Jewish Identity and Jewish Institutions

In my reflections after seeing President Obama’s Farewell Address, I made some commitments to our Democracy. A few things that I will do to protect our country and myself in the coming years. This included voting, canvassing, paying for journalism, taking care of my health and not retreating from Jewish Life.

I want to talk a bit about the final commitment.

I wrote:

I will not retreat from Jewish life. I have struggled since the election with silence from Jewish organizations and foundations. With the exception of the Reform Movement, Repair the World and If Not Now, very few Jewish organizations have been banging the drum for freedom. While I don’t think I’ve moved much from center, I feel like the organized Jewish world has moved further away from me. 12 years after my conversion, I’m struggling to maintain a Jewish identity and feel that I still belong in the organized Jewish world. I won’t retreat. I’ll call the foundations that are important to me and keep asking that they speak up.

As a convert to Judaism, I’m not Jewish because my parents were Jewish or my grandparents were Jewish. I decided in my late-20s that Judaism spoke to me, so I studied it a bit. A little bit made sense, so I studied it more. Then I studied with a Rabbi. About 18 months later, I went before a Beit Din (a panel of rabbis) and then to mikva (a ritual bath) and signed my contract with the Jewish people.

I made commitments to the Jewish people. I forsake all other gods. I promised that I came of my own free will. I promised that if I was blessed with children, I would raise them as Jews.

I then continued to live a Jewish life. I say “continued” because in the year prior to my formal conversion, I was already attending synagogue on a weekly basis, reading pages upon pages of Jewish text, learning and observing holidays, reading and blogging my experience and building Jewish relationships.

I did not get married. I was single then and am single still. I didn’t start taking my kids to Hebrew school. I was childless then and am childless still. I didn’t kasher (to make kosher) my kitchen. I was lazy then and am lazy still.

What I did was start to join organizations. I joined my synagogue – a Reform synagogue in Chicago. I joined the Federation’s Young Leader’s Division for a trip to Israel. After another year, I was accepted to attend the ROI Summit.

The institutions that I joined became part of my Jewish identity.

How do I know that I’m Jewish?

I am a member of a synagogue. I went to Israel with the Federation once and have made occasional donations ever since. I was accepted in the ROI Community and attended the summit five years in a row in different capacities. I was invited to The Conversation and have attended many reunions. I started a minyan with friends who have become my extended family.

I also know I’m Jewish when I consult the Torah to make some decisions. I know I’m Jewish when I debate if chicken is really a meat or if I can have a chicken enchilada with cheese. I know I’m Jewish when I make a donation of $18 or $36 or $54 dollars. I know I’m Jewish when I go to Israel every year to see friends I met online who have become my extended family.

But this year has been hard. Membership in formal organizations helps define my Jewish identity.

I’m about to age out of the ROI Community… for real this time. The rabbi who supervised my conversion to Judaism retired, which makes me feel lukewarm about my synagogue. I still believe in a two state solution and that peace is possible, but nobody seems to believe that anymore.

Then the election happened.

One of the first people the President-Elect identified to become a White House Advisor is a known anti-Semite. He made this appointment the same week at the General Assembly – a massive annual conference of Federations and Jewish professionals.

I waited for the condemnation.

I waited to hear of people wrestling with the appointment.

I waited to hear the call of social justice.

I heard silence.

With the exception of the URJ, most Jewish groups offered to politely work with the PEOTUS’s appointee. Nobody would go on record or off the record to say it was a problem. Foundations suddenly had no place in politics, because they are about Jewish identity.

Since then I’ve felt the organizations that I’ve long used as cornerstones to my Jewish identity wooosh away from me. I don’t think I’ve moved. I’m fairly center, but I feel like Jewish Organizations have moved away from me at breakneck speed. My friends on the Left are suddenly the only people ringing the alarm bells, but maybe those bells are at a frequency only I can hear?

It seems that many of my peers were raised in the 80s in a Judaism focused on Holocaust recovery and Israel building. As someone who came to Judaism in 2004, my experience is not rooted in the Holocaust, but I’ve spent time at Yad Vashem and I understand how central “never again” is to our collective Jewish identy.

Now I feel like I was punked.

