OyChicago articles

The 1st Annual Oy! What’s for Dinner? Roundup: The Seven Deadly Dinners

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09/09/2008

FOUR STARS, ONE AND ALL!

StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey StarStacey

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Stacey reviews some of her favorites and yours

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in general, only rarely do your day in and day out dining choices ever get reviewed anywhere. With limited space, reviewers tend to focus on what’s new, what’s hot, what just opened or which fancy chef has blown into town. Sure, now and again you might see one of your regular haunts mentioned in a Best Of article, but really, does that get you through a Tuesday night when you are looking for something that requires neither a reservation nor much brain power? The places you can plug into your cell to order on your way home from work? Special occasion restaurants are great, especially if your folks are in town or you’re on an expense account. But if you have tumbleweeds in your fridge, can’t bear the idea of one more “rice and tuna” night, and some of your own go-to places are boring you a bit, here are some of mine. They aren’t new or flashy, they are stalwart and dependable. Delicious food, available quickly and at a reasonable price. In no particular order:

1. It’s All Greek to Me
The Athenian Room
Dine in and pick up
807 W. Webster
773-348-5155

I’ve been both dining in and picking up at this Lincoln Park location for essentially my whole life. Craving gyros? Theirs are the best, well spiced and moist, with bits of crispiness, served on a tender chewy pita with thick tzatziki. But for my money, the skirt steak dinner is one of the best in the city, and comes with a huge portion of Greek fries and a Greek salad with feta. In the winter, soups alternate daily between avgolemono, the traditional egg lemon soup, and a navy bean, both thick and hearty and perfect for a blistering Chicago night.  The Athenian chicken is also a standout, moist meat and crisp skin, the salads are well sized and fresh, and my mom thinks they have the best burger in the city…an odd choice in a Greek restaurant, but only until you taste it. Don’t look for Greektown specialties, no moussaka here, but trust me, you’ll be glad for the limited menu, since everything is so great, you don’t want to make your decision any harder than it already will be.

2. Tico Me Elmo
Irazu
Dine in, delivery and pick up  (cash only)
1865 N. Milwaukee
773-252-5687

Unless you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Costa Rica, and if you have not I strongly suggest putting it on your list, you might not be familiar with the simple pleasures of Tico cuisine.  But its time to change that.  Irazu is a tiny hole in the wall that packs a huge culinary punch.  Want to try the Costa Rican specialties?  Start with the patacones, twice fried sweet plantains served with a garlic black bean dip.  For dinner, go for the traditional Casado dinner, your choice of chicken or rib eye seasoned to perfection with caramelized onions, and served with rice, the best black beans in the city, sweet plantains, cabbage salad and an over easy egg.  The menu is full of gems like this, but also has an extensive selection of Mexican influenced dishes, superior burritos and the special Taco Tico, and a wide selection of vegetarian options.  The shakes are amazing, and you’ll have to trust me that the oatmeal version is out of this world.  They do breakfast as well, and the Gallo Pinto, rice and beans served with eggs and plantains, will undo whatever damage you might have done to yourself the night before.  The family owned place is always bustling, service is quick and efficient, and even if you don’t call in your order ahead, take out takes no time at all.  Sometimes I just swing by to pick up side orders of their yellow rice and black beans to pair with whatever I thawed out for dinner.  The best part, it is pretty easy to make healthy choices here, so it can be a guiltless pleasure.

3. A Slice of Heaven
Homemade Pizza Company
Delivery and Pick up
5303 N Clark  773-561-8800, 3430 N. Southport 773-529-5900, 3314 N. Broadway 773-549-2100, 850 W. Armitage  773-248-2900, 1953 W. Wabansia 773-342-9600, 1546 E. 55th 773-493-2000

