Life & Culture

Beating anxiety - with ancient Jewish wisdom

TikTok executive Michal Oshman's new book sets out her Jewish journey to 'a life filled with purpose and joy'


Growing up in a secular home in Tel Aviv, Michal Oshman never really thought about her Jewish identity; it was all around her. It was only on moving to the UK in the early 2000s that she realised that if she wanted her children to grow up Jewish, she would have to be more proactive.

“I started understanding that there’s a part of my identity that if I don’t invest in its development, it’s not just going to happen,” she explains. For Oshman, whose day job is head of company culture, diversity and inclusion at social media giant TikTok, the realisation was the start of a journey that led her to “Jewish wisdom”. Several years later, she has written a book to teach others how to discover “a life filled with purpose and joy” through this way of thinking

Oshman, a glamorous, perfectly-coiffed 45, speaks with the zeal of the converted — and not just to religious practice, but to having found a way to conquer the anxiety the plagued her for decades.

As she outlines in What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?, she grew up surrounded by grandparents who had survived the Holocaust, including her grandmother Chana, who jumped off a transport to Auschwitz. After her grandfather died, the family discovered stockpiles of tuna and baby formula — enough to feed dozens of children for years. Although the Holocaust was never discussed, it was always in the background.

It was a loving home, but with a forensic pathologist father giving her an early introduction to death and even dead bodies, there was an emotional toll. Oshman grew up believing anything but ‘perfect’ was unacceptable.

“I was a person who on the outside seemed to have figured out life, I was a very good daughter, a good student, a good friend, a good soldier, a successful person, but inside I was always full of fear,” she tells me. “For years I thought we were supposed to be like that, because I was so influenced by what I saw from my grandparents. Why should anyone be happy in a world where your grandmother thinks you’re going to be in danger?”

Building a career at companies including eBay and PR firm freuds, she carried this sense of dread inside, seeking to manage it via psychotherapy and medication. But traditional therapy didn’t suit; she didn’t want to dig up the past, but move beyond it. “It helped me to learn about what it is to ask questions, but it was very backwards focused,” she explains. The lightbulb moment happened seven years ago, when she realised she was looking in the wrong place.

It was Shabbat, and she noticed a religious family walking to shul, looking “at peace”. As her husband has observed, she might have just been seeing the positive, but either way it led her to google words including depression, anxiety and fear, but also joy and “for some reason — divine presence” — Judaism. “That’s where something changed, the discovery journey started.”

From that initial search she found chassidut, the Jewish way of thinking associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, which focuses on joy. She started thinking about her soul, and considering her identity in a completely different way. A spark was lit.

At first the revelation was simply that there was Jewish spirituality, something aside from observance, and then it was “discovering chassidut, that we should live in simcha, in joy, discovering that things that looked contradictory are actually complementary.”

Oshman gives Shabbat as an example; having never even made kiddush growing up, she originally saw it as a constraint. “But when I learned about the joy of Shabbat I realised the boundaries of these 25 hours are to give me space to chill, to reflect, to have a glass of wine, to be with my husband or see how the kids are. Things that seemed like rules and regulations, suddenly you’re seeing a completely different side.”

Oshman points out that Jewish wisdom is not only ancient, but “the wisdom of a community that has gone through a lot of adversity”. “One of the things that I love in chassidut is that in its essence it explains that struggle is a vehicle for growth. We must believe that eventually it is for good and that gives us energy to continue, cross bridges, and just live joyfully.”

She cites one of her favourite concepts — that there’s nothing more complete than a broken heart, because when it breaks, there is room for growth between the shattered pieces — and says this is something everyone can connect with. “It’s a universal message.”

The book is the story of her journey to living joyfully, and an enticement for others to apply the same learnings to their own troubles. She stresses it is about using this to find the right path, rather than religious practice. “You don’t have to do anything apart from choose to be inspired by it.”

Yet somewhere on the journey, Oshman “fell in love with the [Jewish] way of living”, necessitating drastic changes including fully observing Shabbat, new schools, and wrestling the tablets out of her kids’ hands on Saturdays. For her husband and two older children (she has four) it was a major lifestyle change.

Whereas Oshman came to it from faith, her husband approached it from the perspective of culture and identity as a diaspora Jew. “It was an evolution, it was beautiful and challenging, it was new and scary,” she says. “We figured it out together. We birthed this new version of our family.

Back in Israel, their parents “were slightly shocked,” she smiles. “There are some tension points, around say Pesach, so we have very honest conversations.” Those conversations obviously haven’t happened in person recently; Oshman is looking enviously at her friends partying and on Tel Aviv beach, and can’t wait to be reunited with her parents and sister.

Becoming more religious coincided with Oshman joining Facebook, where she worked for more than six years. Having experienced multiple incidents of antisemitism while starting out at work— a recruiter advised her to straighten her curls to look more professional; more seriously she once had a bonus withheld despite good performance, because the manager disliked how she gesticulated — she marvels at the fact her manager there would send her weekly Shabbat Shalom messages.

“More things happened than what I share in the book, I had antisemitic articles left at my desk in one of the places I worked,” she explains. “But Facebook is a workplace that really welcomes different voices internally, and now TikTok as well.”

In her view it is easier to be different in the tech world; she says beatifically that social media platforms serve everyone and therefore need to be “super welcoming safe places” for users and creators alike.

Oshman is an evangelist not just for chassidut, but for social media, refusing to be drawn on whether Facebook has done enough in response to concerns about enabling spread of hateful content. As for TikTok, she’s been there only three months, but feels “incredibly proud of how the company is run.”

She is particularly wowed by TikTok’s efforts to tackle antisemitism and Holocaust denial, most recently by providing users with trusted information whenever a related search term comes up, part of a collaboration with the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, and CST.

But as the mother of teenagers, does she worry about children being on platforms like TikTok given the content they might find? “Of course,” she says, but she points to the strictures in place for under 16s, and says that in any case, what matters more is what happens offline.

“TikTok can’t have those mother-daughter conversations when I explain to my daughter what is the world about. My job as a mother is to help her navigate life,” she says. “You can ask the same thing about schools — we as parents have this ultimate responsibility. We collaborate, we partner with schools, we partner with platforms, we partner with the community. But ultimately she’s mine.”

Chassidut helps her deal with challenges, whether they are professional or personal. “I start spiritual, I say modeh ani, and then I jump on a leadership meeting. People ask me isn’t this contradictory, it’s not, it’s complementary. The Torah was given to us to navigate life.”

Her book poses the question of what we would achieve if fear were not holding us back. For Oshman, the answer is putting her story out there. “I’m nervous about people getting to know me, I really opened up.”

Yet learning about Jewish wisdom has been transformative, and she wants others to benefit.

“Once I realised I had discovered something that is truly life-changing and has helped me in so many areas of my life, I realised I had to share it.”

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? is published today by DK

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