One Step at a Time

Karina Grudnikov

Join Karina Grudnikov as she explores life in Chicago’s Jewish community.

One Step at a Time

Summertime … and the livin’ is easy

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Yesterday, June 21, was officially the first day of summer. Although it's not like we can really complain about the so-called winter we had this year (thanks global warming!). 

I don't know about you, but I'm ready to indulge in everything that the best season (would anyone really prefer winter, especially in Chicago?) has to offer: ice cream, unbearably hot temperatures, more ice cream (only necessary to cope with more unbearably hot temperatures) and beautiful blue skies.  

Oh, and let's not forget drinking fruity drinks, admiring the beauty of the sun's rays hitting the buildings and the water, and all the fun sports that summer demands we play, i.e. volleyball. And as touristy and corny, as it may seem, I want to go to Navy Pier, sit on the Ferris Wheel and soak in the beauty of the city.

There's something about summer that brings out one's inner-child, with a sense of invincibility and a reawakened zest for life. Adults may not have recess or summer vacation, but something about simply being in the summer season makes everything seem happier. The world may be in disarray, but walking on the gorgeous streets of Chicago on a summer's day makes it seem as though everything is at peace.

So perhaps summertime livin' isn't easy, it's just easier.  And as Aaron Cohen pointed out in his most recent post, summer is also wedding season, so we get to be surrounded by beautiful displays of love and commitment. It almost sounds like a fairy tale.

Summer is the time for fun, so make sure to take advantage of all that Chicago has to offer over the next few months, from outdoor music to movie festivals. (Personally, I'm looking forward to listening to live music in Millennium Park.)

So what are you going to do to make the summer of 2012 memorable? Let me know in the comments below

The significance of children’s books (for adults)

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I once applied for an internship at the children's book division at a major publishing company. "Do you read children's books?" I distinctly remember the editor asking me during the interview. I recall attempting to hide my scoffing at the seemingly-preposterous question, as I thought to myself, Children's books are for children

Needless to say, I did not get that internship. And years later, I can't help but think that maybe I was wrong.

I may just be getting sentimental, but reading Cindy Sher's recent blog post about the passing of Maurice Sendak, beloved author of Where the Wild Things Are, got me thinking - maybe children's books are just as much for adults as they are for kids.

Of course, adults don't need basic vocabulary, illustrations or for the book to end in less than 10 pages like children do. The whole point of children's literature is for kids to be eased in to grappling with adult concepts through an emotionally compelling but simple narrative. But perhaps there is still value in these books even after we have technically aged out of reading them.

When I was a kid, I absolutely adored The Berenstain Bears series. One of my favorite books was The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings, in which the bears began to understand life priorities and what things truly matter. I don't remember what I did with the copy I had as a child, but I never forgot that book. A few years ago, I actually went to the bookstore and purchased a brand new copy just to have as a reminder of what I learned from reading it.

And if you want to talk about "children's" books that really strike you as an adult, Shel Silverstein's books are a perfect example. (Can anyone read The Giving Tree without shedding some tears? I think not.) Sometimes as adults, we get so caught up in the grey area of things, or the complexities of life, that we become cynical. There's no time for fun! Bills have to be paid! Life is unfair! It's a dog-eat-dog world out there! We are so busy dealing with all those complexities that we often lose sight of priorities and values that really matter to us.

But does it really have to be that way? And does it have to be that way all the time?

What I'm trying to say is that life isn't always so complicated. In reality, some things can be simple - even if temporarily - and children's books are a great way to remember that. Sure, they are too simple and often only teach one lesson, but that doesn't mean that there isn't great truth in those lessons. Perhaps re-reading an old children's book may offer you more personal enlightenment than the latest self-help book.

Passover, Exodus and Jews in America

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While reading the Haggadah at Passover seder this past Friday, like most Jews, I thought of the exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt, the journey that despite its difficulties, would lead them to freedom. 

But while listening to the rabbi speak at the seder, I also found myself thinking of another, much more recent exodus: that of the Jewish people from the former Soviet Union, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

I thought of the countless families, including my own, that left everything they had ever known behind, in order to travel to a new country where nothing was a certainty but everything was a possibility. I thought of the jobs they had left, the possessions they had given away, and the citizenship they were giving up to start their lives anew.

There's a story that my grandmother tells me often, usually on anniversaries of the day that my family emigrated from Russia.  On the flight to America, she says, she kept looking at me and thinking, You have no idea how lucky you are. You have no idea how the course of your life is being altered with every mile we fly over the ocean.  

She was rightI certainly was too young to know back then. But I know now, and am aware of how lucky I am more than ever. I know I'm lucky to be in America, where being Jewish does not disqualify someone from attending a particular college or being employed by a certain company.  I'm lucky to be in a country where I can say I'm Jewish and it will have no bearing on how people view me as a human being.