Is it possible that all of these Jewish organizations who have long warned of posthumous victories to Hitler don’t see the parallel to our times. Did we spend so much time talking about liberating Aushwitz and gaining the state of Israel, that we forgot to study the decade before the first camp was opened?

Am I the one who is paranoid? Are they blind? If 85% of Jewish voters voted for Hillary Clinton, why are so many Jewish organizations offering to cooperate with the horrors that are unfolding in Washington?

Then I wonder…

If I no longer identify with major Jewish institutions, how do I maintain a Jewish identity? How do I avoid retreating from Jewish life?

My Jewish friends aren’t going anywhere. Not the ones I met in ROI Community. At Federation. At Synagogue. Not the dear group of beloved friends in my minyan.

My love for our love to debate. To turn over questions. To wrestle with Israel.

My love of Israel. Of the people, the food and lilting Hebrew on a sidewalk cafe.

Through simple mitzvot.

When I first began down this Jewish road, Rabbi Zedek told me to “do that you might learn.” Go to services, light candles, keep a level of Kosher, say some blessings.

Try it on, see if it fits.

This weekend I’ve got an organizing consultant coming over. We’re going to KonMari my wardrobe and my kitchen. Evaluate what brings me joy and toss out the rest.

Maybe it is time for me to KonMari my Jewish identity.

What organizations bring me joy?

What traditions bring me joy?

What Jewish places bring me joy?

Perhaps through a fresh evaluation, I can find the institutions that support my Jewish identity and find my balance between left, right and center. In the meantime, I’ll keep a few Jewish institutions on my speed dial to ask, “why haven’t you said anything about the Nazi in the White House?”


 

Some organizations that make sense to me right now.

The URJ and RAC have spoken out against Bannon, Sessions and other dangerous nominations. Here’s the RAC’s statement about Sessions nomination for Attorney General

The #JewishResistance of If Not Now is focused on getting the Federations to address issues at the Trump Administration.

WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism, AKA The Sisterhood) is participating in The Women’s March in Chicago and cities across the country. I love that Jewish woman are organizing to march together.

Repair the World has gotten laser focused on dismantling systemic racism in the last year or so. In addition to a day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they are working with the Schusterman Foundation and others to host shabbat experiences and political action in DC over Inauguration weekend.

(Edited for clarity on January 13, 2017)

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I am a lucky woman

I am a lucky woman.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me an email with a PDF attached. The PDF was a ticket to attend President Obama’s Farewell address. Since I was out of town this weekend and missed the chance to line up for a ticket, I had resigned myself to watching from my couch with Twitter for company.

Instead I pared down my purse to essentials, charged my phone, ate a protein bar and went to McCormick Place to wait in the security line for over two hours.img_20170110_193643341

I ran into friends, lost them in the crowd and found them again. There were 20,000 people in the room last night, so it was amazing I saw anyone I knew once, let alone twice.

When I started going to synagogue, I found out that I liked a good sermon. I appreciate soaring words, vivid stories and hard evidence. Tell me what you know, tell me what you believe and I will be moved. We got a good sermon last night.

His speeches have always soared.

I have a clear memory of the Obama’s 2004 DNC speech. I was walking down Leland Ave in Chicago from Lincoln to my apartment on Damen. It seemed like every TV was turned to the DNC to see our candidate for Senator give a speech. I stopped outside of an open window to listen to bits and pieces, not knowing in 12 years speeches like that would be available in my pocket on a smartphone.

I admire President Obama.

I have a long list of criticisms and disappointments with his administration, but my overarching feeling is admiration.

At points last night, I felt like he was giving a eulogy for our experiment in democracy. Could his administration be the final movement in our “great unfinished symphony” or will we resist and protect our democracy.

At other points, I felt like it was a call to action.

Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we will.

Here are my commitments to protecting our democracy.

1. I will not isolate myself from friends or strangers. There have been days since the election when it has been hard to get out of bed, hard to laugh, hard to believe there is a future. If we are going to save our country, it will be with other people.

2. I will continue to vote in every election, but I will spend more time working on expanding the voter base. I was inspired when I saw Keith Ellison speak last week about expanding the voter base. I will canvas. I will make phone calls. I will help enfranchise more people.

