OyChicago articles

Juggling Identities

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Russian-speaking Jews face a conundrum of self-perception 
02/24/2009

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Ninety-six participants in the sixth annual Russian Shabbaton divided into small groups to discuss issues of identity, history and immigration. Jane Charney (second from left in the back) led one of the groups with husband Max Averbukh (first from left in the back).

What makes us Jews? Whether it’s blood, belief or cultural bonds, it can be hard to define exactly what makes us “Members of the Tribe.”

The identity question is especially challenging to one subset of the American Jewish Tribe: the Russian-speaking Jews. Officially, more than 30,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have resettled in Chicago in the past 15 years alone. Many more probably immigrated under the radar. In total, almost one million Russian-speaking Jews live throughout North America.

One of those one million, I was 13 when my family moved from Moscow to Cincinnati, Ohio, to join the families of my aunt and uncle in 1996. Although we were among the last in the extended family to emigrate from Russia, my family had been trying to leave since the mid-1980s. And though my siblings and I never faced outward discrimination for being Jewish, my parents would tell stories of being rejected from university or forced to take a lower-level position because of the word “Jewish” written in their passports.

For Russian-speaking Jews, questions of identity – and there are many – often begin in ethnic terms. In the Soviet nationalities policy, the term “Jewish” meant descended from other Jews – an ethnic designation. In fact, Soviet passports answered the “ethnic origin” question with “Jewish,” much as an ethnic Tajik’s passport would say “Tajik.” This Soviet-era policy fostered an abhorrence of labels of all kinds and the reticence to join any official community.

Despite having been inculcated with the idea of Jewishness as ethnicity, Russian Jews often repressed the notion upon arrival to the United States to try to fit in. Here, Judaism is a religion and a culture, albeit one that might not be familiar to families used to standardized Soviet traditions.

Religious practice and knowledge is an issue in itself: Many Russian-speaking Jews either have no exposure to synagogue life beyond their first couple of years in the States or believe that the Orthodox practice is the only option. Good luck finding a Conservative or Reform synagogue-affiliated Russian-speaking Jew. The story goes something like this: A rabbi asks a Russian Jewish woman what one would eat on Yom Kippur. “Matzah?” she wonders. Although this group might have an idea of some Jewish holidays, the familiarity is only skin-deep for many.

Culturally, we might know more about how to make Olivier (a Russian potato salad) than gefilte fish, and have assimilated Russian intellectual pursuits into our psyche. Whether it’s been five or 15 years since immigrating to the States, many of us still cherish some aspect of our Russianness – the language or the culture or the sheer wealth of jokes that simply do not translate well into English. At the same time, we live here, we speak English with our friends, and our attitudes borrow from both our American education and our Russian-Jewish souls.

The question of who we are loomed large at this weekend’s sixth annual Midwest Russian Shabbaton – a program of Russian Hillel, which is part of Hillels Around Chicago. Unlike other Hillel programs, the participants at the Shabbaton ranged in age from 18 to 32. Although Hillel’s programs are geared primarily to college students, Russian Hillel has been attracting older crowds as well since its founding six years ago. Perhaps, this is because Russian-speaking Jews want to figure out this mindboggling hodgepodge of identities swirling in their heads.

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Participants perform a skit representing their connections at the sixth annual Russian Shabbaton

Throughout the weekend, both participants and staff tried to speak mostly in Russian, but English words crawled into the sentences here and there. And for the first time in the Shabbaton’s history, some participants could not communicate in Russian at all, forcing staff to translate throughout sessions. Still, even those who do not speak the language maintain a connection to some inherent Russianness and consider themselves a Russian-American Jew rather than just an American Jew.

In college, my best friend introduced me to Hillel, and we established a weekly ritual of celebrating Shabbat there. Although I think of those days fondly, I also remember feeling that something was missing. I found out about the first Russian Shabbaton in 2004 through a friend of a friend, and the missing piece was revealed. It was the chance to speak about being Jewish in the context of also being Russian, and not having to choose between the two. Even more importantly, it was the chance to speak about these issues in Russian. Although both Cincinnati and Indiana University had large Jewish communities, I did not connect with many Russian speakers outside of my family. I went to the second Shabbaton as a participant and was invited to become staff for the following year and have enjoyed that role ever since.

The Shabbaton opened my eyes to the fact that the idea of being unique appeals to us, and finding a niche to fit in seems easier among people who share the experience of immigration – whether it’s in our immediate past or in our parents’ stories.

For me, being Russian was never a cause for embarrassment. I picked up English quickly, and my name is sufficiently American, having been changed from Yevgeniya Charnaya to Jane Charney upon arrival to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1996.  Still, I sign most communication with Russian friends with Zhenya, the diminutive of my official Russian name. Many participants shared memories of getting weird looks or comments from fellow students or teachers who could not twist their tongues around the unfamiliar Slavic sounds. Language issues persist in our community: A Russian accent can be heard a mile away. And Russian food – all things pickled or loaded with mayo as well as the abundance of beets and unhealthy fried things – seemed bizarre to American classmates and friends. Yet, slowly, they came to cherishing their uniqueness. They might have tried to reject all memories of immigration and being Russian as high-schoolers, but, like me, inevitably discovered that something was missing from their lives.

To help others flesh out being a Russian-speaking Jew living in the United States, I created a Shabbaton activity around the 2004 documentary “The Tribe,” which condenses thousands of years of Jewish history into 16 minutes. After watching the film, we used crayons, markers, construction paper, poster-board and magazines to creatively illustrate the shared aspects our identities, releasing our inner kindergartners in the process. The 11 finished products all featured an Israeli flag marking this group’s strong connection to Israel. Yet all the other elements varied – groups used everything from the star and sickle and the Old Glory to pictures of diamonds and books as representations of professions to images of vodka and Shabbat candles to illustrate aspects of their identity.

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Participants released their inner kindergartners and creatively illustrated the shared elements of their identity, including the Star of David, and the American and Russian flags

Participants also addressed the question of identity head-on in a series of workshops led by David Shneer, a University of Colorado-Boulder professor of history and Jewish studies, who engaged the mind and focused on migration stories and the feeling of “gerness” (ger is Hebrew for stranger). Shneer not only used texts by Russian-American writers, but also the parasha (Torah portion) of the week, Mishpatim, which details all the things forbidden to the Israelites, including mistreating the “ger.” The feeling of gerness is common to all immigrants and especially to Russian-speaking Jews as they seek a place to fit in. Hopefully, the Shabbaton is one such place.

