OyChicago articles

Custom House

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06/24/2008

Rating: Four Stars 
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Custom House, a bright twist on the traditional steak house

For anyone who loves Chicago history, one of the most exciting periods occurred in 1871 after the Great Chicago Fire, when the Custom House Levee District flourished. Filled with saloons, brothels and gaming houses, and home to the genesis of the classic pay-for-votes politics, the Levee District was an oasis of sin and sensual pleasures. The higher class bordellos were as famous for the quality of their food and wine as they were for the charms of their girls, and the area we now know as Printer’s Row spent a glorious thirty-five years reigning as the place to experience carnal delights of every sort.

As the epicenter of the American meat industry, Chicago’s stockyards made us Sandburg’s ‘hog butcher to the world.’ Eras like the heyday of the Levee District gave Chicago a reputation as a city of outlaws, wild characters and excitement. And events like the Century of Progress Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair marked Chicago as a place of innovation, artistry and progress.

So it should be no surprise that Chef/Owner Shawn McClain, winner of the James Beard Best Chef –Midwest Award and a chef who had nothing to prove to this city after the success of his hotspots Spring and Green Zebra, has managed to meld three of Chicago’s most famous attributes in Custom House. McClain has taken the concept of a traditional steak house, and with a combination of classic technical skill and broad artistic vision, has transformed it into a place that both honors its origins and explodes preconceptions…and done it in the heart of what used to be the infamous Levee District.

The open dining room at Custom House, with its tall ceilings and wide windows, erases the idea of the dark paneled rooms one usually expects when one thinks of a steak house. A wall of stone, softened by light fabric on the chairs, and simple elegant lighting is warm and welcoming. Starters are an embarrassment of riches, and deciding between them is a Herculean task. After consulting with our server, we choose the Quail, Smoked Rainbow Trout, and the special of the evening, a Goat Leg Tart.

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Some delicious Custom House starters

The quail, simply roasted and served with a caramel balsamic reduction and a cippoline onion beignet, is perfect. The skin crisp and well seasoned, the meat cooked medium, highlighting the mellow gaminess of the tiny bird, a hint of sweet savoriness from the light drizzle of sauce. And the ‘onion beignet’ is quite simply the best onion ring either of us has ever tasted. Frankly, I’d like a basket of them and some barbeque sauce to dip them in. (Which is something I’d never actually request, but a girl can dream.) 

The tart, a layer of pastry topped with caramelized onion, braised goat leg and baby leeks, is well executed, the meat deeply flavored, the onions sweet. We both wished the pastry was crisper to balance the softness of the toppings, but ultimately it was still a successful dish flavor-wise. But both of these were eclipsed by the Smoked Trout, a light salad with slivers of radish and celery-bacon vinaigrette, served on a cauliflower panna cotta. It is a dish neither of us would have ordered, but for the recommendation of our server, and it was by far the favorite. Served with buttery brioche toast sticks, it is the kind of dish that makes you smile with its inventiveness. The creamy cauliflower panna cotta, much more subtle than we had anticipated, is the ideal foil for the trout, smoked in-house, tender and flavorful. We have the 2006 Tavel Rose; the crisp clean wine with hints of strawberry is great with all three dishes.

For entrees, being a steak house, some beef was in order, and the Australian raised New York Strip with bone marrow maitre’d butter and roasted cippoline onions did not disappoint. The steak, aged 80 days, rivals any you will find at more traditional places, with the rich bone marrow butter putting it right over the top. We were leaning toward the halibut, but our clearly psychic server insisted on the sturgeon, and once again her advice was impeccable. The fish, served in a light morel mushroom broth, was tender and mild, a fish neither of us had tasted before and would definitely order again. Sides are designed to share, but making up your mind will be tough!  We tasted a decadent oxtail risotto, which, when paired with the sturgeon became an inspired surf and turf. Creamed spinach, which actually tasted of spinach and not just cream, was enriched with parmesan bread crumbs and tiny cubes of fried celery root. Asparagus became a meal in itself, wrapped in prosciutto and anointed with black truffle.

But the hands-down favorite, again a recommendation from our server-cum-guru, was the Pommes Anna, thinly sliced potatoes layered with ricotta and house-smoked bacon. My giddy companion referred to it as potatoes au gratin on crack. And yes, you will crave more the minute the plate is empty. And my mother would disown me if I didn’t tell you to order the Bulghur Wheat, which is her favorite thing on the menu! With this feast, the 2005 D & S Proprietary Red, a gloriously chewy California wine with tones of blackcurrant and chocolate, smoothed the edges.

Desserts were a rich warm toffee date cake, a tasting of three ice creams (white coffee, balsamic caramel, and triple chocolate) and a mini lemon Bundt cake. All delicious, with the exception of the balsamic caramel ice cream, which, though we were looking forward to it, had a strange and unwelcome aftertaste.

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Don't forget the dessert! 

Custom House is the sort of place you can return to again and again, the menu changes daily. And without question, let the exceedingly knowledgeable waitstaff influence your dining and drinking decisions, they will introduce you to some amazing new flavors.

Nosh of the week:  One thing about food, there are trends, some enduring (Caesar salad in some form is still on menus highbrow and casual alike), some not (when was your last fondue party?). And certain ingredients come in and out of vogue like hemlines. But sometimes you find something that on first taste you know will become a staple of your kitchen. And for me, that new ingredient is Grains of Paradise. An African spice, which is similar to a pepper, but more closely related to cardamom, is my new go-to pal in the kitchen. I’m not a huge fan of black pepper, finding it often too bitter or its heat too powerful for the style of cooking I prefer. But this glorious spice, without the overpowering heat, and with both floral and citrus tones, highlights everything it touches. Salads are heightened, meats are enhanced, and even more surprising, fruits like pineapple and strawberries are taken to a whole new place with just a light grinding.

Available at Whole Foods, or online at www.worldspice.com, it is the kind of flavor that will uplift the everyday, and inspire you to experiment. Use it wherever you would use black pepper to start, and then let your imagination lead you. And just to prove that I am as cutting edge as I think I am, Sam Adams Summer Ale proudly lists Grains of Paradise as an ingredient. I might have to have one now. And if you find the perfect recipe for it, be sure to post it on the message board for the rest of us.

Nosh food read of the week: 
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn 

Yours in good taste.
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

The Kid from Brooklyn Comes to the Windy City

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06/24/2008

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The cast of The Kid from Brooklyn--The Danny Kaye Musical

Long before Adam Sandler and Sasha Baron Cohen became famous for their impersonations and manic comedic styles, there was Danny Kaye, a Jew from Brooklyn who made it big in Hollywood.

Born David Daniel Kaminsky, the son of an immigrant Ukrainian tailor, Kaye got his early experience as a comedian on the Borscht circuit of summer hotels and camps in the Catskills. After changing his name, Kaye made a name for himself when he became the first man to sing a song naming 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds in “Tchaikovsky,” from the Broadway musical “Lady in the Dark.” With the help of his wife, and composer-lyricist Sylvia Fine, Kaye went from an undisciplined improvisational comic, to a star on Broadway, in film and television and on radio. With his nimble tongue, goofy expressions and imitations, Kaye was undoubtedly an entertainer ahead of his time.

And from now through August 24, Chicago audiences can relive the life and career of Danny Kaye in, The Kid From Brooklyn—The Danny Kaye Musical. The production’s writer, director and producer, Peter Loewy, and Brian Childers, who stars in the production as Danny Kaye, have not only created a nostalgic retelling of the Kaye’s story, they have brought him back to life for the next generation.

“I have been obsessed with Danny Kaye since I was a young child growing up in New Jersey,” Loewy says. “I always wanted to put together something about his life, but I needed to find the right Danny.”

Then Loewy stumbled upon Childers who was selected by a director in Washington D.C. to play Kaye in another production, Danny and Sylvia.

“I did not seek out this role,” Childers says. “I like to say it sought me out.”

Childers prepared for the role using anything and everything he could get his hands on, watching Kaye’s movies, checking out You Tube clips and speaking with people who knew Kaye. Though capturing Kaye’s personality and gestures was a “mammoth task,” he said he loves and embraces the role.

