Nintendo on the ground and subsequently thought about the fact that some of the best aspects of my life have always been the exact same yet are always changing. That and I like long run-on sentences.

In regards to that first thought, it struck me how Super Nintendo and video games in general have always made me exquisitely happy. However, why I love video games currently has a much deeper and significant meaning. I used to like them because they were fun. Now, in addition to fun, I appreciate them for their stories, game play and often incredible voice acting. It’s slightly trivial but lends itself to a bigger idea that the wonderful constants in my life are consistently changing. It’s like the title! Oh, I get it now!

What I like about the constants in my life is that as I’ve become a little older and a little wiser, what’s important to me has developed superior reasons and validation. Simply put, I can explain what I like and why I like it much more eloquently. I mean, there are the obvious constants in my life that are easy to explain. I enjoy eating every day. I take delight in sleeping every night. I always look forward to my weekly shower. Haha. I’m just kidding—it’s monthly. But the fundamental reasoning behind what I love is ever-changing while the core stays the same. Let me give you the perfect example.

SpaghettiOs. Love ‘em. Always have, always will. But only with meatballs, gosh darn it! Back in the day, I loved them because they were a simple meal. Not too flashy in appearance, not too bold in flavor. It wasn’t claiming to be anything more than what it was. Os of spaghetti. Balls of meat. I should probably put meat in quotes. Eh, not gonna happen. The point is, SpaghettiOs, to me, were near perfection. As an adult, I realize how wrong I was. SpaghettiOs are perfection. But as an adult (actually, should probably put that in quotes), yes, I still eat SpaghettiOs and also yes, still with meatballs.

Now I eat them because, well, it’s a cheap, easy meal to make and to be perfectly honest, a can doesn’t have too many calories but does have a lot of injected nutrition. Like 20 percent of my suggested daily riboflavin, my favorite of all the flavins. So yes, that’s my fake “adult” reason why I still enjoy SpaghettiOs, because they are sort of healthy. I know the sodium is through the roof—shuddap! But SpaghettiOs have always been a staple for me. I’m fully aware I’m technically an “adult,” I do have to pay a utility bill after all, but sometimes I refuse to fully accept it. (The being an “adult,” not the bill.) However, that little change in thought about the most consistently delectable meal I know of is a way of letting my “adult” needs get along with my childlike wants. Also, for the record, the fact that I just over analyzed SpaghettiOs and how they showcase a fundamental part of who I am might negate the part where I said I’m an “adult.” I’m quite fine with that.

I’m also quite fine with my Jewishnessicity. You catch that smooth transition there? The way I view what it means to me to be Jewish and how I view religion as a whole is one of the most provocative and fascinating aspects of who I am. The constant here is that I will never be anything but Jewish. That’s a given. While that constant is here and will always be here, what it means to me being Jewish and staying Jewish is different day in and day out. I have created my own solid foundation on what I define as being Jewish. I’m not going to delve too far into it but I’ll simply say that some of my thoughts and actions are different, foreign and exactly in line with everything one would hopefully, in my opinion, come to expect from a Jew. I’m entirely different and entirely the same. I’m still working out exactly what that means despite always knowing exactly what it means.

The thing that inspired me to write this, to talk about this, to relay this minor yet major thought that means oh so much to me is something so simple and so complicated that I had to come up with a silly albeit honest title to describe it. Remember the title? A few months back, I wrote about how the thing that inspires me to write can be anything, everything and always the same thing. I didn’t know it at the time but I was referring to all I just wrote.

Throughout my life, I’ve grown as a person, both physically and mentally. I understand more now than I have ever before and graciously I have this same thought every single day. The world changes. I change with it. The world stays the same. I stay the same with it. Whether 5, 10, or even 20 years ago, what calmed me, what I enjoyed in this world, what I cared about, who and what inspired me, is somehow the exact same today. It may not come in the exact same package but the contents, when viewed closely, are so familiar I start to not even recognize them. What I hold most dear to my heart and my being, what keeps me going, what keeps me who I am fundamentally, at my core, is always the same and at the same time is ever changing, evolving, perfecting. A constant change in consistency.

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Where the Jews are

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The world’s remotest Jews
07/09/2013

Where the Jews are photo

Earlier this year, Israel passed a milestone-there are now more Jews in Israel than anywhere else, even the US.