8 Questions for Traci Fein, World Traveler, Facebooker, Beautifier

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02/24/2009

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Let Traci make you feel pretty

Northbrook native Traci Fein spent her teen years modeling for local institutions like Marshall Fields and Carson’s. At 19, an agency scooped her up and brought her to Paris. From there, she spent years traversing the globe. But Traci Fein is more than just a pretty face – when she returned back to the Chicago area, she started her own makeup agency, specializing in weddings and other special events.

Today, Traci continues to make Chicago’s brides beautiful and also does editorial work for publications including Time Out ChicagoToday’s Chicago Woman and Elite Modeling. So, if you need a spiffed up look for spring, love to travel or have a knack for helping family members find love on JDate, Traci Fein is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Right now I am hooked on Facebook. I love connecting with old and new friends. I’m pretty new but I have reconnected with a lot of people.

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would go everywhere! I would base myself in Chicago because I love it here. I would go back to Paris, London and Tahiti for sure. I might have small condos all spread out all over the world.

3. If a movie were made about your life, who would play you?
Uma Thurman. I’m a big fan of the Kill Bill series; I love her.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
There are so many intellectuals and poets and authors that I would love to talk to, but I’d want to just have a great, fun night. So I’d choose Mel Brooks because he’s hilarious and Paul Newman because he is the most handsome man ever. They are both funny handsome and smart – it would be the best of all worlds. I would probably invite them to Chicago and go the traditional route and eat at Gibson’s – it has a fun atmosphere and there’s always great steak.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
Wake up, go out on the balcony and see Lake Tahoe, have a cup of coffee and have the men in my life – my father, son and brother – with me. We’d ski and lie in the sunshine and take in the beauty of Lake Tahoe.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I love that it’s different all of the time and I love meeting new people. I like creating and working with my hands but the most rewarding thing is making somebody who might not feel as confident in her looks stand a little taller and feel confident and pretty. I can see the transformation and that makes me feel great.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I’d be a journalist. I always wanted to be one as a little kid and I think it’s an expression of art that evokes feeling and passion in other people and gets them to think.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
The most recent Jewish thing that I loved was putting my dad on JDate – he’d been widowed for a couple of years and was lonely. He’s not good with computers so I posed as him and got the ladies’ numbers for him so he could call. He had coffees and lunches galore. He’s found a sweetheart and they are together right now. He’s alive again and not lonely!

Sweet Success

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Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie offers kosher treats with gourmet quality 
02/17/2009

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Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe at 4113 Main St. in Skokie

Five and a half years ago, Linda Zelda Neiman was a stay-at-home mom, doing lots of volunteer work and baking and cooking up a storm in her Lincolnwood kitchen. When she felt ready to go back to work, she opted not to go back to her old job in computer science and instead to follow her passion for sweets, opening Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie.

The store, named for Neiman’s middle name, aims “to convey something a little old-fashioned but modern,” using quality ingredients to give customers that gourmet feel.

“[We sell] things you might expect your grandmother to make, but with a modern feel,” Neiman said.

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A glance inside Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe, full of tasty chocolates, cookies and other baked goods – and they’re all kosher!

Many of the recipes, like Zelda’s decadent Southern Pecan Pie, came straight out of Neiman’s kitchen, while others have been developed over the years with her staff. Along with the pecan pie, Neiman’s favorite items are her own brand of decorated Cookie Cuties ™ – they always bring a smile to her face.

In addition to offering hand-fashioned sweets, cookies and other baked goods, everything Zelda’s offers is certified kosher under the supervision of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC).

For Neiman, who grew up in West Rogers Park, attended Ida Crown Jewish Academy and keeps kosher herself, keeping her products kosher was important, but equally important was to have chocolates  and baked goods that would be as beautiful and tasty as their non-kosher counterparts.

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Linda Zelda Neiman

“I felt that there wasn’t anything comparable and it’s really a shame, because it gives kosher a bad name,” she said. “The idea behind the store is to bring that gourmet product under the kosher wing. We want everything to be as beautiful as Harry & David and Godiva and taste as sweet as Leonard’s Bakery, but still have that CRC stamp.”

And judging by the many honors Zelda’s was awarded at the end of 2008, Neiman has been successful in her quest to deliver both the kosher and gourmet.

In November, Zelda’s captured four awards, including the top honor at Kosherfest 2008, the world’s largest international kosher foods trade show and exhibition with over 300 exhibitors from 14 countries. This year’s event, held Nov 11 and 12 in Secaucus, N.J., featured over 6,000 attendees.

Zelda’s, a newcomer to Kosherfest, was awarded “Best In Show” for its Southern Pecan Pie. The pie also won the “Best Dessert” category. Also awarded were Zelda’s Classic Caramel Corn and Chocolate Almond Toffee Caramel Corn for “Best Snack Food” and Zelda’s Barks, Brittles and Toffee for “Best Packaging/Design.”

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A sampling of Zelda’s award-winning treats

Since Kosherfest, Neiman said they have had requests from nearly 20 locations on the East Coast wanting to sell their products.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It was a big boost to get that recognition at Kosherfest.”

Then, in December, Zelda’s was awarded another top honor at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s “World of Chocolate” event at the Hilton Chicago. Zelda’s caramelized banana chocolate took the “Hot Chocolate Award,” which goes out to the “hottest,” tastiest treat, a major accomplishment when competing against non-kosher products.

Amid all this success, in the past six months, Zelda’s opened a second location for production, down the street from its original retail and production kitchen at 4113 Main St. in Skokie. This year, for the first time ever, they will be able to have a kosher-for-Passover bakery open in their second location. Passover and Purim are the two busiest times of the year, Neiman said. Chicagoans can also find Zelda’s displays at JUF’s Walk With Israel in May and the Taste of Kosher Chicago.

In the past five and a half years, Zelda’s has come a long way from just the glimmer of an idea and a delicious dessert repertoire in Neiman’s kitchen. Today, products made at Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie are available at food stores throughout Chicago, including Jewel, Sunset Foods, Garden Fresh and Potash Brothers, and at many locations throughout the East Coast.

