Reality Check

By: Jennifer Bitton

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In the Rosh Hashanah issue of Chicago Jewish Home, I wrote an article describing a project that would, G-d willing, help me instill a permanent change within myself for the new year. Like many, I am often so wrapped up in my thoughts and perceptions, that I forget that over seven billion of us have their own personal lives with many of the same problems we all have. Who says mine are any more important than theirs? Through one on one interviews with people around our community, I’m hoping to listen to others and hear their stories. People we see every day, but don’t necessarily react with beyond our own needs. The people in our communities who work so hard to make our lives better. Many check out our groceries, tailor our clothes, make sure our food orders are ready for us to bring home before Shabbos. I believe that if we knew more about the lives of others around us, we would be more understanding, more patient and, G-d willing, create many more opportunities for Kiddush Hashem. In reality, our stories are just a small part of a much bigger story…Hashem’s story. 

We all have an ego. Hashem created us this way. As a creation, like all other creations, the ego must understand that it too must be used for the good. It is ultimately a tool used to connect with others and our creator. Unfortunately, the ego is hard to manage. It has the ability to lead us down roads of self-centeredness and self-worship. If we don’t keep it in check, it convinces us we that we are more important than others and sometimes that our G-d given gifts and talents are a result of our own doing. Yet, it also allows us to understand the concept of being an individual or a “one”. It gives us the opportunity to learn that our aloneness is what makes us feel complete and whole. It gives us the opportunity to understand the words of Shema and connect with Hashem through understanding what oneness actually means.

After this, the ego gives us the opportunity to consciously break out of that personal individuality and choose to recognize that we are not actually separate. Everyone one  of us is infinitely a part of the whole. With this knowledge, we can do our mitzvot with a deeper understanding. A chance to do things not for selfish reasons, but for reasons of connecting to that oneness that we are all a part of. A chance to give tzedakah selflessly, visit the sick selflessly, acknowledge and respect each other selflessly and ultimately learn that not one of us is actually separate. We are all connected to each other through that complete oneness. We can’t always understand the “why” of everything. It is just because Hashem said so… and he is the only ONE.

Meet Forrest Mckinnie:

You are doing your weekly shopping at Jewel. Then, out of nowhere, you hear a booming, yet smooth, voice come over the loudspeakers throughout the store.

“ATTENTION JEWEL OSCO SHOPPERS! Right now we have a fantastic sale. Right now salmon is on sale for $6.99 a pound. What a deal! Don’t delay…Stop this way! Again we thank you for shopping your friendly neighborhood, keeping it fresh and local of course, Jewel Osco!”

That is the voice of Forrest. Many of us know him from his friendly demeanor, outgoing personality, a friendly smile or even just an everyday fish order. Either way, know him or not, he is definitely someone worth learning about. When I first approached Forrest about doing the interview, he was hesitant. As outgoing as he appears, Forrest is actually a bit shy and completely unassuming. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, but finally, he agreed.

Forrest was born on Northwest side of Chicago. As a child, Forrest loved fishing (ironic). His first job was working at his grandfather’s hardware business. Over time, Forrest enrolled at the University of Illinois at the Chicago Circle Campus. He began as a Pre-Med. student, but life doesn’t always allow us to follow through with  our plans. Between financial difficulties and the care he provided to his ailing grandmother, Forrest had to make the tough decision to leave school. Luckily for us, Forrest began his career with the Jewel Osco company over 35 years ago. He has done four commercials for the company and would love to pursue his true dream of doing voice-overs. However, his biggest success through the Jewel Osco company began over 30 years ago in the aisles of one of the various stores around Chicago.

Forrest saw Ruthie from a distance. They glanced at each other from across the isles, and he thought, “This is going to be my wife”. Now, 30 years later, Forrest and Ruthie have one son, two daughters and five grandchildren. Forrest is very proud of his children. His son is a talented artist. One daughter is currently in college, while his other daughter has earned three college degrees and is a successful teacher. He has a granddaughter who is in college studying international law and a grandson who is studying engineering. He was proud to note that they are both straight A students. Forrest loves teaching kids. He’s known as “Uncle Forrest” to kids throughout Chicago. About 8 to 10 times a year, Forrest gives tours to school groups around the kosher fish department. He teaches them the difference between kosher and non-kosher fish. At the end of the tour, he gives them a quiz on what he taught. Pictures and cards from kids from all neighborhoods line the back wall of the kosher fish department.

Forrest loves to travel. He and Ruthie go away every year. They’ve been to various destinations such as the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Aruba. “My vacation is whatever my wife loves. Every year, I take her on vacation for her birthday and she loves Aruba. So guess what? It’s usually Aruba. My best vacation is in the backyard with my grill. But I do love to travel. I love to go out of the country. I love seeing different cultures”.