Okay, I know they are relative newcomers to the Chicago pizza scene, and all they sell is thin crust, which in some circles is sacrilege…and I would never tell you to abandon Lou Malnati’s for deep dish or Bacino’s for stuffed, since I never would. But for thin crust, I promise you, once you bake your own, you’ll never go back. Homemade dough, a zillion possible topping combinations, mini pizzas for the kids and huge cookies you can bake off for an after-dinner treat, this is total genius. If you’ve never been, you can either pick up or have delivered the pizza of your choice. Raw. Yep, no ovens in these hotspots, you provide the heat. Want to know what’s great about that? EVERYTHING!  The pizzas cook in 15 minutes in a 425 degree oven, so if you preheat after you order, you’ll make quick work of the cooking once it arrives, and you’ll have your pizza palate-scorchingly hot the way its meant to be. No special equipment is needed; your pizza bakes on a piece of included parchment right on the rack of your oven. Want the crust crispier? Leave it in longer. Guests coming over? You can wait to pop the pies in until they arrive. Last minute phone call for dinner plans from pals? Leave in the fridge for a day, or pop in the freezer for the next craving. My fave topping combos:  sausage, red onion, and fresh roma tomatoes, or bacon, sweet Vidalia onion and fontina. And the whole wheat crust is actually good if you’re trying to be healthier.

4. Turning Japanese
Hachi’s Kitchen
Dine in, pick up and delivery
2521 N. California
773-276-8080

I don’t like sushi. I’m picky about my seafood consumption in general, but while I can choke down a piece of raw fish if I have to, it just has never been my thing. (And before you recommend the California Roll, I should also admit that I think seaweed tastes like fish food smells, and I just can’t do it.)  It saddens me, since I love most other Japanese food, and I find sitting at a sushi bar and watching a skilled chef make little jewels of food endlessly fascinating. Just don’t ask me to eat it. But most everyone these days does eat sushi, and this is the perfect place to accommodate all tastes. I have brought my pickiest sushi connoisseurs who tell me that it is some of the best they have ever had. Apparently this thing called a Spicy White Tuna Crunch is beyond dreamy, and the rolls and pieces are perfectly fresh and delightful. For me, I always struggle between the chicken teriyaki, not a throwaway dish here, perfectly cooked moist chicken in a light coating of homemade sauce, and the sea bass, pan seared and served in a soy jalapeno broth with spinach. The tempura shatters on the tongue, the udon is the ideal thing to have when one of those nasty colds settles into your chest, the gyoza are little pillows of perfect, and the sake and wine list is impressive. Hachi’s is owned by the same chef as Sai Café in Lincoln Park. It’s a beautiful room to dine in, but they also do pick up and delivery. If you’re a sushi freak, you won’t be disappointed, and if you aren’t, your sushi freak friends will be really impressed that you found this place…and you’ll have plenty to choose from that won’t make you feel like a second class citizen.

5. Pub Grub
Four Moon Tavern
Dine in and pick up
1847 W. Roscoe
773-929-6666

There was a time that you could find me at this cozy Roscoe Village bar more than you could find me at home. This was directly related to the particular husband I had at home at the time, which is a story for another day. But even though I now have no reason to avoid my living room, if I’m meeting up with friends for a drink and a bite, I still head over to enjoy the kick ass jukebox, generous drinks, and superior bar food. Four Moon has the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever tasted, served with a homemade tomato soup for excellent dunking. The burgers are huge and moist, the onion rings addictive, and the chicken tenders (a food I usually think should be reserved for the under 12 set) are beyond delicious, served with both ranch dressing and a chipotle bbq sauce for dreamy dipping. I’m addicted to the chicken gyros, and the sloppy Joes will take you back to your childhood in all the best possible ways. They even do a mean brunch on the weekends with serious Bloody Mary’s and even more serious food, including a version of eggs benedict with crab cakes. Plus they have a pool table. I mean, what’s cooler than that?

6. The Most Important Meal of the Day
Toast
Dine in
746 W. Webster  773-935-5600, 2046 N. Damen 773-772-5600

I’m not much of a breakfast person, at least not at normal breakfast time. I’d rather be sleeping. But breakfast food any other time of the day is fine by me, and this place never disappoints. Eggs how you like them, decadent French toast and pancake creations, even some great lunch food options for your dining companions who may have already had breakfast once that day. Ask for the bacon crispy, and don’t pass up the home fries!