“I don’t like to call it an impersonation,” Childers says. “I’m trying to capture his very essence, to bring Danny to life.”

Deciding just how to bring Danny Kaye back to life on stage was another mammoth task, considering his expansive and incredible repertoire.

“How do you put 74 years into a two and a half hour production?” Loewy says. “We focused on classic songs and classic sketches, and at the same time developed a story around the darker side of Danny Kaye and showed how his wife, Sylvia Fine, drove him in the right direction.”

In addition to highlighting Kaye’s career, the show also sheds light on his personal life, particularly his manic behavior and depression, and makes subtle reference to his longtime affair with fellow actress Eve Arden, and even alludes to a romantic relationship with Lawrence Olivier.

Later in life, Loewy said, Kaye reconnected with his Jewish roots and also became very active with UNICEF. “In Hollywood, it became a very assimilated lifestyle for him,” he says. But After the Six Day War, he became a staunch supporter of Israel, turning down a performance with Olivier in London to stay in Israel after the war. He also won a Peabody award for his portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in the TV movie “Skokie,”

“I think that was the pinnacle for him of his career and, in the end, he really found his Jewishness,” Loewy said.

Kaye’s story is connecting with Jewish audiences all over the country, and this is why Loewy chose to bring the production to Chicago.

“I thought with the Jewish population here that it would be the perfect place to try the show again; the audience response has been better than ever,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of kids see the show here and they love it. In Chicago it’s the youngest audience we’ve seen—we’re really crossing over the (age) barrier.”

Directed by Loewy, with book by Mark Childers and Loewy and musical direction by Charlie Harrison and David Cohen, The Kid From Brooklyn stars Helen Hayes Award Winner Childers as Danny Kaye and Karin Leone as Sylvia Vine, with Christina Purcell and Adam LeBow. The show was first produced in Ft. Lauderdale and the Chicago engagement follows a sell-out run in Los Angeles. After leaving Chicago, the production will head to Palm Desert, California, and hopefully will debut in New York in the spring of 2009.

The Kid From Brooklyn is now playing at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue. Tickets are priced at $42.50 for Wednesday and Thursday performances and $48.50 for performances Friday through Sunday and are available by phone at (773) 325-1700 or online at  www.thekidfrombrooklynmusical.com .

American Girl Meets Israeli Boy

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They sing in Hebrew. They swear in English.
06/24/2008

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Dana, falling in love in Caesaria, 1995.

My dear friend Aaron has finally fallen in love. He is a 39-year old Chicagoan; she’s an editor in Tel Aviv with strong sabra roots. He’s asking me for advice.

Some days I want to tell him marriages between Americans and Israelis should be outlawed. Other days I want to say, follow your heart—just don’t expect it to be easy.

Last month I broke my foot while running to catch the 7:41 train to work. My fellow commuters politely minded their own business, peering at me over the tops of their Wall Street Journals as I hopped across the train station in search of ice. Two people asked if I was okay, but didn’t wait for my answer.

Back home after a quick trip to the ER, my Israeli husband ranted on the phone to his mama, eight time zones away.  Aizeh Amerikayim karim! Loosely translated: Americans are cold and heartless. He also thinks we’re cheap.  He thinks we’re bad drivers. He thinks we, collectively as a country, need to have more sex. Most of all, he thinks the weather sucks.

Hail. Tornados. (Taxes!) Blizzards. Floods. His brain still functions in Celsius, but his inventory of American evils rolls off his tongue as though he is reciting the ten plagues at Passover.

Ketushot. Qassam rockets. Suicide bombers. Miluim . I’m quick to counter, there’s crappy weather everywhere, my dear.

I never gave much thought to these kinds of differences at age 24, when I developed a whopping crush on the security guard who worked the night shift at the absorption center in Northern Israel. I was the silent, shell-shocked WUJS volunteer trying to put my fresh MSW to good use. He was the shy guy with a gun who loved chick flicks, turtles and his mama. We barely spoke the entire three months, but that didn’t stop me from coming home to America and telling my poor mother, this is the one.

For me, long distance love meant writing my first poem in Hebrew, listening to David Broza music until my batteries died, paying scary big phone bills and taking a couple trans-Atlantic quickies. . . then waiting for the post-trip glow to fade to melancholy.

Two years later, he quit his job, sold his car, bought a one-way ticket to America (a country he had never visited), and moved in with me (a woman he had technically never gone out on a date with). Did I mention he barely spoke English?

Language barriers are real and I was the world’s least patient English tutor. For months, he called the kitchen a chicken and ordered Sesame Street bagels at our local Dunkin Donuts. Just make some flash cards, I urged.

During his first year in America, I dragged him to Chinese cooking classes, yoga and Cubs games. We drove down Highway One, cruised under Niagara Falls and posed with Mickey Mouse on both coasts. Sure you miss your family, sweetheart, but see what a beautiful country this is?

Despite our long road trips, he never learned the Brady Bunch theme song or developed a taste for peanut butter. Who needs it when there is hummus?  Pop culture aside, our childhood experiences were also vastly different. And sometimes I just don’t get it.

How can I really get what it is like sharing a tiny bedroom with your sister for the first 17 years of your life? Until the day you leave for the army, where you spend three years parachuting over borders and scuba diving under borders and doing things you still can’t (or won’t) talk about. His memories wake us both up at night.

How can I understand what it is like having a dad who survived the Holocaust, went on to fight in three Israeli wars, manufacture weapons, storing precious little extra cash under his mattress, and now, at age 72, refuses to leave his house?

My dad’s weapon of choice was a stethoscope. He settled us in a nice house in a nice suburb by a nice lake. He took us to Neil Diamond concerts and the Joffrey ballet. And when the good doctor had his mid-life crisis, he went back to school to earn an MBA.

Both dads came together at our wedding nine years ago and both were proud.

The truth is, I’m the one who broke the deal. Five years here was supposed to be followed by five years there, which was supposed to be followed by a decision. But life happened. At some point, I stopped adding papers to my aliyah file. We stopped speaking Hebrew, except during fights. We bought real furniture. He told his bitchy boss she was a bitch—and got fired. I got promoted.  We signed a mortgage. He told his asshole boss he was an asshole—and got fired. He started a business out of the garage and grew it from nothing to something.  Baby girl number one was quickly followed by baby girl two. And here we are still in Chicago.

I’m the first to admit how heartwarming it is to see my two baby girls and their devoted Abba dancing their hearts out on Shavuot on a kibbutz in the Galilee. I love how they run around barefoot, as soon as their jet lag wears off, playing with their Israeli cousins and assorted Israeli stray cats. Our five-year old pauses to tell us she wants to be a veterinarian—or a vegetarian—when she grows up. The thing is, in my mind, she can be a vet and a veg and a million other things, but IDF soldier is not high on my list.  

In the meantime, I HATE Chicago remains a daily refrain from November until May. I remind myself how much he has given up. I take comfort in reading academic research which grounds yesterday’s fights in legitimate cultural differences. I listen to wise people tell me that it is not easy for anyone. Even if you married your clone, it would still take work.

So the next time I break my foot, I’ll aim for the Tel Aviv central bus station, where the falafel vendor will rush over with ice, the young soldier will sling his Uzi over his shoulder and dig deep in his dusty backpack for gauze, and some old Yemenite Jew will crouch down next to me on arthritic knees, squeeze my hand, stroke my cheek, and invite me over for dinner next Shabbat.

In our now 12-year debate on where we will live when we grow up, my husband scores the point for “more compassionate commuters," but I win for following my heart.

Written by Dana, with blessings from her husband (assuming he understood what he was agreeing to, which is questionable).

8 Questions for Sara Fiedelholtz, creative maven, marinara sauce lover, CD listener

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06/24/2008

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Let Sara Fiedelholtz be your guide to living in Chicago 

For the past 19 years, Sara Fiedelholtz has been involved in various creative endeavors including magazine publishing, brand development and strategic planning. In 2004, Fiedelholtz launched the creative strategy firm thinkbox strategies, then in August 2007 she launched mint magazine:SOURCEBOOKS llc., a series of  annual subject-specific—think shopping, continuing education, beauty and food, to name a few—source guides for Chicago.

