Sunday, May 16, 2010

Diversity at the Table

By Rachel Baruch Yackley
March 24, 2010

"My father was a wandering Aramean."

Well, not exactly, but my father, who is Jewish, was born in Barcelona, Spain. He always brings engaging personal stories and a true appreciation for the Passover story to the seder. My mother, who is also Jewish, grew up in Peoria, Ill. Both sets of my grandparents were Jewish. The three generations of relatives who gather around our seder table each year come from my mother's side of the family. Some are Jewish, some are not. We are from different countries, different races, different ethnic backgrounds, and from a wide range of religious upbringings.

My sister Lisa's husband, Robert Johnson, was born in Jamaica. While growing up, Robert was exposed to Christianity and then became immersed in Rastafarian religion at a young age.

With an introduction to the Exodus story in Bible class taught in public school in Jamaica, then a more in-depth exploration of the Old Testament through Rastafarian, Robert was no stranger to this story when he first joined our seder table about 25 years ago. As such, it makes sense that he finds meaning during this holiday in "the link with the ancestors, through time and space," he said. "I'm intrigued when I hear Hebrew. There is a whole familiarity. There's a certain level of comfort."

My cousin Carol Gaebler--her father and my maternal grandfather were brothers--grew up in a Jewish home with two Jewish parents. Currently our seder organizer, Carol hosted for many years and has led the seder as well.

"I like most of the Passover story and see it as a metaphor for journey and growth. It took me a long time to decide that it was probably all metaphor and that none of it probably really happened," Carol explained. "I think of it as the holiday that heralds spring. I like the songs and hiding the afikoman (half of a matzah saved for the end of the meal), and watching how the kids do things differently in different years."

Carol and her husband, Robert (Bob), have a full house during Passover, with their visiting grown children and their families, as well as other out-of-town relatives.

"When I hear about families where the aunts and uncles and cousins never see each other, I am grateful for the Passover holiday because that is the only time the whole family is together. It keeps the contact up. I would say also that seder is valuable as a memory bank--I have memories of my mother, of [cousin] Joel, of [sister-in-law] Ruth at the seders. It is a way of invoking their presence, which is kind of bittersweet," Carol said.

With two of her three sons married to non-Jewish spouses, Carol added, "I also welcome the chance to have an interfaith ritual for my two non-Jewish daughters-in -law."

Bob Gaebler wasn't raised in any particular religion, and gravitated toward the Unitarian Church at the young age of 13.

Around this same time, Bob's family sent him to live with a Jewish family in Detroit, where he found it easy to fit in with the family's religious observances.

"By the time I met my wife, I had been exposed to a variety of Jewish influences and felt quite at home with a Jewish wife and Jewish kids," Bob continued. "Carol's mother, Marie Armin, clearly wanted our kids to have a Jewish education, and she was such a sweetie, who could resist?"

Carol and Bob have three sons: David, Ken and Mike. David's wife, Lois Griff, comes from a traditional Jewish background; Ken's wife, Ellen Hanson, who is not Jewish, graciously hosts our rather large seder gathering each year; and Mike's partner, Susan Lowance, was raised Episcopalian.

Mike usually brings a salad to the seder, and this year he and Susan will also be bringing their 11-month-old son, Sam, the newest addition to our table.

Our seders are always filled with moments of fun, meaning, connections, music and more.

While Mike shared that he enjoys relaxing with and seeing family, Susan said she enjoys "watching my partner struggle to explain how he is related to everyone in the room."

As a group, we are always open to enhancing our seder experience, and Mike said he would like to add a matzah-ball-eating-contest. I'm leading this year, so I'll think about how we might incorporate that into our Passover meal, especially if Mike can be talked into making extra matzah balls.

Many of the men in our family love to cook, and my husband, also named Mike, is no exception. Raised in a traditional Catholic home, with eight years of Catholic school under his belt, Mike spends days making a mean batch of horseradish from scratch for the seder each year.

