OyChicago articles

No One Way

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09/23/2008

StaceyBallis

Stacey shares some of her High Holiday traditions, and traditional recipes

As I have mentioned before, my Judaism, while deeply rooted and very important to me, is something that falls more on the side of culture and tradition and less on the side of religion or spirituality. But there are certain aspects of every holiday that resonate for me, and one of the things I appreciate about being Jewish, is that I can feel free to cherry pick the pieces I like and leave the rest behind.

As we look towards the High Holidays, I thought I would share some of my traditions, and some of my traditional recipes, with you.

As my family did not, and does not, belong to a temple, the high holidays are always spent with family and friends. Actually, the friends in question are basically family. I’m blessed with several families, extra parents abound (all of the love and advice and support but none of the discipline or college tuition), and I’ve got enough siblings-by-choice to sort of feel fundamentalist Mormon. Not to mention a truly ridiculous number of bonus nieces and nephews. Some of my earliest memories are of spending the high holidays with different configurations of these special friends.

Often we gather at my family’s weekend place in the country, a place away from the hustle and bustle, with plenty of trees and green, wide open sky and fresh air. A place where, if one is inclined to commune with a higher power, it seems like the deity of your choice just might be hanging out.  Sometimes the day includes a field trip to a state park for a long walk or to the Botanical Gardens or, if schedules keep us downtown, a swing by the Lincoln Park Zoo or the Conservatory.

After some happy outdoor activity, sort of a nod to Adonai, ‘thanks for all the cool nature and stuff!’ we repair to the nearest convenient living room. If it’s Rosh Hashanah, there are apples and honey to snack upon and possibly kichel if someone has been to Kaufman’s recently. If it’s Yom Kippur there’s a rousing chorus of “Isn’t it sundown somewhere?” and “I don’t think I’ve ever been this hungry in my life!” And before you get all shocked that most of our merry band of skip-the-services practitioners actually do fast, it is important to note a few things. One, we almost never make it all the way to sundown, we tend to break out the chopped liver round about 3:30pm, and feel virtuous to have made it that far. Two, the fasting packs a devilish one-two punch, it both connects you meaningfully to the tradition without having to sit through services all day, and also gives you total guiltless permission for a major Jew-food binge for the rest of the evening.

At some point in the afternoon, we break out the “All things Jewish explained” books, and take turns reading about the origin of the holiday at hand. On Rosh Hashanah we might offer up some new year’s resolutions to the group, on Yom Kippur there is meaningful atonement-type eye contact around the room, in case you may have accidentally offended someone present.

And then there is the meal. We go full-on traditional for holidays, with my grandmother Jonnie both cooking and providing recipes, the two meals are a true connection to our history. For Rosh Hashanah, there’s matzo ball soup and brisket, served with farfel with mushrooms and onions, or kasha varnishkes.  Round challah, of course, and more apples and honey. Usually there is also a chicken option, and some sort of green vegetable. For Yom Kippur, we go light, bagels and lox, tuna salad, egg salad, sweet kugel. It is all delicious, all exactly what we want and need, it feeds the soul as well as the body.

I talk a lot about the deeper meaning of food between people. When people ask why I go to the trouble of hosting at home, cooking for people instead of going out, my answer is simple. It is a sacred gift to feed someone. To sustain them physically, and please them sensually. The conversations you have around your dining table or in the living room before or after a meal, those are conversations that don’t happen in restaurants. Food is love. Not a substitute for, but an expression thereof. It is often the cliché of Jews that we are constantly talking about food and planning the next meal, and the stereotypical Jewish mother is always portrayed trying to get someone to eat something. This comes from somewhere. It is no surprise to me that a religion I associate so much with attempting to live a life that sustains and fulfills spiritually and intellectually, that we have a fine and long tradition of food. My favorite holiday is the Seder (more on that in the spring, I promise). The use of food inside of a holy service seems very natural to me.

So, as we look to the New Year, to a time of renewal and forgiveness, I wish you all very happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate. An easy fast, if that is on your agenda, and really good food. And to help you in that, I offer up a couple of my family’s recipes.

Brisket

1 5 lb. beef brisket
2 t salt
¼ t pepper
2 yellow onions, sliced
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 c chili sauce (Heinz is good)
1 bottle beer
¼ c water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put water on the bottom of a heavy roasting pan. Season brisket with salt and pepper and lay on top of water. Spread onion and celery over the top of the meat, then distribute chili sauce evenly over the vegetables. Cook uncovered 90 minutes. Pour beer over meat, cover tightly with foil, and braise 45 minutes per pound of meat. Remove from gravy, defat liquid, and puree juices with vegetables. Put juice in container, and chill meat overnight in fridge. The next day slice meat across the grain and lay into baking dish. Cover with gravy, and put back in fridge. Reheat at 350 to serve. (1 hour to indefinitely!)

