Friday, December 22, 2006

Chanukah Blog Tour 5767

I have a troublesome habit: I pick up young women. Sometimes on the street, lately in cyberspace. Am I a predator destined to be a “Dateline” exposé? Or simply a pathetic Jewish mother, with two grown daughters living cross country (Boston and L.A.), thus forcing me to latch onto any friendly female facsimile?

Okay, cutie, you figured it out. Delightful Amy Guth, who is my latest quarry and author of “Three Fallen Women,” asked me to be part of this meme (I had to look it up, too.) and answer her eight questions. So here are hers, plus my responses:

1. Quick! You must turn a plate of latkes into an upscale gourmet
delight (as if they aren't already?). What would you add to them to dress them up, flavor and/or garnish them?
Salsa, because I’m taking Spanish language classes at Dígame school in Logan Square and want to include as much español en mi vida como posible. (Corrections welcome.)

2. What is the dumbest thing you've ever heard anyone say about
That they don’t know whether to spell it your way or this way: Hanukkah. I think I prefer yours, with the ch-growl.

3. What's the best possible use for olive oil?
Frying chicken. My favorite food in all the world.

4. Settle it once and for all. Latkes or hammentaschen? Which to you
prefer? What about pitting the winner of that contest against
Can’t I have all three? This blog is making me hungry.

5. What's the best way to mix up a game of dreidel?
Ask my daughter Jill who has invented a new game called “Ultimate Dreidel.” (See previous post.)

6. My novel, Three Fallen Women, shockingly enough, is about the lives of three women. Which three women would you like to have over this year for latkes and why?
I’d like to resurrect from the dear departed, my three favorite female jazz vocalists: Billie Holiday , Carmen McRae, and Nina Simone. I figure that by now, the chanteuses could use a bit of sustenance. But someone else would have to be in the kitchen to do the peeling, grating, squeezing, stirring, plopping, and frying. Of course, I’d ask full-of-life Leah and OrienYenta to join in on the party. (You’ll have to read their Tour posts to find out why they won an invitation; but be sure to check out Amy's blog to find links for all of the Tour contributors.)

7. Other than Three Fallen Women (har har), what book do you think would make a great Chanukah gift this year? What book would you like to receive as a gift this year?
Voo Den? Answer to first part: Jill Soloway’s “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” and to the second part, Amy Guth’s, “Three Fallen Women.” And although you didn’t ask, any videotape from Faith’s Soloway’s productions would make a great Chanukah gift. Though I’m not so sure about “Jesus Has Two Mommies.”

8. What bloggers didn't participate in Chanukah Blog Tour 5767 and you
think should have?

Hillary Carlip, Jill Soloway, and Danny Miller (he already did his post, but this is an extra vote for my favorite blogger). Scroll down my blog and you’ll see contributions by all three.

Happy Chanukah to all!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

To Tree or Not To Tree

Every December I offer to get a tree for my Gentile husband, but Tommy declines, declaring religion a dangerous pursuit. So why on Friday nights is he the one reminding me to light the shabbos candles, and is now searching through cabinets to locate our wax-crusted candelabra? Are we the only pair with the Christmas or Hanukkah mishegas? To find out, I queried friends and relatives (photo captions are at the end) about their religious journeys and learned they often encountered forks in the road, confusing signposts, and other directional signals before finding their way home.

To be honest, my own wrestling match with Judaism has been a messy sight. In my childhood, we were High Holiday and Bar Mitzvah Jews, attending the Austrian-Galician shul every September in our 1940s-finest, and in 1948 for my brother Ronnie’s bar mitzvah. And although I had always considered myself Jewish, I felt an outsider -- ignorant of the laws, prayers, rituals.

That changed in 1988 when on Rosh Hashanah, I spotting dressed-up Jews, prayers books in hand, on their way to synagogue. Now, I wanted in and searched for a place that would welcome and educate me. And on May 6, 1989, after a year of membership and study at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, I celebrated by becoming a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 51.

