Thursday, December 29, 2011

A strange thought for the night

I have this thing when I'm back in New York - I have a bit of hot water with lemon and honey about an hour before going to bed.

I don't do this at home in Chicago - not yet, anyway; I just do it while I'm here with the family. I boil some water, I have it with lemon juice and honey, and I wind down. This difference has gotten me thinking: am I a different person for the three weeks that I'm on break here?

The short, traditional answer would be "yes." Environment affects our personalities, and our personalities are affected in different environments. That is the normal answer. But how much interior change is there?

I feel the same emotions here as in Chicago, and I feel the same emotions in Chicago as I do here. Now that I'm living in Chicago, at least. But there also seems to be some subtle change that matches the change in rhythm when I get back here. Let's enumerate:

-I am more easily bored here.

-I am lazier here.

-I am more easily angered here.

-I am quieter here.

-I am less patient here.

-I am more likely to do spontaneous things here.

I might be different. The list seems plenty - but at the same time, purely circumstantial! I am further out from the city here, my mother tries to get me to "relax" more here, families are usually tetchy. I have fewer people to talk to here, and it takes forever for me to get places since I can't drive. Can't figure out the last one, though...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ten Reasons I Love Being Jewish on Christmas

I don't mean to be a Grinch, but not celebrating Christmas is kinda awesome sometimes.

1. Barely a soul on the nature paths. I walked three miles and saw two people.

2. You can roll a bowling ball down the main roads.

3. Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food.

4. No more explaining why you don't celebrate Christmas. The holiday spirit is great and all, but honestly, it gets old after the tenth time.

5. Tomorrow I will eat the leftover fruitcake of my friends.

6. So many post-Christmas sales. Returned presents and wondrous, wondrous discounts.

7. The computer store run by the Orthodox Jewish techie community in New York is closed, because they would have to handle all the returns if they were open. (They enjoy 1-6 too.)

8. If you take the train, you are the only person on it.

9. Flights are super-cheap on Christmas Day. My family's flown to Israel on Christmas before to save money.

10. People are so excited about presents that they forget about mistletoe. (Not in the circumstances for this option this year, but I totally plead the fifth.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rye Stone Bread - Pareve and Vegan!

I've been having a relaxing break back in New York with my family, doing relaxing baking.

I made this yeast-free, no-rise rye bread the other day, and it turned out pretty well, although I warn you: it is very very dense but nice and soft.

Rye Stone Bread
so named for its weight

All measures are rough.

1 3/4-2 cups warm water
2 tsp caraway seeds+extra for garnish
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil+extra for glazing
2 1/2-3 cups rye flour
1 1/4-1 1/2 cups white flour

1. Mix the water, oil, sugar, and salt in a bowl.

2. Add the flours, a 1/2 cup at a time, and mix each addition  in. Alternate between rye and white 2 to 1: 1 cup rye to a 1/2 cup white. Add the caraway with the first addition of rye flour.

3. Stir and add until you have a stiff dough. If your dough is too stiff and dry, add a 1/4 cup water. If your dough is too sticky, add 1/4 cup rye flour.

4. Flour a hard surface and your hands. Use white flour for this task; rye flour is grainy.

5. Form the dough into a ball with your hands and place it on the surface. Knead the dough vigorously until it passes the two-finger test - when you stick two fingers in, the shape of your fingers should stay. If the dough starts to stick, add more flour to your hands or the surface.

6. Preheat your oven to 350F.

7. Mold the dough into a loaf shape and place on the baking sheet. Cut a long slit through the center of the loaf and some slits on the side. You can make them into a nice pattern, if you'd like.

8. Dab a towel with olive oil and rub it on the loaf. Do this so that the entirety of the loaf's surface not touching the cookie sheet is dabbed and glazed. Sprinkle some caraway on top.

9. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the loaf is hard on the bottom and sounds hard when vigorously tapped with the sharp side of a spoon. Remove from the oven, and let cool.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Awake in a Sleeping Dorm: Or, Transient Places During Break

The dorm is asleep.

It isn't dead. The few who are staying for the first weekend of the winter break move quietly through the halls. I can hear, occasionally, the hum of an elevator, or footsteps. Sometimes, the rush of water through a shower head. Once, giggling, and the tones of a soap opera.

But the building is asleep. Normally, eight hundred people live here. Perhaps sixty or seventy are here now. I've seen the same five or six people maybe nine times. Some of us, including myself, are still trying to figure out how to navigate this building. The University doesn't allow you to stay in other dorms during break; just the new, fancy one. My own room - my home - is locked.

So I'm staying here. South Campus is extremely transient normally - the architecture is hotel-like, the sofas are institutional, there is a lot of plastic. You use cards to enter the rooms. The mazes of hallways (ok, not that mazelike, but forgive me, I'm new) have office-carpeting. It's a bit of a strange place.

Before tonight, I only knew how to get to two places in South:

1. My ex's old room. Not going there in a million years.

2. My friend Douglas' room. (Where I'm staying now)

Now I can navigate the East Wing a bit. I haven't stayed here long - I was out for most of the day yesterday - but it's straightforward.

And it's a bit surreal staying here.

I'm in an enormous lounge with tons of furniture, houseplants, and people's things...alone. I go to the bathroom and no one's there. Someone comes out of the room and I'm surprised to see them.

I could hear a pin drop in the hallway where forty people live.

