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To Be a Jew in the World

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Stacey takes a break from sharing recipes to share her thoughts on Passover

Some of you may be wondering what I’m doing here in Living Jewishly. After all, I’m the self-proclaimed Food Jew, and this the Passover edition, and why the heck aren’t I over in NOSH where I belong, giving you sage advice on the perfect charoset or moderating the age-old floaters vs. sinkers Matzo Ball debate? I joke around about being Jew-ish, think that bacon should be its own food group, and openly admit that not only have I never been to Israel, it falls way down on my list of places I want to visit, after Morocco, Spain, Ireland and China, past Portugal and South Africa, even beyond places I want to go to for a second time like Italy. I’m reasonably certain I’ll get there, and I even genuinely believe I’ll be moved and transformed by the experience, its just, well, I sort of want to see Prague first.

But despite my cheek on the general subject of my Judaism, and despite the fact that I do (of course) have killer recipes for charoset and matzo kugel, I specifically asked the editors for a brief detour from the culinary aspect of our culture, and share my thoughts on Passover.

Passover has always been my favorite of the holidays. And not just because I got schickered on Manischiewitz wine when I was four. On first blush, you’d assume that it is because of the combination of food and ritual. I’m a sucker for food and ritual. When I was little, my two favorite meals to eat out were Geja’s Fondue and Ron of Japan Japanese steakhouse. Whether it was cooking my own meal in tiny cauldrons on long forks to the soundtrack of classical guitar in a basement grotto, or watching quick and skilled knife work as shrimp tails flew through the air, there was something utterly delightful about those meals. Entertainment, inclusion, the comforting progression that never alters in any meaningful sense, this was heady stuff. Seductive.  So no wonder that the Seder, which isn’t just about eating, or just about praying, but is about using food as part and parcel of that prayer, is so appealing to that same part of me. Frankly, all it lacks is the guy juggling the salt shaker and making the onion volcano.

When I look at my life, the path I have taken in my career, the Passover Seder is essentially the culmination of everything I am passionate about. I am an educator, and the Seder is about teaching. I spent nearly a dozen years working in professional theater, and the Seder has wonderful theatrical moments, especially the “will he or won’t he” ta-da moment of opening the door for the possible entrance of Elijah. I’m a writer and storyteller, and the entire service is about telling an amazing story. I’m devoted to family and friends, and the Seder is about gathering those people around you. I try to live a life that embraces diversity, and there is no greater mitzvah at a Seder than the presence of Gentiles, the sharing of our culture. And, yes, I’m a foodie who loves to entertain, so any excuse to get into the kitchen and create a great meal is a pleasure and a privilege.

My dad is on the Board of Jewish Child and Family Services, a branch of Federation, and a couple of years ago they went through a strategic planning process, during which they attempted to identify a set of Core Jewish Values which would help drive the work of the agency, and the direction for the future. When he shared their findings with me, I was surprised by how moved I was by the content of what they came up with. How connected I felt to the way ancient Jewish teachings, of which I have never been a student, explore the way we ought to be in the world. I realized, as I absorbed the document he sent me, that ultimately what they chose to identify as core Jewish values, are simply a set of values that should be at the core of any person. That what they describe, while beautifully supported by Jewish writings and history, are the basic values I hold dear, the ideals that I hope are infused in the way I live my life, and are values that would find equal support in the writings and teachings of other religions and cultures. That in their specificity, we find universality.  That in looking into what it means to be a Jew, we find what it means to be human, and instead of underlining our differentness, we illuminate our parity.

One of the things I have always loved about the Seder, what I love in fact generally about being Jewish, is the room to grow and expand and include. I have heard that in the mid-1980s, at a conference, the topic of women Rabbi’s was brought before a panel, and an elderly male Rabbi announced to the assembly that a woman had as much place on the Bimah as an orange has on the Seder plate. From that moment on, my family, like thousands around the world, have put an orange on our Seder plate, and have incorporated the story into our explanation of the sacred items it holds. We have added Miriam’s Cup, a glass cup filled with water, to remind us of the second side to the story we tell.

Sometimes, as a writer, you have to go seek the story; you have to go looking for the words. Sometimes, if you are lucky, the material comes to you when you least expect it. If you had told me a few years ago that I would ever write something specifically for inclusion in any religious ritual, I’d have thought you were nuts. This is ME, after all. But I know when inspiration strikes; you have to go with it. When I read the Core Jewish Values piece my dad sent me, it immediately called to me to be part of the Seder. By the time I read it through the second time, I was already shaping it in my mind. And within a half an hour I sent it to my family, asking for their thoughts, and if they would feel comfortable incorporating it into our Seder. We did, and I was amazed once again at how seamlessly something so new fit in with something so ancient. I shared it with a few friends, who reported that they too had used it in their services with positive response.

