The Chai Road


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

The Chai Road

Shift of power

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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...

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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...

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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

 Permanent link

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.