But it didn’t stick. After my Jewish husband and I separated in 1990 and eventually divorced, my ties to both synagogue and religion frayed. We had joined JRC as a couple; he was part of my ceremony, too many sad memories. And after marrying Tommy in 1998, I figured I had an even better excuse to neglect observance. But now, every Friday night, with my goy’s prompting (he claims he finds this ritual heartwarming rather than perilous) I light the candles, say the blessings, and Tommy and I wish each other and our dog, “Shabbat Shalom.”

My two daughters, Faith and Jill Soloway, have their own tales of ambivalence. Although they briefly attended Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park, neither asked to study for a Bat Mitzvah, and their father and I didn’t push it. Now each daughter has a different story to tell.

Obviously Faith, who wrote, produced, and starred in the infamous folk rock opera, “Jesus Has Two Mommies,” has her own curiosity about the other side.

And although both Faith and her partner are Jewish, Faith says, “This year, in honor of our girl's mixed heritage (Scottish, Japanese, and Jewish), and in honor of her mothers loving the tree part of Christmas, we treed it up. Right now it's all candy canes and lights, we haven't committed to the ornaments yet.”

As for Jill, since living in Los Angeles and giving birth to her son 10 years ago, she has become immersed in Judaism, trumping even my years-ago bat mitzvah. Here’s her story:

“There’s been years with trees, years without... but if we ever did a tree, I wasn't really celebrating the glory of Christ's birth-- just sort of imitating what seemed really fun about the whole season-- lights, stockings, a strange fat man visiting in the night.

“But after enrolling my son into a Jewish day school, some of the Jewy-ness started to seep into my soul. Before you can say Shabbat Shalom, I was making Purim costumes and crafting my very own a Sukkah. Soon after, I was invited to be part of Reboot, a group that encourages youngish Jews to grapple with questions of identity, community and meaning. So if I was at all hovering at the edge of my faith, Reboot tossed me in full force. Now I’m sometimes flaying, more often surfacing, and even once in a while blissfully floating in waters that feel more familiar each day.

“So, this year, no trees in our casa. In fact, as I write this, we're decking the whole place out in blue and white and turquoise and silver, and planning a Hannukah party to play a new version of Dreidel we invented-- Ultimate Dreidl.

“And now, for the sales pitch part of me getting in on my mama's blog (how many of you can say that, ‘my mama’s blog’): SUPER JEW T-SHIRTS! I imagineered these shirts for a play at my son's school. Now you, too, can go to this website and buy a stack for yourself and deserving shirtless friends and relatives. Plus, you're doing a mitzvah with every purchase, just like a superjew should-- because a percentage of sales goes to the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an organization that educates, advocates and organizes on issues of peace, equality, diversity and justice. And if that doesn’t get you to part with your gelt, you should know that a percentage of sales also goes to Temple Israel’s school. That's right-- WEAR YOUR PRIDE, the Super Jew way!”

My offspring and I have had our say, so here are two other stories that fit our pluralism theme.

Laura Varon Brown, editor of the Detroit Free Press’ Twist magazine, explains her journey through several religious faiths:

“I was baptized Roman Catholic and raised Episcopalian. My mom taught Sunday school, so I was always with her – whether I was in the class or not. I think I had religious school overload.

“In comes my late husband, Jim, who was Jewish. During my classes to understand Judaism, I really began to enjoy the teachings and certainly the connection to the Rabbi. I surprised my then fiancé and secretly took conversion classes and converted the day before our wedding.

“Jim and I had a daughter before he died. She is being raised Jewish. I remarried to Jeff, who was raised a Christian Baptist. We married in my temple and Jeff immediately grew close to our Rabbis. While Jeff hasn’t converted, as a family, we follow more of the Jewish traditions. Our daughter Emma, is being raised a Jew.

