OyChicago articles

The Bus

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Polly, on the other side of the long bus ride

I recently returned from a JUF Mission to Israel, which was great. But this story isn’t about The Wall, the Dead Sea, or the falafel, although they all deserve a shout-out.

I’d extended my trip and decided to go up north to the Golan region with Melanie, a new friend I met on the Mission. We were going to Kfar Blum, a hotel on a kibbutz, where we could go white water rafting, hiking and biking. After this hectic trip, I just wanted to sit, but I pretended to be all athletic-y as the arrangements were made.

But this story takes place even before we got there.

The day after the Mission ended, we went to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, bought our cheese and olive sandwiches, and boarded the bus for the long ride to Kiryat Shmona.

And this is where the story begins.

I sat with Melanie. An orthodox woman in front of us had two kids with her, a 4 year-old boy and a baby girl. As soon as she spoke to her son, we knew she was born in the U.S.

We started talking. She’s from a conservative family in Long Island, and came to Israel for the first time at 19.

She made aliyah at 22 and was given a choice of ulpans to attend, not religious, or orthodox.

She chose orthodox, which clearly shaped her life. She got married, and in addition to these two kids, has four more at home. When asked how many she wanted, she said, “As many as come.”

My guess is she’ll have 14 kids. Although a few sets of twins would really get her numbers up. How dramatic if her last pregnancy was triplets? And what if she also became a grandmother on that very day?

Back to the actual conversation.

“So,” she said, “are you married?“

Nope, we said. Not yet. Just haven’t found the right guy. But hopefully, someday. Big smile, followed by little giggle to illustrate positive attitude … and scene.

She asked why it was so difficult to meet guys in Chicago. We shrugged. She suggested we move to another city.

“I’ve moved for a relationship,” Melanie said, “and it didn’t work out. I’m not doing that again. I’ll move for work, but not a guy.”

“I’ve lived in another city, too,” I said, “and it was just as hard there, so I don’t think Chicago’s the problem. It’s hard to meet someone that you connect with no matter where you are.”

The orthodox woman – we never found out her name, so I’ll call her Bracha instead of “the orthodox woman” – said it doesn’t have to be so hard; if you want to get married, you get married.

Melanie said, “I want to marry for love, not just to be married. I’m not getting divorced.”

“So you assume you’ll get divorced, instead of working on a marriage?” asked Bracha.

As the conversation turned to pre-nups, I looked around to see who else was on the bus. It was the only way to walk away from a conversation while on a moving vehicle.

There was a woman sitting on the armrest of the seat behind me, talking to people across the aisle. I later learned they were her sister, baby niece and mother.

This woman smiled at me. I smiled back.

“Shalom,” I said.

In accented English, she asked “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” I said. “Illinois. In America. You?”

“Jerusalem,” she said.

I said, “I’m glad you speak English, because I don’t really speak Hebrew.”

“Me, either,” she said. “I speak English and Arabic.”

Here’s the Israeli experience we paid our 57 shekels for: An ultra-orthodox Jewish woman in front of us, an Arab woman behind us. They never acknowledged each other.

“My husband and kids are here, too,” said the Arab woman – I’ll call her Taaj, because it’s Arabic and I like it – as she gestured to the back of the bus. “He’s visiting from Virginia. He works in a restaurant.” Every year, he visits for a month, she goes there for a month.

“So,” she said, “how do you like Palestine?”

She said it with a twinkle in her eye. It was a conscious choice of words.

I rejected my first instinct, which was to say “Palestine? You mean Israel? It’s only awesome.” That may come across as sarcastic and/or glib. Given that I wasn’t 14 and this wasn’t my mom, it seemed like the wrong approach.

But if I said, “It’s beautiful,” then I’d be tacitly confirming that this land is called Palestine. So I said:
“This is a really beautiful country.”

By saying “this,” I was referring the actual land that is Israel. Of course, she referred to “this” land as Palestine, so the subtle distinction I was making may be lost on her, but crunched for time, I went with it.

I turned back to Melanie as Bracha said, “Marriage is a lifelong commitment, the most important relationship of your life. Your husband must come first, before your kids.”

”I disagree,” said Melanie. “My kids would always come before my husband.”

I chimed in: “That’s a hard one, but I’ve heard that if parents put each other first so they each feel valued and important, then that can only be better for the kids.”

