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

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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.

Moving Stories

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175 films head to Chicago—and not one stars a Chihuahua 
10/13/2008

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Jewish-themed documentary Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight, playing at the film festival

The number one movie at the box office last week starred a talking dog.

If you’re looking for something a little more…human…starring talking people from around the world, check out The 44th Chicago International Film Festival, playing in the Windy City from Thurs., Oct. 16- Wed., Oct. 29. This year’s festival, presented by Cinema/Chicago, features special appearances by international actors and directors along with a line up of more than 175 films total—116 feature films, 38 short films and 18 documentaries from around the globe.

Jesse Berkowitz, a Chicago transplant from Los Angeles, has always been a movie fan, and now he’s translated that love for movies into a career with Cinema/Chicago, which presents the festival. He is responsible for coordinating and scheduling the documentary and short subject films for the festival.

Berkowitz, who is half-Jewish, discusses why his chosen film genres appeal to him. “Documentaries are an art form that comes from something that’s raw and real. There are really interesting ways to make raw footage into feature films. I also like films that deal with real-world issues directly,” says Berkowitz. “What I like most about short films is the simplicity of them. The best short films are the ones that convey a message without muddling too many themes and factors.”

In selecting films for the festival, he strives to look for movies that will appeal to Chicago audiences, and he looks for a balance between films created by established masters in film and new filmmakers on the scene.

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Jesse Berkowitz, documentary and short subject film maven

The film festival kicks off this year with  The Brothers Bloom , a comedy about the last great adventure of the world’s best conmen. The film is directed by Rian Johnson and starring Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac), and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) and features a red carpet arrival, on Thurs., Oct. 16 at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

One Israeli film plays in this year’s festival.  Lemon Tree/Etz Limon  (Israel/France/Germany), directed by Eran Riklis, a dramatic true story, uses the lemon grove as a metaphor to illustrate the Israeli/Palestinians conflict. Israel’s newly elected defense minister declares Palestinian widow Salma’s lemon trees, straddling the Israel/West Bank Border, as a haven for terrorist infiltration that must be chopped down. She must rely on unlikely allies, including the defense minister’s wife, to help save the trees. The film is in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

The film festival’s  Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight , (USA), a documentary directed by Wendy Kay, also has a Jewish theme. The movie tells the story of the famed Jewish cofounder of New York Magazine and artist, Milton Glaser, who has revolutionized the world of design.

Other festival highlights will include honoring the Oscar-winning director Mike Leigh with a Career Achievement Award before the screening of his film  Happy-Go-Lucky  and honoring Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Black Perspectives Tribute and Reception.

This year, the festival also launches “Green Screen,” an initiative presenting movies that illuminate pressing environmental issues. The program works with environmental groups throughout Chicago to promote the films and to raise environmental awareness.

After watching seven hours of documentary and short subject films a day, sometimes Berkowitz wants to lose himself in an action flick. Other times, he prefers a more compelling movie-going experience and hopes others will too. “It’s important for people to challenge themselves to enjoy a certain type of cinema that they might not normally consider,” he said. “It’s always fun to discover a genre that you really love. Our festival provides our audiences an opportunity to do that.”

Most of the films from this year’s film festival will be presented in downtown Chicago at AMC River East 21 and AMC 600 N. Michigan, while a few films will play at the Music Box Theater in Lakeview and the opening and closing nights will take place at the Harris Theater in Chicago. For film festival passes and tickets, visit  www.chicagofilmfestival.com or  www.ticketmaster.com or by calling (312) 902-1500. For more festival information, call (312) 332-FILM or visit  www.chicagofilmfestival.com .