Matzo Balls

2 T melted chicken fat
2 eggs, beaten
½ c matzo meal
1 t salt
¼ t white pepper
1/8 t baking powder
2 T club soda

Make sure fat is cool (you can substitute vegetable oil) and mix with eggs. Blend matzo meal with other dry ingredients and mix blend into eggs and fat. When well mixed, add club soda. Cover and place in fridge for 30 minutes at least. Bring 3 quarts water or chicken stock to boil in large wide stockpot. While waiting for it to boil, form balls of the chilled mixture. Reduce heat to simmer and drop in balls, cover and cook 30-40 minutes depending on size of balls. Store hot in cooking liquid, or chill for later use, freeze in cooking liquid or soup.

Poppyseed Cookies

3 eggs
1 c sugar
¾ c cooking oil
¼ c orange juice
¼ t salt
¼ c poppyseeds
2 c sifted all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350. Beat eggs till foamy, then add sugar, oil, juice and salt. Add poppyseeds and flour and mix till well blended. Drop by heaping half-teaspoon (I know it looks like not enough, but trust me) 1” apart on ungreased sheet pan. Bake 15-18 minutes, until just golden around edges, but still pale in the center. Remove immediately from sheet to rack and cool.


NOSH of the week:  In light of the impending holidays, I challenge you all to participate actively in the holiday meals. If you love to cook, offer to host one of the celebratory meals. Take the afternoon off and spend it in the kitchen with your mom or grandmother and ask to hear the stories about where the family recipes came from. If you’re handy with the computer, borrow the notebooks and scraps of paper that comprise the family food history and scan them or retype them into a cookbook and make copies for the family. Learn how to make your favorite traditional food. Invite someone over who can’t make it home for the holidays. And mostly, celebrate all the extraordinary blessings of this past year.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

NOSH food read of the week:  Okay, you’ve all seen them. They line the shelves of your mom’s office or grandmother’s kitchen nook or your favorite Aunt’s bookshelf. That series of worn cookbooks, Thoughts for Buffets, Thoughts for Good Eating, Thoughts for Food, Thoughts for Festive Foods, More Thoughts for Buffets…this series of cookbooks were produced by the Women’s Auxiliary Board of the JCC, as a fundraiser to support Camp Chai. Jonnie, my aforementioned grandmother, was one of the recipe testers. They are sort of innocuous, likely to have the binding cracked, pages dog-eared and falling out, stained and full of crumbs. And if you are smart, you’ll make sure that they never leave the family. They are full of great recipes and all your favorite classics are here. Most of the recipes were donated by the women of the Auxiliary (and their hired cooks!), so it is basic home cooking for every occasion. They can be a funny trip down memory lane, Jonnie and I have had many a side-splitting laugh over some of the outdated foods and ideas. But they are a part of our larger heritage, and worth holding dear. So the next time you are with your family and spot them collecting dust, take a look, and see if it isn’t maybe your turn to be the keeper.

A Holiday Fish Tale

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09/23/2008

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Lake Koshkonong, home of the gefilte fish

Having my face smacked with a decomposing alewife when I was five put my blossoming relationship with fish on the wrong foot. The north shore beach where the family frolicked was littered with the stinky things. And while I eventually learned to steer clear of the bullies who used the rotting fish as weapons, from that moment on, a day at the beach no longer was a day at the beach.

It was years before I had anything to do with fish other than to step gingerly around their silvery corpses.

“If it used to swim, I’m not eating it,” was my unspoken mantra.

By the time I reached fifth grade or so, emboldened one Pesach by as many shots as I could sneak of Manischewitz sweet table wine, I finally relented to Bubbe’s perennial plea to try her gefilte fish. I slathered the gray, lifeless lump with gobs of horseradish, blocked my brain from thinking about its murky, marine origins, shaved off a tiny sliver with my fork, and swallowed it without gagging. (I think I was holding my nose.)

My recovery from fish trauma had begun.

Fast forward many years, and I’m up for a slab of grilled salmon or a filet of fried tilapia now and then. No head, no tail, preferably no skin, and I’m usually good to go.

Come the Jewish holidays I actually look forward to gefilte fish. Which leads me to a Rosh Hashanah fish tale.

Eighteen months ago, my wife and I found a little piece of paradise by the shores of Lake Koshkonong, a vast, shallow lake in southeastern Wisconsin that nobody else seems to have heard of. It’s bigger than Lake Geneva, and less than an hour further up Highway 12, but you can practically hear a pin drop on Koshkonong, even on lazy summer weekends when flotillas of motor boats churn other Wisconsin lakes to a noisy froth.