As we all get ready to celebrate Passover, however we each choose, I want to share with you all the piece which is now a part of my celebration. I hope that if it resonates with you, in part or in whole, that you will feel free to use it however you like. That if you find value in it, you will send it to your friends and family. (If you don’t want to copy and paste, click here for a downloadable document.) I hope that it may inspire you to create something for your own Seder, to continue to mold and shape your celebrations so that they are an accurate depiction of your own personal Jewishness. Or Jew-ishness. It is enormously gratifying to feel that no matter how secular I may choose to be, however far I get from traditional religiosity, there is room for the way I choose to practice, and I always feel genuinely embraced by my own culture.

I wish you all a happy Passover, and I promise, next time RECIPES! (And if you are having a true matzo ball crisis, shoot me a note, I’m happy to help…)

Kosher for Pesach

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Linda thanks Martha Stewart for making this Passover a little bit sweeter 

I must begin with a confession: Like a moth to a flame, I am drawn to All Things Goyish. I have an unnatural affection for English country gardens, high tea and Shakespeare. I shop at Talbot’s. I love the mansions in Lake Forest. And I subscribe to Martha Stewart Living magazine.

My husband, who hails from gritty South Shore, finds my secret passion hilarious, and whoops aloud as he pages through the monthly publication. For every luscious new cake recipe I discover, he zeroes in on a more esoteric tidbit. His favorite is Martha’s palette of house paints based on the hues of bird’s’ eggs, sold by the quart.

So imagine my glee when I settled in with April issue and found feature after feature on the not very WASP-friendly holiday of Passover.

Watch Martha make Kosher s’mores with matzah!

Let Martha show you how to personalize individual wine carafes to create enchanting place cards for your Seder table!

Try Martha’s recipe for Sephardic chicken stuffed with charoset!

I realize that, in their own way, some Christians observe Passover, too, seeking to honor their Jewish roots or commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper. Not Martha. It was clear that this was, quite simply, a Jewish holiday. And that it was a Good Thing.

What’s next? A Sukkah at the Winnetka Women’s Club?

It’s not just Martha. Everywhere I look, I see reminders of the upcoming holiday, a holiday that commemorates the quintessential Jewish experience. There are Passover greeting cards in mainstream drug stores, Passover foods in mainstream supermarkets and Passover aprons in mainstream department stores.

The cynic in me is wary of the commercialization of this sacred festival. I know that new products could represent nothing more than savvy retailers looking to break into a lucrative new market. Yet a friend told me that the Red Sox home opener was re-scheduled to avoid a conflict with the First Seder. And I have heard that President Obama and his family will be attending a Seder at the home of the First Lady’s cousin...who happens to be a Chicago rabbi.

So I am going to savor it, and consider this Elijah’s Cup to be half-full rather than half-empty. Thanks, Martha, for the recipes. Liberation has never been sweeter.

8 Questions for Shira Vardi, body worker, dance fanatic, social worker

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Shira and her sister, Orit, tasting sweet blossoms from a bush on her grandparent’s kibbutz

Shira Vardi lived in Israel until she was ten, grew the rest of the way up in Madison, moved to New York City to take part in Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, and is now finally a Chicagoan looking forward to summer festivals and fun times by the lake.

Avodah was just like the Real World (well, sort of), living with 7 roommates while learning about Jewish history, culture, religion and learning to create effective social change. Now Shira gives back to her community in many meaningful ways. Studying to be a Feldenkrais practioner, Shira helps others to increase ease and range of motion, improve flexibility and coordination, and rediscover capacity for graceful, efficient movement. She also offers support and counseling to seniors every day as a social worker.

Missing the Israeli weather, food and her family, Shira recently looked into the idea of making Aliyah and was quickly reminded of the forward Israeli culture. Someday, Shira may call Israel home, but for now she is loving Chicago, running along the paths by her work that remind her of Madison and discovering new parts of a vibrant city without the constant buzz of the big apple.

Wherever she goes, she finds the best places to dance – Salsa, Swing, Belly, Charleston, Israeli, African, you name it, and you’ll find Shira and her look alike sister, Orit, dancing up a storm. So if you need a dancing partner, want to explore new places, or love helping others, Shira Vardi is a Jew you should know!

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
aridanielshapiro.com Great science-based radio stories by my friend Ari that occasionally get aired on NPR!