“But regarding Christmas, remember, I was raised Catholic. My mother loved the Christmas traditions: the tree, the food, family gathering, gift giving and the general warmth of the season. My late-husband and I always had a tree in our Jewish home and it was to honor my mom. We have one now to honor my mom, my past as well as my husband Jeff’s traditions. My girls would have played Christmas music at their Bat Mitzvahs if they could have. They love the music. They love the tree – my mom’s penguin ornaments always go up first.

“So, yes, it’s eclectic. But it’s about honoring, respecting and finding the parts of every season and each other that touch us.”

Finally, Tommy’s golf/bowling buddy, Hal “Tiger” Temkin (Jewish), offers this tale of the tree he and his wife Alice Herman display in their suburban home:

“Alice grew up in a Catholic home and went to Catholic grammar school. She has always loved Christmas, and all the symbolism of the holiday, and has always gone the limit in decorating our home for the holidays.

“In addition to the tree with her collection of ornaments and lights, and a few Stars of David’s sprinkled in, there is cotton ‘snow’ at the base with a village complete with homes and people; a lighted Santa face on the wall; assorted Santa's, reindeer, elves and stuffed animals around the room; a miniature sled propped against the side of the couch; and stockings hung up for everyone in our family.

“Our homage to Hanukkah is limited to lighting the menorah candles whenever anyone is visiting -- the whole menorah, no matter the night -- in a beautiful blaze of our love and friendship for all our family and friends.”

And now, in closing, from the Soloway-Madison family to all of you: Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year!

Photo Captions
1. Christmas trees for sale at Target.
2. Paltry in comparison, Target’s Hanukkah display.
3. Me, reading from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah, May 6, 1989.
4. Wedding day, Jan. 13, 1998 at the Treasure Island Hotel, with an ecumenical minister presiding.
5. Catie Curtis, Sean Staples, and Jennifer Kimball in publicity shot for Faith’s “Jesus Christ Has Two Mommies.”
6. My granddaughter, and the Christmas tree supplied by her two mommies.
7. The Christmas tree, consisting of 130 balsam firs, that stands in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.
8. The Hanukkah Menorah on Daley Plaza, courtesy of Lubavitch Chabad, Center for Jewish Life.
9. Jill and my grandson in their Superjew t-shirts.
10. Emma Brown, Molly Varon (with her favorite Disney menorah), Laura Varon Brown, and Jeff Brown.
11. A Hanukkah greeting card.
12. A Christmas display at our favorite Sunday breakfast place, Dappers East.
13. Alice and Tiger pictured in non-December weather.
14. The Temkin-Herman Christmas tree.
15. A Kwanzaa display.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It Takes Two

On Sept. 18 of this year, two young women -- Susan McLaughlin Karp (above right) and Julie Saltzman (left) -- took an ambitious leap and launched the Uptown Writer’s Space. Because I’m a fan of risk-takers (the business kind, not the skydiving variety), I wanted to encourage these new owners by offering wisdom gleaned from 30 years in, out, and on the fringes of the work world. While I could easily supply P.R. tips, I flunked on a crucial slice of their enterprise: Partnerships. So I turned to my Rolodex, fished out three former employers whose success can be credited to the duo at the helm: GreenHouse Communications, Taylor Johnson Associates, and the Women’s Business Development Center. I was certain these six bosses could inspire and help my courageous friends.

I suppose it’s no surprise I blanked on the partnership bit because in my own career I’ve shied away from gluing myself to another person. I did have successful temporary arrangements with two terrifically talented women: Chris Ruys (pictured above) in the 1990’s, and Michele Snyder in 2005. Both women have headed their own full-service public relations agencies for many years. But I slipped away from each commitment, tracing my first departure to a new marriage that deserved attention, and the second to my memoir for the very same reason.

