OyChicago articles

Voting Jewishly: I’m Voting for McCain

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10/28/2008

Oy29LJmike

Mike Bregman, patching together his own political quilt

I have spent most of my political life on the fence, being pulled in various directions by teachers, friends and family. In high school, I worked on a campaign to nominate my local Democratic state representative for Governor. I was also part of a conservative group that supported a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Having grown up in north suburban Chicago - which felt like a liberal haven - I seek to patch together my own political quilt, consistent with my upbringing, experiences and values.

I know that America is the land of the free – a country my grandparents longed for as they languished in the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China for nearly 10 years during and after World War II. But I also know that our playing field is not level. Our vast opportunities are but a farce if all may not partake. I have been given opportunities to succeed and am doing my best to make good on them, hoping to one day be able to enjoy the success I have earned as I please. My political conscience is plagued by innate dichotomies. It is no wonder I have gravitated toward the candidate who I feel is closest to the middle of the political spectrum. Regardless of just how close he comes to that middle, I believe John McCain clearly edges out Barack Obama in mirroring my personal beliefs in hard work, responsibility and freedom.

To say this election season has been a downright disappointment would be an understatement. I think that both political campaigns, as well as every single television news outlet, have engaged in low-brow tactics and partisan-filtered political spin. So as voters, we must sift through the issues to choose one candidate over another based on our own values and experiences. Some of the issues that matter to me are the economy, Israel and bipartisanship.

The Economy:

My dad is a modest small-business owner. He worked hard every day in order to support us, all the while managing to be an attentive, loving and involved parent. My first grade teacher, who we will call Mrs. F., may have been the meanest woman ever to grace an elementary school classroom. One day, as I sat crying at my little desk with my head buried in my arms, Mrs. F. scolded me not to “get tears on my assignment.” Every week without fail, I would try to convince my mom to let me stay home from school so I would not have to face Mrs. F. More often than I like to admit, my mom would take me to the doctor based on my less-than-truthful claims of a sore throat or an earache. My parents paid for every penny of our health insurance out of their own pockets, including every Mrs. F.-induced throat culture. They have set an inspiring example of hard work, responsibility and sacrifice that guides me today as I work full-time and attend law school classes at night. While I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves, we should be wary of any politician, Democrat or Republican, who says we need to exploit one group of Americans for the supposed benefit of another group.

Examination of each candidate’s economic proposals reveals adherence to standard liberal and, with regard to McCain, some conservative approaches to the economy. According to The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, Obama’s and McCain’s tax plans would leave 44% and 43% of tax-filers, respectively, with no income tax liability at all. McCain intends to implement a $5,000 health care credit for people to purchase their own health insurance. But Obama plans to stick 5% of Americans with the highest ever tax increase and enact a long list of income transfers from taxpayers to non-taxpayers as tax credits. I am no die-hard fan of trickle-down economics. Nor am I an economics expert, but in my view, it seems that increasing taxes on small and large businesses, a very significant 5% of American taxpayers who help drive our economy, will discourage industry and result in fewer jobs, hurling us further into an economic crisis. The Obama premise that wealthy Americans can afford to “spare a little,” as he said in the last debate, is a dangerous, slippery slope. I agree with John McCain; America did not become a great country by transferring or distributing wealth. We became great by creating new wealth. America is a prosperous nation because of our work ethic and our freedoms.

Israel:

As a young Hebrew school student at a Conservative synagogue, I was instilled with a reverence for the Jewish state, including its significance in our faith and among our people following the Holocaust. My grandfather was a young man when he was faced with a choice: remain in Germany and face near-certain death or leave his home by taking, literally, a slow boat to China. After spending three nights hiding in the Berlin Zoo, he made his choice. In Shanghai he met my Austrian grandmother, whose father, a well-decorated and esteemed veteran of the First World War, had been beaten and driven away from his home and business on Kristallnacht. His country had spurned him and his service. Their chances in Shanghai were better, but the situation was also dangerous. My grandmother shared countless stories of the illness and poor living conditions that they suffered for almost 10 years before they had a chance to come to America. For many Jews, in their own stories of survival, the land of Israel substitutes for Shanghai. Although I plan to go on a Birthright trip, I have not yet been to Israel. Nonetheless, I understand the increasing importance of the State of Israel as a safe-haven for Jews around the world.

As a Jewish voter, I believe there is no more uncompromising supporter of Israel than John McCain. He understands the gravity of Islamic extremists determined to destroy the lone democratic state in a very hostile region. We know where he stands on the issue. Throughout the campaign, Obama has gone back and forth on statements regarding the specifics of his support for Israel. Obama says that Israel has a right to defend itself one day, and then says Israelis should allow for policies that would leave Israel unable to defend itself the next. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on July 24, 2008, Obama said, “Look, I think that both sides on this equation are going to have to make some calculations. Israel may seek ‘67-plus’ and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They've got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.” Without a security buffer in the West Bank, it is not difficult for one to expect Hamas to take over the West Bank as quickly as it seized Gaza, creating nearly indefensible borders. In my view, Obama does not seem to grasp the magnitude of “antagonism” of which he speaks, which could likely resemble the endless rocket attacks from Gaza or worse. The stakes are too high to gamble on what I believe is a misguided and naïve understanding of the reality Israel faces.

