The Chai Road

Sher

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day.

The Chai Road

Next year

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Think back to your past year. What were the overarching themes for you? Who played starring roles? What were the biggest lessons? 

A couple weeks ago, I went to dinner with several Jewish friends. We took turns going around the table and sharing the biggest lessons we learned over the course of 12 months.

We’d collectively charted all kinds of new paths in 2014—exploring our spiritual lives as Jews, forging new friendships and deepening older ones, starting new romantic pursuits and closing the chapter on others, raising little children, and taking on new professional challenges.

For many, our past year played out differently than we’d envisioned, filled with simcha, but also sadness.

After we watched some doors close these last 12 months, we’ll see new windows open in 2015. Each of us will take a journey in the year ahead. So much of next year is a clean slate, yet to be written.

There’s something hopeful and exciting about the unknown, the many varied paths and possibilities that will unfold for each of us this year, new people waiting just around the corner to enter our lives.  

Yet we must embrace our hopeful future fully aware that the world also confronts us with human turmoil, strife, and disaster—a world crying out for repair.

So many bad things happened to good people this year. We saw the rise of a terrorist group whose evil knows no bounds. Ebola. Unprecedented levels of starvation and displacement in Africa. Gang violence in our own city. The crisis in Ukraine. The war in Gaza. A level of global anti-Semitism not seen since Nazi Germany and animosity reaching a fever pitch on our own college campuses. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice that—no matter what the circumstances—have opened our eyes to the level of racial tension and racism that still persists.

And this past workweek alone, the killing of two innocent people at a Sydney cafe, and the sheer horror of a Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan that killed 145 people, mainly children, that almost physically sickens me to write about.

As I sit here on Chanukah, recalling the darkness, my mind drifts to a place of light—a beautiful moment I had in Jerusalem a couple of summers ago.

I had just prayed at the Kotel with a friend of mine when we happened upon a celebration of people lining the streets of Jerusalem at sunset, holding hands, dancing, and singing a beautiful Israeli song, called “Salaam (Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu),” sung in both Hebrew and Arabic. The song, which translates as “Peace Will Come Upon Us,” has come to symbolize a call for peace.

Some of the revelers wore kippot, others dreads, and a few donned keffiyehs. People formed drum circles, adults and children beating the drums together in rhythm. 

In the spirit of the moment, I jumped into the crowd and interlaced fingers with a young kippah-clad man on one side and an Asian woman on the other.

When I asked the man next to me what was going on, he told me this was all part of what is known in Israel as the “Jerusalem Hug,” a show of prayer for love, peace, and unity that happens every year on the summer solstice.  

I recalled that beautiful moment in Jerusalem a lot this past year.

As we ignite the lights of both Chanukah and Shabbat tomorrow night—let’s hope for more such moments like that one in the year ahead, and let’s pray that one day soon we all will dance and sing that song of peace together in harmony.

 

MASH

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Remember when we were kids and we looked forward to our birthdays with gusto, crossing the days off the calendar as "The Big Day" grew closer? When our only worry on that day was how much birthday cake frosting we could stomach?

Then, somewhere along the way--after we reached birthday milestones like the ones allowing us to legally drive, vote, drink, and rent a car--birthdays took on a bum rap. At some point in our journey, when the number of candles on the cake started posing a fire hazard, growing a year older morphed into a subject of complaint and, sometimes, even dread. Balloon animals and party favors got traded in for over-the-hill jokes and guilt about where we are or, as the case more often may be, aren't in life--not a fair trade in my book. 

In junior high, my girlfriends and I would pass the time on the school bus playing this game called "MASH," where we'd try to predict our future. If you're a child of the 1980s, maybe you remember it. Here's how it worked: MASH is the acronym for Mansion/Apartment/Shack/House, delineating the potential choices for our future dwellings. We'd ask each other a laundry list of questions: What would we do for a living? Who would we marry? How many kids would we have? What type of home would we live in?