The other main pockets of Jewish life are Russia and the rest of its former satellite states, Europe (especially France), and South America (especially Argentina). And no one is surprised to hear of the Jewish presence in the rest of the English-speaking world— Canada, Australia, etc.

Of course, there are still Jews living in Arabic lands, as we are a Middle Eastern people from way (or more accurately, waaaaaaay) back. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee— JDC or "The Joint" for short— operates in 70-some countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. And it's no longer news, of course, that there is a Jewish community in Ethiopia.

But that doesn't mean that there still aren't even more Jewish communities tucked away in places you might never expect. I began learning about them years ago when I came across Kulanu (Hebrew for "all of us"), an organization that reaches out to remote Jewish communities worldwide. The article was about their contact with a spontaneously converted Jewish community in …

Uganda. Yes, the same place the British offered us instead of Israel. And the same place Israeli commandos rescued that hijacked plane full of Jews. In 1919, one of the local Ugandan leaders found a Bible left by a Christian missionary. He read it and did what it said to do— convert to Judaism. His name was Semei Kakungulu, and he called his followers the Abayudaya. Some know them from their distinctive music— imagine the Jewish prayers set to the music of Paul Simon's Graceland album. Here is their version of "Lecha Dodi." Other countries in Africa with Jewish communities include Ghana and Mozambique.

There are three countries in Asia with remarkable Jewish populations of their own. The world became aware of the one in Mumbai, sadly, after it was attacked by terrorists in 2008. Several cities in India are home to active Jewish communities.

As the South-Asian summarizes: "The earliest Jews came to India two thousand years ago, escaping persecution in Galilee. Some came after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Sephardic Jews came to India from European nations such as Holland and Spain. The 16th and 17th century migrations created settlements of Jews from Persia, Afghanistan, and central Asia in northern India and Kashmir. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jewish settlers came from the Middle East and North Africa. Jews settled in different areas: Kashmir in the north, Cochin in the south, Calcutta in the east and Mumbai (then "Bombay") in the west."

There is also a small but active Jewish community in Obama's old stomping ground, Indonesia… and two sizeable Jewish communities in China. One is fairly ancient, and it is centered in the town of Kaifeng (pronounced "kai-fung.") The other is more recent, comprised of Jews who fled the Nazis to Shanghai and their descendants. There are a few folks who refer to this community, naturally, as "Shang-Chai."

But the story of the Jews fleeing persecution is an old one. Jews during the Inquisition supported Columbus, and certainly followed the conquistadors to the so-called New World, landing in South America, especially Peru, in Mexico, and in the US Southwest. According to the book The Jewish Connection, a Spanish-Jewish sailor named Sergio Rodriguez pulled Columbus' landing craft ashore, thus becoming the first European to set foot on New World soil (unless you count the Viking theory).

The Inquisition Jews were outwardly Christian while maintaining Jewish practice in private (sometimes literally "going underground," as they performed Jewish rituals in basements and caves to avoid detection). These forcibly converted Jews were insultingly called "morranos" ("pigs") by the Spanish, but took the name Conversos for themselves. Centuries later, many formally re-adopted their ancestors' Jewish ways, saying things like, "My grandmother used to light two candles in the basement every Friday night, but I never knew why until now."

Whether fleeing persecution or poverty, we Jews have made our way into nearly every country on Earth, adopting some of the local ways and adapting others. We have at once been able to fit in and to stand apart, which has helped us survive as both people and as a people for thousands of years. The variety of Jewish experience is far beyond what most of us grew up knowing. That we have endured in so many remote locales, and under such harsh conditions, is amazing, but given our track record, perhaps not all that surprising.

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No-Guilt Grilled Pizza

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07/08/2013

Recently, I came across an article arguing the effectiveness of fast food chains listing caloric value next to their menu items. They proposed the idea of instead, listing an effective exercise and recommended length of time to burn off the calories. The author thought that this would help consumers to make the healthier choice. For example one slice of cheese pizza coming in at 285 calories will cost you 50 minutes of jogging. Don’t even think about pairing your pizza with a light beer—that will cost you an extra 30 minutes of bowling.