Bipartisanship:

Many voters are quick to embrace Obama and his staunchly liberal views because of the arguably unsuccessful Bush presidency. Obama was rated the most liberal legislator in the Senate for 2007 by the independent National Journal. It is not good enough that Obama excuses his ultra-orthodox voting record by insisting that he was simply opposing Bush’s policies. The sooner that voters realize the best answers to our problems lie toward the middle of the political spectrum, the better off we will be.

McCain has a long history of breaking with his party and the president to enact major legislation on a number of issues. As a second-year law student, I have the opportunity to study the legislative process in depth. In my opinion, if our Congress consists of senators and representatives who vote like Obama, voters will continue to be let down. Moderates from both parties must be able to work together in order to pass legislation and address pressing issues that face all Americans. As a testament to his willingness to go against his own party, in the final presidential debate Obama cited his support for a tort reform initiative. As admirable as that is, I do not believe that curbing frivolous lawsuits is a significant priority for a vast majority of Americans.

The Obama campaign and highly partisan Democrats try to spin McCain into a Bush clone. Given Bush’s abysmal popularity ratings, it would be foolish not to employ such a strategy. But from my standpoint as an independent thinker, the choice is clear. I think that what I consider Obama’s thinly veiled adherence to hard-Left ideology rings more of the party-first Bush administration than some voters realize.

My belief that John McCain leans toward the center of the political spectrum leads to my hope that Americans will not choose to substitute one extreme for another in the face of hard times.

Why I Voted for Barack Obama. And a Few Others.

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10/28/2008

Oy29LJaviva

Aviva Gibbs, early voter

In February of 2007, I took a bus to the Old State Capitol in Springfield, to witness Senator Obama formally kick-off his campaign in the spot where President Lincoln once spoke of a house divided.  In front of me stood a handsome woman with perfect hair and a fur coat (who unknowingly blocked the bitter wind). Behind me was a man in a service station uniform who smelled of motor oil and long hours. On my right was an iPodded young woman who was likely voting in her first election, and to my left, a Republican State Representative who smiled when he noticed me noticing him.

I was standing in the center of the Obama campaign.

You rarely witness that kind of cross-section – people of “all walks,” as my grandmother would have said – standing shoulder to shoulder, looking in the same direction. You see it occasionally in airports. Or at the DMV, where social or economic status doesn’t get you a better place in line. But you don’t tend to see it voluntarily on a nearly sub-zero day in Springfield.  It could have been summer though, and I still would have had chills; something remarkable was happening.

You rarely witness that cross-section of people, because they so rarely have anything in common, until now. What I saw that day was a glimpse into the rest of Senator Obama’s campaign. On that bitter cold day, each person in my small unlikely circle had his or her own set of unique challenges and craved a fundamental change from recent history.  Maybe the young woman wanted to know that this new administration would take a pragmatic approach to climate change. Maybe the fancy lady bought that coat in the ‘90s, when she was in a more confident financial position, and wanted to know now that her grandchildren would have access to affordable healthcare. Maybe the mechanic, who likely makes less than $250,000 a year, wanted middle-class tax relief. And maybe the Republican State legislator, who has spent plenty of literal and figurative cold days in Springfield, wanted a leader who would pierce through the divisiveness and remind us of our common ground.

They came for different types of change, and it seems clear to me that Barack Obama managed to answer each of their calls directly.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I went to vote early. There was a line over thirty minutes long. To vote. Early. Yes, we’re in Blue Chicago, where our native son cut his proverbial teeth and McCain bumper stickers seem as odd as ketchup on a hot dog.

But it’s not just here: unparalleled voter registration, turnout, and early vote totals have blown previously-set records out of the water on both sides of aisle, in all corners of the country.  People have given more time and money in this election than any other in presidential history. From where I sit, it looks like for the first time in a long time, people are truly voting for someone, and not against someone else.

I’m not saying popularity is the, or even a, reason to vote for Senator Obama. But the fact that he has been able to reach out and motivate “all walks” speaks volumes. His ability to inspire people at a time when, let’s be honest, we could use some inspiration, will leave a powerful and critical legacy. It will impact those whose names appear further down the ballot – and in turn, all of us – for this cycle and beyond.