But as far and wide as her products may travel, Neiman says she is most proud to know that every package and product says and is “made in Skokie.”

So what’s next for Zelda’s?

“Looking to Zelda’s future, what we’re really looking to do is expand on what we’ve started and spread to the West Coast.”

Learn more about Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe at  www.zeldas.net .

8 Questions for Deborah Fishman, magazine editor, Israel lover

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02/17/2009

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Deborah, searching for the meaning of Jewish life, here and now

It’s pretty safe to say that Deborah Fishman is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. As the Managing Editor of PresenTense Magazine, a grassroots, volunteer effort by hundreds of young Jews spread across four continents, she and her staff are dedicated to tackling the question of what it mean to be Jewish, and how being Jewish can add value to our lives. She is also currently pursuing a Masters in Jewish Professional Studies at the Spertus Institute and a mentor in the Write On for Israel program. She previously served as Program Director for the American Zionist Movement, developing educational materials to promote dialogue on the meaning of Zionism today. A 2006 graduate of Princeton University, Deborah now lives with her husband in Chicago.

So whether you’re interested in finding ways to express your Jewish creativity, have a relative who collects Israeli stamps or you too were seduced by the humanities, Deborah Fishman is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
That would have to be www.presentense.org, of course. I also love to check out recipes at www.recipezaar.com or www.epicurious.com.

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would travel back and forth to Israel on a regular basis to visit the PresenTense Jerusalem Hub, as well as my family and friends in Israel. Though Skype and modern technology can do wonders, it’s never the same as being there in person. Besides, El Al flights are pretty much like being in Israel anyway, so you barely lose any time. I might also travel to meet with PresenTense’s contributors in some of the more exotic locales – Kazakhstan, Beijing, London and Budapest. It would definitely bring breakthroughs to the editing process.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
I might write an autobiography someday – and the movie is never as good as the original book. If the movie were made anyway, Catherine Zeta-Jones could play me. It’d be an action movie.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
My maternal grandfather, Grandpa Burt, and my husband’s paternal grandfather, Saba Ami. Both had passions for Israeli stamps – Grandpa Burt as an American collector, and Saba Ami as an Israeli stamp dealer. Each passed away long before my husband and I ever met, but I nevertheless feel a special bond unites them, and by extension us. I sometimes dream about what it would have been like if they could have met, and would have very much liked to meet Saba Ami. I’d cook, of course. While I do miss the dishes Grandpa Burt used to prepare, I think it’d be unfair to make him do the work – though perhaps I’d incorporate some of the foods I most remember him for: beets, brisket and potato latkes.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
I wake up in my apartment in Jerusalem. I walk over to the PresenTense hub, picking up some borekas for breakfast on my way. There I meet with writers, editors and other Jewish innovators sharing a common workspace. Lots of creative ideas are flowing as I’m immersed in a creative and stimulating intellectual environment. In the afternoon I go to Mahane Yehuda and pick out an assortment of exciting and delectably fresh fruits and vegetables for an upcoming Shabbat meal I’m hosting. In the evening my husband and I meet for dinner at a cute little kosher restaurant we have just discovered (and no one else has). Afterwards we go for a romantic walk down to the Kotel.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I love the exchange of ideas with all the people with whom I have the opportunity to work. PresenTense is an open-source network, which means that young Jews from all over the world and all religious/ideological backgrounds can pitch their ideas concerning new trends that affect Jewish life and its meaning in the here and now. Though we are a diverse group, each individual is extraordinarily passionate about his or her unique vision for the Jewish future. Together, we seek to express young Jewish creativity and these cutting-edge ideas, thus working to change the future of the Jewish People. What could be better than that?

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I entered college as a pre-med physics major. My destined path in life was probably evident when I spent a summer at the Weizmann Institute and, instead of finding the Higgs boson, I founded a literary magazine. However, if I hadn’t been seduced by the humanities, I might have become a doctor.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
I love hanging out with the PresenTense community in Chicago – whether it be our Creative Zionist Circle meetings, where we work to solve the problems facing the Jewish world; “drunken” brainstorms, where we use our creativity and collective energy to come up with amazing ideas that we then use for the magazine; or cooking together for Shabbat dinners. While it’s incredible to be connected to an international network of people, I don’t believe there’s any technological means of communication that can surpass the support and potential for growth that can be realized in person, in the local community right here in Chicago.

Torah Tales

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Local comedian translates Biblical stories in creative ways 
02/17/2009

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Storahteller Aaron Freeman

Aaron Freeman recently added another line to his already lengthy resume: Torah maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. The comedian, radio personality and author says his latest professional incarnation is a natural progression of his love for all things Jewish. He wants to tell great stories, and there isn’t a better story than Torah, he says.

“We who spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the Torah see it as the most interesting, fascinating stories,” Freeman said on the eve of his first cyber performance in the virtual Second Life environment, where he’s known as Joyous Pomegranate. “And they are even more astonishing the third or fourth time you hear them. The story we thought we were telling three years ago could not be more different from the exact same story we’re telling today. Every year I go, ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’”

Freeman’s Second Life performance was part of Worldwide Storah, a weekend dedicated to the art of Torah translation. Storah is a method of bringing Torah stories alive through simultaneous translation from Hebrew into the vernacular – mostly English among the recent crop of Torah mavens. In addition to the Second Life event, Worldwide Storah hosted events in London, Jerusalem, Miami, New York City, L.A. and eight other cities Feb. 6 through 8.

Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born teacher of Judaic literature and a performance artist, revived the lost art of Torah translation and re-imagined it in a twenty-first century way as Storahtelling. The roots of Storahtelling lie in the translations that accompanied traditional synagogue Torah services until the early Middle Ages. For almost two millennia, Hebrew was primarily the language of ritual, and congregations needed translators to convey the meaning of the passages.

Freeman, who was one of the first to adopt Storahtelling techniques, recently became a congregational Torah maven, the official Torah meturgaman (translator in Aramaic), at his congregation, Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Highland Park.

Storahtellers bring their own skills and preferences to the translation. Freeman, who composes his own translations, treats each portion differently depending on the content. Sometimes he might involve the congregation, asking members to stand in for the pharaoh and Moses, for example. Other times, he takes a more direct storytelling approach, using intonation, facial expressions and gestures to help convey the meaning. Freeman also draws some inspiration from the Torah-based comic strip he created with his wife, artist Sharon Rosenzweig.

