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How Not To Be Afraid?

One of the best known of the newish Jewish songs is “Kol Ha’olam Kulo,” the lyrics commonly attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the haunting melody by Boruck Chait. The first line — there are only two — tells us that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge,” and the melody for those words is doleful. The second line tells us that “the main thing is not to be at all afraid,” and by the time we have repeated that line, the melody and beat border on the triumphant.

I’ve sung and felt the song a 100 times and more, but the growing truth is that I don’t believe its words, not at all. Oh yes, the world is indeed a very narrow bridge. But not to be afraid, not at all afraid? Nonsense. Inhuman. These days especially, there is much to fear, and to pretend there is not is both impossible and mean-spirited.

I fear for the Republic under its current stewardship. Paul Wolfowitz, our deputy secretary of defense, and the other actual and virtual students of the late professor Leo Strauss appear to have learned even more from Bill Bennett, America’s resident expert in virtue and erstwhile high-stakes gambler. Bennett has never included gambling in his list of vices; neither do the Leo-cons, who are convinced they have figured out how to beat the house — the house of historical precedent, the house of humility, the house of diplomacy.

In fact, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they actually intend the loss of our alliances and of the United Nations, even though it remains difficult to understand their indifference to the growing debacle in Afghanistan or their evident lack of timely interest, all the warnings notwithstanding, of the morning-after problem in Iraq.

(Actually, I too studied with Leo Strauss, taking two courses with him while I was doing my graduate work in political science at the University of Chicago. I remember him best for his cutting sense of humor: “If all values are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste,” and for the coterie of students that surrounded him after each lecture, essentially rendering access to him by non-acolytes impossible.Only now do I come to understand that it was in those tight little circles, in 1957 and 1958, that the seeds of the war against Iraq were first planted. Being, as I am, of uncertain memory, I pulled off my bookshelves the other day a couple of Strauss’s books, texts in the courses I took back then, and am pleased to report that on page after page I scribbled “arrogant!”)

And all that is even without considering our attorney general or, for that matter, our president with his macho tricks and his mendacious budget proposal, or our Supreme Court (current and, more worrisome, prospective).

I fear for Israel under its current stewardship, which seems bent on earning for itself Abba Eban’s classic description of the Palestinians as a people “who have never lost a chance to miss an opportunity.”

And, of course, I fear the terrorists; I fear for the lives and the peace that are targets, and, FDR notwithstanding, I fear the fear they sow.

But today it is not the big fears that preoccupy me. It is the unbearable juxtapositions. It is Mahabouba Mohammed and Denise Rich, brought together through happenstance in May 16 issue of The New York Times. Rich, the ex-wife of pardoned fugitive philanthropist Marc Rich, is among an apparently growing class of Americans who, given the state of the world, take with them when they travel their personal trainers — in her case, because of “the world being in the state that it’s in,” she brings to, say, Aspen one Jules Paxton, a yogi-healer-body worker. “People are more aware of the importance of taking care of themselves nowadays,” she says.

As to Mahabouba Mohammed, we are indebted to Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing from Addis Ababa, for the heart-breaking information: Sold into virtual slavery at age 8; raped by her master at 12; sent into the bush to deliver her baby at 13; delivered the dead baby, suffering crippling injuries that included a fistula — a hole between the bladder and the vagina and sometimes rectum. “The result is that urine and sometimes feces drip constantly” down the victim’s legs.

When Mohammed crawled home, the baby’s father was so horrified by her smell that “he confined her in a faraway hut and removed the door,” hoping the hyenas would get her. But she fought them off and managed to reach an American missionary who brought her to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where her injuries were repaired and where she is now a nurse’s aide. In Ethiopia, 8,500 women develop fistulas each year; in Nigeria, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs estimates there are 800,000 women with unrepaired fistulas.

For all I know, Denise Rich is a wonderfully charitable woman, and it is merely her misfortune, rather than ironic fate, that has brought her so close to Mohammed. Why should someone who has the resources not feel free to claim whatever assistance he or she needs to cope with so disorderly a world? How many of us have taken an oath of poverty, and is my new Cuisinart any less self-indulgent, given my circumstances, than Rich’s guru?

But something here stinks, in its way worse than the stench that Kristof describes so vividly, so painfully. And I do not know how not to be afraid. And angry.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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