That legacy is of particular significance to me. I used to manage a State legislative office where “all walks” would stop in, usually to complain. An issue with their local school council turned into an issue with the city school system which turned into a diatribe on how education is funded by the State, and so on. When all of my insights and otherwise-practical suggestions were dismissed, I’d go back to basics and ask if they were registered to vote. The idea of a citizen exercising his or her veto power by voting was as preposterous as ketchup… well, you know. For the record, they usually weren’t registered, though I bet they are now.  Senator Obama has mobilized an electorate exhausted by disappointment and has moved them to pay attention – to cast aside the apathy and connect the dots between their local school and their elected officials.

It doesn’t matter if Senator Obama is sincere, which I think he is, or has the chops to do the job, which I believe he certainly does: Pundits will criticize voters and say we’ve been seduced by “rock star” sizzle where there might not be steak. Voters aren’t stupid, nor are they easily wooed by hype. They talk about it at the water cooler, yes, but they don’t stand in early vote lines or in bitter cold Springfield just to say they were there. Senator Obama transcends hype much the way he has transcended barriers and partisanship before.

As for my decision to enthusiastically support Obama, I don’t think I can say it better than did the Chicago Tribune – a newspaper that has never endorsed a Democrat for U.S. President since it began making such endorsements in, wait for it, 1872:

“We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready… The change that Obama talks about so much is not simply a change in this policy or that one… Obama envisions change in the way we deal with one another”

Allow me to add to the Trib’s list: He has risen from community organizer to State Senator to U.S. Senator to Presidential candidate with grace, strength and respect. He has repeatedly chosen to be right, rather than consistent, often to the chagrin of those on his own side of the aisle. He has made pragmatic governing choices over politically-motivated ones (one needs to look no further than his choice in running mate, but I digress).  He has taken the high road and focused upon the issues at a time when it has mattered most.  He has the humility to ask for help from those who have more familiarity with an issue than he might.  He listens carefully and builds consensus with the integrity of his word and the ease of his manner.

We are at a critical moment. As Sen. Biden would say, “let me say it again, because this is important:” We are at a critical moment. Much of it seems far bigger than any of us, but we are not powerless. We have the ability – right now – to make a fundamental shift in the direction we’ve been heading.

As Senator Obama recently said,

“At this defining moment in our history, the question is not, “are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We all know the answer to that. The real question is will our country be better off four years from now?”

I proudly voted for Obama (and several sensible, local candidates and referenda also on the ballot) not because he can talk the talk, but because he’s walked with all walks. And they all have compelling reasons to follow him.

Tiny Bubbles

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10/28/2008

Ristorante Prosecco
710 N. Wells
Chicago
312-951-9500
www.ristoranteprosecco.com

Rating: Three and a half stars

StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey StarStaceyHalf

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Prosecco, where food and service are as sparkling as the champagne

I am unabashed in my love of sparkling wines.  And while I have a particular affinity both for the true French champagnes, and for the sparklers made in the Méthode Champenoise from other regions of the world, I don’t turn down a good cava from Spain or a prosecco from Italy.  For the sake of ease, despite the twitch it is likely to produce in any serious oenophiles who may be reading this, it’s really all champagne to me, and I tend to refer to it as such.  I don’t need an occasion to drink champagne, any random day will do. Sparkling is the first section I go to in any wine list, and frankly, having decent bubbles by an affordable glass price will endear a restaurant to me faster than almost anything else.  I’m blessed with a circle of friends who also enjoy life a little ‘frissante’, and, while we always start the evening with champagne, we often stick with it, letting the magic twinkle take us all the way from salad to entrée to dessert with neither shame nor apology.

It’s a long love affair for me, and the person most to blame isn’t that famous monk who exclaimed he was drinking stars when he accidentally invented my go-to beverage.  It’s my dad, with some help from WGN television.

One Sunday when I was maybe eight or nine, my dad and I were watching television together.  I know it outs me as old when I say that this was a time well before cable, and with only about twelve stations to choose from, Sundays without football were all about old movies.  Flipping through the stations we landed upon the Sunday Afternoon Movie on WGN, which also tended to run the Late Morning Movie, the Early Afternoon Movie, the Mid-Twilight Movie, the Sort-Of-Early Evening Movie, not to mention the Late, Late-Late, and Really-Freaking-Late-Why-Don’t-You-Go-Bed-Already Movie.  A classic black-and white comedy of manners from the forties, full of happy wealthy people who seem never to go to work and are always planning some big party.  This is how I know it was just me and dad, since my sister has never been able to abide anything in black and white, and was probably off somewhere with my mom, who will never choose the couch if she can be actually doing something.

I wish I could remember the exact film, but ultimately it is irrelevant.  What I do remember is this:  A gentleman stops by the house of the family at the center of the film, uninvited and unexpected, in the middle of the afternoon.  They greet him warmly and ask if he would like a drink.  He says, and this is very clear in my mind “Well, thanks. Don’t mind if I do.  I’ll have a champagne.”

And the uniformed maid goes to fetch it for him.

Just like that.

Not on New Year’s Eve, no one’s birthday cake in sight.  Just as if he were asking for a glass of water or a Coke.  “I’ll have a champagne.”

