OyChicago articles

He’s A Brick House

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10/07/2008

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Joey, in action

Joey’s Brickhouse
1258 W. Belmont
773.296.1300

When I called Chef Joey Morelli to see if I could interview him for this article, the first thing he did was propose. Upon discovering that he had gone to high school with a cousin of mine, and that the last name we share is my maiden name, his response was an enthusiastic “You’re single? Awesome! Now we can get married!”  For the record, having been to Joey’s Brickhouse on more than one occasion, usually for a pre-theater bite or a post-theater cocktail, always delightful, I was tempted to say yes.

Okay, for the record, it was more than the food—considering the last three blind dates I’ve been on, I was tempted to say yes and show up for the interview with a rabbi in tow. But I digress.

This enthusiasm for life is apparent in all aspects of Joey Morelli’s personality, and is at the heart of what makes his place such a success, and what keeps people coming back.

Joey was born in Chicago in 1970, son of an Italian father and a Jewish mother, and was raised in Highland Park. If ever there were two cultures that are opposite sides of the same coin, Joey thinks that Italian and Jewish are it. As he likes to say, both are steeped in traditions of family, food and bickering. His palate was trained early, some of his fondest memories of being at his grandmother’s elbow in the kitchen. He jokingly refers to visits with family being about “Having eight meals before you get to go home.” The Jewish holidays in his home were mostly secular, centered again on culinary traditions. The blending of the two traditions included decorating the Christmas tree one year with bagels and bialys as ornaments and a Star of David on top.

At home, in a twist that Joey recalls fondly, his dad was the one who made breakfast every day for the family, beautiful omelets and frittatas, and it was these recipes that Joey remembers as being his first forays into trying his own hand at cooking.

While a student at Highland Park High School, Joey worked at Beinlich’s, the HP staple Sunset Foods and as a dishwasher at JB Winberie’s. After completing a degree in Speech Communication and Restaurant Management at University of Illinois, Joey attended Kendall College Culinary School, and did internships at local fine-dining restaurants before leaving Chicago for Arizona, where he worked at the Arizona Biltmore. A couple more jobs, another move, this time to California, where fate stepped in, in the guise of two hot tamales.

No, we aren’t back to exploring dating information. THE Two Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milligan and Susan Feninger, of Border Grill fame, hired Joey as sous chef, where eventually he assisted them in opening a new restaurant. With excellent experience under his belt, he moved to NYC, where he took on his first Executive Chef position at Citrus and learned exactly what it means to run a restaurant in a major city. When he realized that if he was going to work so hard, he’d rather be doing for himself, he came home to Chicago, and in 2004, opened Joey’s Brickhouse.

The initial prospects were scary. The space was too big, it needed a total gut rehab, and it didn’t at all match the image in Joey’s head of what he wanted his first restaurant to be.  But he realized that the neighborhood was ripe for a fun, casual dining establishment, and that with some serious elbow grease, he could make it work. He also knew that the kitchen could be designed with one of his other dreams in mind, that of creating a home delivery service providing healthy prepared meals.

He credits Seattle Sutton with having “a great basic idea, with really bad food--glorified airline food” and is waiting for the phone call from her company to hire him to revamp their offerings. Joey knows that healthy eating is tough, whether for weight loss or just for having decent meals when you have a busy lifestyle, and his goal is to provide top quality and top taste. The development of these innovative and delicious weekly menus is one of the most exciting things he does, and he has over 300 of them in his back pocket to prove it. The kitchen works on the delivery service items during the day, and handles the restaurant business at night, and Joey oversees all of it.

“It’s exhausting, I would never recommend it, I would never tell anyone to live like I live…you have to have a life, you have to have a vacation now and again…DON’T BE LIKE ME!”

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Joey Morelli is one animated character

Joey might be emphatic in his belief that he is probably doing it wrong, sacrificing too much, burning the candle at both ends—and at a couple places in the middle--but he says it with a little too much relish. This is a man who is passionate about everything he does, and it shows. In addition to his life at the restaurant, where you are likely to find his Mom playing hostess, or brother Greg delivering your drink, he and the family also indulge their boisterous sides every Saturday from 12-2 on AM 820, on their weekly radio show, Family Values With An Oy Vey! It’s mostly political but just about any topic might come into play on a given day. Ask about the new increase in city tax at restaurants to 10.25% and you’ll get an earful about the current administration not helping the small business owners during a tough economy. Tune into the show and you might catch Mom calling in, or Dad storming out…it is clear where Joey gets his passionate nature.