7.  Philadelphia Freedom
Philly’s Best
Delivery and pick up (online ordering available)
907 W. Belmont  773-525-7900, 769 W. Jackson 312-715-9800, 2436 N. Milwaukee 773-276-1900, 815 Emerson, Evanston, 847-733-9000

I’m a Chicago girl, so in general, if I’m eating beef sandwiches, I want them steamy and spicy and dipped twice, and keep the cheese far far away. But I went to college in Boston, which had Steak and Cheese Subs, chopped seasoned roast beef piled in a roll with gobs of melted white American cheese. At least 32% of my Freshman Forty could be directly attributed to these subs. I always assumed, for some erroneous reasons, that I wouldn’t like Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches. I think I was haunted by those 1970’s Steak-Umms commercials, and just never tried one. Plus I ‘ve only been to Philadelphia once for a weekend, and the people I was visiting never suggested we try one. You can imagine my surprised delight when my friend Jen informed me that the Philly’s Best Cheese Steaks she waxed poetical about were really just my beloved Steak and Cheese Subs!   The fact that they are the only place in the city that manages to also deliver onion rings still crispy (how do they DO that?) and that they deliver till midnight makes them dangerous and sublime all at once.

My family’s go-to Chinese take out, Far East, appears to have abandoned us after forty years.  I am adrift.  I am uneasy in the world.  I am a Jew without a favorite Chinese place to deliver my Sunday night meal.  (it should be important to note that the luncheon buffet at my bat mitzvah was Chinese, so this is SERIOUS distress I’m in!)  Anyone who has a great place to recommend, (must deliver to the Logan Square area), please help a girl out….

I’m sure you all have your faves as well, don’t leave us in the dark…be sure to post the info below!!!

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the week:  Manny’s Delicatessen has finally, after 66 glorious years of breakfast and lunches, is OPEN FOR DINNER!  Shut. Up. The world’s best corned beef sandwich, piled high and served with an enormous potato pancake, matzo ball soup like you wish mom could make, classic steam table delicacies and enormous salads. And chocolate pudding. Seriously. Go. At once. It’s the right thing to Jew.
1141 S. Jefferson at Roosevelt  312-939-2855 

NOSH Food read of the week:   Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Documenting Risk

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09/09/2008

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Joanna's sister Lisa, a mammographer, teaches Joanna how to read a mammogram. Photo credit: Ines Sommer

Joanna Rudnick doesn’t wake up every morning thinking, “today’s the day I will get cancer.” But the documentary filmmaker does live with the knowledge that she’s more likely to develop cancer than other women her age, in part because of her heritage.

The media first started linking Ashkenazi Jewish women with increased cancer risk in a National Institute of Health study released in 1995—nine years after both Rudnick’s mother and Gilda Radner were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “In my mind, as a kid, 1986 was the year of ovarian cancer,” she says. “No one talked much about it before and suddenly it was on the cover of People magazine.”

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Joanna, age 4, with her mother Cookie, an ovarian cancer survivor.

When she was 27, Rudnick had a genetic test that would shake her personal life to the core and shape her professional one. Her doctor told her that because of a mutation in her BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, she has an 85 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and a 60 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. Compared with the general population’s 12 percent risk for breast cancer and 1 percent risk for ovarian, these numbers are staggering.

Rudnick began her personal process of dealing with the test result and the public process of making a documentary about women with BRCA genetic mutations. In the Family will air on P.O.V., PBS' award-winning independent non-fiction film series, on October 1 and Rudnick will appear as a guest on both John Callaway and Nightline in conjunction with the film's showing.

While far from a cancer diagnosis, a positive result leaves women with two almost unfathomable options: careful surveillance, which can leave some women feeling as if their body is a ticking time bomb, or the surgical removal of breasts and/or ovaries, which is physically and emotionally harrowing. Even though both options are frightening, Rudnick believes having a choice is better than not knowing. “It’s empowering to know that there are things you can do,” she says.

