OyChicago blog

Dear Republican Party

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08/31/2009

Dear Republican Party photo

Dear Republican Party:

As painful as this is for me to say, I think we both know that it’s time for a trial separation.

I loved you the first moment you knocked on my door more than 20 years ago, presenting yourself in the form of an energetic, idealistic young politician who made me believe in your ability to make the world a better place. Your history was distinguished, your commitment to the military noble, and your economic policies seemed prudent.

Standing on my door, you exuded confidence, charisma and success. I wanted to be like you, to share in your success as together, as we proved that the best government was a small government, that a strong military was vital, and that prosperity would be shared by all.

And for a long time, things were good. Sure, we had our disagreements over social issues, but still, I stood by your side. I fought for you, voted for you, helped to pick you back up when you were kicked down.

Sometimes it felt like the whole world was against us, and even when we were ridiculed, marginalized, and misunderstood, I never once entertained the thought of leaving you, especially seeing how well you treated Israel.

But, slowly, things began to change. Sometime, I don’t know exactly when, you started talking about “family values”, yet wanted to prevent people you didn’t like from becoming a family. What happened to the party that believed in freedom and equality for all?

Then, I watched as you hurt some of those that loved you the most—bright, honest, loyal and brave people that devoted their entire lives to you. That’s not the Party that I once knew: the party that would have rallied around its candidates and its soldiers.

Most painfully, I saw how you catered to a select few among your ranks who pushed you so much further to the right than you ever were before. Shame on you.

And then you had a fling with her. How could you? Any fool could see that she was just using you—she never had your best interests at heart.

But even that wasn’t enough to drive me from you. I still believe that you could once again be great, that you could offer a much-needed temperate voice in political debates.

But lately I am embarrassed to be seen with you—not because you did not win, but because of the people you have been hanging out with. Maybe it’s not your fault, you didn’t necessarily choose them—they chose you.

But their anger, ignorance, and unfounded accusations scare me, Republican Party. Instead of intelligent debate, I hear loud voices shouting at me to fear, that somehow I’ve been betrayed, that I should hate. We always agreed that, no matter how much politically we might disagree with somebody else, we would show compassion. It was part of what I loved about you.

I want you to know that I hope you will get the help and support that you need. I know that I haven’t done much on my part, save to vote, and maybe one day, I might help you. But first, you have to prove to me that you are worth fighting for, and dump the toxic relationships that you have built.

I will make you this one promise: I am not leaving you for that “other” party. I’ve spent too many years enduring the snide remarks made by those supporters who displayed nothing of the liberal openness they said they embraced. Even if I wanted to, I would never feel welcome.

I don’t know what I will do without you, it’s the first time in my life that I will be independent. But truly believe that this is what we both need and someday, maybe, we could once again be great together.

Wishing you the best,

Karen

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Why travel?

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08/28/2009

You know how every job has its busy times and slow times? After Labor Day, one of Shorashim’s two busiest times of the year begins. Our phones ring off the hook and our necks stiffen as we answer them. We swim through our inboxes racing to answer emails. Our fingers sprint to chat with 18 to 26 year olds across the country (and their parents).

Why the communication overload? Shorashim runs Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Registration opens for those who have applied during prior rounds on September 8 at 11 a.m. and September 9 for new applicants. We will register more than 1,000 applicants within the first 48 hours if not more, and our small staff will have personal contact with 2/3 of those applicants within the first week.

Anticipation, stress, and excitement permeate an office staff which most of the year works hard, but is also calm and lighthearted. There is no serenity the first three days of registration. The energy is frenetic as we answer questions ranging from safety to eligibility, help technophobes complete their applications, have philosophical discussions on the phone about “Who is a Jew?” and explain what makes Shorashim different: Israelis on the trip for the entire 10 days.

In contrast to what’s to come, this August I attended two retreats through the ICenter and Project InCite for Israel educators. Most of the sessions were practical but a couple of them were cerebral including one prepared by Clare Goldwater, an experienced Israel educator and tour guide from England who now lives in Washington, D.C. Her session was titled, “Some Thoughts on what it means to leave home.”

She used the book “The Art of Travel” by Alan de Botton and referenced the following question that in all my travels throughout the U.S., Canada, Israel, Egypt and Western and Eastern Europe I have never thought about:

Why travel?

Why leave our homes which we fill with comforts to be less comfortable somewhere else?

To answer the question, I returned to those phone calls with Taglit-Birthright Israel registrants. Several people ask, “Why do you think I should go to Israel?”

I have a million answers to that question that I won’t get into here (email me!) but the question I struggle with is why go anywhere? Especially today with globalization, as Clare Goldwater pointed out, you can see anything online and meet anyone from anywhere in the world on the Internet.

Botton probably answers that question in his book that I might read. But as an educator at Shorashim who has been to Israel three times in 2009, I should be able to answer the question, right?

Let me try.

Traveling is similar to falling in love and playing sports. I feel great emotion after engaging in media about love in The Notebook, the poetry of Yehudah Amichai or watching Casablanca, but it doesn’t compare to falling in love itself. The depth of emotion is far greater, far more compelling than the tears that fall from a sad movie. The joy of love and the grief of a broken heart transcends 2 or 3D or even the second world.

Same with sports. I love watching the Bears, ND Football, Cubs, Bulls, IU basketball, but the feeling I get when I (rarely) hit the ball and sprint (and make it to) first base far surpasses the excitement of being a spectator at a baseball game. When I was younger and played soccer, stealing the ball from an opposing teammate was more exhilarating than watching someone else score a goal at a stadium.

Traveling is no different. To absorb, to understand, to experience, you have to visit the place and eat the food, see the sights, breathe the air, and meet the people. It doesn’t mean that additional interaction isn’t necessary like studying the place beforehand or going with an excellent educational tour program to optimize the experience. But being in a new place is like a first kiss or a first interception. It’s an excitement that endures and propels you like no other. You don’t cease to love after your first love and you don’t stop playing after scoring a goal. What happens instead? You want to love more and compete more.

Have a great trip!

   

 

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Live, love, learn… But in what order?

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08/27/2009

There is nothing like a Jewish mother’s love. She loves so deeply that she wants her daughter’s life to be filled with love too—but, he must be Jewish.

I was sitting at work late one Tuesday afternoon and my mother called me, her voice filled with adrenaline. She had just come home from the grocery store, and apparently she tried to pick up a little more than milk and eggs.

My mother had just finished getting her groceries into her car and was amused as she watched a “good-looking” Jewish boy doing a juggling act with his. As he picked up three bags, two would drop to the ground.

A Shabbat candle went off in her head, she recalled to me later. The urge to help him was overwhelming.

She called out, “Fella!”

Miraculously, he knew that he was her intended, and had his bags not been weighing him down, he might have run the other way.

My mother shouted out across the parking lot, “Would you like a ride?”

The poor vulnerable soul replied, “Sure.”

She got into the car so that she could pull up to him because he couldn’t walk to her car. He put his groceries in the way back of her station wagon, and he sat down next to her.
 
As she drove him home she explained that she saw his Michigan t-shirt and it reminded her of her three daughters (who went to Big Ten universities) and “she felt bad for him.” She talked about her daughters, while scanning and assessing him to figure out his age, asking him questions about what he did, etc. She didn’t want to allocate him to the wrong daughter.

She learned that he was in graduate school for journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill program and she zeroed in on me. He talked about his studies and she told him I’m a reporter.

She scrambled telling him about my work as they approached his apartment and said, “I should have you meet my daughter!”

He laughed and said, “Right”—as if they were both joking. He got out of the car and got his bags and peeked his head back in the window and said, “Have her come and visit me at Medill.” He shook her hand, thanked her and went on his way.

Thankfully, my mother couldn’t follow through, as she often has successfully attempted to match my sisters in the past. When I say successfully, I mean she has succeeded in actually giving out our phone numbers to strange “good looking” Jewish boys.

With a mensch whispering in her ear from one shoulder and a yenta shouting at her from the other, the mensch won. She admitted that she didn’t want to look like she was doing him a favor just for him to meet her daughter—though that had been her intention.

“I turned out to be a decent person in the end,” she laughed. “I preferred he think there is some decency in this world and that I didn’t have ulterior motives.”

My mother has the warmest heart of anyone I know, and truly wants the best for her daughters. When she finished her story, she was genuinely disappointed in herself that she didn’t succeed with this one.

“It was a short ride,” she added.

I, however, was horrified and laughing at the same time.

My sisters and I have faced many matchmaker attempts from both of our parents. I know too that I am part of a sisterhood of women whose parents also subtly or not so subtly try to set them up.

In general, secular societal attitudes about women have markedly changed since our parents’ era, but some Jewish mothers are still sending a strong message: Why aren’t you married yet?

Whether they’re kidding or half-kidding or not kidding at all, it puts some of us in an awkward fix.

Some young Jewish women I know are happily entering into matrimony, others aren’t ready yet. For example, those who are pursuing multiple degrees or trying to navigate their careers throughout their twenties may not yet have marriage on the brain. Young professionals move for jobs. Ask any journalist, for instance, how many times they have to move cities and markets to move up the media ladder?

That being said, it’s sometimes hard to build a nest with someone else when a young woman is still trying to find her own roots.

How do you manage to balance your love lives, your friends, your families and your careers?

Some are able to do it all simultaneously. Others need a little more time.

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An Unlikely Pet Story

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08/26/2009

An Unlikely Pet Story photo 1

A boy and his dog, Nazareth Ilit, Israel, circa 1974

Piku stole my husband's heart over 20 years ago and I’m working on getting it back. I call it Operation Get a Dog and it’s a full force attack.

The history is poignantly clear. A whimpering puppy left to die in a Galilean dumpster, a five-year old boy, a dramatic rescue. Fourteen years and many shared steaks later, the boy kisses the dog good bye and bravely sets out to defend his country. Am Yisrael Chai. Poor dog drops dead that very week and the young soldier decides his beloved Piku cannot, will not, must not ever be replaced.