It was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I made a mental promise to myself right then and there that when I was a grown-up, there would always be champagne in my house and anyone could ask for it on any day and at any time.

Fast forward to now, and I am, despite some of my occasional behavior, a grown-up, and in my house, there is always champagne.  I always keep a couple of half-bottles, since I live alone and should not be consuming whole bottles on my own, but nor should I be thwarted in my desire for a glass when I feel like one.  I keep usually two full bottles cold, one “everyday” champagne (Gruet, a lovely wine from Albuquerque of all places, and utterly delicious), and one of “special occasion” champagne, in case someone calls with excellent news (Nicholas Feuillette, Perrier-Jouet, or Taltarni, a great pink from Australia).  And at least four bottles unchilled, in case a party breaks out.  You never know.  For really special stuff you’ll find me looking for Veuve Cliquot’s La Grande Dame, preferably pink, and if someone of means is buying, it’s all Krug all the time.

But I also often stock up on prosecco, the famed sparkler of Italy, which can be a very reasonably-priced alternative to champagnes, and is delightful in its own right.  It also comes in half-bottles which, unlike champagne, are priced at literally half of the full size, which is great for a single girl on a budget.  For big parties, I often buy prosecco by the case.  So it should be no surprise to anyone that when Chicago got it’s very own proseccheria, and I heard that the food was worth checking out, I got myself a reservation.

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Prosecco offers a warm, comfortable environment

Ristorante Prosecco is a warm and comfortable room, decorated in muted Venetian tones, with tall ceilings and a generous comfortable bar.  I meet Rachel, my intrepid dining companion, also a major bubbly consumer, and we indulge in a glass of the house specialty before being led to a simple table off to the side.  It becomes clear that this is classic white-tablecloth Italian food, the menu is obviously seasonal, and seems to represent Italy as a whole, with dishes from many different regions.  We receive immediately two small tastes of a rose prosecco , brought to us by the sommelier Christian, who will be guiding our wine choices for the evening.  I resist the desire to tell him to only bring bubbles, and focus instead on the menu.

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Pick your bubbly at the Prosecco bar

We sip our prosecco and have some bread with agrodolce, a sweet and sour Italian condiment, a compote concocted of eggplant, tomato, raisins, and pine nuts cooked with vinegar and sugar.  I start with the biggest diver sea scallop I have ever seen, with braised fennel and lemon in a mild broth that cries out to be sopped up with the crusty bread.  The scallop is impeccably fresh, caramelized well on the outside and tender within, and as sweet as any I have ever tasted.  Rachel opts for the soup of the day, a chilled puree of avocado with a red-pepper swirl, and confesses the urge to pick the bowl up and drink with abandon.  Christian paired this course with a 2006 "Rosenere" Sangiovese Di Romagna Superiore by La Palazza from Emilia Romagna.  He explains that the grape is the same sangiovese as in Tuscany and particularly as in Chianti, but when grown over the border in Emilia Romagna, it tends to take on a smoother, more velvety texture.  When he leaves, I explain to Rachel that I have no idea what any of that means, except that it is a really lovely glass of wine, and that I’m suddenly not sad at the lack of bubbles.  She agrees heartily, as our empty plates are whisked away and a barrage of pastas descend.  I may have over-ordered, but it is an Italian restaurant, and how could I effectively make recommendations to you, my faithful readers, if I didn’t taste a whole bunch of them, hmmm?

Okay, we ordered four pastas and a risotto for two people.

And we were glad that we did.

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The Rigatoni Norcina

The Rigatoni Norcina, a fairly straightforward presentation of a light tomato cream sauce with pancetta and mild sausage, was very tasty, if not exactly unusual.  The Orrechiette Tartufate, on the other hand, was not just delicious, but unique…the ear-shaped pasta with wild mushrooms, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and black truffle cream sauce with white truffle oil and shaved Grana Padano, in a word, trufflicious.  The Gnocchi Gorgonzola were slightly gummy, the spinach in the dumplings serving to do little more than color the dough, and the gorgonzola sauce seemed slightly overwrought.  But the Risotto of the day, served with a short-rib ragu, was rich without being heavy, the rice perfectly al dente and creamy, and the ragu was vibrant and earthy, the meat perfectly tender.  But the surprise of the evening was the Fontina-Stuffed Gnocchi, in a tomato vodka sauce with prosciutto.  These puffs of lightness literally melted on the tongue, with the creamy cheese oozing out and blending with the simple tart sauce in a truly perfect mouthful.  I’ve never had gnocchi like them, and frankly would not have believed such airiness was possible in a potato-based dumpling without tasting for myself.  Rachel rolled her eyes back in her head and proclaimed them “clouds of total yumminess.” She was absolutely correct.  Christian paired this feast with a 2004 Masciarelli, Montepulciano from Abruzzo.  This is a grape from central Italy that tends to be medium-bodied with some nice red fruit and a distinctive almost meaty nose.  It held up well to all but the gorgonzola gnocchi, which we found pretty impressive, especially with all the different flavors we had going on.

