OyChicago articles

‘G.I. Joel’

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Chicago-born comedian Joel Chasnoff headlines Limmud with solo show about his IDF stint

‘G.I. Joel’ photo 1

In the eighth grade, Joel Chasnoff, admits he was the only kid cut from the Solomon Schechter basketball team. 

This was all the more shameful because “I’d been cut not just from a sports team, but from a Jewish sports team,” he writes in his book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade. But in his early 20s, despite his lack of athletic prowess, Chasnoff—a burgeoning Jewish comedian in New York City—decided to put his comedy career on hold to join the Israel Defense Forces, out of love for the Jewish State.

An Evanston native, married to an Israeli woman, Chasnoff returns to Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 16 for his solo show “G.I. Joel: A 24-year-old Stand-up Comic from Chicago Gets Drafted into the Israeli Army” as part of the Limmud Chicago lineup.

The 70-minute performance, adapted from his book The 188th Crybaby Brigade, chronicles Chasnoff’s experiences in 1997 and 1998 as a tank gunner in the Israel Defense Forces Armored Corps. His unit was responsible for defending Israel’s north, including the Golan Heights and the Syrian border. His service included two months of Basic Training, two months of Tank School, and three months of Advanced Warfare training, followed by a tour of duty.

‘G.I. Joel’ photo 2

Oy!Chicago recently interviewed the comedian in advance of his Chicago visit.

Oy!Chicago: How did G.I. Joel come about?
Joel Chasnoff: I've been speaking about the book for a couple years now. And whenever I have, I tried to make the stories I told as compelling and funny as possible. Those book presentations, combined with my stand-up comedy background, led me to create an actual show, with beginning, middle and end, that tells the story—in a comedic way—of my IDF experience. 

Why was it important to you to write Crybaby Brigade in the first place?
As a stand-up comedian and actor, I'm a firm believer in the power of stories. I'd even say that we human beings are our stories: how we think of ourselves, others, and our lives is a reflection of the stories we tell ourselves. I truly felt that my experience in Israel—everything from the actual military service to the eventual questioning of my Judaism by the Israeli rabbinate—was a story that would resonate with others who think about, value, and struggle with Israel as I do. 

How does the work lend itself to a one-man show? What’s different about the process as a book versus a performance?
The book is, in a way, a one-man book, since it’s first-person, non-fiction. I simply told my stories on the page, as opposed to the stage. The big difference is that in the book, I can take a lot of time and space to describe my feelings at certain moments, and descriptions of places and people… Onstage, the action needs to be quick; no one wants to spend 10 minutes hearing what a mountain looks like. 

Why did you join the IDF? After all, many American Jews love and support Israel, but you took it a step further.
One, I felt a bit guilty that we American Jews call Israel the homeland but let Israelis bleed for it. I remember during the first Gulf War that bombs were falling on Israel and my synagogue recited Psalms and mailed care packages—which didn't seem like enough. And two—I was enthralled with Israelis from my visit at age 17 on—they were exciting, outspoken, and strong—and I wanted to be one of those Uzi-toting heroes like them. 

What is the most important lesson you learned while serving in the IDF?
On a personal level, I learned that if one is passionate to do something (as I was to join the army), the best thing to do is simply to do it and take the risk that it won't work out. I would have felt something was missing from my life had I decided not to do it. On an army level, I learned a lot about friendship and what it means to both love a group of guys and, at the same time, not be able to stand them—and yet my platoon-mates and I emerged friends despite all the ups and downs…

How is your wife, Dorit? What does it mean to her as an Israeli that you served and to her family as well?
She didn't want me to serve at first—she thought real Israelis (not like the good ones they send to summer camps) would eat me alive. But now, it's allowed us possibly living in Israel one day to be more of a reality. 

Are you excited to return to Chicago for the show?
I'm very excited to premier the solo show in Chicago, since I'm a native myself. The show will be a semi-workshop so after the performance I'll open up the room to notes, feedback, etc. This should be a fun experience for the audience. 

Looking back, what is your favorite memory of the IDF?
Sitting on a mountain with my best buddy, Tomer, giving him advice about women after his girlfriend broke up with him during basic training—this despite the fact that I still know barely anything about women.