Some of our relatives travel from Canada for the seder. Linda Fried, whose late husband, Joel, was a first cousin of my mother's, makes the trip down each year. She's always been so involved in our family's Jewish gatherings that for years I thought she was the Jewish link.

"I come from an agnostic background," Linda said. "My father was a Quaker who left his religion in the second World War and joined the Navy. My mother's background is less established, but she may have been Unitarian, the only religion we were raised in, for a brief period."

Each year, Linda brings the matzah balls to the seder. I've never done a count, but I'm sure it's at least 75 matzah balls. She also makes a wonderful flourless chocolate cake. "It's based on ground almonds, eggs and chocolate. Every year Lois (one of Carol's daughters-in-law) asks me what's in it. And Joel wouldn't eat it because he said it mimics cake that is leavened," she said.

Linda has two grown children, Judith and Ben, who both live on the West Coast. Ben and his partner, Jennifer, whom Linda considers her daughter-in-law, as they've been together for many years, make it in for seder when they can.

In her musings about our melting pot of a family, Linda added that "Jennifer provides an interesting mix. Her mother is Quebecois and her father is African American, with some Native American mixed in. Her background is Catholic, though I don't know how observant."

Another cousin, Laura Black--her maternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters--comes to us from Ohio. She has her own unique interfaith mix.

"My religious background is closet Jewish, born and raised Unitarian. I consider myself a Jewish Unitarian," she said.

Eloquently expressing the feelings shared by many of our family members, Laura said: "What I love most about our family's seder celebration is the chance to connect with my larger Chicago family. I love the traditions of our seder celebration. For me, it's both a connection to my Jewish heritage and to the customs celebrated by this larger family, of which I am proud to be a part. I am a more recent participant/celebrant, so it's a learning experience as well. Sometimes what I think I can contribute the best for now is an attitude of appreciation.

"The food is almost secondary; although it's always good, and there are food traditions, like Mike's horseradish. It's just great to be there with folks who respect each other enough to maintain such a treasured connection. Even if I cannot always come to the seder myself every year, I still feel a part of it all."

Laura did not grow up in a Jewish home. Her father, who grew up surrounded by the Pueblo Indian culture of the American Southwest, instilled her with many of those values and sensitivities. But interestingly enough, it's a ceramic seder plate she crafted some years ago that encompasses her religious and spiritual influences.

"What I like to bring to our seder," said Laura, "is a ceramic slab-built seder plate I made a long time ago that has amazingly survived many moves, and that I always keep on display in my dining room. When I made it, I pressed various seashells I'd collected into the clay to make some interesting textures and designs, and to remind me of my reverence for the two most important things in my life: the natural world, and my 'Chicago family' roots."

From a size 24 to a size 4: Geneva woman shares weight loss strategies

By Rachel Baruch Yackley | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 5/10/2010

"How'd she do that?" is a question Maureen Bliss hears, now and then, especially when people recognize her, which might not be easy.

Bliss is less than half the woman she used to be. Currently weighing in at 127 lbs., Bliss has lost 156 lbs. since June 2007.

"I'm so proud of myself," said Bliss, after going from a size 24 to a size 4. "I never thought this was possible."

It has taken a lifetime for Bliss to look her best. At 60 years old, this 5 ft. 4 in. woman, can look back and wonder at all that's behind her.

"As a young child, I was thin. We ate healthy, but we always loved our bread," said Bliss, who grew up in the western suburbs and has lived in Geneva for the past 10 years, with her husband Lee and their two dogs.

"In high school, I started gaining weight. I remember being teased about being fat, but it didn't keep me down."

Over the years, Bliss has tried diet pills, which helped for a while, but then she put the weight back on. She even looked into gastric bypass surgery as well as the lap band, but decided neither was for her. Both she and her husband tried Atkins, but she "never found a diet I could live with."

Then one day a neighbor invited her to come along to a Weight Watchers meeting, at the center at 2041 Lincoln Hwy. (Rt. 38), in St. Charles.

"I guess I never learned the tools to be thin. I owe it all to Weight Watchers," she said.