And I am so immensely grateful to be in a land where I can write these words freely, and that the freedom of speech is not reserved for few and restricted for many, but a righta right that all citizens of the U.S. are granted, but just another right that citizens of the U.S.S.R. did not have.

It seems fitting that the April issue of JUF News features a collection of immigrant stories in honor of the 100th anniversary of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

So as we celebrate Passover this year, let us honor the Exodusthe journey that started it allbut not forget the other journeys that the Jewish people have taken for freedom.


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I've often heard people say that someone's "true" nature is revealed during difficult times. And that humanity's "true" nature is actually animalistic, primitive and selfish.

I have to tell you, I have my doubts.

$78,773,343: that's how much money Chicago's Jewish community raised in JUF's recently-concluded 2011 Annual Campaign.

It's been several years since the economy bottomed out in 2008, and our country is still facing significant challenges. Unemployment is high, job security is low. Families that were once middle and upper-middle class, who once donated money to charities, now find themselves in need of a helping hand.

And yet, not only did this community raise millions of dollars to continue funding the agencies that people rely on for meals, job services, rent money and other services, but it raised over $168,000 more than in 2010's campaign.

Times are tough, and yet people continue to give so that others don't have to lose their homes, put their children to bed on an empty stomach or worry about paying that month's rent. Some people may not give as much as they could in better times, but they still give what they can so that others can bear a slightly- less-heavy burden.

Not only do people give money, but some volunteer their time and professional services. I recently did a story on laid-off lawyer Harold Meerbaum (read the story here) who has been taking on cases through JUF's Legal Community Services.

The point is, it is definitely more challenging to donate when times are difficult. But one way or another, we can still give something to help someone else. Seeing the good in others only inspires me to do more good myself.

Reminiscing on 2011

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The end of 2011 is nigh.

This upcoming Saturday night, we will mark the end of a momentous year, and not just because some believe it might be our last on earth (let's see what happens on 12/21/12kidding!)

2011 was a year that I believe can't be defined as either positive or negative, as the world saw its fair share of tragedies and miracles. But it's hard to imagine a year more memorable, filled with more historic events or important news stories, in recent years.

Gilad Shalit returned home to Israel. Japan's 9.0 earthquake left thousands dead, missing or homeless. People all across the globe, whether in Egypt or the United States, Greece or Russia, protested dictators, economic inequality and rigged elections. Osama Bin Laden was killed. "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was repealed. The war in Iraq ended after nine years.

The list could go on of course, but you get my point. On a global, macro level, 2011 is an unforgettable year. (See TIME magazine's "Top 10 Photos of 2011" and watch a video of the year's most memorable events.) Even in my own life, 2011 brought several major life changes and amazing opportunities.

Living through a year in which the world dramatically changed in front of my eyes, has left a lasting impact on me. It has made me question who I am, who I want to be and what I am willing to do to bridge that gap. I've had to ask myself what I would stand up and fight for, and attempted to figure out what values and issues matter the most to me.

To be fair, it's natural for most people to ponder those things every December, just as a stale year is to be replaced by a fresh one, with a chance to renew and restart. But I think there's something to the idea that when the world undergoes a transformation, you naturally do as well.

Personally, I want to be more patient in this upcoming year. I want to be more kind, not just in my thoughts, but in my actions. I'm planning on becoming active in volunteering again. I want to commit myself to a yoga practice. I want to strengthen meaningful relationships, and open myself to new ones.

For those of you making New Year's resolutions, good luck! For those of you who aren't, no worries, most people ditch theirs after a few months anyway.

Happy holidays to everyone, and I'll see you in the New Year.


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When I sat down to write this blog post, I told myself I wouldn't write about Thanksgiving. With the holiday only a few days away, I figured there will be plenty of posts about all the things people are usually thankful for: family, friends, significant others, and pets. (Perhaps also a great catering company, just in case you feel like taking the year off from cooking, just this once.)

But the truth is, I've found that the idea of gratitude takes on a whole new meaning when you work at a non-profit organization. In fact, I think it's almost impossible to work for an organization such as JUF/JF, or any not-for-profit cause, and not question your values, priorities and what it really means to be grateful.

Everything my co-workers and I do at our daily jobs ultimately serves a much higher purpose greater than simply earning a living. No one enters the non-profit field with the intention of making a lot of money. The far-reaching impact of working at an organization whose fundamental principle is to help as many people as possible, on any level possible, goes beyond any result we see on a daily basis.

Working here, I've seen firsthand how the work done by JUF/JF affects peoples' lives in such profound ways that some of them cannot even articulate their gratitude. I've been inside several JUF-funded agencies, and have seen the smiles and heard the laughter of people, both young and old, who are benefiting from the resources provided by the organization that I work for.

