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Do Over

flyover zone

So my ninth anniversary blog post really sent me into a full-on, Chicago-battering funk. Or as I like to think of it, my Fleeing Chicago series–a longtime-coming reassessment of where I am and where I want to be. In today’s installment, I wonder whether, if I knew then what I know know, I would still have come to Chicago in 2003.

Many people living on the east and west coasts dismissively consider the entire middle of the country as one big flyover zone. I suppose that would make Chicago the capital of flyover country. That’s certainly how I thought of this place before I became an urban planner. The Progressive mindset of Chicago in the late 1800s that gave birth to cleaner parks, healthier urban dwellings, and high-rise downtowns made me reconsider the place.

I loved the city when I first visited while in planning school in 1998, but hated how bad transit was at the time. When I started visiting again at the crack of 2003 by way of exploring options to escape the stress of post-9/11 NYC, transit was vastly improved and I was swept away in the good manners of locals and the groundswell of positivity surrounding the dawning renaissance of downtown and many urban neighborhoods.

At the time I didn’t know how to drive (still don’t), and was too scared to consider leaving New York for any city that didn’t have a massive, useful transit system. So a place like Los Angeles would never have been on the table. Or at least that’s how I thought at the time.

After arriving here, for a decade I said the most attractive thing about Chicago was how people acted–that is, kindly towards each other, elevating good manners and an appreciation of the ordinary good life over the constant, rude rush to get no where in particular that is life in the public realm of New York. I often described it as a scale, with Chicagoans on the nice end of the pendulum, and Parisians on the rotten, awful, rude other end, reflecting my longstanding belief that how people treat each other is what makes a city livable.

Then last year, of course, I finally accepted the other side of local behavior in Chicago, and understood that the Windy City’s human pace and elevation of the ordinary had more to do with the lack of lifechances that happens when living within a corrupt political system than with any higher motivation.

Maybe it’s that way everywhere. Maybe New Yorkers have it right in their headlong rush through life, or Parisians in their eternal, elegant snarl. I certainly know it’s no better in Los Anegeles, a city in a region largely built by people with origins in one of two famous places beginning with an M: Mexico and the Midwest. I know our future city well enough to understand it as a quirky combination of east coast and Midwest sensibilities. Like in Chicago, in Los Angeles strangers will trust you enough to respond back when you talk to them. But like in New York, they’ll also mistrust you enough to make sure that your conversation is a short one.

So if the feel of the city won’t be any friendlier than here–and will probably be less friendly–maybe it’s time at long last to reassess how I define a livable city. Good manners are wonderful, but you also need to actually be able to make a living for a city to be livable, don’t you? I keep coming back to my Rachel Shteir post from last year (linked above), and thinking about how on the whole Chicago fears creativity, independent leadership, asking questions, and involving the public in decision-making in any real way.

New York City isn’t like that. Los Angeles isn’t like that either, though in different measure than New York (since it is, of course, a different city.) But if anywhere in America is going to value the power of creativity and an independent spirit to fuel your lifechances, L.A. would be that place. It would also be dirty, troubled, riven by gangs and poverty, and altogether not a place of perfection to be viewed through rose-colored lenses. But the same can be said for any big city, and as someone who has studied cities I sure don’t expect L.A. to be any different.

And since 2003 L.A. County has become home to the fastest-growing, most visionary network of light rail and bus rapid transit lines in the country. People outside of L.A. don’t realize it, but planners do–Los Angeles is now the capital of rail transit spending in America. There, as in Chicago, it can take 90 minutes to get across town on a bus. But there, as here, you can also zip across town on a rail line, depending on where you’re going. So the fear of living there as a non-driver no longer exists for me. In 2014, transit in L.A. works.

So back to the original question. If I knew in 2003 what I know now, would I still have moved to Chicago and not simply stayed in New York–or flown over to California in the first place? The rail network was far smaller in L.A. 11 years ago, so I can safely rule out L.A. and say I wouldn’t have bypassed Chicago.

But would I have come here in the first place? I wouldn’t give up Ryan, my friends, my experiences of love and happiness and joining the Jewish people, and many other great things that have happened in my life here on the shores of Lake Michigan for anything. And all of that couldn’t have happened in New York, or at least not in the same way.

But before it all happened, at my moment of decision, standing on the exit bridge of Grizzly River Run in Disney California Adventure Park at Disneyland Resort and talking to my old friend Sarah on the phone? If I had known the difference between lifechances in New York City and lifechances in Chicago, would I have hung up the phone and decided to come here in the first place? Would I actually have valued friendly people over fairness in the workplace?

I know what my answer is today. It feels kind of treasonous towards my years in Chicago, but I’d be lying if I said I think my answer would have been different 11 years ago.

Then again, back in 2003 a Chicago friend tried to warn me about the lay of the land here, calling this place an “un-intellectual” city. I didn’t get what he meant at the time, and just filed those words away for a decade until I could finally understand them.

So maybe you’d still be reading a blog called Chicago Carless either way.

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Mental Douchebag Map

douchbag vortex map

As Ryan and I continue to figure out how long we plan to remain in Chicago before the great L.A. migration, we’ve made a decision to stop dealing with the city in the way we used to. Evidence of that is already clear from our rejection of our former synagogue. But we’ll be keeping ourselves apart form other one-note elements of the Windy City as well.

