OyChicago articles

Musings of a Noviy God

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My memories from our Russian New Year

"All is quiet in my house, nothing stirs ... not even a mouse." Only the quiet hum of the aquarium filter can be heard. I am the only one awake, playing with the little "Ded Maroz" (Father Frost) figure under our New Year's "yolachka" (Christmas Tree) trying to conceal the excitement bubbling out of my 40-pound body for the night ahead. It's the only night when even children are allowed to stay up with the adults and enjoy the festivities of the coming year.

It's December 31, 1988 on a usually snowy day in my homeland of Russia. The streets are bustling with people getting last minute treats for their elaborate New Year's Eve feasts and traffic roars down busy streets as people rush home for their naps. That is precisely what was happening at my house. All the adults were fast asleep getting their much needed sleep in preparation for a night filled with laughter, drinking and celebration. Much like our dinners, New Year's Eve has become a marathon of food and drink. Memories, tales and shots are shared much into the early morning, until all the crumbs from the dining room tables are cleared and replaced with steaming cups of tea and coffee and plates of freshly made omelets with butter. After a 12-hour marathon, the survivors return to their homes to freshen themselves up for Day 2 of celebration: New Year's Day; a repeat of Day 1, with more memories, more tales, more food – more vodka.

In Russia, New Year's Eve is as big as Christmas is in the states. Christmas, and God forbid Chanukah, cannot be found on any calendar. Instead, New Year's Eve is lavishly celebrated. Houses proudly display their sparkling and tinsel-wrapped yolachkas in their windows. Everyone gives each other presents and goes to see New Year's Eve plays featuring our non-controversial version of Santa Claus, Ded Maroz, and his usually much younger, sexier, scantily clad assistant, "Snegurachka."

I still remember our beautiful "yolachka," a real tree that smelled of pine cones and frost. We had the most gorgeous ornaments that were hand-made and each one had its own personality. My dad and I would decorate the tree together, and my favorite part was spreading the cotton "snow" at the tree’s base. We laid "Ded Maroz" and "Snegurachka" figurines into the "snow" along with tinsel, toy trains, presents and all the other ornaments that couldn’t fit onto the tree. Countless hours were spent playing under that tree, wondering which presents were for me, dreading the moment we would have to put the tree away.

On New Year's Eve lots was to be done and everyone somehow had a role in the success of the evening. My brother was typically outside having snowball fights with his friends. My babushka (please refer to this post for a Russian lesson) would usually be in the dining room laying out the first course of appetizers on our crisp white tablecloths. And while she was clearing off any remaining pieces of lint off of the freshly pressed cloths, I would sneak into the kitchen to get a lick of some of the fallen cream off of her famous waffle tort.

My mom would race around putting her last touches on her lipstick and her Napoleon cake. I would run right behind her, reluctant to miss any of the New Year's preparation. My dad, always the last to wake up from his nap, would walk around lazily trying to find his missing tie, annoying my mother with his constant request for help to find yet another mysteriously missing article of clothing.

Somehow, at the end of the night, everything settled down. A decadent spread of appetizers, meats and desserts awaited us, a feast to fuel the busy night ahead of games, skits, songs and dancing. On this night Russians feel united in their love for celebration and food, laughter and stories, a good tale over a cold shot.

As an adult, I try and recreate that magic that I felt as a kid on New Year's Eve. But alas, that tingle in the stomach is unique to a child's soul and cannot be re-created but instead will hopefully be reincarnated – a wish for my own future children, a hope that they will enjoy this amazing holiday as I once did. I hope my little ones will tail me around the house as I crazily rush around putting the finishing touches on my lipstick and desserts.

To this day I still make babushka's special wafer tort for New Year's Eve. It's a tradition I hope one day I can tell my kids about.

A Happy and sweet New Year to everyone, and with this wafer tort it will be oh so very sweet.


Babushka’s Wafer Tort

2 packages wafers
4 cans condensed sweetened milk
1/2 cup walnuts-roughly chopped
3 tablespoons cognac
1 stick of butter, melted

We are going to start with four cans of sweetened condensed milk. Remove the labels of each can and place them in a pot of water, submerging them completely. As you can see in this picture, I clearly forgot to remove the labels and therefore had some unnecessary stickiness on my pot.

wafer 1

Boil the cans in the water for 3 hours. When some of the water evaporates continue adding more in so that they are completely submerged. Essentially you are making dulce de leche. And yes I have cheated and bought the dulce de leche but it was not the same, not to mention babushka was upset with me. Next, let the can cool for at least an hour. If you open them now they squirt all over the place and how sweetened condensed milk is not pleasant, not at all. So wait. Once they have cooled, open them up.