Heartbreaking, I know.

But I want a dog, dammit. And so do our two daughters.

Six-year old Emma is the most rational and mature about it. You lost your best friend and that makes you sad, Abba – but at least you had a best friend all those years. Yes, dogs shed hair - but so do we. Yes, dogs have accidents - but so do we.  (And by the way, I want a girl dog. I don't like penises - they look like worms.)

Five-year old Noa just bats her blue eyes and turns on her blonde ringlet charm. Please, Abba?

And me, I whine. It's not fair. Every kid needs a pet. Our yard is fenced in. You work from home. It’s my 40th birthday. Our house needs more love. Blah, blah, blah. My dog died, too. Get over it.

None of these strategies seemed to be working. The answer was always no. Not maybe. Not we’ll see. Just flat out no.

Until one afternoon in July, the Hoffmans ask us to dog sit Buddy. I say yes and he doesn’t say no.

Buddy the English Spaniel – our protagonist, our hero – comes from a kosher home; his family is shomer shabbos. It’s a fact I ponder for about three seconds before concluding he'll be fine with us, treif and all. What’s Shabbat for a dog? Isn’t every day Shabbat for a dog?

Regardless, Buddy arrives on a Sunday and within 20 minutes, he loves us unconditionally.

An Unlikely Pet Story photo 2

Dana blogs about dogs – enter Emma, Buddy and Noa.

When Noa falls down the stairs, Buddy is the first to her side, shows the most concern and offers the most comforting kisses. Emma feeds Buddy his dinner. Noa feeds him breakfast. My husband and I refresh his water bowl every 28 minutes (on average).

We walk the dog. Long, leisurely, family walks. Deep-breathing, Mama-Mia-singing, flower-sniffing, greet-neighbors-we’ve-never-seen-before walks. Stop at the park walks. Sometimes solitary, clear your head walks. When I wake up and before I go to sleep. At noon and again at 6, I love walking that dog.

Granted, I wouldn’t in January. And granted, when dogs eat grass and proceed to throw up on your bare foot, it’s gross. When the entire house is covered with a thin film of dog, it’s gross. Fresh dog poop in the morning dew, in the warm summer sun, in the evening twilight. Nothing, if not gross.

On Monday, the girls and I head off to work and camp. Early. Without any bickering. My husband and Buddy apparently spend the day bonding because by the time I get home, they’re speaking a combination of Hebrew and dog talk. Oooh, muchi puchi puchi poo, bo kelev, bo l’abba, ken, ken. And pretty soon, they’re kissing mouth to mouth.

When my family comes to pick me up from the train station the next day, guess who is sitting in my seat? (Clue: He’s furry.) Guess who Googles English Cocker Spaniel that night? (Clue: He’s bald.) Guess who asks, “what is their average life span?” Followed by, “fine, you can get a dog if you take care of it.” Ten minutes later when I say, “Honey, will you take Buddy out for his 10 PM walk,” my husband goes to fetch the leash.

An Unlikely Pet Story photo 3

The boys get acquainted.

The Hebrew word for dog, kelev, is spelled with the same three letters as k’lev, which means “like the heart”. I think if we are open to it, we can all find a little extra space in our homes and in our hearts.

We would like to adopt a young female English Cocker Spaniel. The girls want to name her Lila. Benny will teach her Hebrew. If you have leads or advice, please comment below or email me at  dmr18@aol.com .

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''The Hangover'' High Holy Day Sermon I could never give at Temple (which I wrote while procrastinating writing my REAL High Holy Day Sermon this year)

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08/25/2009

The Hangover photo

Taron with The Hangover crew. His head hurts from too many tequila shots… and from being shamelessly photoshopped into this picture.

Scratch the surface of this summer’s blockbuster hit, “The Hangover” and you will find much more than what film critic Robert Davis deems as “pointless, goofy fun.”  From this rabbi’s point of view, “The Hangover” is a soon-to-be –High Holy Day Movie Classic, chock full of important lessons and values for anyone who is old enough to see an “R” rated movie.
 
Believe it or not, I saw “The Hangover” with eight rabbi friends of mine.  Though some of us were initially hesitant to check it out (given its raunchy reputation), we took comfort in a Talmudic passage that permits a Jew to view a gladiator contest (despite the inane nature of the event) with the thought that, in a moment of peril, such as, if a lion were to creep up behind a gladiator, the Jew might shout out a warning thereby saving the gladiator’s life.  Since this movie was rumored to feature an angry tiger, we thought that perhaps we too might get a chance to save a life with a well-placed shout in a crowded theater.  This being said, I admit that we, like you, assumed correctly that this film would be hilarious and we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

This is not to say that there weren’t scenes in “The Hangover” that made us wince, and that there weren’t moments when we each took offense.  But overall, the film had (as I have already mentioned) some redeeming qualities.

From my humble point of view, “the Hangover” is more than a simple story of a road trip bachelor party gone awry.  It is a profound tale documenting the transformative power of t’shuvah, the process of repentance and return to our best selves and to God that we Jews undertake each year before the High Holy Days.
 
Think about it.  As the old saying goes, “sometimes you have to go far away to discover that which is very near.”  Soon after the four men wake up from their night of debauchery, a night they were to never forget… the t’shuvah journey begins…

Awake you sleepers, for your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds and turn to God in repentance…Look closely at yourselves, improve your ways and your deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you!  (High Holy Day Liturgy)

The great Jewish thinker Maimonides teaches that the first step of t’shuvah is recognition.  At this time of year, we undertake a process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls.  It is a process of introspection, of looking back on our past deeds and assessing where we may have gone astray so that we may right our wrongs. Our three heroes, Phil, Alan and Stu, recognize that something is wrong the moment they wake up from their slumber.  Phil accurately assesses the situation when he says: “What the F*%ck happened last night?”  Similar to Phil, at this time of year, we too, must rouse ourselves from our sleep and begin to ask ourselves similar questions about our entire year of misdeeds.  And, like Stu, we too must hold up a mirror (or a silver platter-whatever’s available) to look deeply into our reflection and examine ourselves.  Sometimes we smile and we like what we see.  More often than not, we witness the damage we have done to ourselves and the damage we have done to others.  Our High Holy Day liturgy asks: “Who among us is righteous enough to say: I have not sinned?”  Today we take this thought one step further.  Today we ask: “Who among us has not over the course of the year forgotten about someone with whom you were once close?” and given how crazy hectic our lives can all be, “Who among us has not left a newborn baby in a cabinet after a rocking party, and who here hasn’t at one time or another stuffed a naked guy in a car trunk?”  I assure you, we are all human.  Surely we all have.

Sometimes we err because we are selfish, heartless, or just plain cruel.  Other times, we err because someone spiked our drinks with roofies in an effort to get closer to us.  Regardless of our reasons, we must always remember that “the gates of repentance are never barred.”  Therefore we must endeavor to complete our journey of t’shuvah.  We must regret and renounce our evil behavior, we must reconcile with those we have hurt, and we must resolve never to make the same mistakes again.  Not to do so could, as our High Holiday liturgy suggests, yield terrible outcomes.  On Yom Kippur we read the Unetanneh Tokef which asks: “Who shall live and who shall die?” and we read: “Who by fire and who by water?”  To this I might add: “Who by taser and who by crowbar?” and: “Who by Tyson’s fist and who by sunburn?”  As our tradition teaches, when we have erred, it is only through repentance, prayer and charity that such evil decrees can be tempered.  Therefore, friends, let us endeavor to learn from our past mistakes, from our own personal hangovers and let these past missteps remind us where not to go, so that we can become our best selves.

At this point, I would like to share with you a second level of interpretation.  Bear with me.  Not only does the film teach of the transformative power of t’shuvah in a generic sense, it also provides us with specific and practical ways that you too can make changes in your lives based on your personality type.  This is why in the movie, Alan, Stu, Phil and Doug all clearly represent well-established and relatable Jewish archetypes.  I know I am stating the obvious when I tell you that the four men in this movie are really the Four Sons of the Passover Seder Haggadah.

Alan is the “Child who knows not how to ask the question.”  He is unaware of himself and his surroundings.  As his own father describes him, “there is something wrong with him.”  And as Stu mentions, Alan is “too stupid to insult.”  A creative interpretation of the Unetanneh tokef, asks the following: “Who shall strangle for lack of friends?”  To Alan, who has experienced profound loss in his life (he lost his grandfather in WWII in a skiing accident in Vermont) to find friends, to be included and to be noticed, means the world to him.  His life’s dream is to add three more friends to his “wolf pack.”  Clearly by the conclusion of this film, both by owning up to his mistake of spiking the drinks to gain friends, and by winning eighty thousand dollars, Alan for once in his life earns his place as an equal among friends.  This is his journey of t’shuvah.

Stu is the “Wise Child.”  He knows what is right and wrong.  He knows the rules and laws and is fearful from straying.  The problem is that these rules, whether they be self-imposed, the laws of the land or the rules imposed by his shrewd girlfriend, constrict him and prevent him from enjoying his life and getting what he ultimately wants—a loving relationship.  At the same time Stu possesses strong values and a tradition that means something to him.  This is why, for Stu, when he finds Jade, a stripper with a heart of gold, he finds someone who on the one hand wants to reform her life to play by the rules, but at the same time, enjoys having fun and is willing to give Stu the freedom to be himself.  Because she too (in her heart of hearts) values tradition, she returns the ring and they agree to meet again, to see how things go.  Soon, I imagine, Stu will pop the all important question to her.  Not the “will you marry me?” question but rather:  “Would you be willing to convert to Judaism?”  

Phil is the wicked child.  He is less mature than his high school students.  He is unconcerned about the consequences of his actions for himself or others.  Case in point:

Stu: We don’t want to call attention to ourselves! 
Phil: [while driving a squad car and using the loudspeaker] Attention! Attention!   