In May, Chicagoist featured a “Douche Vortex” Map of Chicago, highlighting the large key areas in town known for this city’s infamously shallow take on young upward mobility. Chicagoist defined it thusly:

Money + Large Amounts of Alcohol + Total Disrespect for Other People’s Boundaries = Douche Vortex

For us, they are the places where tanned Chads and Trixies spill from their Lexuses vapidly into and loudly drunkenly out of sidewalk cafes of wine bars and steakhouses to talk about life in Chicago as if it begins at Diversey Parkway and ends at North Avenue. Where the most Rachel Shteir-decried lifechance-limiting, empire-sympomatic aspects of this city are spoken of with unquestioning admiration and elevated to the same level as the American flag and apple pie.

Those places. Yes, Lincoln Park/Wicker Park/River North, I’m talking about you. Among others. Not that you could care less. But at this point, neither could we. If we’re sticking around for good or bad–and given our current gigs, for now it’s for good, though not forever–we might as well make the best of it. And that means no longer making excuses in our heads for the less-welcoming, less-diverse, less-open-minded parts of our eventually outgoing area.

Everybody is one stereotype or another. Just because our new apartment faces the city again, that doesn’t mean we do in our hearts anymore. So much of our lives have become centered in friends, work, shopping, and free time in the suburbs–and beyond–we just can’t do that silent eye-roll so many other Chicago locals do when it comes to local douchebaggery.

So for the next year or so, we’re happy to be the boring, classist, lakefront liberal couple who sneers at life south of Irving Park and enjoys our weekly visits to Walmart and monthly drives to anywhere that isn’t here. And then we’ll rent our ranch house in L.A. That isn’t to say there aren’t still aspects about life in Chicago that I love.

But like Patty Smyth sang, sometimes love just ain’t enough.

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Some Jews Don’t

jewish arab kids

Like every other Jew on the planet, the longer the current conflict goes on in Israel and Gaza, the more I feel I should speak up. Usually, Jews with my perspective are shouted down. But that doesn’t mean our perspective isn’t valid.

You don’t have to be a supporter of the BDS movement to have a real problem with the political state of affairs in Israel. (And you don’t have to not be a supporter of that movement, for that matter.) Status quo Jews in America take great pains–and spend awesome amounts of money and influence (see: AIPAC)–to paint a picture of American Jewry as eternally marching in lockstep with Israel, supporting every action of the Israeli government and its military in unison, with little dissent.

Of course, that picture is bullshit. Anyone who’s actually ever met a Jew knows how ludicrous the idea is that the entire Jewish people would–or could–ever agree so totally about anything. Beyond the fact that in America (and in Israel, too) we’re fractured into competing and often combative denominations, some of which seek to deny the right of others to consider themselves Jewish denominations, we’re also fractured along political, age, and class lines.

For every jingoistic Zionist demonizing the Palestinian people, there’s an equally apathetic secular Jew who couldn’t care less about the conflict. For every old-school elderly Jew still fretting over the Holocaust, there’s a (or probably a few) young Jews who can’t understand at all why two sister peoples can’t coexist in proximity with each other–not to mention why we keep defining ourselves by who our enemies are and how may ways people have tried to kill us.

So for what it’s worth…

Some Jews think liberal Judaism’s abject fear of disagreeing with Israel in public just makes matters worse, and is cowardly. Some Jews believe both peoples have a right to exist, and to co-exist, on the Land. Some Jews think eye-for-an-eye military policy can only lead to greater bloodshed on both sides.

Some Jews think Netanyahu is a liar and has no greater honest interest in a peaceful, much less “two-state” solution than did his father. Some Jews understand neither man’s motivation was/is Judaism or religious tenets like love, compassion, or justice, but was/is instead completely secular nationalist zeal.

Some Jews think the Jewish National Fund’s policy that Arabs can’t buy land from the Fund to be extraordinarily racist. Some Jews think deciding to live beyond the Green Line is just as racist.

Some Jews wish their Muslim friends, neighbors, and coworkers in America understood that not all Jews are the same. We aren’t Israeli. We feel deeply disappointed and embarrassed by Israeli policy towards Palestinians, but we don’t have a hand in Israeli politics. Even if we did, our liberal religious principles would be ignored by the batshit-crazy secular nationalist/religious extremist coalition currently in power.

Some Jews can only look on in horror like the rest of the world, while status quo Jews ignore that any Jews actually feel that way. There’s a reason synagogue affiliation is dwindling in America. There’s a reason young Jews and new Jews don’t respond the same way to hoary old appeals to send money to a “homeland” with which many of us just don’t identify.

Not even J Street gets it fully. Some of us could watch Israel fall tomorrow and still wonder how it personally affects our lives halfway across the world. Of course, Israel does affect our lives and is and should be very personally important to us.

The problem is, Palestine should be, too. And until we as a people finally understand that we’re all together in this, the only people we’ll have to blame for whatever happens to Israel–people or nation-state–is us.

All Jews understand that. But only some Jews will admit it.

