Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are probably best known for creating ice cream flavors with tastes and names like no others—favorites like Phish Food, Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, to name a few. But what you might not know about these two longtime friends and business partners is that since co-founding Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in 1978, they have created a company with a long history of social activism and a community-oriented approach to business to back up their sweet, rich and tasty ice cream.
The duo, who met in high school on Long Island, opened up Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in May of 1978 in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt. Often labeled as hippies, Cohen and Greenfield—who have no formal business background—managed to turn a storefront venture into a $300 million ice cream empire with these simple ingredients: good ice cream, unusual flavors, creative marketing strategies and an emphasis on social responsibility.
Cohen and Greenfield wrote a book in 1987 titled Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. In 1988, three years after establishing the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, they were recognized by the Council on Economic Priorities and the U.S. Small Business Administration for donating 7.5 percent of their pretax profits to nonprofit organizations through their foundation.
Oy!Chicago’s Stefanie Pervos recently caught up with Ben and Jerry about their kooky flavors, impressive sense of social responsibility and the future of their ice cream company—to quote their Cherry Garcia T-shirt “What a long, strange dip it’s been.”
Oy!Chicago: Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be talking about at the JUF Trades Industries & Professions dinner on May 13?
Ben: We’re going to talk about some humorous anecdotes of the early days of Ben & Jerry’s. Then we’ll get into a little progressive, radical, socially responsible business philosophy, and finish up with a little socially responsible federal budgeting.
And most importantly, will there be ice cream?
Ben: Yes, and that is most importantly.
Tell me briefly how Ben & Jerry’s got started—your friendship, why the partnership and why the ice cream?
Jerry: Ben and I met in junior high school. We actually went to the same temple and were in Sunday school together as well. After less than stellar college careers—I was trying to go to medical school and never got in and Ben had dropped out of college—we just decided to do something fun. And since we’d always liked to eat, we thought we’d do something with food and we chose homemade ice cream.
From the day you opened in 1978, it seems you have been able to combine business with social activism. How did this come to be?
Jerry: I think it was an idea that evolved over time. When we first started our company we were a little homemade ice cream parlor in an abandoned gas station and we didn’t plan to do anything more than that. As the business started to grow, we understood more about the role that business plays in the community and the society at large and we wanted to try to use that influence of business for something more than just making money. We don’t have any business education or background, so we wanted to run the business the way a typical personal on the street would—so that it’s a good neighbor and it helps take care of its neighbors instead of just looking out for itself. I think as we went along those feelings evolved into social activism.
How else does social activism play out?
Jerry: The company tries to get involved in certain issues. One thing the company has done, it has pledged not to use bovine growth hormones in the products and puts a message on all our packaging. The company has taken a stand about the military budget and trying to find nonviolent, nonmilitary solutions to conflicts. I think one interesting thing is that the business will be outspoken about issues that are not necessarily in its financial self-interest. Ben & Jerry’s has always felt that we should be standing up for issues for the good of society and not just to make the company more money.
What are your Jewish backgrounds, and how, if at all, do you think your Jewish background played into how you chose to create and run Ben & Jerry’s?
Ben: I think my Jewish background made me aware of people that were discriminated against, and that a big part of the issue is poverty and people not getting their fair share of social services because of discrimination. So in terms of the stands Ben & Jerry’s has taken, it has been about trying to get more fair treatment for people who have been discriminated against or exploited. I certainly identify myself as a Jew. I’m not a practicing Jew in terms of I don’t go to temple—but I do really like to eat the food and sing the songs.
Jerry: [Ben and I] both grew up in Long Island and there was a significant Jewish population in our town, and I was bar mitzvahed. [Today], I identify as being Jewish but am less practicing. Sometimes, instead of Ben & Jerry, we say we’re Cohen and Greenfield…
How did your ice cream flavors and naming method become so distinctive?
Ben: I was just trying to make flavors I really liked. That was pretty much chopping up cookies and candies and sticking them in ice cream, so that’s how Heath Bar Crunch came about; and then we had great suggestions from customers, and that’s how Cherry Garcia came about and Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey. Those were all flavor names and concepts that our customers thought up, although it was I, along with the help of a whole bunch of people, that actually brought those flavors into reality, gave birth to them through the birth canal—the flavor birth canal!
What are your favorite flavors?
Jerry: Heath Bar Crunch.
Ben: Cherry Garcia.
Do those change?
Ben: Not for me.
Jerry: I eat a lot of flavors.
Ben: (singing) There’s so many flavors to crave from Ben & Jerry’s…
What is your involvement on a day-to-day basis with the company today?
