OyChicago blog

Punk Gratitude

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07/30/2015

punk rock clipart

A new commercial for Choice Hotels sort of caught me off guard. The background music is The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." It was a little freaky to hear the song being used for a commercial. Maybe punk is coming back? If so then I'd like to share two stories.

The first I overheard at a high school party back in 1988:

A preppy teenager walks up to a punk rock teenager with a Mohawk and asks him "What's Punk?"So the hardcore punk teen kicks over a garbage can and say '"That's punk!" The preppy teen proceeds to kick over another garbage can and says "That's Punk?" The punk kid looks at him, smiles, and says, "No that's trendy!"

I love this story because it shows that it's not only our actions that define us, but our attitude when we perform those actions.

We can give meaning and emotion to what we do. Acts of kindness, good deeds or performing a mitzvah have an effect. To follow the crowd without thinking about what or why you're doing something isn't always the best plan. Plenty of people, myself included, fall into the trap of doing things by rote, even when it comes to mitzvot. Raising money for a cause, volunteering for a JUF project, making a blessing over food, hugging our children or a loved one -- these can become empty actions. They can also be really meaningful experiences. It's all about what you do and how you do it.

I'm guilty of not putting thought into my actions, but I'm not alone. These days I find more and more people are on autopilot, and that's not punk.

Here's a second story, paraphrased from the Artscroll biography of Rav Dessler, by Yonoson Rosenbloom:

When Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler came to America in 1948, he met up with his son, Nachum Velvel, in New York. Rabbi Dessler asked his son who had helped him during his years alone in America. His son mentioned several people in New York along with Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of Agudah Israel (a national organization that services Jews) and the rabbi of Cincinnati. Rabbi Dessler said, "We must thank him."

His son offered to place a telephone call to Rabbi Silver, but Rabbi Dessler wanted to show personal "hakarot hatov," gratitude and thankfulness,  to Rabbi Silver. Nachum Velvel and his father then took a nine-hour train ride to Ohio, arriving at 5:00 a.m. in Cincinnati. They went to Rabbi Silver's home and waited on the porch to meet him as he left his house for morning prayers. Rabbi Silver met his two guests when he woke up and they all went to shul and then back to the Silver's for breakfast. After a bite to eat, Rabbi Silver said, "So, Rabbv Dessler, what brings you to Cincinnati?" Rabbi Dessler said that he had only come to show appreciation to Rabbi Silver for all he had done for his son.

Rabbi Silver thought about this and again asked, "So, Rabbi Dessler, what really brings you to Cincinnati?"

Rabbi Dessler said that he had no other purpose that to show "hakarot hatov." Rabbi Silver said, "Rabbi Dessler, what can I really do for you?"

Rabbi Dessler, for a third time, repeated that he only wished to show gratitude to Rabbi Silver in person.

Rabbi Silver finally gave up and muttered, "This must be the greatness of Mussar (a movement within Judaism that focuses on ethics and growth)."

This is one of my favorite Rabbi Dessler stories. It embodies what I think is the best of the Mussar movement. You can't preach ethics and not be ethical. For me, this means actions need to be in sync with how I live my life. When I am mindful of this, I'm the nicest guy; when I go on autopilot, I can be the exact opposite.

This is what Rabbi Dessler was about. A simple "thank you" isn't enough sometimes. We need to go out of our way. To show gratitude or do a kind act for a spouse, parent, teacher, or even a child who needs to be acknowledged is the right thing. For Rabbi Dessler, he felt he had no choice but to travel to Cincinnati. For me, walking across the street or just to the living room can make a big difference to someone. We have no idea what effect our actions can have on others.

Being punk means that you don't follow the mainstream sometimes, and focus on an extreme. If your extreme is something that helps others, you're real punk.

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What the Beep?

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The Eyes of the Trucker Go Up and Down
07/29/2015

What the Beep? photo

There's something new I'm sensing about my neighborhood that's making me uneasy -- something I'd never noticed in all my life living here, but made me cringe, like a Q-tip hitting the brain. I'll share with you an incident that occurred less than 24 hours of being home from school.

The way my heart raced, you'd think it had been years not weeks since the last time I'd seen my sister. I was too exhausted to drive, let alone walk, to visit her, my decade-divided twin, so I collapsed on my bed instead and hoped she'd understand. With the summertime luxury of sleeping-in, I woke up after 10 a.m., brushed my teeth and threw on something to wear. I rushed out the door, calling behind me that I didn't know when I'd be back and began the precisely 4.45-minute walk to my sister's townhouse.

Strolling down my street, taking in the familiar birds and 50-degree "summer" heat of Chicago, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a red pick-up truck parked along the curb. Lawnmowers and hand-held weed-whackers filled the trunk and a middle-aged man sat in front looking bored. There wasn't much to take in and I found the squirrels wrestling in front of my feet much more entertaining. I trailed their squirrelly game to the end of the block, and it wasn't until they jumped into the bushes that I noticed the truck cruising alongside me, matching my walking pace.

I figured it was only a coincidence. He must be headed somewhere in the same direction -- maybe he was running low on gas -- who knows? But as I turned the corner and walked the width of two more blocks it slowly dawned on me that the "this isn't happening" situation, was happening to me.

He drove a bit further and parked on my side of the street. With 1,001 red flags raised, along with every hair on my arm, I decided to cross to the other side, putting distance between me and the vehicle. Crossing to the other side helped my nerves as did being a few steps shy of a major intersection, but just as I thought it was over, a heckle hit me hard.

"Shake that ass baby! Shake that ass!"

Over my right shoulder I threw a hard look of shock and confusion, and in a beat, the truck u-turned, fleeing like a torero in a bullfight. The match was done. The red truck drove away and I became the trophy animal -- enraged then gouged in the belly by his words.

As an eating disorder survivor, the metamorphoses of my body from frail-lanky boy, to strong and curvy, isn't just physical, but psychological. Since my ED I've gained over 20 NECESSARY pounds, and it's those pounds that let me get back to the things I love. Whether it's losing the time while roller-blading, counting my chin-ups between breaths or striking my personal trainer with an uppercut during a boxing lesson, its moments like these when I almost forget the girl whose undernourished body physically couldn't get up from bed one morning. It's moments like these when my body and I are finally on the same page.

So obviously I was stunned, to say the least, after this episode. Should I run, cover up, be embarrassed of the body I was so proud of? Would I stand there and let others ridicule my self-worth because I'm a woman? No, because I've spent too long reducing my own body to let others do it for me.

The tally stands at seven now -- seven "nice asses," whistles and honks in the two weeks since I've been home. Don't think I'm strutting around in thigh-high boots and patent leather minis: I literally got honked twice on my way home today wearing a sweaty XL gray t-shirt with and capris from 8th grade.

What's going on?