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Why I’m Not Grumpy at Disneyland

Grumpy

So Ryan and I are off to Disneyland Resort again, to celebrate my 44th birthday in early August. Originally we were going to explore potential Los Angeles neighborhoods on this trip, too. (Though if Ryan has his druthers, we’ll live in Pasadena when we finally move because that’s where Bob Barker co-hosted the Rose Parade in the wayback days–true story.)

However, we’ll probably just stick close to Disneyland because this trip includes a heavily pixie-dusted complimentary stay at the Grand Californian Hotel, the mouse’s flagship West Coast hotel. Interesting backstory there. Last year in March, when the longtime Disneyland Resort vet that I am dragged Ryan to Anaheim for the first time (which he loved!) for his 40th birthday, I got us alarmingly expensive Premier annual passes allowing us to visit Disneyland Resort on the west coast and Walt Disney World on the east coast.

On our subsequent Disney visit two months later in May, we used our Premier passes to visit WDW, instead. Regular readers know how much we disliked the Orlando parks on that visit, but finding little west coast-style Disney magic in Orlando wasn’t the only rotten thing. WDW also made us trade in our Disneyland-purchased Premier passes for new-technology passes currently used on the east coast. Guest Services in Orlando promised that the new passes would still work at Disneyland Resort (or DLR, in Disney vet shorthand).

Except, when went back to our “home” resort, DLR, in October for HalloweenTime festivities, our Premier passes were dead in the water. As it turned out, WDW never coordinated with DLR to make sure the new-technology passes really would work as promised on the west coast. Disney fan blogs bear out the experience that we and dozens of other Premier holders shared the next time we visited DLR–long and repeated waits throughout our visits for main gate, restaurant, and shop leads (i.e. managers) to override the ticketing system and actually a.) let us into the parks, and b.) get our dining and merchandise discounts. In October of last year, we probably wasted three hours over four days waiting, all because WDW had short-circuited our alarmingly expensive bi-coastal passes for use in Anaheim.

When we got home, I emailed DLR Guest Services and thanked them for the way Cast Members (i.e. employees) in the parks went out of their way to help make those waits manageable for us, and made it clear we knew the problem was caused by the completely separate park management structure in Florida. Basically, we sang DLR’s praises and talked about how this was just the last straw in sealing the deal that the Orlando parks would never get our money again. Only Disneyland would.

After that love letter got passed around Guest Services (as we were told by Guest Services, themselves), they thanked us for loving so much on DLR–and of course to keep us buying annual passes–by comping us three days at the west coast Disney hotel of our choice. And that’s how three of our upcoming four days at the Grand Californian ended up being free. When I did the math and realized that works out to $1,800 of pixie dust (yes, the hotel really is that expensive), our plans quickly changed from neighborhood tours to remaining on-site and enjoying as much of the hotel and nearby Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure, and Downtown Disney as possible.

(This probably makes no sense to people who only know WDW–so it would probably help for me to tell you that everything at DLR–the parks, the hotels, and Downtown Disney–are immediately adjacent to each other, at most a few hundred yards apart from each other, and connected by foot power. So no half-hour Disney bus rides required–or even possible!)

People often ask me  why Disney? Any especially, why Disneyland and not WDW? I have no more need to defend our repeated Disney vacations than a beach lover has to defend their repeated beach vacations. But as for why Disneyland instead of WDW? Setting aside all the things we found unmagical in the Orlando parks discussed in the post linked above, I just can’t imagine Team Disney Orlando apologizing for problems caused by the Anaheim parks, yet that’s just what Team Disney Anaheim’s Guest Services crew did for us here. (Did I mention the complimentary stay includes access to VIP reserved viewing areas for fireworks, parades, and Fantasmic!, and VIP dining reservations, for the length of our stay?)

There’s more, though. Consider this the buried lede. There are two types of Disney Parks fan in this world, and you never know which one you are until you’ve visited both DLR and WDW. (Yes, that means WDW fans who’ve never done Disney on the West Coast don’t have a personal answer to this question, although often they think they do.) Many people love the feeling of WDW’s gigantic “Disney bubble”. Forget that the vast place is set in the middle of far larger, semi-rural, largely backwater Central Florida. With so much to do, who wants to leave WDW anyway?

But many other people–Ryan and me included–feel trapped by the WDW experience. If anything isn’t as magical as it should be, there’s really no alternative, no way out. You’re stuck in a place surrounded by swamp, so really, what could the alternatives possibly be? It’s not as if you can cross a street and magically be in downtown Orlando–that’s miles away.

WDW vets who haven’t ever visited DLR get so caught up in the relatively diminutive size of the place (one square miles vs. WDW’s fifty), and yes there are fewer hotels and restaurants, no golf courses, no water parks. But what there is at DLR is magic unbroken by bus and boat commutes, a lack of enormous tracts of forest and swampland, extraordinarily densely packed, richly themed parks (you did know DLR’s two parks have the same number of rides as WDW’s four parks put together, right?), and a smaller but seamless bubble.

And one thing more. DLR also has the amazingness of Southern California surrounding it. That’s the tradeoff for the smaller bubble. All those things WDW vets think DLR doesn’t have are all right there, in one of the greatest, most urbane World City regions on the planet. They just all don’t necessarily have a Disney label on them.

