Michelle Mekky: Fear is What Holds Us Back

Michelle shares her struggles and triumphs in balancing a demanding career in public relations, while navigating an interfaith marriage. Raised in a conservative Jewish family, Michelle’s relationship with her husband, Sam, was controversial and often the subject of criticism from her family early on. She tells the story of how her family has grown and prospered against all odds, and how we can live up to our wildest dreams if we conquer our fears. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.

“I am a native Chicagoan. I was born here, and grew up on the north side of Chicago until about age 5, when my parents moved up to the north suburbs; Morton Grove is actually where I grew up. I really went to school, all through elementary school, high school, in the area there; actually, my parents did send me to a private Jewish school for a short period during my childhood (it was fifth grade through eighth grade, actually) because I’m born Jewish. When I was in public school, I hadn’t really been learning anything about my religion so I did end up going to a private Jewish school, and learned how to speak Hebrew fluently. I ended up going back to a public high school, because I just wanted that experience. So I went to Park View Elementary until fifth grade, and then I went to Solomon Schechter (which was the private Jewish school I referenced), and then went to Niles West High School.

So I was ten, I believe…yep, ten years old when I started. It was radically different than anything I had experienced before because it was really like regular school with English and math and social studies, but then we had a lot of Hebrew classes, language classes, Bible classes, Jewish history classes, and then actual prayers. It was very different, but I have to say I took to it very quickly; I loved it. I was very good at learning a different language, which I didn’t expect, and most of the kids there were already speaking and learning since kindergarten. I didn’t know any Hebrew, and was able to really learn it in three years and speak just about fluently by the time I went to high school. Then I had a decision to make: It was either going to be a public high school or the private Jewish high school, where most of my classmates were going, that was in Skokie (IL) at the time. I really struggled with that decision up until just about the first day of school, when I decided to go public.

High school was really amazing; I was an academic, I studied super hard, I got great grades, I was not the girl that would go out to a lot of parties or socialize–my dad was very strict again. I could only date Jews growing up and I was terrified to let him down so I didn’t really have any boyfriends and I just spent my time studying. Really, it was because of high school that I found my love of journalism. That happened in my junior year in English class, where my English teacher was also the advisor for the newspaper. He really took to me and said that I was a very talented writer and suggested that I go out for the school newspaper and as soon as I did it was like a natural fit. I was able to become Editor in Chief my senior year, I had my own column, and that’s really what inspired me to pursue journalism: being able to write things that affected people.

One of my favorite pieces that really stood out to me was when my grandmother passed away. It was my mom’s mom. It was the first time I experienced death. I was just a senior in high school and I witnessed such sadness, and I said goodbye to her in the hospital–I literally saw her pass from being alive to, you know, passing and it really impacted me as a teenager. So I wrote about it; first of all it was very cathartic to write about it, but then the response I got from students, from teachers, from the public who read that piece, was tremendous. It really resonated with them. And so I thought oh my gosh, if I could actually write and inspire people or teach people or create emotion in them, that was a power I felt I had and I felt such love for doing that. So I started to look into journalism schools and ended up picking only the best one that I could find: Northwestern.

When I graduated it was very difficult to get a job (that was ’94), and I went on two quick interviews in Indiana and Wisconsin, and I didn’t get the job right away and I was quickly discouraged. So my dad was pressuring me to make money, and I ended up taking a PR job at the Israeli Tourist Office. They were looking for a head of PR, and I saw this ad and I said, okay I speak Hebrew fluently, I’m Jewish, I know media–this job is perfect for me. They hired me on the spot, but I really did that just to support myself until I could find my television job. I mentioned my professor because what happened is that he called me up when he found out that I wasn’t in broadcasting–that I went into a P.R. job so quickly. He called me and said, ‘what the hell are you doing? Why would you give up after three months? You just graduated–you were my A+ student! You can’t leave the industry, the longer you stay out, the harder it’s going to be to get back in.’ He said, ‘I gave your name to FOX, and a man named Art Surf is going to call you for a writing test–they’re looking for writers on the morning show. You should go in and take the test, and work–at least freelance in TV.’