For his duties as a Torah maven, Freeman often wears traditional Persian garb in reference to the Persian roots of Torah translation. He couldn’t find a Persian costume in the virtual world, though, so his Second Life avatar – “a fairly athletic black guy” – sported dark blue Moroccan kaftan and trousers.

In his Feb. 8 Second Life ritual, Freeman used a pre-recorded Hebrew version of Parashat Beshalach, which tells about both the parting of the Red Sea and the first gift of manna. He then translated the text of the Torah portion. He guided his avatar using the keyboard and spoke into a microphone mounted on his computer. Although the figurine couldn’t recreate Freeman’s usual highly animated facial expressions, it conveyed some of the story via gestures Freeman assigned to it. Freeman says guiding the avatar is akin to performing a marionette show.

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Freeman’s avatar led a Torah service in the cyber environment Second Life Feb. 8, marking the first time a Torah service had been performed in virtual reality

Even when he doesn’t have to guide an avatar, Freeman finds each Storahtelling ritual demanding.
Biblical Hebrew provides a unique challenge: Jewish sages have debated the meaning of certain Hebrew words for centuries, so some interpretation is always necessary.

“Every translation is a commentary,” Freeman says. “There is no such thing as a literal translation of biblical Hebrew.”

Humor and a basic belief in positive outcomes help overcome some of the challenges, Freeman says. An observant Jew who grew up Catholic, Freeman has forged a steadfast connection to Judaism because “Jewish observance ameliorates the worst aspect of American life for me. The consumer culture makes us endlessly aware of what we do not have without counterbalancing it with gratitude for the mind-numbing bounty that we enjoy,” Freeman says. Jewish observance requires the constant expression of gratitude for everything – from a glass of water or a piece of bread to having woken up and being healthy. That makes Freeman “guaranteed to be happy; you can’t be grateful and pissed off at the same time,” he says.

Freeman is also grateful for Fridays. “How can you not love a religion that has a mandatory party every week? For the Jews, eating drinking and partying every Friday is not just a good idea, it’s the law. Got to love that!”

A Jewish Gemini Ponders St. Valentine

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02/10/2009

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Stacey shares her love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day

We don’t know anything about St. Valentine whose feast day is February 14 other than the fact that he was buried on February 14 at the Via Flaminia north of Rome. How this martyred saint (who might actually be the amalgamation of several martyred guys named Valentine) became the representation of romantic love for most of the Western world is a mystery to me. But because it is effectively a Gentile construct (and they celebrate the June birth of the most famous Member of the Tribe on December 25), we don’t need to ponder the logic overmuch, especially as it is now as secular a day as Thanksgiving.

And a day rife with pressures and pitfalls.

I am a perfect Gemini in many ways, and on no day (other than my birthday) is this more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

Half of me dreads it from the moment the clock strikes January 31, like the tickle in your throat that you know is the harbinger of a truly appalling and lingering head cold. That is the half that is currently single, will receive Valentines only from my parents and grandmother, invites only from other single girls, and will likely spend that most romantic evening with her favorite cadre of back-up boys…Ben, Jerry, and the men of Law and Order.

The other half loves it. That is the half that is a truly hopeful romantic, writes awesome love letters (when she has someone worthy to write them to), is a fan of big gestures and happy endings and extravagant floral arrangements and unexpected gifts and sappy movies and candlelit dinners and breakfast in bed. I even once did a Valentine’s Day segment on the  Rachael Ray Show .

I am therefore equally good and bad when it comes to Valentine’s Day. When I have an object of affection to spend the day with, I am clever and demonstrative and celebratory and fun and unique and very, VERY romantic. When I don’t, I’m the littlest bit snarky and petulant and not unlikely to be found pouting and baking, usually at the same time.

So I get it when I hear people complain that they hate the expectation of romance, being told by the card companies that they have to do something for their sweetie, or that they are lesser-than if they are between sweeties at the moment. But I also get it when I hear people say that there is nothing wrong with being encouraged to be romantic, or to let the pressure of the day push you to make a gesture towards that someone you’ve been maybe dancing around but haven’t gotten the courage to ask out yet.

After the overarching umbrella of romance, the thing most associated with Valentine’s Day is food. Champagne and shiny red boxes of chocolates. Dinners at fancy restaurants or lovingly prepared at home. All the cooking magazines feature cozy menus designed for two, and the inevitable heart-shaped desserts. And, of course, for us unattached  people, Valentines Day is a freebie day where diets go out the window and comfort food isn’t just allowed, it is a moral imperative. So I thought, for this pre-Valentine’s Nosh, I would be true to my Gemini nature and offer something for both ends of the spectrum…

FOR THE UNATTACHED:

First, spend whatever money you would have spent on a gift/card/dinner for a sweetie and spend it on yourself. Have a spa treatment. Buy a new outfit or a fab pair of shoes. Pick one of the things off your Amazon wish list and order that sucker up for yourself! (Or pick one of the things of MY Amazon wish list and send it to me…)

Then figure out the kind of evening you want to have. Take out? Order whatever you love and put it on your best dishes and light a candle. Want to cook for yourself? Try my favorite indulgent dinner for one…

CELERY APPLE SALAD
One celery heart with leaves, sliced on bias ¼ inch thick
One granny smith apple, cored, sliced into ¼ inch thick half moons
1 oz shaved parmagiano reggiano
Juice of half a lemon
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Toss all ingredients together and alter to taste…if you like more lemon, add more juice, too tart? Add more oil.

RISOTTO A LA STACEY
2 c Caranoli or Arborio rice
10 c chicken stock
2 shallots, chopped
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded (feel free to use a rotisserie chicken here)
4 artichoke bottoms (preferably fresh) cooked and diced
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
½ c dry white wine or champagne
1 pinch saffron threads
¼ c grated parmagiano reggiano
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt 1 T butter in pan with olive oil. Add shallots and cook till translucent. Add rice and stir until each grain is coated. Add wine and saffron threads and stir till wine is totally absorbed. Add chicken stock one ladle at a time until absorbed, and then add next ladle. Stir continuously. When it begins to take longer for stock to be absorbed, taste rice. You are looking for al dente, not mushy or gummy. When you are getting close to al dente, add the chicken and artichokes to heat through, along with the lemon zest, salt and pepper. When the rice is perfectly cooked, stir in the remaining 1 T butter, the cheese, and the parsley and do a final taste for seasonings. (the leftovers make a killer breakfast, form into patties, lightly dust in flour, and fry till crisp in butter and serve with your eggs.)