So whether you’re looking for the best manicure in the city, you’re a fan of Shabbat dinners or a fellow creative mind, Sara Fiedelholtz is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a doctor or the first female president of the United States.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love the fact that I am able to use both sides of my brain. I love the fact that I get to think creatively but act strategically. I also love that I get to take a simple idea and turn it into a finished product from which an entire business can be built.

3. What are you reading?
Everyday I read the daily entry in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-to-Day Guide to Ethical Living. I’m also reading Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras and The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I am a big fan of the hamburgers and sweet potato fries at Uncommon Ground. I’m also a big fan of 200 East Chestnut--they have incredible homemade (just like bubbe’s) marinara sauce.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A chemical to be added to the world’s water supply that would make people kinder toward each other.

6.Would you rather have the ability of fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would like to be invisible. As a journalist I can’t think of anything better than really being able to be a fly on the wall.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I haven’t joined the 21st century, I still listen to CDs. I am a proud non-iPod owner. My CD collection does include: John Denver, Bob Marley, James Taylor, Carol King, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and several movie soundtracks.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in words, how do you Jew?
I like getting friends together for Shabbat dinner.

Tattoos, Taboos and Shi Tzus

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Miami Ink’s Ami James leaves his mark on Chicago
06/24/2008

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Ami James is talented, generous, handsome and... Jewish!

You may recognize Ami James as the sharp-tongued, hot- tempered tattoo artist from TLC’s Miami Ink.

I’ll admit I was slightly intimidated when I caught up with James at the new dana hotel and spa—a $60 million dollar, 216-room development at 660 N. State Street in Chicago, for which James was commissioned to design “Do Not Disturb” door hangers for each room—but I quickly discovered that underneath Israeli-born James’s tough, tattooed (and might I add, handsome) exterior, lies a talented artist with a big heart.

James hit it big in 2005 when TLC picked up his idea for a reality show following him and his three best friends as they opened a tattoo shop in Miami. “Like every other show, you shop around until a network picks it up,” James says. “TLC, they wanted to change The Learning Channel to something edgy.” Now in its fourth season, Miami Ink is one of the network’s most highly watched shows, bringing in between five and six million viewers each week and spawning spin-offs, LA Ink and London Ink.

Although the show’s website describes him as “the tough guy you don’t wanna mess with,” James says he is “nothing like [he’s characterized] on the show.”

“It’s really funny how everybody assumes you’re a certain person that’s portrayed on a TV show, but in a TV show you really are portrayed the way the editing room wants to portray you. You have no say,” he says. “I rarely scream at anybody, I never argue, but the show is only 40 minutes out of that whole week and they’ll focus on what they want to focus on.”

He says the network also wanted the show to center on sad stories of meaningful tattoos, and to shy away from the stereotypical image of a tattoo parlor drunks stumble into late at night and get some permanent body art they’ll regret the next morning.

“We’re trying to focus on educating the people and kind of putting a little more thought into the tattoos,” he says. “That’s where the stories evolve from, but we definitely didn’t want to make the whole show point out every sad story, but that’s what the network wanted. In reality, we tell a lot of happy stories, but I think it’s important to have a meaningful tattoo.”

Meaningful, yes, but specifically sentimental, no. He often deters people from getting tattoos of their girlfriends or wives’ names. “You know,” he says, “tattoos last longer than romance.”

James co-owns the tattoo shop with friend and co-star Chris Nuñez; the duo also co-own Love/Hate bar and the DeVille Clothing Company in Miami.

But wait, isn’t a Jew with a tattoo a taboo?

“God didn’t really go, you know guys, tattoos are not good, but piercings, nose jobs, boob jobs, ass jobs—those are all fine,” he says. “It’s really funny how you have all these super Jews running around with tons of plastic surgery at the age of 65 always stopping me and preaching to me that [Jews are] not supposed to get tattoos.”

“We aren’t supposed to desecrate our bodies no matter what, so follow the rules or don’t follow them at all.”

While James does not consider himself a religious Jew, he definitely will never forget where he came from.

Born in Sinai, James and his family moved to Tel Aviv in 1976 when Israel gave Sinai back to Egypt. When he was 12, he moved to Miami with his mom and brother, where he fell in love with tattoos as an art form and got his first one, a dragon, at age 15.

At 17, James returned to Israel to voluntarily join the Israeli Defense Forces. “All my friends I grew up with went into the army and I felt like I was running away from it and I didn’t want to be that guy,” he says. “It turned me into a man, but then you realize, even when you’re 21, you’re not a man yet.”

James says while he will never return to live in Israel full-time, he hopes to one day have a summer home there. “I love Israel,” he says. “I do hope that we’ll compromise one day and be able to live in peace because my whole life I’ve lived pretty much not in peace and I’ve watched how hard it is—I’ve watched friends die, I’ve watched soldiers die in my hands. One day, it’s gotta stop.”

After he got out of the IDF at 21, James came back to the States to become a tattoo artist. “I’ve always been an artist,” he says. “And I found a way to not be a starving artist.”

And if you still can’t embrace the softer side of James, his charity work and love for animals and children should do the trick.

“People do a lot of wrong these days, but kids and animals never do any wrong,” he says. “The two purist forms of heart and love the innocence of both makes me want to make a difference every day.”

James was the face of PETA’s “Ink, not Mink,” campaign and has also worked with Amigos for Kids and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“I don’t do it for recognition,” he says. “I really could give a shit if anybody knows. It really makes me feel good at the end of the day.”

In contrast to his love for animals and children, James hates the corporate world, something that drew him to this design project with Chicago’s new dana hotel.

“I like people getting out of the box and doing something different, especially eco-friendly hotels,” he says. “It’s cool to see people get involved in art. So when I was asked to do the “Do Not Disturb” signs for the doors—that would be the last thing I would ever think anybody would ask me to do—so as soon as I got approached to do it I was like, ‘hell yeah I have to do this.’ It’s just something that I really wanted to do.”

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You'll find these edgy "Do Not Disturb" signs on your door at the new dana hotel and spa

You can check out more of the things that James really wants to do—and does really well—at  Miami Inkdana hotel and spaPETAMake-A-Wish Foundation and Amigos for Kids.

Keepin’ it Kosher

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Matisyahu to 'Stir It Up' at Ravinia
06/17/2008

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See Matisyahu at Ravinia, Thursday June 26

Ravinia is about to be blessed with reggae’s most unlikely rising star: an Orthodox Jewish beatboxer who skipped out on his senior year of high school to follow the hippie jam band Phish.

Born Mathew Miller, Matisyahu (the Hebrew version of "Matthew,” and the name he adopted on becoming observant), certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical reggae profile: He passes on the Ganja for the Torah, and forgoes dreadlocks for a traditional Hasidic tall black hat, starched white shirt and black suit.

Who would have thought that the Talmud could meet the likes of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley? While some may dismiss his act as gimmicky, others embrace it as a new genre and he is lauded for carving out his own niche, by blending Orthodox Judaism and classic reggae. Either way, Matisyahu seems to consistently pull it off; his first major label debut, Live at Stubbs, a live concert recording from the famous venue in Austin TX, has sold nearly 700,000 copies.

Ironically, the defining moment for Matisyahu’s career came back in 2005 at Bonnaroo, when he appeared on stage with former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Although Matisyahu had released his 2004 debut, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” on JDub Records, a non-profit for innovative Jewish music, this event was his ticket to being discovered, by thousands of fans and a major label.

While Matisyahu puts religion first (he won’t perform on Friday nights in observance of Shabbat, with the exception of his performance in Fairbanks, Alaska, a gig which was allowed because the sun didn’t go down until 2 a.m. local time), it certainly hasn’t impacted his touring schedule or performances. And his religious beliefs don’t deter his rowdier female fans, but they shouldn’t expect so much as a high-five, or even handshake from the thickly bearded artist who was raised in a traditional Jewish household; Orthodox Jewish law prohibits it.