We'd take out a piece of notebook paper and jot down multiple choices for each category. For instance, for the marriage question, we'd list a bunch of names of potential husbands, like the guys we had crushes on in our grade, and then add in some famous heartthrobs, like Kirk Cameron and Michael J. Fox, for good measure. Then, using the scientific "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" counting system, we'd select the answers to each category, right then and there designing our futures. 

If only we could use this system in real life--and if only Mike Seaver were still on the market.

With my next birthday approaching before Thanksgiving, I've been thinking a lot about growing older and wiser, and some of life's biggest questions. 

A while back, I heard my parents' brilliant rabbi, Sim Glaser, speak at their Minneapolis synagogue. He had recently suffered from a burst appendix that almost killed him.  Wrestling with facing mortality head on, the rabbi delivered a dvar torah urging each of us to examine our own life and death questions, in a productive and positive way. What, he asked, is our life's purpose? What were we put on this earth to do?

I've thought about his questions a lot and, needless to say, I'm still searching for the answers and probably will be for a long time to come. 

But what I do know for sure is this: We're each meant to do many great things in this world. We're here to fulfill not just one, but many purposes in life, in our multiple roles as professionals, as parents, as sons and daughters, as siblings, as romantic partners, as friends, as citizens of the world, as Jews, as decent human beings.

All these years later, my friends and I--and really all people--are still playing the game of MASH. We may have answered some of the questions posed all those years ago back on that school bus, but now we're figuring out the answers to more. In fact, if anything, we've actually added a ton of new questions to our list.

And you know what? I don't think that's such a bad thing. 

We're not supposed to have life all figured out as 30-somethings or really any age, because how boring would that be? It's the most Jewish thing in the world to keep questioning, to keep striving to figure out who we are and who we're still becoming.

There's the old adage that growing older is better than the alternative. Yep, that's sure as hell true. But it's more than that. I say we adults take our cues from wise children everywhere and reclaim the joy that comes with celebrating a birthday.

Growing a year older, and wiser, is a big deal--whether you're 7, 37, or 107.

After all, celebrating that we were born, that we were brought into this fascinating, heartbreaking, and beautiful world, and that we're one year closer to figuring out who we are and what difference we're meant to make in this world is worth celebrating--preferably over birthday cake frosting. 

(This blog is based on a past JUF News column.)

Your guide to a sweeter new year

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The new year has just arrived and it's time for a clean slate. We Jews are lucky to get a chance to start over every fall as the shofar sounds a wakeup call in each of our lives. Back by popular demand--at least according to my grandma and mom--is my third annual guide to a sweeter year. Hope this year is sweet for you and your loved ones!

