Michal Oshman begins her book What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid by recalling a memory from her first day working in a high-powered position at Facebook. On the wall was a sign that read: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It was a seemingly innocuous piece of office décor that stuck with her, encouraging her to confront her crippling (if high-functioning) anxiety through Hasidic wisdom. “The way I embrace it,” Oshman explains, “Hasidut teaches how to replace fear and anxiety with joy and purpose” in practical, everyday ways. Drawing heavily from Victor Frankl’s popular memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (first published in 1946), Oshman distinguishes a meaningful life from one filled with ego and instant gratification. It is a thought-provoking, well-written guide for anyone, Jewish or not, who is looking to navigate life’s many challenges.
Each of What Would You Do’s ten chapters focuses on a specific Jewish concept, such as bittul, living without fear; tzimtzum, finding joy through making more space for others in our lives; and chinuch, helping others, especially children, find their own purpose. Each of these concepts is explained in terms of its Hasidic context and how Oshman interprets the traditional definitions for everyday life. Using personal and professional examples, the author makes these concepts relatable to twenty-first century life. In fact, in some ways it’s like a secular Jewish version of Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared (2003), especially in its exploration of how we can fill what Frankl calls our existential vacuum: the emptiness that lives in us all as we go about our daily lives, ignoring the needs of our souls and the people around us. Living in a time in which self-care is a cultural buzzword, Oshman argues that thinking beyond our immediate wants is a more fulfilling, transcendent way to find joy. Vulnerability and compassion are not weaknesses, but opportunities to live authentically and grow as individuals.
While Oshman straightforwardly acknowledges her socioeconomic privilege (and her goal to use this to help others), the larger point here is a relatable one: we all have insecurities and anxieties that drag us down, no matter how good our lives might look from the outside. In our current cultural moment — when sickness, poverty, job insecurity, and civil rights erosions are all too common in America — these contemporary tragedies are exactly why we need What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid. As Frankl states, “in suffering and even in failure there must still be meaning.” We cannot always choose the circumstances life hands us, but Oshman makes a convincing case that we can adjust our mindset to meet life’s challenges with grace and joy.
Leah Grisham, PhD is a writer and educator whose upcoming book, Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot, 1748 – 1880 will be published by Vernon Press in 2022. She writes about Jewish life, literature, and feminism.