Lurking in Koshkonong’s waters are lots and lots of fish: walleye, white bass, northern pike and carp. More carp than you can shake a fish stick at. More carp than you can imagine. So much carp, according to Jerry, the avuncular owner of Harbor Recreation, in Newville, Wisconsin, that just about every fish product made in North America that doesn’t actually look like fish—from fish sticks to fish filets to fast food sandwiches—comes from the clean waters of Koshkonong.

During a recent visit to Jerry regarding an old pontoon boat with a cranky engine, I learned more about the fate of Koshkonong’s carp.

Jews are pretty few and far between in an area of the country I like to refer to as “Germany lite,” and I don’t know if Jerry spotted me as a Member of the Tribe (not his tribe, mine). But he managed to finesse gefilte fish into the conversation with the patience and grace of a seasoned angler.

“You know, Jewish people eat tons of carp from here for their holidays,” he ventured. He tantalized me with fish tales of bearded rabbis coming all the way to Koshkonong from Borough Park to inspect and bless the fish before they’re packed in ice and shipped off.

At dusk my wife and I like to sit by the water’s edge and watch the sky light up as the sun sinks over the water. Near shore the carp like to jump, catching flies for dinner before slapping back down into the water.

I can’t say I’ve yet come to love those fish, especially the occasional one I find decomposing on our beach. But I do look forward this Rosh Hashanah to eating a little piece of Lake Koshkonong, daubed with horseradish and downed with sweet holiday wine.

8 Questions for Allyson Becker, Friend of the IDF, Social Butterfly, Crunch Roll Eater

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09/23/2008

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Allyson, socializing

Cleveland native Allyson Becker moved to Chicago to become a professional Jew after graduating from Ohio State in 2002. After four years working at the Jewish Federation, Allyson joined up with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a non-profit committed to the well being of Israel’s soldiers. Funds from the FIDF are used to build mobile gyms, synagogues and libraries on military bases, provide care packages and fund academic scholarship for ex-combat soldiers.

So whether you’re a fellow sushi junkie, a Buckeye fan or a friend of the IDF, Allyson Becker is a Jew you should know!

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had no idea at all until my junior year of college when I had an internship in the development department at Hillel. When I was little, I was just very social and in second grade my teacher told my mom that I was too much of a social butterfly. But, it turns out that has helped me in my career.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I feel like a lot of times we get bogged down with the day to day things, but we have soldiers in town once a month and it really grounds me when they are here talking with us and sharing their stories and I realize all the more why what I do is so important.

3. What are you reading?
Essentially, the only thing I have been reading for the last month is various proofs of our tribute book for next week’s gala!

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
Anyone that knows me well—or really anyone who knows me at all—could answer this question! I order form Sushi Naniwa on Ohio so often that they have my card on file. The crunch role is the best; I am telling you it’s the best sushi in the city.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
A time machine to take me back to college when life was way more simple. I have college on the brain today!

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I’d love to fly and be able to see places that I wouldn’t usually get to visit.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I was on the elliptical this morning and an old-school Puffy song came on from my freshman year of college—he went by Puffy then for sure!

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
Attend FIDF Young Leadership events of course!

Get your Jew on with Allyson next Saturday at the  FIDF’s Annual Gala ! 

‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner’

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1980s staple ‘Dirty Dancing’ reinvents itself on the Chicago stage 
09/23/2008

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Johnny (played by Josef Brown) and Baby (played by Georgina Rich)—Opposites attract. A scene from the London production of the live show. Photo credit: David Scheinmann

“That was the summer of 1963 when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before The Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to joint the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”

These are the opening lines of the film “Dirty Dancing,” in which Frances “Baby” Houseman—a 17-year-old Jewish idealist—vacations with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, where she discovers standing up for what she believes, the healing power of dance, and love.

Released in 1987, the film portrays a time of innocence set in the summer of 1963 on the cusp of big change in this country. “I called `63 the last summer of liberalism because it was the last summer you thought you could reach out your hand and make the world better and do it through peaceful and loving means,” said Eleanor Bergstein, writer and creator of the film. The character “Baby,” a nickname Bergstein was called until age 19, is partly based on Bergstein’s life.

Shot on a shoestring budget of $5 million in 44 days, the movie launched to fame unknown stars at the time, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. In 20 years, the coming-of-age movie has reached cult classic status. “Dirty Dancing” die-hards have watched the movie so many times that they can deliver the lines with the actors, including the random and oft-quoted “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” which made the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 most famous movie quotes of all times.

In fact, through Bergstein’s research, she discovered that certain cable TV stations would run the movie on a continual loop for 24 hours straight and fans, instead of watching bits and pieces of the movie, would cancel plans for the day to watch the movie continuously.

“Something happens to them while they’re in front of the [movie],” Bergstein said. “If what they really want to do is be present while it’s happening, then live theater is its natural form.”