  1. Record your blessings. Two of my friends and I did this for one month every day this past summer. Each night before we went to sleep, we each wrote one thing down from the day that we were thankful for, from big stuff like "family" to less basic needs like, ahem, "Nutella." Then, we discussed our lists with each other. After all, gratitude, say positive psychologists, leads to greater happiness.
  2. Stand with Israel. Educate people you know about the Jewish State and debunk misconceptions. Buy Israeli products. Go visit. And, if you can't hop on a plane tomorrow, call or email your friends and family in Israel and let them know you're thinking of them. Show our extended Jewish family an ocean away that we're with them so they don't feel so isolated.
  3. Go to your happy place--literally. Find a peaceful spot, like the park or the lakefront, and steal a few minutes every so often (sans phone) to escape the chaos of our lives and the world, to take in the beauty of our surroundings, and to feel Zen.
  4. Follow your kishkes. Thank God our friends and family are there to advise us when we need them. But, when it comes right down to it, for decisions big and small, go with your gut.
  5. Do something a little scary. Fear can be a good thing. Don't let fear stop you from doing the things you want to do. They rarely seem as scary after you do them.
  6. Invite someone outside your circle to be a guest at your Shabbat or holiday table. Maybe you've heard of someone whose family lives out of town or who has had a tough year. Invite her into your sukkah or over for Shabbat dinner. You'll make her day a little sweeter-and maybe even yours too.
  7. Stop worrying what other people think of you-seriously. You heard it back in the fifth grade, again in college, and many times since. And now I'm telling you again: Those people that you think are following your every move, thought, and outfit? They're not. They're probably devoting way more energy wondering what you think of them.
  8. Take up space in the room. I learned this concept at a Jewish women's empowerment seminar, but it applies to women and men alike. Who you are and what you have to say matter. Own it.
  9. To quote some 2010 slang--Chillax! So many people try to make everyone around them happy all the time whether that means making the honor roll, saying yes to a work project you know you don't have time for, or going out on a JDate that you'd rather not go out on. But you know what? Sometimes it's okay to just curl up, binge on "The Mindy Project" and "Orange is the New Black" episodes, and eat some Ben & Jerry's Banana Peanut Butter Greek frozen yogurt.
  10. Get inspired. By a rabbi, an ELI or TED talk, the Torah, a John Green novel, volunteer work, or even a conversation with a friend.
  11. Keep in mind that most people are just good people trying to navigate life. It's easy to be discouraged, especially in the last few months, when we're inundated with 24/7 rhetoric and images of violence and hatred poisoning our world, but remember that most of us are just decent people trying to live in peace, discover our purpose in life, and maybe find our beshert along the way.
  12. Help repair our very broken world. Mentor a kid who needs a friend, volunteer at a senior home, or wait tables for a night at the JUF Uptown Cafe. 
  13. Dance like nobody's watching. Okay so you're not exactly Mikhail Barayshnikov or Justin Timberlake. Chances are neither is that guy at the club or dancing the hora next to you.
  14. Be and do Jewish in whatever way speak to you. Whether it's davening, honoring Shabbat, traveling to Israel, reading an Anita Diamant book, watching a Zach Braff flick, taking Hebrew at your local JCC, baking your family's kugel recipe, or maybe all of the above, find your own Jewish path.  
  15. Be present. Stop texting, tweeting, looking back in hindsight, and planning your future every once in a while--and just be.

 

 

Educating Zara

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As a teen, my favorite place to shop was Zara. We didn't have the store in Minneapolis where I grew up but on trips to the Big Apple, I'd stop in to browse and sometimes buy their funky, affordable clothes. Eventually, Zara, a Spanish company with locations across the world including 22 stores in Israel, expanded and opened up across the U.S.

Cut to, 20 years later, scrolling through social media this morning, my jaw dropped as I spotted a post about a Zara toddler-aged boy's shirt--a blue and white striped shirt with a six-pointed yellow star in the top right corner. The article of clothing had the word "sheriff" emblazoned on it, but the first thought that came to my mind wasn't a cute sheriff make-believe shirt. 

Rather, the image the shirt reminded many of us of was all too real, bearing a striking resemblance to the yellow Star of David mandated by Nazis for Jews to wear in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust.

Zara, known for its provocative clothing, announced today, that it has removed the stock of the shirt from its warehouses and plans to destroy it, according to the JTA. In a statement, Zara said "We express our sincerest apologies for any hurt to our customers' feelings." The store said the inspiration for the shirt came from Western movie classics, not from the Holocaust.

Even after an apology, I still don't get it. I don't necessarily think that Zara was intentionally trying to conjure up images of the most painful chapter in history for the Jewish people. I don't work in fashion, but I can imagine at any corporation, there has to be a thorough approval process before an item can hit store shelves. And yet here we are talking about it.

My guess is the shirt in question has less to do with anti-Semitism, and more to do with stupidity. But I don't think that clears Zara of responsibility.  Even if you've never met a Jewish person before, the yellow star, not to mention the stripes, is the most recognizable symbol of the Holocaust--well that and the swastika.

Speaking of, back in 2007, in a similar uproar, Zara removed a handbag with embroidered swastikas, bags that were manufactured in India, and inspired by commonly used Hindu symbols, which include the swastika.

Jews aren't the only minority targeted in Zara's merchandise. Recently, Zara was accused of racism for selling a t-shirt with the slogan, "White is the new black." Seriously?

Zara isn't the only store at fault. Urban Outfitters Inc., another clothing chain known for its similarly provocative merchandise, has been called out many times over the years for crossing way over the line. The chain has sold items offensive to minorities, including many that promote unhealthy body image for girls, like a shirt that says bluntly: "Eat Less."