That’s exactly what happened, and that’s how I got my start at FOX because he did call me and I went in, and I took a writing test and they hired me immediately as a freelance writer. It was freelance, so I kept the job at the Israeli Tourist Office, which was a 9-5. I would go home, and then when they’d call me in for FOX, that shift was 1am to 9am, which was writing for the morning shows. What I didn’t realize was that that was going to turn into they were going to call me every single day. I was working literally around the clock, sleeping very little, until I finally got hired full-time at FOX, but it was very difficult.

The bulk of my career was spent being a journalist and also it was an interesting time in my life where I was dating, and then I was engaged, and then I got married (and I invited almost the whole station), and then I had babies. I was pregnant and I was the producer that was waddling in the hallways, and they’d seen it all. So it was twelve years of my career, and those friendships still last until today.

At the Israeli tourist office, when I was working there heading up the PR department, my first week on the job we unexpectedly had all of these diplomats coming in from Israel, and my boss said, ‘we need to bring in someone to help us order a whole new networking system, can you find a technology company to call? We need someone in here like tomorrow!’ And I thought, who am I going to call? And I started looking through a file and found a receipt from a company in Chicago from ElecTech and I called them up and I said who I am, and they had somebody call me back. His name was Sam, and he said that he was going to come out the next day…and that is now my husband. So Sam is the one who came to the door of the Israeli tourist office; he came in and we had a great first meeting. I will say that some of the people in the office mentioned to me that they think he’s Arabic, and this is an Israeli office so obviously they were questioning and I thought, gosh! I mean come on guys what are you talking about? Like, he could be anything. After the end of the meeting, one of the Israeli meeting said, ‘Sam, where are you from?’ And he says that he’s born in Chicago and he’s Egyptian. And I thought, wow! They really can spot their nationalities–I had no idea!

He was Egyptian and here I am, this Jewish girl who was raised very strictly, suddenly somehow developing a crush on this wonderful man who ended up being Egyptian. He was Muslim too, and when I found that out I thought, oh gosh this is very forbidden to me; I’m really going to ruffle some feathers in my family. So I tried to deny the fact that I really did have a crush on him but I couldn’t, and eventually we started dating and it was quite controversial at the time–very much so.

To backtrack a little bit, his colleagues knew that he liked me and they were trying to find a way to get us to go on a date together and they made up some story where I had to go to his office in Lincolnwood and pick up a file that I needed. I drove out there and I was excited, we stood in the parking lot and I told him, ‘they told me I needed to get this file from you,’ but it was pretty much a setup. We stood there and we talked, and then I said, ‘you know, I need to shop for a new car,’ and he said, ‘well I can help you, why don’t we do that this weekend?’ and I said, ‘oh, okay that sounds fun,’ and he goes, ‘okay and then maybe we can grab dinner, and that was our first date.

So the weekend happened and I talked to my mom and I panicked, and I said, oh my God I can’t go on a date with him, and I cancelled. He sounded so devastated and disappointed that I said, ‘okay, you know what lets just go for a drink on Monday.’ It was a local bar in our neighborhood (so that was our first date), and I told my mom. I said, ‘Mom, I’m meeting someone I met through work–it’s not a date.’ And she said, ‘who is he?’ and I told her and she said, ‘you’re crazy,’ and I said, ‘out of courtesy I just need to go and have this meeting.’ We met, and after that it was pretty much…we’ve been dating from then on. (laughs) We really liked each other, so that turned into a five-year relationship before he proposed. But it was extremely controversial. He was raised Muslim–pretty religious–he lived ten years of his life in Cairo and had no interest in converting, and my faith is very important to me so I knew that wasn’t going to be an option so we talked about it, and it was basically can we compromise enough?

We were trying to let enough time pass where maybe our families would calm a bit, but when he did finally ask for my hand in marriage my dad said no–he did. He just could not accept it. He was raised with a lot of anti-Semitism in Ireland, in Dublin, being one of the only Jewish families there, it was part of who he was; the fabric of his being was that you stay within the religion. So what did my husband do? He decided to take me on a cruise and propose anyway. It was just what we decided to do, and I said ‘yes,’ and then I was terrified.

Somehow, when I look back on it, I have no idea how I had the strength (we’ll put it that way) to get through it, but I did. We had an amazing wedding and we represented both religions: we had a Muslim cleric and we also had a rabbi, and we invited both sides of our families and we hoped for the best. (laughs) Let’s put it this way: not everyone was happy in the end, we couldn’t please everybody but we did our best–we really did! It was a tremendous wedding and still, to this day, people say to me that it was an amazing wedding. It gives me hope that, through acceptance and love, who knows what could happen in the future?