As Rudnick was weighing her own options, staying behind the scenes proved impossible. She had found support in a wonderful community of women—all races, mostly older, some with cancer and some without, all with BRCA gene mutations—but didn’t know another person in her situation: young, single, without children and hoping to have them. For her, surgery was off the table. To tell a full story, she had to include herself in the film.

“It sounds like sci-fi. To call a friend and say, ‘I have a BRCA gene mutation’ is weird. You’re not likely to hear, ‘oh yeah, me too.’ At 27 it separates you from your peer group and it’s overwhelming,” she explains. That gap in understanding, she hopes, can be bridged by communication. “We are moving in this direction [the ability to get genetic information] in public health and need to figure out how to create space and language for all of us dealing with a genetic predisposition,” Rudnick says.

Even as more stories are told, many women avoid getting tested because they fear the results or are concerned about insurance discrimination. A CNN/Time magazine poll found that 70 percent of respondents would not want to provide information about their genetic codes to insurance providers. While there haven’t been any lawsuits to date, there is no national law protecting people from genetic discrimination. “The fear really is insidious and keeps women from finding out,” Rudnick says.  Both In the Family and its corresponding outreach program aim to quell such fears by empowering women with information. She knows firsthand how powerful information can be.

Rudnick never considered surgery when she first tested positive. But after connecting with other women, losing a friend to cancer during the filming process, and visiting another whose cancer has returned, she’s now open to the possibility. “Ovary removal after childbearing is probably an option for me in the future, but the decision is a process,” she says.

In addition to thinking about her future, Rudnick has been thinking a lot about her past. She says that looking at her family history and receiving support from both the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders and the Jewish Women’s Foundation has connected her to her roots in a profound way. “I started thinking a lot about where I am from and who I am. I reached out to Jewish Women’s Foundation [for funding] because the population with BRCA mutations is full of pioneering Jewish women. We’re the first population going through this and can spearhead the education of others. I wanted to partner with the pillars of this community,” she explains.

When she thinks back to that 1986 People magazine cover, Rudnick recognizes the media’s power to connect with the public and get people talking. Documentaries like “In the Family” are vital because what you hear in a sound bite isn’t the whole story, and one woman’s story isn’t every woman’s story. For women to be empowered with choices, information must be accessible, health care providers educated and concerns about discrimination addressed.

More than any news article, her mother’s survival has influenced Rudnick. “My mom surviving ovarian cancer has strongly impacted the decisions I have made so far. The media often pits one choice against the other. Early on, surgery was seen as drastic and today it seems like that’s the applauded response. But living with the BRCA mutation is way more complicated than that. There’s no magic pill or easy way out,” Rudnick says, “but I am convinced that this knowledge saves lives and that’s very humbling.”

I’m Not (Brain) Dead Yet

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09/09/2008

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Now on permanent maternity leave, Lisa has more time for the men in her life

This is what I did today—on a Thursday. I went to the pool. I went to the park, I played cars. My 3-year-old little boy and I pretended that we were firefighters (the baby got to drive the truck). I watched so much Bob the Builder that the theme song has become my internal soundtrack (I am humming it as I write). I changed so many diapers I’m beginning to think that everyone should wear them (great for people on the go!). I met my mother for lunch.

Last June, nearly three months after my younger son was born, I took a nose dive off the career map. I left my job, and I am now on permanent maternity leave.

I have had two careers during my life as a working person--one as a newspaper and wire service reporter, the most recent as a writer in JUF’s Marketing Communications Department. I have been working and supporting myself since I graduated from college and, for the most part, have been able to say that I loved the work I was doing. It was very scary to make a choice that might conceivably end my working life. Like just about everyone who leaves a job to stay at home with children, I say that I will go back to work when they are in school, that this is just a short hiatus, that I’ve worked long enough that I deserve a break, that I am on sabbatical.

The reality is the longer I stay home, the bigger the gap on my resume, the harder it will be to find a job, the less tolerance I will have for commuting and office issues like who left the coffee pot empty. When (if) I do revamp my resume, it will for a position several rungs lower on the career ladder.

And I don’t care.