So there you are at one of your favorite pizza restaurants (Cross-town rivalry… I am going to have to go with Lou Malnati’s) deciding what you want on your pizza, and you end up eating a plain garden salad because the menu says it will only cost you a short yoga class instead of a lengthy jog. When did our dinner start coming with a choice of exercise instead of a choice of side? By educating ourselves on what goes into our favorite pizzeria’s slice, we can make a delicious slice of pizza at home instead of having to eat yet another salad.

One of my family’s favorite meals on a busy summer weekend is grilled pizza. It is fast, easy, delicious and can be made super healthy. In college, I had a nutrition professor who claimed that pizza in moderation can be a very healthy meal when done correctly because it has the ability to be a completely balanced one (it contains grains, vegetables, protein and some healthy fat).

The key is to pick fresh tasty ingredients so that you do not have to pile on cheese and fatty meats. The version below is only one of many favorites. By grilling the pizza dough, you can get it super thin and crispy so that you can pile on the veggies and lean proteins.

No-Guilt Grilled Pizza photo

Whole Grain Pizza with Goat Cheese and Sautéed Vegetables 
Serves 4

Ingredients

-Crust-
I cheated and bought the whole grain dough from Whole Foods that can be found at the pizza counter … hey, pizza is supposed to be fast and easy, right?

-Sauce-
1 (8 oz) can whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 small yellow onion- sliced
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. agave nectar
1 tsp. olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

-Toppings-
1 tsp. olive oil
5 oz soft ripened goat cheese (I like Lincoln Log from Zingerman’s)
¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
½ cup baby arugula
½ cup wild mushrooms, chopped
5 stalks asparagus, cut in ½ inch pieces
¼ red pepper, chopped
¼ yellow pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, sliced thin
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

-Sauce-
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil. Once browned add in tomatoes, agave, and bay. Simmer for about 10 min. Season with salt and pepper. Take out bay leaves and blend all ingredients until smooth. Sauce can be made ahead of time and frozen for later use.

-Vegetables-
Heat 1 tsp. olive oil and lightly brown garlic and shallots. Add in mushrooms, asparagus, and peppers. Lightly sauté vegetables to start the cooking process and release some of the liquids so that the crust does not become soggy. They should be tender when removed from the pan. Remember they will still cook a little on the grill.

-Dough-
Heat grill on high. Roll out dough as thin as you can get it. Brush olive oil on one side and place oiled side down on grill. Pop any bubbles with a fork if they appear during cooking process. When lightly browned, turn grill to medium heat and flip dough over. Immediately start laying your ingredients down. I started with my sauce then scattered all my vegetables including raw arugula around entire pizza. I finished my pizza with the goat cheese and a scattering of parmesan cheese. Pizza is done once crust is crispy and cheese is melted. This process should be done with the grill top open the entire time.

Go ahead and indulge yourself in a beer there is room for it now.

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Give it to Me G Rated

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07/05/2013

up oy

I am a 20-something male who has no children, and I watch animated movies.

I would normally preface such a statement by outwardly saying that this is something I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I felt no need to blanket it with any kind of qualifier because I know I’m not alone. Animated/family films are great for all ages, and I bet you love them too.

Some of the best movies being made today come from Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and others. They are visually arresting, exciting, hilarious and can even move you to tears (I get weepy just thinking of the Carl and Ellie flashback montage in Up—and let’s not even go into WALL*E). Other genres’ track records as far as critical praise and audience approval simply don’t compare.

We’re in animated/family film prime time this holiday weekend. We got Pixar’s Monsters University a couple weeks back; this weekend we have the sequel to the 2010 smash hit Despicable Me (which has come out swinging at the box office so far), and in two weeks’ time, DreamWorks presents its super-snail racing flick Turbo. There’s plenty for families (and everyone!) to see right now.

Yet the likelihood is I won’t be seeing any of these films until they’re available for home viewing in four or five months. Caveat to my second paragraph: as brazen as I am in my love for this genre, the practice and observance of this is another story. Going to the movies is not unlike amusement park rides: you either need to be tall enough (read: old enough) to ride this ride, or you have to be accompanied by someone under so many inches.

Seeing a kid-flick on a date can be cute, or if you go with friends you take solace in each other’s child-like excitement, but by yourself—you can’t paint it any other way but awkward. I’ve only done this when I’ve needed to review a family movie for a website—but even though I know that’s why I’m there, I’m still a grown man sitting by himself in a theater with small children.

