The Chai Road

Sher

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

The Chai Road

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.

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!

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