wafer 2

Scoop them out into a mixing bowl. Do yourself a favor and do not lick the top of the can. I did ... and I have a nice cut on my tongue. And a lisp. But it sure is tempting.

wafer 3

Now add the contents of the cans into a mixing bowl along with one stick of melted butter and 3 tablespoons of Cognac or Brandy into the mix.

wafer 4

Mix with a paddle attachment on medium high in a standing or handheld mixer until fluffy, about 5 minutes. And it will be beautiful ...

wafer 5

This you can lick and I highly encourage it.

wafer 6

You will need two packages of these special wafers. If you have a specialty grocery store nearby you that has Polish and Russian food, they will have these. If not, I can ship you some ... this cake is worth it!

wafer 7

You are going to use about 8 of these wafers, which is a package and a half. You can use the rest to dip in Nutella or some of that leftover condensed milk. Take a wafer and put it on a cake stand or a large cutting board with a piece of parchment paper underneath. Add about a 2-oz. ladle of cream onto the waffle and smooth out with a spatula as if you were icing a cake.

wafer 8

Babushka also used to sprinkle each wafer layer with Cognac, but there were suddenly some drunk children walking around (ahem, me), not that it's a bad thing … it does however, make the layers a bit softer. I tend to like them with some texture to it. Up to you.

wafer 9

Sprinkle on some walnuts onto the top layer and let it rest for a few hours. Slice with a serrated knife and enjoy! Happy New Year!


1. Remove all the labels from the cans of condensed milk.

2. Place the cans in a large pot and cover with water. Boil the cans for 3 hours, making sure to refill the water in the pot as it boils out.

3. Let the cans stand for 2-3 hours or until they are cool.

4. Add the butter and Cognac to the condensed cream.

5. Combine all the ingredients together in a standing mixer with a paddle attachment.

6. Alternate wafer layers with the condensed milk. Sprinkle the reserved walnuts on the top of the cake.

7. Allow to stand for at least 6 hours at room temperature before serving.

18 Things for Jews to Do on Christmas in Chicago

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Ah, Christmastime in Chicago. The twinkling trees lighting up Michigan Avenue … the catchy Christmas songs on every radio channel ... the young people in green and red sweaters barfing in the snow after a little too much revelry at T-BOX last weekend … (Amiright, Lakeview?) Point is, it's pretty much impossible to escape the Christmas spirit around here lately. And let's be honest – why would you want to? Peppermint mochas are the BEST. 

Starbucks holiday concoctions aside, as Jews, it's hard not to feel just a little extra left out this time year, especially with Chanukah as far in the rearview mirror as it's ever been. Our natural response, of course, is to cling to our customs of eating Chinese food and seeing movies on Christmas. As lovely and time-honored as that practice is, however, we think Jews can be a little less predictable.

So, Oy!Chicagoans, we've hand-curated a list of 18 ways to entertain yourself, your friends and your family this Christmas instead of crying into your fried rice over how cool Christmas is and arguing about whether to see Saving Mr. Banks or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.


1. Get your party on

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You have nowhere to go on Christmas Day – which leaves Christmas Eve open for (responsible) partying! So don't miss the Matzo Bash, as featured in our 18 Best Ways to Meet Jewish Young Adults in Chicago. Enjoy drinks and dancing with basically every other Jewish young adult in Chicago from 8 p.m. to  4 a.m. Maybe you'll even see Santa finishing up his run on your stumble home. Also, maybe Oy!Chicago is co-sponsoring it, with $5 of every ticket sold through this link going to benefit the Jewish United Fund... IT'S GONNA BE EPIC, Y'ALL. Did we mention registering through this link?


2. Go on a Christmas lights scavenger hunt

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Zoo Lights cruelly shuts down Dec. 24 and 25, but the show in Chicago's neighborhoods goes on! Grab some friends and some thermoses full of cider (spiking optional), and enjoy the labors of the people crazy enough to climb ladders in the winter. You can do this by foot or by car and even make a scavenger hunt out of it! Drivers, we recommend Lincolnwood, Park Ridge or a drive up Sheridan Road. Or if you're really dedicated, check out the Aurora Festival of Lights. Walkers, just get out of Lakeview.


3. Make reservations at one of these 60 not-Chinese restaurants

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Nothing against the traditional Jewish Christmas Lo-Mein, but if Chinese food's not your thing, fear not. As Chicagoans, we're lucky to live in a big, diverse city with a wide range of fellow non-Christmas celebrators. There are other options. Open Table has a list.


4. Take care of online errands

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The Internet doesn't close on Christmas, people.