Currently, Matisyahu is busy at work recording a new full-length album, scheduled for release in late 2008. He’s working alongside producer David Kahne (Sublime, Paul McCartney and 311), and says this album is going to be different than the previous releases. “It’s not sticking to any one form of music,” he says. “People will really be able to relate to the lyrics. It’s for people who are searching, looking for inner growth—to expand and to find truth within themselves; within the world.”

While Matisyahu might not have envisioned he’d become an icon or a spiritual leader of sorts to droves of youth, he feels strongly about the personal journey and spirituality, and says he can relate to those who continue to search. “I didn’t get there. It’s a lifelong process of getting there,” Matisyahu says. “When a person thinks they’ve gotten there, it’s a sign they haven’t.” But, he says, “It’s a lifetime of moments; every experience gets you somewhere.”

Matisyahu performs at 8 p.m. on June 26 at Ravinia (847) 266-5100, or www.ravinia.org; $40 reserved, $20 lawn.

The Beshert My Grandmother Would Have Loved

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06/17/2008

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These two M.O.T's will tie the knot this August

My grandmother always had an uncanny way with words, but even I was not anticipating her remark after shuffling through my high school prom pictures.

“You look beautiful, honey, but he doesn’t look very Jewish.”

I always knew there was an expectation that I was going to marry someone Jewish. But 18-year-old me neither agreed with those expectations nor had ever contemplated that my boyfriend at the time, whose last name was Nguyen, would not look Jewish enough in pictures.

I don’t know why my family made it such a point to make it known to me throughout my years that I would marry Jewish. Maybe it was that I grew up in a community with a relatively small Jewish population and they felt the need to overcome all the intermarriage surrounding me. Maybe they figured I would live up to their expectations if only to avoid another issue about which to feel Jewish guilt.

Either way, their efforts didn’t work. I told them I would stop dating non-Jews when I went away to college, but that was more to quell the nagging than anything else.  I knew I wanted my children to be raised Jewish, but in my mind, an open-minded, non-Jewish husband would work out just fine.

I was used to my high school days of attending Christmas dinner and filling up on mashed potatoes and green bean casserole because everything else looked like ham. I had become accustomed to limiting my use of Yiddish and dumbing down words as simple as kvetch and mensch to avoid needing to explain time and time again what they meant.  And, when my high school boyfriend and I didn’t actually end our relationship when I left for college, I became fairly adept at omitting any mention of him to my family.

Then, during my sophomore year in college, I happened to meet a nice Jewish boy. We began dating, and I began realizing for myself that there really is something to staying within the faith.

All of a sudden, I was getting sent Passover cookies from my new boyfriend’s mom. We started making plans to spend Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah with my family in Delaware and Day 2 with his family in New Jersey. Best of all, I had become a Jewish social climber – a mere Israelite dating a Cohen.

Now, more than four years later, we’re planning our wedding together, and I don’t need to explain to him what a chuppah is. We toiled around Devon and Dempster in an attempt to find a ketubah, only to end up on e-ketubah.com, marveling at the site’s mini Hebrew keyboard that popped up to allow us to enter our Hebrew names. We’re getting married on a Sunday, and neither one of us ever contemplated having it any other way. We’re trying to convince my mom that the horah doesn’t need to be played for 30 minutes, and I guess we’ll find out how successful we’ve been come the big day.

While my grandmother has since passed, I know she would have no qualms with our engagement pictures, where both of our noses definitively indicate that we are members of the same tribe.

8 Questions for Leigh Fagin, art lover, “Time Warp” dancer, knife wielder

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06/17/2008

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Leigh knows where the art is at

When Leigh Fagin relocated from New York to Chicago for grad school, she had no idea she’d find herself planting Midwestern roots in our city’s art scene.  Four years later, Leigh is the Collaborative Programs Coordinator for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs where she plans city-wide arts programs, including Chicago Artists Month every October. You can also find Leigh volunteering on the junior board of the Heartland Alliance or perfecting her knife skills at Whole Foods culinary classes.

So whether want an introduction to an emerging artist, enjoy capturing Chicago on film and video or appreciate a well-diced onion, Leigh Fagin is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was young, living out my dreams on the stage, I had no doubt that I would be a high school drama teacher to bring the wealth of possibilities to future generations. My years in theater contained some of the most inspiring, engaging, life changing moments of my youth. Through those experiences, I made my first true friends and met the teachers that would influence the way I approach every job I have ever had. My love of the arts was something that I felt could be contagious through teaching—and I wanted to open doors for my students to see the world in different ways through art.
 
2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love that I can provide opportunities, networks and resources to those in my field that can actually help people reach their goals. I love that I am constantly in the know about what is happening in the city and that I am surrounded by people who share my desire to engage in the events I’m most excited about. I'm thrilled that my professional life and personal life are so gracefully connected on a daily basis. I love that I can take part in the cultural life in this city in a way that allows me to continuously give back—working on programs that are free and open to the public throughout the year.
 
3. What are you reading?
I’m currently reading the novels of Murakami (The Wind-up Bird ChronicleKafka on the Shore and his short stories). Murakami has the sensibility of someone who has latched onto the innate spirituality of everyday things and the mysterious ways fate can function. I’ve been enjoying his imagination, his vision of the world if you suspend disbelief and allow yourself to engage with superstition in new ways. Although, I have been having funny dreams related to talking cats and water wells, but it’s also part of the fun!
 
4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I think my favorite place to eat/drink/read and be in Chicago is the Bourgeois Pig. Not only does it have the beauty of an old grey stone, classical music playing at the right volume, no internet access to distract me from good conversation or books, but they bake a mean chocolate chip muffin. And I once met a man there who has changed my life forever, so being there reminds me of that day.
 
5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
With the time and support, I would invent a way to redistribute wealth and resources throughout the globe to those in need.
 
6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I think I would want to be invisible so that I could basically "audit" classes in universities all over the world, gaining access to knowledge that is usually super exclusive, as well as view performances that I normally can’t afford to attend.
 
7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Rocky Horror Picture Show’s "Time Warp,” once performed by my best friend and myself at my Bat Mitzvah.
 
8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago-in other words, how do you Jew?
I like to participate in the Itza Mitzvah group. It’s a place for me to reflect with open-minded individuals of my generation who relate in very different ways to Jewish traditions, holidays, and concerns. Also, working with Heartland Alliance is a way of giving back to my community that feels "Jewish,” and a way of remembering the generosity of my grandparents. Lastly, I am currently working with a friend on a video/internet project to help preserve the Yiddish language for generations to come. Does anyone know any bubbes we can interview?

The Business of Non-Profits

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Meet three young Jews in the business of making Chicago a better place.
06/17/2008

One-on-One Cancer Support

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The angelic Jonny Imerman

Jonny Imerman was your typical college graduate. By day he worked in commercial real estate and at night attended classes for his M.B.A. In his free time, Jonny played basketball, went to the gym and hung out with friends.

And then his life changed. At 26, Jonny was diagnosed with testicular cancer requiring surgery and 5 months of chemotherapy treatments. But, Jonny says, he was lucky, because he had his family and friends to support him through the treatments.

“Many people fighting cancer are by themselves, disconnected from anything, from family, from loved ones, from positive energy around them that could motivate them to get through the cancer,” he says. 

While receiving treatments in the hospital, Jonny made rounds chatting with the other cancer patients, finding inspiration and guidance from his peers. “Talking to someone my own age that has beaten my cancer who was a survivor who could look me in the eyes and say ‘hey I was in the same shoes a year ago, this is what it feels like, this is what's coming and answer all the little questions you have,” made the biggest impression, he said.

In 2003 Jonny, cancer free, left the business world behind and began Imerman Angels, a not-for-profit organization that connects a person fighting with cancer with someone who has survived and beaten the same type of cancer.

“The beautiful thing about cancer is that it helps you throw inhibitions out the window. It got rid of my fear; I never would have had the courage to start a not-for-profit before.”