Some people want to turn off the world and have a one-stop-shopping vacation–WDW is made for those people. But lots of other people, like us, like choice to still be part of the equation. Even when it comes to Disney vacations.

Of course, I began this post noting how I rarely ever leave the bubble at DLR anyway, since Ryan and I find what’s inside to be as worthy as WDW vets consider the things inside their east coast Disney bubble to be. But if we ever do step outside of DLR, we are happy to know that what’s outside the resort is easily as spectacular as what’s in it. To each your own, I guess. For me though, I’ll take my Disney Parks with a side order of big city.

And churros, too.

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Careful What You Wish For: Nine Years of Chicago Carless

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This summer, Chicago Carless turned nine years old. I still remember interviewing local blogger Jasmine Davila in 2009 when her online empire was nine years old, thinking how long a time that was. Her blog’s in the double digits now, but the time has still flown by for me.

Last year, my 8th anniversary post wasn’t very pensive. Ryan and I were in the life-direction doldrums, rabbinical school had not started yet (much less ended early), and we had not yet decided to move to Los Angeles. There wasn’t much to say.

What a difference 12 months makes. After giving up on Chicago and all its self-imposed limitations and making deliberate, timeline-strategized plans to relocate to Southern California, this year I got the urban planning/regional development dream job (see here and here) that I thought I’d find when I first moved here in 2003. Shortly afterwards, Ryan got the dream lab operations manager job he’d wanted for years, too.

Except we don’t necessarily still want to actually be here. Ah, life, you can be so lifey, sometimes. So our lives now are figuring out how to kill at our new jobs (which we are both already massively doing, I’m grateful to day), love our waning time in Chicago for what it’s worth, and re-strategize how to leverage where we are now to further our L.A. aims on a perhaps somewhat different timeline.

While we’re still here, our old synagogue won’t be in the picture anymore. Neither will Camoes. Both changes that made life less  positive this year. Though we only wish to have one of those two things back in our lives. (The feline long-term loved one, not the believed-its-own-press synagogue one.)

But that’s as it is. And if nothing else, we now have a south-facing unit in our Edgewater high-rise home, so at least we look towards the city again and not the suburbs, though there’s no metaphor to be found in that anymore. We moved all of five feet across the hallway to a mirror-image unit with much better light, hardwood floors, and a vibe that makes us feel like we’re on vacation.

And as long as one of us doesn’t get up groggy in the middle of the night, become confused by the layout, and pee in the kitchen, I think we’ll be alright.

______

Browse my previous anniversary posts:

(More than) My First Year “Carless”
“Today marks the start of my second year blogging about life as a determined non-driver living in downtown Chicago. Beginning my blog and moving to Marina City both coincided in June 2005. Back then, I thought I could get Marina City out of the way in my first post and go on to writing about downtown life in general. Little did I know that the unique trials and tribulations of Marina City residency would motivate me to write so often about the historic corncob towers…”

No Exit: Two Years of CHICAGO CARLESS
“Part of the fun were the numerous local gaffes and gotchas that I managed to find myself in the middle of last year, including my August 2006 interview in Chicago Magazine’s expose of Marina City’s alleged pimp dentist, Garry Kimmel, and my scooping of Chicagoland media on erroneous signage inside the new Macy’s-cum-Marshall Field’s (earning me page one in the Chicago Tribune business section and being called a “newsmaker of the week” in the Trib’s Sunday edition)….”

Third Time’s the Charm
“God knows I’ve chronicled a lot of changes over the past year and a bit on the blog. Last spring, as I continued my second career as a communications consultant, many old, dear friends came back into my life from what has now become the Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York Almuni Group (GLYNY AGAIN). That made me want to move back to New York City, and even after my tumultuous breakup with the now NYC-based urban photoblogger, Devyn, I nearly did….”

Happy Birthday to Me: Four Years of CHICAGO CARLESS
“Safely remaining a Chicagoan, I performed my first celebrity interview, fell head-over-heels for Cincinnati, braved a tornado warning for the hot wings of doom, told the newspaper industry why it was dying, waded back into the downtown noise controversy, scored a coveted golden ticket for the Obama election night rally, and made it into the Sun-Times after the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless began to monitor the Chicago Transit Authority based on my blog coverage of the CTA’s mean-spirited winter homeless harassment policy…”

Happy Anniversary: Five Years of Chicago Carless
“Since 2005, the blog and I have covered a lot of ground together. The act of reflecting on my life in this city and writing about it on a regular basis helped me figure out why I moved to Chicago, how much I love the place, and what I think could stand improvement here. It has also helped me understand my strengths (like discovering how well I write) and weaknesses (not playing the Chicago game.) Most of all, it’s taught my friends their favorite phrase of the past five years: “This is off the record, right?…”

Life, the Universe, and Everything Jewish: Six Years of Chicago Carless
“You might think my big news today is that my blog, Chicago Carless, is six years old. It is, but the buried lede is that tomorrow (or today, by the time you read this) is my forty-first birthday. I did an uncharacteristic thing during my fortieth year: I completed a task I set out to complete before my next birthday. That task was joining the Jewish people–and, boy, were people who know me well blown away that I went through with it. Now that I’ve been officially Jewish for three months, the previous 41 years seem a bit different than they used to. Now I know they were all leading up to the discovery of my Jewish soul….”