For dessert…a pint of ice cream is never a bad idea (although on a day like this, I’d pick up a flavor or two from Caffe Gelato on Division), nor is a package of Mallomars. If you are really feeling indulgent, go online to my gang at www.ricetoriches.com and have them FedEx you your favorite flavor of rice pudding (I like the Category Five Caramel and the Chocolate Hazelnut Bear Hug).

Watch a funny movie or catch up on your Tivo, take a bath, read a book (preferably one of mine, thank you) and remember that tomorrow is February 15 and all the romanticpalooza will be relegated to the 50% off table.

FOR THE COUPLED:

Congrats. I mean that almost without bitterness. I hope you both devote some time on this day to remind each other why you are together, and to make some effort to be romantic, if for no other reason than you are able! And if you are staying home, you might want to try this simple dinner to cook and eat with your sweetie.

HEARTS SALAD
1 pkg. hearts of romaine lettuce
1 pkg. hearts of celery, or the center of two heads of celery, with the leaves
1 can chopped hearts of palm, drained
2 hearts of large steamed artichokes sliced (or 1can quartered artichoke hearts, drained)
3 T white balsamic vinegar
8 T lemon flavored extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Chop the celery and tear the lettuce into bite sized pieces, and mix with the drained hearts of palm and artichokes. Mix the rest of the ingredients into a quick and easy salad dressing, and toss all together. You can garnish with parmesan curls if you like.

DIJON CHICKEN
2 T butter, softened
1 T Dijon mustard
¼ T salt
¼ t pepper
2 chicken breasts, boneless, skin on
¼ c bread crumbs
¼ c grated pecorino Romano (can substitute grated parmesan)
Olive oil

Mix mustard and butter and coat chicken. Mix bread crumbs and cheese, and roll chicken in coating until completely covered. Put on a lightly greased baking sheet, and sprinkle with olive oil just before cooking. Cook 15 minutes at 375 if thin, 18 minutes if thick.

CREAMY LEMON PASTA
1 lb pasta, preferably linguine or fettucine
2 egg yolks
1 lemon, juice and zest
½ c grated parmesan
2/3 c heavy cream
4 T butter
2 T parsley, chopped (or chives)
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk egg yolks until creamy and slightly lightened in color. Stir in cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest and cream. Cook pasta al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot, off heat. Add butter to pasta and stir until melted and coating all the pasta. Add the sauce and mix well. Taste for salt and pepper. You may add some of the cooking water or more cream if it needs it. Add parsley just before serving, with extra grated cheese on the side. (Yes, this is much more than you will need as a side dish for two people, but you won’t be upset at midnight when you can reheat the leftovers and eat them in bed in one bowl with two forks. I’m not saying, I’m just saying…)

DECADENT DARK CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES WITH VANILLA FROSTING

CUPCAKES
8 T unsalted butter, cubed
2 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, (Valrhona, or Callebaut) chopped
½ C Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¾ C all-purpose flour
½ t baking soda
¾ t baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ C sugar
1 t vanilla extract
½ t salt
½ c sour cream

FROSTING
10 T unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 ¼ C confectioners sugar, sifted
Pinch salt
½ t vanilla extract
1 T heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners. Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa in medium heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan containing barely simmering water; heat mixture until butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth and combined. Set aside to cool until just warm to the touch. Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder in small bowl to combine. Whisk eggs in second medium bowl to combine; add sugar, vanilla, and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Sift about one-third of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and whisk until combined; whisk in sour cream until combined, then sift remaining flour mixture over and whisk until batter is homogenous and thick. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake until skewer inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes.

Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before icing, about 30 minutes.

In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. Add confectioners' sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. (To frost: Mound about 2 tablespoons icing on center of each cupcake. Using small icing spatula or butter knife, spread icing to edge of cupcake, leaving slight mound in center.)

If you need my recommendations of how else to spend your time, you have no imagination.

FOR EVERYONE:

You need a decent cocktail for Valentines Day, and bubbly is always in order. Here is a recipe I developed for a contest for the Mionetto Prosecco company, which everyone I’ve ever made it for seems to think is pretty delish. It’s a happy drink if you’re imbibing alone, and not overly drunk-making if you’re not. And which is even better, the contest is still ongoing and you can vote for me if you like the drink!

1 oz prosecco or champagne (I use Mionetto Brut, because that is the one from the contest)
1 oz premium vodka
1 oz Elderflower Liqueur (St. Germain is my fave, and is available at Sam’s)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz pineapple juice

OPTIONAL
For rim of glass:
1 T lemon juice
1 T sugar in the raw
1 t grains of paradise, ground  (Whole Foods in the spice section)

For Float:
1 T Prosecco or Champagne (Mionetto Brut again…)

PREPARATION:
Fill shaker with ice, and shake all ingredients well.
Dip rim of martini glass in lemon juice and then in the combined sugar and ground grains of paradise.
Strain cocktail into glass and float 1 T Mionetto Brut on the top for extra fizz.

If you love it…do click here, scroll down to the 6th drink The MIONETINI and vote for me! Send the link to all your friends! The top three vote-getters get a trip for two to NYC and the chance to win $5000. Think of this as your little Valentine to me : )

However you choose to mark the day (or not), I hope it is a good one.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey
www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the Week: Stay away from those heart-shaped boxes of waxy chocolates. Head over to www.franschocolates.com and order up some of the chocolate filled and dipped figs. Trust me. Luxurious enough to give to a lover, but non-frilly enough to give to a friend.

NOSH Food Reads of the week:

If you’re in love,  Like Water for Chocolate  by Laura Esquival.

If you’re not, try any of the Diane Mott Davidson Culinary Mystery Series.

From Skokie to Sam's Club: My Search for Serenity on the Seventh Day

 Permanent link
02/10/2009

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Dana’s happy feet, on a Hawaiian yoga retreat, blissful yet fleeting

Eight months pregnant with our first child, I traded in the keys of our cool Evanston loft for a Skokie bi-level. It’s practical, it’s convenient and it’s so unimaginative I sometimes turn into my neighbors’ driveway instead of my own. Her violin students knock on our door. His leaves fall on our neglected lawn. The old Jew across the street dies. A new one moves in.