In just five years, Imerman Angels has spread nationwide. The not-for-profit has a network of 1,000 cancer survivors and matches people from all over the country. And Jonny has a five-year mission: by 2012, every single American diagnosed with cancer will have free access to a cancer survivor within 24 hours of their diagnosis.

Now 32, Jonny has been cancer free for four years.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the world. This is why I got sick at the age of 26. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me because it’s helped me to make the cancer world a better place.”

Fighting Illiteracy

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Stacy Ratner, spreading the joy of reading throughout Chicago

Stacy Ratner’s love affair with books began at the age of three. In college, she majored in comparative literature preparing for a career as a copyeditor. But a lack of publishing jobs led Stacy down a different route-- she became a lawyer and, as she puts it, a “serial entrepreneur.” At 35, Stacy has successfully launched six businesses.

Two years ago, Stacy realized she wanted books back in her professional life. She began researching literacy rates in Chicago and what she discovered was alarming: Almost 53% of adults living in Chicago have reading difficulties.

“I’ve been a reader all my life; it never occurred to me that so many people in Chicago can’t read a bus schedule, pay their bills or read to their children. I never imagined how limited these people’s lives must be.”

Stacy decided to use her business acumen to create Open Books, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and combating illiteracy throughout Chicago.

“Literacy is fundamentally linked to poverty. It is a self-perpetuated cycle where people are dependent on others to function. The fact that so many in Chicago can’t read was a real wake-up call for me. It was a smack in the face. But, at the same time, illiteracy is not like the war in Iraq or world hunger—it is not an unsolvable problem.”

Stacy, with a staff of five full-time employees, more than 600 volunteers and the support of 20 literacy organizations in the city, is working to solve the problem. Open Books tutors and mentors underserved youth and provides adult education as well as ESL classes. 

In the spring of 2009 the not-for-profit will open a bookstore.  The first floor will house 50,000 books, a café and reading nooks, the second floor will be classrooms and a computer center. 

“Open Books has allowed me to share my love of reading with others—from the parent that can read a nighttime story to their child for the first time, to the elderly American who can read the label on his prescription drug bottle; we want to spread the joy of reading to everybody.”

Be Bright Pink

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Lindsay Avner is the ultimate Bright Pink Girl

Lindsay Avner was 22 years-old when she underwent a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.

With a family history of cancer (her mother is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor and her grandmother and great grandmother both succumbed to breast cancer) Lindsay knew she was at risk. Genetic testing after college confirmed that she had inherited the breast/ovarian cancer gene, so she made the difficult decision to undergo surgery ensuring that she would not be another cancer victim.

“When I decided to come out and talk about my own unique experience, what was amazing was not the amount of press, [including The Today ShowCNNVogue and The Chicago Tribune] but how many young women reached out to the writers and the TV producers to say ‘oh-my-gosh, she is telling my story.’” 

To keep people talking about this important topic, Lindsay began Be Bright Pink, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to providing support to young women who are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  

In less than two years, Be Bright Pink has grown exponentially with chapters in Chicago, New York and Miami and members throughout the country. Be Bright Pink partners with genetic counselors and OBGYN’s to identify girls who are at high risk for breast cancer and offers them, “companionship and empathy during their journey.” 

Lindsay shies away from the traditional support group model; instead Be Bright Pink is designed to support her generation. The organization hosts events that encourage girls to get out and attend yoga classes, to grab cocktails with girlfriends and to gab over cheese and crackers. Lindsay describes a Bright Pink Girl “as a dynamic, amazing person who is going to spend a Saturday socializing at a bar with her girlfriends.”

“This is a non-profit organization that I run as a business. I’m just in the business of reaching people with this amazing message that help change their lives.”

On June 29th Be Bright Pink will host a high tea at the Drake “for the women we love.”

Where In The World Is Chaim Sandberg?

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The Virtues and Pitfalls of One Jew’s Favorite Pastime
06/10/2008

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Andy, enjoying some geography

A very wise Miss Teen USA contestant once tried to explain why so few American students are able to locate states and/or countries on a map. Although I give her points for trying (“such as with the Iraq”), she wasn’t really able to illuminate the issue terribly clearly… But still, the initial question resonated with me.

This blatant skill deficit in geography isn’t simply limited to America’s youth and beauty queens. I will freely admit that my barber recently had to explain to me exactly where Bulgaria is (apparently, it’s in the Balkans), and, being an East-Coast boy at heart, it is often difficult to identify which square is Nebraska and which is Kansas.

However, my lack of knowledge of world geography is offset by my incredible talent in another subject: Jewish Geography.

Given the trajectory that my life has taken--from growing up outside Washington, D.C., in the synagogue-soaked suburb of Potomac, MD, to attending school in Philadelphia at an institution often referred to as “Jew-Penn,” to putting in my compulsory two years living in Manhattan and finally moving to Chicago in search of change—I have been expertly schooled in the subject of Jewish Geography.

What’s interesting about Jewish Geography, as opposed to “traditional geography” (you know, with the maps and the longitudes and all that), is that it isn’t really a subject, as much as it is a game. We don’t discuss Jewish Geography, we play it to make friends in a new city, or to establish credibility among strangers, and more importantly, to connect ourselves to the community.

As I have honed my skills and technique over the years in various settings, I’ve been able to formulate a sort of theoretical rule book/advice primer for players of all levels:

1.    Guessing what fraternity or sorority a fellow Jew was in doesn’t count. There are too few nationally Jewish greek organizations on college campuses, a fact which inherently makes the choice easier. So, zero points for that.
2.    If you can tell an anecdote about the mutual friend you and a fellow Jew just discovered you share, this is more impressive than just knowing a name. Nowadays, one can easily name-drop simply by perusing other peoples’ Facebook pages. Or so I’ve been told.
3.    If you know someone from somewhere other than high school, college, summer camp, or an Israel program (i.e., Birthright, study abroad, your tour of duty in the IDF when you were “finding yourself”), you get bonus points. For example, if you can use a version of the quote, “Of course I know Rebecca Schlotzky- her father circumcised me!” well, that’s just the kind of memory that will really help you build that connection with your new Jewish friend.
4.    Don’t overplay. I can’t state this enough. Ask your new Jewish friend if he or she knows Brian Goldstein. Or, ask if he or she went to Camp Chi. Or ask whether by saying “I’m from Detroit,” he or she means Bloomfield Hills or West Bloomfield. Just don’t ask all three in a row. There is such a thing as too much Jewish Geography. Dayenu.

All of these rules and regulations may seem stressful, but let’s not overlook the benefits of the game. I would be lying if I told you that a successful Jewish Geography session had never helped me secure a job interview, get a date or find myself suddenly invited to a hot social event. What it is at its core, however, is simply a conversation starter

Thus, as I change jobs, meet new people and become generally more entrenched in this city’s Jewish scene, I will undoubtedly continue to improve my game. I may even work on refining my rules at some point—just as Major League Baseball is considering instant replay, so must Jewish Geography adapt to the times. Social networking websites like Facebook have made the game almost too easy. Back in my day, you really had to know a Jew- you couldn’t just complacently be content knowing he or she is in the Chicago network, is a fan of Berry Chill, and attended “Sarah Schwartz is Turning 27!!”

But I may just have to accept the current state of Jewish Geography as is, and continue to enjoy it as an icebreaker, an interesting way to kill a couple of minutes at a party, and a wonderful example of just how connected we really are as a people.

Besides, it’s far more exciting to discover that the cute stranger at the YLD happy hour once ate at your favorite hometown deli than it is to be able to point out the square that represents Nebraska on a map.