Forrest has always wanted to visit Israel. He was featured in the 2013 Israel issue of Mishpacha magazine. “I feel so loved by so many. People came from Israel and said ‘I  heard about you! People put my name in the wall. I’ve got some really good people that love me and I love them back.”

Besides his dedication to his customers at Jewel, Forrest has a strong dedication to preserving the dignity of his community as well. Forrest is the Vice President of NBHOL (North Boundary Home Owners League). He works for the home owners in the area bounded by California, Kedzie, Touhy, and Howard.

After getting through some basic questions, I finally asked Forrest something I have always wanted to know. “How did you get to be so positive? You are seriously one of the happiest and positive people I’ve met”.

The answer was incredible.

“When you’ve had three bouts with what I’ve had, you learn to become positive. I had open heart surgery when I was born. I had a bad heart. I was told by four different doctors that I wouldn’t make it past age 21, but Baruch Hashem, I made it past 21. That’s why I never tell anybody my age. I always tell them I’m 21. Later on, just recently, I had a heart attack and also had a bout with cancer. So, when you’ve had those elements against you, your only outlook is look up and ahead. You can’t turn around and look back”.

Forrest continued: “I had a group of people that were going through cancer here. They would come to the counter, and I would encourage them. They would encourage me also. Even when I became cancer free, the group still exists here today. There are a few people who come in, and we just talk about it a little bit. I encourage them, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ They say, ‘I’m hanging in there’. Sometimes they may feel down. They come in and they’re down in spirit, and I try to get them back up. I say, ‘Life is too short. You can do this! I’m gonna be there’. All in all, I’m just an ordinary guy. I don’t want any praises.”

I began to realize that this was no “ordinary guy” as he had described himself. I asked Forrest about the “V” shaved into his beard, thinking it was just a cool fashion statement. Without hesitation, he said,  “VICTORY! Just surviving so much.”

On weekends, Forrest loves to spend time with family. “Family. Family to me is everything. It’s worth more than gold. Just to see my family happy. That’s my gift. That’s the greatest gift of all”.

When I asked who he admires most in the world, rather than name a person, he

immediately said, “G-d. To be able to create so much, giving man such imagination and yet we still can’t figure it all out. We can’t figure out how many drops of rain fall. People think they’ve got the world all figured out, but there’s so much”.

One aspect of Jewish life Forrest has come to appreciate over the time is Shabbos. “What I love about the Jewish way of living, and the world should adopt this, is Shabbos. When I see people walking down the street with their families and their kids, and taking their time out with their daughters or their sons, I think that is the most beautiful thing in the world. The world should just stop and adopt that. I don’t care what religion you are. Just stop and take time for the family and the kids… nurture and talk. We’re so wrapped up in cell phones, the internet and everything else, that we hardly ever sit down at a table and talk. To say ‘How was your day? How do you feel? What can I do to help you with this situation that you’re in’”.

One of the questions in my notebook was “Have you ever saved a life?” It came as no surprise to me when he said he had…three times. One story happened about six years ago in Jewel. “I heard a young woman screaming. Her baby had stopped breathing and had turned blue. The baby didn’t look alive. All the ladies were crying around her. She was crying, and for some reason, I felt like she was calling my name. I rushed over. This was an act of G-d. Of everyone she could have passed that baby to, she gave the baby to me. Coming from a large family of ten and also my school background, I pushed the stomach and dislodged an object from the baby’s airway. I got the baby to breathe again way before the ambulance or anybody could get here”.

I said, “You’re a miracle worker!” He responded, “No, Hashem is a miracle worker.”  Throughout the interview, Forrest continued to inspire me. His one piece of advice to the world: ”LOVE…let’s stop hate…the world needs more love. In my position of meeting and greeting people and just knowing people, I just see there’s a lack of love. I think if we all took the time to say good morning, good afternoon, good night. Or even, ‘Hey, I love you’, the world would be a better place. Kids today are a lot more mature than we ever were and have seen a lot more than we ever saw. If we take the time to just listen to them, there is a lot they could tell us. We just need to show them that we care. Help them and love them through whatever they’re going through.”

I said, “It seems like you’re Hashem’s messenger to help people. You’re just always there to help, and you really do help people”.

His response: “Well, that’s what we’re all here for honey…to help each other”.

It was such a pleasure getting to know Forrest. He was so humble and real. He was a true inspiration. The final question was actually, what I believed, was the most important question of the interview. “Forrest…Do you like fish?” He laughed and said, “That’s a great question! Thank you! Ummm…No! I really don’t like most fish. Now me? Give me a nice big juicy steak, ribs..anything other than fish…I’m with you!”

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