I believe that women and girls have the right to walk down the street without being made self-conscious, just as men and boys have a right to express their favor. Women do love compliments, but next time, tell your mom/sister/grandma/girlfriend/wife/best friend she looks beautiful today. Tell her how strong and confident she looks. Save the antiquated "a-woogas" and whistles for some cartoon network show or 1920s black-and-white clip. Let's change the way we give compliments.

Yes, there's something new I'm sensing about my neighborhood that's making me uneasy, but it's not about the way I look -- it's the way some are so blind.

Sincerely,
What the Beep?

Eliana Block is an Orthodox Jewish blogger, freelance journalist and creative writer studying at the University of Maryland. Read more of her posts at www.collegadoxparadox.blogspot.com

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Grilled and Marinated Flank Steak

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07/28/2015

Grilled and Marinated Flank Steak photo 1

This is the munchkin, a.k.a. Charlie, back about 18 months ago when I first created this recipe. She snuck over and grabbed the over-sized fork just as I was about to snap the perfect shot.

Summer is here, despite the insanely cool weather we saw in Chi-town the first month of the season, so it's time to get the grills going! And there is no better way to break in the grill then with this scrumptious flank steak.

I first discovered this flavor at a cocktail party back when I worked in the city in my glorious early '20s. They had a carving station and were slicing this tender steak oh so very thin and its juices were flowing out with every motion of the knife.

When I placed a slice on my tongue, I noticed tangy, salty, sweet and savory all at the same time. It made my mouth water even as I was eating it -- and it caused me to "mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm" out loud in front of some slightly uptight folk. They looked at me funny, raising their eyebrows and pursing their mouths … until they tasted the steak for themselves and let out the same sigh and loud "mmmmmm" I did. Conversation ensued.

That night I stopped by at the grocery store and bought the necessary ingredients for my version of the steak. They used flank steak, a difficult meat to deal with unless it is cooked and sliced properly. This meat, like many other cuts such as skirt steak and brisket, should be sliced AGAINST the grain.

Look at the pic below. The direction of the arrow is AGAINST the grain. And that is the direction that you will slice it after it is cooked. Make sure you have a nice, sharp knife!

Grilled and Marinated Flank Steak photo 3

I also like to marinade these slightly fibrous cuts of meat. In my experience, it helps make them juicier and more succulent. Plus, with a soy sauce marinade (such as this one), you are creating almost a brine-like environment where the wonderful saltiness of the soy sauce permeates each muscle fiber leaving the flesh moist and flavorful. It's science really: a brine allows for osmosis to occur. All you need to know, however, is that your meat tastes awesome if it's brined. And that is precisely why when I make my roast turkey I brine it.

But back to the steak. It only takes a few ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry to make this steak go from ordinary to KA-POW!

Grilled and Marinated Flank Steak photo 2

Asian-Style Grilled and Marinated Flank Steak
(from Girlandthekitchen.com)

Ingredients

3 pounds flank steak
¼ cup vegetable oil or peanut oil
½ cup LOW sodium soy sauce (I always use Kikkoman)
½ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup teriyaki sauce
¼ cup honey
juice of 1 lime
a few squirts of siracha, depending on how spicy you like it
thumb sized piece of ginger, minced on a microplaner
5 garlic cloves minced on a micro planer.
4 scallions sliced thinly

Instructions

1. Combine soy sauce, balsamic vinegar (this is what gives that tangy, savory flavor) honey, teriyaki sauce, ginger, lime, garlic, a few squirts of sriracha, vegetable oil and scallions into a bowl and mix to combine all the flavors.

2. Then throw all the ingredients in a zip-lock bag along with the steak. Shake, shake, shake. Make sure it's all covered.

3. Place in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 24 hours.

4. If you live in the not so warm parts...like me... you can cheat a bit. Take a large oven proof frying pan and place it into a 500-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Or you can place it in there as the oven preheats.

5. Remove your steak out of the bag and place it on a paper towel, dabbing the moisture off of the steak.

6. Once the pan is heated, place the steak directly onto the pan. You will see it shrink up immediately from the high heat. Close the oven and allow to cook for 5 minutes then flip it and cook it for 2 minutes.

7. For me, this is the ultimate way to sear a steak nicely without clouding my house up with smoke.

8. Place the steak on a sheet pan and cover with foil. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes.

9. Slice into it on a bias, against the grain, as we previously discussed.

10. Sprinkle with scallions and grab some chop sticks! Dinner is served.

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Bring Change to the Diaper Changer!

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07/27/2015

Bring Change to the Diaper Changer! photo 1

We were just wrapping up dinner at a new restaurant enjoying a lovely family evening together. My 1-year-old son, John, had eaten well and managed to get most of the food we offered into his mouth, avoiding the floor. My wife and I managed to complete at least half of a decent conversation. Nobody was screaming yet.

As I was signing for the bill, she was wiping a tiny pair of hands and some chubby cherubic cheeks. She sniffed the air twice and then lifted John out of the seat and went in for closer inspection. Scrunching her nose, she looked at me and said,

"He needs a change."

We paused and looked at each other with the same concerned expression on our faces.

"Is there a changing table in the restroom?"

We tend to focus our lives on the things that matter most; when it comes to the day-to-day kind of stuff, we don't often pay attention to the things not relevant to our immediate needs. Before we had a child, I wouldn't have thought twice about the layout and accessories inside a public restroom. Now, I keep a mental list of which locales provide the best and worst options for taking care of some often dirty but very necessary business.

Rather than list the best accommodators and worst offenders when it comes to family-friendly bathrooms, I thought it would be more productive to list some basic requests to bring all restrooms that serve families up to a certain level of comfort.

Bring Change to the Diaper Changer! photo 2

Parents' Bill of Rights for Diaper-Changing Stations

1. Have one

Without a place to change a diaper, my three options are change the baby on the dirty, diseased bathroom floor; try to get him to hold very still while I balance him on the edge of the sink; or change him out in the restaurant where his bright baby bum is on display for everyone to see.

2. Have one in the men's room too!

This is 2015 -- men change diapers too. Some guys go out in public with small children and don't bring a woman along. Having the women's restroom as a default location for a changer is not okay.

3. Put it in a reasonable location

Don't put the changer in the doorway so everyone has to uncomfortably squeeze by me to enter or exit the bathroom. Don't put it in a bathroom stall. This is all too common and makes no sense. Having it within arm's reach of a sink and a trashcan is really the most practical.

4. Provide a trashcan nearby

My free-throw percentage is awful. Challenging me to toss a stinky diaper across a crowded bathroom with one hand on my child, keeping him from rolling off the table, is a sure way for all of us to lose badly.

5. Check it every once in a while.

Make wiping it down a part of the regular bathroom cleaning routine. If that strap is broken, consider fixing it because a broken strap just becomes something new and disgusting for my child to put in his mouth. Consider fixing that broken hinge, so I don't have to balance on one foot to hold up half the table with my knee.

