What makes a “good” White Elephant gift?

white-elephant-gift-clipart-1“Should we keep these mugs that the Mazda dealership sent us with their logo?” I ask.

“Maybe — they might make a good White Elephant gift for my office,” Adam said.

Blog readers, I am here to ask you / vent about this: What exactly makes for a “good” White Elephant gift?

Back up. Around the holidays, many offices / groups of friends / families hold some kind of gift exchange. Instead of a more traditional (and religiously exclusive!) “Secret Santa,” some groups hold a “White Elephant” exchange. As far as I understand, the rules of this game are that people are supposed to bring a gift from their house or buy an inexpensive gift from the store that would make for a funny or random present.

Adam loves these exchanges and goes around all year looking at items as potential gifts. Mazda mugs! Mixing bowls with a drawing of ducks! The lamp from an old Aladdin Genie costume! People are going to love this!

I do not understand how to play this game.

These items are literally junk. Are we just playing a game of “pass around the junk from one person to another”? Is this assuming that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure? Because I finished tidying my house according to my celebrity tidying icon, and I’m not interested in accumulating items that other people think are tossable.

When it comes to junk, what makes one item a “good” White Elephant gift and another a “bad” one? Is it the humor involved?

The other piece of the White Elephant game is that you often do not know who will be receiving the gift in the end, whether people choose from wrapped gifts based on an assigned number, or people “steal” gifts, or a crazy set of laws that look straight outta the Gemara. If I knew who my intended recipient would be, I’d buy or find an amazing perfect gift that reminds that person of our friendship and a joke we once shared or a known love of ducks on mixing bowls. But the gift receiver is basically a stranger, which makes humor and personalization impossible.

The last thing I want to do is get a dorky gift that says something about me … but it’s hard to know how to avoid that.

So, dear friends, tell me: What guidelines do you use when selecting these gifts, and do you find this game enjoyable?

In the meantime, I’ll be off searching my closets for … oh boy, I’m so bad at this game I can’t even make something up to be funny here … an unopened pack of napkins with Disney princesses?

Thanksgiving table topic ideas

I’d like to suggest that tomorrow, as families come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s avoid the heavy topic of the elections altogether. What’s done is done, and while we all have a lot we can do to continue to make a difference in our world, maybe this Thanksgiving should be a time to focus on lighter topics. Not necessarily “small talk,” but just more fun topics.

If you need some ideas, I’ve compiled a list of my recommendations for topics to discuss.

Lia’s Recommended Thanksgiving Table Topic Discussion Ideas

  1. Podcasts. Who listens to podcasts and what are your favorites? And for the technologically challenged, how the heck do you download them?
  2. TV show reunions. With the highly anticipated Gilmore Girls revival coming this weekend, what other TV shows would you like to see reunited?
  3. Go-to recipes. I love to ask friends this theoretical question: “I’m coming over to your house in an hour for dinner. You can stop at the closest grocery store for one or two ingredients, but you basically need to whip something up that you already have in your house. What would you cook for dinner?”
  4. Strange allergies. A lot of people have “normal” allergies like gluten or dairy, but does anyone around our table have any particularly unusual allergies? Tell us what life is like being allergic to pickles!
  5. Other dream jobs. If you didn’t work in your current job, what would your dream job be?
  6. Thanksgiving stories. What’s your funniest Thanksgiving memory?
  7. Comfy clothes. What article of clothing that you own makes you feel most comfortable?
  8. Old items. What is the oldest item you own that you still use? For example, up until I changed my name last year, it was my library card.
  9. Books that changed your life. A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about the five books that changed my life. What books have changed yours?
  10. What’s top of mind? Everyone has a topic that’s on the top of their minds. For me, I love talking about “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” — for a while it seemed I had no other topics of conversation. If you were to wear a name tag that said “I want to talk about ______,” what would it say, and why are you interested in it?


I hope these help fill your Thanksgiving dinners with flowing, interesting, non-divisive, non-political conversations. Happy Thanksgiving!