Watching Seal and Heidi Klum tell Oprah the secret to their dreamy marriage has certainly come in handy. I sound so wise.

“My kids would always come before my husband,” said Melanie. “No question.”


I turned back around to Taaj.

“That’s Jenin,” she said as she pointed into the distance. “Arab city.”

“Uh-huh,” I nodded. “That’s nice.”

“Arabs,” Taaj said again. “The whole city.” I’m glad she elaborated, because “Arab city,” wasn’t descriptive enough.

I turned to hear Melanie say, “But why should I have to give up a career I love in order to be with a man? I may not get married, so isn’t that even more of a reason to have a great career, so I can take care of myself?”

Bracha said, “But you are incomplete without a man. A man completes you.”

Oh no she di’int!

Would it be wrong to fling myself into the overhead storage compartment? If it went smoothly, it seemed the perfect way to disappear. If it didn’t, watching me pull myself up into the bin could get awkward. Dammit! I’m doomed by my inability to do a pull-up! I could stand on the chair back for leverage. Or I could get a boost from someone. Bracha’s 4 year-old looks sturdy… although his glasses are pretty thick. If those suckers fell off, he’d be no help at all.

A quick, quiet getaway seemed unlikely. So there I sat.

Melanie said, “I don’t need a man to feel complete.”

For the record, I agreed with almost everything Melanie said, but it seemed beyond frustrating to convince Bracha – who had rejected an upbringing probably similar to our own – that we were actually complete beings without a man. She would quote the Torah, we’d quote common sense and a few self-help books, voices would be raised, and we’d all be incredibly annoyed.

I turned back to Taaj.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Kiryat Shmona, then taking a cab to a kibbutz for a few days,” I said.

Please don’t ask me where, please don’t ask me where.

I was suddenly worried about giving her too much information. Then I was annoyed with myself for being worried. Did I really think that Taaj, her husband, 3 kids, sister, niece, and elderly mother would follow us? We’re just not that interesting.

Still… please don’t ask me where I’m going…

“That’s near Lebanon,” she said.

“Yep,” I said. “I know.”

“Lebanon,” she said again, with that same twinkle. “But you’ll be fine.”

She said this as though she called Lebanon and asked it not to bother us. Taaj loves freaking me out.

Her 9 year-old daughter came over to sit with her.

Scanning brain for generic topic… got it:
“Do you like Hannah Montana?” I asked her.

She said yes just as we pulled into a rest stop.

I paid my sheckel for the bathroom and used that time to strategize. Here’s the situation:
We have Bracha disappointed that it’s 2008 and women are complete beings, and Taaj gleefully telling me about the Arab-ness of the region. Neither conversation was remotely appealing.

I could talk to Taaj’s daughter about Hannah Montana, but really, what’s left to say?

There was only one solution.

When we got back on the bus, I took a nap.

Polly Levy spent 8 years in Los Angeles where she wrote for Suddenly Susan, and was a Script Coordinator for Frasier, Gilmore Girls and some other TV shows no one has ever heard of.

Now living in Chicago, she is a Senior Content Producer at NogginLabs, where she writes online e-learning courses. In addition, she freelances for the website development company Azavar Technologies.

Inspired Eyes

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A painter's worldview 


“Trust” 2008, Acrylic Painting

I began painting Judaic themes after my experience in the 2004 South East Asia Tsunami during which I was holidaying in Thailand. The Tsunami opened my eyes to a whole new world of humanity--it was incredible to witness firsthand everyone coming together to help each other. After surviving the Tsunami, my connection with God grew stronger, enabling me to express my passion for Judaism by creating traditional, Judaic art. I am hopeful that my paintings and artwork will inspire others by creating a positive light of energy in their homes.

My designs are vibrant, bold, energetic and colorful. Many of my paintings describe visions of the future, of the world after its final redemption, of a world where peace and joy is expressed. My inspiration is drawn from the colorful people and events that have impacted my life.


Music in Jerusalem

This painting began with a violin player. I wanted to create a musical piece, so I added the rabbi playing the flute, but something was still missing. It was only when I added people praying at the wall that the painting started to make sense. I have carried on this theme of floating. Some of the men do not have legs and are therefore levitating. The music represents their prayers reaching the heavens.