3. I will support the work of Being Black at School. Systemic racism in our public schools must be dismantled and I know that their team are the people to do it. I’m chairing their Chicago event on April 1st, but will do even more to continue to support their work.

4. I will support journalism through paid subscriptions, disabling my ad blocker and being kind to the journalists in my life.

5. I will not retreat from Jewish life. I have struggled since the election with silence from Jewish organizations and foundations. With the exception of the Reform Movement, Repair the World and If Not Now, very few Jewish organizations have been banging the drum for freedom. While I don’t think I’ve moved much from center, I feel like the organized Jewish world has moved further away from me. 12 years after my conversion, I’m struggling to maintain a Jewish identity and feel that I still belong in the organized Jewish world. I won’t retreat. I’ll call the foundations that are important to me and keep asking that they speak up.

6. When I find simple actions to take, I will continue to share them. Clear call to actions that I have verified as useful and deemed (this is personal) necessary.

7. I will focus on my health and our healthcare system. According to my physicians, I’m not the only person with new medical problems since the election. I will work to improve my health, but also find ways to help people understand the healthcare system.

That’s my plan.

I think each of us will have different priorities in the years ahead. I hope beyond hope that we each find ways to lift strangers up when we lift our families up. And in turn, we lift our towns, cities and country up.

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What I said and what I meant to say

I told him that I can’t stop thinking about how little this test has to do with whether or not I get my degree in 21 days.

What I meant to say….

On Monday, the last day of my trip back to Colorado, I had breakfast with one of my mentors from the college where I worked from 1999-2001. Marc started in the counseling center and had moved over to the leadership center when I was about to move on from the college.

Over the course of breakfast, we talked about the people who have died over the last 15 years, what we reevaluated after those deaths, my crushes, and his plans for retirement.

2015-08-09 10.15.15

We talked about how Sandy died when she was 42. She’d been in the best shape of her life, went to the doctor for appendicitis and they found a 21 inch tumor across her abdomen. We talked about how she really lived that last year – Egypt, Paris, eating fatty foods, seeing the world and her friends. We talked about how Cristina worked until she was 62. Worked 60-70 hour weeks until she retired. And then she died from cancer two years later. About how Lori had Crohn’s, slipped into a coma from AFIB and died in her early 50s.

Then he said, “Do you remember Dave?” I did, in part because Dave loaned me his 7-year-old daughter’s copies of Harry Potter when she was finished with them in 2000. “Well, it turns out that Dave was my best friend.”

I keep turning that sentence over in my head. I knew Marc and Dave at the beginning of their friendship. When we were all just starting to play poker together. Then I slipped on out of town and they went on to become best friends. It’s so rare to hear men use the phrase, so it seems like you’re being given something very special to hear one man call another his best friend.

Dave also died of cancer. Technically he died of a lung infection, but he wouldn’t have gotten it if he hadn’t had cancer.

In the middle of all this, Marc asked me about my love life in the way that a life long student affairs person asks, “So, tell me the real news. Men, women – do you have anyone special?”

And I blushed and told him about a man who lives across the country, but school… work… real life… there are a lot of barriers.

I got home to Chicago late that night, went to bed and woke up around 4am thinking, “I have to tell him. This crush. I have to tell him about making life count, because our friends are to keep dying and how much time do any of us have anyway.”

Anyway. I have to study for a test that I’m probably going to fail.

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Some thoughts about Israel

ben gurion

One

This morning on the train it occurred to me that I’m a convert and I remembered that I chose this. When I converted, almost 10 years ago, we were entering a decade of peace in Israel and the question of antisemitism seemed academic. “Are you ready to sign yourself up to be hated by the world? Are you ready to sign up any children you might have to be victims of antisemitism?”

Yes, I answered. Yes, because even with all the existential and academic threats, I thought my life would be better if I were Jewish.

On the train today, I was reading another long essay, thinking about my friends in Israel and I realized that my Jewish identity has shadowed over my identity as a convert. I don’t remember daily that there was a moment when I could have said, “you know what, forget it. The risk is too much, I’ll stay as I was before. No need to go to mikvah.”