Those passions are serving him well. Joey brings a fine-dining sensibility to a casual dining restaurant, focusing on fresh ingredients, making everything from scratch, and providing it at prices that make for an affordable meal out.

The menu at JB is eclectic. Comfort food from many different regions abounds, classic Italian dishes, BBQ, burgers, Jewish favorites, even Asian influences are at play here, and with such an expansive menu, one wonders if someone can do everything well, or if the food might not suffer from an identity crisis. While I had eaten here a few times, I decided for this meal, to take with me someone who knows a lot about needing good, hearty food at reasonable prices, my very good friend Kevin, who is a Chicago Police Officer. Kevin frequently tells me about the kind of foods he and the guys on his team tend to grab when they are working, or pick up at the end of a long day, and I think just about every item on the JB menu has been mentioned at least once, so I figured he would be just the kind of expert to take with me.

We bypassed the 16 different flavors of Long Island Iced Tea in favor of beer, opting for the He’Brew- The Chosen Beer, which, though we picked it for kitsch value, was actually a pretty good beer. We started with calamari, which has become ubiquitous on menus, often with disastrous rubbery results. But here, it is transcendent, the squid perfectly cooked and tender, the batter light and crispy, with a balanced sauce that enhances the bites without overpowering the delicate fish. We paired it with the Morelli Salad, a basic chopped salad, unpretentious and generously portioned, with crisp radish, cucumber, and other vegetables, dressed with a blissfully light hand.

Joey’s take on lasagna, the Meatball Casserole, is a monstrously good plate, house-made sheets of pasta as thin as paper, layered with sliced meatballs, creamy cheese, and tomato sauce. The portion is enormous, and you will find yourself struggling to decide whether it is better to keep eating, or to try and save some to take home. You’ll probably keep eating, and there is no shame in ordering a second portion to go, since I guarantee you’ll crave it come lunchtime the next day. Equally successful are the ribs, tender meat falling off the bone, with a Napa cabbage slaw providing the right tart crunch to balance the sweet meat. Order extra sauce on the side and give up any thoughts of staying tidy. On the other side of the coin, the tilapia special, flaky fish with a light coconut crust was served on top of delicious vegetable fried rice, a total surprise and not an unwelcome one. We couldn’t bring ourselves to order the stuffed burger, afraid of the sheer size of the thing, but patrons around us were groaning in delight as theirs slowly disappeared…a huge one-pound behemoth, stuffed with your choice of up to three items, it is a gimmicky idea, but based on the response of the people around us, a gimmick that works. The one guy nearby who ordered his stuffed with bacon, bbq sauce, and onions seemed ready to expire with delight, and the pizza also got good reviews from the diners in earshot. While we were stuffed to the gills, in my family, there is always room in the dessert compartment, and the homemade key lime pie hit the perfect note, well made graham crust with hints of cinnamon, tender and not dry, sweet/tart creamy filling which was heady with fresh lime juice, and real whipped cream to bring it full circle.

I’ve never been for brunch, but I have many friends who rely on the $12 all you can eat Saturday brunch with $1 drinks to help them repair the damage they do to themselves on Friday night, and I hear the matzo brei is fantastic.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that we liked the food at Joey’s Brickhouse as much as we did. Nor was it a surprise that I like Joey as much as I do. When you have the perfect intersection of passion, training, and commitment to quality, with a decent sense of humor on top, you’re hard pressed to go wrong on either count. We might not actually be getting married, but if he’s cooking, I’m definitely coming for dinner.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the week: Does your garden overflow? I have a black thumb myself, and true greenies will know what I mean when I say that I killed mint. MINT! (And don’t even ask about the fake fichus that lost all its leaves…I killed silk and plastic!)  But every year at this time I find myself the happy recipient of the overflow from those of you who have dirt skills, and developed this recipe to deal with that famously overabundant fruit, the tomato. If you aren’t growing them yourself, hit up your local farmer’s market (check out the Zed451 NOSH for a list of good ones) and get cooking.