Despite our pasta bacchanal, we gamely ordered entrees, a mere two this time, for the sake of propriety.  Rachel had the Spigola Agrodolce, a Mediterranean striped bass in a different version of the condiment I mentioned earlier, this one with sweet peppers, Sicilian cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, and golden raisins, which was fine, the fish light and well-cooked, but slightly over-sauced for such a mild flaky fish.  I had the Saltimbocca di Vitello, a traditional preparation of veal scallops with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella in a tomato brandy sage sauce, which was excellent, the meat perfectly cooked and the flavors well-balanced, but sadly paired with lackluster mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach that suffered from too much garlic.  Christian brought us a 2004 Vivalda "L'Clumbe" Barbera from Piemonte, which is now officially my favorite Barbera, nice and chewy with hints of both currants and chocolate, very drinkable.

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Profiteroles, a refreshing bit of sweet after a decadent meal

For dessert we stuck with tradition, a basic tiramisu and profiteroles, both lovely and not cloying and somehow refreshing bits of sweet after a decadent meal.  And Christian didn’t let us down, bringing us back to bubbles with a really special dessert wine, "Amis" Brachetto d'Asti by Villa Giada from Piemonte. It’s a dolce frizzante rosso (sweet fizzy red!) made from a relatively rare grape called brachetto, very light, but seriously aromatic and totally tingly on the tongue.  (say that ten times fast if you can!)

Overall, excellent food, thoughtfully prepared, and some really wonderful wines.  The service was exceptional, and even better, despite the room being quite full, Rachel and I never had much sense of the other diners…a rarity these days, when a full house often means an oppressively loud dining experience.

Granted, I was pre-disposed to like Prosecco.  After all, any place as devoted to fizzy lifting drinks as I am is to be commended and celebrated.  It was wonderful to find the food and service as sparkly as the wine.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey
www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the week:  Well, considering the theme this week, it seemed time for a cocktail. And while I’m usually a champagne purist, and don’t like to add things to it, every now and again it is possible to make something so inherently perfect even more sublime.  My favorite trick for sparkling wines of all kinds is to put a finger of Pineau des Charantes in the bottom of the flute.  Pineau is a light cognac from France that has a lot of apple scent to it, and is traditionally served chilled or over ice.  I love it at the end of a summer day in the same way I like a warm cognac at the end of a winter’s day. Great on its own, but truly special in your effervescents.  Just that inch or so takes any sparkling wine and puts a velvet smoking jacket on it…taking all the acid finish away and making for a very smooth and different drinking experience.  You can get a good bottle for about $20 at Sam’s, just keep it in the fridge and I bet you’ll fall in love with it.  Want something a little fancier and slightly less subtle?  Give your bubbles the same treatment with a bit of St.Germain elderflower liqueur, also available at Sam’s for around $28, a glorious not-overly sweet floral quaff that I can’t recommend highly enough.  Plus the bottle is gorgeous.

NOSH Food Read of the Week:  Heat  by Bill Buford

Things That Pass for Love

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A Chicago author debuts her collection of short stories 
10/28/2008

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Allison Amend talks about love, writing, and being a Jew

In Allison Amend’s debut collection of short stories, Things That Pass for Love, (OV Books), released this week, no matter how far removed the character is from the author, there’s a little bit of Allison in everyone she writes about.

The early-30-something, Chicago-born Jewish author introduces her readers to a world of unusual characters who are funny, quirky, lonely and real. They include an urban school teacher who is converting to Judaism, a cyber erotica writer whose suitor is in love with his dog, a father meeting his illegitimate son for the first time on a pumpkin-picking outing, and a young American Jewish woman sharing Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox family in France. Her characters are all seeking love in some form, but are settling for what “passes for love.” Amend, who now lives in New York City, was raised in a strong Jewish household in Lincoln Park. She attended Stanford University, holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught high school English on a Fulbright Fellowship in Lyon, France.

I spoke with Amend while she was in town touring in support of the book. We discussed the theme of her collection, her inspirations and why she thinks emerging writers ought to consider a career in accounting.

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Things That Pass For Love

Why did you want to release a collection of short stories?

I’ve always been interested in writing stories, since the first grade. When I went to graduate school in Iowa, they have a workshop system and short stories are much easier to workshop than novels because they are contained and people can discuss your story as a whole. I’ve also always been interested in writing short stories because it’s nice to have a project that gets finished as opposed to my novels; those take me five to eight years to write. I’ve been working on short stories around the novels I’ve been working on. Also, I like the sparseness of a short story, the essentials. You cut away everything you don’t need. My throw-away-to-keep ratio is about 4 to 1.