As a writer, I don't directly feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless or deliver humanitarian aid in foreign lands. But I know that the work I do matters in a way that is unprecedented in my life. After I wrote a particular article for JUF News, a woman wrote me an email thanking me for spreading the message about the cause. "You have done a mitzvah!" she wrote in the email. I was shocked. After all, all I did was write a story assigned to me by my editor. But here was this woman, letting me know that she was grateful for such a seemingly small thing.

Working at this organization, I have become aware of how many people live in need of some kind of assistance. On Thanksgiving, I will be in a warm home, surrounded by family and friends, eating several courses of food. But there are many people who will not be nearly as lucky as I am. There will be people shivering on the streets. There will be hungry children. There will be parents who lost their jobs, wishing they could provide for their families.

I won't be one of those people, but that doesn't give me an excuse to pretend that they don't exist. When you work at an organization that helps those people who have far less than you, you can't help but feel grateful for the things you do have. There are plenty of things that I would like, but luckily, I have everything I need.

I'm going to end this post with a meaningful quote by author J. Robert Moskin.

Thanksgiving comes to us out of the prehistoric dimness, universal to all ages and all faiths. At whatever straws we must grasp, there is always a time for gratitude and new beginnings.

This Thanksgiving, please consider making a donation to our 2012 Annual Campaign.

'Russian Girl Problems' and answers

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I was only two and a half years old when my family emigrated from Russia, and I have absolutely no recollection of the land of my birth. But as any child raised in an immigrant family knows, you may leave the country, but you don’t necessarily escape the culture or psyche of the ‘motherland.’

Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of different questions about being an immigrant. Certain questions are fairly easy and simple to answer, such as the generic “Why did your family come to America?” question. Answer: Because my family wanted to fulfill the American Dream and escape the oppressive rule of a communist government. Others are a little more complicated: “Wait, so are you Jewish or are you Russian?” (Don’t even get me started on that one…)

If you’re looking for answers to the complicated questions, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re simply hoping for some insight into some of the wacky behaviors and logic sometimes displayed by Russian immigrants, stay on the page.

RussianGirlProblems and RussianGuyProblems are two websites where users submit funny examples of cultural “problems” faced by young Russian-Americans (most of them apply to either gender). Until I found these sites, I had no idea how culturally connected I was to other people of my generation and background. But since I’ve found the site, I haven’t been able to stop laughingand I’ve shared it with all my relatives and friends.

So to help explain certain nuances of being a Russian-American, I’m going to take my favorite examples from the sites and “translate” with a little explanation of my own.   

From RussianGirlProblems:

"There is no right time to eat anything cold. You either are sick, were just sick, or will get sick." 

This is probably my all-time favorite “problem” on the site. You would think that people from a country where winter lasted from October to May would be less fearful of the cold. But no! If there’s one thing you should know about Russian people, especially grandparents, it is that they are always convinced you are going to get a cold. (If you are sitting within an inch of a window or air conditioner, you may as well put on your winter coat, even if it’s June.) So eating ice cream, even in the splintering heat, is always cause for concern about your health.

"I love how my parents say it's their house, but when it comes time to clean it magically becomes my house too." 

As immigrants, our families came to this country with very little and had to work tremendously to climb the socio-economic ladder. In their eyes, nothing can be claimed as your own until you pay for it yourself. But if you don’t clean up after yourself the way that you’re expected to, you’re going to hear, “Ti schto dumeyash shto eto gostinitsa?” (Translation: What, you think this is a hotel?) What the Russian parent is trying to imply is that you better clean up after yourself, because there’s no maid to clean up after you. 

From RussianGuyProblems:

"Even though you’re a Russian Jew, your parents insist on getting a Christmas tree....for New Year’s."  

This is one of those things that I find tends to confuse Americans, and with good reason, so let me explain. For people from Russia, New Year’s is essentially a secular version of Christmas, where people exchange gifts, decorate a tree, and often spend it with family. (I spent New Year’s with my family until I was 20.) What is considered a Christmas tree to Americans is just a winter tree to people from Russia, especially Jewish people.  In general, having a tree isn’t indicative of celebrating Christmas for people from Russia.

"You are exhausted after a long day of work…but once you open that door to your parents’ house, it's like someone turned on the Panic Mode button because your mom will think "shtoto sluchilas" (“something has happened”) instead of just coping with the fact that you are simply tired." 

This is so true. Whenever my father calls me at work and I answer quietly because the office walls are thin, he thinks something is wrong. If you aren’t upbeat, Russian parents will always think you’re upset, or worse, sick. Then, when you become a little rude out of frustration at having to repeat, “No, nothing is wrong,” you are told not to take their bad day out on them. After all, they’ll say, we’re all tired.

For more of these “problems,” visit and

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