Trust me, any parent can tell you that these are really just the bare-minimum requests to ensure a safe, clean and comfortable diaper change for baby and us. It's not much to ask, is it?

Even if you are not a parent, you probably know someone who is! Please comment and share this post with others, so we can get some traction around this!

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A Blogger’s Paradise

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07/24/2015

A Blogger's Paradise photo

Photo credit: Alexanna Cox

It all began on a little island called Maui.

While soaking in the Hawaiian sun on a family vacation, I was schmoozing with one of the other hotel guests, a mother of three who was telling me about her children. As she was explaining her daughter's hopes of attending New York University, she also mentioned that her daughter began a fashion blog.  

I didn't think much of the conversation for a few days. But, then, it hit me -- I could start my own fashion blog! I've always loved fashion and was going to study it in college. Creating a place where I could document my favorite fashion trends seemed like a wonderful idea.

The direction and content of my blog has changed through time. After blogging for about two years, I've learned a lot along the way. I've rounded up what I believe to be the three most important elements to becoming a happy blogger. I hope my advice will help you if you're interested in starting a blog dedicated to whatever interests you.

Find your niche

Do you love dressing your dog in fun outfits? Maybe you should start a blog about canine fashion. Do you love fixing cars? Maybe start a blog that gives step-by-step instructions on how to tune up a car. Find a topic that interests you.

I have a passion for fashion, but there are thousands of blogs dedicated to fashion. I had to figure out a way to differentiate myself. What I love most within the fashion industry is ethically sourced and made fashion, so I've decided to focus on that. Hone in on your passion and blog about it.

Don't compare yourself to others

Don't you dare research how many followers another blogger has on Instagram or compare your content to another blogger's. It's good to research so you can become inspired to better your own blog, but never, ever, ever feel bad about your content. Blogging is a never-ending learning experience.

Be consistent

Post to your blog on a regular basis. Honestly, this is not one of my strong suits. I consider myself consistently inconsistent -- a quality that isn't ideal when you have followers who await your next post. I suggest sitting down with a calendar and planning what and when you'll post. I've found that writing things down holds me accountable.

Most importantly, enjoy blogging. Most of us have full-time jobs and interests outside of our blogs, so don't put too much pressure on yourself and your blog.

Blogging has become one of my favorite hobbies. I hope it becomes one of your favorites, too!

Carly is the founder of Hippie and Heart, a blog dedicated to ethical and Fair Trade fashion.

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The Trainwreck Magic Mike Dance-Off

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Two messages about female sexuality at the movies this summer
07/23/2015

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 3

Trainwreck

We're living in an age of unprecedented female talent and, more importantly, widespread recognition for female talent. It is an age in which female protagonists can tell stories from a woman's point of view on TV, Netflix and the "Silver Screen."

These women can be strong, ugly, brash, sexual and downright sassy. Katniss is fighting governmental tyranny in the Hunger Games trilogy, and Olivia is covering it up in Scandal. The female experience is examined with a poetic and dark magnifying glass in Orange is the New Black through careful personal narratives and broader commentary on the criminal justice system. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Zooey Deschanel are reminding us to laugh at ourselves and peel back the layers of femininity while also embracing them.

More than anyone, however, Amy Schumer has been my feminist hero in recent months. Schumer's Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central is an unapologetic affront to sexism and misogyny everywhere--from the media to interpersonal relationships and experience. Each week, her show poignantly tackles how women are portrayed in micro and macro levels in society via humorous vignettes with celebrity guest appearances. Schumer's honesty and no-nonsense wit has gained widespread acclaim among men and women, which is very exciting, given that she appears to have a feminist agenda.

I first saw Schumer live at the YLD Big Event a couple of years ago and I was floored with her performance. Until viewing her stand-up and TV show, I had yet to see a female performer tackle feminist issues in such a self-conscious manner. Schumer is taking society's narrative about what it means to be female and prodding it with her big humorous stick (pun intended).

Schumer somehow has managed to toe the line between sexual humor and female empowerment. She has revealed both her seemingly extensive sexual experience and also her support for a healthy female identity. This is not an easy line to toe, as women are often boxed in (also pun intended) as a "Madonna" or "whore."

Because I've gained so much respect for her, I had been anticipating Schumer's film debut, Trainwreck, for months. So, I was surprised that I came away from the film disappointed--or rather, conflicted. With her film, Schumer managed, in some ways, to stray from what seems to be her mission of building women up.

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 1

Trainwreck

I was pleasantly surprised to find the story had substance beyond her incredibly humorous moments and jokes, but I found it disappointing that the movie teetered on becoming the cookie-cutter romantic comedy we all love/hate and know. Schumer played it safe, and there were times when she also appeared to betray the self-empowered woman I believed her to be. There were many small moments in the film that felt like we, the audience, should wave our fingers and slut shame Amy (the protagonist). The movie is about her journey from a slutty "train wreck" to a tamed and "open-minded" girl in love.

As someone who has been out in the dating world for years, I understood and appreciated her humor around feeling disenchanted and even cynical about dating. But this movie felt like a cautionary tale about a 30-something who just needs to stop drinking and having so much sex.

That said, I really enjoyed Anne Helen Petersen's feature on BuzzFeed.com, "In 'Trainwreck,' Amy Schumer Calls Bullshit On Postfeminism," in which she posits that Schumer's film actually provides real and poignant commentary on post-feminist ideals. Schumer's character, Petersen explains, in the face of misogynistic stereotypes, embodies them, and then learns how to let them go and get out of her own way in order to be happy.

"Trainwreck suggests that neither romance, children, sex, shopping, jobs, sick apartments, nor even friendship with LeBron James can provide a shortcut to happiness," Petersen writes. "Instead, confidence, self-knowledge, and mercilessly rejecting anyone or anything that makes you feel like shit--especially the contradictory demands of postfeminism--that's something like bliss."

Even if Trainwreck is about radical acceptance, I still struggle with it.

Spoilers ahead: Amy's journey closes with her conceding to be more accepting of kindness, stability and sports--all in the name of love. The film ends with her dressed as a cheerleader performing to her love interest, Aaron's (Bill Hader), favorite song, Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," alongside a team of cheerleaders.

This moment was the nail in the coffin for me. Amy plays the cliché cheerleader to indicate to Aaron that she can compromise and truly integrate herself into his life. Earlier in the film she states she doesn't like sports; by the end, falling in love means becoming the weakest personification of herself--and maybe the sports community. She lets her guard down, I suppose …

A week or so before Trainwreck, it so happens that I saw Magic Mike XXL, and with much irony, I must admit it deserves some high marks for encouraging female sexuality. Obviously, a movie about male strippers is going to appeal to a female audience, but the movie consciously promotes and opens the gates for female sexuality.