But looking back, I think I can pin my reluctance to permanently bond to my long-ago models of business partnership: my parents, Min and Irv Shapiro. In my childhood, I witnessed the two of them daily tangling across the counters of the mom-and-pop grocery store that I depict in “The Division Street Princess.” If that’s what workplace togetherness is like, I must’ve thought, who needs it?

Fortunately, Chris and Michele (pictured left) remain cherished friends of mine, as do the other people you’ll meet in today’s post. And that leads to one piece of advice I can offer: Never Burn Your Bridges. Who knows, one day I may shake my childhood flashback and want to renew alliances. And by keeping my bridges intact, I’ve snagged great contributions to this blog. I’ve included photos of all; and for fun I’ve sprinkled in pictures of well-known duos. Captions are at the end.

Now, meet Susan McLaughlin Karp, and read her tale of how the Uptown Writer’s Space came into being and what it offers Chicago-area writers:

“Once upon a time there were two women, each of whom had three young sons. Coincidentally, both women were writers who found it increasingly difficult to work from home - distracted by the frequent and familiar (but always disturbing) screams of children, mounds of laundry, unpaid bills, and other minutiae. ‘Go to the coffee shop,” said the voices in their heads, but upon arrival, said coffee shop would be jammed with people whose conversations, however mundane, insinuated themselves right into their work. The voices told them, ‘Go to the library,’ but staring at beige walls in eerily quiet rooms evoked unpleasant memories of failed final exams.

“What were they to do? The answer came in a New York Times article about the newly opened writing rooms in New York and Los Angeles. ‘We must make that happen here!’ the women shouted loudly over soy lattes at a crowded coffee shop, ruining someone else’s writing. And so it began, the creation of the Uptown Writer's Space.

“Located on Broadway above the famous Green Mill Jazz Club, the Uptown Writer's Space offers a serene sun-filled room furnished with original cubicles and desks that evoke Chicago modernism, WIFI, a printer and an overstuffed sectional for reading.

“We also provide opportunities for networking and learning with a conference room, reading series, movie nights, and a great variety of classes and workshops.”

Now that you’ve met the newcomers, here’s some background, inspiration, and advice from old friends:

GreenHouse Communications, which Dan Greenberger and Sandy House (photo above) founded in 1990, is a leader in integrated marketing communications for consumer and business-to-business clients. The agency’s primary focus is in the areas of food service, consumer and healthcare marketing.

According to Dan, “Our agency’s success is built upon empowering our senior marketing and creative talent with unique innovation tools and proprietary technologies. The result is breakthrough thinking and the ability to accomplish more in less time, thereby providing greater value to clients.”

For GreenHouse’ contribution, Dan lets us in on a candid conversation about their first meeting and ongoing relationship:

Sandy: Nearly 20 years ago, we met at the Walker Brother’s Pancake House as a result of my networking.

Dan: It was like a blind date. She was looking for the perfect creative director for her agency; I was looking for the perfect agency where I could be creative director. We hit it off, so giving it a go seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sandy: Little did we know that twenty years later we’d still be speaking with each other, let alone talking to others about partnership.

Dan: What attracted us to each other is also what has kept us together. And that is unfailing admiration for each other’s talents and an epic tolerance for each other’s weaknesses.

Sandy: More than tolerance for each other’s weaknesses, I think it’s helping each other understand and compensate for those weaknesses—all the while letting the other person know that your belief in them is unshaken.

Dan: Truth be told, over 20 years there have been ups and downs in our relationships. Not surprisingly, those down times have been when our tolerance for and belief in each other is shaken.

Sandy: That’s when perspective kicks in. You ask yourself, “Will we be better off working together or splitting up?” So far, each time that question comes up, working together has been the answer.

Dan: The other secret is that I always give Sandy the last word.

Sandy: Yes, Dan, but I always let you write it for me.