Even though our cloned bi-levels are 2.5 blocks north of the Skokie Eruv, I’ve observed enough serene-looking, shul-going neighbors to develop an acute case of Shabbat envy.

Okay, so maybe they don’t always look serene. Sometimes they look cold. Or hot. Or wet. But the general attitude as observed (imagined, projected) from the comfort of my passing Honda Civic is: I don’t care if there are 352 unread messages in my in box. So what if the grass needs mowing, my to do list is growing, the playoffs are at noon and cat litter is on sale two for one at Costco. It’s Shabbat (for chrissakes). And I have no choice. But to rest.

As someone who Googled “sanitarium” as recently as 10 days ago, I see a certain beauty and wisdom to Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it “a palace in time.” My friend Brian said, “It anchors your whole damn week and your whole damn life. You rest. You adjust your frame of mind, your entire being. And it just works.”

Let’s be honest – we could all use a day each week to slow down and reflect and breath.

In other words, God was on to something when He rested on the seventh day. But as an agnostic, Reform, multi-tasking resident of Skokie, I’m not sure I can convince myself not to sow, plough, reap, bind sheaves and/or thresh at 10:10 on Saturday morning. While I have no intention of trapping, flaying, or scraping a deer or any other large mammal this weekend, I’m not sure I have the discipline to turn off my BlackBerry. Or the time.

These days, I say I love you a lot. But I say, C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, COME ON even more. Starting at 7:26 a.m. Monday through Friday, plus dinner time, bath time, bedtime, get-in-the-car-we’re-late-for-Sunday-school time, and random transitions in between. That is, when I’m not tap-tap tapping on my BlackBerry at the stop light, on the toilet, at 3:52 a.m.

Can’t everyone just shut up and leave me the fuck alone. I realize that doesn’t sound very professional. Or motherly. Or nice.

So what are the alternatives? That’s not rhetorical, my friends.

I realize that whining is a fairly unbecoming quality on a 39-year old woman, even if she is sitting on the early train into the city, the day before her deadline, eating a frosted Blueberry pop tart and tap-tap tapping into her BlackBerry this Oy! essay that was never supposed to be written.

I am retiring, I declared after my last Oy! story to anyone who would listen. I need to sleep, I unabashedly whined, downing a large coffee with cream and sugar. (Editor’s note: We would not listen. We continue putting Dana’s name on the schedule because we like her stories—apologies to her family.)

But why retire when you can instead look to Judaism for stress relief? It can be a blog, a midnight project, a multi-part series. It can be a quest. Consider this a plea for suggestions. Get drunk on Manischewitz? Do Rav yoga? Take a walk through the woods on Tu B’Shevat? That’s my new plan.

NEXT: Jewish Meditation. Sit and shut up. It might not sound so Jewish, but meditation was popular among the mystics on the hilltops of Sfat back in the day. The Jewish Healing Network of Chicago hosts Dr. Yonah Klem, the Midwest’s only Jewish Meditation Teacher ordained at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. I plan to check it out on March 8, 1–3 at JCFS, 5150 Golf Road in Skokie. Contact Tracey at 847.568.5216 or  JHNC@jcfs.org to register ($15).

Anyone care to join me?

“Matchmaker, matchmaker…”

 Permanent link
Chicago Jewish cupids help their friends find love 
02/17/2009

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Tracey and Todd tying the knot
Photo credit: Artisan Events, Inc.


Happily ever after

Once upon a time in a land called Chicago, a mutual friend fixed Brooke and Sean up on a blind date. While the two did not fall in love, they became dear friends. Years later, Brooke fixed Sean up with a woman named Cynthia. They fell in love and married. Meanwhile, Brooke met another man named Mike. They, too, fell in love and got married this past summer. And, everyone lived happily ever after.

A Needle in a Haystack

There’s an old Jewish saying that ever since creating the world, God has been making matches, a task more difficult than parting the Red Sea. Every so often special people – like Brooke Mandrea from the story above – assist in the tough task of matchmaking. Brooke is one of the special people who excel at helping singles find their happily-ever-after. She is not a professional matchmaker; she’s simply a champion of love who strives to help others find their shiduchs (matches) out of the goodness of her heart. “It’s considered a great act of chesed, or kindness,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview. “One of the ultimate acts of kindness is to try to find people someone who will love them and give them companionship.”

In her years of matchmaking, Brooke, who lives in Wicker Park, has set up a whopping seven marriages and even more unmarried couples. Finding one’s match, according to Brooke, is like “finding a needle in a haystack, and if I’m able to be that connection, it’s a mitzvah.” When matching couples, she searches for a meaningful connection between two people. “I never do it where it’s like, ‘Oh, she has a pulse and he has a pulse…” she said. “There has to be something more than they both like line dancing. There have to be shared values, morals or world outlooks.”

She sometimes brainstorms couples in the swimming pool. While she’s swimming laps she’ll envision two people that just seem meant to be, such as Cynthia and Sean Pierce, of West Lakeview, who have been married for three years. Brooke, herself, had been fixed up with Sean on a blind date many years ago. Then, Brooke and Cynthia met years later while volunteering at the Jewish United Fund’s Uptown Cafe.

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The happy couple, Cynthia and Sean

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is Sean’s other half,’” Brooke said. When she approached Sean about the fix-up, his initial response was, “Not interested.” He was wary because Brooke had set him up on a couple of failed blind dates in the past. Yet, the matchmaker persevered. “I called him repeatedly,” Brooke said, “and told him that the only way to get me to shut up is to go out with her once.”

Six months later, Brooke pointed them out to each other at a music program one Friday night at their synagogue, but there was one catch. Cynthia was on a date with someone else. ‘Sean, I want you to meet her,’ Brooke told him. ‘She’s on a date, but who cares about that?’ The following month – with Cynthia’s date no longer in the picture – Brooke introduced Sean to her at synagogue. On their first date, Cynthia and Sean had a lively political discussion over sushi. In November of 2005, they married, and Brooke signed the ketubah (marriage contract) at their wedding.

