The struggles and spirituality of the TikTok hassid

In just 250 pages, Oshman, a mother of four who lives with her family in London, tells her life story, from her childhood growing up in Israel, through her IDF service and professional success.

 VOLUNTEERS ORGANIZE donated goods for delivery to families of building collapse victims in Surfside, Florida, in June. The author believes in the power of such positive religious action even when negative things happen.  (photo credit: REUTERS/KATANGA JOHNSON)
VOLUNTEERS ORGANIZE donated goods for delivery to families of building collapse victims in Surfside, Florida, in June. The author believes in the power of such positive religious action even when negative things happen.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KATANGA JOHNSON)

Self-help books designed to lead readers to a greater awareness of Judaism are plentiful and frequently tread on familiar territory. This latest contribution to the genre, by Michal Oshman, currently head of Culture at TikTok Europe and former international leadership and team development executive at Facebook, caught my eye and ultimately captured my heart.

In just 250 pages, Oshman, a mother of four who currently lives with her family in London, tells her life story, from her childhood growing up in Israel, through her IDF service and professional successes. Despite her sterling record of achievement, Oshman felt afraid and anxious. Growing up in a secular Jewish household, Oshman knew little about her faith and struggled through therapy before ultimately discovering the wisdom of Judaism. In writing her book, Oshman says that she is not trying to proselytize readers. “This book is not meant to convert you to religion,” she writes early on. Instead, Oshman shares what she has learned in an attempt to help people become better versions of themselves. The book is not intended exclusively for Jewish people, but she writes, “the principles apply to people of all religions and none, to anyone who needs help.” Oshman attended classes in hassidic thought, became more observant, and today is comfortable with her Judaism.

Oshman was ultimately able to replace the fear that she felt in life with a greater sense of purpose by realizing that caring only about herself and obsessing over her needs prevented her from leading a more fulfilling life. “When I focus on how I can utilize my talents,” she writes, “my achievements – even my failures – for the benefit of others, then I start to feel more fulfilled.”

The book is divided into ten chapters, each named after a different Hebrew term, such as Neshama (soul), Tzimtzum (contraction), Tikkun (repair), and Teshuva (repentance). In each chapter, Oshman explains the meaning of the principle and how she applied it in her daily life. In the chapter on contraction, for example, the author first explains the kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum, developed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century mystic, which posits that God contracted part of His light to make space for the creation. She then applies the concept to her own daily life, expressing the thought that being present with one’s child, spouse or colleague doesn’t mean that one has to take up all the space in the relationship. One must learn to give space to the other person. One of the hallmarks of this book is the author’s refreshing honesty and willingness to discuss her shortcomings as well as her strengths. Oshman writes that she was overly possessive in the early years of her relationship with her husband, and it was only after she gave him the space, that their relationship truly blossomed.

Oshman’s candor is further exemplified in a chapter on leadership when she discusses her army service as a lieutenant, which entailed responsibility for dozens of fellow female soldiers. “I was only a year older than most of these women, and I thought my soldiers would respect me less if I showed vulnerability or empathy – though, ironically, these were the very qualities I had been chosen for in the first place,” she writes.

 What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid? (credit: MICHAL OSHMAN) What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid? (credit: MICHAL OSHMAN)

In describing her shortcomings, the author tries to show how she has tried to learn from her mistakes. One of the guiding principles that Oshman cites is the idea that humans are designed to make mistakes. “Life isn’t about doing everything right, it’s about the internal struggle and (hopefully) the lessons we learn for self-improvement.”

Oshman quotes stories of several hassidic rabbis throughout the book, including sayings from Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and others. While I was familiar with all of them, the way she utilized them in her daily life stood out. For example, Oshman cites the aphorism of Rabbi Bunim, the 19th-century hassidic rabbi who said: “Everyone should have two pockets, with a note in each to use when necessary. One note should say, ‘The world was created for me,’ and the other the words, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” Oshman writes that she was puzzled when she first heard the story. “Why should I consider myself dust and ashes? Why would anyone choose to think of themselves as dust?” Ultimately, she recognized that Rabbi Bunim’s words teach the importance of maintaining a balance between thinking about oneself and the world at large. Oshman relates that she wrote both notes, carried them with her, and described a situation when they came in handy after being denied a promised job promotion. Initially, she was disappointed and hurt at not receiving the promotion. She then decided not to focus on her ego and took out the “dust and ashes” note from her pocket, which she writes, “reminded me I was not the center of the universe after all.”

In the book’s chapter on parenting, titled “Guide your children by the soul,” Oshman relates how she learned to teach her children according to their nature, rather than attempting to mold them into what she wanted them to become. She quotes the well-known verse from Proverbs – “Teach a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it” – and advises parents to focus on their children’s souls instead of their academic achievements. In an effort to ease family tensions among her children who were frequently critical of each other, Oshman writes how she instituted a weekly “Compliments” game at their Friday night Shabbat table, in which everyone is required to pay at least one compliment to each family member. By making it a family habit to express gratitude to each other, she writes, “we are not only improving the family experience we have with our children, but also teaching them something they will hopefully bring to their future families.”

Each chapter in the book features a series of questions for readers on applying the principles discussed in the chapter, and the book concludes with a glossary of Jewish terms and a listing of basic Jewish texts. Michal Oshman’s life story is interesting and illuminating, and the lessons and ideas that she discusses will be valued by readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike. 

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?By Michal OshmanPenguin Random House257 pages; $19.99