STACEY'S ROASTY TOMATO SOUP

Can be served hot or cold and can easily be turned into a million other recipes. Approx 4 lbs. tomatoes - I use a mix of plum and cherry for depth of flavor, but use whatever your garden grown…it is only essential they be fresh and ripe.

1 medium sweet onion or 4 large shallots, diced
2 T Herbs de Provence
¼ c Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise, toss in olive oil to coat, and arrange cut side down on oiled sheet pans. Add onion or shallot on top of the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the herbs and liberal salt and pepper. Roast approx 1.5 to 2 hours until skins are loose and the flesh is soft. Peel skins off tomatoes and discard. Dump the contents of the sheet pans into a large bowl. Using an immersion blender, blend into chunky soup. (frankly you can also do this with a potato masher, since the tomatoes are so tender)  Adjust seasonings to taste.

I serve either warm or cold with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and some chopped fresh mint for grown-ups. Add alphabet noodles or cooked rice for kids. Stir in toasted croutons and drizzle with olive oil and parmesan for a classic Pappa al Pomodoro. Add fresh basil and garlic and you have a chunky pasta sauce. Add dried oregano and red pepper flakes and it becomes pizza sauce. Freezes beautifully, can be canned if you are ambitious, and lasts up to two weeks in fridge.

NOSH food read of the week:  The Art of Eating  by M.F.K. Fisher

8 Questions for Kimber Leigh Nussbaum, Vocalist, Yiddish Enthusiast, Mish Mash Soup Lover

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10/07/2008

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Kimber,  keeping your Bubbe’s Yiddish music alive 

Kimber Leigh Nussbaum, vocalist with The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, hails from Kansas City, but has lived in Chicago for more than a decade. The University of Illinois grad earned her BFA in Theater and has performed in venues all over Chicago as well as Kansas City.

This year, The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band celebrates its 25th anniversary with the release of Eight Nights of Joy, a Chanukah album featuring Rabbi Joe Black. You also can hear Kimber live at her cabaret show at the Skokie Theatre on Sunday, November 16 at 2:00 p.m.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a performer... specifically, I wanted to be a cross between Ann-Margret and Chita Rivera. And at one point in my post-college-graduation-life, I wanted to move to Nashville, sing country and be a “Jewish Reba McEntire.”

2. What do you love about what you do today?
When I perform, I help to honor and keep alive beloved Yiddish music. When audience members approach me with stories of wonderful memories of this music from their parents and grandparents from back in “the Old Country,” I know I have done my job and have done it well. A woman once told me she had no idea what the title was of a song (or even how she knew it) that I had just sung. However, she said that as I was singing it, she sang along and found herself knowing every single lyric. She assumes that it must’ve been something her Bubbe used to sing to her as a little girl.

3. What are you reading?
The Evolution of Useful Things  by Henry Petroski, about the history and development of items that we all use every day but never think about how we have come to obtain them.  I just finished  Schott’s Original Miscellany  and  Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany . Light reads but enjoyable.

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I am a big fan of sushi... so anywhere fresh fish can be found. If we are talking Jewish/Israeli food... how about a big bowl of Mish Mash soup from The Bagel or Chatzilim (eggplant) from Taboun.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
Automatic “free money” tellers so no one would have to beg for money for food for themselves or their children. They would simply withdraw some cash and head to their favorite restaurant. I am still working out how to make sure everyone gets a fair amount per day so there is enough to go around.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would choose to fly. I don't remember my dreams too often, however the ones I do remember usually include me flying. Sometimes these dreams are so intense, my body physically feels like it is truly flying. So freeing!!!

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
I have quite an eclectic mix... everything from Klezmer to Madonna and show tunes to the Rolling Stones. My ultimate guilty pleasure is “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers or “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
My favorite thing “to Jew” is to perform with Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and to share Klezmer and Yiddish music with Chicago. The music touches everyone in a lovely and special manner... for Jews AND non-Jews alike!

Locker Room Diaries

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Author Leslie Goldman interviews women at the gym and reveals her own struggle with her self-body image 
10/07/2008

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Author Leslie Goldman 

In a Chicago gym locker room, a little girl, maybe three years old, climbs aboard a giant scale.