I feel like a tourist inside some sort of ruin. Or perhaps walking through someone else's life. It's a bit strange. It's travelling, but it's travelling on my own campus. It's if I've walked into a different world, simply by staying another weekend.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

En dag for gløgg og julemarkeder: Or, A Jewish Boy's Most Christmassy Shabbos Adventures

Yes, I know the title is in real Scandinavian  Norwegian and not Swedish. Hush. It means "a day for mulled wine and Christmas markets."

Andersonville is awesome. 

For those of you non-Chicagoans, or Chicagoans who don't leave the Hyde Park/Lincoln Park/Evanston bubbles, Andersonville is a neighborhood on Chicago's north side, by the lake. It's a tidy neighborhood of nice, old houses, low-rise buildings, and little businesses. Also, it's the center of the big Swedish-American population here in Chicago.

Anyway, holiday season in Chicago is a big thing. Most of you will probably be familiar with Christkindlmarket, the giant kitschy but awesome German Christmas market that takes over Daley Plaza for most of December. There's also trees and tinsel everywhere, and so many more carols than New York. Even we Jews get totally crazy: last year, we had an enormous chanukiah/menorah  on the quads on campus, and people go insane for latkes here.

The Swedish community in Andersonville is not divorced from the whee holidays spirit either. Every year, the Swedish-American museum up in Andersonville runs Julmarknad, a tiny little Christmas festival that sells Scandinavian goods, arts and crafts, and various flavors of kitsch. And glögg (gløgg i norsk ), a type of mulled wine made either with various juices and spices, or various wines, brandy and spices. Nom.

As a crazy Scandophile, Norsknerd, and general fan of kitsch and mulled wine, I decided to make a trip of it. So my friends and I trekked up to Andersonville yesterday.

We arrived in Andersonville midday, and proceeded to eat brunch at Ann Sather's, a Swedish-American restaurant that seems to be a cross between a diner, a ye olde Scandinavian-American gathering house, and a sea of red. Then, a face-stuffing followed.

Firstly: lingonberry jam is amazing. Lingonberries are berries, native to the Nordic region, that have a tart taste and a royal, deep purple color. I had Swedish-style pancakes (doughy, crepe-like and not overly sweet) with this jam, and they were amazing.

Secondly: the restaurant gave us ENORMOUS cinnamon buns with our meal. Sticky, sweet and cakey, I downed mine quite quickly. They're so sticky and rich that you need to eat them with a fork. Kinda epic.

Thirdly: their bottomless coffee is amazing. I want to know what beans they use.

Finally: David had a sampler plate that included Swedish meatballs. I have never been so tempted to break kashrut. (Although I was eating in a very non-hechshered establishment on Saturday, so....)

Then we proceeded to Julmarknad. It's a small affair - honestly, it doesn't take long to work the stalls - but they sold a lot of really good things. I got a pretty card and a jar of lingonberry jam as birthday presents for people. Also, I had some delicious, delicious gløgg and cookies made with glø very tasty.

They also had Finnish licorice sweets. I must admit, they are an acquired taste. They are also completely, completely, completely delicious.

I also limited myself from buying a Norwegian flag decal for my room. I do need to limit myself. Sometimes.

Finally, there's a target for my next visit to Andersonville. Erickson's is a Swedish delicatessen that's across from the Museum, and they sell everything from Scandinavia ever, including SWEDISH. PICKLED. HERRING. and NORWEGIAN JAM and NORWEGIAN CHEESE. I'm going up sometime next quarter to spend all my money there.

Then we proceeded to Christkindlmarket downtown. It was crowded as all hell. The product variety is wider there - I got beeswax soap and candles for my cousin's goodbye present - but it's also really, really crowded on the weekend. I'm going to go back later this week. 

On the other hand, Christkindl is very much a classic Chicago experience. It's almost a Chicagoan rite of passage to get crushed in the gluhwein line, to get an overpriced cider, and to look at kitschy-but-baller German cuckoo clocks at some point in December. It's quite an experience.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beer Bread

There will be a longer post later this week, I promise. I had a good time back home for Thanksgiving, but I've been really busy with schoolwork and haven't been in so much of a writing mood. But I'll write tomorrow.

Anyway, my friend wanted one of my more popular recipes. This is for a beer bread that's served me quite well. I warn you that the measures are quite approximate since I just throw stuff in; so it's all guesswork. It's fun to make though - beer is a great ingredient. Also, you get to do this:

Yes, I am melting butter in beer. Butterbeer! This is for a double batch.

JK's Beer Bread

1 can beer
1 stick butter
~1.5-2c. rye flour
~3/4-1c. white flour (can be replaced with potato flour, or more rye)
~3/4-1c. sugar
3 eggs
1/2 c. milk
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)

1. Melt the butter into the beer. Do this in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Once the butter is blended into the beer - it should be a yellowish-brown color - take the liquid mixture off the flame and let it cool.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter-beer and 1/3 of the flours and sugar.
4. Mix in the eggs and milk.
5. Add the remaining dry ingredients - the rest of the flours and sugar and baking powder - and combine. You should add the caraway seeds here if you want them mixed in.
6. At this point, you should have a reasonably thick cake-like batter; if you're willing to taste it, it should be somewhat sweet, but with the taste of beer still apparent. If your batter is not thick enough, add flours and sugar in the following ratio: 2 parts rye flour, 1 part non-rye flour, 1 part sugar. If it's too thick, add a bit of milk or another egg.
7. Pour the mixture into a greased cake pan. This recipe works best with a 8"x8" pan, but a 9"x13" pan also serves quite well.
8. Bake at 350F for about 40-50 minutes or until a knife comes out with only a few tiny crumbs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Plans

Short post.