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Cynthia and Sean on their wedding day
Photo credit: Jason Lazarus


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Matchmaker and friend Brooke signing the ketubah at Cynthia and Sean’s wedding

Brooke comes from a family of matchmakers. Her sister, Allison Leviton, has tied Brooke, with seven marriages to her credit. Their mother, Joyce Leviton Asher, passed down to them the shiduch talent because she has set up, as she puts it, “too many couples to count.”

Brooke tries to fix up couples that otherwise would be unlikely to cross paths. She has paired a woman who teaches in the northern suburbs with a downtown trader as well as a couple in their 70s who both frequented the Lyric Opera, but on separate days, and who both audited classes at Northwestern University, but on different campuses. “When else would these couples have met?” Brooke asked.

Todd Fine wondered how he would have met his bride, Tracey Fine, if not for their friend Jennifer Elvey, because he didn’t frequent Jewish social events as Tracey did. Jennifer, of Wilmette, had been trying to introduce her friend Todd, from her gym, to her close friend Tracey for a while. Jennifer had thought the two might hit it off because – among other similarities – they shared a common interest in martial arts and had similar, low-key socializing styles. In 2005, Jennifer attended the Young Leadership Division’s Purim Party at a Chicago nightclub with Tracey, hoping that Todd might attend the party too. She didn’t tell Tracey or Todd that the other might be there, because she wasn’t sure that Todd would come and she didn’t want to make them nervous.

Sure enough, he was there that night and Jennifer introduced them. “I still remember the spark between them. It was amazing,” Jennifer said. Tracey and Todd talked throughout the evening and, at the end of the party, Todd offered Tracey a ride home. “I typically would never accept a ride home from a guy that I met at a bar,” said Tracey. “I literally was like, ‘Are you sure you’re not a murderer?’ Because he was Jen’s friend though, I considered it.”

On their first date, Todd picked Nacional 27 because he knew that Tracey loved Latin food and music. “We made our best attempts to salsa dance together, but we weren’t very good,” Tracey said. Their clumsy dancing didn’t hamper their relationship though. In fact, the couple married in June of 2007. They were so grateful to Jennifer that, at the wedding, Jennifer signed their ketubah. Tracey and Todd, who live in Wicker Park, are expecting twins in March.

Jennifer fixed up a second Chicago Jewish couple, who married in November. “I definitely think that two of the best things I’ve done in my whole life have been introducing these people to each other,” said Jennifer, who herself will stroll down the aisle in June. “It’s just a great feeling to sit at these people’s weddings and know that I played a small role in it.”

Although singles in the religious Jewish community often rely on professional matchmaking, Debbie Wengrow, a West Rogers Park religious Jew, strives to match people in her spare time – and isn’t paid for it. Debbie meets with a group of approximately 10 religious Jewish women on a monthly basis to brainstorm potential mates. Through word of mouth, they gather names of religious Jewish singles looking to be set up. They interview candidates and match people according to religiosity and personality. “[Matchmaking] is not up to us – God has a plan, but we still need people to try to help out,” she said. In four years, Debbie has set up four married couples; the entire group of women is responsible for some 10 marriages to date. They offer their service for free, and similar groups meet in cities throughout the country.

Making Room at the Shabbat Table

In the traditional way of matchmaking, a third party sets two single people up to meet a blind date to see if the sparks fly. Another way to match people is to arrange social gatherings for a bunch of friends and – with a little luck and beshert (destiny) – who knows which pairs might emerge? Michelle Lawner Whitesman has introduced more than five couples in her hometown of Kansas City and in her adopted home of Chicago. Dating back to her sweet sixteen in Kansas, couples have been meeting one another at her parties. Three years ago, she introduced a couple at her March Madness get-together.

In an age of impersonal internet dating, what’s the harm in a set-up by a friend? asks Michelle. “It makes it more personal when a friend who knows you well thinks of people for you,” she said. “The more people you have looking for someone for you, the greater the chance you have of meeting the right person.”

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Michelle Lawner Whitesman and Jennifer Elvey, close friends, act as matchmakers for their friends

Michelle found her own match – Louie – whom she married in November. Their union has energized them to help their friends find love. “When you’re happy, you want those around you to find love and be happy,” she said. “My husband also set up a couple who married last year. He has taken on looking for matches for our friends too. Now it’s like a tag team effort.”

Michelle and Louie frequently invite their friends for Shabbat dinner at their new home in downtown Chicago. While their motivation for Shabbat is about forging community and celebrating a Jewish ritual, if two of their friends should happen to meet, that would be the icing on the cake.

Another popular Shabbat dinner table in the city is at the Lakeview home of Rabbi Lopatin and his wife, Rachel Tessler Lopatin. They, too, invite people, often singles, to their home just about every Friday night as a way to share Shabbat and build community – and perhaps create some love stories along the way. “Sometimes, people meet at our table and then meet again at a Federation event or shul or running in the park and say, ‘Oh, I met you at the Lopatins,’” said Rachel, who also does matchmaking for the Jewish singles site “Saw You at Sinai.” “We try to widen the pool for people to meet each other. I don’t know that we have any great insight as to who would be good for whom, but it’s more that we hope [to increase the odds] that people can meet each other.”

As far as she knows, three marriages have resulted from introductions at their Shabbat table, plus Rachel introduced another couple at synagogue. Rachel sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about a potential pairing. Her thought process focuses on personality, observance level and future goals. “I’m motivated by this mitzvah,” she said. “It’s painful to hear that people want something and are having a hard time getting that. If I can be helpful in that, I want to be.”

Six Degrees

And in the game of Jewish six degrees – or fewer – of separation that makes this story come full circle, Rachel was the matchmaker who fixed up Brooke on that date with Sean, who later married Brooke’s friend Cynthia. “If it hadn’t been for Rachel introducing Sean to Brooke,” Cynthia said, “then the two of us wouldn’t be together.”

8 Questions for Pam Sherman, professional errand runner, world traveler, Meryl Streep look-a-like

 Permanent link
02/03/2009

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Pam Sherman, at your service

Chicago Native Pam Sherman spent nearly a decade working for Chicago’s top advertising firms. Though she loved her work, she spent many late nights in her office wondering how she was going to get all of her errands done and still be able to enjoy what little free time her job afforded her – if only the dry cleaners were open at midnight when she got off work!  She started talking to other working professionals in the city with similar concerns and realized she was not alone. Thus, an idea was born and Chicago Anytime Assistants was formed in 2008. She lives in Wicker Park with her husband, Steve, and their dog, Cheeto.

