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