Two

So many friends, acquaintances and strangers on the internet seem to be troubled that more Israelis haven’t died in this conflict. They seem upset that Iron Dome and the bomb shelters that dot every block in Israel have kept Israelis safe.

These are, in part, the same people who take off their shoes and empty their water bottles at the airport. People who abide by the security theater of the TSA because it protects us from another September 11th.

Iron Dome and bomb shelters aren’t security theater. They are security measures that actually work. Security measures that are keeping people alive and stopping rockets from landing in civilian areas.

Three

The month that I lived in Israel (November 2009), I gave a series of presentations about social media to people who worked at non-profits. One of those people was on the staff of the newly created Lone Soldier Center. Founded in 2009 in memory of Michael Levin, the Lone Soldier Center was going to try and provide a safety net for immigrants who joined the IDF but who didn’t have family in Israel.

Josh invited me to their Thanksgiving dinner in Tel Aviv, which turned out to be a house party with a few semi-thanksgiving themed dishes. It was one of the first Lone Soldier Center events, but now the organization is the real deal. Providing housing, meals and a safe space for off-duty soldiers. The safety net their families can’t provide.

Four

I love Israel. I’ve been in a mad love affair with the country from my first visit in March of 2006. I didn’t expect Israel to become so central to my life, but I’ve been 9 times since I converted and plan on making a 10th trip in December.

I’m not blindly in love with Israel. I make a point to read nuanced essays on the current conflict. I wrestle with the reality of what is happening to the citizens in Gaza and the need for Israel to survive as a state. For the most part, I don’t discuss the current conflict, because so many people are either uninformed or backed into a corner with no room to wrestle with all of the competing realities.

Five

I still believe my life is better for having converted to Judaism. For loving Israel. For loving my Israeli friends. For learning to bake challah and learning to pray in Hebrew and learning to order a beer in Hebrew. My life is better for knowing how to navigate Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For knowing what the Old City smells like after a snowfall and for knowing what the waves of the Mediterranean sound like late at night.

Six

My first night in Tel Aviv, during Tel Aviv 1, a few of us from the Chicago delegation went on a walk along the beach. Someone in our group steered us to the Dolphinarium and told us what happened there on June 1, 2001, when a suicide bomber killed 21 Israeli teenagers waiting in line to get into a disco.

The next day, we went to Yad Vashem and in the children’s memorial I remembered that I chose this. I chose this life, this religion and this second home for myself and for any children I might be blessed with, because I thought my life would be better with Judaism in it.

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In Love Like That

This afternoon we had dessert at Le Creperie. A fabled Chicago restaurant that closed and re-opened last year, but other than that has been open since 1972.

We had the back room to ourselves until a party began to arrive. It was a couple who hosted their wedding reception in the same room in 1974. Their children were coming for lunch, along with spouses and two grandchildren for one of their daughter’s birthdays.

We made faces at the toddlers and promised the proud grandparents that when we left, it wasn’t because of the kids. We’d split three crepes and it was time to go.

But it was a window into a world that I want so much to be a part of. To fast forward 29 years and still be married, still be taking my kids and my grandkids to the restaurant where I had my wedding reception.

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The Year I Spent Reading Neal Stephenson (and a few other books)

It started innocently enough. I saw that Jasper Fforde had a new to me book out and I bought it immediately. Turned out that Shades of Grey wasn’t a Thursday Next book, but it was a delightful romp through a dystopian future where class is based on degrees of color blindness and assessed at age 16.

The friend who had introduced me to Fforde in the first place suggested that if I’d enjoyed the dystopian future of Shades of Gray, I might enjoy Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is a prolific writer of cyberpunk and dystopian novels. I then settled in for a year spent in parallel universes and not so distant futures.

Anathem and SpideyI started with Cryptonomicon, then Snow Crash and Diamond Age. Later in the year I read Anathem and I just finished with REAMDE. In the middle, I took breaks for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Daemon and FreedomTM by Danny Suarez, and the Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker.

(There were also a few non-fiction books thrown in there and a thousand pages of academic reading for school).

Here are a few sweeping recommendations from my year of science fiction, cyber punk, dystopian futures, parallel universe histories and stuff.