Jerry: Ben and I are not involved in the operations or the management of the company. We are the beloved co-founders.
So, what are you doing when you’re not being Ben and Jerry of “Ben & Jerry’s?”
Ben: I walk with my dog in the woods.
Jerry: I spend some time doing public speaking. I am the president of Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, so I’m involved with that. I’m also on the board of a nonprofit in Vermont. And I think Ben and I also interface with the company to a certain amount, even though we don’t have any responsibilities. We’re in touch with the CEO and we try to encourage the company to be more active in terms of social issues and environmental issues.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield will speak at JUF’s 3rd Annual Trades, Industries and Professions Suburban Dinner May 13 at Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling.
I am writing this at the risk of being brushed off as a crazy cat person. I have the best cats in the world. They are the most snuggly, loudest purring, most playful, greet-you-at-the-door-every-time-it-opens kittens. Mr. Pants and Cocoa Bean grace the wallpaper on my computer. I have a picture of them on my office bulletin board and my refrigerator at home. But they are not framed photographs. You have to draw the line somewhere.
After a weekend away, I will occasionally thank my cat sitters for taking care of my babies. Whoa. Yes, I said it. Babies. I have a friend who refuses to be called her dog’s mom. I see her point, but pets do make you feel like a parent sometimes. After all, you are totally in charge of their well being. And you have to clean up bodily fluids. And solids. And they cost money.
Is it weird to think of myself as my kittens’ parent? Are my cats Jewish if I am their Jewish mother? What about the fact that their other mommy isn’t Jewish? To answer these questions, I decided to look online for some Jewish expertise.
I googled “pets and Jewish opinion” and learned that I have already violated Jewish law by having cats that are spayed, neutered and declawed. However, this was done at the vet before we technically adopted them, but we did pay the vet for these procedures. The website says it is okay to have pets in your house that are spayed and neutered and declawed as long as you didn’t make the call. Whoops. At least my new furniture and my pocketbook are thankful for this decision.
This doesn’t really apply to my cats, but I also learned that a woman once gave her cat birth control pills. Not a violation of Jewish law, but come on. Seriously?
The second link takes me to a site about putting your pet to sleep. I’m hoping that my three-year-old kittens do not make me think about this for a long, long time. According to the rabbi on this site, it is okay to put your pets to sleep if there is no chance of recovery and they are suffering. When my childhood cat passed away from kidney failure when I was eleven, we buried her in the woods by my grandma’s house the next morning bright and early before school. We said Kaddish. I cried at school that day.
The third site brings me to an online store for Jewish dog and cat accessories. My kittens, clearly deprived, have no accessories and don’t even know that catnip dreidels and pearl collars with Hebrew charms exist. And so they will remain. They are selective just like their mama. Cocoa Bean only likes one particular kind of mouse toy and Mr. Pants is only smitten for the colorful beaded necklaces from the gay pride parade. This reminds me, I need to stock up on those next June.
So what have I learned from my extremely limited research session? That the top three sites when googling “pets and Jewish opinion,” do not tell me whether or not it is weird to refer to your pets as your babies, nor do they tell me whether or not my kittens are Jewish. Does no one else ponder these questions? Perhaps I am a crazy cat lady.
Even if no one is posting about it, I bet there are 10 opinions on this for every 9 Jews in the room, or however that saying goes. At least for me, I have both opinions. I’ll just keep saying “thanks for taking care of my babies” and feeling a little unsettled about it, at least until I have my own human babies. Then it might actually be weird.
By the way, the top three sites that come up when googling “Jewish opinion on calling pets your babies” cover the random topics of: pet names for your girlfriend or boyfriend, Christians performing religious circumcisions, and a mom and baby group meeting in Massachusetts. Maybe the Internet isn’t always the best source for answering the tough questions in life.
Witless Protection isn’t my kind of movie. Normally, I’d have skipped it all together, but I went to see it opening weekend. It‘s the story of a small town bungling sheriff who mistakenly thinks he’s witnessing a kidnapping. The “kidnappers” are FBI agents assigned to escort a woman to court to testify against a big corporation, but later turn out to be on the “take.” They’re working for the bad guy corporate executives and our clumsy sheriff ends up a hero. It stars Larry the Cable Guy as the sheriff, Jenny McCarthy as his girl friend, and…Skip Jacobs, a.k.a. my dad, as featured extra #12. He’s a movie star…well, sort of.
Following my mom’s cancer diagnosis, my dad decided it was time to retire. The two of them would travel, relax and enjoy life together without the stress of work. This arrangement lasted a whole year. My mom recovered and went back to work. And my dad went to his first movie audition for The Express.
