Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Where else can a Jew eat at Christmas?"

Thai-Chinese buffet in London
     Like many Jewish folk, we'll be gobbling Chinese food this evening—not in a restaurant, but carry-out, with friends. This story, like yesterday's tree tale, is also from 1998, and is noteworthy because a) I broke form and focused on a Thai restaurant, which also do brisk business on Christmas, though all the attention goes to Chinese restaurants; and b) after the story ran, a rabbi phoned me to complain that it somehow maligned the concept of a "Jewish tradition." The smart thing to do would be to cluck pacifying noises and get off the phone as quickly as possible. I of course didn't do that, but, sincerely aghast, tried to make the rabbi understand that his phoning and bitching about nothing made Jews look worse than the supposed slight he was complaining about. 
     Let's just say I did not win him over to my way of thinking. A reminder not to spoil your holiday with snits. However you chow down this evening, Merry Christmas. 

     Midafternoon Christmas Day, and five of the seven woks in the kitchen of Star of Siam are sizzling and steaming over orange flames as white-tocqued chefs tend to spicy shrimp and cashew chicken.
     They are watched by Eddie Dulyapaibul, owner of the restaurant at 11 E. Illinois as well as four other downtown Thai restaurants, all of them open on Christmas.
     "There is no holiday for your stomach," he said. "We are like nurses, police or the Fire Department -- we have to be here, as long as people have to eat."
     Asian restaurants are known as havens for the wide range of humanity who have a hankering for Szechuan beef or crispy noodles on a day normally associated with baked ham and roast turkey.
     "Where else can a Jew eat on Christmas?" said Randi Schafton, 36, dining with her husband and friends at Mars, a Chinese restaurant at 3124 N. Clark. "Christmas at a Chinese restaurant is a Jewish tradition."
     A Jewish tradition, perhaps, but also a Muslim one. At Star of Siam, Shaukat Fidai and a dozen of his family members -- a brother, a sister and lots of kids -- held a festive celebration of several family members' birthdays.
     "At Christmastime, it's a family thing," said his wife, Mumtaz.
    "We do believe in Christmas," said Sadiq Fidai, 22, of his family, who are Pakistani Muslims living in Palatine, Naperville and Darien. "Jesus was one of our prophets."
     But a key motivation for dining at that particular restaurant -- one of their favorites -- on Christmas Day was the ease in getting there from the suburbs.
     "No traffic, we got parking -- that was the best part," Aly Virani said.
     The New Peking Restaurant, 3132 N. Broadway, was utterly empty at 5:30 p.m. But the owner, Lily Chou, said lunch had been "so busy" and that she was expecting a late dinner rush.
     "A lot of our customers were very happy that we're open," she said, noting that the restaurant began opening for Christmas this year.
     At Star of Siam, Egis Petonis and his five friends sat at a window table a few feet from the Fidai party. The tourists from Lithuania had searched for an hour before finding an open restaurant. They went in, even though they had never eaten Thai food. They rated it highly, if different from Eastern European fare.
     "It's very good," said Aureliga Rimkut, 25, adding that they had their traditional Christmas dinner the night before at a friend's house.
     The sentiment was echoed by Gordon and Carol Kopulos, of the Southwest Side.
     "Our big celebration is Christmas Eve," Carol Kopulos said. "We come here to relax and be waited on."
     They were joined by their daughter, Piper, her classmate at Dominican University in River Forest, Jeremy Kitchen, 28, and their friends, Mike and Gloria Gilles.
     The Kopuloses did note a hint of protest in their Thai feast, however.
     "We wanted to be cosmopolitan and are disillusioned with all that religiosity,'' Gordon Kopulos said.
     "We don't like the regular Christmas thing," said Piper, 19.

                    —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1998

"Please pet me"

     The flight to Tokyo turned back 20 minutes after departing O’Hare. Mechanical problems.
     The plane to Houghton, Michigan — No. 4 four on a list of worst airports in the country — never left at all, and the Dragon family of Estes Park, Colorado had to spend the night with friends while scrambling to get another flight, settling for one to Green Bay, only 230 miles south of where they were going. Eva Kornerup, 12, didn’t like the sandwich her mother had bought for her.
     All those woes, just three out of the infinity of angst, delay, setback and inconvenience that is so much air travel in 2014, were softened, at least for a few moments for holiday travelers at O’Hare Airport over the past few days, thanks to the good offices of a septet of Golden Retrievers.