To her, the newly discovered apparatus is a toy with no other purpose than fun. She jumps up and down gleefully and calls for her mother to come witness her game. Her mother exclaims, “That’s great, honey,” and lifts her daughter off the scale and steps onto it herself. Immediately, the mother’s demeanor changes, she frowns, and drops her head down. Then, she gets off the scale and her daughter climbs back on it, this time imitating her mother’s actions, dour face and all.

This scene and others like it were observed by Leslie Goldman, an avid exerciser who has logged many hours in her gym, in her gym’s locker room and even on that scale. “I would hear women making horrible comments about their bodies in the locker room, complaining to each other, looking in the mirror, and squeezing their thighs and butts,” she says. “I would see them get on that giant scale and you could just tell that number was ruining their day.”

Goldman—who has always been interested in body image issues and who, years ago, struggled with her own eating disorder—would jot down her locker room observations into a diary. Eventually, her research grew and she would come to spend five years interviewing hundreds of women in gym locker rooms about their bodies and body image, compiled in  Locker Room Diaries .

The author will speak at the Chicago Brain Power for Girl Power Think Tank, sponsored by Jewish Women International, at the Spertus Institute in Chicago on Wednesday, Oct. 29, a new program that brings together 50 Jewish women to learn about and debate issues that affect Jewish girls.

A Buffalo Grove native who now resides in Roscoe Village, Goldman discovered that many women are unsatisfied with their bodies. Her findings are no surprise to any woman who has been to a gym or to any man who as been asked the dreaded question: Does this make me look fat? Just look at any magazine or website and you’ll see ads for diet and weight loss products.

“It seemed like everyone has something that they wish was bigger or smaller or tighter or taller,” she says, “and it’s very rare to find the woman that is so happy and accepting of her body as is, and that doesn’t bode well.”

It doesn’t bode well at all. In fact, poor self-body image often develops into eating disorders—the third-most frequent chronic illness among teenage girls according to Goldman—which, she says, occur because of a mix of genetic and environmental factors. There are approximately 8 million cases of diagnosed eating disorders in the nation, with the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric illness, according to the author. And the statistics only represent the diagnosed cases. Many more people suffer from “disordered eating,” where they will skip occasional meals or pop a laxative every now and then if they’re feeling fat.

Jews, particularly Jewish women and girls, are certainly not immune to body image issues and eating disorders. Goldman is one such Jewish woman who developed an eating disorder—anorexia—during a time of transition, her freshman year of college. She was a straight-A perfectionist who had just gone off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was majoring in nutritional sciences, a common major for someone with eating issues, according to the author.

“I developed an eating disorder as a way to assert control over a seemingly out-of-control situation,” she says. “I was at a phenomenal school and felt a little unsure of myself and lost. Counting calories and monitoring what you eat is a great diversionary tactic so you don’t have to think about the deeper problems on your mind.”

Goldman dropped 30 pounds her first semester of college. When she returned home for Thanksgiving, her parents were frightened by her drastic weight loss and took her to a therapist.

During another break from school, she recalls visiting her grandmother’s house and refusing her grandma’s homemade matzoh ball soup, which she had always loved in the past, after discovering the soup’s fat content. Her grandma was crushed. “In Jewish life, there’s a lot of joy to be had in sitting around the table with your family and celebrating and reminiscing over food,” says Goldman, “but it can be very oppressive at times for [people with body image issues].”

Goldman struggled with anorexia throughout college and suffered a couple of relapses, including her senior year of school, during another big time of transition, when she was living in a house off-campus with seven women, six of whom had an eating disorder, and five of whom were Jewish. Finally, after college, she took her recovery more seriously and conquered her illness.

Goldman refers to her story as a “cliché, textbook” case of the type of Jewish girl who developed an eating disorder. Like her, young women with eating disorders often are often driven, straight-A students wanting to help everyone else before they help themselves.

Goldman believes that many environmental factors make Jewish women and girls susceptible to eating disorders, as was the case for her.

She sees that some Jews come from middle to upper socioeconomic strata, affording them more access to gyms, low-fat pricier foods, fashion magazines with skinny models, and vacations where one wears a bathing suit in front of others.

