OyChicago articles

Notes from Jewish South America, Part I

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Notes from Uruguay… 

South America has a rich Jewish history, one that most Jews outside of Latin America know little about. This spring, I traveled to South America to learn about the Jewish communities of two countries, Uruguay and Argentina, on a media mission organized by ORT America.

In addition to making some new Jewish friends in Uruguay and Argentina, I got to eat some world-famous Argentine (kosher) steak, take in a Tango show, and brush up on my college Spanish…Salud!

Notes from Uruguay photo 1

Encounter with a selection of students and graduates representing most areas of study of ORT Uruguay University

David Telias was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, but has traveled back and forth between Israel and Uruguay his whole life. At age 10, he made aliyah with his family for one year. “In those days, I did not understand why we did this, but I never could get it out of my mind,” he said. “It was the first time I asked myself what it means to be Jewish.” From that day forward, Telias felt a deep connection to Israel. His story is a familiar one within the Jewish community of Uruguay, a person with allegiance to Uruguay, but a strong tie to the Jewish homeland as well.

A Jewish studies and history professor at ORT Uruguay University, Telias acted as our guide through Uruguay.

Uruguay has a Jewish population of about 23,000 Jews, 75% of whom are Ashkenazi, different from most other Latin American countries with a larger Sephardic population, according to Telias. The Jewish community, mainly centered in Uruguay’s capitol city of Montevideo, is tight-knit, though not religious, with a strong bond with Israel, which enjoys better relations with Uruguay than with any other country in Latin America, according to Telias.

Notes from Uruguay photo 2

Fresh produce at a Montevideo fruit stand

Our host in Uruguay was ORT Uruguay University, the country’s largest private university. In 1942, ORT University was first established as a Jewish trade school for refugees from Europe, according to Charlotte de Grunberg, director general of ORT Uruguay.

In the 1950s, ORT expanded to include non-Jews as well and spent more time specializing in technological areas and providing vocational training to technicians and professionals, according to Grunberg. When she arrived in Uruguay in the late 1970s from her hometown in Belgium, she helped transform the school into a university.

Grunberg didn’t want the school to compete with Jewish day schools because she believed in the power of Jewish continuity. At the same time, after the military rule, from 1973-1985, the quality of education at the public university deteriorated, she said, so she hoped Jewish university-bound students would turn to ORT as an option.

“Jewish parents want the best for their children,” Grunberg said. “We decided we would start to try to maintain one of the best universities in the country.” Then, in 1996, ORT University was officially certified as a private institution. Today, more than 8,000 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, undergraduate and graduate, attend.

During our visit, we held a roundtable discussion with a group of students and recent graduates. Among them was Martin Kalenberg, who graduated from the School of Communication and now writes for a Uruguayan weekly Jewish magazine. Several years ago, he published a piece on the investigation of the Munich Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. (The Uruguayan delegation was housed in the same building as the Israeli team.)

“The community is more Zionistic than religious—Israel is most important,” Kalenberg said, describing the Uruguayan Jewish community’s ties to Israel. “There are secular and religious Jews here but, to everyone, Israel is most important. Israel unites those who are involved and who are not involved in the community.”

Maia Hojman is an articulate, young community leader with a passion for the Jewish people. A graduate in public accounting, she was elected to run the 500-member Jewish youth organization, ‘Macabi Tzair,’ which entails planning educational activities. Five years ago, she traveled on a youth trip to Israel through the Jewish United Fund’s overseas arm, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Notes from Uruguay photo 3

Maia Hojman (third from left), a young leader in the Uruguayan Jewish community, out with the ladies in Montevideo

Hojman, along with the majority of the other young people we spoke to, attends the Yavne Synagogue, located in the Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo. Hojman lights up when talking about the Orthodox synagogue, led by a 28-year-old rabbi named Tzvi Elon. The rabbi’s young age and enthusiasm attracts many young people to the shul. Hojman outlines her Friday night routine each week, not a traditionally religious one, but a Jewishly-centered one nonetheless. “I get in a car and drive to synagogue,” she said, “and then to my grandma’s for Shabbat dinner.”

ORT was founded in Tzarist Russia in 1880 to teach impoverished Jewish Russians skills needed at that time. Today, ORT students are trained in technical skills such as computers, telecommunications, robotics, and nanotechnology at technical schools around the world. ORT America will host a solidarity mission to Argentina and Uruguay from Nov. 9-15.Visit  www.ortamerica.org/missions or call 1-(800)-519-2678, ext. 360.

