question "Why me?" and to re-
evaluate his "fairly conventional, tra-
Until then, he had had "a very
unquestioning view of things," says
Kushner, who was born and grew up
in New York, where he lived most of
his life until, at 31, he moved to
Natick, Mass., where he is still rabbi
of Natick's Temple Israel.
Nothing in his adolescence or his
training at Columbia University and
the Jewish Theological Seminary had
prepared him for the tragedy which
struck his family.
"Essentially I believed that God
controlled the world and that if I
didn't understand things, the limita-
tion was mine, not God's," he says.
This outlook was shattered by my
son's illness. There was just no way I
could accept, morally, what I had be-
lieved until that point. It forced me to
say, for example, that what I had been
teaching for six years was bad reli-
gion, misleading. I went through a
real crisis of wondering Was this
whole thing a fraud? Would I have to
stop being a rabbi or continue at the
price of my own integrity? Would I
have to stop being a religious Jew?' "
Kushner's dilemma struck a
chord of recognition in many readers
who also found it difficult to reconcile
religious belief with the pain of inno-
cent suffering. The trouble with most
religions' response to suffering," says
Kushner, is that, at one level or an-
other, they say to the suffering person
`Shut up and stop complaining.' I was
so hurt and angry that I was not pre-
pared to accept anybody who told me I
could not feel that way. I had to come
up with a religious affirmation which
did not require me to give up my hon-
est pain and anger."
The problems he addresses in his
new book are more subtle, but just as
dangerous," he believes, because,they
become entrenched before we realize
it and because they are encouraged by
the attitudes of contemporary society,
not least towards middle age.
"Older people have lived more.
They've experienced more. They
understand more," he says firmly.
"Except for being able to run fast and
drink coffee at night, there's no ad-
vantage to being young. But we so to-
tally distort our sense of values. Look,
for example, at what greeting cards
tell you about American society," he
says. When you get to your 40s,
they're all about loss — you lose your
hair, your figure, your vitality —
they're all negative. The ways in
which you have enriched yourself
don't count for anything. I simply
don't believe that's true."
The distortion is exacerbated,
says Kushner, by the American ten-
dency to "see everything in terms of
sports metaphors; to divide everybody
into winners and losers," with every-
thing but first place constituting fail-
"Should the Tigers turn out to be
the second best team in the league
this year, it'll be a disappointment,
even a disaster. Managers will get
fired, players will be unwelcome in
certain circles, everybody will talk
about what went wrong. They'll see it
as a loss."
"If you do that in a wider society,"
Kushner asserts, You consign 95
percent of the population to be losers.
And we do."
If our obsession with the competi-
tive edge makes Kushner angry, our
definition of success makes him an-
We tell 95 percent of Americans,
once they are no longer young, once
they can no longer dream of doing bet-
ter tomorrow, once they realize that
they've gotten as far as they are going
to go, that every time they get up in
the morning and look at their face in
the mirror, they have to say You are
a failure. Your marriage isn't what
you thought it would be. Your job isn't
what you thought it would be, nor
your reputation, your income, your
house, your clothes.'
This is so distorted; so unfair to
people who deserve better," declares
Kushner. One of the things I'm try-
ing to tell people is that by the time
you've reached mid-life and you're not
a success in conventional terms, you
don't have to think you're a failure.
You can define success more
"Where do we get off," he asks,
"taking a person who has been a faith-
ful and supportive husband, a good,
caring parent, a reliable friend, a con-
tributing member of his community,
but earns no more than $22,000 a
year, and calling him a failure, while
a man who makes $1,000,000 by car-
ing about nobody but himself, who
has been through three painful mar-
riages and can't remember his chil-
dren's names, gets on Lifestyles of
the Rich and Famous.
Conventional success is anyway,
he asserts, a hollow crown, doing
nothing to fill the gnawing empti-
ness of the soul" or to exempt the top
executive, the movie star or politician
from regret at opportunities missed.
The reason he can "get away with
challenging" such basic tenets of
American values, says Kushner, is
that "It's not working. People are un-
So what is the alternative, the
key to believing, in the teeth of
societal pressures, that life does have
meaning? Basically, Kushner advises,
"Savor the moment," or, in the words
of Ecclesiastes, the Bible's "angry,
cynical" skeptic, whose search for
truth Kushner follows in his book,
"Eat your bread in gladness and drink
your wine in joy." Not to be confused,
says Kushner, with "Eat, drink and
be merry for tomorrow we die."
"There's a difference between joy and
fun. Ecclesiastes has gone beyond fun
and tells us to bring joy into our
lives," he says. "It's a lot more serious.
Fun is superficial."
The answer has to be spiritual,
Kushner explains, since the need for
meaning is spiritual, not physical or
even psychological, but it is not neces-
sarily arrived at by following tradi-
tional religious doctrine. Determined,
dutiful piety and unquestioning or-
thodoxy do not always lead to joy in
life. "Religion, if you do it wrong,
doesn't provide the answer," he de-
dares, but he believes strongly in the
reality of virtues such as courage and
truthfulness, examples of the moral
goodness which he thinks as neces-
sary and natural to good health, both
physical and emotional, as good eat-
Some people have suggested he
should write a sequel to his first best-
seller, to explain "why good things
happen to bad people. Why do the de-
cidedly non-virtuous get away with so
much?" they ask.
"My answer," says Kushner, is
that they don't. They pay for it, sooner'
or later, in some way or another."
He also believes in the power of
religion to "connect us with other
people," vital in combatting another
of society's evils, superficiality. Men
especially, he says, today have a "fear
of real friendship," of real personal
contact with each other. "We're so af-
raid of being open and' vulnerable
with other men," he says. "Sports is
the only area where a man can be
emotionally open without having his
masculinity questioned, where you
see tight-lipped bankers groan and:'
cheer, and athletes hug each other."
All society, Kushner hopes, can
benefit from his advice, but if there is
any "significantly Jewish dimension
of the book, it is in taking this world
seriously, not dismissing this world
because there's a world to come, in-
sisting on looking for meaningfulness
in this life," he says.
Ecclesiastes was, thinks Kush-
ner; like himself, in middle age when
he wrote his book. His message may
fall on receptive middle-aged ears, but -
can it reach youth in time to stop
them from making the same mis-
takes? "Probably not," acknowledges
Kushner. "I might have read a book
like this when I was young, but I don't
think I'd have appreciated it." Which
is, he thinks, as it should be. "There's
something unnatural about a young
man with the wisdom of a 50 year old.
It's spooky, like something out of
Twilight Zone, he smiles. "I think
young people have to be ambitious
Nevertheless, he points out, as he
travels he is told that many of the
people buying it are in their 30s, al-
ready tired of the Yuppie treadmill, of
the "loneliness of looking out for
number one," and the legacy of the
"star-crossed generation" of baby-
boomers, whom Kushner envies not at
all. "As a group, society can't do
enough for them," he says. "There's a
sense that the world is concerned with
their happiness, but at the same time,
their world is so crowded that, as in-
dividuals, it's very hard for them."
Kushner himself is practicing
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