Most of all Phil is a finagler. He is someone who will try to squirm out of any situation.  He will do almost anything to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.  Phil’s moment of t’shuvah comes when he finally owns up to his actions and makes the painful phone call to Doug’s fiancé.

Phil Wenneck: Tracy, it's Phil.
Tracy Garner: Phil, where the hell are you guys?
Phil Wenneck: Listen, we f&*ed up.  We lost Doug.
Tracy Garner: What?  We're getting married in *five hours*.
Phil Wenneck: Yeah... that's not gonna happen.

And while it didn’t play out as such in the movie, I am convinced that had he not been tackled by Stu, Phil would have apologized to Tracy and asked forgiveness thereby completing his t’shuvah journey, assuming she were to grant him forgiveness.

Finally, though the simple child, Doug beautifully models forgiveness.  The text we read on Yom Kippur at our Temple states, I set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life.  By refusing to curse his friends for nearly ruining his wedding and for making such a mess, and by blessing his friends with one last pictorial look at their misdeeds before forgetting the night forever, Doug surely chooses life.  Of course, when the slideshow ends, someone says aloud the words:  “Oh Dear Lord.”  I interpret this to be the movie’s way of saying that each of the four characters also ask God for forgiveness.  To this Alan concludes: “That’s classic” meaning that the traditional process of t’shuvah followed by Jews for countless generations of the past will continue on for countless generations to come.

Forgiven for the past, renewed for tomorrow, may we go forth with rejoicing to a year of great goodness!

Shanah Tova!

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8 Questions for Joshua Grabowsky, kick-ass private chef, talented drummer and father of 2 nice little Jew-ish boys

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08/24/2009

JYSK Joshua Grabowsky photo

Joshua Grabowsky, AKA “Chef Joshua” became a chef in an “ass-backward” way. Fifteen years ago, he learned in a Zen-type macrobiotic kitchen, more “how to be”, than how to cook. He opened the Red Avocado, a 100% Organic Vegetarian Restaurant, in Iowa City, cooked for yoga & meditation retreats, catered parties, and even bussed tables. He started an all organic kids’ school lunch program in Chicago, and had his own private chef firm. Now, he is just himself, Chef Joshua, and he cooks for some of the most prominent Jewish families in Chicago & the North Shore. Ahhh…the simple life.

Chef Joshua has many sides, though. He is a kick-ass private chef, a talented drummer and percussionist, an adoring husband, a father of 2 nice little “Jew-ish” boys, an avid Belgian beer & pizza connoisseur, and every Halloween he transforms into his socially awkward Brooklyn Jewish grandma, a.k.a. “Granny”! In his mind, he just launched “Granny’s Funky Fresh Jew Food,” an underground kick-ass quasi-kosher catering service featuring “King Josh’s” dope Jewish recipes (think: salami baby bagel lollipops with giardinera aioli).

So whether you’re into cooking, love Belgian beer and pizza, or if your alter ego is an awkward Jewish Grandma, then Joshua Grabowksy is a Jew you should know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Embarrassed to admit it, but…it’s Facebook! It’s an incredible tool— both personally and professionally. I can post recipes through Twitter to my wall, sell songs, make new friends in South Africa. I mean, what could be better?!

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
First, I’d travel to Israel. Then I’d go all over Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, then on to West Africa— Senegal, Ghana— to learn all the drum rhythms I could.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Someone girls go crazy for, like Johnny Depp…or Flava Flav.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
I’d cook my Papa Morry a mean brisket, then sit down with him for hours (he ate really slow) and pick his brain about old Maxwell Street, and his famous store, Smokey Joe’s. Next, I’d probably pick Jesus— just to see what all the fuss is about. I’d serve him up some of my “Gramma Esther’s” challah with yak butter (what the heck did they eat in those days?!). Maybe some Matzo Ball Soup if we found a local chicken wandering the streets.

5. What’s your idea of the perfect day?
Great question! Here’s the order of the day:
1. Ashtanga Yoga set.
2. Mondo soy hazelnut latte from Metropolis Coffee.
3. Turkey Loretta (no cheese) and crispy hash from Sarkis.
4. Long nap by the beach with my wife, Nancy.
5. Wake up, drum for 2 hours in the sun, while Nancy dances.
6. Skip lunch.
7. Spicy-ass dinner at Ras Dashen Ethiopian Restaurant.
8. Another long nap.
9. A good, long drinking session at the Hopleaf with my buddies, followed by late night Konak Pizza (next door).
10. Finish the night with a little love – if you know what I mean.

6. What do you love about what you do?
For the Private Chef gig… I absolutely love my clients. They are all extremely successful, super cool, happy, and informal people. I love taking normal, everyday family style food, and transforming it into Funky Fresh Jew Food! I also dig the chill pace (as opposed to freakin’ out in a restaurant kitchen).

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
When I play music, I am at my happiest. I’m in the flow – completely. I am closest to God.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
I got two:
1. Go to Shaevitz in Highland Park, buy kosher meat and kibitz with Label, the somewhere-around-90-year- old kosher butcher. He’s been a butcher since he was 10 years old. He works 7-8 hours a day on his feet. In my mind, he’s a living legend.
2. I love asking any Jewish or black man over 60 years old if they know about Smokey Joe’s. I always get a huge smile and a story, or two.

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Gin, Geritol and fantasy football

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08/21/2009

This past April, I joined an entirely new age demographic that solidified one of my greatest fears. At 35, I’m officially old. Calendar pages are flying off of the wall that is my life. Heck, before I know it, I’ll be subject to one of those death panels that our socialist, Kenyan president is trying so hard to organize when he’s not busy “hating white people.” (Thank you Glenn Beck, a.k.a. the smartest man ever, for that 100% true and accurate information.)

And as I take stock of my life during these golden years, not unlike my contemporary Bernie Madoff (but without the whole “holy s**t, I’m going to die in prison” thing), I’ve begun to ask myself the important questions that any man who reaches such a milestone must ask. Have I discovered true happiness? Has my life turned out the way I thought it would? And perhaps most importantly, why the hell am I still in a fantasy football league?

That’s right. As I write this, it’s a beautiful summer night; but instead of enjoying a nice gin & Geritol on my deck, kvetching about the weather and my gastro-intestinal issues like most Jewish men my age, I’m on the new fangled interwebs, studying whether or not the return of Brett Favre is going to put a dent in Adrian Peterson’s rushing numbers. (I have the number one pick for the second year in a row, and am schvitzing with cold sweats after LaDanian Tomlinson intentionally sabotaged my season last year. You and I have some talking to do, L.T.)

What in God’s name am I doing with my life? I don’t have the time to care about whether or not Tom Brady can stay healthy! I’m in the process of directing one show and writing another at Second City, I have a wonderful girlfriend, and great friends and family who I’m always trying to fit in my busy schedule… There’s barely enough time in the day to turn on the radio and listen to how brutal WXRT is. (Seriously does Tracy Chapman have a photo of Terri Hemmert naked or something? Because how else does one explain the inordinate amount of times I hear “Give Me One Reason To Stay Here” on that once-great station?)

Maybe I’m still involved because I came to fantasy sports a little later than most people. Back in high school, when many of my friends were in rotisserie leagues, I could have cared less. I was far more into the more traditional things that every all-American high school boy should be into, like collecting obscure Paul McCartney imports or rehearsing for “Anything Goes.”

Sigh.

But even that doesn’t explain my inability every football season as an adult to follow the advice Nancy Reagan gave to a young Arnold Drummond: Just Say No. (See? Even my references sound old and dated. And don’t even get me started on trickle down economics or frozen blintzes…)

I thought I made great progress when I ditched my PS2 upon buying my condo a few years back. And giving up the NBA League Pass on DirecTV after one year was such a coming of age decision, it felt like the Bar Mitzvah I never had. (That, in itself, is a blog for another time.) But something about fantasy football, and the forthcoming three hour draft replete with trash talking, beer drinking, and feeling like an absolute genius as you watch your team take shape, just never seems to get old.

Unlike me. In the T.V. theme song of life, I’m one chorus of “Thank You For Being A Friend” away from being one of the Golden Guys. O.K., I have no idea what that means. And I don’t really have the time to figure it out right now, because I’ve got to continue reading an “expert” opinion on what round is too early to draft a tight end; unlike last year, when my surprise pick of Tony Gonzalez in the third round was greeted by the kind of howls usually heard during a Larry The Cable Guy set at the Blue Collar Comedy tour.

Surely, right about now, I could pick up a book, or go to the gym, or really seal the deal as an old man by watching Season 1 of “Murder She Wrote” on DVD. (Face it, guys. Angela Lansbury is pretty hot in that whole, “hey, grandma’s hot!” kind of way.) Instead, I’m at my desk, thumbing through an eight dollar fantasy football guide which has been outdated since before Sarah Palin inspired millions of young women by quitting her job to spend more time on Facebook.

Neil Young once sang, “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you”. Pretty heavy stuff for a guy my age. I realize that lyrics are open for interpretation, but I wonder if he’s saying to me, “old man, take a look at your team; and do not draft T.O. again. Idiot.”

Thanks for that advice, Neil. And if you’re around to help this old man come fantasy basketball time, I’d be all for that as well. Perhaps there’s even an AARP league out there for guys my age?

A man my age can only dream.

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Change Your FAT-I-TUDE

 Permanent link
08/20/2009

Dropping a few pounds takes more than blueberries, elliptical trainers, Pilates, and lean chicken. Yes, you need to work out, eat right and sleep to be healthy—but there’s more.

I’m not going to get all Yogi or Tai Chi on you and tell you inner peace is the answer to a thinner waist and Madonna arms. However, one piece of the puzzle is how you see yourself. Yes, this might sound a little self help-ish but in my experience as a trainer, I’ve noticed one simple difference between those who’ve succeeded and those who’ve failed—attitude.