5. Scope out after-Christmas deals

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Black Friday is kid stuff. Everyone knows the day after Christmas is when the REAL discount shopping begins.


6. Catch up with long-distance Jewish friends

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Always trying to schedule a Google hangout sesh with your old Hillel crew or a Skype date with your bestie in New York, but can never find the time? Ask what they're doing on, say, Dec. 25.


7. Have a gingerbread shul competition

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Gingerbread's kosher – who says we can't get in on the fun? Get some blue and white frosting and you're set.


8. Break out the board games

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Cards Against Humanity has a new holiday expansion pack. And it was (partly) made by Jews from Highland Park! Hey, it's better than getting into another argument over the legitimacy of Scrabble words.


9. Spend quality time with your family pet

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You never have enough time in the day to give your pet some love. And come to mention it, your favorite fuzzy friend would look adorable in a reindeer costume.


10. Go sledding

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Channel your inner Evel Kneidel! We bet there won't be long lines at all the best sledding spots – if you can find a hill in the Midwest, that is. Hint: There are plenty of man-made ones in the suburbs. Here's a handy list of top Chicago sled hills to get you started.  (Bonus: You'll go faster with all the Thanksgivukkah pounds you've been complaining about needing to lose.)


11. Have a Christmas movie marathon

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Half of them have Jewish actors or directors. That counts!


12. Sing Jewish Christmas karaoke

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Annoyed that every radio station is playing Christmas music? Turn it into a parody sing-off!


13. Take a nap

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You've got a day off – time to take that weekday nap you've been dying to have since you graduated college.


14. Volunteer

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You know who doesn't have Christmas off? People who work in hospitals. And homeless shelters. And nursing homes. You know who doesn't have to miss Christmas dinner with their family to lend a hand? You. For holiday volunteering tips, check out this post.


15. Perform a Christmas miracle for someone not Jewish

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Gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) are important all year 'round, but for some, they are even more appreciated around Christmastime. Make a handmade card to send to a sick child or to troops away from home, use your time off to clean out your closet and fill a bag with old clothes to give away, or if you're adventurous, head outside and bring a lunch to someone on the street, or look for smaller opportunities for kindness.


16. Become a winter mixologist

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Hot toddies, hard cider, taffy appletinis – there are lots of religiously neutral and totally delicious holiday cocktail options out there. Try one, try two … try them all! You're not going anywhere …


17. Bake up a storm

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You know what Jewish version of a Christmas treat would go great with a hot toddy? Fruitcake soaked in Manischewitz. Or, get a head start on Purim and bake a trial run of hamentashen in every flavor so that you're ready in a few months. Whatever recipe you choose, nothing's more perfect than baking to fill your sad, cold apartment with warmth and cheer.


18. Screw it. You're just going to eat Chinese food and see a movie anyway

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At least we tried.

As Tevye says … it's tradition!

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First taste of winter

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What’s a Jew to do in December?

First taste of winter photo

December is usually one of my favorite times of the year. Crisp-blustery air, twinkling lights, and everyone in a good mood. There are parties, excitement, tempting sales at the mall, and an air of anticipation.

This year is different though. With the hybrid holiday of Thanksgivukkah (Chanukah and Thanksgiving) long over in early December and with my favorite frying pan put away, my chanukkiah collection back on the shelf, dreidels spun and now idle, and the gelt now long ago eaten, what’s a Jew to do in December?

Sure, we can suck down a couple of kosher candy canes and attend some holiday parties. But our festivities have come and gone. Counting the days until Pesach seems premature—does it come early or late this year?

I am going to get started early on my favorite food season: winter! Moody broody skies, comfy slipper weather, and everyone is actually hungry. I love to hunker down in the kitchen and create long slow-cooked dishes. Soups and stews slow-cooked with huge flavors and loaded with love are what I crave. That’s right, loaded with love.

Food that is slow-cooked and made with attention to detail is loaded with love. I reserve my slow-cooked dishes for winter. I am going to make my favorite winter chicken dish. After the latkes and Sufganiyot, I am craving a richly flavored dish, but one that is light and not going to weigh me down.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

This simple and light chicken dish will fill your home with heady garlic and aromatic herbs. I am making the dish with chicken, but if you have vegetarians, you can easily substitute vegetables for the chicken.

The original recipe for this dish does not include browning. I think that is an overlooked step. The sauce for this braise is simple and delicious but needs the extra step of browning the chicken to create the deep rich flavor dimension.

I also like to remove the chicken once cooked and continue cooking the garlic until it is very soft and can be whisked into the cooking juices creating a thick, delicious, and earthy sauce.

