OyChicago articles

The Godfather

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In my interfaith household, raising Jewish children is a done deal. Defining what that means isn't.
04/15/2008

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Alyssa and Joe on their wedding day

We had been dating for six months when I decided it was time for Joe and I to have “the talk.”  We sat on his couch for a long time, going through the familiar pattern of “What’s wrong?” and “Nothing” and silence before I was able to spit it out.

“I want to raise my children Jewish.”

What a load to lay on the new (Catholic) boyfriend. I skipped right through the talk of getting married and jumped right ahead to the babies. And not only was I bringing up our future children, I was asking him to commit to making Jewish babies. I figured I’d be logging onto JDate when I got home.

But Joe surprised me that night. He had already given the topic a lot of thought.

Joseph John Latala III, graduate of St. Raymond’s elementary school and Marquette University, committed to raising a Jewish family.

We got engaged a year later. We participated in interfaith group sessions and a Judaism 101 class. We discussed our plans with a rabbi and priest. We had a beautiful Jew-ish wedding, with a priest on the platform for good measure. Our Ketubah is signed by both Rabbi Sternfield and Father Cimarrusti, and is proudly displayed in our apartment.

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Alyssa and Joe on their honeymoon in Riviera Maya, Mexico

And yet, despite Joe’s sincere affection for lox and kugel, his ability to spout the occasional Yiddish word (that would make any Jewish grandma proud) and his completely unselfish commitment to raise his children in a religion other than his own—I worry.

The fact is, as much as he accepts and even enjoys Judaism, Joe isn’t Jewish.

This became startlingly evident after dinner a few weeks ago, when talk turned to my brother Andy’s upcoming move to San Francisco. Andy expressed sadness that he would not get to spend as much time with his future nieces and nephews. This prompted Joe to say, “Well, I guess that takes him off the shortlist for godfather.”

Had I replied by saying, “I guess you’re right,” the conversation would have ended there. But the thought of my Jewish children having a godfather just felt so wrong. Joe’s totally offhand comment was shocking to me—and suddenly my head was spinning with questions.

Does Joe want our children to go to church with his parents every Easter? Does he know that I want to start special Shabbat traditions with our children? Will he want to have a Christmas tree in our home? Will he make us sing carols?

After fighting about the godfather issue that night for quite awhile, and not coming to any mutually agreeable solution, we let it go for the time being. But the issue hasn’t been forgotten, and it makes me wonder what other expectations each of us have that might be a surprise for the other.

My suggestion to honor the prospective godfather by calling him “super fun uncle” was soundly dismissed. Joe’s idea of asking someone to serve as godfather and then not really telling anyone about it seems a bit silly. We turned to the Internet for ideas, where we stumbled upon a page about the role of the godparent, or Sandek, in Judaism.

As it turns out, Judaism does in fact recognize a godparent, though in a slightly different sense than the traditional Christian godparent. Still, with a little more research, we hope to be able to honor someone in a way that is respectful of both of our religious backgrounds.    

But we realize we may not always be that lucky—no matter how much research we do, we’re unlikely to find a Jewish Christmas carol or a place for Easter in Judaism. Despite our blanket commitment to raise a Jewish family, we still have different ideas about what exactly a Jewish family is, and how our family will fit into that mold.

The more we talk and ask each other questions, the more apparent it becomes that we may have to make our own mold. We fight at times but we try not to take ourselves too seriously. In the name of compromise, Joe asked me if it would be ok if our (future) dog is Catholic. I can’t argue with that.

Despite our dog’s religion, Joe has already made up his mind about her name—Kugel Latala.         

The Culture Club

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Idan Raichel and his band of multi-cultural musicians hit Chicago
04/22/2008

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Growing up in Kfar Saba, Israel, Idan Raichel was attracted to music at a young age. After serving in the Israeli army, he worked as a counselor at a boarding school for immigrants and troubled youth. The school was home to many young Ethiopian Jews who introduced Raichel to Ethiopian folk and pop music. He began frequenting Ethiopian bars in Tel Aviv and soon set out to celebrate his appreciation for different cultures through his music.

Raichel gathered about 70 of his friends from Israel’s music scene to participate in his recordings and make a demo album. While the demo was considered “too ethnic” by some Israeli labels, the group was soon signed and went on to form The Idan Raichel Project—a collaboration between artists whose ages, native languages, ethnicities and level of musical participation varied widely. Raichel is the keyboardist, composer, producer and occasional vocalist of the Project, whose main participants include musicians of Ethiopian, Palestinian, Yemenite, South African and Surinamese descent.