Joel Chasnoff will perform his one-man show “G.I. Joel” as part of Limmud Chicago’s evening program on Saturday, Feb. 16, at UIC Student Center East. For more information, visit www.limmudchicago.org.

To learn more about Chasnoff, visit www.joelchasnoff.com.

A chat with Jonathan Safran Foer

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A chat with Jonathan Safran Foer photo

I first learned of Jonathan Safran Foer in college, when I read his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, in a course titled, "New Voices in Jewish Fiction." And he was just that—his unique writing style was fresh and the story he told, though fictionalized, reflected a Jewish journey of self-discovery. After his first book was named "Book of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times and was made into a feature-length film, he wrote his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, also made into a film, which uses 9/11 as the backdrop for the story. He is also the author of the non-fiction book, Eating Animals, and the editor of theNew American Haggadah, which came out last Passover.  

Foer is the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. He's been named one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire Magazine's "Best and Brightest." Safran Foer, who is working on his next novel, is currently the Lillian Vernon Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University.

Foer came to Chicago earlier this month for a session titled "Jonathan Safran Foer on Judaism, Writing, and Inspiration," part of the Spertus Prime series.

Oy!Chicago had a chance to talk with Foer leading up to his Chicago visit:

Oy!Chicago: Can you give us a preview of what we can expect to hear when you come speak at Spertus next month? 
Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm going to talk about two heroes of mine and the way that they informed my thinking about both writing and art but, also, religion and the intersection of the two. 

The program is titled, "Jonathan Safran Foer on Judaism, Writing, and Inspiration"—where do you find inspiration? 
I don't find it really—I try to make it. It's not like I have lots of great ideas and I sit down to write them. It's through the act of filling pages that I force myself to have ideas—most of them are bad and some of them are okay and I keep the okay ones and I try to make them better. I think there is a misunderstanding about the process that first you find something and then you share it. For me, you create the thing in the process of looking for it.

Age-old question: Are you a Jewish author or an author who is Jewish? 
I think time will tell better than whatever I will say. I think the question of what we consider ourselves is not as important as the question of what we do with ourselves. People are all the time wrong about who they think they are. I've been surprised by the way that Judaism as surfaced in my writing, continually—it almost can't be suppressed. Not that I try, but it's just constantly there and I wouldn't have guessed that before it happened. I wouldn't have described myself as somebody to whom that would happen. 

I understand that you took time away from your own writing to write the New American Haggadah. Why the need for a new haggadah and why was this an important project for you? 
I didn't see a need—writing isn't really guided by need as much as instinct, curiosity or just desire, and I had all those things for this project. For a number of reasons—one is it's just an interesting book. If you divorce it, if that were possible, from its religious context, it's one of the oldest continually told stories, one of the most dramatic moments in any kind of literature or book, so the idea of spending time with that was exciting. But also, personally I've been going to Seders my whole life and been somewhat underwhelmed by Seders my whole life, and I wondered if there wasn't a better way to think about [them].

As someone who completed your first novel in your 20s, what advice do you have for young, aspiring writers? 
I think the people who are going to end up writing books don't really need advice. Ultimately what separates published writers from unpublished writers is not talent, or often it's not—it's energy and wherewithal and willingness to write despite all those many, many reasons not to. I think people have to make their own mark, and find their own reasons—one thing I often say to my students is making your story better is a lot easier than making it longer. Really truly, the biggest challenge for a writer is to keep writing.

For more information for the Spertus Prime event, visit www.spertus.edu.

Turning wedding dresses into works of art

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Turning wedding dresses into works of art photo 1

You know that one house were all the kids want to play after school because they have the best toys?

In my case, it was my friend Cara’s house. Her mom, Diane Bronstein, created the best art projects for us to do and she would let us rummage through her art collections. We spent hours in her mom’s jewelry studio in the basement making necklaces and bracelets out of her “extra” beads and playing with art materials that were deemed “too messy” in my own home.

Diane is the cool mom. A painter, photographer, jewelry designer and all around artistic maven, she fills her home…and businesses with art and creativity.