Always read Jasper Fforde’s books. He paints delicious worlds with unique rules and vivid colors, even when the book is about color blindness.

Neal Stephenson has a few tropes he’ll always go back to. There will be totally random sex in the book that has little to do with the storyline, but it’s always there. There will be a scene that features near suffocation and you’ll wonder what happened to him as a kid. There will be a few parallel story lines that eventually intersect in ways that I never see coming, but I like to be surprised instead of figuring out the mystery before the final chapter. And the Sys Admin or hacker will always be the hero.

Ready Player One was the most fun book I read this year. The author turned a night of 80s trivia into a fun romp of a book, dipping in and out of movies, music and video games. Yes, it takes place in a massive multiplayer online game in the not so distant (very depressing) future, but it is fun.

Danny Suarez’s books are very violent, but worth the read for the vision of society he presents in book two. The friend who recommended these two (along with all the Stephenson) warned me that there would be some things that I wouldn’t like (murder and rape), and he was right, but he was also right that in the end it was worthwhile.

The Engineer Trilogy was a slog for me, but since I’d already bought the whole trilogy in paperback, I finished it. It takes place in a world’s Medieval/Byzantine era where countries are based on trade (engineers, shepherds, farmers, mining) and an engineer is excommunicated from his homeland. The three books cover the wars he starts to get back home, but it seems to be written in real time. Instead of a quick summary of war preparations, it includes incredibly detailed chapters on engineering, sieges, army training and fencing. I found it tedious, but still finished all three books in less than a month, so at some level I enjoyed the books.

There’s a part of me that thinks the future of marketing is hidden in a science fiction or cyber punk book, so I combined this reading diet with grad school. I’m about to start my second quarter at DePaul in the Digital Communications and Media Arts program. So far I haven’t been able to take a class on cyber punk fiction, but maybe in the next few years I’ll be able to.

What should I read next?

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Table Runners Matter: 13 lessons I’ve learned Hosting Parties in my 30s

I wrote a list of 18 blog posts that I’d never write, but this one got some requests… so here you go.

This summer, I spent more time than I’d like to admit researching table cloth lengths, looking at centerpieces for Vegas themed Centerpiece and Table Runnersparties and consolidating RSVPs between a Google Doc and Evite. I was co-hosting a black tie birthday party for a friend and putting every event planning skill to the test to ensure that we pulled off a nearly perfect event. I picked up all the tips and tricks hosting Shabbat and holiday dinners, throwing low key and high key parties in my home and working at a  Public Relations agency.

In 2014, I’ll be channeling that energy into grad school, but here are 13 things that I’ve learned hosting parties in my 30s.

1. Table Runners Matter

For the birthday party in question, I bought red table runners and black tablecloths on the internet. The tablecloths were great – a heavy fabric that looked more expensive in person and set the stage for a black tie event. The table runners looked every $1.99 that I spent on them. Cheap, chintzy, ugly. It’s embarrassing how much time I spent worrying about table runners in my head and out loud to friends, but I wanted the party to feel as fancy as the dress we requested people wear. In the end, I found a red paper runner to layer under the chintzy cloth runner. Doubled up, they looked great and made the centerpieces pop. The waiter even complimented me on how nice the runners looked.

Why do table runners matter? And tablecloths? And centerpieces? They set the stage for an event. People may not remember that you layered paper and sheer cloth, but they will remember the feeling of walking into a well appointed room that matches the invitation.

2. Slider Bags are Your Friend

A week before the party, I did a trial run of the centerpieces. Each was a low profile bowl with red glass blobs, plastic diamonds, dice and floating candles. After I decided they looked okay, I bagged ’em up. I divided the red glass blogs, diamonds and candles into 10 bags. The night of the party, I didn’t have to try and explain my vision to helpers, I just put out the box of bowls and bags of stuff, then said, “just add water.”

I also did this for Christmas with stocking stuffers, just to make things easier when it was time to be Santa. So if you can portion it out in advance to make for fewer decisions or explanations the day of the party, it’s worth the time.