Kosher, Local and Organic: Part 1

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Kosher, Local and Organic photo 1

Cooking keeps me company when everyone around me is busy or absent.  And, as I've developed a deeper appreciation for what and how I cook, so too with my Judaism.  So here I am: a 20 year-old junior, living in a one-bedroom, eager to make it kosher.  And not just kosher—organic and local round out my trinity of food wants.  Organic, Local, Kosher—two out of three's not bad, right?

Remember that old JIF peanut butter slogan: "Choosy moms choose JIF"?  Incorrect!  Choosy moms grind their own damn legumes.  Which brings us to (pardon the pun) the meat of the situation.

According to Northwestern University Fiedler Hillel's Rabbi Josh Feigelson, kashrut's main (and to some, only) function is to isolate and separate the Jewish people from the others—it reminds us of who we are.  A chosen people.  But aren't we a choosy one too?

Apparently not.

Here in Chicago, on a recent run to KJ (that's the kosher Jewel on Howard), I found approximately no identifiably Illinois-based kosher food products.  I also found no Illinois based regular food products, but since I'm not in the business of buying fruits and vegetables at Jewel, I'll let it slide.  I found tons of kosher dairy products from Israel (Tnuva is really popular, nu?) or from New England (think of all the foodies who've gone kosher there!), a boatload of Manischevitz everything (California) and, of course, US kosher meat.  Because meat comes from the United States, as a whole.  Obvs!

How is it so possible for people to ignore where their food comes from?  I disagree both with the vegetarian (or vegan) who insists on telling me that my food had a face and a thought (at least my food can be certifiably dead and non-responsive when I eat it is my response) and with the carnivores who trot off to BK lounge for three Whoppers, never questioning that they're eating "BEEF" (you mean that comes from a COW? Gross!)  I want to respect my body and my future food.

Currently, there are a few coops in the east coast, who, acting like CSAs, service their communities with kosher, pasture-finished (that means it never ate corn, or worse, cow) meats.  I'm sure there's one or two in Berkeley.  I know there's a burgeoning movement out there in the world that has an ethical connection to its food—the organic one.  So what about here in Chicago?

These days, when I hanker after some protein I make do with what’s available, and buy Empire or Alle kosher meats.  But when I set aside kitchen space for my kosher, yes, but non-organic, non-local meat dishes, utensils, and cookware, I found I didn't want to spare more than two cupboards and a square foot of counter space.  I can't wait for the day to come when I can have all three— kosher, local and organic.  Hopefully then, I’ll have a large kitchen to cook in, too.  Until then, pass the tomatoes—I've got a pizza to make.

More than just a pretty cover

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A peek inside the world of author Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner photo

Although I’m a writer myself, when it comes to reading for pleasure, I tend to dabble in the chick lit section of the bookstore a bit more than a girl should really admit. But hell, give me sunshine, a beach and a pastel paperback and I’m as happy as a clam. Lucky for me, there’s one author in the chick lit section who manages to fill her pink-covered pages with substance, humor (even some Jewish humor), life lessons and a little girl talk.

Jennifer Weiner, a nice Jewish girl from Connecticut, is most well known for debut novel, The New York Times best-seller “Good in Bed” and her second novel, “In Her Shoes,” which was turned into a major motion picture starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine by Twentieth Century Fox in 2005. Weiner’s other best-selling novels include “Little Earthquakes,” “Goodnight Nobody,” “The Guy Not Taken” and “Certain Girls,” the sequel to “Good in Bed.” Her work has also appeared in Seventeen, Glamour, Redbook, TV Guide, YM and Salon.com. Weiner, a graduate of Princeton University, lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their daughters, Lucy and Phoebe.

This Monday, July 20, at 7 p.m., the Vernon Area Public Library will bring Weiner to Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire to discuss her new book, “Best Friends Forever,” released this week, along with her past books, personal experiences and women's search for a sense of self. Registration is required to attend.