      The dogs — which on Monday morning were Chloe, Adeena, Barnabas, Luther, Ruthie, Aaron and Tabby, a puppy in training — were there with Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, started in 2008 and centered in Addison. The group now operates in 16 states, with 80 dogs and 400 volunteers.
     “Hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living,” said Richard Martin, executive director of K-9 Ministries. “We also do disaster response. Several of these dogs spent time in Sandy Hook, in Boston after the Marathon bombing, Napa after the earthquake. So they get around.”
     The canine ministry was brought to O’Hare for four days, Saturday through Tuesday, by United Airlines.

     "The holidays can be stressful for people," explained Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United. "Airports are more full than they usually are. The comfort dogs offer the customer the chance to sit back and relax a little."
     The dogs certainly seemed relaxed. They generally laid on their sides, almost as if asleep, the "A-1 Comfort Position" which these dogs learn during eight weeks of training, the same training given dogs that act as comfort animals for people with psychological conditions.
     Most harried air travelers Monday on the B concourse at O'Hare — pulling rolling bags, talking on cellphones — strode by without a glance. Others, particularly children, gave them longing looks but kept going. A few made a beeline, scratching the dogs under the chin, even falling to their knees and hugging them.
     "It's really nice to get to a place where you don't expect to see animals, to be able to pet them," said Chelsey Blackmon, 26, a New York video editor, who at first thought they were bomb-sniffing dogs, then realized there were just too many of them. "You feel a certain kind of warmth that animals provide. It's really nice."
     "It's medically proven petting a dog will lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure," Martin said.
     Each dog was paired with a blue-shirted handler, mostly volunteers. The handlers gave out blue candy canes and encouraged passersby to pet the dogs, though sometimes no encouragement was necessary.
     "When we see them coming, you know the dog lovers," said Sue Kessler, a volunteer, holding Chloe." They just turn and 'awwww!' They head right in like a magnet." She said one passenger who petted the dog returned and admitted that she had never touched a dog before. "We've had people going to Vietnam, China, all kinds of long flights. A woman, 30 hours in travel, said this was the best part of her day today."
     The dogs were particularly welcomed by travelers who are dog owners.
     "We have a 90-pound lab mix at home," said Matt Dragon, stranded at O'Hare because of a canceled flight, as his 14-month-old daughter, Iris, sat happily petting Ruthie and Luther. "She misses Louie."
     "They come here, they may have just left their dog at the kennel," Martin said. "They just smile. The dogs evoke such a positive feeling."
     Even seasoned travelers who seemed to have no stress whatsoever, like Markus Hugi and his son, Marlon, 14, drifted over. Residents of Barcelona, Spain, Hugi works as an aircraft designer in Switzerland. They had stopped in Chicago for a few days to look at the architecture and were now on their way to Las Vegas.
    "We travel a lot," Hugi said. Marlon sat quietly petting for a long time, as did Eva Kornerup, 12.
     "It's really sweet," said her mother, pointing out that they had a golden retriever at home. "It feels very happy, and we don't worry so much about the flight."
    "Oh God, they're so beautiful," said Sue Truax, whose own dog, Dockers, had to be put down in August. She slid to the ground next to Chloe. "I love these dogs. If I could fit one in my backpack, I would. This is just a cool idea. I love it. Thanks, you guys. This is just too cool."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Attention Jews: Resist the tree