So whether you sometimes wish you had a personal assistant to run your errands, love eBay or have ever tried to find your Beshert on JDate, Pam Sherman is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Ooh, that’s so tough! There are so many. TMZ and YouTube are great ways to kill 60-seconds. But my favorite site is eBay. I could go on and on about the amazing finds I’ve gotten. Where else can you get last-minute tickets to a concert, iPod accessories and dog boots all in the same place?

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
If that were the case I probably would have no use for a home. I’d just hop from place to place. I studied in Luxembourg in college and had the opportunity to travel to a different European city every weekend for a semester. I really believe travel can change your life.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Well, people have told me that I look like Meryl Streep, and I don't know what to think about that because I went through a lot of pain so that my nose doesn’t look like hers... if you know what I mean. But she's an amazing actress, so I'm game!

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
Adam Sandler and Barack Obama – I wonder how they’d get along? Hopefully they wouldn’t mind if I ordered take-out…

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
I wake up without an alarm clock. My hubby, dog and I walk to Jerry’s sandwich shop for lunch and during the walk I don’t wear sunscreen and miraculously don’t get sunburned. We skip the gym but burn off the same amount of calories just from having fun. We ride bikes, get ice cream cones and grill outside on our deck for dinner. The phone never rings and I don’t get tempted by the red blinking light on my Blackberry. I eat a second ice cream cone.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I know how lucky I am. I invented my dream job when I created Chicago Anytime Assistants, a personal assistant service for the busy Chicagoan. Strange as it might seem, I have always had a 'talent' for running errands, if that's possible, and I actually like doing them! It's always a great day at work when we can get our clients a discount they didn't know about, or a refund on something they didn't know they could return! That's our M.O.! At the end of the day, my job is to enhance clients’ lives, one errand at a time.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
This is my dream job so I hope I can hold onto it for awhile!

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
The best Jewish thing I ever did was give JDate a try... that’s how I met my hubby!

Cellos are the Coolest…

 Permanent link
My friend Elliot and the 11 other cellists in his band agree with me. 
02/03/2009

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Elliot gets ready for another concert with the Oakley Street Cello Ensemble

I literally fell off my chair one day while playing duets with my friend and fellow cellist, Elliot Mandel. The floor was slippery; my chair slid back, my bum hit the floor all in a split second. But I saved my cello – held high above my head – my instincts kicked in and I saved my baby. Elliot was very gracious about it, laughing along with me while I giggled hysterically on the floor. But this story isn’t about my life long love affair with my cello (though it kind of is), this is about Elliot, his cello and the Oakley Street Cello Ensemble – a group I recently heard for the second time at Bill’s Blues Bar in Evanston.

Growing up in Glen Ellyn, Elliot was introduced to the cello in second grade, though he says, “It was never something I intended on doing.” A string teacher came to his school and didn’t see his hand raised for the violin. By the time she noticed him, she was on to the cello. Being the laid back guy that he is, he said, “Okay, I’ll try it.”

Since that fateful day, Elliot has carted his cello to the Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, WI, to college at Bradley University, on orchestra tours to Colorado Springs, Ireland, England and Denmark, to the Old Town School of Folk Music every Monday and to Oakley rehearsals every Wednesday night. One Oakley member graciously moves all of her living room furniture each week to make room for rehearsals because they take up so much space.

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The packed crowd at Bill’s Blues Bar – the Oakleys are a hit

The Oakley Street Cello Ensemble is a group of 12 cellists – I think that is enough to constitute a cello choir – who play a range of music from classical to pop, folk songs to Apocalyptica. The varied selection is something you’re not going to get in most chamber groups, and that’s part of the reason Elliot joined up last year.

There is an understanding, or a culture among cellists that Elliot and I both agree on but cannot completely define. It is sort of a collaborative, nonjudgmental, noncompetitive culture. Not that cellists don’t fight for first chair, it’s just not in the same to-the-death way as say, violinists. For example, I never once saw a cellist sneaking up to practice rooms listening to other cellists and then making snide remarks about their playing. Plus, we cellists understand what it takes to lug a heavy instrument across Europe or on the el.

This feeling of camaraderie can be found among the Oakleys, whose players have assorted degrees of experience. Without the goal of being professional musicians, the group is made up of players of different ages, backgrounds and musical tastes – basically, these are people that work well together and have a lot of fun. While Elliot’s favorite piece from the Evanston concert was the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (I couldn’t agree more), someone else’s was probably “Here Comes the Sun,” the Beatles classic by George Harrison.

This culture was central to Elliot’s experience playing music at Bradley. Majoring in English, he didn’t want to commit to a career in something he found so enjoyable: “That track becomes your life. I don’t have that competitive thing in me.” Elliot’s professional, English major self now works as a Program Coordinator at the American Library Association.

While in school and playing with the Bradley Chamber Orchestra, Elliot got to play some of his favorite composers – Bach, Beethoven, and Shostakovich – and travel to Europe, playing concerts in Cathedrals that were built at the time some of the music they performed was being written. This rich sense of history brings deeper meaning to the music. “I find a certain spiritualism in music which in some ways might be considered a religious experience – both things are hard to define concretely,” Elliot says.

Music also fosters community, whether it is part of a religious or spiritual experience, a group of cellists forming the Oakleys, or attending a concert at Orchestra Hall or Phyllis’ Musical Inn. Another “C” word to add to the cello culture definition that I can’t quite put my finger on.

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Cello close-up at the Oakley concert

While all this kumbaya crap is mostly true, it is by no means the complete picture. Cellists can also be snarky and sarcastic. Elliot told me about a master class he attended once where the instructor coined the term “cello chauvinism,” defining that as “the supreme belief that cellos are superior to all other instruments.” I can’t say I disagree with that. The resonant sound of the cello is closest to the timbre of the human voice. It can work its way into your heart, thoroughly seeping under your skin.

In keeping with the collaborative culture of cellists (or in my own personal quest for solidarity), I asked Elliot if he had ever fallen off his chair while playing his cello.
His straight-faced response: “No, but I knew a girl who did once.”
I got a little excited: “Someone other than me?”
Then him: “No.”

The Oakley Street Cello Ensemble is now selecting pieces for their next concert. Stay tuned to the events page for details.

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