98 and 3/4 Percent Guaranteed: Seven Years of Chicago Carless
“Lately, I’ve done a lot of thinking about where I want to be at the end of the next seven years. I’m sure the person I am today will seem as on-the-journey-but-not-yet-there to Michael Doyle v. 2019 as Michael Doyle v. 2005 seems to me now. Hopefully that seven-years-from-now sentiment will be meant in a good way. And if I have my druthers–and that’s a big if–maybe, just maybe, that sentiment will be felt by a newly minted Rabbi Doyle.”

figure eight jewish cakeCatching Up on Jasmine Davila: Eight Years of Chicago Carless
“One of the few folks I know who has been able to carry it off–and much more consistently than I have–is Chicago blogger diva Jasmine Davila, who has lived decidedly out front online for over a decade at this point. I have always been in awe of her blogging longevity and consistency. (Regular readers may recall my wo-mance with Jasmine from our Vagina Dialogue and my profiles of her and her blog here and here.) So all I have to say is, Jasmine, I’m catching up on you. Neener, neener.”

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Macy’s State Street Axes Info Desk

I’ll never, ever understand after all these years how Macy’s still doesn’t get it on State Street. From 2006 when I became a Tribune “Newsmaker of the Week” for pointing out store signage that made up the names of Chicago streets after Macy’s installed itself in the historic Marshall Field space in the Chicago Loop, it’s rarely gotten better. That snafu was followed by generic ad campaigns that turned off local residents, food prep health code violations, and a series of really bad (really bad) holiday windows.

After we moved from downtown to the far north side two and a half years ago, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to spend time in the State Street store. I should have stuck to that streak. I still work downtown and on a recent walk through the store noticed something interesting missing: the customer information desk. It was still listed on directional signage throughout the store (which, of course, is par for this store.) Trouble is, it wasn’t actually there.

I asked around and learned that Macy’s decided to get rid of it’s customer information desk at the State Street store. Completely. Entirely. If you’re a visitor or new to the store, there is now officially no human being at Macy’s State Street store tasked with the job of helping you actually find what you’re looking for there.

They made the change in favor of having people follow the signage instead. That would be the still-outdated signage if you’re following along. (See that note above about par.)

It’s also interesting what showed up in the State Street store simultaneously: as Macy’s was closing its information desk, it was opening basement and 7th-floor information deks for Choose Chicago, the city’s new, private visitor service. So if you’re new to Macy’s, once you enter the store for the first time, you can find out lots of things to do around town after you exit Macy’s.

As for actually finding your way around Macy’s alleged flagship Midwestern store? Once again–as usual–you’re on your own.

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Next Time Synagogue

birds telephone line

The biggest surprise in walking away from my synagogue has been how liberating the past few months have felt. I didn’t expect that. While Ryan and I have adjusted to Friday nights without the pomp and circumstance of a (Reform) Torah service, we’ve both realized how much we treasure connecting with our own yiddishkeit without judgmental limitations placed upon us by clergy, other congregants, or institutional myopia, all things we fought against at Emanuel Congregation.

Many times I was told the things I expected from a liberal synagogue were too much to ask. Baloney. Here are the things I think anyone has a right to expect from their synagogue–and the things we’ll expect from our next spiritual home. If you think they’re too much to ask from a synagogue, maybe you’re stuck at a shul that doesn’t measure up. In which case the real question is why are you sticking around?

Dying shuls suffering from emergency budgets, inadequate membership numbers, and outdated development strategies circle the wagons and shut people out who don’t march in lockstep with the status quo. Emanuel certainly did that to us. Let them spiral into oblivion if that’s what they want. But you, should you be a fellow Jew, deserve a shul that treats you with love, respect, and inclusiveness.

In fact, anyone of any faith deserves that of the place where they make their spiritual home.

The next liberal synagogue that gets our money, our time, our friendship and love, and our congregational loyalty will give back to us these things that we never found at our last one:

  • The ability to have an actual relationship with our rabbi that is marked by fairness, friendship, respect, compassion, and love.
  • The ability to seek guidance from our rabbi without unnecessary or gratuitous judgment, closed-mindedness, or criticism.
  • A rabbi who allows all congregants to hold their own spiritual truths about the nature of God.
  • A rabbi who respects the emotional aspects of Judaism, prayer, and liturgy, including emotionally and personally connecting with God.
  • A rabbi who respects the beliefs of non-Jewish visitors at worship services and who would never stand on the bimah and tell them why their faiths are “wrong.”
  • A rabbi who speaks form the bimah to congregants and fellow clergy with love, compassion, friendship, and fairness.
  • Welcome and respect for Jews and Jewish families of all types, all colors, and all sexualities.
  • Respect for Jews-by-choice, their right to define their own identities, and their key impact on Judaism both historically and in the present day.
  • Holiday and educational programming throughout the year that consistently encompasses all types of Jews including most especially adult Jews, single Jews, and Jews without children.
  • An honest and open board of directors that shares its minutes, decisions, and activities regularly and widely with all members of the congregation.
  • A regularly updated and current website offering full and open information about the congregation.
  • A timely e-newsletter with similarly comprehensive information and resources.
  • A celebration of Shabbat and the worship service as central elements of congregational life.
  • A requirement for board members to attend worship services and participate in the religious life of the community.
  • Leadership that embraces innovative solutions and open-minded discussion, and that shuns leadership cliques and institutional secrecy.
  • Leadership that understands throwing a member with a problem on a committee is not a problem-solving strategy.
  • A congregation that understands they deserve all of these things.
  • And a rabbi who actually believes in God wouldn’t hurt, either.