Inside outside 2008

This painting was inspired by one of my favorite artists, Baruch Nachshon. In this painting I have played with the concepts of different layers and levels of seeing things. This is the way life is, especially in the Jewish religion. If you look closer you will notice that everything is connected, though it may not appear that way at first glance.

The two boys represent “learning” as well as the past and the future. I have created a mezuzah scroll that appears to be a torah scroll and inside the scroll is the story.  A young boy is catching the blessings inside the scroll however he is outside the scroll, thus playing with different levels. The boys are looking at a menorah, shown as the Western Wall with the temple as the main candle, and the rest of the flames are coming from pomegranates.

A mezuzah acts as a doorway thus the painting is divided into three parts, the past, present and future and is connected by a rainbow which represents a covenant, or promise, made by God to the Jewish people.


Life 2008

In this painting I have used the flute player to create music in Jerusalem.  The man in the right corner is catching blessings inside a Chamsa. The largest blessing has Hebrew letters inside which translate to “life.”

Taryn Treisman was born in Johannesburg South Africa in 1984. She began painting at an early age and developed her passion for art and artists in her youth. Her paintings are influenced mostly by Fauvism and Expressionism, but also by Art Deco and Pop-Art. After moving to Chicago in April, Taryn become a member of  Lubavitch Chabad of the Loop Gold Coast , where she takes classes that provide her with inspiration. In addition to Jewish themes, she enjoys painting South African themes, depicting Nelson Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation”. She hopes to portray South Africa in a positive light and create designs that are full of energy, vibrancy and color.”

For more information please contact Taryn Treisman

8 Questions for Geri Bleier, yoga instructor, new aunt, meatball lover

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Geri, loving her job 

Geri Bleier and her Beta Fish Bert live in Lincoln Park and when Geri travels—most recently to Connecticut to visit her new nephew Beck—Bert hangs out at Yogaview, where Geri teaches classes five days a week. The full-time yoga instructor grew up in the Detroit suburbs before relocating to Vail, Colorado for six years. After some quality time in the mountains, Geri wanted to be in a city; while in Vail she met Tom Quinn and Quinn Kearney, who offered her a job at their studio here in Chicago.

So whether you’re looking for a good yoga class, you’re a fan of Beta Fish or you’re a proud aunt or uncle, Geri Bleier is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a stewardess so I could travel around the world. I grew out of it when I realized it might not be quite as glamorous as I thought. But I still love to travel. Last winter I was lucky enough to spend time in Mexico and the Caribbean; that was really good.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love everything about teaching yoga. Yoga is such as amazing practice and I love sharing it with people. I love helping people become more aware of their bodies, hearts and spirits. I get to see so much real transformation in people every day. I started my practice when a friend kept bugging me to go to a class. Finally I went with him and loved it from that first class—now I’ve been teaching for 11 years.

3. What are you reading?
I’m reading Barack Obama’s  Audacity of Hope ; I started it a couple of weeks ago.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
My top craving lately is the meatball salad at Café Bionda on Milwaukee. My friend and I text each other “meatball” when we get cravings for it! That’s my favorite thing at the moment, but I go out to eat all of the time so it’s hard to pick just one place.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I’d love to have an “I Dream of Jeanie”-type device that would transport me and my family members from place to place—we’re all scattered and I would love to see them every week. I miss them very much.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
Fly. Why would I want to be invisible? Why would anyone?

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure song would I find?
“Superwoman” by Alicia Keys.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago—in other words, how do you Jew?
When I first moved to Chicago I lived in Wrigleyville behind the Jewish cemetery. I don’t have family here and it’s pretty so I used to go hang out there. Now I spend holidays with friends; I typically bring the wine or dessert.

Local law firms team up with Holocaust Community Services to help survivors get compensation

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Survivor Polina Kalacheva getting assistance at the Holocaust Reparations Clinic held at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Rogers Park on July 24 

In 1943, Edith Stern of Chicago and her parents were forced to leave their home and transported to Terezin (The "Ghetto Theresienstadt") a Nazi-controlled ghetto. There, she worked as a nurse, lived in tight quarters and overcame severe illness, but she was lucky enough to survive and get married. On Sept. 28, 1944, all the men, including her husband, were taken to what they thought were labor camps in Germany. So when the opportunity arose for her mother and her to join them, they eagerly boarded the train. When they instead arrived at Auschwitz, Stern’s mother was sent straight to the gas chambers, but she, having maintained her strength living the ghetto, passed the selection and was sent to a labor camp. Soon after, she discovered—as did the Nazis—that she was pregnant, and was on her way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz when the camp was liberated by the Russians in May of 1945.