Now meet Deborah Johnson (above right) and her daughter, Emily Johnson (left), who are partners in Taylor Johnson, one of the nation’s leading real estate marketing and communications firms. Here Deborah gives us a short company description, and offers this counsel:

“Taylor Johnson has been in business for more than 30 years and we’re known for helping our real estate clients break records in sales, traffic, and awareness. We use an integrated approach; and by fusing together branding, public relations, research, media, and event planning, we’re able to create innovative solutions that connect objectives with results. A 95 percent retention rate with our clients speaks for itself.

“In our case, I credit mutual respect and trust in each other’s judgment as key to our success as partners. Emily and I really like each other as people, and not only spend the week together as business partners, but also find time to talk as mother/daughter and friends.

“One thing we did that I think worked well for us and that I’d recommend to others is that we shared an office for three years so we could listen to each other’s conversations and learn from each other.

“As to advice for all new entrepreneurs -- partners or solo practioners -- I’d suggest: Hire the best people you can afford, don’t be shy about charging what you’re worth, only do business with quality clients, be serious about collections, and review your client list every six months. Resign all those accounts who are difficult to work with or don’t pay their bills on time.”

Finally, meet Hedy Ratner (above left) and Carol Dougal (right), who are co-presidents of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC). This year the partners celebrated their non-profit organization’s 20th anniversary with a spectacular Entrepreneurial Woman’s Conference that featured Oprah Winfrey as guest speaker. As a measure of this pair’s success, consider these statistics offered by Hedy:

“When we first started out in 1986, less than 10% of U.S. businesses were women-owned. Today, women own nearly half of all privately-held U.S. businesses, employ 19.1 million people, generate nearly $2.5 trillion in sales and are growing at two times the rate of all privately-held firms. I’d like to believe, and many in our field concur, that the WBDC, and our model as a business development center, deserves credit for a good portion of this amazing leap.

“Economic empowerment has been our overriding goal and we’ve helped more than 50,000 women get there by providing resources, counseling, training, financial assistance, access to capital, and business opportunities with corporations and government agencies that didn’t exist before we opened our doors.

“We tell clients who consider going into business with a partner to be certain the goals of both parties match. If one person sees the business as a serious full-time commitment, and the other views it a fun hobby, there’s little chance for success. After all, it will surely take time and effort before they see a profit, so partners should be in sync and realistic if the business is to survive and grow. We also suggest they choose a partner whose skills complement, rather than duplicate, their own. And importantly, we recommend they learn how to disagree and deal with differences of opinion productively.”

Thanks to all for sharing. Be sure to click on our contributors’ websites to learn more. Now to close, here are lyrics from my favorite musical theatre composer, Stephen Sondheim (photo). From “Into the Woods:”
It takes two
I thought one was enough,
It's not true.
It takes two of us.
You came through
when the journey was rough
It took you.
It took two of us.
It takes care.

It takes one to begin,
but then once you've begun
it takes two of you.
It's no fun
but what needs to be done, you can do
when there's two of you.
If I dare,
it's because I'm becoming aware of us.
As a pair of us,
each accepting a share of what's there.

Photo captions:
1. Julie Saltzman and Susan McLaughlin.
2. Chris Ruys, Chris Ruys Communications, Inc.
3. Irv, Min, Ronnie, and Elaine Shapiro in the 1940s.
4. Michele Snyder, Raceworks, Ltd. Event Management and Public Relations.
5. Laverne and Shirley (as pictured, Penny Marshall, who played Laverne is on the right, and Cindy Williams, Shirley, is on the left).
6. Sandra House and Dan Greenberger.
7. Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn.
8. Emily and Deborah Johnson.
9. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
10.Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal.
11.Cagney and Lacey (Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly).
12.Stephen Sondheim

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lie to Me

Whoever said, “Honesty is the best policy,” must’ve been thinking of vote tallies, thumbs on scales, and other spots where truth is preferred. But if you’ve got some insight about me – let’s say you find my tics troubling, my grey hair aging, or my book underwhelming -- I’d prefer you curb your candor, and instead, lie to me.