A dinner party with no small talk

Wow, the weather has been so nice lately! How’s work going? Do you have any upcoming travel plans? Okay, now that the small talk’s out of the way, let’s get to the real meat of our conversation.

Namely, this article, sent to me by my friend Carla. I like small talk as much as the next person does, but I’m thinking that this may inspire me to host my own “small-talk-free” dinner party. Who’s in?

Saved by the Max

On this sad day in our world, I have so many words flowing through my mind, but none of them are any better than what my fellow Facebook friends have shared. So, go to my Facebook newsfeed (or yours), read it, cry, and then come back here and smile, because last week my friends and I ate at the Saved by the Bell popup restaurant and there is still some good in this world.



Any place with cutouts of my favorite Saved by the Bell characters, plus themed food on the menu (i.e. “Mac and Screech”) is a place that brings a smile to my face.

The awkward credit card mm hmm pause

World, I move that we agree on a new rule: If you are reading a phone number or a credit card number to a person writing it down, you can just read it. You don’t have to wait for the listener to say “uh huh” after every three or four numbers.

I’m often the “listener” in this situation, writing down these long strings of numbers. And usually it’s not a big deal — I can write pretty fast. But sometimes it goes like this.

Person on phone: “The number is 1234 … (pause)”
Lia: (waiting) (waiting) “Mm hmm.”
Person on phone: “xx78”
Lia: “Wait a second, I missed the first two numbers.”
Person on phone: “12”
Lia: “No, I have 1234 and then something something 78. Let’s start again.”

I waited too long to say “mm hmm” and so then my gutteral confirmation blocked their next numbers.

Sometimes readers speed through their numbers, and that’s not good either, but at least we’re not waiting for a “yep” or a “got it” from me. I can always read the number back to them.

So here’s my suggestion to everyone. When reading your long string of numbers, first ask, “Are you ready?” When the listener says yes, go ahead with your number at a steady pace, stopping for a quick instant between each string of numbers.

1234 – 5678 – 9012 – 3456.

In fact, this rule already exists with the very advent of these dashes. A quick pause in a number. Otherwise, we’ll have:

Person: “1234. Do you have that right?”
Lia: “Yes, I got 1234. What’s the next set?”
Person: “5678. It’s the set that came after 1234, did you get that one too?”
Lia: “Mmm hmm.”
Lia: (waiting)
Person: “Oh, me again. 9012.”
Tumbleweed: (rolls by)
Lia: “Yep, I’m caught up so far. Can’t wait to hear the ending!”
Person: “3456. Do you want to repeat that back to me?”

Here’s wishing everyone lots of clear and accurate strings of numbers!

The beauty of the Jewish people is in our diversity

As Yom Kippur comes to a close, I was thinking about a piece I wrote for Temple Jeremiah in September 2014. The subject of my essay has remained my “tradition” for the last four years — spending Yom Kippur at Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues.

The beauty of the Jewish people is in our diversity
Sept. 12, 2014
Originally written for Temple Jeremiah

I’ve always been a bit of a synagogue hopper.

Right now, when asked where I go to synagogue, I say, “I go to five.” I love my community here at Temple Jeremiah, and meeting all of you has been one of the best parts of my job; I enjoy attending synagogue with my family where I grew up, at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette; I attend two synagogues in Lakeview, the neighborhood where I live; and I co-lead a monthly Friday night minyan in the city.

I love Jewish communities. I love the diversity of customs, melodies, faces, teachings, architecture, and emotions.

So it’s no surprise that on Yom Kippur last year, I found myself in three different synagogues in one day. I spent the morning humming the melodies of the High Holy Days, while greeting congregants and meeting new faces here at Temple Jeremiah; in the afternoon I sat with my mom, listening to my dad, brother, and sister-in-law sing in the choir at BHCBE; and I spent the evening Neilah service with my friends at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Lakeview.

That day, I experienced a cross section of our larger Jewish community, splitting my time between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues. During Neilah at Anshe Sholom, I found myself not paying so much attention to the words on the page, but reflecting on Jewish peopolehood. The Jewish community – our kehillah – is made up of so many different kinds of wonderful, dedicated, intelligent, interesting, and friendly people.