Would asking you to pick your favorite story be like asking you to pick your favorite child?
I’m most fond of the stories that I’ve written most recently, which makes sense because I’m less sick of them. Some of the stories I wrote a while ago remind me of a less evolved version of myself. It’s hard to look at them because it reminds me of being 27 or whatever.

The voices of each story are so varied. How do you write like so many different types of people?
What I enjoy about writing is that I find it’s like playing dress up. You get to try on a whole bunch of different people’s clothing. For me, part of the joy is to see who these people are, people who are very different from me. Today, I’m a Vietnam veteran, the next day I’m a philandering middle-aged husband.

Is there a theme that connects these disparate stories, and where does the title come from?
Finding a title was a really long process. I felt that there was something very subtle and almost indescribable that was connecting these stories. They feel connected to me, but they’re not necessarily thematically linked. My editor and I were trying to find a title that expresses that and I think we did. These stories are about people looking for love, not necessarily romantic love, but love between a pet and its owner, love between a parent and a child, love between siblings and there are certainly romantic relationships explored in the collection. [Non-romantic relationships] are under-explored in contemporary literature and in literature in general. These characters are looking for those connections, but then what they end up settling for is what “passes for love” between them, and is that enough?”

How much of you is in each character?
There has to be a part of an author in each character even in the sense that that is how the character goes about his/her daily business…They are certainly inspired by situations I’ve thought about, been in, or seen, and they all come from my brain so they’re all semi-autobiographical. They are smart and able to make fun of themselves in a lot of ways, which is how I approach life.

Some of the stories are more autobiographical than others. The story “Good Shabbos,” has an overtly Jewish theme, and is almost verbatim what happened to me. I was on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Lyon, France. One of my students invited me to Chanukah dinner, but in the story, he invites me for Shabbat dinner. I had thought the student was Muslim, but he was Sephardic. He had a last name that wasn’t a German Russian last name like I was used to. I was a little homesick and thought it would be fun and I would fit in. Their experience of Judaism was so radically different from mine, and I didn’t feel like I was in my family’s home for dinner at all. I realized how different their experience was from mine is, but it was still a shared experience. Everything was foreign, [including] the food and the songs. [Growing up], my biggest Jewish adversity was having to go to Hebrew School on Sundays and not getting to sleep in, while theirs was literally having to hide from the Nazis. Yet, there was still something shared there.

What impact does being Jewish have on you as a writer?
I hope I come from the strong tradition of Jewish writers. I really admire Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Cynthia Ozick. With a lot of the stories in my collection—even if they don’t have overtly Jewish content—the characters in my brain are Jewish. Sometimes, the characters are not Jewish, in that they are the exact opposite of Jewish. I’ve also worked on two unpublished novels. One is about Jewish immigrants in Oklahoma in the 1800s, based very loosely on my mother’s family, and the other novel is about a Jewish woman who is a single mother in Chicago, who is coincidentally Jewish. The Oklahoma one is very much about what it means to be a Jewish immigrant and how to develop a relationship with religion when you’re considering assimilation.

What sort of Jewish background do you have?
I don’t feel a strong religious connection, but I feel an incredibly strong ethnic and cultural connection. I’m very glad that I have received a Jewish education, because it is great to have a spiritual background and you can choose to adopt that background or not. But if you don’t have it, you don’t have that choice. What is amazing about Judaism as a religion or ethnicity is that learning about Judaism is learning about history of civilization. Also, it gives you a connection to people all over the world.

Who inspires you in your writing?
I read voraciously, as most writers do, and very quickly. Pretty much when the book is done it’s out of my brain and I’m on to the next one. I’m very influenced by what I happen to be reading at the time. Also, I read a lot of emerging fiction writers, what my contemporaries are writing. I find my friends’ books incredibly inspirational. Most recently, I read Curtis Sittenfeld, who went to [school] with me, and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Occasionally, I’ll discover things for the first time. I discovered Saul Bellow a couple of years ago. It was brilliant and I thought, why didn’t anyone tell me to read this?

What advice do you have for burgeoning writers?
My cynical advice would be to get a degree in accounting. Now, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I’m not going to be able to make a living off of writing and I think you need to be lucky to do that.

My other advice is to persevere. You can’t take it as a message from anyone if you get rejected from something. There are so many factors that determine that. It depends on who’s reading it, when they’re reading it, what else is being published at that time. I’ve learned from publishing that some times good books sell, some times bad books sell, some times good books don’t sell, and some times bad books don’t sell.

For more information, visit  www.allisonamend.com .

8 Questions for Rachel Haskell, Professional and Volunteer Jew, Billy Joel Fan, Wisconsin Badger

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10/28/2008

Oy29JYSK

Rachel, “doing Jewish” in Chicago

A New York native, Rachel Haskell moved to Chicago after spending four years as a Badger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After a few months interning with Senator Russ Feingold and a summer in Israel, she began working as a professional Jew for B’nai B’rith International (BBI) as the Midwest Program Coordinator. Through her position, she brings programming from each of the four Centers of B’nai B’rith International (Center for Human Rights and Public Policy, Center for Senior Services, Center for Community Action and Center for Jewish Culture) to the Midwest Region. Look out for their next program, “Drink to your Health,” a panel discussion on affordable access to healthcare.