8 Questions for Sarah Levy, entrepreneur, pastry chef, sweets aficionado

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06/10/2008

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Sarah lets everyone eat cake

Chicago native Sarah Levy is passionate about her dessert. Growing up in a family full of food connoisseurs, (think Spiaggia and Bistro 110) Sarah knew early on that her specialty was pastries. Just two weeks after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in Sociology, Sarah decided to pursue her dream of opening her own bakery and enrolled at the French Pastry School of Chicago. In no time, she had a burgeoning wholesale sweets business running out of her families’ kitchen. Today, Sarah runs two shops at 70 E. Oak St and in the Macy’s on State. With a wide variety of delicious treats ranging from chocolate dipped candies to elegant wedding cakes and breakfast delights, Sarah’s Pastries and Candies is a favorite Chicago sweet spot.

So, whether you kick it old school without an iPod, dig Jewish diners, or need your daily chocolate fix, Sarah Levy is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to have my own bakery one day!

2. What do you love about what you do today?
Honestly, my favorite part is getting to eat sweets all day! Food has always had the ability to make me happy. I also love being able to create something that can make others happy. It's such a great feeling to have someone come in and say that the birthday cake we made for their daughter was the hit of the party, etc....

3. What are you reading?
I just read  Gang Leader for a Day —great book!

4. What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I love Mia FrancescaCoast and Ron of Japan! (and there are so many more!)

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
The most delicious tasting pastry, that just so happened to be fat free and calorie free.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or ability to be invisible?
Invisible.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
Believe it or not, I don't have an iPod, but I love old school Madonna and Michael Jackson.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
I love frequenting Jewish delis like Ashkenaz and Eleven City Diner.

Confessions of a Food Jew

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06/10/2008

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Stacey has good taste and great recipes

When people ask me what I love most about being Jewish, the images flash before my eyes.

Succulent slices of slow cooked brisket, moist with rich tomato-y gravy. Latkes, crisp on the outside, melting in the middle, with applesauce and sour cream. Light as air matzo balls, floating in a pool of golden chicken soup, dense sweet noodle kugel. After all, I’m the girl who, when asked what she wanted for her third birthday dinner, answered “brisket and farfel!” 

I mean, yes, of course I love being a part of a religion that allows so many different ways to worship, that holds such a long tradition of philanthropy and artistry, that has such interesting traditions and rituals. Even though I have never been particularly observant, I chose Brandeis as an undergraduate in large part because the school represented the best of educational excellence and social activism. Getting all the Jewish holidays off didn’t hurt my feelings, either.

But while my matriculation there did wonders for my Yiddish vocabulary, it didn’t make me any less secular. For me, someone whose upbringing always felt a little bit Jew-ish, as opposed to really Jewish, food is where I have always felt most connected to my people and my history.

Don’t get me wrong, my family isn’t non-practicing, we just have our own style. We may not have belonged to a temple, but my sister and I were both bat mitzvahed, we just did it with a private tutor instead of Hebrew school, and with a borrowed Torah at our weekend place instead of on a traditional bimah. And for mine, a Chinese buffet luncheon to follow. We share the major holidays with friends and family, choosing readings from books in the living room over synagogue services. Our Passover seders may be brief, but they have deep meaning and we take them seriously, adding our own traditions over the years.

But always, the celebration centers on food. Apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, blintzes to break the Yom Kippur fast, tzimmes on Passover. I am an accomplished home cook, and while my regular dinner parties are likely to be based in French or Italian peasant cooking, my Jew food is pretty spectacular, thanks to my paternal grandmother, Jonnie, who shared her knowledge, her recipes, and her love through the holiday dishes she prepared.

Food, both the specifics of traditional recipes, and the generic feeling of gathering friends and family around the table, is always at it’s core a Jewish experience for me. Breaking of bread, or matzo where appropriate, sharing of stories, the sense of unity created around a dinner table, this is where I feel the most direct link to our shared past. I have always believed that when a people have been forced in their history to work hard at maintaining community, bringing people together for meals becomes an essential part of how you keep faith.

When I was first contacted about contributing to Oy!, I immediately suggested this column. A way to celebrate food and food people, through essays, reviews and interviews. A way to remind us all that whether it is a corned beef sandwich handed over by the incomparable Gino on the line at Manny’s Deli, or Grant Achatz’s  24 course tasting tour at Alinea, Jews will want to know what is good, where to go and what to order. After all, I have never sat at a meal with any group of Jews, secular or deeply observant, where the conversation didn’t eventually get around to where the next meal would be!

And if you’re really nice to me and the other contributors to this department, we might even share our grandmother’s recipes.

I’d love to hear from you if you have restaurants you’d like us to review, recipes you are in search of, Jewish chefs or restaurateurs you’d like to see profiled…just drop a note to info@oychicago.com and we’ll see if we can’t accommodate you.

Nosh of the week:  For your next barbeque, head over to the Vienna Factory Outlet at the corner of Damen and Fullerton to pick up your dogs. My family has always used the 5 to-the-pound natural casing dogs, which for me taste of summer and love. Be sure to score them about three times on each side before grilling, and keep them moving over direct heat until they are a nicely burnished mahogany all over. Whether you like a traditional Chicago dog with mustard, relish, onion, pickle, sport peppers, tomato slices and celery salt, or just plain on a really good bun, these meaty beauties are incomparable.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey Ballis

 

Subcultures In an Artist’s Life

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An exhibition
06/10/2008

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Stripe Quilt Painting

A hipster is not simply a skinny musician in tight pants and Chuck Taylors with a PBR in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A young Jewish professional is not always a well-dressed, curly-haired, no-nonsense woman. And an artist is not always a tormented waif with a crazy haircut and a half sleeve tattoo. I don’t fully fit into any of these subcultures, but they are all a part of me.

In searching for a theme for this exhibit, I realized that my artwork is equally diverse. I have paintings here about faith, pattern, color, love, fire, balance. Their juxtaposition may seem confusing in one exhibit, but they are all genuine expressions of what my art is about at this point in time. These paintings represent the subcultures within my artistic endeavors.

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Still Life Quilt Painting

My quilt paintings begin as separate paintings of layered patterns and are then cut up and sewn together, incorporating stitching into the patterns. They are about finding a balance amid the complexity of colors, shapes, patterns and emotions. They merge the ideas of craft and art, quilting and painting.

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Reclining in Peace

The figure in this painting has found a balance between the city and nature, between remembering those who came before and the future she will create with her own hands.

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The Fire of Anxiety

The figure in this painting is overwhelmed with anxiety and starts burning from the inside out. But there is hope—within the figure is the possibility of calm, represented by the white flower emerging from its own heart.

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Ketubah

When Mandi and I decided to have our wedding, we searched for the perfect Ketubah online, but couldn’t find it. We decided that I should make one instead, so I took a calligraphy class and started practicing my Hebrew lettering. I stitched together the different papers from our invitations to symbolize the stitching together of our lives and included a tree as a symbol of balancing stability with continuous change and growth.

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Faith is Like Fire

"Faith is by definition irrational. It is, in fact, a little like fire." Fire has endless symbolic potential that I’ve been exploring for years. Fire can be comfort, heat, passion, terror, destruction, memorial, healing, energy, beauty, death. It constantly changes forms and evolves, as we all do over time.

Faith can evolve too. Not just religious faith, but in-general faith. Faith in whatever you have faith in—that things will work out, that the sun will rise, that you can’t predict the future, that you’re a good person, whatever your personal faith is about.

Faith has an untouchable quality kind of like a flame. You can’t grab it but you can feel its heat. It can warm you from the inside out. It can surprise you and leap out when you least expect it.

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Faith is a Bird

"Faith is the bird that sees the light when the dawn is still dark" –Tagore. This quote inspired me to visualize faith in another way, as a kind of oasis of light.

My art is inspired by other artists (the big four being Ghada Amer, Marc Chagall, Yayoi Kusama, and Agnes Martin), big abstract ideas like faith, and the small details that bring beauty into our everyday lives like the path of a thread or the pattern of tiles on the floor. I am intrigued with the challenge of finding balance in life and the idea that no one person or one thing can be categorized by a listing of subcultures.

Chai also creates commissioned work and custom Ketubot, working with each individual or couple to create a meaningful work of art.

If you or someone you know would like to be an Oy!Chicago featured artist, let us know!