Let’s pretend we live in a non-profiling society where no one bats an eyelash at that. It’s still cruddy to be an adult seeing a family film in a theater. Unless you can go at 9 p.m. or later, you’re in for 90 minutes of tiny voices blurting at the screen or worse—tiny feet kicking the back of your seat.

So, I much prefer to watch kid movies in private, which, now that I’ve typed that, doesn’t sound any better. But regardless, I think there’s more to watching animated movies on my couch than simply avoiding the unpleasantness or social taboo of seeing them at the theater. If you’re a Millennial, or if you were born after the invention of the VCR, you might know what I’m talking about.

Kids born in the ‘80s were the first wave to be entertained by instant home entertainment. Our parents could pop in a VHS tape and we would sit silently for an hour and a half, riveted at the animated journey unfolding before us. We all can name the movies we watched over and over again as kids; it was not possible for the generations before us to form that kind of attachment to animated films.

Earlier this year, Disney and Netflix struck a deal that put a number of Mouse House titles into Netflix’s Instant catalogue. I was excited to experience some of these films again as an adult, and took 64 minutes of my day to watch Dumbo, which I hadn’t seen since I was probably four at the oldest.

My first revelation in watching it as an adult was that parts of the film are intensely scary for a small child, like when Dumbo’s water pail gets spiked and he has drunken hallucinations (yup, go back and watch it). The second was that I was blown away by the rushes of emotion as I encountered parts of the film that I had forgotten. Watching Mrs. Jumbo unwrap her adorable baby elephant as delivered by Mr. Stork and the way she snuggles him, even when the other nasty elephant ladies laugh at his ears, felt especially poignant. Something about this scene moved me as a child, and in journeying back to Dumbo, I rediscovered it. Reflecting on this, I realized nostalgia is not just remembering something fondly—it’s when a potent dose of sensory memory triggers a past emotional state of being that is, in a word, overcoming.

Disney in general was really the only studio aiming films at young kids in the ‘80s, and as such they’ve cornered the market on our childhood nostalgia. Disney World and Disneyland are paragons of providing family entertainment, but the way parents enjoy these attractions will change shape in the next 5-10 years. We will take a lot of pleasure in sharing what we loved as kids with our children. We will understand their affection for the animated films of their generation and their unconditional love of the characters.

It also helps that the movies kids are watching today are good at entertaining parents as well. They’re insanely clever, involve insanely talented animation artists and they focus on universal family values that never lose their significance. Most of all, they put a premium on good storytelling in a way other genres don’t.

A lot of the family films we see today are no different than those of previous generations boiled down to their essence (stories of fitting in, finding one’s purpose, etc.) and repacked with breathtaking CGI. The same heart and value-based ideals that guided the golden age of Disney is being infused into movies as commercial as Kung Fu Panda and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. In essence, these common threads make animated films timeless no matter the obvious signs of time period or age.

So minus some facial hair and a college degree, there’s not much difference in four-year-old me sitting five feet from the television watching Lady & The Tramp, staring up at the tiny box TV in awe, and 20-something me curled up on the couch streaming Brave on Netflix. We both want the comfort of a story where good triumphs over evil, and to be transported somewhere we can only find in our imagination.

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Dating (and Titles, Still) Makes Me Anxious

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07/03/2013

Dating (and Titles, Still) Makes Me Anxious photo

I’ve been on a lot of dates in my life. A lot. And like most people who go on dates, I would really like to find someone I can truly connect with, as this would save a heck of a lot of time, energy and JDate money.

I get my hopes up every time, even for the guys I know won’t work out from the get-go because they use military time when they’re not in the military or say “sweet” when they’re not talking about candy. Not that I’m picky or anything. I just want people to talk normally, that’s all.

I tend to convince myself that each date is the last date I will ever go on, and if it isn’t amazing I am that much closer to being doomed to a life of Chinese takeout and probably cats. I often fail to remember how Chinese takeout is amazing and not shameful at all, and I would choose a dog or a monkey or a plant or really any other kind of pet over a cat. Plus, each date is never the last date; thanks to the fine folks who plan Jewish young adult events and run dating sites, there are always more. Thanks, fine folks. Feel free to get more awesome people.

