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April 10, 2008

We plan, Sherre laughs

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/we_plan_sherre_laughs_20080411

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

The conversation was joyful and funny, but something was bothering me. I couldn't stop thinking about the poached eggs.

We had all ordered our breakfasts at the same time. I got my Irish oatmeal, my daughter got her bagel and cream cheese, but the poached eggs? It seemed like they would never come. Every time a server would come near our table, I would arch my neck to see if they were carrying the poached eggs. Waiter after waiter walked by, only to deliver food to other patrons.

The poached eggs weren't for me, they were for Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and the fact that they took forever to show up bothered me a lot more than it bothered her.

That's a good thing, too, because Hirsch has been talking a lot these days about the importance of learning how to handle the curve balls that life throws at us.

What do we do when things don't turn out the way we expected? When the great marriage we always dreamed about has turned into a nightmare? When our dream career has become tedious and repetitive? When our kids are not the Ivy League geniuses we wished they would be? When good friends disappoint us? When siblings, parents, bosses or rabbis let us down? When a tragedy turns our lives upside down?

Or when the poached eggs we ordered for breakfast take forever to show up?

When she wrote her new book, "We Plan, God Laughs," Hirsch knew there were no easy answers, and that the subject of how to handle -- and transform -- life's disappointments was as enormous and complicated as the subject of how to handle life itself. So she faced a dilemma, a common one in today's publishing world: Go too deep and no one buys the book, but make it too simple and you trivialize the subject.

And while she certainly didn't want to trivialize the subject, when you see the subtitle of the book -- "10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted" -- you can't help but wonder whether she did in fact make too many concessions to the marketing dictates of modern publishing.

Each chapter has a convenient opening that summarizes each "step" to finding your divine path. The chapters themselves read like a who's who of spiritual self-help: "Ending the Excuses," "Getting Present," "Celebrating the Divine You," "Partnering with God," "Re-creating your Creator," "Finding Your Divine Spark," "Engaging Up," "Finding Meaning" and "Questioning."

It all feels really neat and user-friendly -- perfectly tailored for today's harried consumers who have little time to read but still crave anything that can improve their lives.

So what saves the book from being another exercise in predictable self-help?

For one thing, the author herself.

Once you get past the paint-by-numbers packaging, it's her personality and generosity that dominate the page.

Sherre Hirsch wants to help you. That is clear. She will do whatever it takes to touch you and help you. Even if it means dredging up the saga of her parents' divorce, or the time a baby boy died on the day of a bris she was supposed to officiate, or the loving couple who were looking forward to a beautiful retirement but were rudely interrupted by the husband's heart attack.

Hirsch doesn't hold back. She will cajole, entertain, surprise, slow down, speed up, get somber, tell stories, go biblical, play best friend, big sister, stern teacher or philosopher; she'll get sappy, passionate, reflective and a little raw; and, if she has to, she'll even stoop to corny metaphors ("Lemons do not always become lemonade. Sometimes they become lemon pie or the base of some weird jam.")

She does all this in the service of helping you turn your life around -- like she did hers.

It doesn't matter that you might have heard or read some of these concepts before. Hirsch doesn't pretend that she has written the "Guide to the Perplexed"; she understands that 800 years after the era of Maimonides, the trick in today's world is not to obsess with philosophical novelty but rather to fuse disparate elements into an engaging and personal message.

She's savvy enough to be herself and allow her infectious personality to shine through. Like one of my advertising clients used to say, "I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care." Well, from the first line of her book, you know that Hirsch cares. If she were a therapist, you'd want to get better just to not let her down.

The deeper ideas in the book have a way of sneaking up on you. The rabbi takes you on these little journeys where, for example, a 10th grade science class on the subject of inertia will gently morph into the notion that the opposite of faith is not skepticism or cynicism, but fear. Or a discussion of leaky roofs will evolve into a challenge to become "the owner of your own life plan" where "fine" and "settling down" are just not good enough. Or a moment in New York's Central Park will become an epiphany on the deadening effect of routine.

The book ambushes you throughout with these personal challenges to see life differently. Maybe that's the rabbi's secret weapon: camouflage. You expect, when you see the pretty cover of the book, that you'll be getting soul candy, and then you're taken on a little whirlwind that makes your soul taste all the food groups -- even the bitter herbs.

There's a delicious irony in the notion that if after all the efforts to plan an easy-to-read book on navigating life, God decided to laugh ... and instead of an easy book, out came a mash-up of ideas that shakes you up and doesn't let go.

Just like the poached eggs that took forever, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch would have no problem with such an unexpected turn of events.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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