So the “Dirty Dancing” obsession inspired Bergstein to transform the movie into a live stage production. The show, entitled “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage,” branded a play with lots of dancing and music—as opposed to a musical—kicks off its pre-Broadway U.S. premiere at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre from Sept. 28 to Dec. 7. Bergstein adapts the play from the film, and James Powell directs the live production.

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Britta Lazenga (as Penny) and Jake Simmons (as Johnny) from the Toronto production, dirty dance. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedmann

Before Chicago, the show played in Australia, Germany, England, and Toronto. Following its Windy City run, the play will tour several U.S. cities before premiering on Broadway.

“Dirty Dancing” is based on Bergstein’s recollections of summer vacations spent with her parents as a teenager at Grossinger’s, a swanky Catskills resort (named “Kellerman’s” in the fictitious story) with a large Jewish clientele. While her parents and older sister would tee off at the golf course, Bergstein would race off to the dance studio. There, she would enter and win “dirty” dancing competitions.

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Josef Brown (Johnny) and Nadia Coote (Penny) strut their stuff on stage with help from the ensemble from the London production of the show. Photo credit: David Scheinmann

In the film and the live show—like Bergstein—Baby, too, wanders into the staff living quarters of the resort and discovers a risqué, sexy, and exciting underworld of dancers. There, she meets the intense and sexy dance instructor, Johnny Castle, from the other side of the tracks. For a variety of reasons, Baby becomes Johnny’s dance partner, and Johnny begrudgingly gives her lessons. But soon, the two develop a magnetic attraction and a love affair despite coming from opposite worlds.

Both the film and show have a sensual appeal. “It’s a magical, empowering story and I don’t think it’s just women who love it,” said Lauren Klein, a Jewish actor in the show, who lives in the Catskills when she is not performing. “It’s also a very sexy story. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, sex was something that was thrilling, hidden, and mysterious, [unlike] today.”

More than just a romance, the play explores the civil rights era in greater depth than the film. It’s the summer of freedom marching and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and in one powerful campfire scene, the actors sing the protest song “We shall overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.

“This was the generation—many of them first-generation Americans—that was coming out of the memories of the war,” said Bergstein. “They loved America and there was a great desire to make the world safe. They thought the Jews were going to be safe now because World War II was over and the next group that needed help was those who were then called Negroes.”

Amanda Leigh Cobb plays Baby, Josef Brown plays Johnny Castle, and Chicago’s own Britta Lazenga, a member of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, plays Penny Johnson.

Cobb compares playing Baby—a character ingrained into the 80s pop culture vernacular—to another famous lovesick protagonist from many decades ago. “I used to joke with my friends about doing Shakespeare,” Cobb said. “People would say, ‘Juliette, you should play Juliette.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, because everyone has an idea of Juliette and who she is. That’s a lot of pressure.’ So when I got the job playing Baby, my friends would call and tease me.”

“Dirty Dancing” covers a lot of ground in a tumultuous time, but—in the end—it’s about the dancer within. “It’s about a feeling that there is a secret dancer inside you that can connect you to the world,” said Bergstein. “People who have never danced before, people who dance all the time, people who always thought they could dance see the show. Everyone has a secret dancer inside.”

For tickets to the show, call (312) 902-1400. For group sales and for subscribers to the 2008 Broadway In Chicago Season Series, call (312) 977-1710. For more information, visit  www.dirtydancingamerica.com or  www.broadwayinchicago.com . 

Oy!sters recall their, "I carried a watermelon" moments and other Dirty Dancing memories. What are yours?

Debunking the JAP myth

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Self-mocking messages are bad for the Jews and for our Jewish children 
09/16/2008

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The shirt in question

Only once have I been asked if I killed Jesus.

The girl, a ninth-grade peer of mine at the time, with chutzpah enough to ask me this question, hailed from a small, Jew-free Minnesotan town. When I mentioned in passing to her that I was Jewish, the next words out of her mouth were, “Didn’t the Jews kill Christ?”

That’s the only time I’ve encountered blatant anti-Semitism—black-and-white-no-question-this-is-clearly-anti-Semitism anti-Semitism. But what scares me in our culture today is the not-so-blatant anti-Semitism. It’s a much subtler and more insidious form of Jew bashing, so pervasive in American society—particularly in Jewish circles, of all places—it’s considered both acceptable and even comical.

I don’t lack a sense of humor but the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess—the JAP—is offensive to me as both a Jew and as a woman. I once saw this image, defined in urbandictionary.com as a “bitchy, spoiled, gold-digging Jewish female,” emblazoned on an Urban Outfitters T-shirt with the caption “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses.

And worse yet, it’s our children, our community who are the market for this image—we’re expected to accept it, buy it and thus perpetuate it.