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 2

Magic Mike XXL

Playing a strip show ringleader, Jada Pinkett Smith offers a window into a modern-day, female-focused brothel/pleasure house for women, in which she preaches self-esteem and the values of female sexuality. Via Pinkett Smith's performance and others' throughout the film, we truly experience the female (sexual) gaze, as many women experience it (or hope to experience it), something Nina Friend reflects on for The Huffintgon Post in "The Female Gaze Is Real In 'Magic Mike XXL.'"

Friend quotes the prominent feminist YouTuber Laci Green:

"In 'Magic Mike XXL,' 'people of all ages and sizes, races and gender expression are free to be sexual on their own terms.' Therein lies the Female Gaze: Women in this movie are given power over their sexual desires--something we rarely, if ever, see on the big screen."

The Magic Mike sequel is silly and very poorly written at times, but it captures a sense of pride and empowerment about sex that Trainwreck truly lacks. There is even a moment in the final act (small spoiler alert) in which one of the strip show montages plays on the marriage fantasy and dually incorporatesracy sexual innuendos and play. This performance encourages women who can want and have it all--the fairytale and the wild sex they might desire.

I also recommend "The Gender Politics of Magic Mike XXL" in The Atlantic, which provides three writers' perspectives on the gender politics of the film, and offers counter points, including one that the film provides a story of "what women want" according to men …The film is surprisingly complex, and I encourage you to review these perspectives outlined as well.

So, stripper or cheerleader: Which do you do choose?

If you've seen either or both of these films, comment below with your thoughts!

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My Workout Heaven

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07/20/2015

I have found my workout heaven.

It's a place where I'm accepted, I belong, and I feel motivated to do my best.

But first, let me tell you what my workout heaven is NOT:

1. Boxing gyms. I tried one because a friend found a coupon for a free class. It was probably the most intense workout I've ever had -- sprinting, running, more lunges than I've ever done in my life, and then punching and kicking a bag as if it were your worst enemy. It's possible I might have been so exhausted that I shed some tears -- or was that sweat?? -- no, they were legitimate tears. Meanwhile, the instructor didn't explain the terms -- something about upper crust? I thought that was a bakery -- and I felt a bit stupid.

2. Running on the street. I might someday become that girl who suddenly picks up running, little by little, and then runs marathons, but so far that hasn't happened. For now, it's hard, and then the whole world -- and all of my friends in my neighborhood -- have to watch me suffer.

3. Sports. I wish I liked playing sports for exercise, but again with the whole embarrassment thing. Remember how in college they had the professional level, then the "club" level for the pretty serious kids, and then the "intramural" level for the kids playing on teams with their dorm-mates? I need a level below that, for people who don't always remember the rules of sports but need a ball to hold and a team to be a part of to distract them while running.

My Workout Heaven photo

After trying those and many other workout activities unsuccessfully, my ears perked up when my coworker mentioned her Aqua Zumba class. I used to like swimming, I thought. This could be good. I signed up in January and I've been going weekly ever since.

Aqua Zumba -- a water aerobics class -- meets at the Lutheran General Hospital Fitness Center in Park Ridge, Ill. It's sort of on my way home from work, and for $5 a class, it's certainly worth it. I arrive in the pool 20-30 minutes early and swim laps, recalling my front crawl, breast stroke, side crawl, and, my personal favorite, the "Monkey-Airplane-Soldier" strokes from my swimming lesson days.

The members of the class trickle into the pool, chatting, and then the music starts. The instructor leads us through a warm-up and then into our upbeat Zumba moves -- but we're all under water. Dragging your arms in the air might not do anything in real life, but under water, there's resistance and it's a real muscle workout. Running a few feet outside is no big deal, but running a few feet under water -- it's quite different.

Our instructor dances to fun Latin songs with an occasional "Uptown Funk" thrown in there, and I appreciate the no-pressure environment. Can't kick your leg all the way up in the air? No problem. Starting with your right arm instead of your left? No biggie. Need to take a break? Who cares? We are told that we are doing a good job, and we're even encouraged to sing along with the music.

I follow the moves, I tune out, I make next week's dinner plans in my head, and I enjoy some brainless, stress-free time to myself.

Oh, and the best part -- I'm the youngest, skinniest, fittest, most in-shape person in the class. When I go to the gyms in Lakeview, I'm surrounded by girls who are much better at it all than me; but here, in the comfort of the Lutheran General Hospital Fitness Center, I'm the one to watch, the most flexible, the highest jumper. It might not be fair, being 30 years younger than most of the other people, but you know what, it's doing wonders for my self-esteem.

So, one of these days, join me in the pool -- I'll show you my new moves to the latest Pitbull songs and I promise -- no lunges.

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My Cubs Inheritance

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07/17/2015

My Cubs Inheritance photo 1

I have been a Chicago Cubs fan for as long as I can remember. Before I even knew the difference between a ball and a strike, I proudly wore Cubby Blue. I'm not a Cubs fan because I'm a North Sider and I'm certainly not a fan because of their track record. No, I am a fan because the Cubs were my grandpa's team, so they are my team.

Grandpa Bill didn't have a particularly idyllic childhood. A young Jewish immigrant, he and my great-grandmother, Edith, fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and after a time in Shanghai, were rescued to Chicago. My great-grandfather, Herbert, was able to join them in the U.S. a year later. My family was fortunate to have survived the war, but they still faced many challenges, especially Grandpa Bill.

In America, as in Germany, Grandpa was singled out for being different. He was German. Changing his name from Wolfgang to William couldn't hide that in Chicago just as taking off his Star of David couldn't hide that he was Jewish in Breslau. When his classmates heard his accent and saw his blonde hair they called him "Nazi." When he observed the Sabbath on Friday nights, they called him "Christ Killer."

However, despite these experiences, Grandpa found joy in many things -- a good book, a nice meal, a fine piece of music, his family and of course, the Chicago Cubs. He loved everything about Wrigley Field, from its iconic ivy to the shout of hot dog vendors marching up and down the stadium aisles. He read every book about baseball he could get his hands on and, as a result, he knew just about everything about baseball, from the Golden Age of Babe Ruth on.

But it was Ernie Banks who was his favorite player. Ernie personified what Grandpa loved about the Cubs: it was all about the joy of the game. "Let's play two," Ernie would say, and Grandpa thought his attitude was infectious. He loved the '69 Cubs, and taught my mom and uncle to appreciate them, too, pointing out the elegance of a Kessinger-Beckert double play, the consistent fire of strikeout champion Fergie Jenkins and the power of slugger Billy Williams. To this day, my mom has her collection of baseball cards in her keepsake box -- including the entire 1969 starting lineup.

Given Grandpa's passion for the baseball, it was only natural that he shared his love of the game with his grandchildren. I have fond memories of huffing up Wrigley's cement ramps and flagging down the elusive malt vendors with their dark blue freezer bags; of sifting through racks of crisp jerseys and singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Grandpa at the top of my lungs during the 7th inning stretch.