Plus, at the same time, many Jewish families have high expectations of their children, according to Goldman. “Many Jewish families put a lot of emphasis on education and striving to achieve and giving back and being the best person you can possibly be, which are all wonderful things,” says Goldman. “But these concepts are also a lot for a person to handle, especially a young girl trying to figure out who she is.”

Finally, at times, there aren’t always firm boundaries in Jewish families between children and their parents, says the author. “That doesn’t leave a young woman going off to college in a very good position in terms of who she is on her own when she is away from her family,” she says.

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Today, in addition to being an author who tours college campuses and other venues with her book, a healthy Goldman writes for women’s magazines like Health and Women’s Health and blogs about body image, nutrition, fitness, and feminism for iVillage at The Weighting Game.

Despite triumphing over her illness and even lecturing on the topic, she still sometimes battles the less-assured version of herself. “I have good days and bad, and now the good days far outnumber the bad days. But even though I’m a body image writer, I still [sometimes] ask my husband, ‘Does my butt look big in these pants?’”

Goldman fights her impulses to make comments like that because as she and her husband think about starting a family one day, she is striving to pass down a healthy body perception to her children. She worries when she hears reports from her mother, a preschool teacher at a Jewish suburban Chicago school, of three-year-old girls rejecting their juice and challah because they claim they’re on diets.

The author says Jewish parents can take these steps to help promote a healthy self-body image to their children. First, parents need to make smart choices about the types of media, namely television and magazines, they allow into their homes. Some magazines feature “gaunt, emaciated models,” while others display healthier women with more meat on their bones—but all magazines, she adds, digitally manipulate and airbrush their models.

Also, parents should watch their words and actions around their children. Mothers, she says, ought to be careful about looking at their reflections in the mirror and making a disgusted face or going to the grocery store and picking up food only to declare it “too fattening” and putting it back.

Goldman hopes parents will transmit positive messages to their children, less about superficial beauty and more about what’s on the inside. “Send a really strong message about loving yourself for more than your body and praise our little girls for more than being pretty and cute,” says Goldman. “Don’t save the references about being strong for just the boys. Tell the girls they’re strong and smart and compliment them when they open the door for someone.”

As for that giant scale in her gym locker room? Goldman says she rarely steps onto it anymore. In fact, she rarely weighs herself at all, only about once a year. And not being tied to that number on the scale is a weight off her back. “I feel happy walking down the street not knowing that number,” a feeling of contentment she hopes to one day pass along to her children.

The Future Lawyer’s Partner

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Living with a 1L 
10/07/2008

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Our new dining room table place settings, the 'study session' series, complete with law school mug

Nothing could prepare me for last year: living with a 1L. For those not familiar with the term 1L, lucky you. You have never had the pleasure of being the partner of a first year law student. Yep, my partner is studying to be a partner. (That is definitely going to get confusing.)

When Mandi started at Northwestern Law last year, I was completely unprepared for how her return to school would impact my life. A life that once included spontaneous dates in the middle of the week, leisurely brunch and long walks on the weekends, and frequent rides to work since her social work job took her all over the city.

So I spent the entire first semester lying on the couch waiting for Mandi to be done studying for the night so we could hang out. I caught up on bad TV, ate cereal for dinner and got tired of waiting around. I finally got my ass off the couch and started making plans with friends for cocktails, shopping and craft projects. It took me a full semester to get used to it, but begrudgingly I did. To be fair, it also took Mandi awhile to get used to the endless reading, intense class schedule, more reading, writing, researching, volunteering and more reading.

She made new friends who I got to meet when they came over for study sessions. Eavesdropping on these sessions was like listening to some other language called Legalish. She became fluent in no time. I tried to contribute but ended up making up words like suesfontay. “What? Oh, (chuckling) you mean sua sponte.” Whoops.

Year two is underway and Mandi is back at school (2L!). Back to school for me means cooking for one, being solely responsible for my own entertainment, cleaning the apartment (or having a dirty apartment), grocery shopping, doing lots of yoga videos, watching too much TV and moping about the house. Back to school means going to sleep and waking up alone because Mandi is studying both later than I can keep my eyes open and much earlier than I can drag myself out of bed. Back to school means scheduling dates weeks in advance even though we live in the same house. Back to school means a return to solitary life.