Fifteen movies, four TV shows and a couple commercials later, he has a thriving second career in the movie and TV business. He’s filmed in movies starring Angela Bassett, Angelina Jolie, Christian Bale, Dennis Quaid, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Patrick Swayze, and Tyler Perry—to name a few Hollywood folks. He did a commercial with Lou Pinella for Aquefina at Wrigley Field. And last year, he met Barack Obama while filming a scene for the movie “The Unborn” at K.A.M. Isaiah Temple in Hyde Park. (President Obama visited the set directly across the street from his Chicago home.) He even has three casting agents.
All of this success has gone straight to his head.
Me: “Hey Dad, I am going to write a story about your work as a movie extra for Oy!, what do you think?”
Dad: “Well, are you going to pay me?”
Me: “Umm, no.
Dad: “You can’t write it then.”
Me: “Dad, come on.”
Dad: “Ok, well only if you buy me dinner at a restaurant of my choice with my manager, my publicist, my agent, my lawyer and my accountant. You have to take me and my people out.”
Me: “Or you can just give me one or two stories about being an extra…wait-a-minute, I thought I was your publicist? Dad, can you just talk about being on the set of The Dark Knight. Give me a little scoop, so I can write this story. What was it like?”
Dad: “Well, it was a huge production. A lot of fun, but very time consuming—they shot scenes over and over again and we had to stand in place for hours on end. There were over 400 extras in my particular scene—the memorial for the police commissioner. We were under strict orders not to approach or speak to any of the Hollywood actors. But that didn’t stop Heath Ledger.. He was very nice, very warm, such an affable guy…he talked with a whole group of us and he was amazing to watch perform.
There were two wrap parties for The Dark Knight, one for the principle actors and one for the crew and some of the featured extras. Heath showed up to both parties and not only that, he took some of the crew out for drinks afterwards.
This interview will now cost you a thousand dollars. I’ll have my people send you my bill.”
So, he has a bit of an ego, but I also enjoy some of the perks of having a father in show business. I’m his future date to any premiere parties he might get invited to and I’m waiting for that elusive invitation to the Oscars. I think secretly my dad enjoys dressing up in costume, getting ridiculous hair cuts and even sitting in the make up chair. He’s an actor now who takes his craft seriously. Plus, he’s made a lot of new friends and eaten a lot of well-catered craft food.
But believe it or not, stardom also has its downsides. My dad can be on a film set sometimes up to seven days a week. He’s missed birthday parties and even a recent holiday celebration. It’s a lot of long hours and he never knows what he’ll be asked to do (he once turned down a nude scene) or where he’ll be. He’s filmed in airports, temples, bars and even inside a jail full of convicted felons.
A few months ago I called him on his cell phone while he was filming for The Beast. My dog and my best friend Lisa had joined him as extras on set and I wanted to check in to see how they were holding up. Surprisingly, my dad answered his phone. So, I began to ask him about the filming figuring he was on a break. Then I heard someone in the background yell “Cut! Get him off the phone…What does he think he is doing?” And click! I was disconnected. Yep, that’s my dad. He answered his phone while shooting the middle of a scene—typical movie star behavior.
Ignore the shoes; focus on the ‘guts’
When Janice Lieberman was single and dating, she put a lot of stock in what kind of shoes her potential suitor was wearing.
As the Consumer Smarts correspondent for NBC’s “Today Show” and former host of the consumer affairs show “Steals and Deals” on CNBC, Lieberman had been living an exciting life with a successful career. Yet, she was missing a loving husband to share it all with, which made the rest of her life seem a little less fabulous. “I was single for way too long and I was going nowhere with my dating life,” she said. “I had the perfect job and the perfect everything, but when you come home to an empty house, the job doesn’t seem so exciting.”
After many years of dating anguish and “writing off guys for stupid reasons,” Lieberman, who is Jewish and lives in New Jersey, decided that footwear doesn’t matter in a mate and neither do many of the other attributes on her previous “shopping list” for a husband. What counts, she says, is the content of his character.
So she altered her list to consider the fundamentals that really matter in a partner—the “good guts,” as she calls them—like how good a friend he is, how he treats his mother, and how polite he is to restaurant staff.
Then, about seven years ago, she met Steve—who she says has “good guts”—in a Torah study class and, six months later, married him when she was on the wrong side of 35.
In her new book, How to Shop for a Husband: A Consumer Guide to Getting a Great Buy on a Guy (St. Martin’s Press; $22.95), coming out this May, Lieberman couples her expertise as a consumer reporter with her personal knowledge of the dating marketplace to guide other women as they make the most important “buy” of their life—their spouse.