I’ve thought about unsolicited opinions often, but the subject hit home after my Nov. 15 appearance on WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” show. When a friend asked how I enjoyed the experience, I coyly admitted I winced each time I saw the TV-me lower an eyelid or pucker my lips. I was fishing for, “You looked great! I didn’t notice a thing,” but instead caught, “I know what you mean. I’ve seen you do it in person.”

Okay, in this case I take blame for providing a cue, and realize my friend had my best interests at heart -- perhaps thinking there was a remedy for my flaws. But, I wish he had taken a less honorable route and fibbed.

Am I the only one who feels thusly? To wish for duplicity, rather than frankness? To learn the answer, I queried a few friends and am happy to report -- when it comes to their looks or their books -- they’re just as eager as I for fudging.

First up, Jonathan Black, a fellow panelist on the “Chicago Tonight” gig, and author of “Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz,” offers this experience with unsolicited advice:

“The husband of a friend, a fellow I’ve talked to maybe twice in my life, called me out of the blue to share his thoughts about my book. He’d read a Chicago Tribune review and agreed with the one reservation expressed. Did I need to hear this? No. If he felt compelled to call—I still don’t know why—I’d have preferred excessive praise, even if he didn’t mean it. I was so stunned I actually listened to him for several minutes, adding cowardice to offense. Criticism is a right reserved for professionals and very close friends.”

Next to offer her riffs on the subject is Elizabeth Crane, author of “All This Heavenly Glory.” One involves her husband, Ben, and the other…well, read on:

“Ben got his hair cut a few days ago, fairly short. He knows I like it on the long side, but that I respect his preference to wear it a bit shorter. (His tendency to go a long time between haircuts usually works out well for me.) However, he's had a couple of - um, not so good short haircuts - one had some fringy, well, bangs, let's call them, even though no man should really have bangs, and another we took to calling the Prince Valiant. His most recent haircut came out pretty good, and I told him so, prompting him to tell me that I really could tell him if I didn't like it. I said I would if that's what he really wanted, but that I'd prefer to wait until it grew out so that he didn't feel bad the whole time walking around with a bad haircut. He insisted he really didn't mind. So I said, ‘Okay, but let's just understand that this doesn't work both ways. If I get a bad haircut? You're not allowed to tell me.’

As for writing - that gets quite a bit trickier. One of my friendships suffered dramatically because of some insensitivity on that account that was aimed in my direction. I think sometimes there's a fine line between help that's useful, and criticism, especially of published work - what am I supposed to do if you tell me I suck and it's already out there? But other times, the line is very clearly crossed, and I'd just assume you tell me I'm brilliant to my face and go tell someone else you think you're better than me. But you know, I don't dwell on this stuff too much...”

My third friend to weigh in is Josh Karp, the other panelist on our “Chicago Tonight” show, and author of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture. How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever.” Josh had this to say about comments concerning his looks:

“I was a teenager in the right place (Glencoe, Illinois) and at the right time (early 80s) for a certain brand of Jewish mom (not their daughters) to think that I looked like a movie star.

‘Oh my god!’ they would almost scream, ‘Tom Cruise!’

The overall effect was mortifying. But, in some way, it was a compliment as he hadn't embraced Scientology, jumped on a sofa or gone medieval on Matt Lauer yet.

From 1985-2003, no one thought I looked like a celebrity. I had only the memory of Tom Cruise to keep me warm. Then, while at a bar for a friend's bachelor party, a drunk woman from Ft. Wayne began hitting on me, sitting on my lap and trying to call my wife to tell her ‘how fucking lucky she is.’ Then she said, ‘Oh my god!! Do you know who you look just like?’ As I no longer even remotely resemble Tom Cruise, I began to think, ‘She's from Ft. Wayne. So, George Clooney maybe?’

‘Steve Perry!” She shouted, ‘You look just like Steve Perry! Your totally hot!’