Okay, so I’m being pretty dramatic. I actually have a busy schedule and the first year was not all bad. We had some fun times (on winter and spring breaks) and learned that we have what it takes to make it through another—a comparatively challenging--year together. The law school authorities say that the first year is the worst, until they tell you that the first semester of the second year is actually worse than the first. Externing for a judge, being on a journal and interviewing for next summer’s job are all added to the 2L’s class load. When I heard that being on a journal means writing a note I thought that didn’t sound so bad. Then I found out that this so called “note” is actually a 40-page research paper. Oy.

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The most expensive (and quickly multiplying) section of our home library

But at least I know what to expect this year, and so does she. As Mandi bought books this fall, I bought paint to transform our living room. As Mandi scheduled her classes, I scheduled band practice. As she interviewed for jobs next summer, I made dinner plans with friends for next week.

To help others whose loved ones are embarking down this legal path I’ve gathered bits of advice, some from my own experience and some from other partners of the future partners of America.

And as much as I don’t like to perpetuate stereotypes, let’s face it. Many of them are probably Jewish.

An important precursor to the following: these words are not all mine and do not all represent my personal experiences, even if they are stated in the first person. Thank you to all who contributed their hard-earned advice.

  - Remember that patience is a virtue.

  - Be prepared for speed talking, especially if there is more than one law student involved. You can either develop some mad speed listening skills or create an alternate day dreaming universe. (I prefer the latter.)

  - Never underestimate the importance of (insert boring subject). In your partner’s new world, this is more important than food. Really. (see next bullet)

  - You may find yourself buying new clothes for your partner after they have forgotten to eat lunch and/or dinner so many times that they shrink out of their old clothes.

  - Stay connected by having lots of sex.

  - Understand that meeting at Starbucks for 15 minutes before her class is a "date" and realize that your partner, if she's having a busy week, sees this as a massive sacrifice. Try not to bitch - I was never good at that.

  - Do not take the grumpiness personally. Good advice for both partners.

  - If you want your partner to impress your family over the holidays, or at least make a decent appearance, you may have to take it upon yourself to schedule things like haircuts and eyebrow threading as a "fun day out together before driving up north to see the fam." You may also have to do the packing and ironing for such trip so that matching outfits make it into the suitcase.

  - Make plans to have a weekend away together after finals.

  - Be sure to have planned evening activities for yourself. For me, because I am crazy, this meant getting a Master's degree -- this "get a new, time consuming hobby" plan works in less extreme measures as well. We had moved to a new city together so she could go to school and I thought I'd take a writing class or something to meet people and have something to do at night. That turned into grad school which turned into a whole new career. But make no mistake, grad school is not like college and meeting people is harder. Staying in a city where you have friends and a social life is preferable.

  - Be prepared for your partner, usually witty and hilarious, to spend a lot of time while walking down the street telling you what is illegal about what is going on around you.

  - Plan a date night for once a month.

  - Your partner, formally cool and stylish, may start looking like shit most of the time (and rocking a ____ Law t-shirt and/or sweatshirt) and rolling around one of those backpacks on wheels like a giant tool. You have to just let this go. And when you do get a real night out together and said partner offers up niceties like a clean shirt, remember to compliment him.

  - Have your own life outside of your partner and his/her law school friends.  First of all, if you sit around waiting for them to come back from the library, you will end up very lonely.  Also, they have an amazing ability to talk about law non-stop and honestly - how much can you really stand to hear about civil procedure.

  - When it comes to studying for the bar, just remember that you will get to spend time together at the end of the summer.

I’ve heard that there are relationships whose demise can be blamed on law school. I feel lucky to have an amazing partner who is committed to having a balanced lifestyle; and I’m proud of her for being a great student and still making time for me when there’s not enough time for everything. To all the partners of future partners, good luck out there.

Oh, What a Show!

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Jewish Actor takes a bow as Italian legend Frankie Valli in the Chicago Production of Jersey Boys  
10/07/2008

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Walk Like A Man: Spector (left) with co-stars Drew Gehling, Bryan McElroy and Michael Ingersoll.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus


A nice Jewish boy from Philly playing a tough Italian boy from Jersey might not be such a big stretch when you consider that both chose their careers early in life. Sure, Jarrod Spector started out as a toddler with a performance of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and went on to get professional training while Frankie Valli was inspired by seeing Frank Sinatra perform live—and by his desire not to end up in the trunk of a car or in jail like many of the other kids in his neighborhood.