I have two very hard won children (exactly how hard is the subject for another blog), and I want to enjoy them. I look at my 3-year-old’s lanky little boy body, and I want to stay home with my two sons until they’re too big to fit in my lap (or too old to want to). They’re small for such a short amount of time.

I never thought I would do this, leave work and be supported by my husband (also a subject for another day). I always figured that when/if I had kids I would continue working. My life would be in perfect equilibrium, balancing the social usefulness, intellectual stimulation and economic renumeration of a job with the “joys” of motherhood, Ha!

There is no such thing as balance, although women like to talk too much about achieving it. After working all day, I was too exhausted and there was not much left for my husband or the kids, much less the house (I’m a terrible housekeeper; when my son asked me the other day what “dust” is, I was able to show him plenty of real-life examples). After dealing with my kids, there wasn’t much left over for work. And there never seemed to be any time for me. 

And I can talk about logistics like time and dirt but the other truth is that I like the idea of making a home for my family. I like having time to tend a garden. I like to hang around with my 3-year-old, who is pretty good company, and kiss the baby’s fat little neck and tickle his toes. I feel fortunate to have the choice to stay home and do these things.

But I admit, I was a little worried that I might start to lose my mind—not in that 1950s housewife way but in the I haven’t talked to an adult all day way. Here I am, five months into my permanent maternity leave, and I’m not brain dead, at least I don’t think so. I am not bored, although I’m sure to a lot of people my life seems pretty monotonous and to some, A Fate Worse Than Death!

I am not a mommy zombie, a career girl or the superwoman we’re all told it’s possible to be, but I am happy with my full-time position as mom.

8 Questions for Steve Green, networker, environmentalist, golfer

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09/09/2008

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For Steve, it's easy being green

Steve Green is a networking extraordinaire. As President of GO Green Management, he attends at least two networking events every night of the week, in addition to coordinating his own monthly event. After 10 years at a sales job, Steve decided to take on a career that would make more of an impact on both his community and the environment. GO Green Management is a marketing and public relations firm with a commitment and passion to spreading the word on what it means to be “green friendly.”

So, whether you are looking to make some new connections, you’re a fan of Jewish sing-a-longs or you think it’s cool to be green, Steve Green is a Jew You Should Know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Jerry Maguire and represent talented people. I always had many interests, and representing different industries allowed me to be involved in many different cool companies. I also love to network and meet a lot of interesting people.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love that I have the opportunity to help people grow their business and take their careers to the next level. I also have a commitment to building an eco-friendly networking community that allows people to GO Green! Since my name is Green and my company is GO Green Management, it seemed like a perfect fit.

3. What are you reading?
I am reading a book called Conscious Golf (the three secrets of success in business, life and golf ). I love golf and I feel that it teaches you a lot about life.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
1. Shaw’s - the best seafood in town
2. Bandera - the best cornbread around
3. Toro Sushi - the best sushi in town

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I would invent a pill that cured all diseases. Health and wellness are the keys to happiness!

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would like to be invisible so I can … eavesdrop. It would be great to hear what people say without them knowing that you are there.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I wouldn't really call it a guilty pleasure but I am a country music fanatic. I love the country!

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
How do I Jew...Well I love singing Jewish songs, going to temple on the High Holidays and attending JUF functions.

I am born and raised in Chicago and I am very proud of being a true city boy. I love Chicago!

Don’t miss GO Green’s next networking event, Thursday, September 18, at the Victor Hotel. Meet with 300+ business professionals and enjoy cocktails provided by 10 of Chicago’s finest bars. For more information, visit  www.gogreenmanagement.com .

Jane in Spain

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A trip exploring Spain’s Jewish heritage helps Russian-speaking Jews discover their own Jewishness
09/09/2008

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Taking a break after an eye-opening discussion about Jewish identity at the statue of the great Jewish philosopher and physician Moises ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides or Rambam) in Cordoba

Seven cities. Seven days. Fifty people. In a nutshell, that’s the recent Jewish heritage adventure in which 36 Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals from Chicago, six peers from Kyiv, Ukraine, and eight  staff members explored Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco from Aug. 17 to 25.

