Conquering Fear: Rabbis new book shows how to get the dread out

Rabbi Harold Kushner remembers an early encounter with fear — but not his own. It was his parents’. Born in post-pogrom Eastern Europe, they would not let their young son ride a bicycle, out of fear he might be run over by a car somewhere in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

Rabbi Harold Kushner

Now 74, the Boston-based Kushner has become one of the country’s best-known rabbis by addressing people’s fears, traumas and disappointments. His first book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” published in 1981, remains a perennial bestseller.

And Kushner hopes his latest, “Conquering Fear,” will similarly comfort readers.

The rabbi will give a lecture and sign books at a Thursday, Oct. 22 appearance at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“Fear is essential,” Kushner says, “but there is a line where vigilance transforms itself into panic, the way hot water will transform into steam. That’s the point where it becomes disabling. But if you’re alert you can cope with something that can happen.”

Filled with quotes from Jewish sages and personal anecdotes spanning Kushner’s rabbinate, “Conquering Fear” tackles today’s prime fear factors, from terrorism and natural disasters to aging and dying.

His core message is no different from the famous dictum of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: The world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.

But Kushner knows it’s easy to say, not so easy to do.

“I think [people] are more afraid than they have historically been,” he says. “The 24-hour news cycle has us afraid. More than any other previous generation, we feel that we’re entitled to be happy, and the prospect of it being taken away from us makes us feel cheated.”

In his book, Kushner writes about national tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Traveling over the years, he has met many people who suffered losses in those and other disasters, and he often heard them express fury at God for allowing tragedy to occur.

That’s something he welcomes.

“I encourage them to get angry,” Kushner says. “God doesn’t mind honest feelings, but when you get the anger out, you realize God is on your side. I went to New Orleans a year after Katrina and spoke to 1,000 people in a church. I told them that same message and I think it was comforting. People need to be told God is on their side.”

As for the conquering of fear, Kushner realizes it’s not easy in a society that routinely peddles fear on the nightly news and in advertising. One of his prescriptions is simply to use the rational mind: Why avoid flying when your odds of having an automobile accident are so much higher?

He quotes the late psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

“[Frankl] would say, ‘Do what you’re most afraid of,’ ” Kushner notes. “I say to people facing, say, cancer surgery, ‘Think back to when you had to do something scary. You didn’t think you could get through it, but you did.’ ”

Though Kushner’s fan base extends far beyond the Jewish community, the author never strays far from the Jewish values and texts that guide him.

When it came to his new discourse on fear, he found no shortage of material, from Torah verses (the opening epigram from the Micah 4:4 reads “They shall sit every man under his vine and … fig and none shall make then afraid”) to Elie Weisel to Woody Allen.

Given that Jewish history has had more than its fair share of pogroms, expulsions and Holocausts, it’s not surprising Kushner had so much to draw on.

“We’re experts on fear,” he says, “because we’ve been through so much.”

 

Harold Kushner will speak 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $10-$18. Information: (415) 292-1200 or online at www.jccsf.org.

“Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World” by Harold S. Kushner (173 pages, Knopf, $23.95)

 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.