We have two kids, they’re named Adam and Hannah (both Biblical names that can be in Hebrew and Arabic) because we wanted them to obviously be cross-cultural names. It’s been hard, I’m not going to lie. Before kids it was a lot easier to just put the religion on the shelf and not make it part of our daily live. But once we had children, and once they got a little older and they’re now aware of who their parents are, they’re questioning who they are and what they should and shouldn’t know. We live in a community which is mostly Christian, so a lot of their friends go to Sunday school, they go to religious ed., they go to Church, and my kids don’t really do much of anything. We don’t follow religion super closely, mostly because we’ve both had to compromise. We’re teaching them to believe in God, we’re teaching them basic values. They do celebrate the holidays–my mom kind of keeps the holidays for us.

My dad passed away suddenly when my son was only eight months old; I didn’t even know if he was going to come to the wedding, but he did and he had the time of his life. He hasn’t really been able to see how we’ve made our lives, but my mom has. He’s hopefully smiling. He came around a little bit when my son was born, he definitely did! We tried our best, and we’re trying our best, and there are going to be more tough challenges ahead–especially when it comes to dating (my kids are definitely going to want to start dating), and when they get married. They’ve asked questions like, do you mind who we marry? And we said ‘no,’ you know, obviously, look at us–we’re the perfect example of ‘rise above,’ and just accept who you fall in love with and make the best of it.

I left FOX in 2006. I think I’m meant to go beyond being a producer in a dark newsroom overnight, and I really did feel that way. It took me a long year to make that decision and then I just quickly started looking and immediately go hired by a small PR company here in Chicago that was just starting out. It was a big decision, and a lot of people think I’m crazy for leaving such an exciting job–and it was, it was an amazing career.

I actually had worked for three PR companies before starting my own, so in the past decade I was the senior manager at three separate PR agencies. The first one was very small; I became president of that company working with the CEO and the owner to really grow that business, and that was a lot of local experts and individual businesses and restaurants. Then I went to a bigger agency that was doing a lot of national clients; I led the Turkish Airlines account, I did some amazing things like taking media to Istanbul on press trips. I got to lead press conferences and gateway openings where I was interviewing stars like Kobe Bryant when they debuted their Turkish Airlines commercial. So I got to do some cool stuff there and then I went to another agency here in Chicago, which was doing a lot of hospitality and consumer products, and then I decided to start my own [PR firm] only about a year ago.

There were a few reasons I decided to start my own PR company: I’ve had a few “Aha!” moments in my career, one being when I reached a point that I felt like I could really lead brands and lead campaigns, and I wanted to call the shots. I felt that I had enough knowledge and enough experience that I could do it, and I wanted control over my own life. But the biggest “Aha!” moment for me, really, was surviving cancer. That happened three years ago, out of nowhere. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while I was working about eighty hours a week, while I was running an agency and out of nowhere, they found a tumor. I had no symptoms, no warning signs–although then I was working too hard, as usual. But I didn’t have any idea that that could happen, and I saw how fragile my life is and how short my life is.

I got very lucky, it was diagnosed at stage-one, which is very rare. For most women, when they find ovarian cancer it’s too late. They told me I had a giant tumor and that I was a very young woman to have one, and so I had major surgery. Luckily my life was spared; I didn’t even need chemo, they caught it early enough. That was a big wakeup call to me, number one to take care of myself, but number two that if I want to do something, don’t be afraid.

My goal is to get closer to an ocean one day (laughs). I love Chicago, I’ll never leave Chicago, but I’m very inspired by water and I absolutely love the ocean. So I’m hoping to maybe have an office–who knows–in L.A., or spread beyond just Chicago– Laguna Beach is kind of the magic spot! I guess I would say don’t have fear, because I think fear is what holds us back. So shake off the insecurities. Truly, I feel, the power is in our hands to create what we want to create; you just have to believe in yourself, and you don’t need to be wealthy, and you don’t need to be given gifts, or born into a lot of privilege. Really. I’m first-generation; I started from nothing, and just kind of made things happen–and my story’s not over yet. I’m excited to continue my story. I think it’s just beginning, honestly.”

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