Most of the dates I go on aren’t terrible. Yes, there was that one guy who, on date two, casually mentioned he was married and he and his wife enjoy “hanging out” with other women and would I want to meet her sometime? And there was the guy who basically said “I love you” on the first date (and not in the precious Ted-Mosby-and-Robin back in the day kind of way).

But other than that, everything has been pretty ho-hum. We go. We chat. We eat and/or drink something. We look at the clock. (Okay, that’s usually just me. Sorry. But guys should stop taking me to places with clocks—and being boring.) We try really hard to avoid awkward silence. We (just me again) do the Check Dance. We leave. We (me) stop for fro-yo on the way home to make ourselves feel better about life. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

It’s fortunate that I’ve gotten pretty good at the aforementioned Check Dance over the years so I’m able to spend my hard-earned money on frozen yogurt instead of on these silly people. No offense, lovely men I’ve gone on dates with: you’re generally a nice bunch, just not right for me. I’m sure you’re frustrated, too, going on a date with a girl who is eager to ditch you for frozen yogurt.

I think average dates are actually more disappointing than terrible dates, because at least with terrible dates you know there’s no way it’s going to happen, ever, even if he’s the last five-eight-or-taller-nice-Jewish-boy left on Earth. But average dates leave you wondering—was it truly average, or was it just an off day for him/you/the world? Could he/she become above average with a little training? Oftentimes you realize that if you’re asking these questions, you already know the answer.

Sometimes my anxiety is all, “if this person likes you, you need to like this person. Where do you think you live, in a vast, free-flowing, cascading pool of nice, tall-ish, not-too-nerdy-but-not-too-douche-y Jewish boys who are having Scrabble tournaments to determine who gets the distinct honor of being with you? No, that is not where you live. So like the average dude, darn it!”

Luckily, I also have a very functional, rational brain, and it usually chimes in with a little “hi, let’s be calm now. You haven’t lost anything by not liking this person, as you did not have anything to lose here. There will be more dates. Somehow, as improbable as it seems, there are always more dates. Now go simmer down and have a cookie.”

That is the important thing to remember, folks. Not necessarily the “simmer down and have a cookie” thing, though that is pretty solid advice if you ask me. Cookies make everything better, as do rainbow sprinkles and, yes, fro-yo. But really, average dates are not making or breaking anything. You’re fine. Nothing’s changing. And in this day and age, you just need to be glad if he/she isn’t married or a serial killer. Little victories, my friend. The big one will come eventually. I hope.

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My Favorite Place in Chicago

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07/02/2013

My Favorite Place in Chicago photo 1

My favorite place in Chicago? That’s an easy question to answer. It sits squarely in the center of downtown, presided over by two (not so) imposing lions. The Art Institute has a firm grip on my heart and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Very early on, I figured out I had no artistic ability whatsoever. Can’t draw, can’t paint, none of that. But even as a little one, I looked very forward to the special days peppered throughout elementary and middle school known as “Art in Action.” As a fourth grader, I remember looking at pictures by someone who I later came to recognize as Andrew Wyeth, but at that age simply wondering what the figures in his paintings were reaching for in the fields. I loved the look of portraits, of distinguished men and women wearing expressions that seemed thoughtful and grown up. I remember the swirls and twirls of Van Gogh paintings as they were revealed to us in front of the classroom, pictures lying in the sill of the chalkboard, wondering what it would be like to travel to a place that could possibly inspire that interpretation of the sky.

While growing up, I thought art was about drawing and I resigned myself to the “not naturally talented” camp. But in eighth grade I learned the beginnings of art history from my oh-so hippie art teacher and it sparked a curiosity that remains with me today.

I so clearly remember sitting at a drafting table, my feet clad in Sketchers dangling beneath me, learning about Caravaggio and chiaroscuro. In high school, I made it my mission to commit all of the French Impressionists to memory, from Monet to Degas and all in between. I loved all the French painters; I would scan my European history books and look for paintings by the famed Delacroix, for the beautiful lines of the fabled Ingres.

In high school, both my love for the French language and for all things art history grew. With occasional trips to the Art Institute with my family, I only grew more curious as to how someone could complete an entire painting solely with dots (Sunday at La Grande Jatte), the meaning of Mona Lisa’s smile, how artists grew up and became to inhabit their notoriety.