Fat-i-tude, adverb, adjective, verb: a person who cannot see themselves fit, even if they are either on the way there or already there. I.E. Henry has to change his fatitude, he’s always referring to himself as the fat kid.

Sadly, more people suffer from fatitude than obesity. I’m not a licensed therapist or a friend of Oprah’s, but I am a coach and I did create the word, so let me shed some light on fixing this problem.

If you are trying to get in better shape, drop pounds, and gain muscle, keep up the healthy eating, the workouts, and see yourself fit. Visualize the new you—the more details the better—and if you can find a picture of yourself at your ideal figure/build keep that at your desk for inspiration. (If your ideal body was when you were seven-years-old, you might need more help then I can offer.)

Here’s the clincher, you have to act, better yet, believe you can achieve this goal. To fully see the healthy you, avoid the following traps:

• “I’ve always been the fat one in my family.” Stop saying that! If your family is in good shape, that means DNA might be on your side.

• “I love food to much!” Really, we all love food. Pick a cheat meal each week where you order the cheeseburger, or the sundae…or whatever your favorite unhealthy food crush may be.

• “I don’t have the time.” I have two jobs and a wonderful wife, and I still find the time. Build exercise into your schedule. Lunchtime walks, morning hikes (get off the train a stop early and walk), take the stairs more often...Need more? Email me, I’ve got a lot of suggestions.

• “I hurt every time I workout!” Call me or another trainer with experience working with sore shoulder, hip, knee or other injuries. You can also focus on healthy eating first and build the exercise in later.

• “I’ve been this way my entire life.” And you can change. Being out of shape is not a character flaw, it’s a lifestyle flaw. Look at your lifestyle and start by making small changes.

What’s holding you back from getting in better shape? First, change your fatitude and then mix in blueberries, walking, lean proteins… and soon you’ll be on your way achieving your wellness goals!

For more information on this debilitating issue, respond below or email me at rkrit@fitwithkrit.com.

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“Meet the Baders”

 Permanent link
08/19/2009

Meet the Baders photo 1

There comes a time in every relationship when it’s time to make the grand gesture.  He’s nervous, you’re nervous, and no one is really sure what the outcome will be.  What should I say?  What will he say?  Nope, I’m not talking about a proposal—please, we’ve only been dating six months!  I’m referring to something much scarier: introducing your boyfriend to your parents…

In the perfect scenario, my family would live locally, and there would be a more dominant occasion, such as a wedding or bar mitzvah to distract the parents from this sub-occasion—“the meeting of the boyfriend.”  It would all be over in a few hours, and then everyone would part ways.  Easy and painless.

Unfortunately for my boyfriend, Aaron, this was not even remotely close to what happened.  In fact, we planned a special trip to Minnesota, where Aaron was fully immersed in the Bader household for an entire weekend.  And if you think he had time to ease into the situation, you’re dead wrong.

Just 60 minutes after our plane landed, my house was booming with grandparents.  All four came over claiming to want to see me, but I knew the truth— they cared more about meeting the nice Jewish boy I’ve been talking so highly about.  Picture your quintessential Jewish home, with kibitzing, noshing and kvetching…now add vodka.  Poor Aaron was thrown in head first.  But, with the exception of a small incident (nervously knocking over a candle, no worries, it wasn’t lit!), he passed the test with flying colors.  Not only was he polite and friendly, but he held his own, which is the ultimate test of character in my family.  I have to say, I was very proud!  This, however, was only the beginning…

I only had one thing on my agenda for the weekend: show Aaron how amazing Minneapolis truly is.  Saturday morning we woke up bright and early to rollerblade around the lakes.  We Minnesotans love our lakes, and, as the Rollerblade was invented in Minnesota, rollerblading is in our genes.  Apparently, this is not the case for Chicagoans, as before we even left the parking lot, Aaron was down for the count.  (He’s going to kill me for sharing this.)  Now, to be fair, he was wearing my brother’s rollerblades, and they were a little big.  The spill, however, didn’t faze him a bit, and we continued all the way around without any more follies.  There may be hope here after all.  At about 3 p.m., my dad called and wanted to meet us for coffee.  We accepted the invitation, blissfully unaware that seven of my parent’s closest friends would be there to greet us.  Unfortunately for us, Starbucks is not an alcohol-serving establishment.  When we arrived, they were all there gleaming, waiting to pounce.  Yet again, with his wit and charm, Aaron won them over in the span of about five minutes.  Parents and grandparents—check!  Friends—check!  Now on to the siblings.

Meet the Baders photo 2

That night, we all went out for sushi.  My brother, who also recently started dating someone, devised a genius plan.  He decided that this was the perfect time for my parents to meet his girlfriend as well, taking the pressure off both our significant others, as well as ourselves.  He’s a nice, Jewish boy from Northbrook, and she’s a nice Jewish girl from St. Paul:  They had brownie points before they even shook my parents’ hands.  Needless to say, the evening went on without a hitch, and before we knew it, we were back at the airport on our way home.  (Literally.  We went to bed at 3 a.m. and caught a 9 a.m. flight.)

Meet the Baders photo 3

All in all, it was a great weekend.  I knew it was successful when my father, now super hip since he learned how to text, sent me a text message telling me how much he “loves this guy.”  It was really important to me to have Aaron see where I grew up and meet my parents, since they both play such a huge role in my life today.  I’m happy to report, that in this Jewish version of “Meet the Fockers”, there was no losing of the family pet, no breaking of the sibling’s nose, and no teaching the baby naughty words.  He who makes me happy, makes my parents happy…usually.  Way to go, Aaron!

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Israeli PRIDE: A letter to Gender JUST

 Permanent link
08/19/2009

Israeli PRIDE logo

What follows is a letter from guest blogger, Barak Gilor, founder of Club 1948, a non-profit organization providing “your alternative connection to Israel”, to Chicago-based Gender JUST, described on its  website as, “a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational grassroots organization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Allied (LGBTQA) young people, LGBTQA people of color, and LGBTQA grassroots folks developing leadership and building power through organizing…Gender JUST believes that you cannot fight against sexual and gender oppression without fighting against racism and poverty.  Because of this, it is especially important to Gender JUST to fight against racism, classism, sexism, ageism, and able-bodyism within LGBTQA communities.”

Dear Gender JUST,

We were recently dismayed and disappointed to hear that the organization Gender JUST has refused to support an LGBT-related event because it is being “co-hosted by a Zionist organization.”  In justifying their decision to avoid contact with Club 1948, Gender JUST described itself as an “anti-oppression organization,” and clearly indicated that it believes Club 1948 to be some kind of “pro-oppression” organization, merely because of our cultural connection to the state of Israel.  We are happy to report that the vast majority of LGBT organizations in Chicago do not share this view, and have enthusiastically welcomed the support of Club 1948.  Gender JUST’s position is saddening to us because Club 1948 is also an anti-oppression organization, and we believe that Gender JUST may have misunderstood the nature of oppression of homosexuality in the Middle East.

Club 1948 is a non-profit organization that supports education and cultural understanding between Americans and Israelis through community events.  We are named for Israel’s year of independence: “1948” is the Israeli “1776.”  We do not take specific political positions; we merely take pride in Israeli culture, and in Israel’s existence.

Israelis are a diverse and democratic people who work very hard to foster a safe and peaceful home for those of all sexual orientations.  Here are a few examples:

Israel has no sodomy or other disguised “anti-gay” laws, many thriving, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (“LGBT”) organizations, annual gay pride parades in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and even members of parliament who actively speak out on LGBT issues.  LGBT culture is proudly featured on television, in movies, and visible in the culture of daily life.  There was recently a tragic and highly unusual attack by a lone extremist against the LGBT community center in Tel Aviv, which resulted in a massive outpouring of support and emotion from hundreds of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life.  If anything, this attack is the exception that proves the rule: Israel and Israelis overwhelmingly understand, accept, and advocate the idea that basic human freedoms apply to LGBT people just as much as to any other person.  In fact, it is not uncommon for Palestinian LGBT people to escape TO Israel as refugees FROM their respective Palestinian governments.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian police ruthlessly enforce what those particular governments perceive as the Islamic principle that homosexuality is an offense of immorality, punishable by torture and death.  (There are many around the world who would disagree with this interpretation of Islam.)  These are just a few examples of LGBT life in Gaza and the West Bank over the last several years:

Gays who are caught by the Palestinian police are sent to jail and then forced to become undercover police agents, sent to "ferret out homosexuals."  One such 21-year old Palestinian gay man was caught by his own brother having gay sex, and turned over to the local Palestinian police.  He went through the following ordeal: "to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with feces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects."  During one interrogation Palestinian police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle (Chicago Free Press).  A 17-year-old gay youth recalled that he spent months in a Palestinian Authority prison "where interrogators cut him with glass and poured toilet cleaner into his wounds” (The New Republic).  A 33-year-old gay Palestinian man petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice asking it to grant him permanent residency in Israel so that he may live with his partner, who lives in the central Israeli city of Bat Yam. The man, a resident of the northern West Bank village of Tamon, claimed to fear for his life should he not be able to leave the West Bank and live in Israel (YNet News).

The peace process between Israel and Palestinians, like all peace processes, is a complex one.  It requires great understanding and also painful compromises by all involved.  To define Israelis, who are a real and complex people, as being “oppressive,” is just as narrow minded and naïve as the idea of defining all Palestinian people as “terrorists.”  Neither definition is accurate or conducive to the quest for peace, security and dignity for all peoples of the Middle East.  It is not our intention to address this broad and complex topic in a single letter.  Today, we are focused on a specific issue:

It is Club 1948’s position that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled to basic human rights, not the least of which is the right to live a life that is free from fear.  This is why Club 1948 sponsored a float in this year’s Chicago Gay Pride Parade, in commemoration of the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade, which was proceeding during the same month.  There are no Gay Pride Parades in Gaza or the West Bank.  Perhaps someday there will be.  Perhaps we will all play a part in helping to bring that day closer.