Though she had lost her parents, husband and unborn child, Stern persevered, eventually coming to Chicago and starting a family. Having survived through so much, Stern does not let much stop her. But when she needed hearing aids and could not afford them, she knew she needed help. It was then that she noticed a bulletin board ad for new compensation available to survivors. She called Chicago’s Holocaust Community Services (HCS), filled out the application and qualified to receive just over $3,000. And for Stern, this reparation money represented a world of difference.

“It means a lot,” Stern says, adding that despite her hearing problems she is otherwise very healthy. “I could not afford to get the hearing aids before, but now I have them. I was also able to get gifts for my grandchildren.”

Representatives of three major law firms are joining HCS in an effort to locate and assist Holocaust survivors, like Stern, who worked in Nazi-run ghettos and are eligible for new compensation made available by the German government.

Survivors eligible for The German Government Ghetto Labor Compensation Fund include those who were forced to live in a ghetto under Nazi control and who were employed “without coercion” during this time. The fund, established in October of 2007, ensures a one-time payment 2,000 Euros (approximately $3,000), to those who qualify and apply.

This project originated internationally with the Los Angeles-based Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which inspired firms with offices all over the country and throughout the world to join together and localize the effort. In Chicago, HCS—a joint effort of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan ChicagoJewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), CJE Senior Life and HIAS Chicago—had already located and secured compensation for several hundred survivors, but according to HCS director Audrey Cantor, they were still looking to find others.

Determined to contribute to Bet Tzedek’s effort, locate more eligible survivors in Chicago and support HCS, representatives from three Chicago law firms—McDermott, Will & EmoryDLA Piper US and Winston & Strawn—came together in May to gauge interest from their attorneys and other firms, and come up with a game plan. They pooled their resources and arranged for clinics to be held throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, where survivors could come in with their applications, share their stories and receive free legal services.

“To date we have had several test clinics as we are trying to get the clinics established,” says Latonia Keith, Pro Bono and Community Service Counsel for McDermott, Will & Emory. “The goal of the lawyers is to make sure that survivors receive payment or are rejected on legitimate grounds.”

The application can be “deceptively simple,” according to Anne Geraghty, Pro Bono manager for DLA Piper US. “So it’s really important that lawyers be involved,” she says. All the attorneys involved go through specific training and are instructed to stay in contact with their clients following the clinics.

As of 2001, there were approximately 6,000 survivors living in Chicago, and Geraghty says she was surprised by the number of survivors living under the poverty line, noting the importance of helping as many survivors as possible.

But while Stern was quick to share her amazing story and fill out the application, other survivors may not want to evoke memories these tragic memories from their past.

“For some the ghetto was just the first step,” says Cantor, noting that many survivors prefer to say “I’m not going back.”

“We’re really asking someone to relive painful details of their lives,” says Allison Zirn, of DLA Piper US. “It’s a tremendous human interest. We’re helping people that are extremely needy.”

This effort is especially important to Zirn on a personal level because her father, who passed away just last year, was a liberator during World War II.

“He told stories, he showed pictures, but he never wanted to be considered heroic,” she said. “When there’s that need you do anything you can to help the survivors.”

“No one in Chicago has been rejected yet,” Cantor says, noting that as a result of locating new survivors, HCS has also been able to provide them with additional services. “We’re winding down as survivors are getting older.”

“We’re really dealing with living history that’s quickly no longer going to be here anymore,” added Zirn.

Gregory McConnell, Pro Bono Counsel for Winston & Strawn, said finding survivors still remains their biggest challenge. There are a total of 15 firms involved on some level, each with the potential for 30 to 50 volunteers each, and yet they don’t have the numbers of survivors to fill the clinics.

“It’s really great that [these attorneys] get to go out [to centers and clinics] and really spend the afternoon,” McConnell said. “It really instills the notion of what lawyers can do to help people.”

If you or someone you know might be eligible, or for more information, call Holocaust Community Services at (847) 568-5151. 

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