The trip is the brainchild of Nadya Strizhevskaya, U.S. project manager for the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which sponsored the adventure as part of its belief that “informed and engaged Russian-speaking Jews will enrich their communities and strengthen the Jewish people.”

“It’s a similar concept to birthright,” Nadya told Olga Shalman and me over dinner one night in February. “It’s about exploring Jewishness through travel.” In the end, as the trip madrichim (Hebrew for group leaders), Olga and I received 60 applications and selected 36 participants with prior leadership and international experience as well as a commitment to create programs for the Russian Jewish community. 

Dubbed “Davai!” – Russian for “Let’s Go!” – the trip showed that there’s more to Spain than gilded churches, flamenco and corrida. Jewish history abounds, and this group of Davainiks explored more than just crumbling synagogues and bronze busts throughout the cities we visited. The discussions –on the bus on the way from one historic spot to another or sangria in hand at a late-night café – planted the seed for self-realization.

Day 1

Twelve hours after setting out from Chicago, the group finally arrived in Madrid-Barajas to be whisked to the hotel for a brief rest. Then, it was headfirst into exploring the city. Madrid doesn’t have anything particularly Jewish about it, but the sites are not to be missed. We drove past one of the original city gates, La Puerta de Alcala, past the Prado museum (which we couldn’t get in because museums are closed on Monday), past the Cibeles fountain. We learned about Madrid’s designation as capital in 1561, walked past the Royal Palace and ended up in Plaza Mayor – a cobblestone square that is the center of official life in Madrid.

Then the questions started: How many Jews live in Spain, the number crunchers among us wanted to know. Throughout the entire week, no one could give us an exact number. Turns out, the Spanish government gives tax money to religious organizations in proportion to the number of people officially registered as the religion’s adherents. Spain boasts about 15,000 officially registered Jews, while analysts project a total population of at least 40,000, many of whom are illegal immigrants from North Africa.

Day 2

We left Madrid for Toledo, the ancient fortress that once served as the capital of nascent Spain and remains the seat of the most powerful Catholic Church officials in the country. Until 1492 – the year of the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain – Toledo also had a thriving Jewish population. Though artifacts of that time still remain, today the Jewish population of the city is slim.

Walking into the Transito Synagogue, the first thing visitors encounter is a large stand with the question “What is a synagogue?” However unfamiliar with Judaism our group might have been, we all know the purpose of a synagogue, and this reminder of an entire population who might have never heard about Jews and our houses of worship was a powerful message. The synagogue is an incongruous mixture of styles: The ornamentation is representative of the “Mudejar” style – vines and flowers in faded reds and greens adorn the walls, while the crests of the Spanish kingdoms of Castilla and Leon sit alongside ornate Hebrew inscriptions. As most non-Christian houses of worship, the Toledan synagogues were converted into churches and later restored as museums.

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The group studies poetry and Maimonides’ proclamations at the Jewish museum in Toledo

The courtyard of the synagogue museum was the perfect spot for a bit of light reading and our first attempts at hevruta – a method of studying text in pairs where argument reigns supreme. Guided by David Shneer, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who developed the education portion of the trip, the group read Maimonides’ suggestions for the “cures of the diseases of the soul” as an introduction to Jewish identity exploration. We talked about combining different sides of one’s life – like Maimonides, the philosopher and physician who was one of Jewish Spain’s most important figures before being forced to flee to Fez, in modern-day Morocco.

Day 3

Everything Maimonides was the theme of the day in Cordoba, the former capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Café Maimonides, hotel Maimonides – you get the picture. The sage once again served as a jumping off point for an open-air discussion of what it means to be Jewish: Russian-Jewish, Jewish-American, Jewish-Ukrainian or a combination of these.  The group yearned for just such a discussion as they struggled to balance their Russian heritage and their American education: “What is Jewish?” asks Gene Rapoport, a trip participant. “We all approach Judaism differently – whether from a religious or a cultural perspective. And while Jewishness is open to interpretation, it’s something we all have in common.”