"Anybody who's overweight - the last thing you want to do is step on a scale in front of other people. Once I did that, I went home, cleaned out the pantry, and started (the program) the next day."

Bliss took it week-by-week, pound by pound. Her husband was so supportive. "We've been married 32 years, and he never ever said you need to lose weight." He also dieted alongside her, and lost 65 lbs., himself.

"Since I've done the Weight Watchers, he's gotten so involved in the kitchen. We eat so healthy and enjoy what we eat," Bliss said.

Offering tips for others, Bliss said one of the most important things to do is to always be prepared for anything. Her suggestions include: carry healthy snacks, don't keep "junk food" around the house, and keep a daily record of all you eat.

She and her husband also don't eat out as much as they used to, but when they do, Bliss brings her own bread, spray butter, fat free coffee creamer, and sugar substitute.

"How successful you are is really about choices," she explained. "We never aimlessly eat. It's a great program, and it really taught me how to eat.

"I equate how it works for me like a budget. You have so much to spend each day. When you eat more than allocated, you have to pay the interest, and that's added weight."

Attending the weekly Weight Watchers meetings provided Bliss with an enormous amount of support, with the combination of information shared at each meeting, as well as through the exchanges and friendships formed with other members. Now a lifetime member, Bliss still attends regular meetings, with the same group she's been with throughout her journey.

For the 21 months it took to lose the weight, Bliss said, "the (Weight Watchers) meetings were a priority. I didn't want to go in and weigh myself and see a weight gain; that was a big motivator. The first week I only lost 1.2 lbs., and I was really disappointed. But I talked to myself about how losing that once a week is a lot, in one year. All the women at Weight Watchers helped me too, from the people who weigh you in, to Terra Ayers, the leader who runs the meetings, they're all very, very good. And all the (members) are helpful, sharing stories and tips."

Not only has Bliss taken off all that weight, she's kept it off for over a year.

Although she didn't initially exercise, she now works out 30 minutes to an hour each day with her Wii Fit, or takes walks with her active husband, who has a third degree black belt in Hapkido.

One of the things people do wonder about is, after all that weight loss, what happens to your skin?

Not to worry, says Bliss, as "for the most part, it shrinks with you. I don't have sacks of skin hanging. It hasn't shrunk 100 percent; I do have bat wings under my arms.

"And whatever issues you had when you were fat, like if you were pear shaped before, you'll still be pear shaped after."

Now she can look at the one pair of capri pants, one pair of jeans, and one shirt she kept: "I hold them up and just can't believe how big I was."

Not surprisingly, the weight loss has brought some big changes to Bliss's life, besides multiple wardrobe changes.

"Before, when I was heavy, I never wanted to be in pictures, I didn't want to see old, old friends, and I didn't want to meet new people," she shared. "Now, bring it on!"

Civil War ball, encampment to mark 150th anniversary of Camp Kane

By Rachel Baruch Yackley | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 4/28/2010

Enjoy an evening that will transport you all the way back to the 1860s, with a Civil War ball to benefit the Farnsworth Mansion Foundation's efforts to rebuild the Farnsworth Mansion, once an important historic landmark in St. Charles.

On Saturday, May 1, the public is invited to help the Farnsworth Mansion Foundation celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, starting with a real Civil War encampment at 10 a.m., with closing ceremonies at 4 p.m., followed by the Civil War ball at 5 p.m.

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the construction of the original Farnsworth Mansion, and it's just a year shy of the 150th anniversary of Camp Kane, the Civil War training camp, which was based in St. Charles.

Kim Malay, president of the Foundation, said this annual event is to "bring out awareness of this (mansion) project, and the importance of it. We also want to get the word out as we need additional volunteers and board members."

While the Civil War was raging, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed; Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain were writing (among many others); liquid soap, coffee percolators and root beer were invented. Chicago got the first water supply tunnel in the U.S. It was undoubtedly a busy time of change.

At the same time, much was happening in St. Charles. Action began on September 18, 1861, when the 8th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, commanded by Col. John Farnsworth, brought 1,164 men into service on the eastern bank of the Fox River, at Camp Kane, in what is known as Langum Park.