Like I said, my love for French and art blossomed pretty simultaneously and my moments of “Frashley” only cultivated that fascination further. Living in Provence, we learned about light, how form and content overlap and influence one another and most importantly, patience. Patience to look at a painting for a half an hour and parse out what it is getting at, patience with studying an artist’s lifetime and being able to pick out nuance from each decade of their work.

My Favorite Place in Chicago photo 2

When I moved to downtown Chicago, I knew right away that a membership to the Art Institute was in the cards. After all, I tried to make it to as many free days as I could over the years. Wouldn’t it be nice to sort of always go for free? I thought it would make a nice Chanukah present, but truth is, I couldn’t wait that long. It’s one of the few places that calm my frenetic nerves, one of the places I feel I can truly take my time.

I love to go and look at the Chagall windows. Talk about one of my favorite things in the city. I have a soft spot for Chagall, naturally. The stained glass windows are located in a funny corner of the museum, sort of hidden. But just looking at the blues and the yellows … it’s a chance to take a minute away from busy Chicago and busy life around me and think about turn of the century Vitebsk, Chagall’s home town.

Looking at Chagall’s creations turns my thoughts to Judaism, often. Through his craft, he gives insight into what it was to be Jewish at that time; through his sketches, he imparts a fanciful depiction of a time and place in Eastern Europe and later France that feels faraway yet close. Something about how he expressed himself transports me to a different frame of mind. I particularly love the paintings of floating figures—figures in love. He made his mark as a Jewish artist through metaphor and with care, which makes him one of my favorites to visit at my most favorite of places.

I often think about passion, about my short stint in France and how I can bring what I learned there over here. The Art Institute indulges my artsy-fartsy moments and encourages me to keep on dreaming, no matter where I’m at in the world of the world. 

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Love & Ice Cream: Tales from Lawrence Ave.

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07/01/2013

Love & Ice Cream: Tales from Lawrence Ave. photo

I remember stopping at my dad’s parents’ house once before I left for summer camp in high school to say goodbye. Naively expecting a quick hug and kiss, I ended up sitting in their den, listening to stories for a few hours. What to some might have seemed like a longer goodbye than necessary ended up propelling me to become more consciously thankful for the memories that they take the time to share with me.

My all-time favorite story is how my grandparents met. Actually, how both sets of my grandparents met: in the same ice cream parlor in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood in 1947.

Interestingly, I spent a sufficient amount of time in high school tutoring students through a community service program in that area. I was actually a bit shocked when my mom told me that both of my grandmothers grew up near Lawrence Avenue, which was now lined with linen shops, markets, dollar stores, wholesale vendors, and a few stores that looked as if they were about to close instantaneously rather than the cute, picturesque locations from all of my grandparents’ stories.

My grandparents each lived in apartments, like most of the Jewish families, and spent their time at the neighborhood hangouts such as the drugstore “Glicks,” the local deli, and the movie theater where they spent many of their weekend evenings called “The Terminal.” Both of my grandmothers reminisce on how they would walk everywhere, so much so that they would notice if there was even one difference in the display windows.

After the war, the dynamic of the neighborhood immediately began to change. The girls would stand outside synagogue, dressed up, waiting for the men to walk out. The area got much busier and people were always hanging out outside and mingling with “soon to be” friends.

“Times are different now,” my nana tells me, “It’s nostalgia.”

The place that undoubtedly holds the most nostalgia for all of my grandparents was Rudich’s, the infamous ice cream parlor that brought them together.

“None of us were fat. We didn’t care about calories; no one did in those days,” my grandma tells me.

Described as fun place, the ultimate neighborhood hangout, and more, this was “their place.”

--

Mae and Irwin

My grandma Mae leaned back in her bright turquoise booth in the center of the shop as she scooped a large bite of her cheesecake with chocolate ice cream with a silver spoon. Large windows that extended from about two feet above the ground lined the perimeter of the Central Park side of the shop, exposing the bright July sunlight that reflected against the parlor. As she indulged in this daily dessert, her friend Adele nudged her from across the table. Milt and his friend Irwin, whom Mae had never met before, had just strolled into the store. They lingered by the ice cream counter filled with taps of soda water and other carbonated concoctions as employees carefully scooped handmade ice cream from neatly stored cartons behind the counter into large cones and shiny metal cups. Young men and women home for college or still in high school sat on the stools of the soda counter eating hot fudge sundaes or drinking malts and floats.

