The Chai Road


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

The Chai Road

A different kind of 'ugly holiday sweater'

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The “CupGate” controversy that brewed this week over the holiday imagery that wasn’t printed on Starbucks cups was, in a word, dumb.

But the holiday message that was emblazoned on sweaters for sale at Nordstrom’s—garnering far less media attention—is way more disturbing.

The department store is the latest to pull offensive Jewish merchandise from its shelves and website. This time, the item in question was a Hanukkah sweater embroidered with the words “Chai Maintenance” on the top and “Hanukkah J.A.P.” on the bottom.

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Photo courtesy of JTA.

J.A.P., which stands for Jewish American Princess, is a derogatory term used to attack Jewish women. As a Jew and a woman—and as an evolved person in general—I’m sick of this worn-out, gross stereotype, which portrays all Jewish women as spoiled gold diggers. It's, in fact, the exact antithesis of core Jewish values centered around the concepts of tzedakah (charity, justice), gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), and tikun olam (repairing a broken world). 

The Nordstrom’s sweaters follow in a long line of major fashion chains, including Zara and Urban Outfitters, that have messed up and apologized for offensive merchandise directed at the Jewish community. 

In recent years, Zara and Urban Outfitters have done a mea culpa for selling clothing featuring yellow stars and other designs reminiscent of the Holocaust.  And back in 2004, after being flooded with complaints, Urban Outfitters discontinued selling its controversial tee, part of a line of ethnic T-shirts.

One shirt, for example, read: “Everyone loves a Catholic girl with miniature crucifixes decorating the slogan, while another declared “Everyone loves an Italian girl,” illustrated with pizza drawings. The Jewish-themed shirt, with a far less innocuous tone, read “Everyone loves a Jewish girl,” surrounded by dollar signs and purses.

We in the Jewish community should worry what these toxic stereotypes represent, concepts synonymous with money and materialism. 

The JAP image has been around a long time. It dates back to the 1950s, when Jews themselves, outsiders in a new land, coined the term as a defense mechanism, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and professor of American studies. Then, in the 1970s, the image grew in popularity when consumerism took hold. But today, even though we are no longer outsiders, the JAP stereotype has stuck. 

And the origins of the rich/greedy Jew, in general, originated even further back—born many centuries ago when Jews were relegated to occupations dealing with money. Ever since, throughout history, Jews have been targets of this hateful stereotype, an image that came to a head in Nazi Germany when Hitler employed it as a tool in the initial stages of his hate campaign against the Jewish people. The Holocaust is our most tragic reminder of what happens when a stereotype becomes accepted as a general truth, an accurate way to portray an entire people. Yet, we seem to have forgotten the lessons of the past. 

In today’s global climate, when anti-Semitism, cloaked at times as anti-Israel sentiment, is rampant around the world and on our own college campuses, at a time when we’ve seen a reemergence of anti-Semitism in a way not seen since World War II, we have even more motivation to dispel ugly stereotypes.

This obsession with materialism has no kernel of truth in my circle of Jewish girlfriends. It just gives my demographic a bad—and false—rap. There’s the argument that some Jewish women are “princesses.” Yep, that’s true. But there are also Jewish “princes” and non-Jewish “princesses” and non-Jewish “princes” out there because, well, it’s a big world with all kinds of people—many of whom I wouldn’t choose to befriend. In fact, there are people of every ethnicity, sex, race, sexual orientation, and religion that fit every stereotype—and yet those images don’t creep their way onto seasonal sweaters.

So next time, retailers, you're brainstorming holiday wear, I've got a tip for you: Take a cue from the most popular coffee chain in the country and consider selling plain, solid-colored merchandise--even if it is a little more boring.

Because sometimes less is more. 

The Hanukkah sweater, pulled from Nordstrom’s, is still available on without the J.A.P. reference.


Time capsule

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This past weekend, I visited my hometown. During my stay, I spent some time digging through the archives of my childhood bedroom. Among the time capsule treasures I unearthed:

My baby book with my mom’s proud chicken scratches marking the milestones of her youngest daughter, along with a lock of soft brown baby hair sealed in a Ziploc bag clipped to the book.

An old high school yearbook: It featured an awkward picture of me playing Junior Varsity volleyball. I felt for that girl, self-conscious and uncoordinated, not exactly a future recruit for the college volleyball teams. Plus, my childhood besties’ 1,000 word cursive essay scrawled in the yearbook, professing that we will ALWAYS stay friends. (She predicted right.)

A photo album from my bat mitzvah, showcasing pictures with my relatives, like my sweet late maternal grandmother. I could feel her presence in my bedroom with me as I gazed at the photo of her embracing me: the smell of her perfume, her dulcet laugh, the thought of her gripping Cherry Luden’s Cough Drops in one hand, and a black comb and pink footie socks in the other, a trifecta of odd, yet nurturing items she offered upon every visit with her grandchildren.

A tattered loose leaf cookbook made of construction paper, created by my preschool classmates and myself in 1982. All the recipes were hilarious in retrospect. Mine was for corned beef. It went like this: “She (I’m assuming my mom is the “she”) buys corned beef at the store and then she takes it off the wax paper. Then she puts it on a plate. She gives us bread too.” (Apparently I wasn’t so eloquent in my writing as a preschooler.)

A Whitney Houston cassette tape. I flashed back to my sister’s bat mitzvah party. Guests could sing karaoke to their favorite songs in an adjoining room at the hotel party. When my turn came, I made everyone leave the room so I could sing Greatest Love of All alone, too shy a 10-year-old was I to have an audience watching me, but I had enough spunk to want to belt out the Houston classic.

Bread and Jam for Frances, my all-time favorite children’s book, about a badger named, yep, Frances who will only eat—you guessed it—bread and jam for every meal to her parents’ dismay. During my visit home, I forced my nephews to let me read the book to them (so I had a thinly veiled excuse to re-read the book) even though they wanted me to read them some book about robots instead.

My cabbage patch doll, “Michelle Deena,” sat propped against the wall immodestly wearing pants with no shirt. Bald spots peaked through her head of brown yarn hair in disarray from years of me changing up her hairstyles.

The remnants of a wizard costume hang in my closet, a black robe with a few remaining gold starts pasted to the garment that I wore to say four lines for my fifth grade production of a play called Many Moons—many moons ago.

Next to the costume, hangs a little girl’s A-line dress, navy with green embroidery and multi-colored tulips.

As I sat on the carpet, surrounded by 1980s and 90s pop culture references, like The Breakfast Club movie and Rent musical posters taped to my wall, I wondered how I ever was small enough to fit into that tiny dress.  

Three decades flashed in front of me as I thought about the whirlwind journeys we all take in life in a blink.  

They say the days are long, but the years are short, and I say amen to that.

As we soon enter the Jewish New Year and a season of reflection, let’s take stock of how we want to spend our days which too quickly melt into years—and who we want to share them with.

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

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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.


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

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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

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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

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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.



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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.)


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