The Chai Road

Sher

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

The Chai Road

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

 Permanent link

I wish I could go back to Jewish overnight camp—now that I’m all grown up.

I’d appreciate it a whole lot more today than I did when I was a kid.

While most of my friends seemed to love it, the joy of overnight camp was lost on me. I only went once—when I was 9. After that, I never returned.

Maybe I didn’t like it because I had to swim in the freezing cold lake.

Maybe I didn’t like it because of those nasty shower shoes.

Maybe I didn’t like it because the guys would raid our cabin late at night. (I was too young to appreciate the novelty of boys hanging out in the girls’ living quarters.)

Maybe I didn’t like it because my overly earnest counselor terrified me about the evils of cholesterol as I gobbled down hardboiled eggs in the cafeteria one morning.  

Or maybe I didn’t like it because once, while lunching at a picnic table, someone accidentally jostled a bee hive under the table, and they swarmed in my direction, stinging me five times before I could even finish my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But none of those--not even the bees—explain it.

Really, there was one problem and one problem only: I missed my mom and dad.

A LOT.

I think about how guilt-inducing my weepy and prolific letters home must have made my parents feel. “Why would you send me here?” the letters would read like lines from the Allan Sherman song.

I recall one lunch in particular, only three or four days into the three-week camp session. The entire camp sat in the cafeteria, singing the Birkat Hamazon, the prayer after the meal, followed by a bunch of camp songs.

As we sang, I couldn’t hold back anymore, and the tears started welling up in my eyes. Just as the campers began belting out the beloved folk rock song “Cats in the Cradle,” I leapt out of my seat.

“My child arrived just the other day…” the rest of the kids sang, appearing happy and totally un-homesick.  

I bee-lined for the nearest exit before they could get a glimpse of my red, puffy eyes. I tore through the screen door in the direction of the camp flagpole, safely away from the room full of my peers.

And then I sobbed and sobbed.

I could still hear the faint sound of the campers singing in harmony. “Little boy blue and the man in the moon…”

More tears.

The egg-hating counselor came out to find me. Turns out, she wasn’t so bad.  “What’s the matter?” she asked. So I confessed: “I miss home!” She reached out and hugged me. In lieu of my mom’s hug, hers would have to suffice. And it did.

After that, camp improved. I only cried like another seven times.

I made some good friends, a couple laughably innocent crushes, and a wardrobe full of tie dyed t-shirts and friendship bracelets.

And I built on an-already budding love for Judaism, Jewish life, and community.  

Statistics show that Jewish overnight camp, more than any other Jewish childhood experiences, drives adult participation and identification in Jewish life later on, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Foundation finds that, as adults, Jewish overnight campers are:

-30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity

-37 percent more likely to light Shabbat candles

-45 percent more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more

-and 55 percent more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel.

Despite not exactly being the poster child for Jewish overnight camp, I somehow found my “Jewish” way. Today, I can check all the boxes: I’m happy to report I donate to Jewish charities, light Shabbat candles, go to synagogue, and love Israel.

But my camp experience, even just one year of it, taught me other lessons that I've carried with me all these years. Most important: the ability to step outside my comfort zone—and survive—and even have a little fun. 

So now, almost 30 years later, I'm ready for overnight camp.

Bring on the late night bonding sessions, campfire sing-a-longs, “Capture the Flag” games, swimming in the lake, camp dances, peaceful Shabbat services by the lake—oh and looooong summer breaks.

Where do I sign up?

Want to hear more summer stories from young Jews? Join us tomorrow night for Oy! Let Me Tell You’s storytelling event at Matilda’s. Click here for the deets.

   

Laughing at dandelions

 Permanent link

There’s this YouTube video that went viral this week. It’s an adorable 1-year-old boy hysterically laughing at his dad blowing the seeds of a windmill dandelion. It’s pure joy—babies laughing always are.

As we grow, the things that make us laugh (hopefully) evolve—I can’t tell you the last time I laughed at a dandelion. But we can learn a lot from little ones about laughter.

Happiness studies report that children laugh 400 times a day; adults only 17 times. I say we adults push for 20.

Being able to laugh, even amidst the crazy backdrop of life and the overwhelming turmoil in the world, makes for a happier life, no matter what your age.

We Jews share a robust collective funny bone. With all the tsuris we’ve been through as a people, we figure better to laugh than cry.

The act of “cheering someone up” is considered a mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. Indeed, the famed Jewish mystical rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, once said, “Whoever lives in joy does the work of the Creator.”

God knows life isn’t easy. Our personal lives are a constant “dramedy”—a big stew of joy tinged with heavy doses of sadness. As the late great Jewish comedian Gilda Radner wisely used to say, “It’s always something.”  

And on a global level, there’s so much pain. This week alone, as I write this, our hearts break as we watch the death toll climb above 5,000 souls in Nepal, and closer to home, tempers and frustration have exploded into mayhem and violence in Baltimore.

Sometimes it’s just too much.