1. 2000 page views! Yay!

2. I'll be back in New York during Thanksgiving - my flight leaves Chicago at 6am on Thursday, and I'll get back here early-ish Sunday morning. I'll write more after I get back. In the meantime, Happy Holidays, and enjoy the pumpkin.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On the future

אל-תתהלל, ליום מחר: כי לא-תדע, מה-ילד יום
Boast not to yourself of tomorrow; for you have not knowledge of what that day brings.
-Proverbs 27:1

I've been thinking about this verse a lot lately. I started a paper with it, and it hasn't gotten out of my head. I don't take a literal view of the Bible, or G-d: the former to me, is extremely metaphorical and non-literal, and my view of G-d is complicated and definitely non-traditional.

But this verse rings true for me. And it's sitting in my head like a cat does - lazily, and not for a short time - and making me think.

Ergo, I ask: Do students at the University of Chicago do this too much? Do we boast to ourselves of a glorious, guaranteed future?

I don't, but I get really into my work and think of it as a possibility. But I'm wondering if a lot of people do.

I've been here at UChicago for over a year now. I'm a second-year, and now I get to watch a batch of first-years come in. I know people who know exactly what they want to do - and who know exactly how they'll achieve it. And that they'll achieve it.

Or they believe it.

I used to think that I'd definitely be an international maritime lawyer. I'm researching demography PhD programs now.

But there are people here who believe in a future that has been written for them.

A few people - only one at UChicago, though - think it's G-d-given.

Liturgically, I have issues with this - I don't believe in an anthropomorphic G-d, rather a force-like G-d (think Star Wars), but more importantly, G-d just lets a lot of shit happen. And even if He did write the future, He wouldn't necessarily write it your way. You can't own G-d.

More people have never really thought about other scenarios.

Look, you never know what shit could happen. I didn't ask for a friendly spider to bite me in China. My friend just got out of the ER with a concussion.

And you may not be sure what your passion really is. My friend Allie has done a lot of looking around, so she actually knows what she wants to do. My friend Alex has done that. My friend Aaron. But that took trial and error. And I've had other friends who have blasted in as a biology geek and come out as linguists!

And do you know what life in your chosen field is like? I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but I really don't want to go through the lawyer's life. I always find it worrisome when people want to go into something...and don't know what they're getting into.

How do you know that that future is written for you?

That's my thought for today. I probably sound pretentious and snobby and such, but I can't get that verse out of my head.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Banana Rye Muffins

This post will be brief. I had a really terrible day yesterday - a relative died, and a friend was involved in a serious accident. However, I promised someone that I'd post this recipe, so here it is.

I'm working on a longish post right now. It should be ready sometime next week.


I made these muffins earlier this week for a social group that I attend. I didn't think much of them - they tasted good - but they got pretty quickly devoured by my friends, one of whom ate a few of them. So I'm posting this, because anyone who appreciates bananas and rye as much as I do should make this.

Banana Rye Muffins

3-4 bananas, smashed
~1.5 cups rye flour
1 cup sugar
3-4 eggs
1/4-1/2 cup of milk
1/2 tsp. baking powder

Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease a muffin tin. (For bread, switch the muffin tin for a loaf pan).

Mix the bananas, flour, sugar, milk and eggs. You should get a thick batter. If your batter is still thin, add more rye flour and sugar in the same proportion, or in a proportion with a heavier emphasis on the rye flour.

Pour into the muffin tins. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, 20-25 minutes should be dandy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Walking to Services

It's Sunday morning and I've watched, from my window, some of my dorm-mates head out to go to church. The Lutherans, the Mormons, the Catholics. There's a certain purpose in their step.


I looked at them for a moment. Then I realized I do it too.


I make that walk once a week usually, on Friday nights. My black kippah is in my pocket, I'm carrying a tray of fresh baking for my compatriots. I'm humming a tune, probably one that we'll sing during the service. I like to think that my shoes are going


I'm generally pretty happy. I like going to services. I like praying, I like my prayer group, I like my Jewish friends. Each step increases the anticipation. Sometimes I worry about not getting the quorum required to recite certain prayers. But mostly, I'm content.

The walk makes me feel at home. Some say that no Jew lives in a city until he's got a synagogue/minyan there that he goes to regularly. I've got that. This is my city, and this is what I do on Fridays. This is my city, and this is my place of worship.The walk, with its regularity and it's homey feel, is part of my experience here in Chicago. In addition, it makes me feel even more Chicagoan - this is a city long defined by its houses of worship, and now I'm part of that proud tradition.


Sometimes I go to Saturday morning services. This is mostly back in New York.

I'm not shomer shabbat. I'll take buses and go out on the Sabbath. I try not to do much schoolwork, and I refuse to take paid work, and I try to make it a "day of rest and reflection." But I'm not "shomer shabbat."

On that note, I won't listen to Jewish liturgical tracks on my computer, or go by vehicle to synagogue on Shabbat. That just feels perverse. My mother, though avoiding her cell phone and computer, drives to synagogue. Admittedly, that's better for her than the long walk. But I usually walk.

When I'm here in Chicago, it's a short, mile-long walk up a street to a small Conservative synagogue. It's a typical Hyde Park walk, but I feel at home when I make it too - maybe not as much as Friday night, but it's still carrying that feeling of this is my city, this is my place of worship.