Because for $2,500 a year, you deserve a hell of a lot more than a ticket to High Holy Day services and a shitty oneg.

No, really, you do.

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Emanuel Congregation V.P. to Us: Drop Dead

good day sir

Today, a vice president of Emanuel Congregation submitted a lengthy comment in response to yesterday’s blog post regarding Ryan and my decision not to renew our membership after four years (see: The Benefits of Membership.) The nature of the comment merits it a full airing wider than yesterday’s comment thread, so I’m reprinting it here (numerous typos corrected for clarity), followed by my own response, paragraph by paragraph.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog and the numerous issues we’ve experienced with Emanuel, the following comment will more than likely speak for itself. If you’re new here, to understand what is going on here, see yesterday’s post and also March’s This People and April’s Impure

“Michael,

Although many of us in the Emanuel community, especially the leadership, have always and often been less than appreciative of you regular critiques of Emanuel in your various social media platforms, it’s clear you’re right.”

Avoiding the goading closing sentence, it is very true that I have blogged repeatedly, over almost four years, about persistent, structural problems at Emanuel Congregation impacting the member and worship experiences. Most of those blog posts make it quite clear that my blogging on the issues emerged only after repeated attempts to engage synagogue leadership in dialogue, alert leadership about issues, or more often than not, receive any sort of response at all. When you systematically shut out member input, there’s really no room to be “less than appreciative” when it appears elsewhere. It’s 2014, everyone has a “social media platform,” and the days of keeping internal issues quiet so that you don’t have to deal with them, whether at a shul or anywhere else, are long gone.

“I speak here though for myself. Not as a member of the lay leadership. As someone who is privy to alot of what is actually happening at Emanuel and who does whay, I gotta say that your name has, outside Membership, been pretty absent from any committee lists, event organizing, boards, or volunteer lists that I have ever seen or been part of. So it’s not like you actually joined, dug in, got involved, learned about what we think are the very real issues to work through, learned what’s actually going on to address them and worked with us on solutions. Nope. You have always seem more interested in what we are or aren’t doing for you. And as anyone knows it’s so easy to shoot spitballs from the stands.”

Everything a  synagogue board officer–in this case, a vice president–does and says in public reflects on their office and on their institution. Just because a board members prefaces a comment with “I speak for myself” does not mean they actually, or even reasonably, get to do that. The face that the author of these comments is an Emanuel board member is in no way lost on anyone reading them.

In terms of committees, at Emanuel I’ve served on the Ritual and Membership committees, and technically am still a member of the Membership committee through June 30. As a member of the Ritual committee, I was responsible for Emanuel shifting to a silent Amidah during Shabbat worship services in 2012. As a member of the Membership committee, I repeatedly voiced the need for official materials to be mindful of the Emanuel’s diverse membership.

In terms of volunteering, Ryan repeatedly sought to volunteer at the synagogue for more than 18 months, submitting a series of volunteer forums to the office. No one ever responded to him. Not one time. Even after I raised the issue at the committee level and with office staff.

Ryan and I have also been tapped repeatedly for High Holy Day honors on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since arriving at Emanuel, each time being told we had to accept the honors because we would know how to perform them and because so few other members would say yes to accepting them.

All of the foregoing was chronicled on CHICAGO CARLESS. So far from throwing “spitballs from the stands,” as I have said repeatedly on this blog–and which appears clearly to be borne out in the above comment–Emanuel leadership rarely pays attention to the activities of the shul’s own members.

“As a guy who complained that Bar Mitzvahs ruin Saturday Shabbat services because the families take over, it is clear to me that you not only don’t understand the function of ceremonies in Judiasm ( being communal vs. individually focused) but perhaps also what makes a synagogue member and community thrive. It’s communal vs individual.”

This is untrue. Judaism is both individual and communal. Though it’s worth nothing that debate about where in the middle to place the emphasis between these two central poles of Judaism is frequently divisive. A basic tenent of Reform Judaism is to find your own way through worship, faith, the commandments, and your relationship with God to find what rings true and what does not. Taking all of your cues from your community without question or pushback is not at all a part of liberal Jewish ethics. Believing that it is, as I have often blogged, immediately cuts off the input of individual Jews.

Ron Wolfson’s writing on how to be a welcoming congregation. I would suggest seeing his article in the Summer 2014 Reform Judaism magazine and his recent book, Relational Judaism. (Ironically, earlier this year, Wolfson was booked to speak at Emanuel but the speaking engagement never took place.)