We hope that the evolving landscape in the Middle East will bring to Israelis and Palestinians not only safety, prosperity, security and peace, but also that it will bring to the Palestinian LGBT communities the same basic human rights that LGBT communities enjoy in Israel today.  Further, we hope that someday the good people of Gender JUST will come to understand what most of the Chicago LGBT organizations already know: as Americans we have so much in common – with each other, with Club 1948, and for that matter the state of Israel, in our shared pursuit of the freedom from oppression.

Club 1948 will continue to support Chicago’s LGBT community with PRIDE, because that is part of what Israeli culture is all about.  We look forward to the day when Gender JUST will join us!

Sincerely yours,

Barak Gilor
founder, Club 1948

Lilac Epstein
director of public relations, Club 1948

Daniel Pomerantz
general counsel, Club 1948

For more information about Club 1948 visit their  website  or email  info@myclub1948.org .

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Jerusalem Goes Gaga

 Permanent link
08/18/2009

A major international crisis was nearly averted yesterday by Lady Gaga when she, in a sweeping gesture of respect for her more conservative Israeli fans, covered her skimpy attire by donning a black leather jacket adorned with a Star of David made of silver spikes on the back.

Quick—what do you think the top of her Dead Sea bathing suit will be?  Two kippot strung together?

(I would caution her against wearing fringes on the bottom—bad tan lines.)

Forgive my snarkiness today.  Maybe I’m old, maybe I’m jaded, maybe I’m just grumpy (or all of the above), but I fail to grasp what makes this tidbit interesting and why it was widely covered in the Jewish news.

Frankly, I—along with tween boys throughout Israel—would have been more interested if Lady G didn’t cover up.

As a woman who has been the recipient of piercing glares and negative verbal comments made by Orthodox men while walking through Jerusalem, who dared to touch the small sliver of the Western Wall allowable to women in pants, let me be the first to say that I’m disappointed in Lady G’s choice to present a more modest version of herself.

We could use more boundaries in this area pushed, and not just in the Middle East.  I find it incredible that, in the year 2009, there are still some United States Senators who require their female staff workers to report each day in a skirt, heels and pantyhose.

(My husband would argue the equality issue here with me, pointing out that these Senators require their male staff to wear ties.  My response is the same dress code should apply to all.  If I want to wear a pantsuit, then I would be required to also wear a tie.  And if my husband wants to wear a skirt, then he would wear the required heels and hose.  Damnit, he looks better in a skirt than I do anyway.)

Or maybe we should change the conversation entirely and talk about why female performers continue to almost bare-it-all– including 16-year-old Disney pop tarts.  Somehow I doubt most of these woman are true feminists embracing their sexuality.  At what point do we, as an intelligent society, decide that talent, not sex, should be what sells?

But I digress.  Back to Lady G, who does deserve some props for performing in Israel, and making an obvious effort to relate to her Jewish fans.  In what feels like an increasingly anti-Semitic world, I for one appreciate the gesture, even if it’s linked with a questionable fashion choice.

Lady G: coming from someone who also has gotten drunk in Jerusalem, I raise my glass to you.  I, too, am more excited for you to see Jerusalem than I am to “get drunk in a bar.”

I just can’t wait to see what her note for the Western Wall says.

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Go Green with No Foam

 Permanent link
08/18/2009

No Foam Chicago logo

I’m not a hard line environmentalist, but I try to do eco-friendly things like support local agriculture through a CSA share, bring my own bags to the grocery store, and recycle. I know these small things are important, but my motivation to be green pales in comparison to the environmental passion of my best friend Erin.

Sometimes it feels like too much work to wash the moldy leftovers out of the plastic container so it can be recycled. It is much easier to just throw it away. “Lazy!” My head screams as I toss it in the garbage. “At least Erin isn’t here to see you,” it says next.

I feel a little guilty that I don’t share her level of passion for the subject, but I’m always interested in learning more. Erin has taught me that putting your TV and other appliances on a power strip saves power. She’s shown me that organic cottons can be fashionable. She’s warned me that clean water is rapidly becoming our most endangered natural resource. Most recently, Erin introduced me to this organization called No Foam Chicago, which is working to encourage the city of Chicago to join the 100 plus cities that already have a ban on Styrofoam food packaging. There are some striking facts about polystyrene (a.k.a. Styrofoam) on their website. Here are three examples:

-­ Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene, is a large environmental health concern as toxic chemicals leak out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems. (Protect The Winks of the world!)

- Americans use and discard over 2.5 billion Styrofoam cups each year. That’s more than one cup for everyone living in India and China combined. These cups are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.

- Chicago Public Schools serve school lunches on Styrofoam trays, endangering students to these harmful chemicals while choking our landfills with unnecessary harmful waste. 400,000 trays are discarded every single school day, never to biodegrade. Ever. That’s more than the entire population of Minneapolis.

And if Styrofoam isn’t your green cause of choice, how about water? I recently heard that it takes 2,000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans. Two thousand! And that a normal toilet uses 3-5 gallons of water per flush. Whoosh, it’s gone. I won’t go into the details of the composting toilet I recently heard about, but apparently people are having them installed in their homes right here in the city.

Whatever eco-cause you take up, Judaism is there to back you up. Here’s a little story I like about our responsibility to take care of the environment.

Two people were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership.  To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi.  The rabbi listened but could not come to a decision. Finally he said, “Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land.”  He put his ear to the ground, and then straightened up. “My friends, the land says that it belongs to neither of you – but that you belong to it.” (Jewish Folk Wisdom)

For more on Judaism and the environment, check out the JCRC Environmental  Initiative  and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life ( COEJL ). To find out more about No Foam Chicago and how you can help, check out their  website  or stop by their  event  next week Wednesday, August 26 at Joey’s Brickhouse.

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Wise Up, Child

 Permanent link
08/17/2009

Don’t you get it, honey?

You call me to gripe, to cry, to express the frustration that has been building inside you, increasing to a dangerous level with the latest drama that seemingly follows you wherever you go.

You tell me that someone close to you, someone dear to you, was speaking trash about you behind your back. What could bring you to such hysteria and hours of therapeutic soothing? This naysayer flippantly accused you of lacking intelligence. Little may she realize that this comment was a crushing blow to the most vulnerable point of your deflated ego, the words that have followed you, haunted you, throughout your life.

Dumb.
Stupid.
Special ed.
Don’t you get it?

I’m going to pull the “G” word out now, so beware. You know , the one that makes even me feel like  a gullible moron when I pronounce it. God. There I said it. I want to gag.

The word god in today’s culture brings about a skeptical, corny aftertaste. I say this not because I don’t believe in Him. Oh baby, I do. But I don’t believe in the god that people talk about when they try to allude to His Existence. My God is a Jiving, Loving, Free spirited, All Powerful, Hilarious, Hopeful, Helpful, Beautiful, Energetic, Quantum Physics Genius. My God delights in hip hop, romantic conversations, and good coffee. “The Great One” is a personal pet name for my Adorable Creator.

So The Great One has this game that he loves to play, and He calls it Testing. What He does is very simple, yet excruciatingly tricky for His participants. Finding your weakest link, the thing you struggle with the most, He tests you. If you don’t pass, if you don’t face your faults, if you don’t work on these issues in order to rectify your character traits, you will fail the opportunity to tikkun olam your soul. And guess what? He’s gonna pull that exact same shtick on you a year later, five years later, until you pass. And even then, after you pat yourself on the back, as you are rusting, the test will confront you like a reoccurring nightmare and make you toss restlessly in your sleep.

Don’t you get it?

Let’s look at the trusty patriarchs of Jewish lineage. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham’s greatest quality was that of hesed, loving kindness. Isaac’s was gevurah, strength, and Jacob’s was emes, truth. So what type of shtick did The Great One pull on them? Abraham, the man who epitomized loving kindness, was ordered to kill his son.

Wait, what?

 Isaac, the man who epitomized strength, willingly gave of himself to be slaughtered, without a fight.

Huh?

And Jacob, the man who represented truth, was told by his mother to lie to his father and tell him he was his son Esau in order to get the birthright.

Sounds like a headline from those supermarket checkout lines.

Don’t you get it?

The Great One is slapping His Knee up there in heaven, gleefully watching His congregants participate in the original Real World, Planet Earth. The questions is not “why me?”; the realization is “because of me” I am being tested in this specific area.

In a society so obsessed with standardized testing, we don’t realize that our actual tests are nothing if not individually, specifically given. All children in a world of generalized education are left behind, no matter how much government money is grudgingly transferred from war funds to public school administrations.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were given tests that were specifically against their nature. Because doing multiplication tables while in Calculus is too easy. Yet for a first grader, understanding division is merely a distant fantasy. To tell a woman who still hears the words of her fifth grade teacher condescendingly ringing in her ear that she is dumb leaves her in a state of crippled shock.

So what do you do with these tests? The answer can only come from within you. But the more confrontation is avoided, the more astutely The Great One is already plotting His next move, giving you the opportunity to face yourself and this time, hopefully pass. To those pessimists among us, never forget this game is intended to be one of ultimate triumph.

Don’t you get it?

Like the good old days in the Garden of Eden, there is nowhere to hide. Oh, we are all always naked, but there is no reason for us to cover ourselves with shame and seek far away safety. The Great One is here and you must acknowledge the rules and your role in this game in order to beat it. For then you can laugh right along with Him as you face your greatest weaknesses, together.

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Matchmaker, matchmaker, help me make a difference

 Permanent link
08/14/2009

Volunteer Matchmaking photo

Rachel and Dejanay, the student she tutored at George Manierre

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match! Hey Oy!sters, it’s your friendly neighborhood matchmaker here – ready to make your dreams come true.