I caught up with Weiner before her visit to talk Judaism, the inspiration for her new book and shoe shopping on Michigan Ave:

Stefanie Pervos: I understand you grew up in a town where you were one of few Jews. What was your Jewish upbringing like? What role does Judaism play in your life today?
Jennifer Weiner: I grew up in a town in Connecticut where there weren’t a lot of Jews but I did have a pretty traditional Jewish upbringing. I went to Sunday school and Hebrew school and I was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and we lit candles on Shabbat. So I’d say that I had a very strong Jewish identity. I married the nice Jewish guy, and my husband and I belong to a synagogue and we attend most tot Shabbats (with our daughters).

Most of your book’s main characters are Jewish—why is that? And how does your Judaism influence your writing?
Well, I think that a lot of my characters are outsiders and they feel alienated from whatever community they’re in—whether it’s their suburb or high school or the world of thin people—they just sort of feel like they don’t belong. I think in a lot of ways Judaism is my shorthand for that because in most cases (even today) to be Jewish is to still be somewhat on the outside—you’re not part of the majority religion and that puts you in a different place than being Christian does. It makes you look at things a little differently.

I’ve read that you struggle with being labeled as a chick lit writer.
I don’t really struggle with it anymore, because I’ve realized there’s nothing I can do to affect that label one way or another, so I’m just going to have to be at peace with it. The comfort of it is that I think that critics can be very dismissive about chick lit or about anything that they think concerns frivolous questions about romance or marriage or children or women, but I think my readers kind of know what the deal is with my books. I want my books to be entertaining more than anything else. But I also want them to have some substance and to be dealing with issues that are relevant to the people that are reading them— issues of identity, self confidence, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a sister, what it means to be a friend. So, even if there’s a pink cover and even if The New York Times never mentions them, I think that my readers know what they came for.

I’m curious if you’ve ever been labeled as a Jewish writer?
Not so much, you know, that’s really interesting. I wonder if that’s a literary/commercial distinction? Even though a lot of my characters are Jewish, and they’re observant Jews, I think the chick lit label sort of supercedes everything.

As someone who’s read all of your books, it’s pretty clear to me that you have a very strong voice. How did you find that voice?
I think some of it was growing up Jewish in a place where there weren’t a lot of Jews—you had to have a sense of humor about that or you were just sunk. Some of it is being one of four kids. I wasn’t in a situation where I had parents who were breathlessly hanging on my every word thinking everything I said was so brilliant and so precious. You really had to work to get that positive reinforcement, and I think that all four of us have pretty distinct voices and pretty good senses of humor. And a lot of it comes from journalism and all the reading and writing I did. I’m so happy that I could grow up and be what I wanted to be when I grew up, but it’s a job and writing is a craft and you work at it. Voice is something that you refine as you go and you work.

It seems the impetus for most of your books comes from something going on in your life. How much of what you write is inspired by your real life?
I’d say a lot of it is, and if it’s not my life its something that’s going on with my friends, or my sister or my brothers or my mom. This is my seventh book and this is where you start to get the ‘do you worry about running out of ideas’ question. I really don’t because I think life just gives you so much and your children give you so much and your parents give you so much and I think that that’s where it comes from.

“Best Friends Forever” was interesting because I read Stephen King’s book on writing—which I really, really liked—and one of the things that he talks about is writing Carrie and remembering the outcast girl in his high school and trying to come up with a back story of what had happened to make this girl such a target of everyone. I thought, I want to write a story about the girl who was really unhappy in high school. Because I was unhappy for some of high school, not like desperately unhappy, not unhappy for all of it, but I definitely had that thing that now I think just about everybody had—I’m the biggest freak here, I’m not fitting in, I’m not one of the cool kids— and I wanted to write that girl. So some of it was something I’d read and some of it was something I’d lived and a lot of it is imagination and extrapolation.

It sounds like “Best Friends Forever” might have a little bit of a dark side to it.
Yeah, it’s got a bit of a mystery.  It is a little darker, but it’s got some funny parts too. I would say it’s typical of what I do and of what my readers would expect. It’s also a bit of homage to “Thelma and Louise.” I wanted to write the story of two women on the lam.

So what’s next for you?
I’m trying to get ready to go (on tour). I’m thinking about my next novel, which I think is going to be a story about three different women in three different generations who all have marriages or love affairs go wrong and come together to recover from that and learn things about each other and themselves.  I have a development deal with ABC—basically I’m trying very hard to come up with ideas for television that have my voice and the kind of characters I like to write.