Steve Perry was the lead singer of Journey. One of the 10 living men with a nose larger than mine, and dark hair (his long, mine is short) that integrated feathered bangs with a stringy mullet. The man who, as an 80's solo act, shrieked ‘Oh Sherry.’

The drunken Hoosier took my picture with her cell phone and ran to her friends, ‘Steve Fuckin' Perry!’

Lie if you think I look like Steve Perry. Say nothing. Tell me I resemble Robert Mitchum. Or, be like my vet who (2 years later), in a fit of White Sox fever, said I looked like Paul Konerko, with whom Tom Cruise, Steve Perry and I share a great deal: dark hair, largish noses and - well - the fact that we're white.”

And last in our list of contributions, my husband, Tom Madison. Tommy says he empathizes with Josh’s “You look just like…” problem because many people compare him to former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. My spouse realizes the resemblance is sparked mostly by their similar hairstyles, so Tommy blocks the shot with this favorite thrust, “I had wavy hair. Now it’s waving me goodbye.” Oy.

After reading everyone’s experiences with unsolicited opinions, I’m now wondering if I’ve ever been guilty of telling the truth when the recipient would have preferred otherwise? Did I supply a candid assessment of your temper, business skill, romantic choice, career path, grammar usage, creative work, computer preference, spending habits, addiction or affliction you would rather I have sidestepped? If so, I apologize. It’ll never happen again. Honest.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Angels on Division Street

Barbara Kapner Offenberg and Greg Lopatka have never met. But it’s no surprise their paths have failed to cross. After all, Barbara was a dark-haired Jewish girl attending Hibbard elementary and Roosevelt high schools on Chicago’s North Side, while Greg -- a tow-headed lad at the time -- spent the same years at St. Mark’s grammar and Holy Trinity high schools in my old Humboldt Park neighborhood. But today, I’m introducing them to each other, and to you, and exposing them for what they’ve grown up to be: Angels. My angels on Division Street.

Perhaps it’s this Thanksgiving week that has cooked up the idea of gratitude. But I want to be sure, before this outstandingly fun journey of authorship goes any further, that I acknowledge my many angels. While Barbara and Greg are in today’s spotlight, they actually represent the hundreds (my count, give or take 10%) of friends, relatives, bloggers, authors, journalists, producers, bookstore owners, book club hosts, and others who deserve angel designation for generously boosting "The Division Street Princess."

When I decided to declare Barbara and Greg my Division Street angels, I was pretty sure Greg wouldn’t protest because spiritual beings are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures. But what about Jews, like Barbara and me? What did our sages have to say about these heavenly creatures? So I Googled and learned that angels play a prominent role in Jewish tradition, too; and both religions consider angels to be God’s messenger and our guardian.

Now that I’m comfortable our theme is kosher (sort of), I’ll explain why I elevated Barbara and Greg to their roles. Also, I’m posting photos that are identified at the end of this essay.

Barbara and I attended Roosevelt High together in the 1950s, but at the time, we knew each other only as classmates, not buddies. She was involved in dozens of extra-curricular activities, while my resume is sort of skinny, so there were few opportunities to interact during those four years.

But thanks to our recent 50-year high school reunion – and the zeal of another one of my angels, Beverly Fischmann Steinberg – Barbara learned about my memoir and immediately booked me to appear before her sisterhood at Congregation B'Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview.

As we say in Yiddish, Barbara is a Gantseh Macher (big shot) at BJBE. She served as Sisterhood Interfaith Chairman, Religion and Education Vice President, Program and Human Services Vice President, and is now on the Temple Personnel and Interfaith Committees. In her career, she’s been at the right-hand of rabbis at Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation, Niles Township Jewish Congregation; and true to her interfaith leanings, is currently in the same seat at Wilmette Lutheran Church.