So whether you love New York, hate needles or wish you could pause time, Rachel Haskell is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Well in my 1st grade yearbook I said I wanted to be a heart surgeon…ironic seeing as I hate blood, needles and basically anything to do with the medical field.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love working for an organization with such a rich and expansive history. BBI is celebrating its 165th anniversary this year and its reach extends to more then 50 countries. Since the beginning, B’nai B’rith has always been concerned with meeting the needs of the community both globally and locally. We focus on the issues of importance right now; such as Darfur, energy independence and affordable healthcare. It doesn’t hurt getting off for the Jewish Holidays either!

3. What are you reading?
The Zookeepers Wife  by Diane Ackerman; it is about the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo during the Holocaust and how they were able to save over 300 Jews from the Nazis. I chose it for this month’s read for a book club I am in with some friends…very typical for me to pick a book relating to something Jewish.

4. What is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Uncommon Ground! I love the eclectic choices they have as well as the comfortable coffee house setting! I have NEVER been disappointed when I go there.

5. If money and logistics played no part, what would you invent?
I am sure there are a lot of better things I could do with my invention, but right now what I really want is something that will pause time. If you could just stop time every once in a while it would be great…like when you're about to miss the train, or when you just need a break at work. Or maybe I would invent something that makes sure I had a never ending cup of hot coffee without having to do anything, which would be nice also!

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or to be invisible?
Fly! I love to travel and the ability to fly would make it a lot cheaper and more convenient.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod what guilty pleasure would I find?
Billy Joel! It is basically a requirement to be a Billy Joel fan when growing up on Long Island.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Well, since I work as a Jewish professional during the day and then spend plenty of my free time volunteering with a Jewish Youth group (BBYO) it is pretty fair to say that much of my life is spent doing Jewish things in Chicago. I guess sometimes it is just the small things like eating pita and hummus for dinner or going to a Shabbat dinner with friends.

Understanding the Election Through a Jewish Lens

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A conversation with Brandeis Professor Jonathan D. Sarna 
10/28/2008

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Brandeis University Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna sheds some light on the upcoming election

Whether you’re discussing politics on line at Starbucks or surfing headlines online at your desk, you’re sure to encounter the names Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, and Sarah Palin hundreds of times between now and next Tuesday. But understanding the presidential election in a Jewish context is harder to come by and not something that you can learn about from the mainstream media. In a phone interview in September, Oy!’s Cindy Sher talked to Brandeis University Professor Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna—one of the country’s prominent historians on American Judaism—examines the upcoming election through a Jewish lens. Among the issues he sheds light on are how many Jews typically vote in presidential elections, the selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate, the recent havoc on Wall Street, whether the Jewish vote could help decide the outcome of the election, and why this election is different from all other elections for the Jewish people.

Oy!Chicago: Could the Jewish vote have an impact in this election?
Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna: Every vote has an influence in a close election and because Jews happen to live in states that are clearly crucial to both candidates—so-called swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida—their votes are very important. Everybody knows that the difference of a few votes in Florida determined the election in 2000 and that could happen again...Jews are concentrated within the United States, more than any other groups. Twenty metropolitan areas make up 85 percent of the [American Jewish population]. The largest four Jewish communities, in California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, have 128 electoral votes and you only need 270 [to win].

How does this election matter differently to American Jews than in the past?
We’ll only know that in retrospect. What does make this an unusual election is that the Democratic candidate is largely unknown to the Jewish community. It’s relatively rare that that happens. Obviously it was true of Jimmy Carter when he became the Democratic candidate. But more frequently, everybody is voting in an election where you have a longer record. This election is unusual, relatively so, because you don’t have an incumbent running on the record nor do we have a vice president running on the president’s record. Only in retrospect will we find out whether it’s a defining election, as some believe, that will bring wholesale change to Washington.

I’ve read that approximately 75 percent of Jews have voted in recent elections, compared with only about half of the general population. Why do Jews vote in such great numbers?
In a good election, you can certainly reach those numbers. In a presidential election, there was even one estimate of 80 percent. Certainly, Jews are considered significant because they turn out in large numbers. Many Jews have stories—including in my own family—of going out and voting. They see voting as a duty, an obligation. You would go to considerable trouble, in the snow or rain, to vote. That is the kind of Jewish value that is passed down from parents to children. I know Jews who come to resemble their neighbors who don’t take voting quite as seriously, but there are still residual memories of how a parent or grandparent did everything possible to get to the voting booth, and believed that nothing was more important and American than exercising the right to vote.