Back home, it's usually to a synagogue my mom goes to two miles away. The walk there is through a park and leafy neighborhoods. It's really beautiful in the fall - there's a patch of yellow, a patch of red, and a multicolored area around the town's water tower. My feet say both




The anticipation builds even more for Saturday morning services. They're a longer affair, but they're beautiful. There's also always a sermon to look forward to, and the hymns! And then, hopefully, a bar/bat mitzvah to congratulate and beaming grandparents...

I love these walks.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Coffee shops

If it's quiet I can't do my homework.

I get creeped out.

I can't concentrate.

So I work in coffee shops.

There's a branch of a national chain on the UChicago campus, but we call it the C-Shop. They sell crappy bagels and crappy coffee, but the crappy coffee is good crappy coffee. It's the kind of crappy coffee that wakes you up and makes you feel awesome.

I like to work in there.

It's noisy, but not too noisy. It feels warm, and alive. The chairs are nice and hard, the plugs are plentiful, the lighting is good, I can pour way too much coffee down my throat. Sometimes other people join me at my table. The windows look out to a beautiful courtyard.

I don't know why I study in this shop - there are other shops I could go to, other noisy locations. I go to another coffee shop now and again. But when I walk into the C-Shop, I get productive. I've pulled eight-hour hauls in the C-Shop during finals week, and one terrifying Sunday afternoon last year, I spent ten hours in there in the course of a day. I get nods of recognition from the staff.

But it feels like home now. When I need to study, I go there, or my dorm's lounge at night. Can I say it's part of my experience here?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fuck Fluticasone.

I figured out this week that, rather than asthma, a more likely source of  most of the breathing issues I've had is the medication they put me on - an inhaler with a steroid called fluticasone. It's an immunosuppressant, and I've gotten several upper respiratory infections. I also have this sneaky suspicion that it made things somewhat more difficult for me in China, and the amount of chest pain I've had is way up compared to the pre-medicinal days.

Do I have some breathing issues? Yes, particularly during allergy season.  Most of that is pretty lightweight if I'm somewhere with not much mold. I didn't have any sort of medications until I was 19 1/2. I've only used my rescue inhaler once in the US, and that was an overreaction. If I go back to China, I will need to take some meds with me, but even then...

But generally, I'm a pretty healthy guy. Pre-inhaler, I was at a good weight, with a 99th percentile heart rate. Now, I've had five infections in as many months, as well as other issues. I'm kinda pissed at the doctor now. You're supposed to lower your inhaler dosage over time, but the doctors didn't do that. Furthermore, they put me on heavy-level dosages during a bad allergy season, even though I had almost no history of this sort of thing.

I've spoken with a few doctor friends on the phone, and they've told me I don't need this medication.

So I'm mad. I'm sorta going off myself, but I'm going to the student clinic here on Monday to simply tell the doctor "I'm not taking this medication anymore, what do I need to know about going off this medication?"

I had a great past five months, but I'm mad that I was basically hoodwinked into thinking that I had something more serious than I actually did. And I'm sick of getting sick all the time. And I'm sick of taking the inhaler twice a day when it just makes shit worse.

And I'm sick of how we throw pills and formulas at illness now. My mother kicked the ass of every cold I ever had with tea, soup, and OJ. Meanwhile, I'm taking a medicine that makes me get more stuff.

Sorry about the rant.

P.S. I would've had to come home from China early anyway. That was one hell of a spider.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rye bread is the best bread

I love rye bread. Crusty, tart, slightly sour, rye is truly the ultimate grain for a good loaf. The thought of toasted rye with butter and pickles makes me…very happy. Very, very happy. I am very much a good Jewish boy: give me my rye with bits of caraway, and I am your willing slave.

The entire country of Finland also loves rye bread – Finland has more varieties of ruisleipä, or rye bread, than any country. Finnish immigrants brought recipes with them to the United States, and one version somehow made it into a vegetarian cookbook from Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.

Last week, while I was baking kugel with Sharon in her dormitory, we found a collection of cookbooks. I found that the vegetarian cookbook had forty pages of Finnish recipes. Given my obsession with all things Finnish, I got really excited, and proceeded to copy down some of the recipes. I then decided: the following Saturday, I would write my essay and make rye bread. I adjusted the recipe to my taste – a bit more butter, and the essential addition of caraway.

The original plan was to go up to the Swedish grocery in Andersonville in the morning to buy a good, proper Scandinavian rye flour, but that didn’t happen because of combined fatigue and laziness. So I went to Treasure Island – Hyde Park’s very own overpriced supermarket. Luckily, TI did have a decent quality rye flour.

Then it was time to make bread (and write my essay in between). I hadn’t made bread for years, so I approached the process as a novice (though I did know how to knead). It was quite the experience.

Firstly: making bread is a lot of work. Kneading is damn good exercise for the arms, and the whole process is pretty long – although the ingredients are pretty simple. You all should give bakers a ton of respect.

Secondly: making bread is really rewarding. It’s such a staple food, but it’s such an art. You really can’t appreciate bread until you’ve tried to make it yourself. It’s hard, and frustrated. When you’re holding that loaf in your hand, a feeling of achievement like no other comes over you. You’ve made bread! Crusty bread! The ultimate food!