“My loves are painting, drawing, photography and design,” Bronstein explained. “Somehow I manage to always incorporate that in every business.”

Bronstein has had an eclectic career. From heading up advertising for a decorative accessories company, to owning several of her own business, including Mrs. B’s Quality Kits, to painting furniture, she has traveled extensively and studied art throughout Europe.

Last summer, Cara got married and with it a new idea was born.

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“I had already been painting and sketching every type of dress you can imagine” she said. “I had been doing that for years now.”

Then she went wedding dress shopping with her daughter.

“There is that one dress... that perfect dress .... that many girls have thought about since they were little,” she said. “It dawned on me, a painting preserves that very special dress in a very special way.”

And so the notion for Custom Wedding Dress Paintings was born. With Cara her first customer.

“We thought it would be a beautiful keepsake,” she said. “And also thought it would be pretty for her to use as thank you cards from her wedding as one last homage to her beautiful dress.”

The concept has since taken off.

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“Everyone who saw the dress portrait loved it,” she said. “Requests started coming in to make paintings of the wedding dresses for brides from photos of their weddings. Today I wrote my first "gift certificate" that is being given to a bride at her wedding.”

“It does not matter how old we are or how long ago we got married,” she said. “We will never forget our dress. And wouldn't it be lovely if we all had a painting of that special dress....”

To learn more about Custom Wedding Dress Paintings, visit http://dianebronstein.com or http://www.etsy.com/shop/DianeBronstein.

A Mitzvah for a New Year

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A Mitzvah for a New Year photo

For some Russian-speaking Jews in Chicago, this New Year's was special. Besides traditional salad 'Olivie' and a champagne toast at midnight they also performed a mitzvah.

Russian Jewish Division helped to engage close to 40 volunteers who packed and delivered 400 gift packages to the Russian-speaking WWII veterans several days before the New Year. Many of the visits didn't end just with a smile and a gift. Volunteers got to hear stories of struggles and courage, of heroism and tragedies. When we talk about World War II and the Jewish people what often comes to mind first is Holocaust—many people simply do not know of the thousands of Jewish soldiers who fought on the battlefields. 

Julia Bikbova, an attorney by profession, who led this initiative said: "I consider myself very lucky when I get to meet so many courageous people and learn their stories, and my son does that with me too—this is real-life history and real-life heroes, as oppose to comic books and Hollywood-made ones. I get a lot of inspiration from them and that makes it easier to overcome certain challenges in [my] life. I thus try to spread the word and give opportunities to others to volunteer so they gain as much. And based on the feedback and thank-yous from volunteers, they do."

The Russian Jewish community in Chicago is very tight. You would think almost everyone knows everyone. But there is a group of people share more than just a Russian background—they share another story, a very sad and heroic story of World War II. There are about 400 Russian-speaking veterans who live in the Chicagoland area. While many of them are fortunate to have families and friends, many of these seniors are lonely and have low mobility. They mostly live in subsidized apartment buildings around the city and the suburbs, watch Russian television and read Russian newspapers keeping their memories in thick albums with photographs.

The veterans shared with the young generation stories from the war and their amazing life journey. "I heard so many stories today, overwhelmed...Also never was I kissed by so many women and men in one day!" said Genady Yoffe after his visits last week.

Last summer Russian Jewish Division of Jewish Federation started a project called 'L'Dor VaDor,' from generation to generation. In cooperation with the Board of WWII Veterans Association in Chicago, RJD's volunteers visit veterans on their birthdays, bringing them a very special gift—a warm smile and an appreciation for all they had to go though during the war. This project engaged many: sponsors who donated money for flowers to veterans, students, young professionals and young families from Russian-speaking backgrounds.

Get involved and learn more about Russian Jewish community at our new website www.juf.org/RJD

Happy New Year, friends!

The Russian Jewish Division, a new division at the Jewish Federation, serves Russian-speaking Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 40. RJD focuses its work on student engagement, Israel advocacy, outreach to young professionals and young families, leadership development and fundraising. While continuing to tailor to the specific needs of the Russian-speaking Jewish young adult community, Russian Jewish Division utilizes various available resources and serves as a resource and 'connection' to the JUF and the Jewish community at large.

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