Wait…I hope you’re not expecting me to find you a boyfriend or girlfriend. That’s not quite what I’m referring to. I am a professional volunteer matchmaker. I am here to help you find the perfect volunteer project.

Working at the JUF TOV Volunteer Network, my time is spent cultivating relationships with nearly 100 Jewish and general nonprofits throughout Chicago and its suburbs so that when you call, I can suggest a handful of agencies that correspond to your availability and interests.

So yes, if you work eighty hours a week and can only volunteer once a month at a location that is accessible by public transit, I can help. Or if you are between jobs and are looking to volunteer A LOT to keep yourself busy and distract yourself from the tortures of a job hunt (and maybe buffer your resume), I’m also your girl. All you need to do is fill out this form and you’ll receive a list of agencies with opportunities that are right for you.

With the summer coming to an end (boooo – I know!) and the 2009-2010 school year just around the corner, I wanted to fill you in on a great volunteer opportunity that is ideal for a busy young professional like you.

TOV, in conjunction with a nonprofit called Innovations for Learning coordinates a program where you can tutor a first-grader from Cabrini Green without ever leaving your desk at work.

The JUF TOV Literacy Project’s Online Tutoring program uses an interactive website for students and tutors to connect, read stories, and play word games that enhance the classroom reading curriculum. TOV hosts a meet-and-greet party at the school in late September where you’ll meet your student and then in just 30 minutes per week (even during your lunch hour if you want!), you can make a difference for a student in the first grade class of George Manierre School.

All you need is an internet connection, a phone, a bit of patience and the desire to make a difference.

For information on this program and other volunteer opportunities throughout Chicago, call Rachel at the TOV Hotline: 312-357-4762, or email her at tov@juf.org.

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Tel Aviv celebration lights up the night

 Permanent link
08/13/2009

Tel Aviv celebration lights up the night photo 2

English freely mixed with Hebrew as nearly 250 people gathered to celebrate the Tel Aviv 100 on North Avenue Beach Wednesday.

From humble beginnings as the first modern Jewish city, Tel Aviv – which means “Hill of Spring”, a title taken from the Hebrew translation of Theodore Herzl’s “Alt Neuland” – has grown into a world-class metropolis, the hub of economic and cultural development in Israel, said Israel’s Consul General to the Midwest Orli Gil.

“Tel Aviv today is a lively city – full of booming restaurants, clubs, trends from all over the world when it comes to fashion, food and music,” she said. “Tel Aviv today is a city to celebrate; a city to go out and enjoy.”

Dan Bielski, the news editor at Kol Israel radio gave a brief tribute to the city, recognizing its special place in the hearts of Israelis.

“When I drive to Tel Aviv, I have tears in my eyes because Tel Aviv is quite an impressive place,” Bielski said. “I would not trade Tel Aviv for anything else. If you want to stay young in your heart, Tel Aviv is the place.”

Lively games of Makot – Israeli beach paddle ball – sprung up on the terrace at Castaways as Israeli music pounded and attendees crunched on falafel-flavored bisli sticks and bamba, Israeli peanut snacks.

Tel Aviv celebration lights up the night photo 1

The runaway hit of the night was the falafel eating contest, which attracted about 15 participants. Each had to put away as many garlicky falafel balls as possible in 30 seconds. The record went to David Held, whose name tag proclaimed him as “Hashem.” One arm held behind his back, David managed to munch four falafels in thirty seconds, and put away seven in the one-minute final round, in which friends fed the three remaining participants. His prize? Two tickets to comedian Howie Mandel’s appearance at JCC Live!, the annual JCC benefit.

“As an organization that brings Jewish values to life, it was really important for us to connect people to Israel, which is a big part of our tradition,” said Rachel Dreytser, who coordinates the Sidney N. Shure Kehilla, the JCC’s young adult program, and organized Tel Aviv’s birthday party.

Other event sponsors included the American Zionist Movement, Israel Aliyah Center, Israel Ministry of Tourism, Stand With Us!, Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, Birthright Israel NEXT, Honest Reporting. Shaarey Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Pumamaki Expeditions.

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Office daydreaming: a photo essay

 Permanent link
08/13/2009

Weather.com says it’s 76 degrees and mostly sunny outside, but I can’t confirm this firsthand. Me? I'm just chillin' in my 67 degree, mostly florescent cubicle. No, it’s fine. I can only see two windows, which face a very dark alley, and the blinds are pulled shut.

But… it’s Thursday! And that means it’s almost Friday. And that means it’s almost the freakin’ weekend, baby, I’m about to have me some fun! Top of Thursday's to-do list: Weekend Daydream. Sunshine, party trolleys, margaritas, beaches and puppies. Sigh…

Office daydreaming photo 1

Oh, hey, what did you say you were doing?

Office daydreaming photo 2

Ooooh. Say what? In an office? Yikes.

Office daydreaming photo 3

Too bad, cuz we’re just havin’ a laugh on the beach.

Office daydreaming photo 4

Watching this dog do super cute dog things.

Office daydreaming photo 5

Office daydreaming photo 6

Yep, still watching.

Office daydreaming photo 7

Awww

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The Secret Club of Women

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08/12/2009

The Secret Club of Women photo

I belong to a secret club of women. Sadly, the club is such a well-kept secret that the other members do not know about it. These women are famous and accomplished and published, and have no idea that I believe we are friends. Or surely would be, if only we lived in the same city, or perhaps had gone to the same college.

Anna Quindlan is a founder of the club. Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman are members. Wendy Wasserstein and Laurie Colwin are officers emeritus. The newest inductee is Jennifer Weiner.

All these women are whip-smart and wry and witty. They each have done their therapy. They are writers; women of substance. They are people for whom the personal is political and the political is personal. Family and feminism both run deep in their veins. Many of them are moms. Most are Jews. The others might as well be.

I am sure they would love me, if only we met.

When I was a young woman, I subscribed to the New York Times simply for Anna Quindlan’s column.  She gave insights into issues that helped me clarify my own world view. Her voice became a yardstick by which I measured my ideas and ideals. She made me feel less lonely as I trudged through my 20s, frantically trying to maintain my inner compass. I was so proud of her, and utterly horrified when she gave up the column to write novels. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t consulted with me before making such a big decision.

I did write to her once or twice during the 1980s, and got brief, very kind, hand-written responses. Over the years I had many conversations with Anna in my head as I swallowed disappointments at work, at home, in the world. When I met Anna at a book reading a decade ago, I kept a careful distance, for fear that if I got too close I would simply throw my arms around her. There was, of course, a chance that she would understand. There was also a chance she would call the police.

To this day I give anthologies of her columns as graduation gifts to puzzled young people who probably would prefer a Forever 21 gift card.

You will note that none of my club members write about groups of friends whose relationships unfold gloriously over the decades, where the women sustain each other through trials and triumphs, love and loss, blah blah blah.

In real life, as time goes by, I think most women find our worlds get smaller. My contemporaries and I have drifted away from one another—or, more often, we have been pulled away. One of us cares for aging parents and another is overwhelmed by the needs of her kid with ADD; one moves to another city for a better job, another gets divorced and falls under the spell of J-Date. Each of our schedules is turned inside out by our kids’ lessons and practices, which never seem to coincide with those of our friends’ kids. Even when we’re not at work, we are preoccupied by a pressure to produce that leaves little energy for more than a glass of wine and an evening with Jon Stewart.

I have never been so busy, and so lonely, in my life.

I wonder if Anna would understand.

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It's a bOy!Chicago!

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08/11/2009

It's a bOy!Chicago! photo 1

Everyone here at Oy!Chicago would like to say mazel tov to Alyssa Latala and her husband, Joe Latala who are now proud parents of a healthy baby (and who guessed it?) boy! I guess the shamapoo-er at the salon was right on that one. Little Benjamin Cooper was born on August 7. We can’t wait to hear how they decided on a name. Congratulations Alyssa and Joe!

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Chicago holds a peaceful vigil for the victims of the Tel Aviv tragedy

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08/11/2009

Chicago holds a peaceful vigil photo

Last night’s vigil at Congregation Emanuel for the victims of the Tel Aviv tragedy was a quiet one. It was filled with peaceful poetry and prayers, including traditional memorial prayers and those for healing for the people who were killed and wounded in the awful shooting that took place just a week ago. The community came together very quickly to create a service organized by Rabbi Larry Edwards of Congregation Or Chadash and featured both Jewish and non-Jewish leaders from the area.

Participants in the service included: Rabbi Larry Edwards (Cong. Or Chadash), Hon. Orly Gil (Consul Gen. of Israel to the Midwest), Rabbi Michael Balinsky (Chicago Board of Rabbis), Rabbi Shoshanah Conover (Temple Sholom), Jeryl Levin (New Israel Fund), Rabbi Rebecca Lillian (Limmud Chicago), Rabbi Brant Rosen (Jewish Reconstruction Congregation, Evanston), Judith Golden (cantorial soloist, Cong. Or Chadash), Aaron Frankel (principal, Cong. Beth Israel, Munster, IN), Rev. Kevin L. Downer (Metropolitan Community Church), Bishop James Wilkowski (Evangelical Catholic Diocese NW), and Cantor David Reinwald (Temple Anshe Sholom, Olympia Fields).

The service was well-attended and there was an outpouring of support from the wider Jewish, LGBT, and other religious communities.

May the memory of those tragically murdered be for a blessing and we wish a refuah sh'leimah, a full recovery, to all of those injured in this brutal attack.

Sponsors of this Chicago program included Congregation Or Chadash, Emanuel Congregation, the New Israel Fund, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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Book Review— Mental: Funny in the Head, by Eddie Sarfaty

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08/10/2009

I am an incredibly avid reader of fiction, but when I venture into the land of non-fiction, I am usually looking for a book that I can relate to in some way. Thus grew my interest in the debut book of Eddie Sarfaty, a fellow gay Jew. Okay, so Eddie, a comedian who has a steady gig in Provincetown, Mass, is really nothing like me, a cantor. But hey, I did go to Provincetown once for a day, and I loved it!