I’m pretty happy with how the bread turned out. In retrospect, I should have used darker rye flour, but the bread was still tasty and filling. My dormmates really seemed to like it, as did my friends Aaron, David and Douglas. I definitely plan to make this recipe again – especially given that I have requests from three people now.

The recipe is below, for your culinary pleasure.


Ruisleipä – Finnish-Style Rye Bread
Based on a recipe by Susan Harville, with additions from the Jewish tradition

1 ½ cups milk (apparently, you can use beer instead!)
2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for surface coating and glazing
1 teaspoon salt
1 pack dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup warm water (a bit extra is recommended, but not more than 2/3rds of a cup)
2 cups rye flour
½-¾ teaspoon caraway seeds
3 ½ cups white flour, plus additional for surface-coating

1.       Heat the milk until warm, but not beginning to bubble – you should be able to touch the warm milk without saying “ow.” Add the butter and salt and stir in until blended. Set aside to cool.
2.       Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let stand until the yeast starts foaming royally.
3.       Stir the yeast and cooled liquid together in a fairly large mixing bowl.
4.       Add the rye flour and caraway seeds; stir until smooth.
5.       Add the white flour to the mixture cup by cup, and stir until you have a stiff dough. You may need about half a cup of extra white flour.
6.       Dust a surface (cutting board or cookie sheet recommended) with white flour. I recommend dusting your hands as well with flour when you knead – the dough sticks less to your hands.
7.       Dump the dough onto the surface and knead until the dough is stiff enough to be about the same texture as your earlobe. An alternate test is to check if the dough holds the shape of a finger after the finger is stuck into the dough and removed. The dough should be a rough ball.
8.       Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let stand for 15 minutes. In the meantime, coat a large mixing bowl with butter. Be sure to coat the bowl well.
9.       Once the dough has rested, knead the dough until it is smooth and passes the earlobe test. Again, dust your hands with flour beforehand.
10.   Place the dough in the buttered bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise for two hours – it should be about double in size at the end. Flour your hands again!
11.   Punch the dough – and we’re talking a good punch here. Knead the dough for one minute or so, until it’s at earlobe test level again.
12.   Butter a large-ish cookie sheet very well, then divide the dough into two parts. Form two rough, round, low loaves, then place each on the baking sheet. Cut a hole through the center of each.
13.   Cover the dough with damp cloths, and let rise for half an hour – the loaves will increase in size.
14.   Preheat your oven to 375F. Brush the loaves with water, and if you choose, some melted butter. Puncture the loaves with a fork in several places – I recommend doing a nice pattern for this. If you wish, sprinkle some more caraway seeds on top of the loaf.
15.   Bake the loaves for about 30-35 minutes, or until they sound hollow when knocked on the bottom. Cool, and nom. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What makes a good professor?

I generally have really awesome professors this quarter.

My professor for the social science philosophy requirement at Chicago is not only a brilliant scholar, but a clear speaker and a generally nice guy. The teacher in the Norwegian class I'm auditing has taught us an incredible amount of Norwegian culture, vocabulary and grammar in four weeks - all with a relaxed smile (and, occasionally, cookies!). My Geography professor is a Grand Old Sir who makes the class into the biggest storytime ever. My history professor is....EPIC. She is a GENIUS. She is AMAZING. I've learned so much about Chicago....

(My Chinese class is a bit dull. Alas.)

I also had some amazing teachers at UChicago last year - my Ottoman Civilization professor, Ancient Egypt professor, and Chinese teacher spring to mind. And my Assyria professor. I learned more in one year here than I learned in most of my classes in high school.

So I've been thinking - what makes a good professor?

I don't think there's a formula or anything. Honestly, each discipline to a certain extent will require different attributes - I could go on and on about good language teachers (of which I've had several), or good history teachers (of which I've had several), or bad English teachers (of which I've had two), or terrible math teachers (of which I've had two). But I've identified a few attributes that all my amazing professors shared:

Passion - all of my professors are really passionate about what they're teaching. They don't necessarily see it as the world's most important thing, but it's the thing that they love - their beloved discipline. They get excited when you show interest in a topic (for example, my Egypt professor's amazing reading list when I told her I was interested in Coptic stuff), but they don't tell you that it should be your passion too. They just push their love for the topic into the way they teach, and they teach it with gusto. It's not a drag for them.

Humanity - I've unfortunately have had a professor  who looks down on students, treats them like uncultured jackasses, and makes broad and inaccurate assumptions about them.

My awesome professors don't do that. If anything, they show their own human nature to the students - their pet peeves, or their funny stories, or even just the things that make them happy. They talk to the students as friends, and are generally quite helpful. I don't feel awkward around my favorite professors, because they've made themselves human.

Cross-disciplinary ability - a good professor is fucking amazing in his or her own discipline and really good at a few others. This allows them to really put a broader perspective into their teaching. They can bring in other sciences and disciplines, and put their subject into a much more useful context. I would have not liked Assyrian history so much had my professor not put it into a context of broader imperial history and the context of Biblical exegesis (Assyriology is extremely useful for the Old Testament). I learned a lot about urban planning and construction in my Egyptian history class. My Norwegian class is also a great place to learn about different conceptions of modesty, and the aspects of bad translations. My Ottoman history class completely changed the way I think about politics in the US. It really makes the subject...even more awesome.