Two years ago, Urban Outfitters removed from its shelves a men's shirt with an image on the breast pocket that evokes a strong resemblance to the Star of David, similar to today's shirt in question.

And back in 2004, the chain stopped selling a t-shirt, part of a line of ethnic t-shirts, that declared "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl," surrounded by dollar signs and purses. After being flooded with complaints, the company redesigned the shirts sans those offensive symbols.

That shirt was appalling to me too. As a young Jewish woman, I find the JAP image repulsive and hurtful, and the antithesis of Jewish values.

Time and time again, these stores have messed up and apologized. But "sorry" doesn't erase the damage that's been done and is still happening.

And, especially now, after a frightening summer that saw a reemergence of anti-Semitism in a way not seen since World War II, we need to take these types of incidents all the more seriously.

So let's find the silver lining in this. Let's use this latest incident as a teaching moment.

The employees at these companies, or maybe at all companies, could use a little education. Perhaps some sensitivity training and a few history lessons on subjects like racism, feminism, and anti-Semitism. Or maybe they could benefit from time with one of the incredible Holocaust survivors who are sharing their stories, while they are still living.

Because I really can't stand to think about what the next t-shirt they take off the shelves is going to look like.

Evolution

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I was shocked like the rest of you when I learned about Robin Williams' death earlier this week.  

But news of his apparent suicide hit me extra hard because Bipolar disorder, which the comedian struggled with throughout his life, has impacted my family and me firsthand.

When I was a little girl, my mom was diagnosed with the illness. Thank God, my mother--the best mom in the world in my book--has been healthy, happy, and thriving for many years.

For a long time, though, my mom's illness was devastating for her--and for the people who love her, especially my older sister and me, and my superhero of a dad, who cared for his sick wife and two young daughters, and still somehow managed to put a roof over our heads.

Back then, my mom's illness was barely talked about outside our home. We kept it on the down low, unlike the girl in my class whose mom had cancer and everyone knew it.

Words like "depression," "Bipolar," and "Lithium" have been a part of my vocabulary since I was a little kid, practically before most children learn to read, so the illness isn't new to me.

What is new is what I've witnessed this week, something beautiful in the wake of Williams' death.

Through social media, in addition to our collective grieving of a comic genius and mensch, we've seen an outpouring of people sharing their stories--post after post of people coming out of the closet with their own struggles with depression. Thirty years ago, when my mom was diagnosed, these types of public platforms didn't exist.

More than that, mental illness used to be shrouded in darkness. Today, that stigma is fading and--with a little help from this era of sharing (and sometimes over-sharing)--we're evolving. We're learning that people with mental illness, just like people with cancer, shouldn't be shamed, but should be listened to, treated, cared for, and loved.

And in the case of Williams, there is another layer. He was larger than life, so funny, so brilliant, and so famous, that his death is capturing our attention in a way we've rarely seen before. If mental illness could claim him--this beloved genie who brought us so much joy and laughter--then none of us are immune.

So, besides introducing us to lovable characters like Mork, John Keating, and Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams has left an even more important legacy, helping us--the living--shed light and awareness where once there was secrecy.

Williams' death draws attention to mental illness in the larger society, and in our own community too. One of the many reasons I love my work at the Jewish Federation is because of our resources in the area of mental health care. Last year, 2,525 community members received free or subsidized mental health care through the Federation agencies--CJE SeniorLife, Jewish Child & Family Services, Response, The ARK, and SHALVA.

All these resources and this awareness mean that maybe the next little girl whose mom is sick won't feel alone.

If you or someone you know is depressed, call Jewish Child & Family Services at 855-ASK-JCFS (855-275-5237).

To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1 (800) 273-8255.

Shift of power

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I was feeling powerless this week.

And I know I'm not alone.  

We're powerless to stop the heartbreak and turmoil in Israel.

We're powerless to bring back the innocent lives lost in the plane crash yesterday.

We're powerless to stop the gang violence in Chicago.