My Cubs Inheritance photo 2

As I got older, it became less about peanuts and Cracker Jacks and more about enjoying a rare opportunity to spend time alone with Grandpa. At family gatherings, it was hard to get a word in edgewise since, like any group of Jews, we talked over each other incessantly. But at the ballpark it was just the two of us. With Grandpa, it felt like I could talk about anything, from books and music to tougher subjects like struggling friendships and picking the right college. Somehow, talking with him made the playful subjects in my life more interesting and the daunting subjects more palatable.

Unfortunately, we had our last talk at Wrigley in 2012. The following year, a brain tumor felled the body, but never the mind, of my amazing Grandpa. For the last two summers, our seats at Wrigley sat vacant. But this year, we filled them again and then some when my mother, father, uncle, cousins and I returned to Wrigley to celebrate what would have been Grandpa Bill's 78th birthday. We laughed and sang and drank bad beer, we talked about books and tough life choices, and we remembered the amazing man who made such a profound impact on our lives.

Amid all the bodies and noise of Wrigley Field, it was easy for us to imagine him in the stands clapping his hands and shouting, "Let's go Cubbies!"

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Dealing with Anxiety

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07/16/2015

Dealing with Anxiety photo

"Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength."

I love this quote! But sometimes we have to ask ourselves … now what? How are we supposed to deal with the natural anxieties of life? I think we can begin to answer that question by understanding the mechanisms of anxiety.

Anxiety is a three-part process. The first stage is the assessment. I have a few kids, and it's amazing to watch how they assess the same situation in such different ways. When they all see a big heavy dog walking toward us on the sidewalk, for example, they respond differently. The youngest smiles and reaches out her hand to pet him. Another is apprehensive, but also wants the chance to pet the dog. Another has now crossed the street to retain a 200-foot distance at all times from being anywhere near what she assesses as a situation with a potentially vicious monster. We all assess life situations differently, and that assessment is the first stage of setting up whether it's going to be a moment of anxiety or not.

The second stage is the feeling of being an outsider, or a foreigner. This is a sense of discomfort. In an abstract sense, it's a feeling of insecurity. When experiencing anxiety, we start to feel unsafe and scared in our own skin. Where we used to feel security, we now feel discomfort.

The third stage is when we retract into ourselves. This actually happens physiologically with our blood going to our vital organs, and it also happens emotionally. We are no longer able to connect with the world outside of us; we are cut off from whatever is going on around us. We don't have the relaxed comfortable presence of mind required to think outside of ourselves.

Interestingly, these three stages are alluded to in one Hebrew word, "gur." Although the word is used in reference to fear (see Numbers 22:3), the word actually has three meanings according to the Midrash, a compilation of the philosophical teachings of Talmudic Sages. These three meanings are: "assessment of danger," "foreign," and "to gather in." They correspond directly with the three stages of anxiety.

In terms of the first stage, if we can reassess the situation through another lens, we may see that it's not as dangerous as we thought. A simple tool would be to ask a friend for their opinion. You might be surprised at what others see as danger or not.

Regarding feeling foreign and insecure, you can combat that by being proactive to do things that make you feel more secure. These can be as simple as checking in with a loved one, calling home, hanging out with friends, texting your sibling, or spending time with your special someone. Do some self-exploration, and try to figure out what it is that makes you feel really secure and comfortable inside (thriller rollercoasters may not be the first option here).

The third stage of disconnect can also be remedied. Similar to the second stage, we need to make special efforts to connect with others. That's not always easy to do when in a state of fear or anxiety, but it is all the more so important. Our friends, family, and community provide us with the stability and support to make it through trying times. As the eternal song of the early '80s taught us, "For good times and bad times, I'll be on your side forevermore. That's what friends are for!"

I don't think we'll ever reach a place of looking forward to anxiety to deal with. However, when those moments come up, I hope we can provide each other the support, love, perspective, and understanding to make it through them. And hopefully we'll come out with even better tools for life in assessment, security, and connections.

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Loving the Little Things

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07/15/2015

Adam Daniel Miller photo 4

Well hello there! Welcome to my Oy! post, "Loving the Little Things," a post that could have also been titled, "Enjoying the Small Stuff" or "Appreciating the Wee Wonders" or "Insert Synonym-Filled Title Here."

For you see, I love synonyms. You might even say I love different words with similar meaning. But I digress, meander and ramble. For me synonyms, in a strange, curious and atypical way, make me happy, jubilant and tickled pink. I'm very particular on the color in which I am to be tickled. This is because I try to enjoy the little things in life --those moment's that may be small to others, but huge to me.

There is a lot of hustle and/or bustle in all of our lives, and taking the time each day to notice to good or special moments in between can show me when a bad day was actually worth getting up for. So while I don't mean to get on my soap box here (there was an abundance of soap on sale for Amazon Prime Day and I didn't know I needed it until I bought it), I want to share with you some of those minuscule moments in my life that make it all the more full for having happened, so that maybe you see in your own life where those moments exist as well.

I revel in realizing the potential for small opportunities and taking them. As silly for me as it is, at the Blackhawks parade last month, I noticed Red Bull distributors on the street giving out free energy drinks. Therefore, I took the opportunity to keep walking by them to get free cans. I did this four times, wearing different disguises and putting on different voices, of course. But what I found true pleasure with this was then giving some of them to my coworkers to help give their day some feathery appendages. (I can't say the actual slogan for Red Bull, but either way my phrase is funnier).

Additionally, I enjoy opportunities that come from exploring a new neighborhood, and discovering a place that has a lunch deal for a Chicago-style hot dog, fries and drink for under $6. It's such a small thing, but I don't shut up about how stupidly happy that makes me.

While those previous moments happened rather organically, I am not a fan of expected celebrations/holidays, so I instead sometimes create, invent or fabricate my own. This is something I get from my parents, actually. I celebrate random milestone days. Like with my girlfriend, I celebrated us dating for 300 days, and more recently, for 1 million minutes. Having literally hundreds of thousands of minutes, you would have thought she'd have seen it coming. Or one of my more prolific, productive and worthwhile celebrations was that of me turning 10,000 days old. It is always nice to have anything to celebrate, even if I force it.

I also have impeccable appreciation for amazing, unbelievable coincidences in my life, which you can read about in more detail in my previous post, "Amazing Unbelievable Coincidences." I bring this up because it happened again recently, but in a way I never expected, predicted or prophesied.

My girlfriend and I were walking to Manny's Deli like every Jewish Chicagoan should do when they are awake, and on the way we ran into an old acquaintance of mine from high school. Here's the crazy, kooky and wacky part. I go to introduce my girlfriend to said old acquaintance, and it turns out she knows him from college. To me, it's a truly amazing, unbelievable coincidence (tying it back to the top of the paragraph!) that we knew the same person exclusively at completely different times in our lives. Once again, my mind had the appropriate reaction that comes with putting a leaf blower near my head: blown.