Visual skills - one thing I've noticed is that a good professor can present information well in a visual sense. My Civ professors had amazing slideshows (Power-Points can be awesome. Consult Hakan Karateke or Nadine Moeller for assistance). My Social Sciences professor makes incredible charts to explain Smith. My Chinese teacher last year had an incredible calendar on his syllabus. A good sense for information organization can make a world of difference.

Stern grading - I'm totally old school with grades, and I like professors to be that way too. You won't improve unless the professor is totally honest with you. My favorite professors are harsh graders who tell it to you like it is. It helps you learn more and improve your writing/knowledge/language ability. Then again, I do well in their classes because they teach so well. But if I mess up, I know their honesty will help me get back up again.
This post is for my friend Hannah, who's currently kicking ass as a Teach for America corps member in Detroit. Hannah, you're going to be one of these amazing teachers. I know it.
Side update: I'm going to probably start a separate blog where I do pop song translations between English and Chinese. The Milkshake translation project will go on this, as will translations of Teresa Teng songs (Teng was a Taiwanese diva in the 70s and 80s), as well as everyone's favorite Beyoncé song - Single Ladies.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sukkot and the Joys of Kugel (with recipes!)

Sukkot is one of the more awesome holidays of the Jewish calendar.

It's a week-long festival celebrating both the autumnal harvest and the forty-year wandering period in the desert following the Exodus. Traditionally, one eats meals in an outdoor booth made of branches, a sukkah. Tradition and Jewish law also requires prayer with the four species: palm branch, myrtle and willow bound together and called collectively a lulav (which is also the word for palm branch) and an etrog (citron in English). Nowadays, the Orthodox still follow the traditions fully, but most non-Orthodox - myself included - only participate in some of the festivities.

I've eaten twice in the sukkah at the University's Hillel (institutional), and I'm going to do the lulav-and-etrog thing either tomorrow or Tuesday. I don't have my own, so I'll borrow a friend's, or use communal ones at a synagogue in the neighborhood. Lulavim and etrogim are expensive.

Why do I like Sukkot? Well, there are several reasons. Firstly, the commandment to be happy is an awesome thing. Sukkot is a holiday of joy, of warm feelings and exuberant singing, of celebration and enjoying the most basic facet of life: the change in seasons. Secondly, eating outside can be quite an experience. Al fresco dining not only allows you to simultaneously experience breezes and bread (or, like Friday night, damp and bread), but also makes you appreciate the fact that most of the time, you eat indoors, shielded from things like wet. And jacket-wearing during dinner.

My prayer group threw a little party for Sukkot today. Originally it was going to be baked goods and games, but it ended up being baked goods and bonding. My friend Sharon and I made two of my recipes:

1. Lokshen-kugel, or noodle kugel. It's a Jewish traditional casserole. Think bread pudding, but replace the bread with noodles, and add cream cheese. My maternal grandmother's recipe is great.

2. Apple cake. Sharon had gone apple picking yesterday, and apple items are always awesome. My paternal grandmother has an idiotproof recipe for apple cake that requires few ingredients and zilch effort.

The party, though small (only about 10-12 attendees) was a success. Most of the group regulars came, along with some of my other friends (which was awesome). The baked goods were a success (kugel is a wonderful, wonderful thing), so I'm posting the recipes below. The gathering was really a celebration of what Sukkot is: enjoying the (for once, beautiful - this is Chicago) autumn weather and being happy with those around you.

Chag sameach - Happy Holidays.

Lokshen-Kugel/Noodle Kugel
adapted from my maternal grandmother's recipe

Note: I tend to eyeball measurements while baking. Adjust as necessary.

~10-12 oz. egg noodles (I recommend a thinner cut)
4-5 eggs
1 1/4 c. brown sugar
2 c. milk
1 c. flour
3 oz. cream cheese, softened (leave it out for say, an hour or so before using)
a handful of raisins (optional)
1/4-1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

1. Cook the noodles until al dente. You do not want them to be too soft; they will soften as they bake. Drain, rinse and set aside.
2. Preheat your oven to 375F. Butter a cake pan, a shallow 13x9 pan will do.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until consistent. Add the sugar, milk, and flour, (and cinnamon here too) and beat until you have a thin batter.
4. Mix in the cream cheese and beat until the cream cheese is in small bits throughout the mixture. You may need to use a whisk to cut the cream cheese if it's stubborn about softening.
5. Place the noodles into the pan. (Mix the raisins in by hand if you add raisins.) Spread evenly on the bottom of the pan.
6. Ladle the liquid-cheese mixture into the pan and press it into the noodles. The noodles should be soaked, but  not submerged in the fluid. If you need more liquid, beat an egg, some milk and sugar together.
7. Bake at 375F for 45-50 minutes, or until only cream cheese residue and some moisture comes out with a toothpick. The top should be crisp; it's awesome to have a few burned noodles.

Easy-as-Fuck Apple Cake
Adapted from my paternal grandmother's recipe. She does not call it this. This recipe is something  I have never measured for, so the measures here are a guess.

Chopped fresh apples (I recommend using sweeter apples. Cut as you wish, I like thin disk-like slices)
2 c. flour
1 c. sugar
2 c. milk
3 eggs

1. Preheat your oven to roughly 375F. Butter a pan. (13x9 and shallow-ish will do.)
2. Spread the apples at the bottom to cover the floor of the pan. The number of apples you'll need depends on the apple you use.
3. Mix the flour, sugar, milk and eggs to make a thin batter.
4. Pour over apples to cover.
5. Bake until the top of the cake is golden, and a toothpick comes out clean. That should be around 35-40 minutes, but possibly longer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My project brings all the nerds to the yard

So originally I was going to post some more Jewish stuff (chag sameach, it's Sukkot) and segue into a heady mix of Arctic politics, recipes, and talking about the Chinese language again, but I'm tired tonight. So that's delayed.  I feel like posting, but not on anything serious.