So when I need a break from it all, I turn to funny people. People like David Letterman who, on May 20, takes his last bow as the longest running TV talk show host in history—a staggering 32 years.

This spring, I’ve been one of millions delighting in a parade of beloved guests, like Billy Crystal and Michael J. Fox, making their way to Dave’s desk for one last interview, and musicians like Tracy Chapman and Dave’s fellow Hoosier state native John Mellencamp performing one last classic song in Letterman’s honor.

I’ve been watching Letterman since I was only a few years older than that dandelion-laughing baby. (My parents subscribed to the philosophy that you’re never too young for dry, and maybe even off-color, wit.)

Over the years, audiences like my family have watched Letterman evolve and soften his acerbic humor; a heart attack and the birth of a son later in life will do that to a guy.

But I remember one other moment that changed Dave—and it changed me too.

On Sept. 19, 2001, Letterman came back on the air for his first show post 9/11. Even amidst our collective grief and as Ground Zero still smoldered, we listened to Letterman’s first monologue back. In it, he spoke about courage—the courage of the New York mayor and of all of its citizens, and he championed the first responders who sacrificed their lives to save as many lives as possible, who protect us all.

When the planes hit the towers, like so many other human beings on this planet, I truly thought the world might end.

But something shifted in me after Letterman spoke: He made me believe that somehow we would carry on. Not in the same way as we did on Sept. 10, but in a new way, that we’d have to figure out together.

Most of all, he made me feel like it was okay to laugh again. In fact, we needed to laugh again. And we did.

So thank you, Dave, for everything.

Here we are, almost 14 years later, and the world keeps spinning. We face new sadness, fears, and uncertainty that we never could have imagined.  And I wish I knew how to fix it, but I don’t.

But the one thing I do know is it’s okay to keep laughing.

Be my (many) valentines

 Permanent link

Any Hallmark aisle, Zales commercial, or Facebook newsfeed will tell you that Valentine’s Day is for lovers. But even for those of us still searching for our beshert—our lives overflow with love. 

Psychology experts agree that one of the biggest indicators of happiness is strong connections of any kind with one another.If that's the litmus test, then I’m one happy lady.

So here’s to my many valentines.

Happy Valentine’s Day…

To my old college roommate who would scour Chicago with me in search of the city’s best pad thai, who shares my 10.5 shoe size, and whose daughters call me “Aunt Cindy.”

To my parents (together), who want more than anything for their children’s lives to be filled with joy—because that’s the definition of being great parents.

To my older sister, who I’ve always idolized and looked at as the “Arthur Fonzarelli” of siblings—so cool—and yet she’d do anything in the world for her annoying little sister.

To my late Grandma Tessie—the ultimate nurturer—who made the best salmon patties, and who upon every visit to her apartment would hand her grandchildren a black comb, pink footy socks, a shower cap, and Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drops, the sum of which could fix any wrong.

To my dad, who I’m lucky was the first man in my life and has been there for me for every day since—and who makes the world’s best Trivial Pursuit teammate, knowledgeable about all subjects, from biology to geopolitics to Sylvester Stallone movies.

To my guy friend in Colorado, who always manages to sense when I’m having a bad day from hundreds of miles away, and send me an uplifting text, paired with the perfect emoji, to turn my mood around.

To my three little nephews, who make me happy every time they smile, sneeze, laugh, dance tell me a joke with no punch line, and find magic in the mundane things the rest of us take for granted like the El train, the produce aisle at the grocery store, or even dirt.

To my loving, hilarious Long Island-based grandparents, married 68 years. When I recently asked them their secret to a happy marriage, my grandpa replied, “Don’t go to bed angry,” and without missing a beat, my grandma chimed in with, “and only go to bed with each other.”

To my childhood best friend who I first met while treading water in the JCC swimming pool the summer before kindergarten.

To my longtime Chicago friend, who I was introduced to because we were both working and living in the same building, and didn’t know it. She makes me feel like I have family in Chicago, even though mine live out of town.

To my newest Chicago friend, who asked me out on a “girl date” after meeting me in person for two minutes at a Passover break-fast; we clicked so fast you’d think we’ve known each other 10 years, not 10 months.

To my mom, who’ll sing Yiddish folk songs to her grandsons for hours on end if it will make them smile, who has taught me to always join in a hora at any simcha, and insists that labor with me—a 9 pound 11 ounce bundle of joy—“wasn’t really that bad.”

To the family who I grew up across the street from, and spent as much time in their house as I did my own—sharing Shabbat dinners, competing in Super Mario Brothers tournaments, and playing kickball in the backyard. Jewish Canadian transplants, their sensibility matched ours to a tee. We were related not by blood, but by love.

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. Hope all your days are filled with love.

 

Next year

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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.

CONNECT WITH US
JUF NEWS EXPRESS

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.

Bank Leumi box ad
Chicago Loop Synagogue box ad
Julycover15

Want news of Chicago, Israel and the Jewish world in your mailbox each month? Subscribe to the print JUF News, by making a contribution to the Jewish United Fund.

Claims Conference