One final thing I love is how this article is little! It's barely even 800 words and that's what makes it great! Because great things come in small packages. Except for my Super Nintendo. That came in a big package. So perhaps, maybe, possibly this article is one of those little things you love? So now you can go do some other wee wonder, or minuscule marveling, or better yet -- read it again! It's easy, effortless, and a piece of cake.

Mmmm. Cake. Excuse me while I go enjoy a little thing I love that's definitely not cake.

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Lighting up a room

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07/13/2015

Lighting up a room photo

Michelle's high school graduation from Keshet in 2012.

Every now and then, I think about a little girl I was lucky enough to meet when I first started working at JUF News.

At the time, in 2001, Michelle Rappaport was just 5 years old. That afternoon when I visited her family's Buffalo Grove home, a happy little girl jumped off her school bus, bounded through the door, and wrapped a great, big hug around my leg, even though we'd never met.

"The room lights up when she comes in," Michelle's mom, Barrie, told me at the time.

I met Michelle and Barrie as part of a story I was writing about heroic families, whose children were afflicted with Jewish genetic disorders. Michelle suffers from a rare neurological illness called Familial Dysautonomia (FD), an autosomal recessive disorder -- meaning the disease is passed down through two carrier parents -- found almost exclusively in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. The average life span for people with the disorder is 40 years.

For those with FD, like Michelle, the sensory system doesn't do its job properly. If she touches a hot stove, her nerves don't alert her to remove her hand and she could easily burn herself without realizing it. The autonomic system -- which regulates body temperature, blood pressure, and swallowing -- doesn't function properly either. Finally, the "bells and whistles" sign of FD is crying without tears.

That day, when I met the Rappaports, Barrie informed me that she had read two articles about FD when Michelle was a baby, pre-diagnosis. All the symptoms they described matched her daughter's.

It was only then, after Barrie read those articles, that she and her husband were able to diagnose her daughter's illness. "I remember sitting there frozen, thinking this is my child, this is my child," Barrie recalled.

One of those articles, Barrie told me, had appeared in JUF News. It was a lightbulb moment for her -- and for me, too. I realized that our work at JUF was, in some way, helping people like the Rappaports. That realization has motivated me for so many years to do my job better.

Similarly, the staff at the Center for Jewish Genetics, based in Chicago, is making a difference in people's lives every day. The Center seeks to create a healthier, more informed community by educating healthcare professionals, clergy, and-particularly-individuals of Jewish descent about Jewish genetic disorders and hereditary cancers, and about the importance of genetic screening and counseling. In 1999, just a couple years before my visit with Michelle, the Center was launched as a cooperative effort of JUF and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, as a result of a grant submitted to the Michael Reese Health Trust.

One in 4 Jews is a carrier for a Jewish genetic disorder. While carriers are generally healthy, their children may be at risk for a serious disease. Most Jewish genetic disorders are autosomal recessive, so an individual will develop the disease only if he or she receives the same mutated gene from both parents. Therefore, both parents have to be carriers for the same condition. If they are, they have a 25 percent chance in each pregnancy of having an affected child. 

We in Chicago are lucky to have a genetic center serving our community. The only other cities in the country with Jewish genetic centers are Atlanta, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.

One of the programs offered by our Chicago Center educates and screens people in their childbearing years. The Center recommends that anyone of Jewish descent be screened for Jewish genetic disorders. Even if only one partner is Jewish, it's recommended that the couple be tested, because none of these disorders are exclusive to the Jewish population. In fact, even if only one grandparent has Jewish ancestry, the Center advises screening. It's best to screen before conception, when couples can choose from the widest array of reproductive options.

The Center's program features online education and an at-home saliva test (instead of the in-person seminar and blood test in the past), and currently screens for more than 80 genetic disorders. The screening costs no more than $199 per person. In comparison, screening at a hospital costs anywhere from $500 to $3,000 depending on insurance coverage.

Today, all these years later, Michelle still lights up the room. She's now 20 years old, "a true milestone," Barrie told me recently. She said that with the love and support of her family, friends, and a medical team, her daughter has come a long way and weathered many storms, including being sick for months on end.

But in the past two years, life has been much more stable for Michelle, ever since she started a new trial medication. Michelle has attended Keshet -- a partner with the JUF in serving our community, which serves people with special needs -- since the second grade, and currently is enrolled in the Keshet COE-Worker Transition Program, which empowers students with special needs as they exit the formal education system. She also works several jobs, plays baseball, and spends time with her 16-year-old sister, Jessica.

As they seek the best ways to deal with FD, Michelle and her family are facing life's toughest challenges with courage and grace. They are a light and a lesson for the rest of us.

For more information on the Center for Jewish Genetics, call (312) 357-4718, e-mail jewishgeneticsctr@juf.org, or visit www.jewishgenetics.org.

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3 Uncomfortable Conversations All Observant Jews Have

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And how their friends can support them
07/08/2015

3 Uncomfortable Conversations All Observant Jews Have photo

I'll always remember the day I told my parents about my decision to become more observant. I was in Israel with knots in my stomach, unsure of how they'd respond to my decision.

To my luck, it was painless and easy. We talked through how to make it work and it made my life back in Chicago that much easier.

Our 20s are a significant transition on its own, but for religious Jews who either grew up with this lifestyle or chose it later in life, it can be uncomfortable to say the least. For starters, this is - for many - the first time that a job forces us out of our bubble. It requires us to figure out a way to make our practices work with an employer who might not understand why we're running out the door at 2 p.m. in the winter months or why we won't necessarily eat at the same restaurants as the other employees.

These moments also extend into our social circles as well. If you're observant, these are a few of the awkward conversations you're likely to deal with; if you aren't observant but have friends who are, there are also some tips on how you can support them.

1. The shomer Shabbat conversation  

At a time when being connected is everything, the concept of not using a cell phone for 25 hours a week seems unfathomable. Add in all the rules about not cooking, spending money, turning a light switch … you get the idea. Regardless of whether someone has been shomer Shabbat for a whole week or their whole life, turning down a team happy hour or Saturday brunch is never an easy decision, but one that someone observant will always take.

How to support your friend: Ask your friend if you can have a meal with them or meet them for a walk on the park. It shows you're accepting of their lifestyle and your religious friend will worry less about feeling like an outsider.

2. Having to explain their kashrut observance  

Whether someone is kosher-style, eats veggie out, eats vegan out or requires a strict hechsher, there is always a level of awkwardness when it comes to food. The last thing a person who keeps kosher wants to do is offend their friend or employer. However, Chicago is a big restaurant city and restaurants are a natural place to socialize. Anyone who keeps kosher often finds themselves trying to strike the balance between looking like a picky eater and doing what makes them comfortable and it can be difficult to have to explain that reasoning.