The event at BJBE, which took place Nov. 8, was a grand success with more than 75 (my body count, plus or minus 10%) sisterhood members attending, including several spouses. I read a chapter of my book, and the crowd followed up with memories of their own old neighborhood days. On top of that, my angel Barbara sold a stack of my books, won me an honorarium, treated me to dinner; and here’s the guardian part: snagged her husband, John, to accompany her while they drove me back to my Independence Park home about 15 miles away. (Skittish about driving at night beyond Chicago’s city limits, I had taken a cab to Barbara’s house and was prepared to do the reverse. But you know these angels…)

While Barbara’s adoption of me shouldn’t be too surprising considering our common Jewish background, Greg Lopatka’s embracement has been a continuing wonder. Back in the spring of this year, after reading a newspaper article about my book (Chicago Sun-Times, April 10, 2006), Greg sent me fan e-mail. And then, being the messenger he has proved to be, mailed a glowing review to nearly 100 of his friends from St. Marks, Holy Trinity, and other places where he picks up chums.

And as a Chicago Public School employee for nearly 40 years, a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum where he helps Naperville kids and parents make atmospheric observations and report them to the GLOBE Program Data Base, Greg has built a mighty potent e-mail list. Now, all of his correspondents not only learn about his celestial teachings, but also are regularly updated on my book events.

Perhaps my astonishment at Greg’s interest in my book displays a bit of naiveté – or dare I admit it: small mindedness – on my part. I had always assumed that the primary fans of my memoir would be Jews my same age. Now I’m happy (nay, ecstatic) to report that Catholics like Greg, plus those of other ethnic and racial groups, and of various ages, are finding themes in my book that resonate in their own lives. Yea!

As for Greg, I believe my book’s draw for him has been nostalgia for our Humboldt Park neighborhood and “the good old days.” In his e-mails to me, he includes photos and descriptions of landmarks, streetscapes, products, pastimes, and other memorabilia. You can take trips down memory lane, too, by clicking on his website.

Can you understand why I feel so fortunate this Thanksgiving week? Absent a large publishing house behind me, and the publicity budget that might have provided, my book has managed to cut across religious boundaries, soar beyond city limits, and travel throughout the U.S. and as far flung as Taiwan. Something heavenly must be at work here. Hooray for my angels, and for any you are blessed to have.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo Captions:
1. Emma Thompson, as pictured in “Angels in America,” the breath-taking HBO film directed by Mike Nichols.
2. Greg on a pony that traveled the old neighborhoods with its photographer-owner to capture treasures like this one.
3. Barbara in her Roosevelt High days, plus a list of all of her activities.
4. Greg at age 14 watching his 12.5-inch Sonora TV.
5. A little blurry, but who could resist this photo of Barbara as a Roosevelt High drum majorette?
6. Beverly Fischmann Steinberg, my angel who was responsible for alerting the entire 1956 class of Roosevelt High School about my book. She also arranged my first book club appearance.
7. Barbara, in the light shaded multi-colored jacket, is seated on the right in this photo taken during the Sisterhood meeting. To her left is another Roosevelt High alumna, Beverly Mann Hollander.
8. Harvey Kupfer at BJBE relating his own old neighborhood memories. To his left is his wife, Elaine. Seated behind Harvey is Frances, and behind her, Lois.
9. St. Mark’s guys all grown up. From left to right: Phil, Greg, Paul, Father Rochford, Gerry, Father Charley, Ray (another Division Street angel), Ken, Ron, Jim, and Jerry.
10. Greg at his Morton Arboretum volunteer gig.
11. My newest angel: Dan Maxime. He is the Tuley high school (class of 1951) historian-archivist. Dan sent news of my book to his group’s several-hundred mailing list. Here he’s pictured with some of his collection of political memorabilia.
12. Charlotte Levy and her husband Marv at the first gig she arranged for me: the Good Timers social club. She has also included me in the upcoming Judaic Culture Day, Nov. 26. Contact Charlotte at for more information.