The JAP image dates back to the 1950s, when Jews themselves, many still feeling like outsiders relatively new to this country, coined the stereotype as a defense mechanism, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and professor of American studies, who has lectured on Jewish gender types. The image then became popularized during the 1970s when consumerism took hold of the country, according to Prell, who contends that the JAP, like the other ubiquitous Jewish female stereotype—the Jewish mother—is depicted as uncontrollable, with endless wants.

Today, even though we are no longer outsiders, the JAP stereotype has stuck. A few years ago, the Urban Outfitters’ tee, which became so controversial it was later pulled from the shelves, was part of a larger line of ethnic T-shirts. One, for example, says, “Everyone loves a Catholic girl,” with miniature crucifixes decorating the slogan, while another declares, “Everyone loves an Italian girl,” illustrated with pizza drawings. A silly concept for a clothing line? Perhaps. Harmful to society? No.

But then there’s the Jewish tee, “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses! Why, rather than money symbols, couldn’t the T-shirt designers have slapped some Magen Davids onto the shirt? Even bagels would have been better. Either of these would have been more comparable to the imagery on the other shirts.

These days, there are a huge variety of threads that help Members of the Tribe and friends of MOTs literally wear their religious identity on their sleeves, like those offered on Jewcy and Kosher Ham.

To me, any of these images and slogans are far more innocuous than the message that the shirt in question delivers. After being flooded with complaints, Urban Outfitters Inc. redesigned the T-shirt sans dollar signs and purses, an action that the store says it took out of sensitivity to the Jewish community. I applaud the company for taking the offensive shirt off the market, but we as a Jewish community ought to be concerned about what this shirt represents. Shouldn’t we worry that the image of the Jewish people is one synonymous with money and materialism?

Think about the dangerous origins of the rich/greedy Jew image. The stereotype was born many centuries ago when Jews were relegated to occupations dealing with money. Ever since, throughout history, Jews have been targets of this hateful stereotype—an  image that came to a head in Nazi Germany when Hitler employed it as a tool in the initial stages of his hate campaign against the Jewish people. The Holocaust is our most tragic reminder of what happens when a stereotype becomes accepted as a general truth, an accurate way to portray an entire people.

Yet now, we seem to have forgotten this lesson. In today’s society, Jews are no longer just victims of negative Jewish stereotypes—we’re perpetrators of them. Aren’t we the ones projecting and buying into these stereotypes? After all, aren’t our Jewish daughters the ones who were buying these ridiculous T-shirts? Is this message of materialism what we want to convey to the outside world and—more importantly—to our own Jewish children?

Many Jews figure that it’s okay for “members of the tribe” to tell JAP jokes because a Jew can’t be anti-Jewish. I disagree. To me, these jokes aren’t funny; they are mockery, betraying a lack of self-respect, becomes self-destructive. Furthermore, if we ourselves perpetuate these negative Jewish images, then how can we criticize non-Jews for doing the same?

I can recall three instances on first dates when two minutes into our time together, my Jewish date has asked me, “Does Daddy pay for your apartment?” Mind you, these men hardly know me, let alone have they ever seen where I live, yet they assume that because I’m a Jewish girl in the big city, I’m rich and spoiled. (Note to my Jewish sisters: If this ever happens to you, feel free to cut the date short and walk straight out the door.)

To me, JAP humor is particularly repulsive because the stereotype is untrue. That’s not to stay there are no Jewish women out there who fit the princess stereotype, but there are also non-Jewish princesses, Jewish princes and non-Jewish princes too.

My wonderful circle of Jewish girlfriends in no way fits the JAP stereotype. They are kind, independent, bright, and ethical young women—each a mensch. These are the qualities—the qualities of a mensch—that I enjoy sharing with my friends, qualities that I hope the world will recognize.

This is my hope for my 3-year-old and 9-month-old Jewish nephews—and for my future children as well—to grow up in a world without prejudgments and stereotypes. That’s something for us to strive for.

8 Questions for Ethan Michaeli, investigative journalist, supporter of social justice, new daddy

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09/16/2008

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Ethan Michaeli, fighting injustice in Chicago since 1991

Ethan Michaeli was inspired to work in social justice by his parents, Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Israel in 1949 and came to the U.S. before he was born. Originally from Rochester, NY, Michaeli graduated from the University of Chicago in 1989 and two years later began working for the  Chicago Defender, a 100-year-old, African American-owned daily newspaper where he did investigative reporting on the homeless, environmental racism and police brutality. In 1996, he launched  Residents' Journal , an independent news magazine written for and by tenants of Chicago's low-income public housing developments. In 2000, Michaeli created We The People Media, a not-for-profit organization, to save Residents' Journal after government funding was cut. Ethan's work at Residents' Journal has been the subject of front-page articles in The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine as well as feature segments in the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, among other media.

Michaeli serves as vice president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs; he and his wife Kimiyo Naka live with their six-month-old son in Chicago. So whether you are passionate about justice, think that cockroaches will eventually take over the planet or you too love to sing and dance to the “Time Warp,” Ethan Michaeli is a Jew You Should Know.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 years old.