How to support your friend: First, make sure you understand that their definition of kosher might be different from how another friend keeps kosher. The easiest way to support them is just offering to go to a kosher restaurant with them. If that isn't possible (the kosher restaurant selection is less than desirable in Chicago), then ask what they are willing to eat. Frozen yogurt places, a bar and coffee shops are always a safe bet. Whatever you decide, make sure it's equally as uncomfortable for them as it is for you.

3. Why they aren't around or at work much during the fall

It doesn't take a Jewish day school education to know what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about. However, you might not have learned about Shemini Atzeret or all the details that go into Sukkot. The fall holidays are almost always a stressful time for your observant friends as they try to stay above water at work while coordinating several Thanksgiving-sized meals over the next several weeks. This should hopefully not only explain why they essentially disappear from your life for a month and probably don't have vacation days for a winter getaway at the end of the year.

How to support your friend: Whether you celebrate the holidays yourself or not, this probably isn't the time to ask how their employer feels about all the PTO your friend is taking as it's likely to be a stressful topic of discussion. Instead, offer to come over and help cook for a meal or join them in a sukkah for dinner one night. The lesser known holidays can feel isolating when work is still happening, leaving them anxious for what awaits when they return.

While any observant Jew will tell you what they practice is extremely meaningful to them, they are also conscious that their lifestyle is different from the world around them. If you have a friend who considers themselves religious, support their lifestyle the same way you would with any other lifestyle by going the extra mile to make them a little more comfortable..

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Teething, snacking and other parenting tips

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07/07/2015

Teething, snacking and other parenting tips photo

I'm four years into this whole parenting thing. It's amazing you spend years learning how to do math, science, the arts, but nothing to prepare you with teething, potty training, or whining. It's easier to get a baby than your driver's license. I'm not downplaying the importance of driver's ed, but we need some parent education.

Teething

I blame everything on teething from about five months to a year, according to my wife. To my defense teething can cause fevers, crankiness, wake them up at night, runny nose - the list goes on. I do not agree with the adage, "better living through medication," but a little baby Advil goes a long way. The ice ring that you store in the freezer is also helpful. Much to my wife's chagrin I allow our 8-month-old to chew on my hand, which he seems to love, but those little teeth are like razors. It's probably not the best parenting tip.

Snacking

When I was little I remember getting snacks after school, and maybe fruit after dinner; now it's out of hand. Sure I condone snacking, a handful of almonds at 3 p.m. is better than overeating at dinner, but do kids need snacks for a five-minute ride to a park? How much of an appetite do you work up swinging? Maybe we have gone snack-crazy, but I am ok with it and usually leave the house with lots. Here are a few staples from our pantry:

- Nuts and tree nuts
- Dried peas and edamame
- Raisins
- Cut fruit (apple slices might be the least messy)
- Carrots, cucumber and celery
- Pretzels (void of nutritional value but better than cookies)

Snacks are also great if you have a picky eater. A great thing to do with a picky eater is involve them in the cooking process. My toddler eats most things, but if it's something new, I'll have him toss in spices, mix up the batter, etc. and he's more prone to eat it. Although he's learned that fruit it not a treat, for the first two years of his life he thought blue berries were dessert. I'm not that mean, he still gets treats, just not every night. If you think sugar doesn't affect your child, they're probably eating too much of it. Childhood diabetes is sky rocketing and most of the time it's preventable.

The absent parent

I developed a new pet peeve. The absent parent is most obvious at the park or parties. These people are either on their phone, talking to friends, or don't believe in discipline. Watch your kid! There is a middle ground between corporal punishment and ignoring your child. The best method for us has been sticker charts. It's a little ridiculous that we made a chart for being good at nap time, but it worked. We also do time-outs, and barter with television time. Who knows what will work with baby boy number two. He already seems feistier than his brother, and he likes to be startled. Who likes to be startled?  

I'm a little nervous but mostly excited for what the next few years will bring.

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Interview with Indians President Mark Shapiro

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07/06/2015

Interview with Indians President Mark Shapiro photo

There are owners and there are players, but general managers assemble teams and staffs. Who better to speak with than the president (former general manager) of the Cleveland Indians, Mark Shapiro.

Shapiro has pulled off some amazing moves (highlighted below). What you won't find below, however, is how everyone my age has some love for the Indians because of the movies Major League and Major League 2 (though definitely not Major League 3).

1. How do you get onto the baseball general manager/team president track?
There is not one answer to this question. When you find people who are successful it is because they are so passionate about that job that they are able to differentiate themselves in their highly competitive field. Everyone in baseball is smart. But each individual who is able to take what they are good at and use it to differentiate themselves, that includes players, will find success.

2. What was the best move you ever made for the Indians?
The Bartolo Colón trade was for sure the best transaction (The Indians traded Colón and Tim Drew to the Montreal Expos for Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee). But I think my best move did not necessarily involve players. I have also hired a lot of people for the organization. I believe I empower the right people inside the organization and those moves often outlive the player transactions.

3. You appeared in the movie Moneyball. What was that experience like? Was it realistic?
It was not very realistic or factual. I was the assistant GM at the time when Billy [Beane] was working toward changing the As. However, the book and movie both portray, some importance that has been implemented in baseball by As and Indians.

4. The Indians just drafted Brady Aiken. Are you excited about that pick?
We are very excited. When you look at draft board at any time there are a variety of ways a team can lean. Brady was a tough player to evaluate because of his injury but we were pleasantly surprised who was still available. He is a player with great talent and character. It is a very exciting move for the Indians.

5. How difficult is it to let great pitching like Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia go? Do you keep in touch with players you trade?
An organization or GM keeps in touch with different players on different levels. There is a certain level of professionalism within the job that comes to the forefront with every move. I am still close friends with Sean Casey and Victor Martinez. Victor among the toughest because of who he is as a person. My hope is that their time with Indians is part of their foundation and is positive experience in their baseball lives. When players look back on their careers, more than the uniforms or cities they played for, it is the relationships that defined their careers.

6. Do you feel the National League will adapt the designated hitter?
I am not sure that adapting the DH would be the best idea but I do believe that with interleague play happening every day that clearly the MLB needs one set of rules.

7. What was your Jewish life like growing up and today?
I grew up in a Reform household bordering Conservative. Judaism was very important to my parents while I was growing up. We attended a Conservative synagogue and I had a bar mitzvah. It was always a big part of family and culture. Today, Judaism plays into my life through culture and also the values that religion instilled in me.

8. Knowing how passionate Cleveland fans are about LeBron James, if James wanted to sign a minor league contract with the Indians, would you entertain the idea?
This is an impossible question to answer. I am not big on adding unnecessary distractions around the players. I'd have to answer, what is his intent? The reality is, he is 31 years old. I have seen LeBron swing a bat and he should probably stick with basketball.