Our beauty is in our diversity.

We Jews are a tiny percentage of the world’s population. I pray that we can come together as a larger Jewish community to be enriched by the uniqueness of our brothers and sisters.

On that Saturday afternoon in September 2013, driving back and forth between Northfield, Wilmette, and Lakeview, I had the chance to truly feel the richness of our people; and to me, it was like seeing the face of God.

Pasta Prefirita

A family friend told me this week that he reads my blog occasionally, but especially when I write about food. So, in the interest of my readership, here’s another food post!

As a somewhat picky eater, I sometimes struggle at restaurants finding a “Lia-friendly” item on a menu. I am usually able to find something to eat at most restaurants when necessary, but sometimes there’s a bit of the “substitution” game — no chicken, broccoli instead of mushrooms, tortellini noodles instead of bowtie noodles, vodka sauce instead of spicy arrabiata sauce, etc. Plenty of people make these kinds of changes, but I always feel bad. In the rare occasions when I order an item off the menu as is with no extra comments, I always feel a little extra excited, like I should get some kind of a ribbon.

It’s why I was so excited to see this friendly piece of the menu at a restaurant I visited this week, Piazza Bella in Roscoe Village:


It says: Piazza Pasta Prefirita: Don’t see your favorite pasta? As long as we have the fresh ingredients, we’ll gladly make it for you! Just ask your server….Market Price.

A sentence like that is music to my ears. People like me are welcome here! I can be picky, within reason!

As a Jewish professional, we’re always talking about how to make everyone feel welcome in our organizations, especially interfaith families, LGBT families, and families with special needs. We’re constantly working on language in our printed materials that makes it clear that these groups are welcome and we are willing to go above and beyond to make them and everyone feel comfortable. This little blurb on the menu is the Lia Food version of that, and it did not go unnoticed.

I truly enjoyed my potato gnocchi. The menu paired the gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce with cracked black pepper (for another blog post: is that the same thing as just “pepper”?), but I knew I’d be much happier with vodka sauce. And I was.

Thanks to Piazza Bella for making me feel extra comfortable!

Part II: Anxiety from an ice cream cone image

A follow-up to last week’s post:

I swear that I did not do this, but I happened to notice that one of the McDonald’s ice cream cone signs was slightly vandalized this week:


Loyal blog followers, did one of you do this???

I would never condone vandalism or damage of property, but in this case, well, it’s good to know I’m not the only one in this town who was driven crazy staring that messy cone.

Anxiety from an ice cream cone image

On my 18-mile commute to and from work, I drive by a lot of McDonald’s restaurants. I never actually have the urge to stop in one — as someone who keeps some amount of kosher, there isn’t much for me there — but their latest ad makes me feel extremely anxious.

The ad is a full window’s length of a perfect vanilla ice cream cone. And for only 79 cents, such a deal! But the ice cream cone is far from perfect. Here’s the photo they’ve been using:


Why would this make anyone want to buy this cone?! The ice cream is DRIPPING!

I imagine one of the fast food chain’s biggest audiences is commuters — and if I’m driving through the drive-thru and you’re going to hand me a cone that is already melting, well, me and my clean dress are in for a real challenge.

“Treat yourself”? To what, a dry cleaning bill? To a messy face? To using up every napkin in the state?

Is the image supposed to portray freshness? Because to me, this looks like they didn’t get the timing of my order quite right.

I have a very vivid memory of being on vacation in New York while in elementary school and ordering an ice cream cone. I remember having so much trouble with that cone. Ice cream was everywhere, on me and on the street, on my hands, on my face; it was a disaster. Since that moment, I vowed to never again order an ice cream cone — only cups and bowls for me! — at least while in public and not in the privacy of my own home while wearing a smock.

So this McDonald’s ad causes me great anxiety.

What would appeal to me and my fellow haters of sticky hands would be, perhaps, an ice cream cone next to a stack of Wet Wipes. Or an inverted ice cream cone stuck in a bowl with a spoon. Now we’re talking.