Are you looking forward to coming to Chicago?
My husband went to law school at the University of Chicago—he was Barack Obama’s student and oh Lord did he never let me forget that the entire political campaign (I was a Hillary supporter). I’ve been to Chicago a bunch and I love shopping on Michigan Ave. I think my husband is going to try to confiscate my credit card before I leave. The Nordstrom shoe department (in Chicago) is I think the best in the entire world, so probably I’ll be doing some damage there.

8 Questions for Elesabeth Bacherta, women’s professional football player, fitness instructor, comedy lover

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JYSK Elisabeth Bacherta photo 1

Elesabeth Bacherta’s nickname is “Bruce,” after Bruce Lee. Like her namesake, she hits fast and hard… and leaves no one standing. But her sport is not a martial art, it’s football. That’s right: Women’s. Professional. Tackle. Football. Elisabeth is both Offense & Defense Lineman for Chicago’s team, The Force and recently celebrated her first anniversary with the team.

Born in Benton, Arkansas, Elesabeth is a fitness instructor for the Chicago Park District at Broadway Armory Park. She has a Master of Science in Exercise Science from Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago and another Master of Science in Organization Development, from Loyola University, Chicago. Her undergrad degree, in Journalism, is from Texas A&M University.

So whether you want to get in shape, plow through the opposition, or just catch a great football game, Elesabeth is a Jew you should know!

JYSK Elisabeth Bacherta photo 2

In game face mode, listening intently to her coash during a game

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Sometimes I forget to set the VCR, or better yet, I set the VCR but forget to put in a tape, then I miss my favorite television show.  I really appreciate the websites where I can watch the episodes that my VCR didn’t record, especially season finales.

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I’ve always admired gladiators—I even dressed as one for Purim one year—so I’d like to visit Italy.  I’d like to either ride a bicycle or motorcycle all over the country.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Every year my friends try to convince me to dress like Xena, Warrior Princess for Purim. I’m too modest to wear that outfit in public, but Rosie O’Donnell would so I’d get her to play me in a movie. We’re both funny and smart.

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 love comedy because I love to laugh, so I’d have dinner with my two favorite comedians, Robin Williams and Queen Latifa.  Besides, I tell all my friends that I’m their lovechild, so it would be nice to have dinner with family. We’d eat somewhere casual that serves really good fish and a variety of veggies.

5. What’s your idea of the perfect day?
I enjoy being active so I’d like to either teach or attend a fitness class and then lift weights.  After that I’d spend the rest of the day soaking up the sun and listening to water either from waves or a waterfall.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I spent the last four years studying really hard so I could create a job that I’d enjoy. The late nights studying and no social life paid off, because now I get paid to teach exercise classes with really wonderful people and play with amazing children all day long.  In a nutshell, I get paid to play all day.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I love being near the water and the physical demands of exercise, so working for the Coast Guard would be my second choice.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
You think tackle football is tough? Try getting into the line for lunch before the little old ladies at shul. I don’t have at lot of free time these days, so I really appreciate the Shabbats when I get to have lunch with my friends at Anshe Emet.

Apathy and Political Ploys

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Apathy and Political Ploys photo

A Chihuly installation that has nothing to do with this story

I was minding my own business in the courtyard on the corner of Monroe and Wells, trying to enjoy my Mexicali salad and a little sunshine, when I was interrupted. Not by the usual culprits like a colleague, a pigeon, or some guy selling Streetwise. I was interrupted by a voice inside my own head. It happened to be speaking in a booming baritone and didn’t give two shits about serenity or spring greens.

Devastate. Decimate. Desecrate. Destroy [pause] our system. 

Devastate. Decimate. Desecrate. Destroy [pause] our system. 

I’ll have you know, this is atypical. My subconscious might be quirky, but it doesn’t usually get incensed (in a Malcolm X-ish kinda way) and begin to alliterate.

So I put down my fork, took out my BlackBerry and emailed my friend Irving. Devastate. Decimate. Desecrate. Destroy [pause] our system.

What about defecate, he wrote back in a nanosecond.

That’s the good thing about friends. They don’t always need you to put things in context. When something sneaks up on you (and your cherry tomatoes) and bursts your bubble of indifference, they care, too.