So I'll post on a stupid little project of mine.

Milkshake, trashy as it is, is one of the best songs ever (you can see my opinions on pop music here, in an earlier post). Kelis really hit the ball with that one, and Mean Girls fame or not, it's pretty sweet. Not so great on the feminism front, but I like the "it's the girl's power" thing. And the milkshake metaphor.

Nerd that I am, I'm translating the song into Chinese. It's actually a fun challenge, and way better than what I was translating in Shenzhen (which was interesting, but rather stiff and legal-ish).

The preliminary translation is done. I'm going to rework it to be more idiomatic very soon, no sometime soon, maybe next month,  when I have time.

 Here it is - Chinese speakers, feel free to give your feedback.

Lyrics in English are copyright Kelis. This is my own freelance translation.






请主义, 小偷被抓,



, 你一进去,
大群看这儿, /



Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five resolutions for the coming year

Yom Kippur is when we come to terms with our humanity, and when we come to terms with our sins. We ask for forgiveness from G-d, and we ask from our friends, and we take steps towards being better people. Yom Kippur really concentrates on malicious acts done towards your fellow human beings, and one's repentance is supposed to be strongest in regards to acts against your fellow (and G-d).

I  myself have definitely not been nearly as nice or as good of a person to those around me as I could have been over the past year. I've identified five areas I want to improve in. I am human and will not be perfect, but, by His will, I hope to improve in these areas.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Make my own judgments, and not so readily believe the judgment of others. I've too readily believed the judgments of others on people, often with negative consequences. I've developed bad impressions of perfectly nice people, and too readily took other's anger as aspects of truth. I need to make fewer judgments like this.

2. Gabber less, listen more. I sometimes overpower conversations and don't let other, very interesting things get said. I want to be more conversationally polite.

3. More chesed, less snark. Chesed is the Jewish term for "grace and loving-kindness." Oftentimes, where I should respond with this, I am instead snarky or really...uncaring. I want to be less hurtful, even if I don't hurt the person directly.

4. Less gossiping. Gossiping is bad. I sometimes do it. I'd really like to do it less. My dormitory is honestly extremely gossipy, so I will really have to have a strong will on this. I hate it when people talk about me behind my back, so I really should practice what I preach.

5. Defend my friends more strongly. I'm friends with sets of people who dislike each other. Sometimes, when someone starts saying unjustified things about another friend of mine, I just sit there awkwardly. Enough of that. Nobody is talking about the people I love and care for like that. I'm defending y'all.

I hope to keep these things up. I have other tasks (forgiving certain folks, volunteering a few times), but these are the things I really thought about. I hope that I am able to do them.

Gmar tov to everyone.


Speaking of improvements to one's own self, my friend Hillel has yet another blog - I've linked it in the blogroll. It's called Improving Myself to Death, and he's chronicling his quest to achieve certain goals. Hillel is amazingly reflective about himself in general, and y'all should help him by reading his blog and egging him on. You rock, Hillel.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I still love the fall, and a proposal

Yes, I'm geeking out about the fall again.

Autumn's here.

It went from unseasonably cold to unseasonably hot. But that's autumn: schizophrenic, indecisive.

The leaves on the Midway now are gold, red, and green. I'm staring outside the cafeteria window, and there's a  - sycamore perhaps? - with deep yellow leaves, standing proudly within the dormitory courtyard it is in. The ivy on the buildings here has started to change color.

I've started to breathe really well again (woodknocking, B"H). Autumn air is good for me.

There's something about the cold air that makes me happy. About the dying leaves, about the smell of fire and earlier nights.

So then I ask: who would like to celebrate the season with me? It would have to be after Yom Kippur, but we could meet on the lake, have some things with pumpkin and other fall foods, and appreciate the fact that we, perhaps, live in one of the most climatically beautiful cities in the world. The lake, the seasons, the drama of trees and buildings against the lake.

It sounds pretentious, but let's do it!

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Rosh Hashanah’s always been more of a New Year to me than the January 1st one.

Don’t get me wrong. I use the Gregorian calendar 99% of the time. Unless it’s a major Jewish holiday, I likely do not know the Hebrew date. I have a vague sense of which month it is in the Jewish calendar, and that’s it. My Jew time looks more like:

“RoshHashanahDaysofAweYomKippur-SukkotShminiAzeretSimchatTorah-HOLIDAY DEARTH-Hannukah-Winter chilling-Tu Bishvat-make hamantaschen-Purim-oh look, flowers-PESACH!!!-Omer-SHAVUOT!* -More dearth-Tisha B’Av-More dearth-Oh shit gotta buy apples.”
*Shavuot is hands down the best holiday in the Jewish calendar.

But the Gregorian New Year is dull.

Rosh HaShanah is exciting.

I shall use a comparison to explain why:

Chinese mansions and temples, in the doorways, traditionally had foot-level thresholds that one has to step over to cross into the next room. These thresholds not only act as markers of personal space, but also as markers of spiritual space.