After the spirited discussion, the Mezquita Catedral – the former mosque turned church – galvanized our taste for history. It took 100 years to build the giant space, which houses marble columns, bricks and other building materials from around the Mediterranean. The Mezquita was our last stop before heading to Granada. We climbed the fortress in the Alhambra complex, strolled through the Generalife gardens and took a night-time tour of the Mudejar-style palace, where the city’s rulers used to live. Throughout it all, the group marveled at the beauty of the carved walkways and arches that have survived centuries of war, siege and disuse.

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Twelfth-century Hebrew inscriptions were uncovered when the last remaining synagogue in Granada became a museum in the middle of the twentieth century

Day 4

Our journey continued to Sevilla, the largest city in the southern province of Andalucia and the site of the most fervent persecution of Jews in the 15th and 16th Centuries. In fact, the only reminder of a once-thriving Jewish population is a sign for the Juderia (Jewish Quarter) that no longer exists. Our tour guide wondered why we were even seeking the Jewish sites in a city that refurbished the Jewish Quarter into the Holy Cross Quarter and erected a church on the plaza formerly housing a synagogue. Much like visiting run-down shtetls, Sevilla became a powerful reminder of lost generations and the need to explore and preserve Jewishness.

Day 5

In comparison to the 20 Jewish families living in the Sevillian sprawl, the 4,000-strong Gibraltar Jewish community was welcome news. Our Ukrainian participants had minor trouble at the border of the British territory that required a return visit to passport control, but once that was settled the group set out to explore The Rock. We climbed into St. Michael’s Cave, a network of limestone caves where two Neanderthal skulls were discovered. We also played with the Barbary Apes, who roam freely around the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.

But our most exciting moment came with the welcoming of Shabbat. Some participants had experienced Shabbat only as birthright participants or knew only the outlines of the rituals, while others had led prayers before. As testament to the group’s do-Judaism-your-own-way philosophy, our mostly secular group chose to sing parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, with some participants leading the prayers as group member and guitarist Vova Kuperman played along. The feeling of togetherness in a Jewish setting made for what one formerly Orthodox participant called “the most meaningful Shabbat experience” of her life.

Day 6

As the traditional day of rest, Shabbat was hardly packed with activity. After a morning hike, most participants lounged on the beach. Havdalah and a closing session brought everyone together for reflections and planning our next ventures. Four women and a man held havdalah candles, bringing the Shabbat light to the entire circle. Performed in the courtyard of the Garrison Library – one of the oldest military archives in Great Britain and the personal home of Admiral Nelson – the Havdalah ritual also marked a moment of meditation on our place in the Jewish community.

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A spirited Havdalah provided the perfect closing note to our adventure

In the tradition of birthright and weekend retreats, each participant spoke about what they would take away from our adventure: a deeper commitment to Jewishness, a sense of community, a realization that Judaism takes many forms, new friendships and plans for action at home. As David Shneer put it, participants “are coming away from this trip knowing that Jewish life happens wherever they are.”

Day 7

Having closed one chapter of our trip, we headed to Tangier, Morocco, which seemed like an alternate reality to the tidy, utterly British Gibraltar. Divided into the medinah (old city) and the new, industrialized parts, Tangier leaped at us with ancient cobble-stone streets, street peddlers selling everything from spices to purses to fresh figs, and, predictably a Rue Synagogue (Synagogue Street), which no longer houses any synagogues. Although some Jews do live in Morocco, many have left for Israel, Europe and the States – another potent symbol of the cyclical nature of the Jewish experience.

What’s next?

Our swift journey – the first of its kind for Russian-speaking Jews – barely skimmed the surface of Spain’s Jewish heritage, but the purpose of the trip wasn’t just to learn about history. As a madricha, I like to think that our group came away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jewish – however we define Judaism and Jewishness for ourselves. We also came away with plans for reunions, events and programs that could bring other Russian-speaking Jews closer to the Jewish community and make them feel that they belong in the Jewish world.

If you want to participate in upcoming Davai! events or want more information, check out the Davai! page on Facebook.

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