     I'm generally live-and-let-live when it comes to faith.  All religions are airy nonsense and only familiarity combined with personal bias permit us to view some doctrines as strange and laughable and others as normal and respected. Thus, to me, it doesn't matter what habits and ceremonies your faith demands: wear a special hat, bow to an idol, burn incense, decorate a tree, believe some 2,000-year-old fairy tale is literally true. It's all the same and no skin off my nose.
    Only two situations prompt me to object. The first is when groups enlist the government to enforce their own dogma. That isn't playing fair. If you believe God is on your side, why do you need Uncle Sam too? The government is supposed to be the neutral arbitrator between equally ridiculous sects. That is a fine distinction, perhaps, one that is lost on many—they feel oppressed when the governmental stick is pried out of the hands. Some people are so used to having their asses kissed it feels like a birthright to them. Tough. Times change. 
     The second aspect of faith I can't abide by is when Jews have Christmas trees. Oh, I suppose there are exceptions: if you're in an inter-faith marriage, well, maybe your Christian spouse wants a tree. Then it isn't your tree, it's your wife's, or husband's. The reason I feel so strongly ... well, here's a column from the vault where I try to explain. Note that Friday is not Christmas this year; it's Thursday. I'd hate to mess up your entire holiday, and probably should just change the day in the lede, but then some wiesenheimer would point out that Christmas fell on a Friday in 1998 and attack me for altering the historical record. 

     Friday is Christmas. I will, as is my practice, work at the newspaper so a colleague who observes the holiday can be with his or her family. 
      This isn't selfless of me—the paper pays double time for working on Christmas, and it's a quiet day if nothing burns down. I'm not missing anything except a day at home. My family doesn't eat a special dinner. We don't sing songs, we don't give gifts, we don't have a tree.
     We're Jewish. This sounds simple enough, but a lot of people don't get it. First, there are the Christians for whom Christmas is an event of such monumental proportions—one they start preparing for in July—that they can't understand that there are people who voluntarily give it up. The exchange, which I've had a dozen times, always begins breezily. "What are you doing this year for Christmas?" they'll say. "Nothing," I reply. Their features darken and they struggle to get their arms around the concept. They think I've perhaps misunderstood. "Yes, yes," they say, "but what are you doing Dec. 25?" 
      The second group is a little more surprising. Certain Reform Jews—many, if my social circle is any indication—are not satisfied with paring away the strictures of their own religion, but also must embrace the festivities of another. They put up a tree. They visit Santa. They embrace Christmas because not doing so feels like denial, and they can't imagine denying themselves anything. 
      I find it a particularly repellent form of intellectual dishonesty. Holidays are the fun part of a religion, but religions are not all fun. There are commandments, rules, serious parts as well. To latch onto the frills of somebody else's faith just because they're fun seems disrespectful of both your own faith and theirs.
     It's like crashing a party. You don't know these people, haven't put in the effort that being friends requires. Yet you're lining up for the buffet anyway. It's crass. When I think of Jews celebrating Christmas, for the first time I understand the sort of contempt that some Orthodox Jews have for us lesser Semitic breeds who have shucked the demands of keeping kosher and praying and kept the parts that are easy and enjoyable. There's a sense of expropriation, like teens wearing battle ribbons we didn't earn as fashion. 
     Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Wonderful music. A Christmas tree is a beautiful thing. A high school friend once asked me over to help trim hers, and I had a blast. Hot buttered rum. Great food. Afterward we went from house to house, singing in the crisp night. (Well, I didn't sing, but only because I don't know the words.) How could you not love it? 
      But it wasn't my tree. It wasn't my holiday. I have my own holidays. My boys lit candles at Hanukkah. I got to see their faces illuminated by the candles, happy, singing. My oldest, Ross, is just 3 but has picked up on Christmas. He closely watches the Christmas specials on TV. He saw the Santa on a Christmas card on our mantel and asked why it was there, since we don't celebrate Christmas. I explained that somebody had sent it to us. He had a sort of pout. I asked him how he felt about not celebrating Christmas. He said one word: "Sad." I weighed my response for a long time. "That's OK," I said at last. "It is a little sad not to celebrate Christmas. But we have our own holidays we celebrate." He didn't seem to understand. But he will.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 2, 1998

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pro sports and racial politics have a long history