The Idan Raichel Project’s first album went triple platinum in Israel in 2002, and their sophomore release in 2005 went double platinum. The group has performed widely throughout the United States, Israel, Spain, Germany, India and Australia.

The Idan Raichel Project is coming to Chicago in celebration of Israel Solidarity Day, Sunday, May 4, at McCormick Place. Oy!Chicago caught up with Raichel before the big show.

Oy!: How did your musical career begin?
Idan Raichel: I’ve been doing music since I was young. I started out playing the accordion and then I served in the Israeli army as a musician for three years. I performed almost every day for Israeli soldiers. That became a huge experience—doing live shows and playing for a lot of people.

You’ve widely said that you have “no roots.” What do you mean by that and how do you think that has influenced your music?
I was born in Israel and I’m a native Israeli. But in Israel, even after 60 years, you cannot define its food or its culture as one thing because it is all mixed. I have a grandfather from Russia, and if I followed classic Eastern European culture, I would be eating borscht. But I have no roots, and once you don’t have roots, you can feel free to explore many cultures with the curiosity of an outsider. I can take a native Ethiopian sound and mix it with electronic music influenced by Euro pop because no one is labeling me by my background.

Most of your songs are in Hebrew, Amharic and Arabic. How is your music is received in parts of the world unfamiliar with those languages?
People outside of Israel define our music as world music. To us, it’s Israeli. But people, when they are coming to see us, they’re not expecting us to sing in English or for us to translate our songs. We sing them as they are. They are interested in listening to this music as it is.

To what can you attribute the diverse sound of the Project?
When you look at the Project, it’s about all these people mixed together. Most of them—about 90%—are Israeli by definition, but they immigrated from Ethiopia and South America and all over. The youngest is 16 and the eldest is 83. They know that they can give their own input. There can be someone who is with the Project for years but never sings, and then there is a song they feel they can give their own input into. Sometimes we have people who used to sing their own prayers—very traditional prayers—that they passed along and were so open-minded to have them mixed in with mainstream music. I think it’s beautiful to think about Israel in 2008 with those prayers updated and made contemporary.

8 Questions for Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., black Rabbi, homebody, jazz lover

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04/22/2008

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At Rabbi Capers Funnye's services, gospel is kosher

“I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers,” Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr. recently told the New York Times.  The rabbi grew up attending an African Methodist Church and first discovered Judaism as a teenager when he began to feel disconnected with his Methodist faith. Today, he leads the more than 200 members of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and is working to encourage Chicago’s Jewish community to accept his predominantly black Southside congregation as one of its own. 

So, whether you are examining your own faith, want to join a congregation where davening might just break into gospel song or are a fellow jazz lover, Rabbi Capers Funnye is a Jew you should know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
At the age of seventeen I dreamed of being a lawyer, like Perry Mason.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love meeting people and assisting them in their desire to become Jewish and teaching Torah.

3.  What are you reading?
I am reading The Prophets by Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel.

4. What is your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I rarely eat out, so I don't really have a favorite place to eat out. I am a homebody.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I would invent a cure for cancer. I lost my father, mother and a brother to this disease.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
I think I would rather be invisible. I believe it would be the best way to find out what people are really thinking.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
I am sorry, but I do not own an iPod. But, I do listen to Jazz music.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
My favorite Jewish thing to do is daven and spend my time studying Jewish literature.

Taking Care of Business, Part 1

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Across the city, Jewish entrepreneurs are succeeding in business
04/15/2008

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Kosher Ham party, Jeremy Bloom (center, front)

Going into business for yourself takes chutzpah. This week, in the first of a two-part series, meet two local Jews—Michael Farah and Jeremy Bloom—who found the inspiration, money and guts to take their big ideas and run with them.

Old-School FroYo? Hell No!

Michael Farah is starting a cultural revolution over on State and Erie—and the cultures are alive!

Popular on the coasts and overseas for years, chilled yogurt is tart, tangy and doesn’t resemble the stuff we all used to enjoy at TCBY. Berry Chill’s healthy, low calorie, low-fat, lactose-free treats contain live active cultures that some say boost metabolism and immune response.