2. What do you love about what you do today?
I love it when we publish a story that makes the political establishment in this town blink. Chicago is a great city, but there are great injustices here with respect to how the poor are treated. I live for those all-too-rare occasions when we win one. I’m equally thrilled watching the development of the young people we’ve trained as citizen journalists. We’ve had a youth journalism program for more than a decade, and some of our youth reporters have become working journalists. Others have gone on to be carpenters, actors and medical students. They all know how to speak up for themselves, their neighbors and their communities.

3. What are you reading?
I rarely read fewer than three books at a time, making slow and unsteady progress with each. For my book club, I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s  Midnight’s Children , his novel of the birth of India and Pakistan. I’ve almost finished  Imperium , Ryszard Kapuscinski’s non-fiction narrative of his encounters with the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia over a period of six decades. I’m also in the middle of  Justinian’s Flea , William Rosen’s account of how the Bubonic Plague wrecked the Byzantine Empire.

4. What’s your favorite place to eat in Chicago?
I’ve been going to  El Nandu , an Argentinian restaurant in Logan Square, for so long that its grass-fed steaks and empanadas are comfort food. If I crave sushi, I go to  Ginza , a not-so-elegant looking place on the ground floor of the Tokyo Hotel that nevertheless has fish so fresh that I swear little old ladies on the red-eye from Japan bring it in ice-filled suitcases.

5. If money and logistical reality played no part, what would you invent?
I’d invent a time machine, so I could visit 9th century Spain, the fabled Andalusia in which Jews, Muslims and Christians all lived in relative harmony. I’d also check out the Mayan Empire at its height and have dinner with Genghis Khan in his palace. I might visit the future also, to see if I’m right that giant cockroaches will take over the planet once we ruin it.

6. Would you rather have the ability to fly or the ability to be invisible?
I would rather be able to fly. I have a six-month-old son who loves it when we pick him up and carry him around. He thinks he’s flying already. I would love to be able to carry him to exotic locales. It also would be grand to zoom up to a high altitude to get some perspective on those frequent occasions that I need it.

7. If I scrolled through your iPod, what guilty pleasure would I find?
I don’t own an iPod, but if you’re asking for music I’m embarrassed for other people to know I listen to, it would be the album from the  Rocky Horror Picture Show . It takes me back to high school, and the first time I made out with a girl. I also listen to Hadag Nachash, an Israeli hip hop group that my friends who are hip hop aficionados think sounds like it was made with a music machine bought at Toys R Us.

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago – in other words, how do you Jew?
I am a vice president of the board of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a 44-year-old social justice organization. JCUA, founded by Rabbi Robert Marx, a veteran of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement, sends organizers to work at neighborhood groups, stands up for progressive issues, and educates Jews about the realities of racism and poverty in Chicago. I’m not religious but otherwise very serious about my Judaism, so JCUA is my synagogue.

That’s So Cliché

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New Spertus exhibit explores the perception of stereotypes and clichés in society 
09/16/2008

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A doll featured in the exhibit, from the International Barbie Dolls (Dolls of the World Series © Mattel, Inc), from the collections of Bettina Dorfman and Barbie-Klinik Düsseldorf

As a little girl, Elizabeth Gelman’s daughter would describe everyone by the color of clothes they were wearing. She would say, “That purple lady over there is talking to that green man.”

Like the little girl, children often learn how to classify through this sort of exercise. But somewhere along the way in society, as children grow into adults, differentiating between people sometimes morphs into stereotyping.

“There’s a difference between recognizing the differences and stereotyping people—putting people into categories and thinking that is where they belong,” said Gelman, the manager of education for the Spertus Museum at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

A new exhibition at the museum, entitled “Twisted Into Recognition: Clichés of Jews and Others,” explores the ways images and objects that depict stereotypes are seen, perceived, and classified. Organized by the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Jewish Museum Vienna, the exhibit runs in Chicago from Sept. 26-Jan. 18.

The show does not deny ethnic or cultural differences, but rather explores how stereotypes about these differences are conveyed. “Stereotypes and clichés are an integral part of our perception, shaping our image of ourselves and others as well as our sense of belonging to a distinct group or nation apart from others,” said exhibit co-curator Dr. Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek. “At the same time, they can serve as a breeding ground for racist ideologies. The exhibition aims to raise consciousness about how we interpret and evaluate with every glance, and how we need to question our ‘point of view’ over and over again.”

Heimann-Jelinek, senior curator for the Spertus Museum and chief curator of the Jewish Museum Vienna, curated the exhibit with Hannes Sulzenbacher, a curatorial specialist in Austria. After premiering in Berlin earlier this year, the show's September arrival marks the start of its only American stop. Following its run at Spertus, the show will travel to Vienna.