The boys gazed into the sit-down area of the restaurant where one row of booths lined each wall and two rows or booths resided in the center, separated by a wooden barrier. Irwin and Milt sauntered across the brightly dyed tile floor towards the booth of girls. Mae crossed her fingers, hoping that Irwin rather than Milt would sit down beside her in the booth fit for four. Milt seemed to take a stronger liking to Mae than she did to him and the last thing she wanted was to hurt his feelings. To her disappointment, Milt slid into the seat as Irwin placed himself diagonal from her.

The foursome chatted until their server came over to take the boys order: one banana split each. Mae never ordered banana splits, only her cheesecake with one scoop of chocolate ice cream, unless it was nighttime, in which case she would stick to sodas and sundaes. The group sat and talked about their day as they ate their dessert. Mae mentioned that she would be attending University of Illinois-Champaign and learned that Irwin currently studied at the same university.

“Could I please drive you both home?” Irwin asked, once it got late. He had borrowed his father’s Kaiser. The girls agreed and followed the men into the back seat of the automobile.

Almost instantaneously, Irwin started driving and pulled up to Mae’s apartment. She asked how he knew she lived there and Irwin ignored the question. My grandmother always believed that he must have “noticed her” around the neighborhood. It wasn’t until they married two years later in 1950 that my grandpa, Irwin, confessed that he looked at my grandmother’s wallet that was sitting on the table. Joking that he is a nosy person, my grandma explained that he had asked to see some of the pictures in her wallet and while doing so, he saw her identification card and the rest is history.

--

Nannette and Conrad

One summer day, my nana saw a handsome gentleman standing with a friend of his across the shop. She asked who he was and was taken aback when she heard his name.

“Conrad Sterling, that’s a name like in the movies,” she said. “I don’t think we were talking, but he also noticed me. She learned that he was the ROTC Colonel of the City, an extremely high honor. She immediately asked to be fixed up with Conrad and they began to date soon after.

“The neighborhood had a lot of sentimental value,” she said, thinking back to the day that she first saw Conrad. Beyond Rudich’s, where she can still recall the countless flavors and toppings offered and the shop, the streets were filled with record shops. She remembers going with Conrad and hearing Dorris Day’s “It’s Magic,” a record that he later bought her.

The streets were different than in the suburbs; there were always people walking around. My papa, Conrad, worked at a men’s shop on Lawrence Avenue called A.J. Hahn, where the men would all sport the clothing sold at the store, just like models. After work, the couple would pick up ice cream, go to the theater, or take the elevated line, otherwise known as the El, downtown to their favorite Chinese restaurant that served rolls, or to watch a famous blind pianist perform.

---

The two couples met one another in the 1980s, when my parents were dating. Sometime soon after, they realized the connection of their interwoven pasts.

Times changed, the couples moved, and the neighborhood began to change. None of them were nearby when Rudich’s closed. When they would visit Albany Park, it was difficult to see the neighborhood’s intense changes.

“I think the most disturbing thing was the first time we drove through the West Side and saw that all the temples had changed into churches. That was very hard to see,” my nana told me.

My grandparents tell me now that they believe that the neighborhood became “not as nice” as crime began and new factions of people began to move in. Although my grandfather knows some Christian families who have lived there since the early 1900s, this seems to be a rare instance.

About every 10 years since they moved away, my dad’s parents take a drive through their old neighborhood. My grandma, Mae, is still upset when she thinks about the first time they went back and drove down Lawrence Avenue screaming, “where’s The Terminal?” after noticing it’s absence. She says it looks very different from the genteel neighborhood that she grew up in, which bothers her, although she realizes it is progress. What was once was a country-like neighborhood with vacant lots has gradually been built up since the end of the Korean War.

“Things are entitled to change,” she admitted, “but it doesn’t look like the neighborhood I grew up in. Still, Rudich’s was a fun place. It was a fun place after school. It was a fun place on a summer evening to go eat and then walk down Lawrence Avenue,” Mae said. “It was an ideal place to live and I wish that kind of nice place for my grandchildren.

To that I say, don’t we all, Grandma? In the meantime, I am searching for my version of Rudich’s… 

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