Right at this same site, visitors will be able to walk through a realistic Civil War encampment on Saturday, May 1, as re-enactment troops train on battlefield tactics and drills. This is a free event, but donations to the Farnsworth Museum Foundation will be accepted.

Tickets are already on sale for the evening's Civil War ball. Guests are encouraged to dress in 1860s period costumes, which can be homemade or rented at All Dressed Up in Batavia, but Malay said, "You don't have to come in costume. Especially if it's your first year, just come check it out."

The ball will begin with a buffet dinner, followed by a short program.

"If everyone wants a taste of Underground Railroad history, we'll be talking about that, too," said Malay.

Period music and dancing, featuring the Century Air Minstrels, will highlight the evening. Dance lessons will be provided by Terrance Welch, so everyone will be able to join in the Virginia reel, the broom dance, the hat dance, and more.

All ages are welcome to the ball. Students from Wredling Middle School in St. Charles may even be attending, as an extension of their Civil War Week activities at school.

Farnsworth, an attorney and an Illinois congressman, owned the property on the east bank of the Fox River at the time of Camp Kane, and built his mansion in 1860, just west of the river. He died in 1897 and is buried in North Cemetery in St. Charles. The site of his home later became Mount St. Mary's Academy in 1907.

In 1993, the mansion was completely demolished, although the stone facade and the interior trim were salvaged. Not to be forever a footnote in local history, in 2000, the City Council approved the rebuilding of Farnsworth Mansion, on the south end of Langum Park.

When finished, the mansion will house an Underground Railroad and Civil War museum, which will feature the importance of the Civil War in Kane County and nationwide, as well as the local and national history of the Underground Railroad.

Local research shows that St. Charles has possibly more than 20 properties which were either stops along the Underground Railroad, or their first owners were members of the Kane County Anti-Slavery Society.

The Foundation was hoping to break ground on the museum by this year, but "the economy hit hard, and put a damper on our plans," said Malay.

But the delay has come with benefits. In 2009, the Farnsworth Foundation formed a partnership with The African Scientific Research Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Illinois in Chicago.

"We are working with the ASRI. The project is going to be a nationwide thing on the Freedom Trail, what the Underground Railroad is known as," Malay explained.

"The Mansion will definitely be a major focal point and will be a national resource for the project. Farnsworth was so involved in the abolitionist movement that this just seemed like the right thing to do."

Earth Day events in the Fox Valley

By Rachel Baruch Yackley | Daily Herald Correspondent Published: 4/14/2010

When Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea for Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970, was he worried about global warming? Did he think about recycling?

According to the Web site, Nelson, who died in 2005, began pushing this idea back in 1962, as a way to get politicians to address environmental issues.

"Forty years ago was the height of American consumerism," said Pam Otto, nature programs manager at the St. Charles Park District. "A lot was done at the expense of the environment."

By 1970, due to unregulated industrial practices, rivers were catching on fire, forests were being leveled, pesticide use was rampant and unchecked, and more. The inaugural Earth Day observance certainly focused on combating pollution and destruction of the environment.

During his years as Senator (1963 - 1981), Nelson said he "continued to speak on environmental issues to a variety of audiences in some twenty-five states. All across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment. The environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation's political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not."

Since Nelson's efforts got the ball rolling, many changes have been enacted: eight months after the first Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created; the Clean Air Act was expanded in 1970 and again in 1977; the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 and 1980; and Congress established Superfund to clean up hazardous waste.

"There was a lot of push; a lot of focus, back then," Otto said. "Earth Day should be every day, but this annual event helps remind people this is our only planet, and we have to take care of it."

People are still concerned, and since the first official Earth Day celebration, grass-roots efforts have blossomed all across the country, in an effort to educate us and get us involved in helping not only our planet, but ourselves as well.

On the 40th annual Earth Day (coincidentally on April 22, once again) there are many events and activities in your communities. Take an opportunity to learn, share ideas, have fun, and whether it's on a local or a global level, help the planet.

(To see list of events held in April 2010, visit