Most of the stereotypes in the multimedia exhibit are presented in a triptych format, a series of three panels: an item that historically illustrates the stereotype, a familiar example of the stereotype from culture and a contemporary artistic response.

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A page from a 1938 Nazi schoolbook regarding the stereotype of the Jewish nose

For example, consider the stereotype that Jews have big noses. First, the exhibit displays an image from a 1938 Nazi schoolbook of a child looking at a drawing on a blackboard of an old man with a large nose wearing a Jewish star. The caption of the image translates to “The Jew’s nose is bent at its tip. It looks like a six.” Second, the triptych features Viennese walking sticks from the 1800s with handles made to look like hook-shaped noses. Finally, in the artistic response to the stereotype, the painting “Before and Happily Ever After,” by American artist Deborah Kass, plays with stereotypes and obsessions about beauty by reproducing Andy Warhol’s image of a woman’s profile before and after plastic surgery.

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Jen Taylor Friedman's Tefillin Barbie 

The exhibit also features “Tefillin Barbie,” a Barbie doll sporting tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) reading from a Torah. The Barbie is the creation of Jen Taylor Friedman, a Jewish ritual scribe from England, who is the first woman known to have completed a Torah scroll. Her doll has garnered mixed feedback from the public, being called everything from “disgusting” to “incredibly amazing.”

Friedman recognizes the need to classify people, but wishes human beings could do so in a less destructive way. “The world is a great big complicated place and there is only so much space you can hold so it helps to label people,” she said. “It would be nice if we could use less-destructive labels, if a Jewish label could not mean the grasping guy with a gigantic nose, but could be the nice person who goes to shul.”

Multiculturalism has become a feel-good buzzword in recent years, but Gelman says it’s important to wrestle with the more squeamish topics too. “Sometimes we get lulled into this contentment talking in generalities about multiculturalism and diversity and that is the feel-good conversation,” she said. “But discussions of race and ethnicity have to include conversations about discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes too. While those discussions probably are more uncomfortable, they are really important. We hope that one day racism will be a relic of a very distant past, but we need to recognize it in order to move forward.”

“Twisted Into Recognition: Clichés of Jews and Others” runs Friday, Sept. 26-Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009. A free public preview will be held Thursday, Sept. 25 from 5:30-8. Docent-led tours for both students and adults are also available. For more information, visit  www.spertus.edu or call (312) 322-1700. 

After the Rain

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A volunteer shares her emotional trip to Iowa to help flood victims 
09/16/2008

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Group photo after we completed the job

It took 21 volunteers two full days to “muck out” just one of the 5,000 homes in Cedar Rapids affected by the severe flooding that has decimated parts of Iowa since May 25. The floods forced more than 40,000 Iowans from their homes and 86 counties are still considered disaster areas.

When I was asked to participate in this two-day mission to Cedar Rapids, sponsored by JUF’s TOV Volunteer Network in partnership with Nechama - Jewish Response to Disaster, I gladly said yes. Nechama—which means “comfort” in Hebrew—is the only on the ground disaster relief organization with a Jewish mission. Nechama responds to the floods and tornadoes that cause damage and disrupt lives in the Midwest each year.

While I work at a non-profit, I spend most of my days at a computer and it’s great to get out into the field and actually participate in some of the missions we spend so much time behind the scenes supporting. But I’m not a tough girl. I don’t like camping or being dirty for long periods of time. I gravitate toward volunteering in soup kitchens not cleaning up polluted beaches.

Apprehensive about my skills and having trouble fathoming what this declared disaster area would look like, I thought about my own limited understanding of a flood, which involves my parents’ basement, a sump pump, and some new carpet.

I nervously boarded the bus with the other volunteers. Our group ranged in age from 18 to 60. There was a rabbi, a few students fresh out of school, someone who had just moved to Chicago and several businessmen. A few of the volunteers had experience with disaster clean up and had made trips down south to areas decimated by Katrina, but for most of us this was a first.

To my surprise, the house we worked on was nine long blocks from the river, on a typical middle class street northwest of downtown Cedar Rapids. The whole area was a ghost town--not one person inhabited a home for blocks.

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Some of the volunteers receiving training before entering the home

We arrived around noon. Dressed in our worst clothing, facemasks, eye goggles, gloves and hard hats, we entered a house covered in mold. The walls were rotting, all the appliances and tile floors were covered in thick, dark scum and the carpets had turned black. We began by removing the carpets with glorified exacto knives. We had to cut through not only the carpet, but the thick layer of mold that had grown on top of it. The walls came down next. You could mark the water level by the mold that rose nine-feet high on the walls.

We hammered through the drywall and cracked through the next layer of wood. Most of the two days of labor involved pulling out the wood, drywall, and insulation, and sweeping and removing the contents of the home. Even with a large group it was a long, labor intensive job.