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Pride and Perspective

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My journey through the Holy Land with A Wider Bridge
07/02/2015

Pride and Perspective photo

As an out Jewish lesbian educator -- and the Executive Director of Gesher Chicago, a local LGBT organization -- I traveled to Israel in June with a delegation assembled by A Wider Bridge to better understand the country through the eyes of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities.

Founded in 2010, AWB connects LGBT communities in the U.S. to those in Israel through year-round programming, online resources, and by sending LGBT delegates from the U.S. to Israel on trips like mine; AWB recently received a grant from JUF's Breakthrough Fund.

It was the personal stories of those we met that impacted me most. There was Yiscah Sara Smith, a transgender Jewish educator and author born a male. She struggled with her identity into her 60s before finding a community that accepted her and her transition as she accept herself.

This resonated with the theme of a Shabbat service I later attended in Jaffa co-led by a trans Reform rabbi. Rabbi Sholom of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem explained that the Reform seminary was seeing an increase in LGBT candidates, as it was the only seminary in Israel that would ordain them.

Acceptance was epitomized at the Jerusalem Open House, a struggling grassroots LGBT activist community center in Jerusalem. The House has organized a Jerusalem Pride Parade every year since 2005 and even hosted World Pride in 2006, but has only received government funding in the last year or so. There, I met Daniel and Ariel, a couple of 57 years who never officially came out but made a life for themselves in Jerusalem. They belonged to each other as much as they belonged to the city.

Our trip to the West Bank was eye-opening. Our Palestinian tour guide, Tamer, was a former social worker who had worked with LGBT clients, and now is a PR consultant for the Palestinian government. Tamer took us to the Security Barrier, a refugee camp, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Jordan River and Ramallah. He said, "It is hard to be gay in Palestine." We learned that while areas home to Palestinians, along with some neighboring countries, do not openly ban homosexuality, Israel is still the only country in the region that offers any form of comprehensive legal protections to the homosexual community.

On our way to Tel Aviv, we visited Hannaton, a Kibbutz with a growing LGBT community -- in this case, five families … up from zero five years ago.

The highlight of our trip was Tel Aviv. There, we attended a three-day leadership conference marking the 40th anniversary of Tel Aviv Pride. Along with more than 100 LGBT delegates from around the world, we attended panels on issues concerning the Israeli and global LGBT community. These ranged from the relentless persecution of closeted Arab youths to the controversy of "pink washing."

On the second day of the conference, we attended the inaugural session of the Knesset's LGBT Forum, where they proposed a law to define crimes against trans individuals as hate crimes. Although the measure ultimately failed to pass several days later, those who sat in that room sensed that equity for all was on the horizon.

We didn't miss the opportunity to experience Tel Aviv's nightlife either, taking in the bars and the myriad of parties celebrating Pride. I attended Arisa-- named for an exotic spice-- which catered especially to Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. I danced with 1,000 Israelis while Yekutiel, a popular drag performer, sang (OK, lip-synced) her greatest hits.

Finally, there was the Pride Parade, which began at the Gay Center of Tel Aviv. No floats, only people marching. No designated numbers or a preset order, either -- everyone just picked up their banners and began to walk forward. Drag queens, families, and activists all marched as one. The parade ended at a huge outdoor concert featuring Eurovision's bearded winner Conchita Wurst where over 200,000 Israelis and world travelers gathered to celebrate.

I am still mentally unpacking all my experience in Israel. A Wider Bridge exposed me to a variety of people and viewpoints that laid the foundation for me to define my own personal views.

Israel is a safe place for those that identity as LGBT, but battles with the government and the rabbinate are far from over. Israel is a complicated place, complicated further with each person you speak to, but that doesn't mean you should stop speaking to people or remove yourself from the conversation.

"Gesher" means "bridge" in Hebrew. Our mission is, we say, to "bridge the gap between Pride and Tribe." I fully plan to make Israel and all its complexities a part of that bridge.  

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Sharing Our Religion

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My unique Jewish identity continues to guide me
07/01/2015

Ashley Kolpak photo

At a recent event I came across a vibrant, expressive man in the midst of a "mid-life opportunity," surely not be confounded with a "mid-life crisis." Ears perked, I asked him directly what brought him to this event. His eyes were perfectly still and fixated on mine as the words left his mouth." After spending my whole life in the church, I'm leaving. I left. I'm making a clean break."

Up until this point, church was a daily part of his life. He was a graduate of primary and secondary religious schooling followed by an undergraduate degree in theology from seminary. As a gay man, he felt the right thing to do was pursue a different path.  

While religion, as it existed for him in the past, no longer appealed to him, he made another very interesting point. He said regardless of belief, he sees faith as a foundation for a moral compass. For him, this was a choice arrived at with major difficulty.

Naturally, this opened up a discussion of how others approach faith and their own personal experiences. It was clear that religion, in its many varieties, denominations and levels of observation, affected everyone in a deeply personal way.

I didn't grow up in a synagogue, not really anyway. I went to Hebrew school for a few years, learned about religion, culture, Hebrew and all that jazz. I don't keep kosher and I'm not observant. I connect to Judaism in my own way and that's what matters most to me. I like to look at my Jewish life as a carefully crafted mosaic, filled in with colorful moments that might seem disparate at the time, but when looked at from afar, are all connected to illustrate the larger picture.

Moments like my dad explaining the story of Anne Frank to me when I was very young; the countless hours spent learning the rudiments of my first second language at Hebrew school; my time in Israel on Birthright; my first Mourner's Kaddish for a family member; my eighth grade turn as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof at a the local children's community theater; the fun, funny, frivolity of "bar and bat mitzvah season;" taking part in traditions that were passed down to my family from generations ago; and sharing those traditions with those closest to me and starting new ones.

Some fleeting and some enduring, these moments come together as my perfectly imperfect Jewish identity. They have and will continue to shape me and how I find my way in the world.

Sharing concerns and experiences surrounding religion can bring about a quiet, overwhelming empathy. While I may not pray every day, when I see a post from one of my favorite lifestyle bloggers concerned for the medical condition of her young child asking for prayers, it's only natural to oblige. To make someone feel better in even the tiniest of ways, thousands of miles away, for someone who believes in a far different way than I do, is always worth it.

Thinking along these lines draws me back to my absolute favorite storyline from this season of Orange is the New Black. (Spoiler alert ahead, sorry!) Basically, for the uninitiated, many of the inmates figured out a loophole to get the best food in prison: asking for a kosher meal. Eventually, the administration got wise and cracked down on those deemed "non-observant". One of the inmates, even though turned away, embraced Judaism as her own in a very real way and gave an incredibly touching speech in the finale episode. I may or may not have teared up a bit? She found her people. And isn't that what it's all about? In the end, it's compassion that rules.

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