But then, on my way into the office this morning, I saw a guy in casual Friday attire hand a guy on a street corner a dollar--and I looked at things a bit differently. I remembered that we're not powerless.

In our little corner of the world, in small ways, we can take a bit of the power back. By doing mitzvahs,we can move the needle, and shift our despair into hope.

That's what my dear friend Stephanie did. Her infant son passed away in December and--being the incredible human being Steph is--she transformed her pain into something positive, by launching projects to help make other people's lives better. She did all of this in her son Rylan's memory, so that his short life would always have purpose.

One of the projects Stephanie created is a website for people to post kindnesses that they have committed or been shown by friends, family, and strangers. Even through that website, Rylan has left a beautiful legacy, creating ripple effects of kindness in the world.

Did you know that today is Nelson Mandela's birthday today, designated a day of service to make other people's lives a little better?

So I thought we could all take a cue from Stephanie, from Rylan, and from President Mandela, and each do a mitzvah this Shabbat:

Say a prayer for Israel and help our Israeli brothers and sisters through the JUF Israel Emergency Campaign. Buy a homeless person a sandwich. Give your seat on the bus to someone who had a harder day than you. Call up an old friend who you know could use a phone call. Invite an acquaintance who may not have a place to go for Shabbat dinner. The list goes on and on.

I'm not equating ending global terrorism with buying a guy a sandwich--because if only it were that easy. But I also think we can't just throw our hands up in exasperation.

As Pirkei Avot teaches us: "It's not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

So this Shabbat, stand up for Israel. Stand up for that person on the bus. Shift the balance of power and energy off some of the bad stuff and add some more good stuff into the world.

Because--man--does the world need it.

 

Rest, relaxation--and anticipation

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Woo hoo! Summer's finally here!

That means time for a vaycay. (Note to readers: This is the first time I've ever used the word "vaycay" and don't plan to use it again any time soon. I'm just so excited about summer!)

Picture yourself on the beach, staring at the water, frothy drink with tiny colorful umbrella in one hand, and young adult genre literature popular with adults and kids alike in the other.

Can you hardly wait? Well, maybe you should.

It turns out anticipating the vacation could be the best part. Maybe Carly Simon had it right.

Researchers from the Netherlands measured the effects of vacations on overall happiness and how long that happy feeling lasts in a 2010 study published in the journal "Applied Research in Quality of Life." They interviewed more than 1,500 Dutch adults, including 974 vacationers, and found that the vacationers felt most happy before their trips.

The study found that the biggest boost in happiness came from the act of planning the vacation, but after the vacation happiness dropped back to baseline levels for most returning vacationers. In fact, there was no post-trip boost in happiness levels for people, no matter whether they said their trip was "stressful," "neutral," or "relaxing." They were no happier than those who didn't go on vacation at all.

On the flip side, anticipating something hard, like a looming deadline on the calendar, can be tough.

Friends and I have talked about how we freaked out a bit just before we turned 30. We spent the bulk of age 29 anticipating our birthday with dread. But then, when the big day arrived, we enjoyed our foray into our 30 something years just fine. In fact, we even felt a little bit wiser and more confident with our new age.

Last month, I took a two-day intensive speaker training as part of my professional development. The company, called EMS Communications, is run by three very cool Jewish guys in Northbrook. They film you delivering unscripted speeches so that you can play back your speeches and figure out how to improve. I'm not a fan of speaking in front of groups without notes--so the thought of speaking in front of a group without notes for two days straight wasn't super appealing to me. But I did it anyway because it's the things we don't do in life that we regret.

I signed up for the course a month ahead of time, and pretty much thought about the upcoming course in the back, or sometimes the front of mind depending on how slow a news day it was, for a month straight--until I actually took the training.

And you know what? Once I was in the moment actually presenting in front of the others, it really wasn't that bad. The anticipation was by far the worst part.

Now I'm not saying I want to publicly speak every day. Let's not get carried away here. But it's amazing that the things we're scared to do so often seem less scary after--or even while--we're doing them. They can even be, dare I say, kind of fun.