OyChicago articles

A symbol of hope

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Chicago-based MayaWorks offers fair-trade kippot

A symbol of hope photo 1

Whenever my husband wears a kippah – an admittedly rare occasion – he dons a colorful crocheted circle swirling in blues, yellows and browns.

Kippot like his are the work of a handful of Mayan women in Guatemala, who have partnered with MayaWorks, a Chicago-based organization to produce beautiful fair-trade ritual objects, purses and clothing. The colors on my husband’s kippah were chosen by the women of San Marcos la Laguna, a small village on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

The women began crocheting kippot about 10 years ago, after a Jewish tourist traveling with MayaWorks saw them making hacky sacks. “If they can make hacky sacks, they can make kippot,” the tourist remarked, says MayaWorks executive director Jeannie Balanda. That off-hand remark started an effort that now constitutes the artisans’ best-selling product. Besides hacky sacks and kippot, the 40 San Marcos artisans crochet baby hats and shoes and pouches.

Each kippah takes about three to four hours to complete. At first the shape was troubling – some kippot would be really round or really flat, says Naomi Czerwinskyj, MayaWorks product manager. Eventually, with the help of a head dummy, the artisans found the right shape: neither pancake nor Sephardi-style hat.

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For the first couple years, the kippot makers didn’t actually know what they were making. But another traveler brought a story about the importance of a kippah in the Jewish tradition – the sign of reverence for God. That’s made the crochet specialists even more respectful of their own work, Balanda says.

The MayaWorks scenario is far from a sweatshop: the organization not only provides market-rate payment for the artisans’ work and supplies, but also scholarships for their children, micro-loans to improve living conditions, and additional training. The artisans create their own patterns, make decisions on whom to include in their craft group, and brainstorm ideas for new products.

“Not only has this been good work for the artisans as far as getting money for their families, but it has also been good for their growth as women and as contributing members of their communities,” Balanda says. “When they see the results of their work, the artisans’ self-esteem increases dramatically.”

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That’s no small thing in traditionally macho Guatemala. Add in the long-existing prejudices against indigenous people, and the value of having a market for their products becomes clearer.

The kippot makers are among seven groups of women engaged with MayaWorks. Most are weavers, a traditional craft young girls learn from an early age. They start by making huipiles, blouses made out of hand-woven panels decorated with an array of birds, flowers and vines. The MayaWorks artisans have transferred some of these rich patterns onto the products they make – including other Judaica: the mezuzah covers, banners proclaiming shalom and, most recently, tallitot and tallit bags. Of course, Jewish ritual objects are not the only products. The MayaWorks warehouse in Chicago is a treasure trove of eye-glass cases, tablecloths, decorative wall panels, purses, Christmas tree ornaments and headgear.

The colors and patterns that first drew my husband to his kippah are a powerful symbol of what Maimonides taught 800 years ago: the best way to help someone is to give them the resources to help themselves.

Since discovering the kippot, we’ve given MayaWorks headgear as gifts to our extended family. They’re more than a mark of our Jewish heritage. They’re a symbol of hope.

Israel: Sing It!!!

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Israel: Sing It! photo

This Wednesday night (Nov. 4) Chicagoans will have the rare opportunity to get a glimpse into Israeli culture—free of charge! Three former contestants of “ Kochav Nolad/ A Star is Born,” Israel's version of "American Idol," will perform “Israel: Sing it!!! A Concert Honoring Yitzhak Rabin's Legacy of Peace and Tolerance.”

The concert, presented by USD Hagshama and The Petach Tikva Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International Program, starts at 7 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center78 E. Washington Street.

I got a chance to sit down with the show’s talented young Israeli artists yesterday as they arrived in Chicago—the last stop on their three week tour of the US—to learn a little bit about each of their lives and music careers,  and how being on one of Israel’s most popular television shows made them instantly famous!

Israela Asago

Israel: Sing It photo 1

“My family came from a small village in Ethiopia. Before I was born, they escaped and decided to make aliyah to Israel,” says Israela Asago, a competitor on the fourth season of “Kochav Nolad.” The singer, who will soon be turning 28, says she has been singing since she was four or five years old. She is currently working on an album of pop songs and consistently touring with Israel’s top artists.

Moran Gamliel

Israel: Sing It photo 2

Born in Israel, 29-year-old Moran Gamliel says he has been singing for as long as he can remember. He began his own band in high school and then served in the IDF’s Educational Music Corp. in what he calls a “military band.” After the army, Gamliel decided to try out for “Kochav Nolad” and made it to the semifinals. He released his first album shortly afterwards and currently has two songs in the Top 10 in Israel, one of which was number one. He describes his music as “soft rock and a bit of pop.” Check out one of his songs here.

Boris Soltanov

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Born in the Former Soviet Union, Boris Soltanov came to Israel at the age of 12 when his family decided to make aliyah. A musician from a young age, Soltanov, now 26, joined a band in high school and his music career took off from there. Though a teenage immigrant, Soltanov mastered Hebrew, joined the IDF and managed to break into the Israeli music scene at a young age. “In the middle of my army service I saw this commercial about this show, it was the first season,” Soltanov says. He tried out, made it to the semifinals of the first season and became part what quickly became the most popular show on Israeli television. He describes his music as “pop, but also classic. My roots definitely still are there.”

For all three of these singers, being on Israel’s version of “Idol” has opened up many new doors, including the opportunity to tour the US, visiting many cities for the first time.

“We’re excited because it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to see different places in our tour,” Soltanov says. “We’re blessed, I will say, to perform to show ourselves and still see the world. One of my main reasons to come here was to use this opportunity to travel a little bit and to see the US.”

According to the singers, tomorrow night’s show will be a bit slower paced and more acoustic than the regular concert these artists perform around the world—which features more upbeat, high energy pop music—but the message is still the same.

“The whole idea is just to bring today’s Israeli music to show this Israeli culture which is not really known to most of the people around the world,” Soltanov says. “Even if we’re performing in front of Jewish students, still people all around the world are not really familiar with Israel. We’re trying to bring this little bit of an educational message (to people) that (Israel) is much more than desert or those crazy things that they’re hearing in the news.

The main message is to show a different Israel--you know what, to show the real Israel.”

During the show, the three artists also share their personal stories and answer questions from the audience following their performance.

“We still do what we love to do,” Asago says, “we sing!”

Cosponsors for Wednesday’s concert include: American Zionist Movement, Birthright Israel NEXT, Chicago Sister Cities International Program, Consulate General of Israel, Israel Aliyah Center, The Israel House, JCRC's Israel Initiative, Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and USD/Hagshama.

Questions? Contact Aimee Weiss at  aimeew@jafi.org or check out the event on  Facebook .

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