8 Questions for Kim and Scott Holstein, Pretzel Makers, Partners 24-7, Do-Gooders

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10/13/2008

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Kim and Scott Holstein, twisting their love for pretzels--and each other--into a beautiful partnership 

It is a classic love story with a twist. Kim and Scott Holstein met at a Richard Bach book signing in 1994. Kim was obsessed with pretzels. Scott was obsessed with Kim. The following year, they launched a gourmet pretzel empire out of their Lincoln Park studio apartment. Kim and Scott have since upgraded to a 25,000 square-foot factory west of the Loop and added three kids to the mix, but the key ingredients haven’t changed – a passion for pretzels and for each other.

If you are in the mood for a handmade pretzel stuffed with spinach and feta or with chocolate, visit Kim and Scott’s Twisting Café at the Kohl Children’s Museum, tune into QVC, check out their website, or stop by coffee shops and grocery stores across the country. Through Pretzels for Peace and other creative philanthropic initiatives, Kim and Scott plant trees, feed the hungry, empower kids and fight breast cancer.

So, whether you crave omelet pretzels in the morning, think poodles and golden retrievers should mate more often, or pray at the greenest synagogue in town, Kim and Scott Holstein are Jews You Should Know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Kim: Weather woman, Today Show anchorwoman, and rabbi
Scott: Astronaut and Vet

2. What do you love about what you do today?
Kim: So much! I’m crazy about pretzels and coming up with new flavors and products. I’m passionate about children’s health and developing healthy grab and go products for kids. Having three kids of our own and a café inside a children’s museum is a demonstration of how our lives and passions are twisted together – like a pretzel.

3. What are you reading?
Kim:  I love to read lots of books at once. Right now, I’m reading The Answer is Simple by Sonia Choquette, one of my favorite writers and mentors. I’m also reading  Meatball Sundae  by Seth Godin, a book about marketing and its transformation in the age of the internet, and  Ellen Tebbits  by Beverly Cleary for a book group I am in with my 8-year-old daughter, Sonia.
Scott:   The Omnivore’s Dilemma  by Michael Pollan and  Marley and Me  by John Grogan. We have a new golden doodle.

4. What is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Kim: I have to honestly say that I’m a huge fan of our Twisting Café at the Kohl Children’s Museum. With a healthy menu of pretzel sandwiches and salads, I can’t get enough of it. I also love Blind Faith Café in Evanston. Their vegan chocolate cake is the ultimate!

5. If money and logistics played no part, what would you invent?
Kim: A single ingredient that cures cancer, grows more wheat to feed the hungry (and has ultra-powerful vitamins for nutrition), and ironically can also be diluted and used as a fuel alternative.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or to be invisible?
Kim: Invisible. You can always fly in a plane, but to be invisible could be a valuable ability.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod what guilty pleasure would I find?
Kim:  I love meditation and songs for yoga, peace, relaxation and reflection, so you’d find a ton of these kinds of songs and guided meditations. I also have my classic favorite songs from Peter Gabriel, Elton John and 10,000 Maniacs.
Scott:  Last season's 30 Rock  -- the best sitcom!

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Kim: We belong to Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. It’s an incredible community, filled with activities and services that are meaningful and spiritual--a place where we feel connected to Judaism at many levels. For the past two years we have gone on the synagogue family retreat and had a blast together. Also, we enjoy Shabbat every Friday night and Jewish holidays, whether it’s with other families, or just our gang.

The Jewish Coming-of-Neuroses

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I thought I’d escaped my mom’s OCD, then I grew up 
10/13/2008

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Stefanie, realizing the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Growing up, I didn’t really think anything of the way my socks were put away, each pair bundled together into a perfect ball, arranged in rainbow order (yes, people wore colored socks back then) in my top drawer. In my closet, clothes were arranged by season and color and every hanger and seam faced the same direction. My mom did laundry (several loads) every night and putting the clothes back into the drawers sometimes took five tries to get the folding just right. The cleaning lady came once a week and my mom cleaned thoroughly both before and after her visits. The house was always spotless. We never ate Cheetos and got wiped down with paper towels after every meal. I learned never to spill.

Then I got older.