Irving knows me well enough to know I don’t always care. My older brother is the one who inherited the activist gene. He’s the one who got arrested in college for protesting apartheid, who accumulates stacks upon stacks of precariously balanced newspapers, and updates his Facebook status every 12 minutes with abbreviated newsflashes that, to me, might as well be written in Swahili.

I’m generally the one who has no counter-argument to the statement, Ignorance is bliss. Ignorance, avoidance, denial – all bliss.

With me, mom skipped the page where Snow White got poisoned, muted the sound when the Wicked Witch melted, pressed fast forward when Bambi died. I haven’t opened my Smith Barney statements since November. I haven’t watched TV since Ruben Studdard won Amercian Idol. I get my news – good or bad -- by reading the headlines over the shoulders of my seatmates on Metra.

The thing is, when something touches your own life, it has a way of grabbing your attention. And the headline that’s grabbing my attention right now is, Poor, disabled, and elderly to pay the price for deadlock in Springfield.

Go on. Read it. I’ll wait.

Truth be told, I work for the largest social welfare organization in the state of Illinois. One could argue I am paid to care if our state is operating without an approved budget two weeks into the new fiscal year. One could argue I’m paid to care if our legislators are batting around budgets that will, in fact, devastate (decimate, destroy) major parts of our social service system.

But on my own time, in that courtyard on the corner of Wells and Monroe, I care for other reasons. Namely, because of what these agencies have done for my family.

They taught my husband English. They helped him become a U.S. citizen. They took care of our babies so we both could work – diapered them, burped them, taught them to swim. And during recent tough times, they were the buoy that kept us afloat.

I cared when that English program closed last week due to lack of funding. And I cared when that counseling program had to cut its staff and then cut it again, despite having waiting lists that last for months.

And that’s just us. One little Skokie family with a home, an income, and each other.

What about the thousands of other families – poor, disabled, elderly, or not – losing the services that have kept them afloat?

Can’t skip the page, mute the sound, or press fast forward this time.

According to my brother, my colleagues, and my seatmates on Metra, there are things I can do. Educate a friend. Hug a social worker. Write a story for Oy! Make a donation. Write letters to our legislators. Edit out the part that says, What the fuck planet are you living on? Pray they come to their senses.

But on this particular day, sitting in my courtyard on the corner of Wells and Monroe, apathy turns into apoplexy and the baritone booms on.

Oy!Chicago wins big—three awards in its first year!

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Oy!Chicago logo

Take a few nice Jewish girls, add in a taste for blogging, 25- plus friends with talents and connections and a missing link in Chicago’s young Jewish media scene. Mix it together, add a dash of persistence and a helping from the Jewish United Fund and you get Oy!Chicago! Three awards later, Oy!Chicago has been a recipe for success.

Oy!Chicago  is for the socially conscious, intellectually curious and community-minded Jewish 20-or 30-somethings. It’s home to articles, reviews, event listings and ongoing daily discussions about Jewish life for people living Jewishly— or Jew-ishly— in Chicago.
This online blog and community for Jews in the Loop is celebrating its one year anniversary with a redesign and big summer plans. Join Oy! at Loft 610, a new Bucktown hot spot on July 23. There’ll be live music from The Hue, a progressive rock quartet that leaves the singing to the instruments. $20 admission includes an open bar from 8pm to 10pm, live music from The Hue and a donation to JUF, which provides critical resources that bring food, healthcare, education and emergency assistance to 300,000 Chicagoans of all faith and two million Jews around the world.

“It’s been such an exciting first year for Oy!,” said Stefanie Pervos, founding editor and blogger-in-chief of Oy!Chicago. “We’ve really been working hard to start a conversation among Chicago’s young Jewish community—a demographic we’ve found is really looking to get their voices heard.”

All this work paid off this year, as Oy!Chicago was the recipient of three awards for best new website: The Public Relations Society of America Chicago Chapter Merit Award, the Publicity Club of Chicago Silver Trumpet Award, and the Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism from the American Jewish Press Association.

The site originally launched in April, 2008 and was promoted exclusively through viral marketing (e.g., Facebook and Twitter). Traffic to the site remains strong, with more than 30,000 unique visitors to the site, and 4,000 unique visitors per month.

For information on advertising or to learn more about Oy!Chicago, please visit Oy!Chicago at   www.oychicago.com or email us at   info@oychicago.com . To attend the upcoming Oy!Chicago party in Bucktown,  visit us on facebook .

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