A Theatre of Our Own

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Pegasus Players presents a Jewish show to its diverse community
06/03/2008

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Janet Ulrich Brooks, playing Golda

On January 2, 1948, Golda Meir stood, unexpected, before Chicago’s Council of Jewish Federations to appeal for the financial support necessary to arm the Jewish forces fighting for an Israeli state.

Today, actress Janet Ulrich Brooks stands on the stage of Pegasus Players’ production of  Golda’s Balcony , reenacting this pivotal moment in Israel’s history. “I have no speech,” she says, giving voice to Meir’s historic words. “I’ll tell you what’s in my heart.”

Pegasus Players is the theatrical heart of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and it too has a passionate appeal and an ambitious mission: “To produce the highest quality artistic work and to provide exemplary theatre, entertainment and arts education at no charge to people who have little or no access to the arts.”  While this mission has taken the company on two theatrical tours in the Middle East, Pegasus remains strongly grounded in its local community, providing creative opportunities for young playwrights, school children, and underserved populations.

Artistic Director Alex Levy has worked with Pegasus Players for nine years, winning numerous awards and citations, and championing the unique community that both supports and benefits from this theatre’s socially progressive objectives. He chose Golda’s Balcony to close this season.

Golda’s Balcony is a challenging play, and I wondered how the overt politics of this decidedly Jewish work would be received in such a diverse community. According to the 2000 census, Uptown is home to about 27,000 white residents, 14,000 African American residents, 13,000 Hispanic/Latino residents, and 5,500 Asian residents. To me, this show seemed a brave, and risky, choice. Levy responded with confident nonchalance, “We very rarely play ourselves on stage. Theatre companies start to reflect their community. Presenting this work to an audience whose life is very different is actually a wonderful thing.”

The production, wonderful as it is, left me troubled. Chicago, with a Jewish population of over 270,000, has the fifth largest concentration of Jews in the United States. With over 200 theatre companies, Chicago’s theatre scene can cater to the individual needs of specific communities. Theatres such as Black Ensemble Theater and Teatro Vista explore the work and histories of their own ethnicities. Teatro LunaStockyards Theatre Project, and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble celebrate women theatre artists. About Face Theatre creates work that addresses the concerns of the LBGT community. Other companies are dedicated to children and family programmingstage combat and movement, even culinary entertainment. Why then has our Jewish community, a community that comprises almost ten percent of Chicago’s population, not been able to consistently support a single Jewish theatre? 

 “The push [for a Jewish Theatre] needs to come from the community,” Levy explains, acknowledging that Chicago’s theatrical community consistently produces work by Jewish artists and writers. “Other theatres can pick up the slack, but there isn’t a central home.” 

When theatres presenting Jewish works are not situated within the Jewish community, hard questions can go unasked and stereotypes go unquestioned. “There is a lack of historical memory. Events are not understood in a historical context.”  But Levy also acknowledges the temptation to present work that celebrates a culture without also exploring the problems and challenges that culture faces. Theatre allows a community to examine itself critically, creating a dialogue for change—which is why I think the absence of a Jewish theatre, despite the wealth of Jewish shows being performed, is important.

Jewish stories and themes are part of the cultural dialogue of Chicago, and Uptown, with its rich artistic heritage, is a neighborhood well-known for challenging convention. Golda’s Balcony rises to the challenge. Harsh, unyielding, and undeniably honest, this production successfully celebrates a woman and a nation, but never once shies from the harsh realities of this history. To speak one’s heart is a dangerous thing. Fortunately, Pegasus Players is lending its voice.

Golda’s Balcony runs through June 29 at Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson. Discounted tickets are available by using the promotional code FriendsofJUF.

Loving Kindness … and Cheesecake

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06/03/2008

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An Israeli-style Shavuot party at Galit's (center) kindergarten

Unlike most Jewish holidays with their “must do or not do”  restrictions, and themes of being hated, slaughtered or narrowly escaping, Shavuot has some bright features: It's the day that the Torah was given to us, it marks the beginning of the summer, it’s an agricultural holiday that celebrates the harvest—we get to eat delicious dairy food and indulge ourselves with cheesecakes and quiches. And, with the beautiful story of Megilat Ruth (Ruth’s scroll) setting the theme of loving kindness, it’s a pretty great holiday.

When I lived in Israel, Shavuot was always one of my favorite holidays. Growing up in an Orthodox family, my dad used to go to shul after dinner and return at 6 a.m. after studying all night with his friends as part of the "Tikun Leyl Shavuot" custom.

When I got older, I wanted to be a part of those all-night study sessions. In Tel Aviv, I found Alma, an alternative center for Hebrew Culture. My studies there offered me a variety of classes and different interpretations to the classic traditional studies. Going there on Shavuot night became a habit for me and my friends, and it also seemed to represent a shift in the city, which is mostly secular. 

Now living in Chicago, I wonder why Shavuot has been relegated to redheaded stepchild status, its importance falling behind Chanukah and the High Holidays and Sukkot in many Jewish communities. Maybe its primary message about the covenant at Sinai is too scholarly. Maybe its secondary message is less relevant to the daily lives of Jews here—how many among us are farmers? Maybe modern American Jews don’t have enough in them to celebrate two harvest-themed holidays and the excitement of building a hut trumps Shavout. Or, in my opinion, maybe we all need a reminder of the story of Ruth to see where one measure of the holiday’s beauty lies.

I spoke with Rabbi Asher Lopatin from the Modern Orthodox congregation Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel in Lakeview to find out why he thinks Shavuot is so un-hyped—and to talk about the holiday’s relevance for modern American Jews. He agreed that the farming aspect might be an obstacle.

“The holiday focuses on agriculture in Israel which is the same idea as Sukkot and frankly is also not popular,” he says. “(Historically,) Shavuot is the harvest time, so here it’s more challenging for us. We are not farmers,” he says.

But, he says, as Jewish traditions grow in the U.S., there might be a resurgence of interest in the holiday. “In the last 10-20 years all of the movements (including Reform and Conservative) started talking [more] about Torah and Sinai, about learning Torah; and there is more interest in all the movements in Torah and in Tikun Leyl Shavuot. So there is growing interest in the holiday”.

There is also interest in the issue of conversion—a hot topic among many Jews living in Chicago and the U.S.  In short, the story of Ruth is a conversion story—one of love and acceptance that remains relevant today.

During the time of the harvest in Bethlehem, there was a famine. The family of Elimelech, the Prince of Judah, decided to move to Moab and, not long after the move, the sons met two Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah—and married them. When tragedy struck and the men of the family died, Naomi, the matriarch, told her daughters-in-law to return to their families and remarry. Orpah did but Ruth insisted to Naomi: " Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God." Since that day, Ruth has been considered to be Jewish. She met Boaz, married him and their great grandchild was King David.  

I couldn't help wondering what would happen to Ruth today. Those few sentences sound so simple compared to today’s conversions. I asked the rabbi if Ruth’s quick and easy conversion would fly in today’s Jewish world.

“When Ruth said, ‘Your people will be my people,’ she was accepting Mitzvot and the destiny of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Lopatin. “Ruth had every reason not to convert, Judaism was not a popular religion. Today, we are more reluctant [in general] and hesitate when things are good. Conversion could take today a few minutes today too, but we need to know that people are committed.”

The main message from Megilat Ruth, Rabbi Lopatin says, is courage and chesed, loving kindness. Even though we love big dramas and heroic tales like those of Exodus and Purim, maybe we should celebrate the “simple” but profound story about chesed, loyalty and devotion.

8 Questions for Stacey Ballis, author, foodie, secret Xanadu fan

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06/03/2008

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Author Stacey Ballis, the newest member of the Oy! team

If not for a life-altering epiphany in Kenya, Stacey Ballis might be a very rich lawyer—she might never have taught in a Chicago public high school or worked as the Director of Education and Community Programs at the Goodman Theatre or most recently, written four novels including, Inappropriate Men and The Spinster Sisters. Her fifth book will be released next spring—and her newest writing project will be as a contributor to Oy!Chicago’s new department, Nosh.