Suddenly, it became incredibly irritating that I couldn’t just leave a single pair of jeans out over night (I was just going to put them back on in the morning) and that I had to make my bed every morning (I was just going to get back into it that night). And that even after putting everything away, having been told repeatedly, my mom would still come in and refold the jeans and remake the bed herself—I could never (and would never) get it just right.

In college, my roommates knew that my parents coming to visit meant it was time for some serious cleaning. We scrubbed and scrubbed until we thought our apartment was spotless. But when my mom arrived, cleaning supplies in hand, without fail it was never clean enough.

My mom isn’t trying to drive me crazy—and she doesn’t really want to refold my jeans any more than I want her to. My mom comes by her OCD honestly. It’s there with her, through every single moment of every single day, and though it sometimes gets the best of her, I admire her strength in fighting through her urges and not letting them rule her life.

I wasn’t always so sympathetic. I’ll admit that growing up, I just didn’t quite get what my mom was going through. Instead of being understanding and considerate, I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked G-d for sparing me my mother’s obsessive compulsiveness and allowing me to be the laid back person I was. As far as I could tell, I was as easy going and relaxed as they come. I could travel with ease, not even school stressed me out and while I was no slob (I had been trained very well), I was totally cool with leaving a pair of jeans out overnight.

These days I have a much better understanding of what my mom is going through—thought I never really wanted to understand quite so well.

I entered the “real world” and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

You know how a bar or bat mitzvah is supposed to mark the Jewish coming-of-age when a young Jew must start taking on responsibilities for herself? I think this occasion should actually be marked about eight years later when she has to get a job, moves out and the real responsibilities kick in—we could call it the Jewish coming-of-neuroses.

As much as I tried to fight it, the older I got and the more stressful life became, I felt aspects of my mom’s disorder starting to creep out. It started with some minor anxiety and stomachaches, and then, one day I found myself scrubbing my bathroom shower for over an hour thinking that I just couldn’t get the tub white enough. I realized I had a little more than just a few bad cases of the nerves.

No, I do not arrange my socks in color order, and it’s entirely possible that the clothes in my closet are not all facing the same direction, but I am definitely guilty of some obsessive-compulsive behavior, and often times my anxiety gets the best of me.

This is something I struggle with every day, battling the anxieties in my head, never knowing what will set me off or when. I am learning to take on each new challenge as it comes, and to never let my neuroses stop me from living my life.

We all know the stereotype of the Jew as neurotic, as portrayed by Jewish mothers everywhere and Woody Allen, and this one, I’m afraid, isn’t too far from the truth. I think we all know someone who is a little neurotic, or nervous, or obsessive about something—everyone has their shtick. How could we not, with a religion that tells us to question everything, repeat this line three times and wash our hands before every meal?

But whether my tendency toward OCD is dictated by my religion, my genetics or too many Woody Allen movies doesn’t matter much. What matters is how I’m going to choose to deal with it going forward--whether I can get myself out of the bathtub scrubbing frenzy and move on with my day.

I know that the stress of grown-up life will never fully go away. So in the meantime, I plan to take lots of deep breaths, sign up for a yoga class and get through one day at a time. Luckily, I have someone close to me who has been through it all, to help me push through and keep things in perspective.

Yael Naim’s Ode to Joy

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Propelled to fame by an Apple commercial, the “New Soul” singer heads to Chicago 
10/13/2008

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Yael Naim, constantly happy

Yael Naim isn’t upset about being known as, “the chick that sings the song in the Apple commercial.” Instead, the Israeli-raised, Paris-dwelling singer/songwriter is grateful. “You can’t be unhappy if people know only one song, I’m so happy and I’m thankful for every good thing that has happened,” Naim says.

And lots of good things have happened to her since the song, “New Soul,” popped up in the ad last January. I called Naim in her Paris apartment 10 days before she set off on her US tour—which includes an October 23 stop at Chicago’s House of Blues.