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Michael Farah, yogurt king

Farah first discovered the joys of this healthy upscale treat on a spring break trip to Florence while he was studying in Israel. One of his challenges has been getting locals to embrace the unfamiliar flavor. “We’re working with the best yogurt scientists in the world; Berry Chill is healthier than most yogurt you can buy in the store, but we have to change everyone’s views,” he says. And to do this, Farah is focusing not only on offering the best product possible, but creating a brand and engaging customers.

When Farah left the world of commodities trading after seven years to focus on building his chilled empire, he dedicated himself to creating a unique approach and a business with an upscale feel. “I’m really trying to change the way that retail is done. We’re breaking all of the rules and most people’s first reaction is, 'wow.' We deliver, we have a mobile bar on wheels for events, we’re doing this differently,” he says. The space itself is hip and comfortable, there’s a Berry Chill blog, the store stays open until 4 a.m. on weekends and customers can personalize their experience by voting for the month’s flavors online.

Farah is also out to make people feel good about spending at Berry Chill. All of the bowls and spoons are totally recyclable and the re-loadable payment cards—popular at many restaurants and coffee shops—come with two perks at Berry Chill: a 10% bump to added funds and a 3% donation from every purchase to a charity such as Bright Pink or Gen Art. Customers register their cards online to select the charity.

That warm community feel extends all the way to the toppings. In addition to fruits and cereals, toppings include treats from area shops: granola from Milk & Honey in Wicker Park, pie crust from Pie and candies from Sarah’s Pastries, both in the Gold Coast and—those childhood favorites of Jews from the ‘burbs— smiley face cookies from Leonard’s in Northbrook.

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The cookies have eyes!

Despite living the hectic life of a business owner, 30-year-old Farah is having a great time with this new venture. “It’s fun because I am so passionate about the product,” he says. “I work 20 hours a day and it never ends but I love it. The best thing is that the yogurt and this place just make everyone so happy. We’ve only been open a month and we’ve created a really social atmosphere.”

If Berry Chill isn’t near your stomping grounds, it might be soon. Farah plans to open five more stores in the city this year. Watch for two loop locations to open soon.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Not everyone can—or wants to—quit his day job to start a new venture. Jeremy Bloom came up with his side project while engaging in an activity long-known for inspiring great ideas: drinking.

“It was St. Patrick's Day 2007 and I was eight hours into drinking Guinness pints and Jameson shots at Pint in Wicker Park. I’d made a shirt that said, ‘Irish Chicks Love My Kosher Corned Beef.’ Dozens of random people asked where I bought my shirt and if they could take pictures with me,” says Bloom. During that holiday binge, the phrase “kosher ham” popped into his head.

With the words still kicking around the next morning, Bloom saw an opportunity to use his background in advertising copywriting—and his longtime love of funny t-shirts—to do something creative. He trademarked Kosher Ham, found a designer and dove into the funny t-shirt business. “Wearing a t-shirt is a reflection of your identity and gives every individual the chance to be their own walking billboard… It’s an easy way to make an impact,” Bloom says.

A self-described “guy who does ad sales,” Bloom had been keeping money in his piggy bank to use when inspiration struck. “I knew I'd be hungry with an idea, and instead of convincing a bank or family and friends for the initial backing, I took it upon myself,” he says. Bloom developed the concept for the website, got pricing and opened up a business account with American Apparel. He comes up with ideas for the shirts, works with designers and gets the products printed—and he does it all after-hours.

“It’s pretty awesome starting my own business. On nights and weekends I fill orders, work on the website and work on Kosher Ham’s Facebook page. I have also been teaching myself about search engine optimization.”

So far, business is good. Kosher Ham Ventures LLC became official in May 2007, and today the site offers more than 20 shirts (the logo shirt is the most popular) and the Facebook page boasts almost 300 fans. There are a bunch of new designs in the works and Bloom is planning to start selling onesies, children’s clothing, and maybe even tops for dogs.

Next week, meet Danielle Schultz—and find out about her one-woman revolution to modernize modest clothing options for girls and women. And, have you ever been sitting in your cubicle and thought, hey, I could do this at home in my pajamas? Josh Eisenberg, freelance web designer and writers, shares the ups and downs of life without an office—or a boss.

Do you know Jews running local businesses? Leave a comment or drop us a note and let us know what you and your entrepreneurial pals are up to.

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