In the consumer guide, written with Bonnie Teller, Lieberman uses shopping principles to formulate rules that will help women choose a spouse and “close the deal.” The book provides a shopping list that women can use to hunt for their ultimate bargain and highlights potential pitfalls and the most important rules of the dating (and marriage) game.
The ‘Picky Generation’
Lieberman labels her current “shoppers” as the “Picky Generation.” People can customize the “perfect” anything—their Starbucks, their iPod playlists, and even their “Build-a-Bear” teddy bears for their kids, but it doesn’t stop there. “Our predilection for the personalized, the customized, the made-to-order, and the all-around, generally perfect has bled into our search for a soul mate,” she writes.
In researching her book, Lieberman met people who have rejected potential mates for reasons including the following: “Poor grammar,” “thinks Olive Garden is fine dining,” “had never heard of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and “didn’t know that Houston Street in Manhattan is pronounced “how-ston,” not “hue-ston.”
She advises people to be selective, but not picky in choosing a mate. People need to learn to compromise, but not to settle. “We have a million things to check off [such as in online dating] about going to the movies and taking walks on the beach, but what does that really mean?” says Lieberman. “You need to be selective about the qualities that count—the goodness in a person.”
Dating sage Charles Grodin
Back when Lieberman was single, her friend, TV personality and CNBC colleague Charles Grodin, started a campaign on his talk show to get Lieberman married.
He asked her on air what she was looking for in a husband and she rattled off a list of five descriptors: “Smart, good-looking, wealthy, athletic, and a sense of humor.” Every few weeks, he would invite Lieberman back on the show for dating updates. She went out with a lot of men, but still couldn’t meet Mr. Right.
Ironically, her future husband Steve’s father heard about Grodin’s campaign and urged Steve to call in and ask her out, but Steve refused because he worried that “she’ll think I’m a stalker.”
At the end of the failed dating campaign, Grodin suggested to Lieberman that she was searching for the wrong five things on her shopping list and suggested five more: “You want somebody who loves you, cares about your family, somebody you can trust, who is kind, and who wants children,” he explained. Grodin later told Lieberman that the most important thing to look for in a prospective spouse is a good disposition. You never know how time and circumstance will change a person, but one thing that generally stays the same is a person’s disposition, “so pick a spouse,” he says, “who is kind and pleasant.” Eventually, his advice paid off and she met Steve.
Shopping tips for single Jewish women
Now, happily married with two sons—ages 6 and almost 1—Lieberman recommends the following shopping tips to single women:
1. Ignore the packaging. Learn how to discriminate between legitimate reasons to cross a guy off the list and those that will lead to buyer’s remorse.
2. Avoid scams and sleazy sales pitches in men.
3. Shop in the men’s department. Go to where the guys are, such as Home Depot, the Apple Store, and fly-fishing vacations.
4. Shop alone. “If there is one dress on sale and you both want it, that’s an issue,” Leiberman explains. “This applies to dating as well.”
5. Tell everyone to set you up. You never know who has a nice, single Jewish friend.
6. Finally, alterations are fine. “You don’t want to go into a relationship and need someone to change completely,” says Lieberman. “But a few minor alterations are OK, just like that classic little black dress. If it needs a hem, that’s fine, but if it needs major re-altering, leave it on the shelf.”
Oy!Chicago (www.oychicago.com) is looking for an enthusiastic summer intern to work on a weekly blog/online magazine.
You won't get paid, but you will be an integral part of the editorial process, getting to sit in on planning meetings, research story ideas, engage in media monitoring and blog posting and occasionally write your own bylined articles. You'll also be expected to help out with advertising efforts, event planning, proofreading, editing and other tasks as determined by the editors.
If you're interested in Chicago's young Jewish community, looking for a career in journalism and want to work in a creative environment, this might be the internship for you.
This is a part-time position—start and end dates are flexible. You will be expected to work onsite in our Loop office 15 to 20 hours a week on days to be determined once you're selected for the role. If your school will give you credit for your work with us, let us know.
Please send a note describing why you'd make a great Oy! intern, your resume and two writing samples (unpublished work is acceptable) to email@example.com no later than May 15.
Thanks for your interest and we look forward to hearing from you!
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…)
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.
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.
“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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- Nominations now open for the fifth annual Chicago Jewish 36 under 36 list
- New play ‘A Splintered Soul’ explores moving forward in America after the Holocaust
- Have you been personally inspired by a Holocaust survivor?
- ‘Nurture the Wow’ focuses on the spirituality of parenting
- Third annual JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival opens March 10