“Believe me. If you knew me better you would know that I am the last person in that building that would say that things are all as they should be at Emanuel. But you don’t know what I think – or how anyone else working on the solutions thinks. Because you haven’t tried to be part of the solution.”

I responded to the erroneous idea that I haven’t engaged with synagogue community life further above. What I find troubling here is the idea that there is any public discussion or debate about things not being “all they should be” at Emanuel. There isn’t. Board members may talk among themselves, but at the level of rank-and-file members, voicing concerns about things not being as they should be is almost always met with severe, almost knee-jerk pushback. I’ve blogged about being on the receiving end of this many times, and it is obvious the comments to which I’m responding here are par in that regard as well.

“Did it occur to you that perhaps no one has really ever responded – or will respond now, other than me – because with all your very public trashing of Emanuel you haven’t really created an impression of an open, solution oriented person who wants to help things get better. Quite the opposite.”

Again, having discussed how I (and Ryan) actually have been involved or tried diligently to be involved, there’s nothing more to say in that regard here. But strikes me, though, is the surety with which an Emanuel board member believes beyond all doubt how a particular member or members have–or have not–engaged with the synagogue. Susan, if you really think what you wrote above, then you haven’t been paying attention at all. Institutional myopia like that is exactly the problem with leadership at Emanuel that I have blogged about for years.

What did occur to me is that Jewishly, even after almost four years of feeling persistently shut out by Emanuel leadership, it was my ethical duty to give Emanuel leadership the benefit of the doubt and to expect their actions to reflect their roles as Jewish leaders in charge of stewarding an entire community and embracing both people in agreement with them and people not in agreement. I’ve done so, for a long time.

It’s disheartening to know–judging not just from this comment but well exemplified by it–that my longstanding suspicion about the nature of Emanuel leadership as being essentially shallow, petty, cliquish, mean-spirited, spiteful, and gratuitously deaf to the needs of all members was not misplaced.

“And honestly we are all way too busy working hard on real issues and making things better at Emanuel to waste time responding to someone like that.

God bless,

Susan Bertocchi”

Susan, you don’t mean that at all. You actually mean to be bitchy, as that is the tenor of your entire body of comments. Using the words, “God bless,” in this context is nothing more than chillul hashem. When I said in yesterday’s post that we deserved to have a synagogue where the rabbi would visit one of us sick in a hospital, I meant that. No matter what the disagreement might be internally. That would have been the Jewishly ethical thing to do.

But this is not the place to remind you, your fellow Emanuel board members, or your lead rabbi, Michael Zedek, about Jewish ethics. If you don’t know them by now, if your collective words and actions towards the entire body of synagogue members aren’t deeply and unflaggingly informed by them already, what more could I possibly say?

God bless you and them. I truly mean that. You deserve someday to live up to your leadership roles.

And the congregation deserves for you to do that, too.

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The Benefits of Membership

ryan hospital bed

I do believe it says something fundamental about a congregation when a member of the membership committee decides not to renew their membership. Yet that’s my story as the traditional July 1st synagogue membership renewal date approaches. I wish I could say I hadn’t seen it coming.

But really, it’s been obvious for a long time for anyone paying attention. Which unfortunately doesn’t account for the leadership of my outgoing synagogue. I don’t think I need to make any finer point about the leadership and diversity problems at Emanuel Congregation. I covered that pretty well back in March and April (see This People and Impure.) The gist being that how the synagogue thinks it comes across and how it really comes across to rank-and-file members are two entirely different things–the latter being much less attractive than the former.

This is what’s relevant here. When I walked angrily out of Shabbat morning services three months ago, that really was the last time I set foot in the building. Ironically–or stereotypically–enough, the night I chanted Torah (my faux bar mitzvah) was the last time Ryan or I attended services there. We finally tired of the very well-known lousy attitude of Emanuel’s head rabbi and decided, like many congregants before us, that we’d had enough.

So after more than three-and-a-half years of regularly attending Friday night services and missing, at most, half a dozen Fridays in all that time, for the past three months, we’ve both been consistently absent. Not absent from a burgeoning and enormous regular crowd of worshipers, mind you, but absent from a weekly group of at most 20 people. So it isn’t as if our lack of attendance could possibly go unnoticed.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

Hold that thought and marry this to it. During our absence, about a month ago Ryan was rushed to the hospital via ambulance with chest pains (that we now know were due to a very stressful former work situation that he has now replaced with a new and awesome job.) I rushed up Lake Shore Drive from work as he panicked on the phone with me waiting for the paramedics to arrive. He sat in the hospital long enough for fellow congregants to visit us, and our Facebook walls were completely blown up with messages of concern from many others.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

This week, our membership renewal form arrived in the mail with accompanying literature telling us all of the ways that Emanuel would be a spiritual and congregational benefit to us as long as we continued to pay a couple of hundreds dollars a month for the privilege.

There are many things I could say here, but I think the above few paragraphs speak loudly enough for themselves. Although it’s worth noting that everyone deserves a synagogue–and a rabbi–that might actually notice if they lived or died. In the end, it’s clear all we ever were to Emanuel leadership was a budget item and nothing more.

You won’t be surprised to learn the renewal form went in the trash.

To new beginnings.