I see Time much in the same way. As we cross into another spiritual (and academic, and for me, age) year, we step from the room of the year before, which we may have left in a messy state, into the spotless room of the year to come. But we can’t see the interior of this room that well. The force of G-d propels us into it, but we are still scared. The Gregorian date doesn’t do that.

We are scared when we cross. So to cross over, we go with friends. And that’s why this Rosh HaShanah meant so much to me.

To jump the threshold back home meant hours in a synagogue surrounded by sullen old people. We’d never get enough tickets (I consider ticketing services questionable at best), so I’d often be alone. The only time I felt warm was with my family, relaxing after services or at my mother’s incredible Rosh HaShanah dinner.

To jump here meant to be with Sharon and Aaron and Douglas and Chana and Noah and all the crazy Egal folks I love. It meant to be listening to a rabbi who you’ve discussed the finer points of candy with. It meant to sing prayers – and hear voices that were not just sincere, but were those of the ones you loved.

And that’s just awesome.

To jump the threshold is to allow the force of G-d to run through you. This is the point where you enter your own judgment, where you act against your own shortcomings, where you come to terms with your own humanity.

I went with a first-year in my dorm to do Tashlich on the shore of Lake Michigan. For those of you unfamiliar, Tashlich is a ritual in which one “casts away” one’s sins symbolically by throwing breadcrumbs or cereal into running water. The idea is that the fish, who are usually the likely consumers of your “sins” (in Chicago, it’s gulls), never have their eyes closed – just as your sins never leave you, and G-d can always see them. (See is an inappropriate word for the force that G-d is. You can’t really use that type of mortal, fleshy verb to describe what actions G-d takes).

As I threw the cereal into the lake, looking out at the beautiful waterscape  ahead , I felt compelled. It was awesome. It was like having a force run through you.

I had that too when I read Torah at Thursday morning services. I had practiced my portion, memorized it even, and yet when I faced the text, I began to shake uncontrollably. I do not believe in a literal text, but it is still a text with holy energy. And I felt that coursing through me, and propelling me into the New Year.

And dang, it was great.


For those of you who are celebrating:

 Shana Tova uMetuka! A sweet and Happy New Year! May the upcoming year be productive and happy, loving and energetic, inspiring and creative for you. May you and your family and friends know peace and evade sorrow. May He who pervades and outlasts everything give you blessing.

As you cross the threshold into 5772, may you do so with those you love and care for. May you find the reflection you seek and the insight you desire. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life, however you interpret it.

I wish you all the best.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Norwegian: Or, Yes, I'm Learning Another Language

I am a bit language-crazy.

I speak English as my native tongue. However, I also speak Mandarin quite well. My Hebrew and French are competent – my speaking is stronger in Hebrew, but my reading is stronger in French. I can survive in Spanish. I know basic Afrikaans and Cantonese.

I like languages. My grandmother, of blessed memory, spoke eight fluently and a ninth to a basic degree. I aim to imitate her.

I also like being able to switch my identity as I switch languages. I go from my normal, crazy Anglophone self to a chatty, laid-back Mandarin speaker, to a good Hebrew-speaking Jewish son…as I speak a language, I develop a part of my soul. It’s a form of spiritual growth, to embed oneself in more communities in the most basic way: learning the language.

And yesterday, as if I didn’t speak enough tongues already, I started Norwegian. I’m auditing Norwegian 101-102-103 this year, although I may end up taking one of the quarters as a credit class.

There’s a nervousness you have before you start a new language. “Is this the right thing to do?” “Why the hell am I doing this?” “Is the pronounciation devilishly difficult?” (For Norwegian, yes).

And then you take your first class. You learn the alphabet and basic phrases. “God dag! Jeg heter Jonathan. Jeg bor i Chicago. Jeg kommer fra New York. Hva heter du? Hvor bor du? “

(For reference, as I wrote this on Word, my spell checking switched from English to Norwegian. Win for Microsoft.)

And then you relax. You realize that it’s going to be awesome.

Norwegian is the first language that I’m learning for specific reasons. I learned Hebrew and Afrikaans as a family affair, although I did buy grammars and textbooks to improve them. Chinese was something that just happened, and pulled me in for what is now over seven years. French and Spanish happened in high school – there was no specific reason, I just wanted to learn them. Cantonese happened for similar reasons.

Norwegian seems awesome. But I know what drew me in. Years of Scandinavian mystery books definitely played a role (you get written Danish and Swedish for free with Norwegian, and a good understanding of spoken – dialect continuums rock). The quality of life in Norway is a bonus. The sheer amount of amazing and diverse travel opportunities in Scandinavia are an attraction. But most of all, my continued interest in the changing Arctic necessitates the knowledge of either a Scandinavian language or Russian. I’ve chosen the former. As the Arctic grows more important for so many reasons, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (by virtue of Greenland) will grow more important as well. Whoever thought thirty years ago that Chinese-Norwegian and Chinese-Canadian relations could have such complex manifestations? How do we take what we learned before elsewhere and apply them to the unique problems of the circumpolar world?

Norwegian is a doorway to a world for me, and I hope that I can learn enough to go through that doorway well. This is a language I’ve looked forward to learning for a long time. Here we go.

The Norwegian alphabet in sign form. The three extra letters are basically unique to Scandinavian languages. Copyright

Addition to the blogroll:

Semester in Londontown: My friend Lisa, an amazing and intelligent student at Hampshire College, is spending a semester abroad in London. She has a blog to document her experiences in the UK, and she’s a terrific writer. It’s up in the blogroll.