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would road trip through the Northwest and Southwest U.S., do a 10 day hike to Machu Pichu, spend a week of nostalgia in Paris, attend a West African Dance intensive in Guinea, experience Ashrams and chaos in India, go mountain hiking in Thailand, spend family time in Israel, and do it all accompanied by lucky friends!

3. If a movie were made about your life, who would play you?
My sister, because she looks just like me.

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?
I would invite Mia Segal, an 80 year-old Feldenkrais teacher living in Israel with a twinkle in her spirit, and my maternal grandmother, who died when I was four. We'd have a picnic lunch by the lake and eat Shwarma.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
The perfect day would be biking with my sister and friends to the lake and reading, playing Frisbee, and grilling on a sunny, summer day. Then we would happen upon a drum circle where we dance our hearts out. Can you tell I'm ready for summer?

6. What do you love about what you do?
I love my co-workers and the in-synch feeling when a client feels heard. I work for the North Shore Senior Center and do case management, supportive counseling, and elder abuse investigations for seniors living in the northern suburbs. My service area includes Maine Township and Deerfield, so I am out and about a lot.  I find the work most satisfying when I am able to help seniors and families come to terms with changes in their needs and find solutions that are safe and satisfying. This often involves providing supportive counseling to the senior, working as a team with doctors and other professionals, offering support and education to the family, and helping to provide concrete services.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I’d do private practice therapy, Feldenkrais, and some sort of teaching. Feldenkrais is a method that uses verbal instructions, imagery, and gentle touch to teach people to move with more freedom and ease. Students learn by noticing differences in ease as they do different combinations of movements. I'm still training in this method, but I just started teaching classes to my co-workers, and find it really fun to set up a learning environment where people can explore their possibilities of movement. Because I am not showing people a 'correct' way to move, but rather giving instructions and having them find the movements themselves, the results are more individual and less predictable. For example, after doing a lesson exploring movement of the shoulder blades and folding of the chest, a coworker found me the next day and told me that she slept better the previous night. So, you just never know.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Running the Chiditarod a few weekends ago and pretending that it was a big Purim parade. Also, Israeli folk dancing at Northwestern.

Making It Up As They Go

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An Israeli improv troupe hits the stage in Chicago 


Catch Altermania Tuesday, April 14 at ComedySportz on Belmont and Saturday, April 18 at Laugh Out Loud in Woodfield

“Chicago is like the mother country of improv,” says Eli Galperin, one of the founding members of Altermania, an Israeli improv group hitting town April 14 as part of the Chicago Improv Festival. The annual event, this year dubbed “One World, Many Laughs,” will feature 90 ensembles from 11 different countries.

Founded by graduates from the Nissan Nativ acting studio, Altermania (“alter” is improv in Hebrew) performs largely long-form improv. Their current show, Opening the Rabbit’s Mouth, will introduce Chicagoans to some of Altermania’s signature improv games, including creating an entire sketch about the life of one lucky audience member.

Improv plays second fiddle to stand-up comedy in Israel, and Altermania hopes to change that trend.

“There is no audience for long-form improv in Israel; it must be a short-form sketch show, with little games. It’s much more difficult to get people to an hour-long show,” says Galperin.

But he and fellow actors Roy Zadok, Muli Shulman and Ma’ayan Weinstock are up for the challenge. Galperin, Zadok and Shulman founded Altermania after performing with Habima, the National Theater of Israel. The actors were looking for something challenging that they could call their own. They picked up a few female performers, and suddenly they had their act.

The group has performed throughout Israel, and is currently housed at the Tsavta performing arts center in Tel Aviv.

The actors are undeterred by the prospect of performing in English, a challenge for any foreign actor, but a particularly formidable one for improv comedians, who must constantly think on their feet. They plan to perform twice, once in Hebrew and once in English. Two of the actors will participate in  “One World on One Stage,” in which improvisers from Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and the USA will all share the stage.

While in Chicago, the members of Altermania hope to soak up some of the rich improv history.

“We’ve never been to Chicago before – all of us want to see as many shows as possible, participate in as many jams as possible with groups from other countries and see what is going on in improv around the world,” says Galperin.

Altermania performs Tuesday, April 14, at 8pm at ComedySportz, 929 W. Belmont, and Saturday, April 18, at 9:30pm at Laugh Out Loud, 601 N. Martingale Road, Streets of Woodfield, in Schaumburg. Tickets are available at the theater box offices. The Chicago Improv Festival runs April 13-19. For more information and a complete festival line-up, please visit  www.chicagoimprovfestival.org .


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