Is the number of Jews who vote dropping, and how does the number of Jewish voters compare with other ethnic groups?
I have read that there’s been a slight drop in Jews who have been going out to vote. Younger Jews are not as likely to vote as their predecessors, but compared to African Americans and Hispanics, Jews have voted off the charts. When one looks across American ethnic and religious groups, Jews participate at a much higher level, and Jews have donated at a high level. One of the questions in this election is whether things will change: Whether African Americans will turn out in high numbers and whether Mr. Obama’s new mode of funding will mean that traditional Jewish donations are less important. All remains to be seen.

Are Jews becoming more politically conservative or is that a misperception? Who are the conservative pockets of the Jewish community?
Traditionally, in elections, Jews have voted around three-quarters for the Democratic Party, but the Republicans are correct in sensing somewhere around 20 percent of the Jewish vote can move either way. There are [a few] groups of Jews who have become clearly more conservative—Orthodox Jews who tend to vote the way Evangelicals vote, sometimes for the same reasons—and their numbers are growing. Russian Jews are the most conservative subgroup within the Jewish community. They had their fill of liberalism and Communism back home and they often like tough-minded conservatives. Some people argue that young Jewish males, especially those who have done well in the economy, are more likely to vote conservative. We’ve also seen a shift of some Jews to the Sun Belt, places like Atlanta, where they are exposed to more conservative views and some would argue that that, too, has pushed some Jews into more conservative politics.

How has the recent turmoil on Wall Street affected the Jewish vote one way or another?
Historically, economic turmoil leads people to vote for the party out of power. In other words, economic turmoil is advantageous to the Democrats. By contrast, a major terrorist incident would tend to lead people to vote for the party in power. We don’t want to switch generals in the midst of war. A major terrorist incident would benefit the Republicans, but all of the economic horrors of the moment definitely benefit the Democrats.

To what extent are Jews one-issue voters?
It depends which Jews you are talking about. Clearly, for example, Reform Jews are the most liberal Democratic group of the major Jewish movements within the Jewish community. Social issues, generally, are enormously important to them including church-state issues, the Supreme Court, and so on. Israel is on the list, but is not top of the list. For some Orthodox voters, and for Jews who have close relatives in Israel, Israel may well be for those Jews what abortion is for the religious Catholics—a kind of litmus test.

Would Obama and McCain be equally ‘good’ for Israel?
The support for Israel in the United States has much less to do with Jews than most people imagine. It has a great deal to do with overall American support for Israel, which goes back to before the state was born. It especially has to do with Evangelical support for Israel. The Evangelicals are many times larger than the Jews and many Evangelicals believe not just that Israel is central to the Second Coming as they understand it, but that Israel’s presence in disputed areas is likewise essential to the fulfillment of their Dispensationalist view of the world, although that would be less important to Mr. Obama than Mr. McCain.

How has McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate changed the landscape of the election for the Jewish people?
Sarah Palin represents elements of the Republican Party that Jews are least sympathetic with—a strict sense of populism, guns, hunting, and small towns. These are not symbols that Jews resonate with nor are they sympathetic to her political views. When it comes to foreign policy, she has no record at all. She’s hardly been out of the country. Whereas a McCain/Lieberman ticket might have brought in Jewish voters, and might have led Jews, say in Florida, to think harder about the Republican ticket, [some Republicans] have been forthright about expressing doubts about Sarah Palin. That echoes Jewish thinking, although that doesn’t mean she is anti-Jewish. There were some forces in Alaska that said nice things about her, but there is not much of a record. My sense is that she was brought in so that a different part of the Republic Party would vote for this ticket—a part that Jews have not traditionally had much sympathy with.

What have recent polls indicated in terms of whom Jews will vote for in this election?
The last poll that I saw was prior to the conventions. The bad news for Obama was that he was at 60 percent of the Jewish vote. Historically, Democrats who can’t crack about 75 percent of the Jewish vote don’t win. No Democrat has been elected since 1928—in 80 years—who has failed to win 75 percent of the Jewish vote. Democrats who have not achieved 75 percent of the Jewish vote are Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Jimmy Carter (in the 1980 campaign for his second term), and not one of them won.

Every single Democratic presidential candidate since 1928 with one exception has received more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote. The one exception was Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he didn’t win. The fact that Obama was down at 60 percent was very bad for him. There is a lot of time before the election and I tend to think that number may change. When Jews are uncertain about whom to vote for, their reflexes tend to lead them toward the Democratic Party. Considering the current financial situation as well as great dissatisfaction with Washington, the default for Jews and a lot of other people will be to vote against the party in power.

At the end of the day, the majority of American Jews this November will almost unquestionably vote for the Democratic ticket as they always have done. The question is how large that majority will be and the answer to that question may, if the election is close, decide the presidential election. That’s why every vote is important.

Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and the director of the Hornstein Program in Jewish Professional Leadership. He is the author of a new book entitled A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew , (Basic Books), in which he reflects on identity, family, and the American Jewish experience.

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