If you like David Sedaris, you will definitely go for this book. Sarfaty's writing in "Mental: Funny in the Head," has a similar style, and while the stories are a bit off-the-wall, they are still believable. A close-up look at a lot of family drama and his life's escapades, the book often ventures along the path of his dating and love life. Any reader is sure to revel in amusement at the first chapter, where he comes out to his grandmother in the company of his sarcastic and loud-mouthed mother— clearly surrounded by Jewish neurosis to the max. You may still find yourself trying to self-identify with his family at times, even if they are a bit over-the-top. Watch a short film based off this story here.

The rest of the stories in the book tell of Sarfaty's daunting adventure to return an adopted cat gone wild, of his frustrations with his incredibly cheap ex-boyfriend, and of his semi-chaotic trips to Paris and London with his parents and grandmother. He also writes about his former job as a bartender at a gay bar for well-to-do, older clientele on the Upper East Side of New York.

In his writing, Sarfaty is pretty much no-holds-barred, and I found that sometimes he shared more than I needed to know, but the book does have many funny parts and was an enjoyable read.

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Buying consciously

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Does the origin of our purchase matter? 
08/07/2009

Made In Israel

We live in a consumer culture, no question about it. I’ve got friends and relatives who never met a sale they didn’t like (hi, mom!). But how we make decisions about what to buy – and we want to buy-buy-buy – can tell a lot about us.

On a recent trip to Boston, I checked into a Courtyard Marriott hotel in the city’s Theater District. The first thing I saw in the bathroom were towels proudly proclaiming “Made in Israel.” Seeing that label made me smile. As conflicted as I might be on Israeli government policy sometimes, I firmly believe that buying Israeli is one of those essential things, a sort of statement of belonging to the Jewish people.

In fact, seeing “made in Israel” on a label often doubles the chance that I’ll buy the item, provided it fits well/suits my lifestyle. I don’t go out of the way to find “made in Israel” and I don’t shop exclusively for Israeli products – it would be impossible to eat or wear clothes if I tried that. But Israeli wines have found a permanent home on my wine rack, and many of my clothes have Hebrew on the label.

For many, the origin of the product can be a deciding factor:

Some friends refuse to buy a German-made car or tool. Despite painful Holocaust history, I refuse to believe that blaming modern-day Germany for the sins of its past leaders is a valid strategy for preventing another Shoah. And one acquaintance, who works for the German tool-maker Bosch, always prefaces talking about his job by adamantly distancing himself from his employer.

Journalist Sara Bongiorni and her family tried to live for a year without buying any products made in China, a decision spurred less by notions of idealism or fair trade-though she does note troubling statistics on job loss and trade deficits-than simply “to see if it can be done,” according to a review of her book. As readers will see, Bongiorni struggled with the choice because everything from her kids’ shoes to school supplies to home repair equipment is produced in China.

For others, consumer choices center on environmental consciousness: they buy local, organic and fair-trade. They prefer to pay more for the comforting knowledge of having helped our planet and its people through their purchases. Shopping at farmer’s markets and participating in community-supported agriculture (CSAs) are the eco-conscious way to procure food. In fact, Chicago even has a kosher CSA, which operates in partnership between Anshe Sholom Bnai IsraelAnshe Emet and Hazon, a national organization whose goal is to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community.

And if none of these reasons drive your purchasing decisions, what does? A good price? A good time? A chance to fulfill a need regardless of how?

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The Deafening Silence of Apathy

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08/06/2009

Five days ago, an as-yet-unidentified assailant walked into a gay community center in Tel Aviv and indiscriminately opened fire, killing two young Jews and wounding nearly a dozen others.

Five hours ago, I received an email that read, “I'd like to see someone write an Oy! response to the shootings in Tel Aviv...”

Yeah, well, I would too. I just don’t want to be that someone. Nor do I want Chai or David to be.

We Jews are not known for our ability to bite our tongues.

We’ve rallied together under the words “NEVER AGAIN” to speak out against injustice and hatred and genocide. We tell our stories so that future generations may never forget, and never permit history to repeat itself.

Look through Jewish news sources, blogs, and agency press releases from the last few weeks and months and you’ll see that community members and leaders have repeatedly condemned Muslim leaders and conference organizers for their hateful anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words.

Go back a bit further and you’ll find mass outrage, unity, and community response after the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was the site of a brutal murder in June.

But an unidentified assailant brutally murders two young Jews in what appears to be the first publicly acknowledged hate crime in the State of Israel’s history and the socially and politically aware, strong-willed and strong-voiced young Chicago Jewish community is silent?

Or a stalker guns down a college student in Connecticut and makes threats toward Jews, and no one over here in the Great Lakes region seems to bat an eyelash?

In the particular case of the shooting in Tel Aviv, it is certainly possible that everyone is waiting with bated breath for the “obvious choices” of the gay Oy! contributors to spearhead a strong community response and speak out against the violence and spiteful rhetoric that has befallen the gay community in Israel.

Or—worse yet—have we really become so provincial and self absorbed that we can't see that what happens to others in other parts of the globe matters in our personal worlds, too?

Have we Millennials already forgotten the lessons we learned from Martin Neimöller?

"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

Without a doubt, we must remember Hillel’s question as well: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

No group can expect for others to stand up for them if they do not first stand up for themselves. The gay community cannot stand idly by and ask for others to take a stand on our behalf. But we can stand up and say that the time has come for the entire Jewish community to live up to the Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la'zeh (All of Israel is responsible for one another).”

Let’s band together to say that we will not tolerate any future discrimination, violence, or hatred. When you see injustice, speak out against it – either here on Oy! or in a letter to a newspaper or a phone call to your legislators.

The time has come for the Jewish community to shake off our “two Jews, three opinions” reputation and to proclaim with one powerful, unified voice, that we are for ourselves – ALL of our selves.

You can start by coming to a memorial vigil for the victims of the Tel Aviv center shooting on Monday. 
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Confessions of a Reality Show-aholic

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08/06/2009

Actual conversation…

Jason (the boyfriend) over at my apartment:  Cher, why won’t your TV let me turn the Cubs game on?
Me:  Because the DVR is on…
Jason:  Well, can I turn it off?
Me:  No, NYC Prep is taping!
Jason:  I can’t turn that off?!
Me:  Hell no!
Jason:  It’s the Cubs game!  Isn’t that more important?  Can we at least watch it on a different TV?
Me:  I don’t think so, Tori and Dean Home Sweet Hollywood is taping upstairs and its part I of their season finale.  You might have to put the game on the computer.
Jason:  You know these people don’t care about your life, right?  I don’t know why you care so much about theirs.  You watch way too much TV!

The first step in overcoming an addiction is to admit you have one, right?  Well, I can do that.  I have an addiction.  There, I said it.  It’s not just to TV though, but more specifically, to reality TV.  And not the good kind of reality TV, if there is such a thing?  Apparently, the whole country watches American Idol or at least it seems they all vote for the new idol.  I’ve never even tuned in for an episode.  Same goes for shows like the Biggest Loser or Survivor or the Bachelor, never got into them.

I like a different type of reality TV.  I’m not sure how to classify my tastes…washed up celebrities with their own shows, rich people who like drama?  But my DVR is set to the following— every Real Housewives franchise, The Hills even without LC, the City, NYC Prep, Miami Social, Millionaire Matchmaker, Kendra, Tori and Dean Home Sweet Hollywood, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Say Yes to the Dress, Dancing with the Stars and the list goes on.

The addiction started out innocently enough (don’t they all) in college with Laguna Beach and The Hills.  My roommates would get together each week to cook dinner, have some drinks and watch our favorite girls from the OC.  We envied their lifestyles—they were at the beach everyday and at bars every night, while we were in class during the day and spent our nights studying at the library.  It might have been a reality show, but it was our escape from reality.

Now? Now I don’t know what to call it.

I consider myself to be a relatively intellectual person.  You all know I love to write and I love to read even more.  That’s why I joined a book club this year.  I have my boyfriend, my friends and my family all nearby to socialize with in my spare moments of free time and yet, I’m finding myself more and more in front of TV.  (To my credit, I do work out while I watch, that’s one of the biggest benefits of having a DVR you can watch commercial free at your own convenience, but the down fall is that you can tape EVERYTHING.)

I wish I could say the addiction ends with the TV.  But did you know that you can follow a lot of these “characters” in the blogosphere?  Each cast member of the Real Housewives franchise has her own blog; the stars of The Hills and Keeping up with the Kardashians are all on Twitter.  And any celebrity web site covers the lives of these pseudo celebs.  Two of my favorites, Bethaney Frankel from the Real Housewives of New York City and Lauren Conrad from The Hills both published books this year that made it the New York Times Best Seller List!  THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER LIST!  Isn’t that reserved for REAL authors?!  There’s even talk that one of these books will be adapted into a movie and the other into a new TV show.

So I must not be alone.  Reality stars are hot commodities.  I’ve never been a fan of Jon and Kate Plus 8, but it’s hard not to know who they are as they are everywhere these days.  I even saw them on CNN.  When did we become so obsessed with other people’s lives?

In a way, one could say that Oy!Chicago is even a product of this voyeurism.  The advent of the blogosphere has encouraged everyone with a computer to start sharing their lives with the world.

In recent weeks, Stef and I have been told by several of our coworkers that we should have our own reality show.  (We can be pretty entertaining when we are crazed trying to assign, edit and publish stories.)  And you know what?  It’s a good idea.  I bet you someone soon will make a show about a start-up blog, it’ll be like the Office, but reality.  I’d star.

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Our Living Legacy

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08/05/2009

In a recent article for Triblocal, I interviewed Riverwoods resident and professional videographer Dan Gelfond about his experiences as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The foundation, now housed at the University of Southern California, is called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

Gelfond interviewed Holocaust survivors in the Chicago area from 1994 to 1998.