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One of the volunteers pulling up the carpeting

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One of the volunteers ripping out insulation

"These home owners lost everything and they don't know where to begin to repair their homes," says Rachel Friedman, TOV program associate and an Iowa volunteer. "We as volunteers were able to come in with the proper tools supplied by Nechama and remove everything damaged by the flood to give the family back a house that can be rebuilt."

   

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Lindsey Bissett, another volunteer. “The whole house is ruined. We kept removing layer after layer of flooring and walls and still the water was there and the damage goes throughout the home. I feel so bad for this family.”

   

While we never got to meet the homeowners of this particular house, several of us were able to speak to another family that lived a few doors down.

Residents Plan for the Future

Charles and Florence Jacobs, a retired couple with six children, own three of the homes on the street. They live together in one and rent out the other two.

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The Jacobs' home

“We were told to leave 20 minutes after 10 a.m. on May 25,” says Florence Jacobs. “We spent days bouncing between our children’s homes wondering what was happening to our homes. My husband ended up in the hospital for a week due to sheer stress.”

In a way, they were lucky; their homes are now safe enough to enter- unlike the home we were working on. But while they are allowed inside, five months after the flood they still don’t know where to begin to fix the damage.

And, they say that the government hasn’t been able to give them much guidance. “The city is looking to the state which in turn is looking to the federal government to tell them what to do,” says Florence Jacobs.

In the meantime, the Jacobses return to their homes each week to mow the lawn and keep the yard raked. Looking toward the future, they plan to plow when winter rolls around and say that the neighbors will do the same.

But Charles and Florence are split on exactly what the future will bring. Florence wants to sell (the street is littered with For Sale and Do Not Trespass signs) while Charles has already applied for a building permit to start rebuilding one of the homes.

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One of the many houses for sale on the block

“The last time we flooded was in ’93 and it came up to the third step in the basement. There hasn’t been a situation like this since the 1800’s,” says Charles Jacobs. He estimates that just to rewire the electricity and install a new furnace in one home will cost him $16,000.

Florence worries it will happen again and if they move back they will be one of the few.   She recently attended a neighbors meeting where the consensus was “Don’t go back, don’t rebuild.”

Dan Hoeft, one of the mission’s Nechama volunteers and a trained emergency management worker, explains that he often experiences this “I just give up” mentality from homeowners. “We see so many homeowners who just walk away because they can’t deal with it,” he says. “We clean [the home], we pressure wash it out and we sanitize it and they get a fresh start. They can go in and start from scratch and rebuild.”

But it’s a slow process. “With a group this size, we could complete three to four houses a week,” Hoeft says. “We have three tool trailers and one supply trailer. These trailers have everything to handle floods and tornados. We have everything from chainsaws to sump pumps, everything you could need to get the job done.”

Volunteers Rally but Need Support

For the 5,000 homes just in Cedar Rapids, the cleanup process would take months at a rate of three to four homes per week. And even if that approach was best, FEMA has to assess each house before volunteers can get in and start working—and FEMA assessments can take months.

“After a storm hits, FEMA inspects all the houses before we can touch them,” says Sam Shiffman, the other Nechama volunteer. “It determines which houses are too hard hit and which houses can possibly be salvaged. The process can take several years before a decision is made and, in the meantime, this is some families’ only equity.”

It would be easy to get discouraged by the pace at which people receive the help they need but Shiffman is proud of the work Nechama does and optimistic about the group’s ability to get people back into their homes faster.

“The level of destruction is catastrophic and clean up is a very complicated process. Ideally, in keeping with Jewish values, we’d rather come in anonymously and get the work done and get out. But part of the healing process for the victims is to say thanks. They start crying as they shake your hands. We made a real difference in these people’s lives.”

This rang true for the Jacobses, who repeatedly complimented us all for making the trip from Chicago to help their community out. They said that there had been many people like us and it was wonderful for them to see how much people care.

I know that many of the volunteers enjoyed working on the home and would have readily stayed longer to work on another site. Now, just a few days after the mission, I am aware that Ike is barreling down on Galveston and parts of Houston, Texas. I just checked The Nechama Web site—the group has already begun preparations to travel down to the devastated areas to begin another daunting clean up process.

Despite my not being a tough girl and distaste for getting dirty, the emotional reward was so great that I may sign up and head down to Houston to help out.

To donate to the Jewish Federation’s relief fund,  click here . Fore more information about Nechama, check out the Web site at  http://www.nechama.org/index.html  

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!

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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.

The Bus

 Permanent link
09/02/2008

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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.”

Oy.

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

 Permanent link
A painter's worldview 
09/02/2008

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Email:
  tctreisman@gmail.com

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

 Permanent link
09/02/2008

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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

 Permanent link
09/02/2008

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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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