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Mourning and the Rest of the Day

 

Camoes and me October 2013

Those evenings when I used to sit and stare out the window of a our solitary high-rise home at the myriad Mounts Hozomeen across the Chicago River and cry at the folly of loving and losing you were always there in my arms, nuzzling my ear as if to ask what is your problem, I’m here I’m here…traipsing through the urban playland below us, walking walking walking off the hurt after Devyn, after Chris, after a return to my hometown that was never to be, always walking back to you and we always you and me against the world, like it used to feel with my mom except you came into my life long after…

I never wanted one like you, forced into it before, Pumpkin pissing on my futon while I was in Paris, here, Gerry, take her back…even when Isabel got her orange tabby and I decided I had to try again, I wanted Morris from TV, not you not you…a tiny white paw from a black-speckled kitten reaching out through the cage bars proved me wrong, told me what I really wanted, or needed, you chose me…always at home no fearful feline hiding under the couch you were bouncing happily from wall to wall as soon as out of the cardboard box that carried you home…

Lost you in a drawer and went door to door when you were four months, how did you get in there? Wanted to die until I heard the meow amid the socks…a broken your pelvis two months later, stop hiding in sheets, I yank sheets, never yanked another sheet again…made the promise you were home forever no declaw no kill no put to sleep ever, free reign, no permission needed, my top priority, my baby…not my baby, your name was no accident, no cat deserves fluffy or fifi, a respectable name from the annals of Portuguese history, my Lusiadas gato…you were respectable,not mine, not owned, my companion, 14 years my companion and who, even me, would know until the end my greatest relationship in life was with one who had no choice except for choosing me…

Ryan feared another animal after losing Jasper, never wanted a cat, what the hell do you do with a cat? Tell people about a cat as needy as a puppy and clever as a mischievous child, loving as both put together, no one listens…everyone thinks their animal companion–no pet, what a fucking awful loser word that is–is the best in the world…Ryan learned you were, yearned for your attention, still can’t believe you were both as in love with each other as we were but I saw it all along, still see it, no one does a shot for the memory of  a pet standing in the middle of the living room where you died, eyes bloodshot with tears, hands trembling…I eventually was jealous of you both, you were my best friend, but he was yours…

Never realized when we moved north that Hozomeen would be out the window…it’s shadow came one night we didn’t know why…God metes justice karma is karma, but if I ever meet the vet who misdiagnosed you alone hell to pay…six months staggering wasn’t a brain tumor–a brain trumor! a stroke! smartest cat in the world downed by his own mind!–we trusted, we trusted, can you ever forgive us for trusting…a real diagnosis six months too late, on kidney meds, on sub-Q fluids cause Ryan was a phlebotomist once and it’s second nature even though it scared him, he didn’t want to hurt you he loved you so much it scared him…

And Hozomeen kept getting closer and closer, your little limbs failing, not even strong enough to take the food from the plastic syringes and we tried to believe otherwise and we did we did, but it was false belief and you knew better, one so brave and smart, you knew…and then it was hospice and cleaning your accidents and I never thought in my entire life my greatest act of love would be kneeling on the rug over and over and over again, wrist-deep in cat pee and cleaning it up and cleaning you up and telling you everything would be all right…

You reaching up to me with a trembling paw, one of the last parts of you not going stiff, using all your might to lift your head and look into my eyes, and I took your paw and we stared into each other for five minutes while Ryan sobbed in the armchair behind me…a paw demanding my hand you came into my life the same way you left…and I found you the next morning still lying there, no longer there, no longer here…

I’ve known human beings who didn’t merit shiva, and fuck anyone who tells us the shiva we sat for you was any less than holy, my friend, my best friend, my baby…knew me better than anyone ever has and vice versa…and the empty house, and the TV still on at night when it doesn’t have to be…the litter box we filled in your memory for one more week so your spirit could enjoy what at the very end you couldn’t control anymore…and the tears of grief cried while holding myself up by the wall for support like I haven’t cried since mom died, primal, unstoppable…

And I’m not 30 anymore, and my youth is over, and no one remembers who I used to be, only you and that memory’s gone without you, and my emotional safety blanket is gone without you, and the part of me that loved you for so many many years is dead with you as it always is because the love has no where to go anymore but back inside…

In my midnight sleep in place of McAllister and Thunder creeks suddenly there you were one night and muted the pain and I know you’re okay and we will get there to okay too but we’re not there yet…you deserved to see the birds in Los Angeles…but you didn’t make it to the road…I hope you’re with Ryza now, see her in my mind spurning your inept attempts at intimacy in favor of her feline whisky and smokes…you loved her like we loved you, like I love you…you spent months looking around corners after she died hoping to see here coming around, how many months of that do I have in me now? Does Ryan?

And life goes on and we go on, learn to live with the empty house, you’d think I was nuts that I’ve cried because I can’t change your litterbox for you anymore…doddering fool I am and getting older too and without you feeling it…I love you, I love you, I love you, can you know that anymore? I want to know you can know that I want to know you love and miss me as much as I love and miss you…

Had you from two months old and you treated me like your mother and in the end all I could do was keep my promise that you would die in your sleep at home. Motherfuck. Motherfuck. Motherfuck.

My baby’s on Hozomeen forever, and I can never go home again.