Regardless of their backgrounds, Spector brings Valli to life on stage—with high praise from the critics as well as Valli himself—in the Chicago production of  Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons . Spector performed the role of Frankie at the Bank of America theatre from October 2007 until last month.

   

The story of the rise of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi) tells the tale of how a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks came to be one of the biggest American pop music sensations of all time. The group wrote their own songs, invented their own sounds and sold 175 million records worldwide — all before they were 30, according to the show’s site.

The story is compelling and the familiar—and still popular—songs including, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Oh, What a Night” make for great entertainment.

Spector’s Valli has received rave reviews and meeting the man himself meant a lot to the actor. “Frankie was everything I wanted him to be,” Spector says. “There's a specific challenge in playing a real person, and meeting him there's a great risk--if you don't like the man, can you still love the character? But thankfully that couldn't have been less of an issue. He was very kind and being around him, I could feel why he became an icon. He's a star, he has that ineffable quality of drawing the attention of people around him.”

To prepare for the role Spector said he, “listened to Frankie's voice ad nauseum, and also watched old footage to get a feel for his style.” And his background helped with the ‘Jersey boy’ accent. “Well...I'm from Philly. The accent wasn't that unfamiliar. Couple of episodes of The Sopranos and almost anyone can do it.”

Spector’s parents are responsible for noticing their son’s musical inclination might be more than just the babbling of a two-year-old. “My parents took me over to a renowned local singing coach, Russell Faith, who took me on [as a student] and suggested that my parents take me over to try out for the Al Alberts Showcase, a local variety show in Philadelphia that aired on weekend mornings. They did, and a few weeks later I was singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as a three-year-old on Philadelphia TV. I was on the show for almost four years and eventually went on to compete on Star Search (the Ed McMahon version) and perform on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.”

Performing on the variety show may have opened the door to other performing ventures for the young Spector but he was hardly an industry kid. “I didn't even know the words "musical theater" until I auditioned for Les Miserables when I was nine. I played Gavroche in the show for about three years, on and off, in Philly, Chicago and on Broadway.”

Because he was out on the road, he could not attend regular school or religious school, but managed to keep up with his Jewish studies even with his busy performing schedule.

“[I] had to have a tutor [for my Bar Mitzvah training] because my time in Les Miserables directly conflicted on Sundays during the few years leading up to my Bar Mitzvah. I'm very proud of my Jewish heritage and have great respect for Jewish traditions and values. And I'll tell you, as I play an Italian every night--the cultures are not that far apart!”

Spector’s familiarity with The Four Seasons' music also helped him prepare for the role of Frankie Valli. “When I went to audition for the show I knew every song almost by heart. My parents were big fans and played them for me.”

Oy26 Feature2

Singing “My Eyes Adored You” (from left to right) Michael Ingersoll, Jarrod Spector, Drew Gehling and Bryan McElroy. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Spector was invited to audition for the original Broadway cast a few years back, but at the time the role went to someone else. It wasn’t until a year late that he was rehearsing for Hamlet at the Atlantic Theatre 2nd Stage that he got the call to come in and audition for the tour. This time he landed the part.

“Playing Hamlet did help--there are actually more similarities in the two seemingly antithetical characters than you'd think, and I credit playing Hamlet at the time with finding the gravity and depth I needed in the audition room.”

Right after talking with Oy! Spector got some big news. He’s been given the opportunity to play Frankie on Broadway. Today, Jarrod is back in New York City and local Chicagoan Corey Grant has taken over the role. Spector said there are many reasons why he will miss living and performing in the Windy City.

“I loved eating [the food here.]  Seriously. What a great array of restaurants, from Hot Doug's to Gibson's, my favorite. And going to the beach during the summer! I'm very much a New York guy, and I was kind of blown away being able to walk five blocks to a beach in the city. Oh, and the music! My cast frequented Kingston Mines, among other spots, and I was always blown away by the quality of the musicians in the city.”

Take in Jersey Boys at the Bank of America theatre, to purchase tickets, visit the official Web site at  http://www.jerseyboysinfo.com/chicago/

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