Serves 6+

10 chicken thighs or combination of legs and thighs
Extra virgin olive oil for browning
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked pepper
40 cloves of garlic (or more), peeled
Bouquet garni (herbs tied together with kitchen twine) of parsley stems, fresh thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf, several sprigs of fresh tarragon
1 cup chicken stock (homemade preferred)
½ cup dry white wine

Preheat oven to 325°

1. Place a Dutch oven or heavy sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium heat.

2. Pat dry the chicken pieces and season with salt and pepper.

3. Brown the chicken pieces, in batches until the skin is crispy and caramelized (about 7 minutes).

4. Add the remaining ingredients to the Dutch oven or casserole. Cover and cook in the preheated oven until the chicken is cooked through about 45 minutes.

5. Transfer the chicken pieces and place the Dutch oven over a low burner and continue cooking until the garlic is very soft and creamy.

6. Whisk the garlic until if falls apart and is incorporated into the braising liquid.

7. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the chicken back to the pan and serve over garlicky croutons and
roasted vegetables.

Crispy Herbed Croutons

This simple side dish soaks up all the chicken juices and delicious braising liquid.
Every professional chef will tell you stories of burning croutons. I think I have burned as many croutons as I have successfully made. Somehow it is the simple things that get you. I really don’t use timers in a kitchen, except when making croutons!

1 large loaf of whole wheat bread cut into 2-inch croutons, you will need about 1 cup of croutons per person
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped flat
leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped
fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped
fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

1. Place all the ingredients into a large bowl. Toss to coat the bread completely with ingredients.

2. Place the bread on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake, turning occasionally, until the bread is lightly browned and crispy (about 15 minutes)

Roasted Vegetables

This winter veggie side is a quick go to side dish. You can add beets, celery root, turnips or any seasonal vegetable to the mix. I like to garnish with freshly chopped parsley.

Serves 6+

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces
2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 350°

1. Toss the vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper.

2. Place the vegetables on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast for 35 -45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and tender.

To serve: toss the croutons and vegetables together and place on a platter. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables and croutons and spoon the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Chocolate Pound Cake

This is our standard cake at home. I think I can make this in my sleep. The water bakes out the cake leaving a tender and delicate textured crumb. Be sure to use the best cocoa powder you can find. With so few ingredients, it is important to use the best.

1½ cups all purpose flour
½ cocoa powder (I use valrhona cocoa powder)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
1½ cups sugar
3 eggs
1¼ cups water
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°
Grease a loaf pan

1. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and set aside.

2. Whisk the water, eggs, olive oil, and vanilla together.

3. By hand, mix the wet ingredients into the dry and stir until there no lumps.

4. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick, inserted, comes out clean.

5. Cool the cake on a rack for 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Double Chai Check-In: Joel Holland, connecting Jewish people to ‘home’

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Double Chai Check-In: Joel Holland photo

Joel, left, with Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel

Joel Holland is passionate about finding people homes. In his work as a brokerage manager at Homescout Realty, he helps prospective renters and buyers find places to live and plan for the future, and in a great deal of his spare time, he serves organizations that provide people with less literal but equally as important homes.

In October, Holland added another accolade to go with his 2012 Double Chai in the Chi honor when he received the first ever young alumni award from the Chabad at the University of Illinois, an unusual accomplishment for someone who had only been there once as a student and doesn't identify as Orthodox. In fact, Holland said it wasn't until he began participating in a Jewish prospective class with Rabbi Ezra Belsky three years ago that he even began to get in touch with his Judaism.

"I wish I had the opportunity on campus to have more involvement and more understanding of my identity and someone to be a role model and a mentor," Holland said.

Through a roommate and fraternity brother, Holland got to know Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of the Illinois Chabad and said he became interested in what his mission was on campus. For the last two years he has sat on the Chabad's advisory committee helping the organization with fundraising. He said he hopes he can be an example of how young professionals can get involved in organizations that really impact future leaders, the young adults who Holland says will be the Double Chai in the Chi honorees 5 to 10 years from now.

"Being honored will hopefully be a wake-up call, a call to action, or just an awareness campaign, if you will, for alumni to get involved and to support campus programs to help kids find a home away from home," he said.

Holland also tries to provide support to others in his working life. His professional Facebook page is titled "My Chicago Resource is Joel Holland," because he wants to let people know he's "a trusted resource for anyone's long-term real estate needs," whether you're a prospective client or someone who is just looking for some information.

If you do become one of Holland's Jewish clients, however, you can expect your very first housewarming gift to be a mezuzah.

"I want to make sure I'm creating Jewish households as well," he said.

Although Holland specializes in places to live, his biggest passion is traveling. He has plans to visit Thailand this month.

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