3. Be Specific

Sometimes I fail at this, sometimes I succeed, but if you want your invitees to bring something or wear something, be specific. For the big party, we just wanted people to dress up, leave presents at home and arrive on time. So we communicated that again and again. For smaller dinners and events at my house, I try to be very specific – a vegetarian side dish, fruit, something sweet, red wine, name tags (yes, I’ve asked for name tags), gluten free munchies, etc.

4. Run of Show

For events in PR, we make what’s called a “Run of Show” for our events. It lists all the things that have to happen at specific times for the event to be a success. So now for bigger dinners and parties, I make a run of show for myself. What are things that I need to do in the days before, the morning of and evening of the events. This includes shopping lists, tasks that can be given to someone else and when to put things in the oven (or pull them out of the freezer). For the bigger party, it also included phone numbers of everyone involved.

5. How Much Clean Up Do You Want To Do?

At Rosh Hashanah this year, I asked people to sign up to help set-up or clean-up. Since I was going to have help for cleaning up, we used real dishes and silverware. When nobody is going to stay to clean-up, I use plastic silverware because I loathe washing forks and knives. I always use real tablecloths and paper napkins, because it’s the right amount of laundry for me. I prefer real glasses to plastic, in part because real glasses are easy peasy in the dishwasher.

The lesson here is to strike a mix between “looks good and feels good” during the party with “spent less time cleaning than hosting.”

6. The Bathroom

Someone is going to have to use the bathroom, so I try to make sure that I’ve got extra toilet paper in easy reach, clean towels for hand drying, Kleenex, a lit candle and an easy to find plunger. Anyone who plugs a toilet should have the option to try and fix it for themselves before they hunt down the host.

I say that as someone who used the toilet after the guy who plugged it at a party at a crush’s house… In total horror, I watched the toilet bowl not empty as it should, then I searched his bathroom for a plunger. When I couldn’t find it, I had to elbow through mutual friends and strangers to find him and tell him that IT WASN’T ME, BUT I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT THIS THING IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW AND OMG YOU WILL NEVER FORGET THIS WILL YOU?

Make the plunger easy to find, folks.

7. Aprons

Let’s call 2013, The Year of the Apron. This is the year I bought one and realized that it serves a real purpose. For both Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, holidays when I am in and out of the kitchen all night, I wore an apron over a nice dress. Kept my dress clean from food spills, but let me cook in my special messy way.

8. Prep in Sneakers

You’re cleaning alone in your house, prepping veggies in the kitchen and running upstairs to get the candles and you’re doing it all barefoot. If you’re me, that means you’ll be immobilized the day after the party with a sore back and the “dogs will be barking.” Save yourself the pain and wear good shoes while you prep. Hell, wear good shoes to the party, too.

9. Room for Elijah

I’ve found that the space will grow to accommodate extra guests, just make sure you have enough chairs or that you know which guest will happily bring extra chairs.

10. Introductions and Name Tags

I’m not above making friends wear name tags at my parties or doing around the room introductions at a sit-down meal. If you have someone who only knows you, make sure to introduce them to guests or provide some activities that make it easy for solo guests to join in. At the Big Party this summer, it was a beginner’s table for Black Jack.

11. Leftovers/Single Men are always “growing boys”

As the night winds down, make sure that extra food finds a home if you aren’t going to be able to eat/freeze it. Over the last few years, I’ve learned which friends love leftovers and which don’t. In general, single men are always “growing boys” who will take food home, just don’t let them take your good Tupperware, they will never bring it back.

12. Pet Allergies

Some of your friends are allergic to your cats, so make sure first timers to your house know the score on animals and have a pet-hair-free zone for their coats.

13. Spontaneous is Awesome, too

For as much as I’ve hosted planned dinners and parties over the last few years, spontaneous parties are my favorite. A few years ago, I hosted an impromptu Eve of the Eve party for my lady friends. This year I had a “You’ve never seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset???” emergency viewing and “come drink all this leftover beer” night on my roof. Spontaneous nights are usually heavier on the potluck and have a more random guest list, but they are worth reveling in.

So, there you go, 13 things I’ve learned from hosting dinners and parties over the last few years. I deleted the lesson about supplementing home-cooked with catering, but it’s okay to order in for part of a big dinner. It’s totally okay.

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