“One week after the commercial first played, we were number one in single downloads in the US. But the album was in the top five, so we could see that people were also curious about the rest of the songs too,” she says.

   

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly hits people about “New Soul,” but I have seen it happen dozens of times myself: The MacBook Air commercial comes on, the noise in the room drops and people listen. Some describe it as “haunting,” but to me, “New Soul” sounds more like light on water—joyful, pretty and simple.

An Israeli in Paris

When she started writing the songs that would become the album Yael Naim & David Donatien, Naim was homesick, fighting through a transitional period, and the down tempo feel of most of the album reflects this mood. But “New Soul” is different. “All of these other songs on the album were written in a melancholy period, only “New Soul” was written while David [David Donatien music partner and co-collaborator on Naim’s album] and I were working on the album—and that was such a happy period,” she says.

“New Soul,” Naim says, is about looking back at that darker time. “Before, I thought I was an old soul and that I knew life. But [having come through adjusting to my new life in Paris] I realized that I don’t know much about life and it’s probably my first time on earth, so I am a new soul. I have realized that nothing has to be so perfect—it’s okay to have a lot to learn.”

And while it may seem that Naim came out of nowhere, the 30-year-old artist has been learning about music and life since she was a child in Israel.

As a high school student in Tel Aviv, Naim went to see jazz great Wynton Marsalis at a club the city. She found a fan in a saxophone player from Marsalis’ orchestra and every time he appeared at the club, he brought her up to sing jazz standards.

After high school, she continued her career as a soloist in an air force musical troupe in the Israeli Defense Forces. During that two-year stint, she performed a few benefit concerts in Paris and was discovered by a French producer. In 2001, EMI released her first record, In a Man’s Womb. The album didn’t sell and Naim, filled with doubt, was lonely in Paris, removed from her life in Israel, her family and her then boyfriend.

It was that homesickness that inspired her to begin writing in Hebrew and ultimately led to her current success. “It was only when I was in Paris that I missed home and felt the need to reconnect with Israel; I found myself writing in Hebrew for the first time. It’s a very intimate language,” Naim says. “Paris,” the first song on the album is sung in Hebrew—a purely artistic decision. She assumed, because of the disappointing results of her first record, it would only be heard by an intimate group.

Yael Naim’s Sweet, Happy Life

One of the first people to hear that song, as well as about 200 others she’d been working on, was West Indian drummer, David Donatien. The two started playing together and he encouraged her to continue writing in Hebrew. “I wasn’t thinking about [whether Hebrew songs would appeal to a French audience] because I never thought the song would be in an album and then, even while working on the album, we didn’t think it would be released in Paris. We had something to say and didn’t think about whether it would work, to tell you the truth. David and I recorded the music as we liked without compromise to connect to people,” Naim says.

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Yael and David bringing music to the masses

She describes the time working on the album as, “three and a half years of constant happiness.” She and Donatien would get started playing and recording around 11 am every day and then, in the evening, friends—musicians and artists mostly—would drop in and out of her house, she’d make something to eat and they’d talk about music. “It was an amazing time and a dream come true because I could be at home with friends and music all day.”

This fun, bohemian atmosphere comes to life in the video for “New Soul,” which reflects the blissful time she experienced making her album. “My experience with my first album made me not expect anything. Usually you have huge expectations or you’re worried about money or pleasing a music company and so you don’t always follow your heart,” she says.

   

Despite her success with this album, Naim says that she will not let the pressure to be commercially successful creep back in when she and Donatien, who she is quick to say deserves as much credit for the album’s success as she does, finally get the chance to get back to recording new music next January.

“I see that taking the time and doing what you love really works. It was a great lesson not to think too much. I know that life is sometimes up and sometimes down so even if the next album isn’t a huge success, it’ll be okay,” she says.

See Yael and David perform live October 23rd at The House of Blues—and get discounted tickets from Club 1948!

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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