     Sometimes two seemingly separate news stories can shed unexpected light on each other.
     A week ago Saturday, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose wore a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during warm-ups before a game against the Golden State Warriors.
     And three days later, former heavyweight boxing champion Ernie Terrell died.
     What’s the connection?
     Rose and other pro athletes took flak for joining protests against police violence in the wake of killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. (Doesn’t that topic seem like old history already, pushed aside by North Korea and Cuba? A reminder that, for all the self-drama of protests, bending the status quo into something new is really hard, and society keeps sproinging back into its old shape).
     I admired Rose for making his silent statement, remembering Michael Jordan and his deep reluctance to take any kind of stand on any issue that might divert even a few drops of the mighty Jordan River of money flowing over him. We know who’s the greater athlete, but who’s the better man?
     Other commentators sneered at Rose.
     "I just wish @drose could talk, or really understands what he's doing," CBS sports radio host Dan Bernstein scoffed in a tweet. "I don't think he does."
     Despite such criticism, protests spread, mostly among black athletes, while some whites expressed white-guy befuddlement.
     "You know there's a time and place to make your statements," sniffed New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. "I don't know if it's always during a game."
     That's timid sportspeak for: "I believe it's never during a game."
     Which is where Terrell comes in.
     When he died, both the obituary in the Sun-Times by our own Maureen O'Donnell, and the Tribune's obit, detailed Terrell's main claim to fame: the 1967 championship match at the Houston Astrodome where Ali pummeled him, demanding, "What's my name?" Before the bout, Terrell had refused to call him by his Muslim name, "Muhammad Ali," and instead used "Cassius Clay," the name given at birth in Kentucky in 1942.
     The obituaries quote Terrell saying he did so as the usual pre-bout taunting, sidestepping the huge controversy about Ali's name.
     The day after Ali first won his championship, defeating mob thug Sonny Liston in 1964, he announced that he was now a member of the Nation of Islam and that his name was Cassius X. Two months later he changed it again to Muhammad Ali.
     "I don't have to be what you want me to be," Ali said. "I'm free to be who I want."
     As with Rose, the press jeered him.
     But that was nothing compared to what came two years later when, on March 17, 1966, Ali appeared before his draft board to request exemption from the draft.
     "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America," Ali explained after the hearing. "And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me."
     He was denounced in Congress ("a complete and total disgrace," said a representative from Pennsylvania). He was scheduled to face Terrell at the International Amphitheater in less than two weeks: March 29, 1966. Press releases had been sent out.
     Richard J. Daley was aghast. Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner asked the commission to cancel the Chicago fight in view of Ali's "unpatriotic" and "disgusting" statements. The Tribune editorial board demanded that the Illinois State Athletic Commission revoke its sanction of the fight. Illinois Attorney General William Clark claimed the match violated state law because by signing "Muhammad Ali," one contestant had not signed his correct name. They didn't meet in the ring until a year later in Houston.
     I'm not putting Rose's fashion choice on the same level as Ali's impact. Both are situated on the same continuum, where pro sports and race relations nudge each other forward, a process that goes back at least to Jack Johnson knocking out Jim Jeffries, "The Great White Hope," in 1910. With its huge popularity and emphasis on performance, sports showed the lie of bigotry long before the country was ready to see it. Rather than racial politics not belonging, pro sports have been an engine of racial progress. Major league baseball integrated in 1947. Truman's order abolishing racial discrimination in the Army was signed in 1948. Those two events are also not unrelated. Whites who insist sports are distinct from racial politics are really saying they aren't comfortable with the racial politics sports are expressing. They never are.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Please stand by....