So, if you enjoy singing along with Olivia Newton-John while cleaning your closet,  you love food or can’t stop watching Law & Order reruns, Stacey Ballis is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
For a period of time, I wanted to be Mrs. Shaun Cassidy.

I really focused mostly on wanting to be a lawyer from the time I was really young, in a really horribly, geeky way. I was the head of the mock trial team at my high school, I was a member of the Illinois Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. But the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent three and a half months in Kenya, teaching and doing community service. I discovered that while I could be a very rich and successful lawyer, I would not be a very happy lawyer.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I get to do it in my pajamas. It happens in my living room, which is comfy. Writing is something I’ve always done since I was very young, and the ability to do that full-time, at least for the moment, is pretty amazing. To a certain extent, what I love is what it has done to my life—[it has given me] the ability to truly spend great time with my family and meaningful time with my friends. It also has gotten me totally caught up on all of my Law & Orders.

3. What are you reading?
I just finished Jennifer Lancaster’s, Such a Pretty Fat, and it is completely amazing and fun, and I don’t say that because I’m in it. Much of it takes place in my living room. I’m at the very beginning of Jodi Picoult’s new book, Change of Heart. I usually have a few going at the same time because I read a lot. It’s kind of ridiculous. I also just finished The Book Thief.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I would say right now one of my favorite places to eat is Chalkboard. It has great food, a great wine list and it’s a beautiful little cozy room. So that’s currently one of my top. The Athenian RoomLulaBuona Terra and Hachi’s Kitchen for Japanese. All of which are right out my back door, which is perfect for when you’re really hungry and really lazy.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A way to sleep more?  At the moment, I would invent a gasoline alternative. I have a Hybrid and I paid $52 for gasoline in McHenry last week. In McHenry!

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Fly, totally.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I have a playlist that I call Untitled so that nobody knows what it is, and it’s the playlist that I play when I need to do something tedious and boring like clean out a closet. It contains such musical gems as, “Xanadu,” “It’s Raining Men” and “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” It’s actually so full of that kind of crap that a girlfriend said to me, “do not let a guy you’re dating hear that, because he’ll break up with you.”

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
Truly there’s meaning, and then there’s fun. One of my favorite ways to Jew is a corned beef sandwich at Manny’s, which I’ve been doing pretty much since I was born. I used to go there with my great-grandfather. That was always a really fun thing, and always felt like a really Jewish thing. On the flip side of that, my dad is on the board of JCFS, and going to those events and doing the good work makes me feel happy.

Catch Stacey at the Printer’s Row Book Fair on Saturday, June 7, at 1:30pm, where she will be moderating a panel discussion on humor and weight issues called, “Through Thick and Thin,” with authors Jennifer Lancaster and Stephanie Klein.

Playing for Our Team

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Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis talks baseball and religion—and clears up an error on his Wikipedia page
06/03/2008

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Jason Marquis, team player

As of last Sunday*, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball. We’ve heard that a lot this week, but somehow it never gets old. Last Friday morning, in the midst of the team’s seven-game stomping of the Colorado Rockies, I arrived at Wrigley Field to talk to Jason Marquis.

The night before, Marquis had pitched. Coincidently, I’d been there with friends sitting behind the much-loathed pole in section 228. The next morning, I had a better view waiting in the dugout for Marquis to arrive. I chatted with some of the media regulars about the previous night’s game. I watched the grounds crew pull the tarp over the field—they were expecting rain and  “tornadic activity.”

When Marquis arrived, we talked a bit about the upcoming game. “The Cubs play 50-something day games and people have jobs—but nearly 40,000 show up for every game. It’s electric every time you step on the field. Look at today. It’s overcast and rainy and there will still be 40,000 fans here and that’s the great thing about this place!”

And the fans that skipped out on work that particular day saw an amazing game. The Cubs came back from an eight-run deficit to win 10-9; there wasn’t any tornadic activity outside of the batter’s box. 

If you’re a fan of the movie Bull Durham, which I totally am, you may have grown up connecting baseball to religion in some far-out, mystical Susan Sarandon kind of way. But, there aren’t that many Jews in baseball and there aren’t too many teams with as much mythical lore as the Cubs. So, does being both a Jew and a Cub make Marquis feel doubly persecuted?

When I asked Marquis, who seems like a very laid back guy, he laughed. “Maybe they negate themselves and cancel each other out! But nah, I feel privileged to be part of both the Jewish religion and part of Chicago Cub history. Being from a Jewish background, my parents always pushed education. But I always had time for extracurricular activities too. Sports suited me the most and got me to the highest levels.”

He adds that while there aren’t a lot of professional Jewish athletes, he hopes that more kids who are interested in sports will follow in his and others’ footsteps so in the future, Jewish athletes won’t be such rarity.

As a New York native, Marquis was a Yankees fan as a kid. And during the off-season, he resides in Staten Island. I wondered if he’s still allowed to be a Yankees fan, which I guess would be better than being a Cardinals fan. (Marquis spent the three seasons with our division rival prior to being signed with the Cubs in the 2006 off-season.)

“I grew up a die-hard Yankees fan, and my friends are still all Yankees fans. Now, more than anything, I’m a fan of the team I play for. But when it comes down to it, I’m a baseball fan. When I’m done with this game, I’ll root for the players that I played with and the players that I like, but mostly I’ll just be a baseball fan.”

Life is awesome for Cubs fans right now, and White Sox fans too for that matter. But I didn’t want to ask Marquis about curses or predictions. I didn’t want to know what he thinks of the 100-year destiny talk or any cloven hoofed goats. Because if I have learned anything as a life-long Cubs fan (not to mention a Bull Durham fan), it’s that you don’t mess with a streak and you try to take it one day at a time.

Still, I couldn’t help asking how it felt to play for the team with the best record in the major league. “Last year was a step in the right direction. We got back to the playoffs, and this year we’re off to a really good start,” Marquis says. “It’s nice and fun to be part of a winning team, but obviously it’s a long season so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.”  

Making the move to Chicago was good for Marquis. He’d grown to love the city on road trips when he was with the Cardinals and, for his two young children, Reese Madison and Andrew, the Cubs’ schedule is pretty close to ideal. There are 81 home games and, Marquis emphasized, about 50 are day games, compared to about 20 for most teams. “I love day games because you get a life outside of baseball.”

That life includes hanging out with his kids and his wife in their Lakeview neighborhood and eating at local hotspots including La Scarola and Joe’s Crab House, but it does not include a stint playing acoustic guitar on the most recent Nada Surf album—as stated on his Wikipedia page. He chuckled at that idea. “Nope, I never did.  Not me, I’m musically challenged. I’ll sing a little karaoke revolution on X-Box every once in a while but even then…. I’m terrible, but I do it for fun and I’ll make a fool of myself,” Marquis says.

Judaism played a big role in Marquis’s upbringing and he credits growing up Jewish for helping him develop his morals and ethics. “I learned how to treat people the right way, and I think whether it’s Judaism, Catholicism, Christianity or whatever, religion is a good way for kids to have a solid background. It gives them something to stand on as they grow up so they’re not out there clueless in the world.”

He credits his wife, Debbie, who is Catholic, with sometimes knowing more than he does about Jewish traditions—she wants to make sure the kids learn about their father’s heritage. And as is true in many families, food is an important part of the process. “My dad makes latkes for Chanukah and my mother will make the beef brisket. My wife and my mom cook together around the holidays,” he says.

Marquis might get the chance to connect his work to his heritage sometime soon. Israel is trying to get together a team to compete in the World Baseball Classic, which would take place right before spring training. “They contacted my agent to see if I would be interested. Obviously I would be, but they have to build a team of players, which I think they will,” he says. “I mean, will we stack up against the Dominicans and the U.S.? Probably not, but it would be fun to represent my heritage and where I came from.”

It would be fun to watch Marquis play for Israel. And now that his heritage includes Chicago too, whatever happens with the rest of the 2008 season, I’ll enjoy watching Marquis play for the home team.

*This piece was originally published in Oy! last June. The Cubs are now headed to the playoffs! Go Cubs!

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