When Gelfond went into the video-making business, he got to thinking about living legacies. Now, as part of his service, he interviews everyday individuals and has them tell the story of their life on video—thereby leaving a legacy for the individual’s children and grandchildren.

Spielberg sought to capture Holocaust stories before the dwindling survivors are no longer around. Similarly, Gelfond uses these Living Legacy DVDs to hold on to the stories that also will be lost to future generations.

I got to thinking about the story of the Jewish people in America before and after the Holocaust, and what American Judaism looks like today, particularly for the young, and often secularized population of 20- and 30-somethings.

What legacy do we, young Jews in America, want to leave for our future generations?

To generalize, we’ve had it pretty easy, as compared to our grandparents or great grandparents who endured boats and long lines at Ellis Island.

And even when they got here, it wasn’t a cakewalk.

Our grandparents and even parents faced barriers to suburbs, colleges and country clubs.

Today, it would be unheard of for a university to deny admission based on religious affiliation.

I say we have it easy because I think many Jews, who at least live in or near large urban settings don’t have to think about their Jewishness as a barrier to opportunity.

At the same time, when we don’t have to think about our Jewishness, we don’t think about our Jewishness.

So much of the Jewish tradition entails the telling of our collective story, over and over again. On Passover, for instance, we recall the Jew’s exile from slavery.

In the 21st century it is less likely that multiple generations within a family will live within one household—a way in which we lose our story and sense of tradition.

Also, intermarriage is commonplace.

Those factors matched with a generation that has not had to struggle in the same manner that those before it had, we are at risk of losing our story.

I am by no means bashing secularism, and in fact, think it’s inevitable in an increasingly globalized society.

However, the global threats against Jews did not end in 1948, nor have they disappeared in 2009. Evidence of anti-semitism is rampant all over the world today.

America, too, is not insulated from anti-semetic sentiments, particularly as the country is entrenched in an unpopular war.

Iran looms as a threat to Israel abroad and America at home.

And finally, when the Illinois Holocaust Museum, in Skokie, opened its doors, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the opening, warning that an unstable economy fuels hatred and scapegoats, much as it did in pre-Nazi Germany.

What can young Jewish people do on a micro level?

They must remember their story. However, they must also think about what world they would like their Jewish children and grandchildren to inherit.

I think it’s a balance between becoming so integrated that we don’t know who we are anymore, versus holding on to old notions of how to live Jewishly.

I don’t think living Jewishly necessarily means one is religious. I think it means we take into account who we are and we try to preserve that, in whatever capacity is comfortable—whether you’re a cultural Jew or an orthodox Jew.

Our collective identity is what binds us, no matter what your Jewishness means to you. If we hold on to that collective identity, our grandchildren will still have a story to tell.

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Surviving Mikvah 101

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08/04/2009

I hate water.  I don’t love drinking it, I’m not a swimmer – not even to cool off while sunbathing – and as my college roommates can attest, I went through a phase where the shower and I were basically frenemies, interacting only when absolutely necessary.
 
Thankfully, I’ve grown up enough to recognize that even though I hate getting wet, showering is non-optional.  However, even on the hottest of summer days, you couldn’t pay me to jump into the pool and I can provide a 100% guarantee that I will never step into Lake Michigan.
 
So when my rabbi informed me that I’d have to visit the mikvah before I got married, I panicked.  For those not familiar with the mikvah, rest assured – you are not alone.  I didn’t know much about it myself until I found out I’d be going.
 
According to Orthodox Judaism, a bride must visit the mikvah before the day of her wedding, as a ritual of purification before entering the chuppah and getting married.  As a not-so-Orthodox Jew, I had a lot of questions – and the mikvah lady was there to answer all of those questions and more.

The mikvah lady, otherwise known as my rabbi’s mother-in-law, walked me through the process.  We toured the building, which looked more like a spa than a scary bath house, and she asked me a lot of awkward questions about my sex life, my menstrual cycle, and my plans for starting a family.   I asked her about the technicalities, what I would need to do to prepare for my visit, and most importantly, how long I’d actually have to be underwater.  And while it was mortifying talking about premarital sex and family planning with a lady my grandma’s age, it was a very eye-opening discussion.  As I am certainly not an expert in the Jewish laws of Mikvah, Nidah and family purity, I encourage those harboring curiosity to click here or here or here for more info.  Riveting stuff.

Back to the story.  After wrapping up my Mikvah 101 course, I scheduled my appointment for my pre-wedding dunk and promptly put the whole issue at the back of my mind.  I returned to sorting out seating charts, confirming last-minute details with vendors, and finalizing honeymoon plans.

At last, the day was upon me.  No – not my wedding day.  Dunk day.  I arrived at the mikvah and spent about 20 minutes preparing:   shampooing and combing my hair, exfoliating my skin, and removing my nail polish.  I took out my contacts, because no foreign objects are allowed into the mikvah (not even ones that keep you from stumbling into the mikvah by accident).  And then I hit the buzzer to let the mikvah lady know that I was ready to head in.

It was only when I stepped into the water that the mikvah lady and I found out that the water heater was broken.  Just my luck – the girl with the water aversion stuck in a freezing cold mikvah.  Luckily, the only requirement is that you are completely submerged for literally one second, three times.

Quickly, I repeated after the mikvah lady as she helped me say the prayer before plunging into the pool and then, about six seconds later, it was over.

I know many brides who have described their experience at the mikvah as a deeply spiritual moment. For me, my connection to Judaism is rooted more in tradition and community than spirituality, and despite the technical difficulties, I left the mikvah feeling a profound connection to the Jewish women over dozens of generations who had gone through this ritual cleansing.

And if thousands of other women could suffer through getting wet long enough to start a marriage with a clean slate, I could too.

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Choosing to be Chosen

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08/03/2009

Annoyingly, the timing of my conversion coincided with Charlotte’s on Sex on the City, leaving my friends all wondering why the hell my conversion process was taking so long when Charlotte managed to convert in 3 episodes. (For the record: it generally takes one full calendar year.)

Understandably, most assumed that, like Charlotte, I converted to Judaism in order to marry my husband. It’s an answer that I’ve learned to give out of self-preservation. Ever try telling a Fundamentalist Christian that you don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of God?

Actual response: “You know that you are going to spend eternity in hell, right?”

I should have told her that there isn’t a Santa Clause either, but I took the high road.

Anyway…frankly, a deep philosophical conversation about religion just doesn’t make for good TV, or good cocktail conversation. Few truly are interested that, at age 8, around Easter time, I had begun to question if Jesus was the Messiah, doubts that I feared to give voice to lest I become an outcast. That by age 13, having been exposed to Judaism through friends, I found that it was a religion that I could believe in, and when I went to college I slowly started to practice it, and this brought me a closer connection to God. And, by the time I met my husband at age 28, despite my upbringing, I had spent most of my life “feeling” and identifying as Jewish.

I told you it was boring.

So, instead I say I became a “Jew by choice” because of my husband, who “brought me to Judaism. “ And he did, in a way.

Despite having been drawn to Judaism, I think I could easily have married a Jewish man, practiced a Jewish life and raised my children Jewish without ever formally converting to Judaism. Before him, I had seriously dated a Jewish man who did not feel any religious conflict with my technically-Christian status.


So it somewhat surprised me when my husband (then boyfriend) brought up the topic, telling me that he would not marry someone who would not raise the children Jewish. Promising that was not a problem for me, and vaguely committing to consider conversion “someday”, the conflict was seemingly resolved.

And then he decided that 7 years in politics was enough to bring him to God, and he applied to Rabbinical school. And the application asked him to promise that he would only marry a Jew. ‘Nough said.

(I like to say he went from working for people who thought they were God, to working for God himself. Or herself, whichever floats your boat.)
 
And so, I formally began my conversion process, a decision that I have never regretted. It took a nudge, but now I cannot imagine NOT being Jewish – to not be the same religion as my husband and child. For me, it was like a homecoming, and the ability to practice a religion that I believe in has brought joy and meaning into my life. And it lifted a weight off my shoulders—I never felt good about being Christian and not believing Jesus was the Messiah—I felt that was disrespectful to the religion and those that do believe.

That’s not to say my decision to convert came easy. It took a lot of courage to make that choice- being Christian was part of my identity and the foundation of my values. As a kid I had gone to Bible camp, sang in the choir, and was an acolyte (I lit the alter candles).

Choosing to be Jewish set me apart religiously from my family—and 98% of Americans. I’ve been fortunate that my family has been very accepting and supportive of my religious choice, but it does pain me to know that there are people out there who will hate not just me, but my child, simply because of my religious choice. I find myself easily angered by those that use the Bible to spew anti-Semitism, because as a Christian, I was never taught to use religion as a weapon, and I find those who do despicable.

Beginning the conversion process was also scary. I didn’t know how the Rabbi would respond to my request, and I feared being rejected. Once “in”, it required a lot of work, I attended class, met with my Rabbi regularly, and read many books spanning a range of topics from Jewish history to philosophy. Basically I had to cram a lifetime of learning (or at least a childhood) into a year.

Consequently, I often get the comment from Jewish-born people that I “must know SO much more about Judaism than they do.” I know the remark is meant to flatter, but really I find it annoying. I can read and study all I want, but there is a cultural part of Judaism that is hard—if not impossible—to master.

But that is also the fun part- the constant discovery and exploration of my chosen religion. Along with listening to my mother try to pronounce Rosh Hashanah. (A woman who pronounces quesadilla as “keysadillya”. Gotta love her, she tries about 3 times and finally just says “Happy New Year.”)

And so, that’s my story of how I became a Jew. Former WASP meets nice Jewish boys, falls in love, converts, and gets married. And becomes a Rebbitzen.

I’ll save that story for later, ideally when I’m drunk in the city.

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