     This being my own personal blog, I've tried to tread lightly and be respectful when it comes to matters involving the mothership, the Chicago Sun-Times. They pay my salary, and so I try to be dutiful about not simply posting my entire columns here, but instead sharing only a portion, then linking back to the paper's website for the rest. Clicks are important, in setting advertising rates and such, and I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me.
     Which has worked fine, up to now. I feel bad asking readers to click on a new site 1/4 way into a post, but nobody has ever complained, which I take as an endorsement. 
      The first glitch occurred yesterday when the paper, which is in the midst of jazzing up its computer site, somehow cut many of the links that I've inserted to columns on the Sun-Times web site. Some work, but if you click on others, you are routed to the Sun-Times home page but not the article you're trying to finish. 
      My apologies to all readers who have been frustrated—were this problem in my own hands, I'd be moving heaven and earth to fix it. But it's not, so all I can do is wait, like you. My bosses at the paper assure me it's going to be remedied soon, and I am passing that assurance on to you. Both the Sun-Times and I value our readers—that's why the paper is trying to build a better on-line experience, and why I'm pushing to have those links back up as soon as possible—and appreciate your bearing with us during these awkward moments. Thanks again for patronizing my blog, and everything should be back to normal shortly.  

                                                                                  The management

"Will you be taking bread service with us today?"

Bread service at Shaw's Crab House
    "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" asked the maitre d', a young lady I had never seen before.
     My immediate reaction was to burst out laughing, but I manfully suppressed that.
     My college pal Cate and I were in Shaw's Crab House last week, sitting at a small table in the bar, where we have met for lunch for the past ... gee ... several decades. Since the woman offering us "bread service" (where's that term derived from? Table service? Funeral service?) was doodling on her desktop in kindergarten. 
     Shaw's is off my usual round of restaurants. A few blocks too far from the office, and I'd have to walk past Harry Caray's to get there, and why would I do that? Harry's is cheaper, and the food is better, and they somehow manage to retain their staff, thus it's possible to get to know them. I've been going to Shaw's since it opened, but still don't know anybody there and never did, nor do they know me, which takes the blush off a place.
    "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" 
    Maybe its the carbs, Cate suggested, during our immediate post-query analysis of this puff of pomposity. Maybe so many diners are now leaving their bread untouched that it seems a waste to just bring it out then throw it a way
     Pretty to think so. I suspected economy. Bread costs money, money not spent if you don't bring it, just as some restaurants have stopped automatically bringing water, to save themselves the expense of washing the glass. 
     Still. A salad at Shaw's is nineteen bucks. They should just bring the damn bread. "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" while pinning the needle on the orchid-sniffing feyness meter, is only the polite form of "We're withholding your bread basket unless you specifically request it," which is just wrong. What's next? The napkin menu? "Could I interest you in a fine bleached white 300 thread count Egyptian cotton?" 
     I think that's what makes the phrase so noxious. A strange marriage of thrift and pretense. Usually, elegance involves luxury. "Would you care for some caviar?" To try to nudge something that heretofore standard into that camp—"And will you be purchasing full restroom access this evening?"—it becomes a ludicrous insult. 
     What I actually said was, "I was thinking about that bread this morning." Which is true. Always really good bread at Shaw's, though we never had to beg for it before. They brought us a pair of fresh cheese-topped rolls and few flats of crackers topped with some pungent seed, anise or fennel or some such thing, that were quite good.
     Somebody ought to rate downtown restaurants by their bread. Petterino's has the best: a warm glazed Parker House roll, with a slice or two of complicated black Russian bread thrown in. Gene & Georgetti bread is your basic French bread baked that morning at D'Amato's. Cold, a little dry on the outside, which is just as well because you don't want to waste your appetite on bread there anyway. Harry's has an Italian bread, warm, worth the indulgence. They never ask you if you want it. Of course you want it. The challenge is not to order seconds.
     "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" The right answer, I see now, is "I don't know, will you be giving it?"   

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Well, this is an inviting bed, scattered with pillows. 
     Only it's not a bed, technically.
     A bit busy, perhaps, just right to catch a brief nap.
     But don't, because ... well that would give it away. You'd get into trouble. 
     Where is this place? It isn't my bedroom—my taste is better than that. It isn't a bedroom at all. It's ... where?
      The correct guess—and heck, it'll probably be King Dale, he's won it three times already—will get a bag of very tasty Bridgeport Bubbly Creek Coffee (I'm going to have to stop giving it away, to make sure there's plenty left for me).
      Oh wait, I said I'd tell you about its unusual name. Kinda late to open that can of, er, coffee. Next week. Good luck. 

      Clark St. nailed it below. If you want to know the gory details: