The Chai Road

Sher

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

The Chai Road

Hey Jude...

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Cindy mom  

With my mom's birthday a few days away, and Mother's Day soon after that, I was thinking about how sometimes I forget to tell my mom how much I love her and how lucky I am to be her daughter. As a kid I used to say that if I were ever lost, I'd listen for her laughter and it'd lead me to her every time--and that's still true today. My mom isn't like anyone I've ever met. She's Judy.

She taught me how to sing scales and do demi plies.

She calls me Cindeleh.

She insists that labor with me--a 9 lb. 11 oz. bundle of joy--wasn't "too bad."

She ingrained in me that you catch more bees with honey, and that extra boxes of Swiss Miss cocoa and Kleenex should always fill your cupboards.

She rips out articles for me on topics about American presidents, Israeli society, merengue cookies, and the newest trend in spring dresses from The Wall Street Journal, The Forward, and Glamour--in equal number.

She loves a rousing wedding hora more than anyone else I've ever met.

She was the first to tell me about Golda Meir, Shirley Temple, Sholem Aleichem, and Mary Tyler Moore.

She said she learned what sexy was when she first saw Elvis on TV as a little girl, a notion that was reinforced for her when she later saw John Travolta in Welcome Back, Kotter--and then once again when she first laid eyes on my dad, the real love of her life.

She doesn't like to talk about the weather.

She taught me to care about the big stuff, and not to sweat the petty stuff.

She showed me how to make cherry soup, lamb chops with mint jelly, smoked salmon pasta, and rocky road brownies.

She'll sing "Wheels on the Bus" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" to her 3-year-old grandson for hours if it'll keep him smiling.

She laughs easily.

She helped create a children's siddur.

She instilled in me a love for our two countries--Israel and America.

She turns the car radio up.

She believes in social justice.

She battled and conquered a serious illness with strength, courage, and grace when I was a girl.

She sang Yiddish and American lullabies every night to my sister and me when we were little and now sings them to my nephews.

She always let us eat our cake before our carrots because that's just how she rolls.

She wrote a play as a love note to her parents who came to Ellis Island from Russia nearly a century ago.

She's still asking me why Facebook is a thing.

She's generous with her hugs.

She's a hottie.

She passed down to me a love for words, and for telling stories.

She taught me that Yiddish has no word for weapon.

She sends me cards in the mail and leaves me voicemails, both simply to tell me how much she loves me.

I love you too Mom. Happy birthday and Mother's Day!

Have something nice to say about your mom too?  Click here to see how you can tell readers all about her…just in time for Mother's Day.

A status update

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I've had it. I'm done. I'm through with winter. And, since it doesn't look like winter is through with us--you can find me in one place, and one place only, for the forseeable future. 

On my couch.

With a big blanket, the one my grandma knitted for me when I was in junior high, swaddled around me as if I were a newborn baby.  

You see, I really really like my couch. It's a grey suede sectional, and my 5'9'' frame fits it like a puzzle piece where the two sides of the couch intersect into an "L." Its cushions embrace me like a giant hug as I curl up with a good book or a glass of Two-Buck Chuck, eat my Ben & Jerry's Greek peanut butter/banana frozen yogurt, or watch a rerun of The Big Bang Theory.

Sure, my couch and I have had some good times together in the past, but we hadn't made it exclusive until now. So I'm ready to commit, to take our relationship to the next level.

Here's the plan: From now until spring--and I don't mean the "meteorological spring," which apparently started this week, no I mean until I see the sunshine icon with the number "70" or higher next to it on my iPhone weather forecast app--I choose you, couch.

Oh, and winter, I don't know how to put it to you gently, so I'll just be blunt: It's been a long and cold run, and I'm breaking up with you. 

You see I came to this decision, while slipping on the ice yesterday morning, literally mid-fall.

It was a typical winter morning commuting to work, much like the other bazillion days of winter so far this season. But then, I lost my balance, after exiting the bus, climbing over a mound of dirty snow, the same type of pile of snow I and every other Chicagoan (maybe we're the real winter Olympic champions) have been jumping over this whole, long, slippery, sludgy, icy, bone-chilling, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad winter.

Okay, I didn't quite "eat it' as they say.  I was able to regain my balance, and composure, before actually landing face first on the sidewalk, but people saw me lose my balance, and it felt like it had the makings for a big ole pratfall, the kind that people tell their colleagues about at the proverbial water cooler.

If I'd fallen, people would have laughed, I'd have cried, and it would have been ugly.

Well, actually, that probably isn't how it would have gone down. After all, Chicagoans are nice people with nice, Midwestern values and manners.  If I had eaten it, good Samaritans probably would have helped me up. Mayor Emanuel himself would have reached his hand out to grab mine and guided me into an ambulance, where a handsome Chicago Fire paramedic would have restored me to health.

But, just the same, I've decided to take a preemptive strike before I really hurt myself.

So before there's another polar vortex, blizzard, or ice storm to contend with, it's time for me to take control in the relationship and say goodbye winter and hello couch.

See the rest of you in July!

10, 9, 8...

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There’s a lot of reasons to love being Jewish—community, Shabbat, Passover seders, really funny comedians we get to claim as our own, and mandel bread—but here’s another perk:

We members of the tribe get to ring in the New Year not once, but twice a year.

This year, the need for a winter celebration for the Jews seems all the more necessary—with the unusual occurrence of one of the earliest Chanukahs in history in the distant rearview mirror.

During the fall, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I take seriously the season of reflection, reviewing what I've done right and what I could have done better during the course of the Jewish year, asking people in my life and God for forgiveness.

And then a few months later, as the days draw shorter, the temperature plummets, and the smell of wood and pine fill the air, we get to do it all a second time around.

On Tuesday night, we’ll trade in our shofars for noisemakers, and this time ring in the new year with the rest of the world.

More than any other holiday, Jewish or secular, I hear people talk a lot of smack about New Year’s Eve. “It’s a waste of money…” “Too many drunken idiots…” “It’s a big hassle…” and “It’s impossible to find a cab…” they complain. And, yes, I admit their bellyaching is founded on truth.

But, despite all that, I kinda love it.

I love grabbing a sparkly top from my closet, hanging out with good friends, drinking a glass of bubbly—or maybe two—and starting anew as the clock strikes midnight. 

Just like in the fall, I once again take stock of my past year and look ahead to some of my wishes and goals for the next. There’s something hopeful and exciting about the unknown, the many varied paths and possibilities that will unfold for each of us next year.

My life, for one, played out very differently than I thought it would at the start of 2013. And for the people I know, and I’d venture for most of you, your year was different then you'd envisioned too; we all faced both times of despair and times of great simcha.

After we watched some doors close these last 12 months, we’ll see new windows open in 2014—windows that we can’t yet even see our reflection in.

Each of us will take a journey in the coming year. We already know certain hints of where are life is headed, but so much of the new year is a clean slate, yet to be written.

This time of year, the media fills our airwaves, pages, and phones with top 10 lists galore—everything this year from a spy fleeing to Russia to a trailblazing pope to a catchy little ditty sung by the Growing Pains dad’s kid to an irritating new word/dance move created by Billy Ray Cyrus’ kid.

I jump on the list-making bandwagon each December and brainstorm my top 10 resolutions for the year to come. The requisite tasks of dragging myself to the treadmill and procrastinating less usually make the cut, but so too do my deeper mandates, like “Spend the year living a life with meaning,” “Be better to the people I love,” “Do more FaceTime with my fast-growing nephews,” and “Laugh a lot.”

Let's each use these last couple days of 2013 to take stock of where we’ve been these past 12 months and we’re headed in the next 12.

And then, lucky us, we get to do it all again in September.

May your 2014 be filled with love, laughter, and meaning—and may your 5774 continue to be sweet! 

Culture of kindness

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I'm fed up. I don't want to turn on the news and hear about one more child taking his or her own life.

Most recently, we heard that a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Sedwick, committed suicide after being the victim of relentless cyber abuse and bullying by an estranged 14-year-old friend. That means Rebecca will never blow out her candles on another birthday cake, she'll never walk down the aisle on her wedding day, she'll never realize her dreams of what she wants to do in life.

I worry that we're becoming immune to stories like Rebecca's--but we shouldn't. Every couple weeks we read a headline about another kid driven to suicide because they were tormented by bullies either in the flesh or on social networks, on speed with the ability to spread gossip and venom to exponentially more people as fast as your fingers can post a status update.

A while back I attended a BBYO-sponsored event on bullying attended by around 100 Chicago-area Jewish teens. The kids were asked to stand up if they'd ever "witnessed or been involved in bullying." Every one of the teens stood up. Next, they were asked if they had a Jewish obligation to stop bullying. Again, everyone rose to their feet.

So many Jewish laws in the Torah forbid what today would be classified as bullying or being a bystander to bullying such as the following: Halbanat Panim-avoidance of public humiliation; Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof--justice, justice, you must pursue; Tzelem Elohim--every human being is created in the image of God; Pikuach Nefesh--saving of life, the highest Jewish obligation; Rechilut and Lashon HaRah--Rechilut prohibits statements that are untrue, while Lashon HaRah expands this prohibition to include factually truthful speech that might malign an individual; and Adam Yachid--the concept that every human being is unique and precious.

Stories about bullying don't start and end in the halls of school. We adults urge our children to treat each other with kindness, but a lot of times we expect them do as we say, not as we do. 

Just look at the culture of meanness and bullying that we're surrounded by every day as adults--figurative food fights and shutdowns on Capitol Hill, certain reality shows featuring vicious housewives, and famous people with names starting with the letter "K," and magazines at the grocery store checkout line, where women celebrities who look a pound heavier than usual are paraded on covers to be mocked.

A couple years ago, I watched Ellen Degeneres--a beautiful example of someone leading the charge against a culture of meanness and bullying--interview Chaz Bono who people had protested for his appearance on the show Dancing with the Stars because he is transgender. What Degeneres said moved me so much that I jotted it down at the time. "I am so upset about bullying in schools and until we take responsibility for how adults treat one another, [we need to] see that we are doing the same thing we're asking our kids not to do at school," she said. "…To say that he's different and he's wrong…shame on us for doing that. We should be an example for kids."

So a culture of kindness begins with us. And Shabbat, which we'll greet this evening, seems a perfect time to start. If everyone reading these words right now could go home tonight and--whether you have kids or not--just be a little nicer to one another, to the people we love, to the people in our extended social circle and even on Facebook, to strangers on the street, we could create a ripple effect.

Now I'm no Polyanna. I know that one little blog isn't going to stop us from hearing about another Rebecca Sedwick, but it's a start.

A fresh start

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I looked up at the moon and stars the other night. 

I was busy that evening, rushing from a Yom Kippur break-fast in one neighborhood to meet up with friends for an outdoor concert in another. But as I looked up at the sky, I stopped in my tracks.

It was a half a moon set against a bit of haze in the sky that night.

We're bombarded with images and stories in the news about all the horrors in the world lately, both abroad and here at home. But as I looked up at the moon and stars, the world looked so peaceful. I saw beauty, hope, and promise in the year that lay ahead.

We Jews get a fresh start this time of year. There's something invigorating about the unknown, all the possibilities and uncharted territory that will play out for each of us in the new year.

After we watched some doors close in 5773, new windows will open for us in 5774.

I attended Yom Kippur services at Mishkan Chicago, a non-denominational, welcoming Jewish movement started two years ago in Chicago by the inspiring Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann. Mishkan Chicago's mission centers around bringing more meaning and joy to each of us through prayer.

During the Torah service, Rabbi Heydemann invited people from the community up onto the pulpit for different aliyot depending on experiences we've had in the past year and where we're headed in the new one.

One of the groups of people she invited up were those who plan to make a big choice this year.

And, really, each of us will make many choices in the coming year--and that's exciting. We already know what some of them are, but other decisions won't present themselves to us for a while, or even until the moment we face them.

Reflect on the decisions, the big and small ones, you've made over your lifetime. We never realize what seems like an insignificant decision can ultimately change the course of your life. 

It's so very "Sliding Doors," a movie where one small moment changes the course of history for its main character.

We make our own choices--that's what free will is all about. But simultaneously, I find comfort in the concept of b'shert, knowing--hoping--that some of the choices we'll make this year, and that which is b'shert, work in harmony. 

Perhaps some of the steps along our journey are out of our hands, preordained by God, a force bigger than all of us. Perhaps who we're meant to meet, what we're meant to do, and who we're meant to become is written in the moon and stars.

Sit, Ubu, sit!

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A hero of mine, Gary David Goldberg, passed away last week. The Jewish television screenwriter and producer, who died of brain cancer at 68, created warm family comedies with lovable characters, including his most popular show—“Family Ties.”

Growing up, I never missed an episode.

The sitcom starred my favorite television character of all time, Alex P. Keaton, played by the courageous actor Michael J. Fox, who now battles Parkinson’s disease in real life with such grace.

The show, based loosely on Goldberg and his wife, centers around the Keatons, two hippy parents who came of age during the Vietnam protest era, and are now raising their children in suburban 1980s Columbus, Ohio.

Elyse, played by Meredith Baxter-Birney, is an architect, and a strong female role model for her kids. Steven, played by Michael Gross, is a goofy, but loving father, who works for the local public television station.

The kids are Alex—a suit-and-tie-wearing, chauvinist overachiever who idolized Ronald Reagan and the color of money. Then there’s Mallory (Justine Bateman), a shopping-obsessed teenager, and Jennifer (Tina Yothers), an idealistic youngest sister. Later, the show added Andrew, the fourth child, played by Brian Bonsall.

There were so many memorable episodes. There’s the one where Alex turns 18, lies to his mom, and drives with his friends to a bar in West Virginia, where the drinking age is lower. Then there’s the one where Mallory invites home for dinner, her boyfriend, Nick, a tattooed, motorcycle-riding artist who greets everyone with his signature “ay.” And there’s the one where Elyse punches Alex’s obnoxious teacher at parent/teacher conferences.

No matter what the dispute for the week was about, the characters would always end the 22-minute episode by hugging it out in the kitchen over a glass of orange juice. (No wonder those Keatons never caught colds with all the vitamin C they were drinking.)

What I—and so many other viewers—connected to most was that Goldberg wrote a show that felt authentic, and was brimming with love that we could all feel from the Keaton living room through our TVs to our own living rooms.

No matter what was going on in our own lives, the show was as cozy, familiar, and comforting as the Keaton couch.

As Fox told The New York Times shortly before Goldberg’s death: “[Goldberg’s] work is a celebration, of life, of relationships, of small family moments. A line like, ‘Why are there two milks open in the fridge?’ You could tell it was from Gary, so well observed without being trite or sappy. I used to marvel at what brought him to this place of gentle, loving humor…”

I wanted to soak in every moment of the show so much so that I wouldn’t turn the TV off until the closing credits of the episode had ended, when a dog would appear on screen with a voiceover saying “Sit, Ubu, sit!” Goldberg’s production company was named for Ubu, the name of Goldberg’s real-life family dog.

Goldberg has passed away, but he leaves behind a legacy of a show that will bring comfort and laughs to its viewers for generations to come.

Reclaiming a rite of passage

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It's been two decades since I was a bar and bat mitzvah regular. That was back when We Didn't Start the Fire blared in a continual loop on the stereo, Pretty Woman ruled at the box office, and "Multiples" fashions lined my closet.

It's been a long time since I fit the bar and bat mitzvah-attending demographic-back when I was a bat mitzvah myself, nervously chanting Torah, dancing a "snowball" dance, and drinking my bat mitzvah drink, a tween-made concoction so gross I'll spare you its contents.

Oh, how I don't miss those years.

But now it looks like I'm back on the circuit again. I've been invited to four b'nai mitzvot in a six-week period, including a bar mitzvah two weeks ago and a bat mitzvah last weekend.

In the past 20 years, since my own big day, the bar and bat mitzvah industry has gotten out of hand.  We hear too often about over-the-top affairs, where families are competing over who can throw the most lavish, gluttonous party, sometimes complete with circus animals and celebrity guest appearances.

I remember once reading about a Titanic-themed bar mitzvah back when the movie was at the height of its hype. Leonardo DiCaprio even made a cameo at the party. How odd to connect this beautiful coming-of-age celebration to a movie about such a horrible disaster.

Then, there was the infamous invitation, an image that will forever be seared into my mind's eye. My friend once showed me the invite for a bat mitzvah party, to be held at a nightclub with a name so erotic that I will chose to omit it from this family-friendly blog. The design of the invitation showed the 13-year-old girl wearing bright pink lipstick, a scantily clad, leopard outfit, and a seductive expression on her face. That's taking this "becoming an adult thing" too far.

Why do we want our kids to grow up so fast? Why would any parent do this to their child? Why would a parent send their kid to a party like this? Just…why?

The bar and bat mitzvah I attended during the last two weeks bore no resemblance to these ridiculous affairs. In fact, the celebrations were haimish, with sweet, poised young people at their centers. These are good kids raised by wonderful parents with an understanding of what our most core Jewish values are.

Indeed, it's not all over-the-top celebrations that I see. On the flip side, thankfully, there's been a wonderful trend of putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah. Families and synagogues are making service projects a central park of children's bar/bat mitzvah year, infusing more meaning and the Jewish concepts of tzedakah (charity, justice) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) into the process. 

Do you remember the 2006 film Keeping Up With the Steins? The small, underrated film offers a commentary on how too many Jewish families overlook the meaning behind the bar and bat mitzvah, and view this time of life as an excuse to throw an outrageous party. In the end of the film, though, the bar mitzvah boy ends up forgoing the fancy shmancy party, in part because of the downturned economy, for a simple celebration in his backyard-and he and his friends love every minute of it.

And, maybe, that's all kids ultimately want. To experience this special rite of passage in an authentic way. To gracefully take on the responsibilities of becoming Jewish young adults in front of their family, friends, and community.

JUF's TOV volunteer network offers guides to making mitzvoth part of the bar/bat mitzvah. Visit www.juf.org/pdf/tov/BBM_Guide.pdf for more information.